The BBQ Debates

» August 29th, 2014

If you read my work you are well aware that I believe that eating animals, in the vast majority of circumstances, is morally wrong. This position, which I can defend historically and philosophically—after nearly a decade of thinking and reading about the matter—is one I have centered my life around because so much verifiable (if invisible) suffering is at stake. My adherence to this position is not a “personal lifestyle choice” any more than a decision to walk outside and start hitting dogs with a tire iron is a personal lifestyle choice. It’s a choice based on thoughtful moral inquiry and grounded in an objective sense of right and wrong.

For this reason, I find exhibitionist displays of gluttonous meat eating to be objectionable. I live in the world. I live among and deeply love many meat eaters. And I could even justify eating meat in some circumstances—but almost never in terms of animal domestication. I think it’s fair to expect that anyone with even a remote awareness of what must happen to bring meat to the table has an obligation to treat eating animals with at least a perfunctory sense of gravitas. After all, killing animals that are emotional, self-aware beings, even if you have come to terms with that killing, should never confer bragging rights. Remember when George Bush (43) used to discuss the death of American soldiers in Iraq with that quirked smile on his face? That’s kind of how I see celebratory and gleeful writing about eating meat. Call me a crank, but I have my reasons.

This is a long way of introducing an article in Texas Monthly that made me sad. Not angry, not wanting to engage in ad hominem attacks, but just sad. I should note that I have written for Texas Monthly (about chicken fried steak, no less!), that it’s a first rate magazine, and that I know and look up to many writers there. But I should also note that the magazine used to do a lot of great capsule music reviews, got rid of them, and hired a full time BBQ editor, a decision that earned the magazine considerable national attention. It was an article by that very editor, which ran yesterday, that led me to respond. The piece is here.

I must confess to being put off by the fact that the author, Daniel Vaughn, invited readers to share concerns with his cholesterol level as an occupational hazard. I found this to be a particularly strange request given that his occupation requires the slaughter of sentient animals for food we do not need. That said, my initial response was a bit unfair. I tweeted:

“What marks life as full time BBQ editor? Blissful ignorance to animal suffering, evidently.”

This tweet implied that Vaughn was indeed ignorant of what his celebrated diet represented—that is, that he had not justified his decision to support unnecessary animal slaughter. Perhaps he has. Perhaps he could illuminate the matter for me (and I’m being serious here). He responded:

“why the comment about my ignorance? It’s as silly and myopic as me suggesting you’re ignorant to the tastiness of meat.”

Fine. So, I’m now wondering: what is that justification?

“Fair enough. So if you’ve justified your choice to eat animals raised for meat, where I can read/hear about it? I’m eager to learn.”

And, I’m happy to say, we have exchanged emails and plan to meet in the near future, a meeting during which we’ll discuss my recent American Scholar piece. I genuinely look forward to the discussion. Stay tuned.



7 Responses to The BBQ Debates

  1. catherine case says:

    I respect your efforts on behalf of the animals to engage in intellectual conversation on this subject, no matter the civilized manner of provacation it requires.

  2. Karen Harris says:

    I just finished Vaughn’s article, and can’t conjure up an image of the discussion that will take place between you and Vaughn. Your fundamental world views and sense of right and wrong when it comes to sentient beings, other than humans, are worlds apart. (And that is the kindest thing I can say about him, believe me!)
    I post flyers in Austin as part of my LOST LIFE campaign which espouses veganism, and after so many encounters, some good, some bad, I have adopted the adage – only a fool argues with a fool – and still well clear of people like Vaughn.
    Anyway, the result of your meeting should be interesting, to say the least, and I look forward to the next installment.
    If I were you, I’d make sure I had a beer first!!!

  3. Karen Harris says:

    Another thought.
    As Vaughn’s article plays out in my mind, the word I keep thinking of is respect. The reason I find his actions so distressing, is his total lack of the ethic of respect with regards to the living creatures consumed.

    • Mountain says:

      To focus on respect is to focus on humans rather animals. While respect for animals is a part of my daily life, it’s far more important to reduce the number that we imprison and kill than it is to show respect for the ones we imprison and kill.

  4. Mountain says:

    I understand why vegans would find his piece upsetting; after all, vegans tend to find “gluttonous displays of meat-eating” to be emotionally unsettling. But he mentions blasting “Meat Is Murder,” watching Forks Over Knives, and believing a plant-based diet is beneficial. The man demonstrates awareness, even if you don’t like his food choices.

    And about those food choices. He mentions eating beef and pork constantly, and only mentions eating chicken once (in relation to a 2010 heart scare). More than 90% of the animals slaughtered in the U.S. are chickens. If a BBQ lover eats almost all beef & pork, and almost no chicken, they reduce their killing of sentient beings by 70-80%. That’s not as much as they would reduce by going vegan, but it’s far better than the average American. And from an animal’s perspective, it doesn’t matter if his/her life was spared due to respect or due to a taste for brisket. A life saved is a life saved.

    • James says:

      All fair points. What riled me was both the navel gazing aspect of the piece and it’s overall triumphant tone. As I note, I think anyone who eats animals, or profits from it directly, should treat the act with a level of gravitas that recognizes the weighty nature of that decision. The reason why I wrote my Am Sch piece was, in a way, to require the meat-media to recognize the moral question at the core eating animals. While you are correct about the chicken/pork calculation, the inherent message in Vaughn’s piece was to “eat more” because it’s so much fun and so tasty to do so. In other words, he does not appear to share your concern with reducing animal suffering.

      • Mountain says:

        I agree that he doesn’t seem to be interested in reducing animal suffering (although “Meat Is Murder” and Forks Over Knives say maybe), but I’m interested in all the ways people can reduce animal suffering without that being their specific intention. Like people drinking almond milk or coconut milk because they are interesting or tasty or healthy, but in the process reducing the suffering of dairy cows. Ditto for the trendy meal replacement Soylent, in which rice protein replaces the animal protein that likely would have been consumed instead.

        I’m reminded of the story of the SUV, the Civic, and the Prius. If someone drives 10K miles a year in a gas-guzzling SUV that gets 10 mpg, they’ll consume about 1000 gallons of gas per year. If they switch to an economical sedan (like a Civic or a Mazda 3), they’ll consume about 300 gallons per year, a savings of 700 gallons. They could pay more for a Prius (50 mpg, 200 gallons per year), but that would only save an extra 100 gallons per year. The biggest benefit comes not from making the optimal choice (Prius), but from getting people to stop making the awful choice (SUV).

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