A “Good Success” in Montreal

» September 27th, 2013

Montreal is a bilingual, vegan-friendly, friendly-friendly, big-time city seemingly full of young people with a predilection for talking incessantly and brilliantly about animals. I spoke last night in a beautiful room at McGill University about the hidden problems with small-scale, non-industrial farms. I’m the worst critic of my own talks (being far more at ease and in control behind the computer) but last night I can say that when our time was up I was eager to keep going. So I take that as a sign that something went well enough, or at least that I was properly caffeinated for the experience.

The essence of whatever popular interest there is in my topic seems to stem from a vague sense that the sustainable food movement’s happy farm/happy meat rhetoric is actively obscuring the darker realities that inflict suffering on animals raised in what appear to be more humane conditions. (That was a badly written sentence, but go easy, as I’m at the airport, blurry, and nursing my first cup of coffee). Giving some specificity to that vagueness, my presentation reminds viewers (and, when my book comes out, readers) that, while a pastured system might have welfare advantages over a factory farm, it’s not by any means a viable or ethically sound replacement for industrial animal agriculture. Several people told me they desperately need more grist for this mill. Of course they do: nobody in the popular media is writing about this topic.

Here’s a thought I had in the very middle of my talk: For better or worse, none of what I talk about when it comes to this topic is rocket science. There’s rarely a need—given that my intention is to encourage people to consider leaving animals out of their diet—to ascend into high-intellectual ether. Understanding that sentient animals suffer when they are raised primarily to be slaughtered and commodified does not require a grounding in Bentham or Kant or Singer or Regan. It just requires empathy and compassion, qualities we seem to have, at times, on our better days, in abundance. When an astute member of the audience noted that, even if farm animals were pampered while on the happy farm, they’re still killed about a tenth of the way through their lives, thus being denied 90 percent of their potential happiness, I think people (lots of omnivores in the crowd) intuitively get why that’s wrong. Whether it’s wrong enough to inspire behavioral change is another story. But at least the ball gets rolling.

I greatly enjoyed post-talk discussions about the ethics of domestication without slaughter, the strengths and weaknesses of the land ethic, the inherent flaws in conventional activism, and the appropriateness of the slavery analogy to the prospect of animal liberation. These discussions played out at a vegan restaurant called “Invitation” [in-vee-tah-see-on], where I ate a perfectly spiced curry dish and drank a glass of white wine before going down for a few hours of sleep and getting back to the airport, where everyone seems to be exceedingly polite given the obscenely early hour of the day (or any hour, for that matter).

Leaving my taxi this morning, my exceedingly polite taxi driver, who spoke French as his first language, told me to “have a good success” as I climbed out of the car. I told him, “thank you, I already have. And you have a good success, too”


9 Responses to A “Good Success” in Montreal

  1. Awesome! Love it when there is a line of people who want to engage in drill down post-talk discussion. Nothing energizes quite like doing seminars. I’ve made it crystal clear (in my works), while the term “humane” has been presently hijacked by the marketing arm of the animal exploitation industries, there is nothing humane about unnecessary killing. Living veganis the “humane” option. Factory Farming is insanely cruel, and small “free-range” farming is still unnecessarily harming and is hence only less cruel. Recalibration of this point requires consistent, vigilent rigor in our work, to be sure. Congratulations and well done!

  2. Barbara says:

    Thank you and many more successes.

  3. Melissa Tedrowe says:

    This is a great post, James. I nodded my head especially vigorously at the paragraph in which you say “For better or worse, none of what I talk about when it comes to this topic is rocket science . . . Understanding that sentient animals suffer when they are raised primarily to be slaughtered and commodified does not require a grounding in Bentham or Kant or Singer or Regan.” Yes yes yes.

    Very much connected to that point (I believe) is this question that forever kicks around in my head: WHY when smart, good hearted people learn about animal exploitation — on whatever kind of farm — do they not change? I know this has been addressed in various places to various extents, but it still baffles me. The people who not only SHOULD know better but DO know better — why don’t they do differently?

    Wish I could have been at that dinner with you all . . .

  4. Since I tweet a fair amount, I came across an article in USA Today wherein they surveyed their twitter followers to determine how much/if humane issues affect food choices. The followers might represent some reasonable cross section of the population at least as food and ethics are concerned. While several of the comments were from vegans explaining their ethic, there were a number of callous and cruel responses. Here are a few of the more disturbing ones:

    “Food chain reality: Animals prey on animals; fish eat fish. Ergo, when I dine, I have no qualms about animal rights.”

    “I buy quality food to eat not because it was killed humanely. People need to get over themselves.”

    “No, animal rights are not an issue. The only issue is the freshness and cost. Animals are food.”

    These are not people interested in happy meat. That significant numbers of people are likely to think this way just reinforces the point discussed yesterday in a different thread that humane legislation and other means must be used in combination with appealing to those who might be open to an ethical argument. ~Linda

    article link: http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/09/25/animal-rights-humane-food-tellusatoday-your-say/2873211/

    • James says:

      The presence of these callous remarks is not surprising, but I don’t necessarily think it means there is not a substantial portion of consumers out there who support happy farms for welfare reasons, implicit or otherwise.

  5. Thank you so much James for coming to Montreal.

    Your talk was excellent. I like the way in which you build UPON strong intuitions we have instead of AGAINST these intuitions (as I too often do).

    Without having to philosophize on grand moral principles, you brilliantly and patiently show that small-scale farms are not viable a solution to the problem encountered with larger-scale farms.

    In the end, as you said in your talk, the real choice is not between “bad farms/gentle farms,” but between “bad farms” and no farms at all.

    I have posted some pictures and short report of James’ talk on my website : http://christianebailey.com/james-mcwilliams-veganism-for-omnivores-counter-narratives/

    • Pauline says:

      I just want to thank you Christiane for your summary of the lecture. That was helpful. Regarding your statement: “Most people agree factory farming is hideous because they sincerely believe we should take care of animals who are completely dependent on us”, I can’t even get to first base with most people (who become instantly defensive if I ever open my mouth on the subject… “You’re not going to convert me… “, etc., etc.), and rarely seem to give the matter even a modicum of thought. Someone pointed out to me recently that this could be partly due to the fact that there is a manifest emphasis on supposed “welfare” here in the UK, which hadn’t occurred to me. And people are used to their train journeys through green countryside full of cows and sheep munching lazily on the hillside, plus farming documentary series in which everyone involved seem so kind and caring. The slaughterhouse bit is just a quick and unfortunate necessity they prefer not to think about – and I don’t think most are even aware of factories containing animals (chickens apart, which most don’t deem worthy of much attention in the first place).

      Which kind of links up with James’s next post… that I’ve been pondering since he posted.

  6. Hello James, I also attended your talk and enjoyed it very much. Loved your style and clearly understood your intent (I think ; ).
    This said, I will love to agree and disagree with you in future posts, I am in the midst of a conference marathon right now. This heads up comes in response to your “invitation” not to be on the same page all the time. Until then, let’s remember that «We must learn to talk sensibly about food, committing ourselves to accepting more complexity, less radicalism, and the wisdom of compromise.» JUST FOOD, p.218

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