Veganism and Depressive Realism

Suppose you have a palate of paints which concentrates on dark blues, black and greys, but has hardly any warm, “sunny” colours like oranges, yellows and reds or the lighter shades of other colours.  And also suppose that you can paint representational scenes quite convincingly.  If you try to paint a flower meadow on a warm sunny day, you might run into problems although for all I know you could either “dither” dots of different colours to create a more convincing gamut or mix paints together to do so, which since paints subtract from lightness rather than add to darkness would probably result in a darker picture than you’d be able to produce using a wider range of warmer colours.  You would struggle to produce a convincing or cheerful picture, though even in this situation you might do well with cornflowers, darker clouds in the sky or shadows.  Imagine a version of «Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte» with more emphasis on the shadow in the foreground and by the trees where the lake looks dark and threatening and the sky gloomy.

However, should you be asked to paint a stormy seascape at night, you’d be in your element.  You’d be able to use the many dark colours at your disposal to create all sorts of detail and accurate portrayal of the foundering ships, the waves and the rain slashing down.  A scene, in fact, like the painting depicted on the back wall of René Magritte’s «La traversée difficile».  In such a painting, you would perhaps have problems with the room, with its yellows, pinks and white, but the shade on the chesspiece-like object would be much starker, as would that under the hand trapping the bird, and of course the seascape would be particularly well done.  In other words, in both cases you would find it easier to bring out the darker aspects of the paintings but struggle to portray the sunnier side of things.

One theory of depression is that people who are depressive, and incidentally I would be astonished if I wasn’t diagnosable as depressive but I’ve never bothered to have it diagnosed because I don’t consider it a problem, have a problem with the neurotransmitter serotonin which would otherwise enable them to adopt a sunnier disposition more easily.  Historically, serotonin originated in the enteric nervous system of the gut, where it’s associated with vomiting, among other things.  As the central nervous system evolved, it took up an important role in the brain, where it enables one to see the brighter side of things.

Note the racist connotations of associating darkness with negativity and brightness with positivity.  Had I written the sequel to ‘Replicas’, I planned to subvert the idea of brightness as positive, but nobody did it as well as Orwell in ‘1984’ when he put the words (and this may not be a direct quote) “when we meet again, it will be in the place where there is no darkness”, which turns out to be a solitary confinement cell flooded with blinding light 24/7 to prevent the inmate from sleeping.  In my limited experience of mainstream literature, this is maybe the most inspired line I have ever read, which probably means I should read more widely.  The racism of associating darkness with negativity can, though, be subverted by noting the more positive aspects of acknowledging that side of reality.

Experiments have established that depressive people are more likely to cotton on to situations where they lack control.  Two groups of people were asked to switch a light on and off where the operation of the light was in fact (pseudo-)random, not controlled by the switch at all.  Half were diagnosed as depressive, the other not.  The former half realised much sooner that they weren’t really controlling the light at all than the latter.  The problem is, however, that the delusion of control and many other things which non-depressive people have is probably adaptive in that it helps them cope by shielding them from the stark realities of how awful life really is.

I have a mini-hypothesis about how depression works on a brain cell level.  I think memories supervene upon pathways between neurons which can be strengthened or weakened by other inputs to those networks.  A repeated noxious stimulus leads to a strengthening input to such a circuit which makes it more memorable.  In depressive people, this happens more quickly than in people who aren’t depressive.  It’s also noted that anxiety and depression share many features and are probably substantially the same problem, insofar as they are problems at all.  This idea of noxious stimuli being reinforced more easily would also work for anxious people, although this common pathway isn’t necessarily associated with other aspects of the two situations.

Antidepressants do focus pretty much on serotonin, aiming to increase the concentration of the substance at the synapses of nerve cells using it, and this seems to work although much of the research focussed on dominance in chimpanzees, which brings up the issue of veganism for the first time.  Other apes are, I have to admit, in a different category than most other animals for me, since I am myself an ape as are, in all probability, you.  Hence my speciesism leads me to judge the idea of much experimentation without informed consent on apes as completely beyond the pale, although I can’t say I’m exactly keen on nasty things being done in the name of science to the likes of oysters either.  Besides this, I’m not sure the emphasis on dominance is particularly healthy.

The idea of depressive realism shouldn’t be taken too far because depression is more about selective than global perceptiveness.  That said, reducing the situation to brain chemistry is misleading, and the accuracy aspect here comes into play because someone who is, for example, thrust into a depressing situation such as poverty, physical ill-health or living in an oppressive régime is likely to get depressed because of the accuracy of their perception rather than inaccuracy.  There’s a disturbing tendency along the lines of “there’s no such thing as society” going on here, where the mental problems one might have are centred more on the internals of the individual rather than the circumstances foisted on them by external forces or people.  It isn’t either/or of course, but accurate perception can be depressing, and if one becomes aware of how bad things are, one may become depressed.  This isn’t, by the way, supposed to diminish the reality of depression or anxiety states as real conditions:  assuming I have myself been depressive, I could definitely characterise it as a tangible, physical issue like a leaden millstone pulling me down into a pit of despair, just as trying to run while having the ‘flu would be pretty hard and ill-advised.  That said, the realities of living in a carnist world are depressing and worrying, and that’s not my attribution as far as I’m concerned but an observation about the external world along the lines of “a stormy night at sea is dark, a sunny day in the park is bright”.  In a sense those qualities too are subjective – a tarsier or an owl wouldn’t see the night as dark as I, for example – but there are two things going on here.  Firstly, being depressive or anxious, even if it is a form of preëxisting neurodiversity, could prime one to see these negative aspects of non-human animal abuse and lead to one taking the rational step of becoming vegetarian or vegan.  Secondly, it’s pretty depressing and worrying to be confronted with the sheer scale of cruelty and murder involved in maintaining carnism, so even if you’re not depressed and anxious before, it wouldn’t be surprising wert thou after thou dispensest with the rationalisations thitherto shielding thee therefrom.

At this point I want to insert a caveat regarding judgementalism.  In spite of the fact that veganism is clearly the way to go, in the sense that it’s a moral imperative, that doesn’t mean I think badly of carnists.  We are constantly surrounded by slaughter and suffering on an unimaginable and horrifying scale.  Badgers eating chicks, cuckoos throwing the same chicks out of nests to die, spiders paralysing flies and gradually eating them at their leisure, our own willingness to kill our parasites, our immune response wiping out bacteria in their billions – the whole biosphere is an aeon-long slaughter fest.  Next to this, anything the human population can do to reduce this simply by pursuing a plant-based diet (which is of course not what veganism is) is like the fairy tale of the bird sharpening her beach on the diamond mountain in Pomerania once a century.  Consequently, even if someone eats nothing but dead flesh for that same century, it makes practically no difference to the death and agony characterising existence.  What matters to me is my agency and ability not to be part of the problem, not what other people do.  That said, I do believe ego defences come into play when people try to justify the unjustifiable.

An example of this rationalisation was brought to my attention this morning in the form of a research study from the University of Alabama purporting to demonstrate that vegetarians are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety states and practice easily observable self-harm than carnists, and therefore that carnism was good for mental health.  Thisses context is the advocacy of veganism and vegetarianism as healthy diets, which to me is a complete red herring because it has nothing to do with being vegan except insofar that one should be a good example to carnists.  Before I go on to cover the issues with their idea, I want to examine the possibilities that this is correct, and it may well be even though this is tangential.

Plant-based diets tend to be lower in easily absorbable iron than those including red meat, as I understand it, and of course an unsupplemented clean plant-based diet will have no cyanocobalamine (vitamin B12) in it at all as well as no dietary sources of vitamin D.  There is in fact an Afrikan plant which does contain vitamin D at a dangerously high level – all substances are toxic, just some are more toxic than others, and vitamins D and A are particularly poisonous.  It’s been alleged that vitamin D is antidepressant although in fact as I understand it this can’t be disentangled from the lifestyles of people who are deficient in the hormone (vitamin D is a steroid hormone synthesised and secreted by the skin when exposed to sunlight), who may be stuck indoors and rather reluctant to exercise because they’re depressed.  That said, the list of deficiencies associated with a poorly-designed plant-based diet may well lead to anaemia, which is associated with depression and anxiety if emotions are labelled in that way.  Moreover, serotonin is itself synthesised from the amino acid tryptophan, which is of course found in animal protein (as well as vegetable protein).  There may also be issues regarding essential fatty acids, which seem to influence the electrical activity of the brain.  Therefore there are indeed firm reasons for supposing that if someone just goes at a diet without it having been planned rationally, they may well become depressive, or more depressive, if they simply stop intentionally consuming animal products.  However, and I can’t emphasise this too strongly, this way of looking at things is completely skewed ethically.

It’s a basic principle of applied ethics that unnecessary suffering and death should be avoided, and this is the basis of veganism.  Vegetarianism is a diet, more or less. Veganism is more akin to pacifism.  It’s the attempt to minimise violence and killing, and it’s a moral imperative.  Ultimately there are no excuses for not being vegan if you are human and have a conscience, no matter when or where you are.  If you can’t be vegan where you are or given your current lifestyle, that lifestyle or location must change, quite possibly by changing the political situation which has forced you into a food desert.  On the whole this is not racist, but even that possibility should not stand in the way because veganism is an absolute ethical priority and trumps racism.  There’s an easy analogy with cannibalism here.  If it were discovered that human flesh was the only source of an essential nutrient, global capitalism would of course start farming people and murdering them to provide it, but from the current perspective of most people as yet uninfluenced by pro-cannibal propaganda in the mass media it probably seems wrong to do that rather than find a way to synthesise it or get it from other sources.  The absence of cyanocobalamine and perhaps the low level of tryptophan in ethical food sources does not imply that one should get it from unethical sources but that there is a moral obligation to remedy the situation by finding ethical ways of providing it.

Therefore this piece of research, which appears to establish a correlation between vegetarianism and mental illness, has its priorities wrong and comes close to attempting to justify carnism, which is never permissible.  If the confounding variables of the depressing and anxiety-provoking reality of animal abuse on a vast scale are removed, which are either perceived more clearly by depressive and anxious people as a motive for not wanting to be part of it or borne in upon them after the fact once they’ve dropped their excuses for eating animal products can be removed and a difference can still be demonstrated, the appropriate response is to find a way to remedy it without compromising the obligation to be vegan.

It’s so very common for arguments against veganism to do two things.  One is to cast veganism as if it’s a diet.  It isn’t, and since the animal with whom we have the most conscious interaction is Homo sapiens, most of it involves us behaving compassionately towards each other, individually and en masse.  The other is not to take the moral necessity to be vegan seriously, and try to find reasons why it’s bad in some non-ethical realm of discourse, usually nutritional.  I personally find it a little suspicious that this study was conducted at the University of Alabama because of its location in a former Confederate State which previously had a decidedly non-vegan interest in certain human animals of Afrikan extraction, regarding them as chattels, and I can’t help thinking that this might have a bearing on their attitude to other species, so the question of racism does indeed arise here, though perhaps not in the direction which some anti-vegans might like it to.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe the University of Alabama is a bastion of liberalism in other areas.  This study, however, is not an example of liberalism.

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