When the Spirit Moves You to Slaughter a Pig (on the Living Room floor)
I recently read Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). The book is magisterial and heartrending and more. At some point the spirit will catch you as you read this book and you, unless your heart is made of cement, will fall down (I stumbled into a pool of emotion on page 213).
The story centers on a large and loving Hmong family who immigrated to Merced, California after being driven from Laos in the wake of the Vietnam War. The book’s driving theme is the cultural clash that exploded around the medical treatment provided for Lia, the epileptic daughter of Foua and Nao Kao. The title is the Hmong translation of epilepsy, a condition that the Hmong imbue with spiritual power. If nothing else, that translation alone should provide some sense of how Foua and Nao Kao felt when the most talented and dedicated pediatricians in the world (a married couple who were valedictorians of their class and ran eight miles every other day) decided to treat Lia with the most advanced narcotics western medicine had to offer. What was wrong, the Hmong wondered, with traditional practices, like bathing the child in herbal stew or rubbing hot coins on her chest?
It’s an epic story—and one I encourage you to read. For now, though, I’m going to focus on a small aspect of the book that led me to confront a big conundrum. Food is a driving force in the narrative. Turns out the Hmong culture is entirely defined by and inseparable from animal sacrifice. It’s impossible to overstate how deeply these peoples’ collective identity—one they must constantly reify as they are repeatedly displaced—is grounded in ritualistic and, from a western perspective, barbaric slaughter of chickens, goats, pigs, cows, and (it is suggested but denied) dogs. These animals (evidently not dogs) are sacrificed regularly, often within the home, and are consumed to mark births, deaths, marriages, and a variety of celebrations signified by a Hmong calendar structured by the time of day that a rooster calls. Sacrifices are also used to heal (it’s called Neeb). Ritualism complements a rare brand of self-sufficiency, something the Hmong value so instinctively that they’ve been cited for hunting pigeons with a bow and arrow in the streets of Philadelphia.
Fadiman, to her credit, doesn’t ignore the thorny ethics of the matter, although her assessment almost certainly won’t sit well with animal advocates. Essentially, she tells squeamish white people to get over it. It is with more than tacit approval that she quotes a UC-Berkeley professor who says, “So what if the Hmong feel they have to slaughter animals to make the proper kinds of sacrifices? Why not?” Fadiman herself chides the citizens of Merced for seeking ordinances to ban the household slaughter of animals, noting (in a rare moment of implausibility) that the “animals were killed quickly and cleanly” and, more plausibly, that the rituals were central to “the need to heal sick family members.” She continues to note that, “In Merced, almost every Hmong family I met sacrificed animals on a regular basis,” adding that this activity was so normalized in the minds of the Hmong that, when she asked if white neighbors might be bothered by a cow’s head left on the front stoop during a celebration, Nao Kao said, “Americans would think it was okay because we have the receipt for the cow.”
As my anthropologist friend Ward always says: culture matters.
It would be easy, as so many animal rights activists do, to dismiss Fadiman and the Hmong practice of ritual slaughter on abstracted moral grounds. That is, it would be easy to reduce this cultural and religious expression to the secular moral imperative that “unnecessary killing of a sentient being is wrong, no matter what the context.” I’ve taken this position in the past, especially when advocates of backyard slaughter in the United States insist that urban immigrant communities shouldn’t be prevented from pursuing inveterate cultural expressions. Fadiman, however, so effectively drives home the fundamental connection between slaughter and identity that it has forced me to rethink the matter, or at least forgo the convenient resort to moral essentialism. If there’s anything that I’m reminded of daily as an advocate for animals, it’s that theory and practice never converge the way we’d like it too. Again, like it or not, culture matters.
I’m well aware how dangerous this shift is for advocates of animal rights, so much so that I’m almost hesitant to raise the issue. After all, if we allow the ethics of slaughter to enter the slipstream of cultural difference we open matters up to a radically pliable relativism, thus allowing any group with a vague cultural claim to justify the unnecessary killing of animals. Humans thrive at fabricating justifications to serve our tribal interests. If we condone it once, we lay the basis for infinite justification. I’m also well aware how easy it has been to avoid confronting this issue, as we have implicitly allowed ourselves to be protected by the common cinematic trope that animal sacrifice signifies cultural backwardness, a form a “genial bigotry” (Fadiman’s phrase) perpetuated by movies such as Borat.
Still, this book encouraged me to rethink the relevance of the cultural context of exploitation. It made me realize that, when culture is taken seriously, and not relegated to an insulting stereotype, it’s very difficult to say that all exploitation is exploitation, period. Lia goes through utter hell with her disease and eventually reaches a state (this is not a spoiler alert) requiring non-stop vigilance by her parents who selflessly dedicate every moment of their lives to loving their egregiously impaired daughter with unfathomable dedication. You become so pulled into the emotional rhythms of this family’s trials and tribulations that when they throw a birthday party for Lia (who at this point in the story is eight), you are more than emotionally invested when, “the sidewalk outside the East 12th Street apartment overflowed with relatives and Hmong children.” That same feeling persists when, “Foua served Hmong eggrolls stuffed with minced pork and onion; steamed bananas with rice, chickens that been sacrificed that morning, and their skulls and tongues examined for divinatory signs. . .”
In isolation, this scene, from an animal rights perspective, is easy to judge. Again, just resort to the handy moral imperative: “It is always wrong to exploit animals if they do not need to be exploited.” Great. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. End of discussion. But the problem now is that I’m not in the land of moral abstraction. I’m on the sidewalk with the Hmong. The decision to eat animals is suddenly inseparable from the family with whom I’ve come to deeply and powerfully empathize and identify. I’ve watched the parents in particular demonstrate a rare and moving sort of love for their impaired daughter. I’ve watched a fiercely independent and loyal Hmong community make the cause of Lia their own. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to tell these good people, during this rare moment of celebratory bliss, that what they are doing is speciesist. It was in reading (and living) this sidewalk scene that I came to a simple but tectonic-plate shifting realization: there’s a difference between the bar-b-que sandwich going into the mouth of a white Austin frat boy and the minced pork eggrolls being eaten by the Hmong on a sidewalk in Merced.
What that difference implies in terms of reasonable activism is beyond me (at this point) to explain. But it provides—as thinking honestly about animals typically does—yet another problem to take seriously. Very seriously. And it’s not without hope for change toward a more animal-friendly way of life. My starting point for unraveling this complicated matter of ethics and culture and food and the Hmong begins with two distinct observations that I took from the book. First, the final birthday party food listed by Fadiman, alongside the traditional Hmong chicken and pork eggrolls, was a bag of Doritos. Second, Fadiman mentioned cases in which Hmong families who lacked access to livestock used “stones in place of animals” to carry out the essential rituals. The horrifying prospect of a Dorito substitution notwithstanding, culture matters and, fortunately, cultures can, as these examples attest, change without losing the spirit that caught them in the first place.
tomorrow: the perils of academic writing about animals