Beyond Herderism

Dr. Will Tuttle, Dec. 20, 2014



Nonvegans tend to criticize vegans for exuding an air of superiority and for being judgmental in their attitudes and actions toward nonvegan people and toward society in general. We can learn a lot by looking more deeply into this general criticism, and this seeming conflict between vegans and nonvegans.

The underlying problem, though, is that we generally don’t recognize that we are born into a culture that is, at its living core, organized around herding animals. This basic fact is hidden, and in our modern urban society, the animals we herd are also, for the most part, invisible. Instead of herding them with crooks or dogs, we use walls, bars, and fences: animals today are locked away by the hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands in unseen feedlots and in the nondescript windowless sheds of industrialized confinement operations.

Pastoralism is the term used to describe the long-standing practice of herding and ranching animals, and as I discuss in The World Peace Diet, the herding revolution that occurred about ten thousand years ago changed everything for us humans, as hunters gradually began confining, manipulating, and enslaving certain animals for food. Herding animals transformed human norms and behaviors, giving rise to patriarchy, war, slavery, a wealthy elite class of proto-capitalists, and at the same time steadily suppressing our natural empathy and respect for animals, nature, and each other. In our modern culture of urban pastoralism, we are still indoctrinated with the antiquated pastoralist mentality of human superiority to justify our routine exploitation and eating of animals.

Richard Ryder coined the term speciesism in 1970 for this attitude of human superiority, which is similar to racism and sexism, the corresponding attitudes of racial and sexual superiority. A newer word is Melanie Joy’s term carnism to indicate the mentality of human entitlement to exploit and eat animals. These are both useful words it seems to me, but the key point that they fail to indicate is that this is essentially a pastoralist, or herding/ranching mentality. It is forcefully injected into everyone growing up in our herding culture, primarily through meals, but also through religion, science, education, government, and indeed, every institution in our herder society. We are like the kings of the old herding cultures. We don’t do the actual work of herding and killing animals, but we buy the meat and dairy with our wealth (and subsidies) and thus propel the vast mechanized herding/slaughtering machine that kills 75 million animals for food daily in the U.S. alone.

Young white people growing up in the South in the early 1800s, whose parents and neighbors all owned and exploited black people as slaves, were invariably racist. They knew beyond doubt that black people were inferior and intended by God to be owned and used by white people. Their racism was an inevitable result of their actions and of their upbringing within the institution of slavery, and it was not racism to them; in fact, it was completely invisible. The same is true in cultures where men own women as personal property. The inherent sexism is similarly invisible. Both racism and sexism unfortunately persist in our culture, but they are no longer completely invisible. As we have matured culturally, emotionally, and intellectually, we have grown to recognize racism and sexism as injustices that are morally wrong, that are delusory (whites and males are obviously not inherently superior), and that are devastating to the health of our relationships and society, and devoid of spiritual wisdom as well.



Deeper and more pervasive, and still completely invisible to most people today, is the injustice and violence at the core of our culture: enslaving and routinely raping and killing animals for food and other uses. The fact that we are coining these new words, speciesism and carnism, shows that we are beginning to make progress in awakening from the herding culture’s enforced trance of human superiority and of violently reducing animals to mere objects to be used. We are beginning to be able to see the invisible cultural program that is injected into us from infancy and that we use to justify our abuse of animals, and we are realizing that it is not in our best interest either, in any way, physically, morally, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. I think an apt word that points directly at the source might be the word “herderism,” which is the opposite of veganism.

Just as we are all raised in a culture organized around herding, killing, and eating animals and animal foods, we have the herderist mentality of superiority and entitlement that goes with that behavior. Neither the behavior (of eating and using animals) nor the accompanying mentality is freely chosen or even visible. Both are enforced by social norms from infancy, both are unconscious, and both wound us all terribly, far more than we imagine or can understand.

The herder ego is tough and opaque. Being forced to suppress our natural capacities for compassion and intelligence (the ability to make connections) at every meal, we have all been ritually trained to disconnect, to reduce beings to objects, to compete, to consume, to rationalize, and to deny. We have been forced to become disconnected and desensitized. Veganism is the ancient spiritual teaching of ahimsa—nonviolence—and is the complete opposite of this: cultivating kindness, respect, cooperation, inclusivity, and sensitivity, and of looking and feeling deeply. The herder ego in both men and women manifests as craving domination and ironically craving submission as well, which is the root of the authoritarianism that characterizes our social institutions and many of our relationships. By contrast, veganism is an expression of Sophia, the inner sacred feminine, that sees beings rather than things, and naturally yearns for connecting with others in a spirit of solidarity, celebration, freedom, equality, and conscious cooperation.

As vegans, we are recovering herders. We are surrounded by herders as well as the long-established herding institutions, all propagating entitlement and the hard-hearted exploitation of animals and of other humans. When we are able to awaken from the herder ego enough to see it and change our behavior to reflect our awakening, and begin living as vegans in a not-yet vegan world, we are profoundly and often unremittingly challenged by nonvegan people and institutions. To make matters more difficult, we have internalized many traits of the herder ego structure, such as the tendency to blame, shame, criticize, compete, judge, deny, and rationalize.

It is therefore imperative that we make a conscious effort to become aware of the herderist tendencies that still live within us, and work to transform them also so that our veganism—the yearning to be a living force for liberation and compassion—can shine through us clearly and effectively.


The Vegan Challenge

Going vegan is the necessary condition for further spiritual, psychological, and cultural evolution and progress. But is it sufficient of itself? As vegans, we are increasingly called to understand and live the vegan teaching of nonviolence in all our actions and relations. Veganism is nothing to be proud of because it is simply returning home to our true nature, and seeing beings, not things, and treating them with the respect and kindness that are natural to us. As our veganism deepens, we become able to practice this not just with nonhuman animals, and refrain from eating, wearing, and causing their oppression, but also with human animals, and refrain from judging, criticizing, and blaming them. We can learn to see our former selves in not-yet-vegans and with understanding for their predicament as abused from infancy by being raised in this herding culture—and being forced to develop a tough and opaque herderist ego—we can lovingly remind them, and exemplify for them, the truth of their inner connection with the kindness, self-confidence, and respect for all life that are their true nature.

Thus, it is clear that vegans are more qualified to be spiritual teachers and cultural leaders in our society today, just as are people who are not racist and sexist are similarly more qualified. As nonvegans, we may be able to point out some basic ethical and spiritual truths, but if we are not exemplifying the vegan ethic of respect and justice for all, our teaching is missing a vital element of authenticity. Having popularity and success in the herder culture as a spiritual or philosophical leader means only that the vast majority of people who are unwilling to question the inherent violence and blindness of the herderist trance approve of our teaching and example. Our popularity is due to our hypocrisy: a Faustian bargain that increases our outer success at the expense of our inner integrity and awareness. Authentic philosophers and teachers live the spiritual truths they are espousing. Ironically, they tend to be invisible to the culture at large because their message and lives resonate at a different frequency than most are capable of appreciating. But all of us making this effort to embody the higher spiritual truths of vegan living are doing what most effectively helps our culture to evolve, and this opportunity is lost if instead we make excuses or attempt to fit in to the status quo.

In sum, the herder ego that is forced on us from infancy and pervades our culture today is devastating not just to our spiritual and ethical health and integrity, but to animals, our Earth, and to our culture and each other. It is oriented around manipulation of others for our own benefit, and is reinforced by and reinforces the competitive capitalist financial systems, and the reductionist science, medical, educational, and religious institutions as well. As we awaken from the inequity and abuse caused by the many permutations of the herder ego, we are drawn to the opposite, which is our innate wisdom of compassion for others, and refusing to participate in the dominant cultural program of harming others for our own benefit. If this process of awakening is happening in us, we are ineluctably drawn toward vegan living.

As our herder ego is reduced through understanding and awareness, we find that we have a new potential for clarity, empathy, joy, gratitude, and inner freedom. A spiritual (as opposed to religious) yearning to be a force for healing and positive change grows in us. We begin to recognize that as the tough and opaque old herder ego softens and allows more light and tenderness to come through, that we have new possibilities for psychological development as vegans that were completely unavailable to us as nonvegans. We can relax and open to the flow of benevolent feelings within us, open our minds and hearts to new confidence and creativity, and allow the spirit of veganism to gently dismantle the ego-clinging, anger, fear, and manipulativeness of our conditioning, so that we realize that deepening our veganism means ultimately the dissolution of the herder ego that is deeply rooted in us.

The practice and mentality of hunting and herding animals is clearly obsolete and counter-productive, and moving to a post-hunting and post-herding vegan mentality and culture of peace and nonviolence is the call of our future and is the fulfillment of our proper destiny as creative celebrators rather than as enslavers and destroyers here. In the brief time that a human life offers us on this Earth, may we support each other in this! And may we do it not merely for ourselves, but for the animals, vulnerable in our hands. May we do it for starving people, future generations, and for our Earth. And may we realize it’s not a choice; it’s who we are.

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