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.
A couple of weeks ago we had a heated discussion here at The Pitchfork about killing poachers. A group of readers were eager to support a policy that allowed a “shoot-to-kill” approach to managing elephant poachers. Others, well, mainly me, suggested that we might take a deep breath and consider the poacher. Not popular, this choice.
Interestingly, we never talked about the possibility of poacher redemption as a possible factor influencing our choice. This omission is, in retrospect, kind of surprising given that, in general, those who cross the line from illegal activity to legal enforcement are in a position to offer invaluable advice about how the illicit activity operates.
It was thus with some sense of vindication that I read this piece. Titled “Former poachers help in fight against elephant poaching,” the article reminds us that it sometimes pays when our anger-fueled sense of justice yields to a more thoughtful version.Consider the poacher because, someday, he might reconsider the elephant.
My piece on dairy at Forbes last week has generated considerable discussion. That’s good. The bulk of it has centered on my decision to refer to artificial insemination as a procedure that causes—here come the controversial words– ‘immense suffering.” That’s frustrating. When I wrote those words, I had two things in mind. First, that the physical process caused suffering and, second, that the consequences of that physical process caused suffering. Together, I reasoned, the suffering was not normal. It was abnormal. Immense came to mind.
Putting aside the point that this emphasis on such a small aspect of the article only affirms the legitimacy of piece’s underlying message, it is worth wondering if, in fact, artificial insemination is a procedure that would cause suffering. Did I overstate? “Aaron” thought I was off the mark, writing,
I have artificially inseminated many cows, and it would be the equivalent of a prostate exam for humans—intrusive, but not painful (haven’t had one, but my M.D. wife tells me that). Vets employ the same technique to assess any number of things going on inside cows and horses. Sure, the animals are restrained, but no more than when they would to be given a vaccine, milked, whatever. Depending on a cow’s personality and intensity of her heat, some even stand still in the middle of a wide open pen or pasture to be artificially inseminated.
First, notice that he calls a prostate exam “not painful” (um, Aaron, when that special day comes, you will retract these words faster than you can say “ever do time, doc?”). Notice also that he makes this assessment on the grounds that his wife tells him so (Aaron really is in for a shocker!). Also notice how he makes it sound as if a cow will often act as if she wanted to have a pipette of semen placed in her vagina– “some even stand still” for the penetration. If this all sounds crazy, Aaron has Brian to keep him company. Brian writes,
Cows do not mind being inseminated. I inseminate about 125 cows per year. I am right behind a cow when I inseninate [sic] her, if she did mind being inseminated, I would get kicked very hard.
Hmm. Now might be a good time to consider exactly what must happen in order for a cow to be artificially inseminated. By way of foreshadowing, let’s speculate that the cow might not be able to kick Brian to the curb because she likely has an arm up her rectum. Anyway, here’s this, from a medical manual:
Once the cervix is located, it must be grasped and controlled so that the inseminating instrument can be inserted. Encircle the cervix with the thumb and fingers in such a way that the thumb is on top of the cervix and the fingers re under the cervix. The thumb should stay on top without rotating the wrist. This can be difficult and tiring – it takes effort to stretch the rectal wall. As the inseminating instrument is slid forward the cervix must be pushed forward to straighten out the vaginal folds. Remember, the cow is trying to force the cervix toward the vulva and thus creates more folds. If the cervix is not pushed forward, the tip of the instrument can get caught in a fold and stretch or puncture the vagina.
Inevitably, you get hit with the question: if you had to eat meat what would it be? It’s not a stupid question. In fact it’s quite useful because it forces us to clarify the tenets that shape our ethics. It requires us to add nuance to the bland mantra that “eating animals is wrong” and explore the possibility that it’s more wrong in some cases than others.
Once you do that, once you let that slinky little cat out of the bag, you can start thinking about why it’s more wrong in some cases than in others. And before you know it you’re actually developing genuine insight into the foundation of your ethical choices rather than living according to a mouthpiece ideology.
Anyway, a friend recently popped the question: is there any meat that would be excusable? Not justifiable, but excusable. Roadkill, I answered. I really didn’t think much about it, but tied as I am to my own vehicle (a Mercedes I inherited and a Mercedes that has leather seats!), that’s what I blurted out while sipping an award winning beer at my favorite watering hole on earth, the Whip In. Roadkill.
My mouth does not burst into salivation at the prospect, mind you. But my mind does. Our highways are de facto slaughterhouses, ones in which the workers wield wheels rather than knives. Animals are not caught in the crosshairs of a rifle scope but the byways of a interstate. Killers are innocent and the meat is incidental to unintended vehicular propulsion. Counties and municipalities do a lot of ridiculous things with roadkill—incineration, feeding to zoo animals, and burying. A case could be made that turning these dead animals into sausage and underselling factory farms is a better option than all of these.
The danger, aside from health, is that the endorsement of eating roadkill is an endorsement for eating animals. And as long as there’s a cultural endorsement for eating animals there will always be an incentive to provide meat in lesser and lesser ethical ways. This criticism is not to be taken lightly. But given that we’re a million years away from eliminating the consumption of animals, how would you feel about meatless Mondays linking up with roadkill Tuesdays?
I might wave a white flag for that.
Last night I spoke at Vassar, in the auditorium and Sanders Hall, and it was an all around excellent experience. There’ always the fear that, at a school with less than 2,500 students, about 4 students will show up (for the record, it doesn’t matter–I give the same talk if there are 5 or 500, but still . . .it kind of does matter at the same time). Due to effective organization, active publicity, and the langniappe of vegan pizza, attendance was more like 52—most were, I think vegan or vegetarian. Several of them had excellent questions and, afterwards, many students–eating said vegan pizza made with rare expertise by Alessandra Seiter (who organized the whole deal and is bound to become a great and widely known voice for vegan issues)—were eager to get more involved in vegan activism and outreach. Overall, a terrific event, at least from my perspective.
A couple of questions pushed me to make clarifications in my own mind, or at least clarification regarding how to articulate my position. One was a variation on the where to “draw the line”/”what about plants as a life form, too?” question. You feel yourself mature as a thinker and activist when, instead of instinctively scoffing at the question or getting annoyed by it, you take it seriously and answer the question with as much exactitude and clarity as possible. My response was to argue that, if we accept the premise that all life has equal moral worth in the framework of the biota’s overall health, then the most ethical act we could undertake would be to kill all the humans, starting with the wealthiest first. Given that, for most sane people, this is an obviously irrational proposition, the next task is to decide how to draw the line. That is, how to decide by what standard we will decide what forms of life lie within our circle of moral consideration. That standard, I suggested should be sentience, or the ability to experience suffering. From there, we can have our arguments–who is sentient and who is not?, when should exceptions be made and on what grounds?–but this seems to me as reasonable and achievable a way as I can think of to begin clarifying an issue that, if left vague, could really muddy the ethical waters for vegan activists. (And I don’t mean to suggest that I’m the person who thought of this idea, one that goes back to Jeremy Bentham, and maybe earlier.)
Second, a woman asked a pretty loaded question about the status of a human fetal vis-a-vis a chicken. She wondered how we could argue that it was wrong to kill a chicken but okay to terminate a pregnancy (or “kill a fetus” as she put it). “Suffering,” she said, “is suffering.” Of course many readers will be aware of this kind of question and, as with the first question, we cannot demean it. Suffering might be suffering, but the frame in which that suffering happens matters in a fundamental sense. In the chicken case, the frame includes no real competing consideration other than the fact that some humans think chickens taste good. A number of plant-based items could be substituted for the chicken, but the person has a hankering for chicken. That is, of course, hardly what we’d call a powerful competing moral consideration to the prospect of chicken suffering. But, with the pregnant woman, there is clearly a powerful competing moral consideration: the right to one’s own body. Sure, there might be an argument to be had over what “right to one’s body” might mean, but the fact remains that the establishment of a moral consideration beyond “I want chicken” in this case means that, alas, suffering cannot be considered in and of itself. But rather in the framework of competing consideration.
After the talk, a woman (vegan) told me that her family had moved to Oregon to live off the land and that, in their case, living off the land meant raising and eating turkeys, goats, and pigs. Given that she had just heard a lecture about how nonindustrial farms experience severe welfare concerns of their own, she now wondered how she could approach her family and explain to them how what they’re doing might not be as right for the animals as they think. Tough one. I vaguely recalled how Jonathan Safran Foer wrote movingly in Eating Animals about the dilemma posed by his grandmother’s traditional chicken dish, and the implications of not eating it during the holidays. I mentioned that. But otherwise I simply suggested that she observe what they do and, in light of her knowledge of how they react to criticism, decide on the best ways to highlight the fact that nonindustrial agriculture, although better for animals in the short term, is ultimately an ethically unacceptable way to treat critters we claim to genuinely care about.
Finally, a woman confessed her “urge” to eat animals, in addition to the sense of sadness and loss she fears she’d experience if she gave them up (this, too, came in a conversation after the talk). The “urge” question was the easier of the two: we urge a lot things that we do not–cannot–do. If somebody cuts me off in traffic and I want to get out of my car and, a la Jack Nicholson, smash their car, I don’t, because it’s uncivilized, and if we all reacted thusly we’d have anarchy. A few thoughts about sexual urges and you get the idea here. Now, the nostalgia concern should not taken lightly. Much of our identity is wrapped up in what we eat and there’s every reason to think that we can become sort of psychologically addicted to eating certain animal-based foods. I think perhaps the best way to work through that addiction is to consider veagnism not as a loss but as a clearing of the plate, so to speak, of old traditions in order to make room for a more diverse array of tasty new ones. Yes, I might have a little twinge of nostalgia for a greasy egg on toast after a long run, but the fact that I now eat bowls of porridge with a dozen superfoods in them and, as a result, feel much better, is pretty good compensation for that long lost egg.
PS: note the stunning sycamore/plane tree in the photo above
Readers of The Pitchfork know very well that I’ve closely followed, and occasionally written on, the issue of horse slaughter in the United States. My primary go-to source for these stories has been the journalist Vickery Eckhoff. She’s a contributor at Forbes and has published in Newsweek and HuffPo as well. Today, she posted a couple of pieces that strike me as seminal in terms of understanding the politics of horse slaughter and, just as importantly, the media’s coverage of it. I urge you to check both pieces out. Find a relatively tame one here and a more outspoken one here.
We discussed Tim Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds in my “eating meat in America” class today. For those who don’t know this book, you should. You must. Pachirat’s material comes from his work as an undercover employee in an Omaha slaughterhouse. For five months, as fieldwork for his anthropology dissertation, he studied the Nebraskan abattoir from every angle, every nook, every cranny, documenting in finely grained detail the 121 stages of production required to bring meat to our plate, leather to our jackets, and, of course, fecal blood to our research laboratories. Of course. Of course.
Better than any analysis I’ve ever read, or could imagine reading, the book explores the interlocking politics of concealment and surveillance required to convince civilized society to go collectively brain dead over mass slaughter, worker abuse, and ecological degradation.
As near as I can tell, my students were moved. But in weirdly different ways. The arc of emotions expressed in class ranged from denial to silence to tears. What I mean is that some talkers stayed silent while others took safe refuge in cold intellectual abstraction while another bravely just let it all go. Pachirat writes almost antiseptically about death. He doesn’t hype up anything. He’s about as engagingly objective about the mechanics of killing sentient beings as one could be. And that’s exactly what’s so chilling about his book. Cramming for class this morning, I, too, kept crying. Not your normal day at the office.
Before discussing the book, my co-teacher, a philosopher (who was a NY Times Magazine finalist on justifying eating animals), led a beyond intriguing discussion about the moral implications of disgust. Does disgust signify immorality? Or is it merely an evolutionary response to disease that’s been periodically highjacked by rogues and psychopaths to sow seeds of xenophobia and tribalism? In the end, we sort of nodded in the direction of both options, but we did so under the agreement that disgust should be evaluated in terms of the contemporary goal it’s attempting to legitimate. At the least, we were intrigued by disgust, which more than I ever was as an undergraduate.
What struck me the most was how Pachirat’s conceptual framework kept framing our own discussion. I could see it in too many faces that never spoke: the concealment of big ideas in silence, the surveillance of professorial authority and external expectation. I remarked how stunned I was by the power of crass capitalism to create an institution so perverse that it could, under one roof, make room for paper pushers and fetus bleeders.
And then it was 3:2o and time to move on to who knows what.
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.