I first heard about Stevan Harnad last winter when he signed a plea for veganism in the magazine Québec Humaniste. Currently Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Science at the UQAM, the researcher proceeded in his article with a disturbing demonstration: several people cultivate a form of psychopathy by exploiting animals for their own pleasure. Indeed, it is generally understood that psychopaths are not troubled by the suffering of other living beings. They do not hesitate to cause suffering to others in order to achieve their goals. Since eating meat is not necessary (of which Harnad, who has been vegetarian for fifty years and who became vegan a few years ago, is living proof), he simply concluded his article by affirming that he refuses to hurt animals for gustatory pleasure. That he is not carnivorous because he is not a psychopath.
I was struck by the simplicity and strength of the argument he put forth: "If you eat meat, it is certainly not because meat is necessary for your survival, or for your health: it is in order to pursue a goal that is to your liking, regardless of the gratuitous misery thus imposed upon other living, suffering beings." Often enough, one needs only to have done some serious thinking about the rearing conditions of animals or to have watched images of slaughterhouses to be moved by this suffering. After that, complex intellectual pirouettes become necessary in order to maintain the status quo and continue to eat one's steak "as before." I for one have for a long time took great care not letting myself being touched by the situation. I claimed I did not want to know. But once you know, the only way out of guilt is to change your eating habits. Unless you are a disciple of Bret Easton Ellis's character, Patrick Bateman.
A few weeks ago, Stevan Harnad and I were both invited to the symposium Animals: Conscience, Empathy and Justice held withing the framework of the ACFAS congress. I was the opening speaker whereas he closed the panel. I was expressing him my admiration for his interest in the animal cause and was left speechless by his answer: "Everything I've done in the past does not matter. What matters now is to put an end to animal exploitation." Yet, Stevan Harnad's career is remarkably enviable: MA in Psychology from McGill, PhD from Princeton, founder of the prestigious Behavioral and Brain Sciences journal, he is also among the leading figures of the open access scientific publishing movement. My aim was to understand how one of the greatest scholars of the province of Quebec had come to take an interest in animal issues.
"Everything I said was nothing but hypocrisy"
From the outset, he apologizes. He became a vegetarian at the age of 17, but he is ashamed to admit that he became vegan only three years ago: "I was a vegetarian but I avoided tackling the real issue, the basic question which is: Is it really necessary to do these cruel things to animals? For fifty years, I allowed myself to believe that I did not have to convince people. I am ashamed to have said 'Long live freedom' to people asking if it bothered me that they ate meat. Everything I said was nothing but hypocrisy. I see clearly now and I want to make amends for that."
At the time when he started living with the cats of his deceased mother, he attended a conference by David Wolfson which convinced him to change his point of view with regards to animals. He admits having been wrong for years. Wrong about the kind of relationships we can develop with animals, and wrong about the strategies we should adopt in order to persuade our fellow human beings to stop exploiting them.
The total number of animals killed is constantly raised in Professor Harnad's speech. All his presentations contain the kill counter, where the number of animals killed as he speaks keeps adding up before our eyes. He does not fail to remind his audience that the growth of the human population is exponential. That the absolute amount of harm we inflict on other human and non-human animals is constantly increasing. That the amount of suffering on Earth is greater than it has ever been. "To satisfy our tastes, we create staggering amounts of suffering beings. Much more than was ever the case before. This growth rate exceeds the growth rate of our reforms." Hence why this issue is of the utmost importance and why it is urgent to act.
Many scholars of his generation are making plans for their retirement, but Stevan Harnad committed to the animals' cause with the same fervour and enthusiasm as that of the young people whom he teaches. But how does one jump from a career in cognitive science research to animal advocacy? First, Harnad refuses to theorize about animal issues. He prefers to put his energy into activism. His research work, however, equips him to better understand the human beings he is trying to convince. "I'm interested in consciousness, but my research focuses on the origins of language. I want to know what the purpose of language is, what evolutionary advantage does it serve. How is it that people do not take into account the horrors that are required in order to fill their plates? Why, it's because people believe the animals we eat don't feel anything. I wonder where this belief comes from. On the one hand, it is linked to consciousness. On the other hand, it is related to language. If these animals could speak, things would not be as they are today."
Stevan Harnad is optimistic. The majority of humanity is not psychopathic. Our carnivorous behaviour is best explained by ignorance and denial. It is thus possible to convince people to change their habits by showing them the hidden horrors that our food choices entail, and by reminding them that exploiting animals is by no means a necessity. The magnitude of the task does not frighten him: born in Budapest the very year World War II came to an end, and having studied human psychology throughout his career, he is well placed to know the world can change. We would like to think he is right, and follow his lead.