Labels and the lies we tell our children

Child bunnyLabels are an arbitrary thing. They can be informative, but they can also manipulate and they do so shamelessly. For instance, they provide only that information that the creator of the label wishes to convey, and what a label omits can be every bit as telling as what it includes. If I wished to sell a commodity, I would ensure that the label I create for that commodity includes only information that shows my product in a good light. Of course some information that may be slightly less favourable must sometimes be included to comply with legislation, and that’s where ‘small print’ comes in, usually so small as to be off-putting for any but the most determined reader.

So labels are not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They are a tool, a manipulative ploy to ensure that behaviour complies with some designated pattern or that our consumer power is directed in a particular way. We put our faith in them at our peril.

Labels and compartments

I was raised to label and then compartmentalise members of other species. I suspect most of us were. Looking back, I can understand now why it was such a necessary part of my childhood. Why? Well, it was only this process that made the ludicrous inconsistencies of the myths and nonsense I was taught, seem remotely sensible. Those who taught me were no doubt repeating by rote the same myths that they had been taught, and in fact the same myths and nonsense that I then passed on to my own children. I cannot apportion blame for this although I regret that neither they, nor I, challenged it sooner. But that’s past and can’t be changed. We need to move on.

So why was this compartmentalisation necessary? Even in the distant days of my own childhood, children’s books, songs and rhymes featured lots of cutesy animals of every species, all of them clearly individuals, all of them cast as sentient. In keeping with most literature aimed at the very young, there was usually a moral lesson to some extent – even if it involved only basic notions of being ‘good’ and ‘kind’ and ‘obedient’ and the mishaps that would befall those who did not comply. There was virtually no children’s TV in those days but we all recall the classic Disney films with their sweet, innocent, thinking, talking, feeling animals of every species.

Yes, I was raised on a literary and media diet of sentient, wise and friendly animals, and a literal diet of dead animals, the pathetic earthly remains of individuals whose lives had been stolen long before they ended up on my plate.

Explanations and other lies

When I say it like that, it’s not at all surprising that I didn’t understand how this could possibly make sense. Not until the compartmentalisation kicked in that is, along with the sickening phrase ‘bred for eating’ amongst others. Of course along with that one came a whole load of nonsense explanations, about how the animals ‘didn’t mind’ and they ‘weren’t hurt’. What child would not want to believe these blatant fabrications? What infant has the intellect to challenge and debate? And what parent will listen and consider the questions logically instead of repeating the traditional responses? Very few.

One topic I frequently return to, is my continuing lack of comprehension about the persistence of the myths about animal use, into adulthood and in many cases throughout our lives. It baffles me because when we drop our guards and allow common sense to flood in, we cannot help but realise how flimsy and inconsistent they are. And yet, we still raise children on a literary and media diet of cute, sentient animals of every species, named individuals to whom they relate warmly, and who weave morality and ethics in infant portions into their tales and adventures. Our children still drift off to dreamland with their innocent arms wrapped round fluffy pigs, lambs, bunnies and chickens; we share their joy when they recognise and repeat the farmyard sounds of the nursery tales.

Those awkward questions

When they begin to ask those awkward questions that we frequently have not faced up to ourselves, we figuratively supply them with a pile of labels. Although when I did this, I was unaware that this was what I was doing, we encourage the allocating of labels and categories – to some nonhumans as ‘pets’, to some as ‘farm animals’, to some as ‘wild animals’ etc. There are sub-divisions of all of these categories to which we assign further labels (to cope with more persistent enquiries) like ‘bred for food’, ‘dairy cows’, ‘chickens for eggs’, ‘sheep for wool’, and so the lies take shape and develop layers of complexity.

The truth about our morally unjustifiable and completely unnecessary behaviour is actually so well hidden that in most cases we have to actively seek it out, very few stumble on it accidentally.

Once we do make this discovery, it can feel like we’re teetering on the brink of a chasm of nightmares, blood and gore; gazing into the yawning mouth of a hell that echoes deafeningly with a cacophony of screams so far removed from our infant days of the farmyard sounds that every fibre of our being recoils in horror. So gut-churningly vile is the truth of the behaviour of our species that many of us can’t help but dismiss the revelation. We shy away and tell ourselves that it can’t be true; it’s too awful; there are laws against that sort of thing; if it was that bad, why is everyone else okay with it? And we resort to the infant myths that gave us solace the last time we asked those awkward questions.

Facing the truth

As a vegan advocate, I know that probably most of us, on stumbling on the truth, will retreat to our comfort zones and continue to support the vile and pervasive worldwide network of animal use that is driven by consumer demand.  As long as we view helpless, innocent and vulnerable individuals as resources and commodities, despite the proven fact that we can live and thrive without causing harm, we will need to continue to hide the truth from our children. They arrive with clear sighted innocence that we are then compelled to corrupt to ensure their participation in a nightmare.  As a parent, this is the burden that my conscience can never escape.

Ironically, one of the life lessons I remember being taught is that ‘a good liar has to have a good memory’. Conversely when we tell the truth, we have no need for evasions. Get rid of the labels. All other beings have a right to life and not one of them belongs to us. That’s veganism in a nutshell and it’s the easiest, simplest way to live. Be vegan.

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7 Responses to Labels and the lies we tell our children

  1. Pingback: Obscene phrase of the day: ‘live and let live’ | There's an Elephant in the Room blog

  2. cushpigsmum says:

    I didn’t lie to my children, but I gave them the full omnivore diet. I wasn’t vegan or even vegetarian while they were growing up. Before marriage I was vegetarian, and gradually slipped back in to eating fish and then everything else again, because I was too afraid to rock our family boat and have food fights at every meal. Especially as children are often so fussy anyway. In the back of my mind was the propaganda I had grown up with,and a real anxiety about my children’s health and my ability to nourish them properly if I imposed any sort of ethical diet upon them. My children hated lentils, beans and other pulses and had a restricted vegetable intake, especially my youngest.

    But I didn’t lie. I didn’t tell them what they were eating, I simply served it. If they had asked any questions at all when they were old enough to link the labels with the stuff on their plates, I would have answered them truthfully and I would have told them of my own reservations, including my worries about their nutrition because of their fussiness. If any of them had said ‘Mummy, I don’t like that we are eating chickens’ I would have been thrilled. I was ‘vegan at heart’ long before I was fully vegan in practice.

    I wish I had at least stayed vegetarian throughout my marriage, but I can’t alter any of that. Regrets are useless. But I did bring up my children with environmental awareness and good moral values – being kind, courteous, non aggressive. tolerant and generous. When I shared with them why I had gone vegan, two of my boys understood straightaway and followed my example – and my youngest son is the one most in agreement with me, the one who always hated vegetables and ate a lot of animal flesh.

    No parent should ever lie to their children about something so important as this. It is very wrong. I am shocked at the number of parents who deliberately squash any questions their children raise about what they are eating. I would never have done that. Sadly, my children simply never asked me about any of it.

    Like

  3. Sarah Maddux says:

    Thank you for this insightful post. You are so brave, articulate, and inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t commented before, but this column today was particularly interesting to me because I have been email conversing with a friend about this topic. When I shared this on my Facebook page, I referred to a scene in the American movie from 1999, American Beauty, in which a military father beats the crap out of his gay son because the father can’t/won’t admit to his own gay attractions. The son, in a later scene, tells someone to “never underestimate the power of denial.” Indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

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