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As Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, we humans have inherited a deep evolutionary heritage of violence. Our natural predilection for dominance, predation, and revenge has not only served us remarkably well over the course of evolutionary time, but it manifests itself today in tangible expressions of inner inequity. The evidence is etched into every cranny and crevice of our brain. We have the capacity to wreak violent havoc. Read the news.
Does this macabre heritage imply that humans are inherently, irrepressibly evil? Of course not. It only means that we harbor in our neurological nutcase a hoary apparatus that, without proper re-purposing, could, with adequate propagation, send us—well, men mainly—into unchecked orgies of decapitation, disembowelment, lynching, and quartering. Followed by a celebratory banquet. If this assessment sounds hyperbolic, I advise you to consult recent history. We all have it in us to turn violent.
We’ve thus erected culture and civilization in part to mitigate these excesses and, ideally, obviate the need for quick-thinking resorts to force. But culture and civilization, for all their potential to diminish violence, can exist ahead of the evolutionary curve. One way to think of the peaceful-minded civilization we try to create is as a mansion that we live in but have yet to furnish. We’re wandering through this unfurnished edifice a little confused, grasping weaponry out of habit and preparing to indulge a mentality we no longer need. But, ray of hope, we also sense, because of the walls that protect us, that cooperation and empathy—which also have a deep evolutionary heritage—have the capacity to render our violent inclinations obsolete. Or at least some of us get that.
This realization is perhaps the most awe-inspiring aspect of humanity. We are a species that has reached the ability to eliminate all expressions of unnecessary violence. Consider that prospect. I have no idea how such a revolution would happen, but I know that, biologically and culturally and intellectually speaking, it could happen, or at least a surge in that direction could take place. That fact alone renders commonly sanctioned expressions of unnecessary violence—farming animals, hunting for sport, wearing leather clothing—residual habits of a lost age when violence was required more than it is today. Soon, I fantasize, these behaviors will become the stuff of mockery and shame, like whacking old ladies on the head and stealing their groceries.
Looked at from this perspective, the imperative to keep putting pressure on these normative violent behaviors becomes more intense. Advocates for a more peaceful world need to bang away at these behaviors not only because they are unnecessary forms of violence, but because they are quite simply on the wrong side of history, sloping downward toward an abyss. They can gather steam, slide in, and leave us standing on a pedestal of success, triumphant and proud of being human.
Note: please visit and share my latest Forbes piece on welfare ranchers here. Thanks!
Here we are in New Orleans, having finished the second leg of a family road trip from Austin to Atlanta. The kids were already throwing elbows at each other before we pulled out of the driveway this morning, but peace ultimately prevailed and, with the exception someone’s occasional bouts of stealth gas (requiring all four windows to be opened in 50 degree weather), it was a mellow seven-hour Sunday drive (aside from a scary gas station stop in New Iberia). There’s something equally beautiful and cruel about being locked in a small space with family for an extended period of time. No. I take that back. Beauty has the edge. Barely.
Barreling through the American landscape at 70 mph can be like watching a film reel of American culinary culture unspool on fast forward. What strikes me most powerfully is how different regions of the country exploit “exotic” animal products to generate tourist attention. The moment we left I-10 and dropped south into the Bayou Teche (a less direct but more culturally rich route) was the moment we began to see massive signs for boudin, cracklins, and crawfish. The crass commercial appeal to backcountry culinary heritage was shameless. So shameless that the advertised product was typically being hawked by a cartoon rendition of the animal himself. How anyone gets away with this signification is a testament to the power of commercial capitalism to squelch all critical thought.
“New Orleans” and “vegan” aren’t words with a harmonious ring. We arrived late and opted to eat at the hotel cafe, negotiating the bacon-infused menu as if it were a minefield. The waiter seemed incredulous that one could order a pizza without cheese. But we did it. We showed him! And he learned something new. I just now googled “Whole Foods New Orleans,” “vegan New Orleans,” and I’m deciding whether it makes sense to introduce my kids to dixieland jazz on Bourbon Street before noon tomorrow. I think it does. More to come. Thank god coffee is vegan.
Today I attended an award luncheon for William (“Bill”) Deresiewicz, winner of the 2013 Hiett Prize, offered annually by Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (I won this award in 2009 and, honestly, all I can say after seeing Bill in action is that I’m glad he didn’t apply that year).
Deresiewicz writes literary and cultural criticism for several top-shelf publications, including The Nation and The American Scholar. His thoughts are consistently well-wrought, quietly subversive, and often deeply inspiring. In addition to trenchant criticism, he’s also written A Jane Austen Education, a lovely book that I thoroughly enjoyed, although it’s one that, in its relative tameness, only hinted at the bomb of a message he set off today, in the middle of what was essentially a roomful of people embodying a genteel blend of intellectual curiosity and outsized affluence. The reception was at the Bush Library. The dish was salmon. Poached.
In his talk, Deresiewicz, lamented what he identified as a critical failure of higher education—namely its growing emphasis on technological proficiency and professionalization. This development, he argued, has not only cheated literature, but–more to the point—it has cheated the gift that taking literature seriously ultimately provides: an engrained habit of reflection.
On a number of occasions, he suggested that literature, and the wisdom it conveys, was not some sweet little cherry atop the real work of life. It was the real work of life. The applause after his talk thundered, but I couldn’t help thinking that more than a few attendees had benefitted materially from the educational approach that Deresiewicz excoriated as the foundation of a culture built on a foundation of cheap entertainment, mindless indulgence, and superficial wealth.
As Deresiewicz developed his argument, nailing it down with quotes from a range of writers and critics, I found my own endless frustration with not only higher education, but life in general, being uncannily articulated, empathized with, and explained. And potentially rectified. After all, the message was an empowering one: if we took art seriously, tried to “see” it in the truest sense, perhaps we might become more thoughtful and reflective human beings. Deresiewicz was offering a prescription, although he would be reluctant to see it that way.
With literature, we might start to “know thyself” and, at the same time, appreciate the wisdom conferred by knowing thyself. Again, Deresiewicz was hesitant to attribute concrete societal benefits to his message. But, given my own very precise sense that truly good (and highly educated) people do terrible things to animals because they don’t reflect on their actions, I left the talk waving a flag for literature as, in part, a pathway to animal liberation. I also kept thinking about Ivar, the Norwegian farm hand in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers (a book I’m now reading). Ivar wears no shoes, is considered by townies to be insane, lives in the barn, but is one of the most self-reflective characters in the book. Notably, he won’t so much as tolerate a human raising his voice at an animal.
Don’t reject the power of literature to elevate life to another level of consciousness, one where crazy change becomes a reality. I know, I know. That sounds dramatic. But I’m committed to the proposition, and it was beautifully clarified between 1:00 and 1:45 this afternoon. The Fumarole, the literary component of my blog, serves the purpose of helping me retreat from the frameworks that the dominant culture (or whatever you want to call it) assumes without question and promotes without shame. In achieving that distance, the problems I face as a critic of animal agriculture become clarified when I become a critic of literature, or at least engaged with literature. The entire intellectual and emotional process of confronting a novel—and, although it’s getting harder to do, discussing it with others— allows me to undertake my advocacy with deeper humility and compassion and, yes, even love for those who do not yet see the ethical implications of eating animals. Or even want to.
I don’t mean to suggest that literature serves the purpose of instilling within me a radical tolerance for compromise qua compromise. Not at all. A focus on people, on social relations, and on different settings and situations—all of which are endemic to reading novels (“time and space” said Bill)—illuminates the human capacity for change, for redemption, for revolution. But, as Deresiewicz reminded me with rare eloquence this afternoon, we can’t do it without books.
There’s a kind of truth that hits you out of the blue.
I’ve spent much of the day thinking. Thinking about GMOs, labeling, privilege, love, sex, death, A Farewell to Arms, how it’s possible to spend $44 on duck tape, why I can’t play barre cords, why expensive wines satisfy me less than cheap ones, if the woman who said she knew every farmer who provided food to her restaurant knew the farmer who grew the wheat that made her bread, why there are so few woman micro-brewers, why so many male brewers have beards that would have made cavemen feel impotent, if there’s a connection between the last two themes, and why my “all natural” piece at Forbes was such a flop. Anyway, thoughts.
None of these thoughts admit of easy answers. But then you get hit–out of the blue (wherever that phrase comes from)– with something that requires no thought, no answer. Just a mindless observation.
My dog barked. I’d forgotten that I’d left him out back. He barked to be let in. I opened the door. He walked in. He’s a sweet guy, goes by George, has never so much as bared his teeth, and has his own script for human Xanax (thunderstorm anxiety). And he stood next to me. No apparent reason. He just stood there. And I leaned down to scratch his neck. He stinks, I thought. And then he looked at me. Tilted his head and looked. He has these perfect orange eyes. It was unusual, but he just stared at me.
And this is when it hit me of out of the blue: how is it that we even have to debate killing animals? Why so many overwrought discussions? Why do I travel hither and yon and visit architecturally gothic campuses to say it’s wrong? It’s so obvious that it’s wrong. No philosophical reasoning required. No lectures needed. Just orange eyes and a honest gaze and the knowledge that sentience is sentience.
George refuses to submit to a photo, but my son got him above, actively afoot, fleeing the camera, enjoying the experience of being George, pursing the glory of being alive, oblivious to the admiration in which he deserves to bask. Doing exactly what George wanted to do.
Photo cred: Owen McWilliams
I danced my dance at UNC last night. The gig is a quick but worthwhile tango for the EATS 101 experience in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My friends Jim and Sam have been running this show for well over a decade (along with Jim’s wife Ellie, too). As the class’ reputation assumes a heroic life of its own, students are signing up in droves for the class, doing so immediately after they’ve been accepted to UNC. Seven Rhodes Scholars have made it through EATS 101. It’s safe to say there’s not another class like it happening in American higher education today. It’s a crucible in which brilliant people forge brilliant discussions about food.
My assignment is simple. Students spend the week reading several of my articles, in addition to Just Food. They write a response paper and send it to me. And then I go into the class prepared to respond to their responses. Yesterday I spoke for an hour, evaluating the competing moral considerations they offered to justify intentionally causing unnecessary suffering to sentient animals in order to eat them. After I laid out my counter arguments, I opened the floor for discussion.
“Fire away,” I said.
They did. And they were great. Critiques ran the gamut from the familiar “nature is brutal” argument to the “survival of the fittest” argument to the “tradition/religion/culture” argument to the “animals are better off domesticated argument.” Sure, readers of this blog will know how to respond to these claims. But that’s not of interest to me in this context. Keep in mind, these are kids (well, I know, adults) who have never–and I mean never–been asked to defend eating animals on ethical grounds. In terms of cold hard critical thinking, they did really well. This was not a battle. It was a discussion.
I have a million impressions from the experience, including many from the dinner that followed, but I want to probe into one in particular: the role of youthful ambition and intelligence in shaping how we conceptualize ourselves vis-a-vis animals. Be forewarned: these thoughts will all be quite speculative and it will almost certainly be misinterpreted.
Here’s one thing that struck me about yesterday: these kids have it together. Maybe as I get older, and become more aware of my own inadequacies, I’m especially attentive to people who seem to live lives of solid confidence. Whatever the reason, I was forcefully reminded that, professionally speaking, these kids are headed to a place called Power. They’ve already lined up not just one, but in at least one case, two prominent jobs–big time jobs, fancy jobs, high paying jobs in places such as New York and San Francisco. Jobs that make you feel important because they should. They are important. These students want to do good in the world, for sure, but they also want to do so from a platform of authority–cultural, political, and financial. And why shouldn’t they? They’ve played by the rules. They’re the best and the brightest.
I’ve noticed something on a number of occasions when I visit fancy schools and talk and sup and banter with the best and the brightest: they are, surely due to their incredible level of achievement, scarily assured. I mean, they are not in the least bit hampered by doubt. They have worked hard, played by the rules, dug in, paid dues, and broken out of the adolescent gates with six-figure futures that promise deep vocational satisfaction. If you are a parent, in a way, this is everything you could ever wish for in your kids. If you are a kid, this is likely what you want for yourself. I’m usually in awe when I leave UNC. Yesterday was no different.
But. But. Remarkable accomplishments made in the throes of youth–particularly those that adhere to dominant forms of success and conventional conceptions of power–do not readily cultivate a disposition prone to questioning the status quo, much less a status quo that frames one’s success. In class, I mentioned that “tradition” was a counterproductive feature to promote if your goal was to radically change the food system. Students sort of looked at me blankly. At dinner a super impressive student explained to me that the class was really not very radical minded at all. Nobody wants to turn the world upside down because the world is working better than ever imagined. Later that evening, I thought to myself, “well duh.” Here’s the thing: radical minds harbor, somewhere deep down, a vestige of anger, or at least something dark that needs clarification. These kids are the happiest creatures I’ve ever seen. They bubble. They’re so fun to be around it’s hard to put into words.
So what the hell am I saying here? For one, I’m trying to do more than stroke egos, although there were lots of egos last night that deserved to be stroked. What I’m really trying to suggest–and really nothing more at this point than suggest– is that promoting a line of thought that asks us to consider the possibility that animals deserve to be treated in a fundamentally different way then we now treat them is hampered by conventional privilege. This assessment holds weather that privilege is earned or inherited, whether it’s social or cultural or financial. When we have all our shit together–at least in terms of conventional success– it’s hard to take issue with delicious meat-based meals served in quality restaurants that you can safely plan the rest of your life eating in with the utmost savoir-faire.
Perhaps, at some point, we have to be harmed—physically, psychologically, spiritually, cosmically—to seek radical change, both within ourselves and for those who are systematically harmed. Pardon the French, but perhaps life has to fuck us over a time or two, even pretty hard, in order for us to feel the weight of our own vulnerability and realize, in the fullest possible way, that others might have it worse off than we do and that, alas, we might be complicit in their horrible situation. In A Farewell to Arms, Tenente, man who loses in war and in love, muses, “The world breaks everyone . . . It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
I don’t want anyone to get roughed up too terribly. But a bruise or two might not hurt.
I’m currently researching a piece on wolves. I’m often late to the show on these things, but it occurred to me today as I interviewed a conservation biologist how fine and shifting the line can be between predator and prey.
Wolves once existed in an ecological matrix in which they were both predator and prey. But, as a result, they were, in light of their duel role, considered by humans to be neither. And both. The distinction didn’t matter, because we had no direct stake in it. It happened beyond our purview.
Then, with the introduction of livestock to the West, our purview became a crosshair. Wolves were suddenly deemed predators. And, in turn, they also became prey. Human blindness to the distinction was ended and, in our lost innocence, the matrix was reduced to black and white. Cows: good. Wolves: bad.
This is what happens when one species owns another. Fundamental categories shift. Nature ends. And not just for non-humans. But for humans, too. Think about anyone who owns an animal for the purposes of profit. They’ll go on and on about how they care so deeply for their animal (I mean, just look at the dingbat veterinarians who have chimed in on my Forbes pieces!) and then they’ll lord over that animal’s slaughter with terrifying requiems of adoration.
But that’s only the beginning of it. While the animal is alive, while the owner is treating the animal to such an enriched and meaningful life, the owner, because animal ownership (“husbandry”) is his livelihood, the source of his lucre, will deem any critter that so much as sniffs the ass of his beasts to be predators. And then they become prey. Not, of course, to the genetically enslaved farm creatures under his care, but, alas, to him. The armed owner. He shoots to kill.
This is the world we support when we eat animals that were once owned by another human.
I feel like a fox who has broken into the hen house (oops!) writing these kinds of pieces at Forbes:
Anyway, if you would please be so kind as to “Follow” me there it would boost my chances of continuing to rattle the status quo a bit. Thanks.
Well, I suppose it was inevitable. But here’s my twitter handle:
Do with this information what you will.