But why must the system go to such lengths to block our empathy? Why all the psychological acrobatics? The answer is simple: because we care about animals, and we don't want them to suffer. And because we eat them. Our values and behaviors are incongruent, and this incongruence causes us a certain degree of moral discomfort. In order to alleviate this discomfort, we have three choices: we can change our values to match our behaviors, we can change our behaviors to match our values, or we can change our perception of our behaviors so that they appear to match our values. Always check in advance with neighbours and friends to see if you can hide clues for your treasure hunt on their property.
It is around this third option that our schema of meat, eggs, and dairy is shaped. As long as we neither value unnecessary animal suffering nor stop eating animals, our schema will distort our perceptions of animals and the foods procured from their bodies, so that we can feel comfortable enough to consume them. And the system that constructs our schema equips us with the means by which to do this.
The primary tool of the system is psychic numbing. Psychic numbing is a psychological process by which we disconnect, mentally and emotionally, from our experience; we “numb” ourselves. In and of itself, psychic numbing is not evil; it is a normal, inevitable part of daily life, enabling us to function in a violent and unpredictable world and to cope with our pain if we do fall prey to violence. For instance, you would likely be hard-pressed to drive on the highway if you were fully cognizant of the fact that you were speeding down the road in a small metal vehicle, surrounded by thousands of other speeding metal vehicles.
And if you should be so unfortunate as to become a victim of a crash, you would probably go into shock and remain in that state until you were psychologically capable of handling the reality of what had happened. Psychic numbing is adaptive, or beneficial, when it helps us to cope with violence. But it becomes maladaptive, or destructive, when it is used to enable violence, even if that violence is as far away as the factories in which animals are turned into food.
Psychic numbing is made up of a complex array of defense mechanisms, mechanisms which are pervasive, powerful, and invisible and which operate on both social and psychological levels. These mechanisms distort our perceptions and distance us from our feelings, transforming our empathy into apathy—indeed, it is the process of learning to not feel that is the focus. The defense mechanisms of psychic numbing include denial, avoidance, routinization, justification, objectification, deindividualization, dichotomization, rationalization, and dissociation. We'll examine each of these aspects of psychic numbing and deconstruct the system that turns animals into edibles. In so doing, we'll explore the characteristics of this system and the ways in which it ensures our continued support.