Meat and Morality
Mikael Askergren © 2000
Explaining the psychology of veganism and animal rights activism in Europe in general, and in Scandinavia’s Lapland in particular. Veganism and animal rights activism is getting out of hand up north: some fifty percent of Umeå’s school children demand and are served vegetarian school lunches. There is also much violence and crime in the name of veganism and animal rights activism in Lapland. But neither the vegetarianism epidemic among school children, nor the crime and violence, has anything to do with animals. Instead, it has everything to do with self-loathing: Laplanders who refuse to eat meat are not doing it to be nice to animals, they do it to punish themselves. Veganism is an eating disorder.
It all started in Britain, in the seventies, when self-appointed leader and chief ideologist Robin Webb formed the ALF (Animal Liberation Front). Veganism and animal rights activism have been a feature of European politics ever since, not only in Britain, albeit forefront figures and spokespeople, such as Brigitte Bardot, have always been referred to with sarcasm and amusement in the media. In Europe as a whole, veganism and animal rights activism always was, and continues to be, a peripheral, marginalized curiosity.
Not so in Scandinavia. The further north you look in Europe, the more
important animal rights activism and food moralism gets. If there is such a thing as a center and hotspot for militant factions of the animal rights and veganism movement in Europe, it would not be in the movement’s birthplace Britain, but in a medium-sized Swedish country town pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Swedish animal rights activists happen to be the most active in Europe, but the bulk of the movement’s Swedish sympathizers do not live in the nation’s densely populated capital Stockholm. Instead they congregate even farther north, in and around Umeå, a provincial burg with Swedish Lapland’s only (not very prestigious) university.
Fifty percent of the children in Umeå’s schools are vegetarians. This means that fifty percent of school children request, and are served, vegetarian school lunches every day. (A few years ago there were only 4 to 5 vegetarian children that required special treatment in any given Umeå school.) Furthermore, out of the hundreds of crimes in the name of animal rights in all of Sweden every year, a good third are committed in and around tiny Umeå. And it’s not just about setting minks free from mink farms anymore, it’s serious stuff: shopkeepers that sell meat or furs receive anonymous threats. Scientific research programs that depend on animals for experiments are sabotaged. Some factions of the movement will not even hesitate to burn down slaughterhouses, hot dog stands, and shops.
Europe’s Last Wilderness
In recent years, militant veganism and illegal animal rights activism thus has become a disturbing political reality in Lapland that cannot be dismissed by the establishment with sarcasm. In Umeå, the DBF (Djurens Befrielsefront)—the Swedish equivalent to Britain’s ALF—pretty much sets the agenda. The nation’s urbanized southerners are stupefied by the willingness of Laplanders to go to such lengths (sabotage and arson) to save their tiny, furry, and feathered friends. After all, Lapland is Europe’s last wilderness, where animals roam freer than anywhere else in Europe. It is pretty much the last place on earth one would expect ecology and animal rights to be much of an issue.
Lapland is also the land of long, cold, dark winters, and of much too brief, mosquito-infested summers. And of unemployment and unsound demographics, for that matter. The great days of heavy industry are over. Laplanders have to move south to find employment. It would make more sense for Laplanders to spend all that conniving and energy on making life in Lapland better—for people. Or for more Laplanders to simply leave all that unemployment, coldness, darkness, and hopelessness behind and settle somewhere else.
One would think that those Laplanders who choose to stay, for one reason or other, would try to find ways of compensating for all the frustrating trials of living up north. One way would be to eat really well, and to at least enjoy the pleasures of the table as much as possible. Daylight hours are few and far between, factories and post offices are closing, but at least the forests and lakes are full of delicacies. Lapland offers great fishing and hunting. Remarkably enough, as we have seen, the exact opposite is happening. More and more Laplanders refuse to fish and hunt. They even refuse to eat, and refuse to enjoy food. To the outsider it just doesn’t make sense. Why make life even harder on yourself than it already is? Why punish yourself in this way?
Experts insist militant animal rights activism is all about young people challenging the establishment because traditional politics (political parties, elections, parliament) are too slow and insensitive to young people’s needs. This may be so—but why, then, do young Laplanders choose solidarity with animals before, say, solidarity with other people (e.g. political dissidents in foreign jails or starving third world children or disadvantaged compatriot Laplanders)? Why do Laplanders submit to food moralism before, say, religion? Why, in all of Europe, is veganism most frequent in a cold and hostile environment; in scarcely populated Lapland, of all places?
Hostages of Lapland
It was Montesquieu who, in his The Spirit of Laws (1748), gave us the essentials of modern government theory. The book inspired both the American constitution and the French revolution. His ideas on “the separation of powers” are still central to western politics. Less talked about these days are his theories on how climate shapes national character. For instance, the preferred system for governing a certain nation would, according to Montesquieu, depend on—the weather. Thus the republic as institution would not suite all nations. In some places, despotism and repression would make more sense. To some exegetes of Montesquieuan thought, it should come as no surprise, then, that the nations of certain continents (and of certain skin colors) still today have not developed past feudalism...
In this day and age, this is a much too politically incorrect path to tread, because it lends itself to nationalism and racism. However, the documented concentration of Europe’s most extreme militant animal rights activists and vegans in a unique geographic location—a location with a climate that is both equally extreme and equally unique, as opposed to typical—suggests that the instincts of Montesquieu deserve consideration.
It’s simple, really: experts and journalists who monitor the political landscape fail to explain the Lapland/Umeå phenomenon because animal rights activism and veganism are constantly mistaken for expressions of community ethics and individual (or group) politics. The recent mushrooming of veganism and animal rights activism in Lapland is not about eating meat. It is about living in Lapland. It is about the hostile weather (the snow and ice), but also about the hostile political and financial climate; the grim prospects of unemployment.
Vegans and vegetarians say they refrain from eating meat as an act of solidarity with captive animals that are domesticated and/or locked up to produce food and/or to become food. And maybe, for Laplanders to identify with captive animals is not that farfetched. Laplanders, too, are captives or hostages in a way: stuck in the Lapland of no future.
The Spirit of Laplanders
Laplanders—especially the educated middle class affiliated to the (not very prestigious) Umeå University—are of course aware of, but apparently not always reaching for the opportunities of the good life elsewhere. If the only thing holding a professionally and intellectually frustrated Laplander back is lack of initiative and fear of the unknown, the resulting inner conflict between his or her self-image (a free individual) and reality (not as free as he/she thinks) will cause discomfort. The animal rights activist Laplanders will never admit to this, but they choose solidarity with animals before solidarity with people, and submit to food moralism before submitting to religion, because no other great cause provides the mind tortured by inner conflict with the same amount of comfort. Not eating is self-punishment, and the self-punishment of not eating simply provides the most comfort to those too ashamed to admit to themselves and to others their voluntary submission to the harsh realities of living in the North (i.e. instead of getting their act together; instead of getting the hell out).
And the greater the inner conflict, the harder it is to consciously admit your shame to yourself. In the extreme case, you will aggressively lash out and strike against anyone who threatens to force you to admit to yourself the truth about yourself. Why, then, is the food moralism in Lapland fused with violence and crime? Because the general public shows such disinterest and instinctive disbelief in the claims of global benevolence in veganism. This challenges the very core of the (corrupt) self-image of some frustrated Laplanders. Thus, unknowingly, the public’s skepticism and disbelief triggers desperate acts, such as sabotage and arson.
The above example is indeed extreme—just like the climate of Lapland is extreme—but the general mechanisms in the workings of the minds of food moralist and animal rights activist Laplanders are neither abnormal nor pathological. In fact, each and every one of us functions this way, to a greater or lesser extent, every time the image one has of oneself collides with how one actually chooses to act in a certain situation. Which is pretty much all the time. It’s just that the more extreme the situation (i.e. the more extreme physical and/or metaphorical the climate), the more extreme the result. American psychologist Leon Festinger called it cognitive dissonance. Look it up in any psychology textbook.
Stockholm, April 10, 2000
Essay in English published by Art-Land International Magazine, Copenhagen, Denmark, vol.6 no.1, September 2000.
Mikael Askergren is not a vegetarian.
Illustration: Brigitte Bardot, famous animal rights activist.
More by Mikael Askergren about cognitive dissonance:
When Prophecy Fails
More by Mikael Askergren about Umeå:
Dagbok från Umeå
More by Mikael Askergren for Art-Land International:
Survival of the Fattest Lethal Architecture
3 Tableaux Inspired by the Film Last Year at Marienbad
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