Monthly Archives: November 2011

Political correctness. Where did it go wrong?

 The first thing a foreigner resident in the UK notice about the British is their   overwhelming politeness. Of course I am talking about a particular layer of society which starts with the  educated middle class and upwards.

This politeness is often perceived by foreigners as cynicism.  A common complaint of foreigners engaged in debate with the British, is that they rarely say what they  really think and when the debate escalates to vivacious opposition, they change the conversation without ever clarifying their point. Perhaps they run out of arguments,  or the counter argument stings too deeply in the person’s beliefs which they  want to keep free from cracks of doubt. Perhaps they just escape the argument for  political correctness. They fear to say something that can be used against themselves.

I never heard of the concept “political correctness” (PC) until I came to live in the UK. I lived in countries where  PC was not an issue and people said whatever bulshit was squeezed out of their heads. Worrying about political correctness is something that the Latin people’s did not do. They  hit the back of a big black man with a friendly compliment referring to their colour.   “E aí negão! Tudo jóia?”  which translates “ how does it go your big negro man?”, to which he responds with a large smile and a  noisy hug. When I heard the word “Paki” for the first time I thought it was a term of endearment.  Like “Jacky” for Jaqueline.  I almost feel threatened when I need to refer to a person of dark brown colour. How should I describe them? Black?  Negro?  Dark-brown? Sun-tan? African even though he never saw Africa?  What should I call the white people  born in Africa?  You never know when one of these people is offended by declarations about their skin colour.  If you want to go far enough in our human ancestry, aren’t we all Africans after all?

Because political correctness is not such a big  issue is some Latin countries, people are expected not to take offense over the jokes that are told about their race, or ethnic group. Since I started travelling to Brazil to deliver courses and talks, I lost count of how many times  I had to endure jokes about Portuguese people. Such jokes do not emphasise the best aspects of Portuguese intelligence but by  telling them to me, my  Brazilian friends assume that I  would be finding them funny. Those jokes do not affect me, because although they intend to reduce the Portuguese people  to a stereotype, I do not find myself in that stereotype just because I was born in that country.

But the  The Portuguese jokes are not  candid either. They are  about sex, chauvinism,  race or the people of a region called Alentejo, where the summer heat makes us breathless and evaporates every drop of energy that may  rest in our bodies.

(Alentejanos are hard working people who have suffered the repression of Fascism which kept them in poverty for decades, but the climate in Alentejo e unbearably hot and unsuitable to great energy expenditure under the burning sun. )

In the old days, these non-PC jokes were told openly in cafés and public gatherings, whether women, blacks or Alentejanos were present or not. Few people took offence. Some Alentejanos perhaps!

But now, 25 years after I left my country and I hear my family and friends telling these jokes to one another I feel uneasy. I am critical of the context and I do not find them funny at all. Twenty five years outside of our  mother land is more than enough to erase a great deal of our cultural imprinting. (And now, as the grey hairs start colonizing my head and reproducing faster than rabbits, I am even forgetting  words of my own mother tongue.)

I am getting too critical- or perhaps too British- as a Brazilian friend complained! ” This thing about expecting people to arrive on time, is too British, it is almost an offence to the relaxed Brazilians!”

In the time I lived in the UK  I noticed a change in social attitudes towards religious beliefs. The raise of  political Islamism ravaging in psychopathic tantrums of irrationality, is met by the British middle classes with a fear to offend whatever wacky religious beliefs permeate our society. Politicians make laws to refrain if not prevent comedians  to make jokes about religion or race .  Unless it is a Muslim or a black person making fun about themselves and their own culture, everybody else is seen as subversive.   I remember in early days, when foreigners complained about the attitudes of my compatriots, I was offended, but then, we Portuguese could say whatever ugly things we wanted about our selves.  We did not like to hear  Northern Europeans commenting on  Portugese backwardness, but we were the first to bring this up  and complain about it. We  left the country precisely to escape that very backwardness. However, only WE had the right to complain, and if a foreigner did the  same, we would fall on him like wolves defending their pack.

Negative comments about our race, beliefs and cultural identity, are taken as offenses because they threaten our ego, our image and the very symbols that we identify ourselves with.  But taking offense is different from harm. Claims about Portuguese backwardness or jokes about Portuguese foolishness may offend, but not harm. And here is where the British are confused with their concept of political correctness. Some people may be offended by my opinions about their beliefs, but they are not harmed.  Opinions don’t harm. Actions  fuelled by those opinions do! A democratic state  should not prevent free speech for the fear of offending others, but  it should take measure to prevent actions fueled but some speeches that may harm others.

If someone induces a harm on me, I have a right to require explanations and compensation. I wasn’t actively seeking to be harmed. However, if someone  utters words about my cultural identity or my beliefs, if I took offense, I have an active part in that process. I can choose either to take offense or not. It is me and only me who decides.

So I am quite fed up with all these religious peoples claiming that they feel offended by  others who don’t share their beliefs. As the Portuguese use to say; “if you take offense you have two jobs;  the first is that of getting offended, the second is to  “dis-offend” yourself”.  No one can do it for you. No court  can change how you feel about what others think about you, your culture or your beliefs. The world is a tough place! Learn to live with it or become a eremite monk on the top of some isolated mountain in the Himalayas.

I have to live in a world soaked in all types of religions, if I took offense  of every thought and act that is inspired by a religious belief I would have to kill myself. As far as the freedom of religion of others does not prevent my freedom of their religion then there is not case to take offense. I have the most valuable tool under my control. I have the freedom to choose!



How to become a vegetarian when you hate vegetables?

I grew up in a meat eating family, eating food made  by a mother who hated vegetables.   So it is normal that  my food habits were essentially meat based. However, having been teaching animal welfare for the last 12 years, I am also aware of the appalling conditions animals are kept in, and the suffering they go through, just to end up as a stake in the plate of some ignorant human.

Until I started working on animal welfare (AW) I did not have a clue of how animals were produced. Studying and teaching AW brought me information and disgust for the production methods. But it also brought me pain in my consciousness.  It made me feel cynical and inconsistent. So to ameliorate my guilt I started eating only products from free range animals. However, in restaurants I do not have this choice and each time I  sank my canines on a juice steak  I felt guilty.

Curiously my sense of smell started developing some curious abilities.  I started smelling the scent of rotten when I ate pork or chicken and I became  more sensitive to the smell of blood when I ate beef. These were enough to put off these meats. So I told myself that eating free range animals would not be so bad, providing they would have a quick and painless death. In nature sooner or later, prey animals will find their death at the teeth of some predator, so they might have developed mechanism to lessen pain and just let go at the time of death. It is believed that at the  time of death animals  release  beta-endorphin which would remove the feeling of pain.

However, I could not deal with my cognitive dissonance.

I was wondering how cognitive dissonance works. If some scientists are able to  reconcile their creationist beliefs with their study of genetics and evolution, the same psychological mechanism may be involved in reconciling a love for living animals and the taste of their meat on the plate.

In my case it has not been a problem to dismiss creationism from a very early age, but it has been difficult to reconcile my love of living animals and their meat on my plate.

Although animal welfare does not aim to stop us all from eating meat, the knowledge of what is going on in the food industry should be enough to make our guts rebel against eating  any animal products.

So once again, I am trying to become a vegetarian. For the 5th time! Then I succumb to the temptations of meat. However, each time I  fall in“sin” when I go back to meat eating, I drop a meat item from my diet. First stopped eating pork, then beef, what will be next? Chicken perhaps?

Which bring to my memory that my granny used to send me  to the shops  each time she had to kill a chicken for dinner.  I could not see the suffering of an animal being killed  and my granny, in all her peasant innocence believed that animals would take longer to die and suffered more and  if we pitied them. So, to save myself and the animal from suffering she would find some way of sending me out of the house, to buy some butter or a bag of sugar.  In my child’s innocence  I did not realise that the number of chicken decreased each time I went shopping!

Later, when I lived in Denmark, my landlord, had a sheep roaming free in the farm. He kept this sheep for slaughter, but it didn’t stop me from taking care of the animal and   developing some emotional attachment. When the time came to send the animal to the slaughter house I cried. He  offered us half the sheep’s carcass which I refused, but my  Danish ex-husband was happy to take it. It was hard to see him cooking the sheep and eating with so much delight, while feelings were hurt and my scent was tempting me. What a confusion of wild emotions where my animal side ( the craving for meat) fought my moral side ( the emotional attachment to that sheep). Knowing of my emotional struggle, the landlord said that was not actually our sheep,  but the neighbour’s. As a tradition they swap their sheep so they don’t have to eat the one they cared for.

This is an interesting phenomenon.I’ve heard of people who used to do this with their pigs. They exchanged pigs with the neighbour at the time of slaughter because they could not eat their own pig.

I cannot eat an animal that I know. I feel that I am betraying the animal’s trust . This may be the reason why  we eat animals that we don’t know, even if we claim to like animals. Attachment is a powerful factor in decision making.

I do not know each and every animal in the world , but through my teaching of animal welfare I became acquainted with the unacceptability of production methods and therefore I have a moral obligation to refuse eating animals produced in such fashion.

However this argument does not exclude the eating of free range animals, road kills or game, for these animals supposedly have some life quality. We are dealing with two different issues:

  1. One  focuses on the production methods
  2. The other focuses on the act of killing a living animal

These are two different moral  concerns! Abstaining oneself from intensively produced animal products  is easy. By doing so we are  making a protest against the food industry and an acknowledgement that their methods are morally unacceptable.

This argument, however, does not exclude  eating free range animals. Here the moral dilemma is about the act of killing and not the greed that characterises certain production methods. This is also the main difference between those  who describe themselves as “animalwelfarists” and “liberationists”. While those promoting animal welfare do not have a moral problem with the act of killing, but they have a problem with the quality of the killing methods, liberationists have a problem with killing. Removing the life from another living being. This will be the subject of my next  blog as it is too deep to discuss it here.

In this posting, my concern is to answer the question, how do we help an “ashamed carnivore” like me, to become a fully fledge vegetarian, when I hate vegetables?  I did not start eating salad until I was 25 and started cooking for myself .  Until then  I used to eat in the dangerous refectories of the University of Lisbon, which was always an adventure since you never knew when you would end up with some slugs languidly promenading on the borders of your plate,  food seasoned with washing-up liquid, for the best, or when you would end up spending the night at the University Hospital urgency room suffering from food poisoning,  for the worst  Portugal in the early eighties was like a third world country and students were treated like the  scum of society- maybe envy from the kitchen  ladies !!! )

Despite my forced ingestion of salads and other greens, I derive no gustative pleasure what-so-ever from eating them. But I eat them because,  as a biologists,  I know that I need my greens for a healthy diet. I eat them as medicine, not as a Pantagruelic pleasure! So before I cook some vegetables I need to go through the quasi-ritual of self-suggestion, convincing myself  that they  make me look younger and give me healthier skin.  So I eat them for the sake of  beauty!  One should never underestimate the power of vanity!

So how am I going to stop eating the meat that still enters the pearled gates that open to my pleasures if taste? Convincing myself that it makes me sick!  The problem with this approach is that our brain is a bit late in establishing such stimulus-response association. The immediate pleasure of the tasteful grilled lamb steak, is stronger that the late response of an upset stomach. In its decision processes the brain  weights pleasure against pain and rejects to a associate  the cause of pleasure with the cause of pain. How can the same thing produce two different reactions? So pleasure wins over pain and the brain attributes pain to another less  attractive cause , like eating peas for example, which supports our tendency for confirmation bias.

This is why Quorn is so successful among “ashamed carnivores” . It cheats our brain in thinking we are eating meat. Actually, if I worked for the Quorn brand, I would aim a campaign to people like me. Something like this: “ Quorn, a meaty pleasure without guilt!” They should target the market of animal lovers that feel guilty for eating animals. Put a big banner at any supermarket with a dead cow hanging from the slaughter house with the saying” You don’t need to kill to feel the pleasures of meat. Quorn, the ethical food for ashamed carnivores”.