Posts Tagged ‘BIll and Lou’
If you are a longtime subscriber to this blog you know all too well about the Bill and Lou affair at Green Mountain College. You know how the college exploited the oxen not only to pull its antique plows but to act as photogenic mascots of sustainability for the school’s lucrative teaching farm, Cerridwen. You know that when the school announced that it was going to turn Lou into hamburger meat for the school cafeteria (because of a hurt ankle), GMC received millions of angry calls and emails registering opposition. You know that, as Lou’s fate hung in the balance, animal advocates maintained a steady and generally respectful drumbeat of opposition to the school’s sinister recycling plan. And you know that GMC, under the shadiest of circumstances, killed and supposedly buried Lou anyway on November 10th or 11th, 2012. If you knew none of this, the story is recounted in this book.
It is with regret that you must know that it appears that Bill, too, has been killed by the college. I must advise caution. Key word at this point is appears. I spoke to a source today who had a conversation with a student worker at Cerridwen. This student, who was under the impression that my source was interested in the farm as a place for her kids to one day attend, explained that both oxen were put down for leg injuries. Bill, who was readily visible on the farm after Lou’s death, was now nowhere in sight. He’s a hard animal to hide. The school now has two new oxen, pictures of which I’ll be including this week. If you have any concrete information on Bill’s apparent death, please let me know. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I will spend this week providing updates as information comes in. For now, our best bet is to wait and have Bill’s death confirmed before letting the school know our thoughts about its jaded notion of sustainability.
Politics of the Pasture, which came out last month, is my fifth book. If I’ve learned anything about the emotional nature of the publishing experience it’s to prepare myself for what a novelist friend of mine once called “the calm before the calm.” The idea behind this phrase is that you do your due diligence by writing as if in a fugue state, finish, wait for the book “to drop,” watch it drop, and then comes . . . . silence. Silence as calm as a placid lake on a windless day.
Trust me, I’m perfectly happy not to be getting an earful from Green Mountain College. They’ve been admirably disciplined about not drawing attention to the book. And I’m greatly appreciative to have an interview set up with ARZone on August 4th. But, otherwise the only other feedback I’ve gotten has been from an animal rights activist who took issue with my description of her in the book. I’d hoped for more. If it sounds like I’m whining, I am.
Here are the two reviews now up on Amazon:
1) I’ve read Politics of Pasture in less than 3 days. First, I have to note how well-written this book is. It’s a real thriller with fascinating characters. But beyond that, it’s the most up-to-date reflection I’ve read about our relationship to animals and the value of their life. Through Bill and Lou’s story, we come across the main arguments for small scale and sustainable farming only to realize it’s just a cute packaging of industrial farming built to reduce our cognitive dissonance and guilt when we eat meat. The current sustainable farming movement lacks one important thing : compassion. And through Bill and Lou’s story, every reader will come to realize the pleasure we have eating meat is a luxury that doesn’t worth the life of sentient beings. In this book, we also realize the vegan movement is not an extremist organisation. It’s just a group of people that have aligned their values – values shared by most of us – to their practice. 5-star
2) Full disclosure: I am a proud graduate of Green Mountain College. Like most folks I learned with and from at GMC, I am also passionate about animal welfare and the environment. I also happen to have standards. Like I did, I recommend downloading the sample before wasting your money on the whole thing. Like McWilliams’ blog, the writing found here is sub-par and reads mostly as a manifesto, rather than a well-researched thesis. For a book with a subtitle about a ‘national debate,’ he does an incredibly poor job of presenting the sides evenly (plenty of biased authors make their points while still giving their opposition’s voice a fair trial). His writing basically reads like freshman in his first philosophy class, which is fine if you’re actually in your first year of college. As for the actual content of the book, I give him one star for writing about something that so many people roll their eyes at. When so many people don’t care at all about the animals that die so they can have McNuggets, it can seem ridiculous to get caught up in an animal welfare vs. animal rights debate. But I would argue that it’s a valid discussion to have when both parties can remain civil and when both can also present coherent and logical arguments. However, McWilliams spends a lot of time talking down the students and faculty at GMC instead of talking about, ya know, the animals. Misleading or poorly understood statistics and random quotes taken out of context provided all of his information; one would think that he might have actually bothered to visit campus or something if he was going to write a book about us, but that, of course, never happened. He (and most of the actually quite small group of people) who mounted a campaign against us put cotton in their ears and became convinced that the whole world cared and us horrible GMC people were the only carnivorous, cold-hearted, satan-worshipping miscreants in the entire world who thought it would be okay to farm on a farm. In reality, the state’s department of agriculture, numerous other small farmers and farming organizations, animal welfare activists, and so on, all came out in support of GMC’s right to farm on their own farm. . . . 1-star
So, there it is: a one and a five. The best I can say is that it’s “a mild improvement on the average.” Normally, I would not come out and publicly mope, but this book is not about me or you or my publisher or the numerous people who helped me write it. There’s more at stake. It’s about two cows, one already dead the other whose life hangs in the balance. It’s about the decision to kill sentient animals under the guise of “sustainability” and fail abjectly to offer a justification. It’s about the future of eating ethically. So . . . please, please, please circulate this link, share it with your email lists, put it on Facebook, Tweet it, whatever. Forgive my begging, but this issue needs to be heard.
My book about the Bill and Lou affair at Green Mountain College, a topic covered in great depth here at Eating Plants, is now available as an e-book. The title is The Politics of the Pasture: How Two Oxen Inspired a National Debate about Eating Animals. At the moment it can be purchased on Amazon, but over the next few days will also become available at iTunes, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and ebooks.com. And, of course, you can always purchase it at Lantern Books, who did a brilliant job with the project.
I hope you will help me and Lantern Books spread the word. This book covers what I think was a critical moment in animal rights history—the moment when a national discussion finally arose over the troubled intersection of environmental and animal rights ideologies.
I worked every day for many hours on this book for three months without interruption. In some ways, that’s way too fast. But the upshot is an analysis that comes while the embers of this event are still glowing. My passion for these animals remains similarly afire.
In many ways, this is your book. Readers were relentless in their support of my endeavor. I never could have written the book without the constant stream of contacts, news items, tips, and analytical suggestions. As I write this post, I’m overcome with gratitude and inspired by your dedication to the cause of animals. Thank you so much.
My book The Politics of the Pasture: How Two Oxen Sparked a National Discussion about Eating Animals will be out as an e-book in a matter of weeks. It covers the arguments and events framing the Bill and Lou saga at Green Mountain College. It’s not an “objective” account, at least in the sense that one might lend equal consideration to both the defenders and opponents of the decision to kill the oxen. Such feigned objectivity is the curse of journalism today. What my book is, instead, is a well-grounded critique of an unethical decision, a college’s effort to defend that unethical decision, and the unethical behavior that followed from that unethical effort. It’s a book, in other words, about ethics. In it, some people are wrong. Some are right. The language is strong. Opinion happens.
My coverage of the Bill and Lou affair, marked by the qualities described above, evidently grated against the media powers that be, at least in Vermont. I say evidently because as I have gone about the tedious process of trying to acquire photo permissions from media outlets, most of them located in the state without billboards or the pertussis vaccine, I’ve been told that they only want their name associated with rigorously “objective” accounts of the Bill and Lou affair. As a result, they, with all their righteous emphasis on The Truth, refuse to give me permission to use photos unless I provide a copy of the manuscript to them to vet. This is obviously out of the question for reasons too many to mention. It’s also yet another indication of how so-called objective journalism has become a sham parading as something high minded and fair. If somebody is clearly wrong, why do I have to give that somebody equal space to tell a bunch of blowhard lies about how they’re right?
The photo-cred incident motivated me to think about how critical journalism might liberate itself from the straitjacket of “objective” journalism, the kind that requires a tit-for-tat form of reportage. Let’s say an investigative journalist wants to look into animal abuse at a popular local farm, a farm calling itself “humane.” Most media outlets, if they would even give a green light to pursue such an issue, would demand that the reporter bend over backwards to offer the farm an opportunity to defend itself. That bending over backwards, however, would arguably compromise the quest for an accurate portrayal of what’s happening to the animals. How might the journalist get around this problem? This strikes me as a critical question for the future of activist reporting.
With social media and decentralized journalism, I think there are a number of ways to write the kind of story that should be written. Here’s one idea. Have potential “consumers” of your story—people who have an interest in seeing your report on the local farm stick—pool resources to fund your work (would you, for example, put up $10 to help fund an expose of a small animal farm?). Once your report is completed, you could make it available as a PDF and provide whatever kind of access you wanted people to have to the report (one would presume as much as possible). Want it delivered to your i-pad? Not a problem. Given how savvy we’ve become at spreading the word, it would soon enter the mainstream. Of course, the report would not have the imprimatur of a prestigious or at least established gatekeeper such as a newspaper or journal name and masthead, but so what? Something tells me journalistic authority figures are mattering less and less. Plus, do the investigation properly and it won’t take long for your “brand,” as it were, to gain trust and legitimacy.
Fortunately, I’ve found a way out of my own bind. I contacted a free-lancer who did a photo of Bill and Lou for the Times and she’s willing to sell me several photos (although it will cost me more than I ever imagined). I’m also publishing the book with a well-established press friendly to animal issues. In the future, though, for those looking to get involved in animal rights work, there is, I think, a great opportunity to bring together writers and the readers willing to fund their work. Naturally, this wouldn’t be the good old boys club kind of “objective” journalism. But for that we can all be thankful.
A REQUEST: If you have any high-res photos of Bill and Lou, and are willing to let me use them, please send them to me at email@example.com.
tomorrow: thoughts on subjectivity, objectivity, animals, and death
Copyright Jennifer Wolf Love 2012
This painting, which was done by Jennifer Wolf Love after she visited Bill and Lou at Green Mountain College, is currently my choice (with my publisher’s agreement) for my book’s cover. The e-book, called Politics of the Pasture: How Two Oxen Sparked a National Debate about Eating Animals, explores the arguments proposed for and against the death of Bill and Lou. Those seeking a sordid account of a Facebook slugfest will be disappointed. The book takes seriously the most compelling arguments made on both sides of the case and, in the end, shows how much stronger the arguments for the oxen’s continued existence hold up. I’m about 1/3 through. Because it is an e-book, and because it will depend heavily for exposure on social media, I hope I can ask readers to promote it insofar as they feel comfortable doing so. I will also ask for your continued understanding as I post original material less frequently over the coming month. Thanks. -jm
This ran into today’s Times Argus, under the title ” When Exceptions Matter.” It was written by Rebecca Kneale Gould, a professor at Middlebury college.
The debate about the fate of the injured oxen, Lou, and his co-worker, Bill, has now spilled far beyond the campus of Green Mountain College (“Bill and Lou: A parable about food,” Oct. 28). I have followed this heated conversation with interest because it directly engages those issues that I care about most, personally and professionally: sustainability, human-animal relationships, the high levels of cognition and emotion in nonhuman animals, local food and the importance of truly understanding the source of your meat.
I teach environmental ethics at Middlebury College and I try — in my own human, fallible way — to lead an ethical life. For me, the most ethical choices consist in knowing how to evaluate situations with an eye toward kindness, compassion and a refusal to see the world in black and white. For instance, I generally don’t eat meat, but when I am a guest in someone’s home (especially in a cultural context not my own), I eat what is offered. I believe that being gracious and grateful to others should trump my private, personal preferences.
As a small-scale shepherd, I also have been on the receiving end of the gifts of kindness. Shelburne Farms, one of the leading environmental education centers in the country, raises sheep for education, wool and the meat that is served in the Inn. Like Green Mountain College, they want their visitors to know where their meat comes from and what a sustainable working farm looks like. But when my spouse and I fell in love with a sheep called Lucky, a Farm Barn lamb who was “headed to the Inn,” the staff treated us (and Lucky) with compassion, not dogmatism.
In the end, everyone was happy when we brought Lucky home. Just like us, Lucky loves good food, basks in a sunny day and smiles when she is happy. To this day, Shelburne Farms staff and visitors ask after her and are thrilled to know that she is thriving.
There are many complex answers to the question of what constitutes environmentally responsible living. “What is right” is conditioned by numerous factors, including geography, cultural diversity and economics. As a teacher and scholar, my job is to foster thoughtful, nuanced conversation about all perspectives. In the case of GMC, however, critical thinking and valuable lessons about sustainability, food and resources have already happened through the passionate discussions — on all sides — about the lives of Bill and Lou. Bill and Lou may no longer be able to plow the fields, but no one at GMC needs to eat them in order to learn; nor does anyone economically depend on these oxen as a source of food.
Because there are many animals already being raised for meat on the campus farm, those in charge (who may be privately reconsidering the decision to slaughter Bill and Lou) can rest assured that the overall mission of the college — in terms of raising and eating meat — will not be undermined by an authentic change of heart. It would be a profound shame to kill Bill and Lou for the sake of sticking to one side of a complex, ongoing conversation about sustainability. I hope the decision-makers at GMC can come to understand the importance of flexibility in ethics, for even Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King dared to change their minds about things when it mattered.
I have long admired Green Mountain College and some of my faculty colleagues there are also my friends. In this matter too, ethics are complex. I refuse to defame the college or end my friendships there — even if my friends make a decision to which I strongly object. Nor do I celebrate those among the protesters who purposely inflame the situation. That wouldn’t be right either.
It is clear to me, however, that because Bill and Lou have been offered a free home to live out their lives, they will no longer be using GMC’s resources. And if VINE is not an option GMC wants to take, there are many other working farms who would welcome Bill and Lou. What harm does it do to the college — its professors, staff and students — to have the courage to make an occasional exception to their “farm to table” meat-eating principle? The teaching has already happened; no one needs to die for it. Of course, sustainability matters; but so too does the sustainability of the heart.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is an associate professor of religion and environmental studies at Middlebury College. She lives in Monkton.
There’s a lot happening in the ongoing and heroic effort to spare Bill and Lou from being slaughtered. Most notably the prominent attorney Steven Wise has become actively involved. This report/query comes to me from a trusted source:
|Vermont Bureau of Tourism is Steve Cook, Tel: 802-828-3516Vermont Department of Agriculture, Diane Bothfeld, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Tel: 802-828-3835|
Bill and Lou were scheduled to be slaughtered today. It appears there has been a reprieve:
POULTNEY, Vt. -
In Poultney, the oxen team of Bill and Lou are still alive.
Green Mountain College was set to send the aging pair to slaughter by the end of this month — setting off an international petition drive to save the oxen. But as of this morning the pair was still in their pasture.
The college Wednesday confirmed that the oxen will not be spared but that the date to send them for slaughter has been pushed back. Officials would not say why the date has changed.
Interesting development, in case you haven’t heard. Steven M. Wise of the NhRP has challenged GMC faculty to a debate regarding Bill and Lou, though he still hasn’t heard back.http://www.facebook.com/steven.m.wise/posts/10151251948737239
UPDATE (9:20) from Mark Bekoff!:
It must be noted that there have been innumerable ‘civil’ objections to the unnecessary and reprehensible killing of Bill and Lou from around the world -we need to keep the pressure on in kind and civil ways because it’s clear that cruelty can’t stand the spotlight and they need to realize they won’t lose face by doing what’s right, and that is to let Bill and Lou go to Vine and live out their lives with respect and dignity – their unrelenting appeal to impersonal ecological and philosophical arguments completely ignores WHO Bill and Lou truly are – sentient beings who deserve a good life – this is NOT a matter of one’s meal plan, it’s matter of doing what’s right ……
Before you get too optimistic about the oxen’s fate, however, see this explanation for the reprieve from Paul Fonteyn, President of Green Mountain College. Still, KEEP UP THE PRESSURE:
As you know, Green Mountain College has become the focus of widespread attention regarding our decision to slaughter our ten-year old team of oxen. I stand by the decision our community arrived at through a process that insured that all members had the opportunity to express their opinions.
I also compliment faculty, staff and students who, whether they personally agreed with the final decision or not, have demonstrated extraordinary civility in their interactions with each other, and with external individuals and organizations. Some of these external groups are attempting to use Bill and Lou as mascots for their own animal rights agendas. I am appalled by the abusive nature of some of the communications you have been receiving–if you are concerned about personal threats please notify the Office of Student Affairs.
Initially we decided to slaughter the oxen by the end of this month. However, we will not be able to meet this timetable because regional slaughterhouses have been inundated with hostile and threatening emails and phone calls from extremist groups bent on interfering with the processing. These businesses are mostly small, family-operated Vermont enterprises that provide local meat for local consumers. This is a busy time of year for them, and many have expressed fears that their operations might be shut down by protesters if they accept the oxen.
We have decided to continue to care for the oxen until a date with a reputable slaughterhouse can be obtained. In the meantime, Lou and Bill will not be sent to a sanctuary but will continue to stay with us in familiar surroundings. Eventually the animals will be processed as planned.
If you find this kind of moral logic offensive, you will enjoy this essay, sent to me by the philosopher John Sanbonmatsu (It’s long but very well worth reading in full):
Bill and Lou are scheduled to die today, and it is unlikely that anything will prevent their being killed. Despite the pleas of thousands of concerned citizens and animal rights activists, and notwithstanding a gracious offer from an animal sanctuary in Vermont to take the animals so that they might live out the remainder of their lives in ease and dignity, the community of Green Mountain College has turned a deaf ear to any talk of sparing the two gentle oxen, who have been found guilty of the one unpardonable sin for draft animals on a working farm–to have outlived their usefulness as exploitable labor. And for that they must die.
There are any number of nauseating aspects to this controversy: the hypocrisy of those who would claim to “care” about animals, yet who think nothing of killing them; the bunker mentality of the campus community, which believes that moral and political decisions are proprietary to their tiny hamlet, while the rest of the world has no standing to speak on universal matters of justice; the sadism of the GMC students, some of whom have been quoted in the press as eager to sample Bill and Lou’s “delicious” flesh. Yet, and here I speak personally as someone who teaches ethics, what I find most depressing about the whole spectacle is the sheer tawdriness of the arguments advanced by GMC’s administrators and faculty in defense of the planned killings. It is nothing new that those who would defend an unjust act should go about it in an intellectually disingenuous and cheap way. But it is always upsetting to see, especially when some of those who would defend an injustice are themselves professional philosophers, as is the case here.
William Throop, the college Provost, for example, who has a background in environmental ethics, has made such logically fallacious arguments to the press that they would make even an undergraduate philosophy major cringe. “Our choice,” he solemnly told the New York Times this week, “is either to eat the animals that we know have been cared for and lived good lives or serve the bodies of nameless animals we do not know.” This false dilemma–either we eat Bill and Lou, or we eat some wretched animal who was raised in intensive confinement on a factory farm–is but one symptom among many of the bad faith that has infected the GMC campus. Throop of course ignores the existence of a third choice, which is simply not to eat the bodies of animals at all. He does not bother to explain why killing Bill and Lou constitutes an important moral good. It is enough for him that they have previously been categorized as objects for free manipulation and use. “Bill and Lou are not pets,” he told the Times reporter, but “part of an intimate biotic community” based on “relationships of care and respect.” It is this self-same “intimate community” of “care and respect” that will shoot Bill and Lou in the head and cut their throats. But if Throop senses the doublespeak required in making such public utterances, he has so far not let on.
Perhaps the most detailed defense so far of the GMC decision by an academic is that by Steven Fesmire, a philosophy professor at the college, who this week dashed off a testy reply to James McWilliams’ eloquent blog entries in defense of the two oxen. For this reason it will be Fesmire’s missive I’ll focus on here.
The first thing to note is the tone of Fesmire’s letter, which is one of strident indignation. Fesmire’s tone in fact coincides with the general feeling of the college’s faculty, staff, and students at Green Mountain College that they are being unfairly singled out for criticism in a world that treats nonhuman animals with indifference and cruelty. The gist of the campus response has been, in fine, “How dare you outsiders judge Green Mountain College, or second-guess its communal decisions?” What is odd, or simply curious, about the GMC community’s palpable irritation is that college wears its environmentalist ethic openly on its sleeve, proudly and publicly touting its working farm as a “caring” place for “its” animals. Indeed, the college invests good money in promoting this ethical image nationally, to attract students as well as external grants. Why then should the GMC community be so irritated, or surprised, that the world has at last come around to take a look, to take the college at its “ethical” word? Yet here is Fesmire, sneering in his letter to McWilliams at the “righteousness” of animal rights activists, even while mounting his own self-righteous defense of Green Mountain’s civilizing mission.
Fesmire’s strategy is simply to dodge the ethical issues at the core of the controversy. He does not bother to explain why it is morally acceptable to kill these two animals. Instead, he settles for defending the process by which his community arrived at its decision. He argues, first, that because the decision to kill the animals was arrived at democratically, the decision must be just. Second, he suggests that because that decision (or the deliberative process–it isn’t clear which) was just, no one outside the community has the right to question or to criticize it. Third, he implies that morality is relative to local cultural practice. The rest of the letter is mostly ad hominem.
Let us consider Fesmire’s first claim that the decision of the GMC community is just because everyone had a say in it. No serious ethicist would buy such nonsense. The fact that the GMC community voted to kill the oxen tells us nothing whatsoever about whether that community’s decision was a just or fair one. As a professor of philosophy, Fesmire will have no difficulty, I hope, recalling the trial of Socrates, who was unjustly sentenced to death on the basis of a scrupulously democratic process by his fellow Athenians. In that instance, Socrates of course chose to abide by the court’s judgment, in order not to subvert Athenian institutions of law. Yet neither he nor his followers made the mistake at the time of believing that the verdict was just, solely because a majority of free Athenian men voted to kill him. (Few commentators in the 2,500 year interval since have found the verdict just, either.) So we must first of all separate out the question of rational or transparent procedural democracy from the question of justice: while the two may overlap, they are not the same thing. Democratic process is surely an admirable value, but it is not the only value, nor even the most important value. What could be more valuable than democracy? Truth, for one thing. Justice, for another. Perhaps saving the life of an innocent, for another.
Fesmire might reply that, whether or not the GMC decision was just “as such,” the oxen should nonetheless heed Socrates’s example and go meekly to their deaths, out of bovine respect for due process of law (or at least college proceduralism). By the same token, Bill and Lou’s thousands of sympathetic advocates ought to shut up, too, for daring to question the community’s “verdict.” If this analogy to the trial of Socrates seems far-fetched, consider Fesmire’s contention that among the “voices” included in GMC’s “inclusive deliberation” were those of the victims themselves. Just as Socrates, a prominent member of Athens, was allowed to speak his mind at his trial before being sentenced to death, Bill and Lou, we are told, were allowed to be “heard.” As Fesmire writes: “We strive to be a community that listens to, responds to, and thoughtfully incorporates different voices. Yes, Bill and Lou’s voices too….” Here, though, the analogy begins to fail, since Socrates was a full citizen of Athens, whereas the GMC oxen have the status of dependent slaves, mere property. Nonetheless, in both cases we have what is essentially a communal show trial ending in the forgone conclusion of a death sentence. Whereas the Athenians believed Socrates had to be killed for raising too many uncomfortable questions about the hypocrisies of Athenian society, however, the GMC-ers seem to believe that Bill and Lou should be killed so as not to further blur the boundaries between companion animals and workable commodities. Those boundaries must be maintained at all costs. For to allow the oxen to live would be to compromise the college’s mission as a place where unjust killing of defenseless beings is the norm, not the exception. The college will not show any mercy or compassion for these animals because it cannot. To do so would be to carve out a dangerous exception, one that would implicitly call into question the moral justification for GMC’s whole animal operation.
When I first glanced through Fesmire’s letter and saw his language of “voices” in reference to Bill and Lou, I thought he was at least granting them a degree of subjectivity of will and interest. But I was mistaken. Fesmire is merely speaking figuratively. He does not mean the community literally tried to listen to what Bill and Lou had to say. He did not mean, for example, that members of the community tried to attend phenomenologically to Bill and Lou’s embodied practices and states of being as eating, cuddling with one another, responding to the affection of their keepers, expressing curiosity, and so on, to glean a sense of their relative affirmation of life. (Perhaps, had the oxen been present at their own hearing, their living, breathing bodies would have constituted eloquent enough proof of their desire not to die.) What, then, does Fesmire mean when he says that the GMC community tried to listen and to respond to Bill and Lou’s voices too? He explains: we should listen to their voices “so long as we acknowledge that their interests are not obviously best represented in this instance by those distant from the thicket of actual, on-the-ground considerations.”
What Fesmire means is that anyone who lies outside the insular, self-confirming community of GMC is by definition too “distant” from the “actual, on-the-ground considerations” to have the right to an opinion about the animals’ fate. It is true that hundreds of Vermonters, including some local residents in the small town of Poultney, where the college is based, have expressed their desire to see the oxen spared the indignity of being bled to death to make hamburger meat for the school cafeteria. But such facts are seen as irrelevant by Fesmire, Throop, and others. By “distant,” let us be clear, Fesmire refers to an impassable moral, rather than geographical, distance. But if even local animal advocates are too “distant” to qualify to know what is in the best interests of Lou and Bill, who then is “close enough”? If the animals’ voices are not to be heard literally, who will “translate” their speech for us? Who will tell us whether they want to live, or whether they would prefer to die?
We come now to the sick essence of the thing. According to Fesmire, the human beings best situated to speak for Bill and Lou are the very same overseers who have exploited Bill and Lou all these years, who have goaded them and coerced their labor. Yes, it is “the teamsters who have worked with Bill and Lou for a decade” who “are obviously the best-positioned proxies to speak for the oxen’s interests.” By the same Orwellian logic, the best advocate and “proxy” for the interests of illegally held prisoners at Guantánamo Bay is the US military: the human rights lawyers with Center for Constitutional Rights are by contrast too “distant” from the on-the-ground “actualities” of Guantánamo to defend the interests of the souls incarcerated there. All morality, in other words, is local.
Now, as an ethicist himself, Fesmire surely knows how perilously close he is to making an argument from moral relativism here. The relativist of course believes that whatever a group of people happens to believe is morally right is morally right. And Fesmire does seem to be staking out relativistic ground when he chides GMC’s critics for lacking “fine-tuned awareness, rich responsibility, and cross-cultural understanding.” (One wonders what “awareness,” exactly, the abolitionists are lacking in. In what sense have the abolitionists not “understood” GMC’s position? Do they mistake the facts of the matter?) He also writes, “our Farm offers a culturally realistic, workable option….” That is both true and beside the point, at least from a normative ethical standpoint, unless Fesmire really is a relativist. For while a farm that kills animals for commercial sale and for human consumption is indeed engaged in “culturally realistic” practices, all that means is that it is enacting normative behaviors that are sanctioned by the dominant majority. Fesmire seems to be implying that what makes such practices on the farm morally legitimate is the fact that they coincide with the prejudices of the existing culture.
But history has no shortage of cautionary lessons about mistaking the common sense views of a dominant majority for certain moral truth. Consider the logic used to “rebut” the abolitionists of an earlier era–those “intemperate” activists who condemned human slavery as an abomination that should be eliminated. Apologists for slavery made virtually the same arguments as the ones issuing today from the GMC community: the slaves are “pampered” and well-treated; the slave drivers and owners have the slaves best interests at heart, and are in the best position to serve as their “proxies,” since the slaves themselves are too incompetent to state their own preferences; the “workable” and “culturally realistic” solution to the slave controversy is not “inflammatory” denunciations of slavery as such, but the reform of slavery as an institution, in line with well-recognized “humane” guidelines; outsiders (Northerners) are too “distant” from the facts on the ground, and ought to shut up about it. Fesmire’s apologia for the GMC decision is little different in form from these earlier attempts to redeem slavery. The existing norms must be just and appropriate, because those who participate in the system or profit from it believe it to be so.
Sensing perhaps the weakness of his own reasoning, Fesmire goes beyond dismissing animal rights critics as outsiders who have no standing to speak out to attack them ad hominem. Borrowing a page from Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and countless other apologists for the meat industry and for the killing of animals for commercial and aesthetic reasons, Fesmire attacks thoughtful critics like James McWilliams, Karen Davis, and dozens of others who have disagreed with the GMC decision by implying that they are uninformed, naive dolts. It is by now a tedious staple of this “literature” that anyone who advocates for the interests of nonhuman beings must be either a simpleton who fails to grasp the “complexities” of the situation or else a close-minded ideologue (or, sometimes, and paradoxically, both). Fesmire implies as much when he writes that “the abolitionists suppose, wrongly, that there’s a single right way (theirs) to reason about this vexing ethical matter.” Is he saying that the abolitionist side is wrong simply for believing that they are right? If so, since when is it objectionable for someone who takes sides in a political or ethical debate to identify oneself with a clear position, or to defend that position passionately? Is Fesmire suggesting that it is wrong to have strong opinions about moral controversies? Or that moral problems always, or often, admit of multiple, equally valid conclusions? If the latter, then we are back in the mire of relativism.
In fact, none of GMC’s critics have claimed “that there’s a single right way (theirs) to reason about” the issue, only that the conclusion Green Mountain has reached through its reasoning is erroneous. Nor have critics of the GMC plan to kill Bill and Lou denied that the pro-killing position is, in Fesmire’s words, “a plausible expression of an ethical worldview.” They have only said that it is wrong. The larger point is this: it simply doesn’t matter that, as Fesmire writes, “On complex ethical matters, thoughtful and well-informed people may reasonably disagree.” Disagreement is the basis of moral and political life, an ineradicable feature of the human condition. So while I agree that, as he puts it, “Democracy requires a keen ear to other voices,” democracy does not require me to accept as true, or just, whatever it is those other voices happen to be saying. “Thoughtful and well-informed people” also disagreed over slavery, the rights of women, Jim Crow, the Vietnam War, and the invasion of Iraq, to name just a few issues. That did not keep anti-war activists from opposing wars or civil rights protesters from getting arrested to defend the interests of the vulnerable against other “thoughtful and well-informed people” who nonetheless proved to be on the wrong side of history.
Ending his epistle on a final note of outrage and indignation, Fesmire writes: “Perhaps you think meat is murder, or at least that it’s transparently clear to anyone with any moral sensibility that you cannot simultaneously care and slaughter. It’s the pristine clarity that’s worrisome in a warring, polarized world with such an array of competing certainties. Perhaps try to live in another country, ideally in circumstances that will repeatedly place you in the position of an honored guest at the banquet table. Meet a wider range of farmers.” So much for liberal tolerance. Fesmire first tramples another straw man–the notion that GMC’s critics believe it to be “transparently clear to anyone with any moral sensibility that you cannot simultaneously care and slaughter” other sensitive beings. Obviously, though, if advocates for nonhuman beings believed such a thing, then their work would already be done. In reality, their task–our task–is rather to educate our fellow human beings that, yes, it is hypocritical and contradictory, not to mention pathological, for us to profess to “care” for other sentient beings while at the same time or in the very next instance to ruthlessly exploit or brutally kill them. To take such a position is not to lay claim to a “transparently clear” set of beliefs, but to make a judgment call about the value of nonhuman beings, about the scope of our duties toward them as moral subjects, and ultimately too about the purposes of human life. Fesmire is of course under no obligation to be swayed by the abolitionist critique. But it seems to me that he and others at GMC should have the decency to acknowledge it as an intellectually serious position, one that is well-grounded in several philosophical and theoretical literatures. Moreover, it is unmannerly of him, not to mention out of keeping with his liberal outlook, to tell vegans to go “live in another country” so that they can better appreciate “cultural diversity.”
With a final angry thrust, Fesmire would have done with GMC’s critics by accusing them of (of all things) moral lucidity. What Fesmire ultimately seems to find threatening is not veganism or abolitionism at all, but the very possibility that someone–anyone–might have a strong feeling about a social or ethical issue. If “pristine clarity” of moral perspective is indeed the reason why we live in a “warring, polarized world,” as Fesmire suggests, and not, say, poverty and injustice, the ecological disaster, capitalism, male violence against women, racism, or–yes–speciesism, then presumably the cure is to exchange our moral “clarity” for the brand of muddy thinking and moral relativism being bottled at Green Mountain College. But I for one find moral clarity to be a bracing tonic. For one thing, it is a useful remedy for the sort of mealy-mouthed and equivocal moral declarations that have been coming over the PR transom at GMC these past few weeks.
In the final analysis, the attempt by Fesmire and others to swaddle the GMC’s community’s moral blunder in the garb of Yankee independence and grassroots democracy will only convince those already trapped in the fold. Only they will see GMC as a courageous bastion of liberality, diversity, and democracy under siege from without by illiberal, close-minded, democracy-hating barbarians. The rest of the world will on the contrary will see a close-knit, and close-minded, community that has become so attached to its own ideological shibboleths that it would fain kill two of its “beloved” members to prove a point.
Far from being a “vexing” moral problem of great “complexity,” as Fesmire and others suggest, the case of Bill and Lou is in fact remarkably uncomplicated. There is simply no morally compelling reason, none, why they should be put to death, particularly when there is an offer on the table from a sanctuary to care for them. What is so “vexing” for Green Mountain College community is only the fact that the college has become embroiled in a public controversy over the animals’ fate. That is the real source of the campus’s generalized indignation. And while indignation in the face of an ethical challenge to one’s actions is not always the sign of a bad conscience, it often is. So it is in this case. Year after year, Bill and Lou, lovely, gentle, intelligent, feeling beings, were coerced by their human overseers to labor for the college. They plowed its rain-laden fields and pulled its heavy machinery, in inclement weather and in virtually all seasons. The college has now decided to “repay” this debt by cutting their throats and dismembering their bodies, so that in this way they might be exploited one last time, in death too. And it is finally this grotesque and unfeeling utilitarian logic, I suspect, that accounts for the cheapness of the “rationales” being offered by Throop, Fesmire, and others at GMC. Because deep down, even they must know that they are participating in injustice, by lending intellectual legitimacy to what can only be described as a vicious act of communal violence and betrayal.
The following letter came to me from Antonia Fraser Fujinaga, a graduate student in the UK—she sent it to Green Mountain College as well. It’s especially eloquent. On a related note, I cannot name names but offers of BIG BUCKS have been pouring into GMC to “purchase” Bill and Lou. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars and a sum total close to (or even over) $100,000. You could buy a lot of kale for the cafeteria with that kind of money. In any case, I really would hate to see these animals be slaughtered. What a damn shame that would be.
Although the matter of the oxen that your institution plans to slaughter has already received vast amounts of attention, given that lives are on the line it would be remiss of me to fail to do everything in my power to save them (some of you, as philosophers, may understand this). Hence this message, which I hope you will be kind enough to read.
The university’s overall programme of promoting sustainability and reducing ecological damage is laudable. However, I fear that the ‘showdown’ that is occurring between the university and opponents of the slaughter may be preventing representatives of the university from backing down from their plan even in the face of reasonable arguments and in spite of the best interests not only of the institution itself, but also of the greater sustainability movement. I fear that this has become a matter of saving face. Furthermore, it is quite clear that whether this is so or not, large numbers of people believe that it is, and consequently, by slaughtering these oxen the university’s representatives would be projecting an image of wanting to appear right at any cost – at the cost of lives (other than their own), and at the cost of following a course of action which may not promote maximal sustainability and may tarnish the university’s reputation in the long term, endangering it and thereby damaging its mission far more than sparing these oxen would.
I sha’n't burden you with details of arguments that you have presumably heard before: the fact that the retired oxen would continue to produce valuable fertiliser during their retirement, the fact that resource consumption without concomitant production is not used as a reason to slaughter old or disabled humans, the question of whether meat consumption is ecologically optimal if scaled up globally and therefore whether it genuinely represents GMC’s ethos of ecological sustainability, the similarity of ‘cultural accommodation’ arguments posed in favour of meat eating nowadays with those formerly used in favour of ‘humane slavery’ as opposed to the abolition of slavery, and so on. I shall be only too happy to engage in a discussion of such details with any of you if you wish, provided that it gives the oxen a chance to escape slaughter (this being my goal).
However, I would like to make a few simple points of my own.
Killing is irreversible, and by nature against the interests of those killed, as manifested by the survival instinct that we all have. Therefore, firstly, ‘not killing’ stands out as the default, with the onus of proof being instead on ‘killing’ and whether it is unavoidable and absolutely necessary. Secondly, given the irreversibility of killing, one should err on the side of caution and refrain from killing if there are still doubts about its absolute necessity. I believe that your university has extensively discussed the pros and cons of killing these unfortunate ruminants, and shall not insult you by claiming otherwise. What is crucial is that there still appear to be ‘cons’ – in other words, there is still doubt, which militates against overriding the ‘no-killing’ default and also against performing irreversible acts. This instance of killing does not appear to be absolutely necessary or unavoidable (and the use of factory farmed meat to compensate the university refectory for loss of protein can be avoided by providing vegetable protein during the days in which the oxen would have been consumed).
Another point is that in all this discussion, lives are being subordinated to abstractions. Two living creatures which have clearly shown the capacity for trust and loyalty, along with a host of other ‘higher functions’ including, presumably, fear and the visceral desire to live, are being sacrificed in order to maintain some sort of coherence with previously stated philosophical positions. I submit that lives are more important than abstractions. No matter how noble abstractions are, if they necessitate killing, they are questionable. A lofty principle – sustainability, for instance – which is incompatible with compassion may perhaps have been suboptimally framed; and indeed, sustainability without meat is not only possible but less problematic than sustainability with meat.
(I do realise that you may be tired of the meat-free idea, but I cannot with a clear conscience avoid mentioning it, because if reducing ecological damage is one’s goal, then the inclusion of meat production into one’s model of sustainability is a serious obstacle to that goal. In his Subjection of Women, Mill describes female subordination as an isolated, convenient relic of an old system of thought that has been demolished and abandoned in all other respects; I suspect the same of meat consumption, as a culturally ingrained habit which is clung to even when it hinders progress or the common interest, and even though analogous positions in other areas have been abandoned).
I could go on. And on. But please allow me to make one final, somewhat ‘unladylike’ suggestion. If indeed you are concerned with the oxen going to waste if they evade slaughter, why not allow them to retire with the proviso that you will retrieve and consume their carcases once they have shuffled off this mortal coil?
Then, they will not have gone to waste, their protein will have circulated back into the ‘loop’, and the only damage that will have been caused by their extended life (during which they will have produced useful fertiliser) will be that they will have consumed more resources than if they had died sooner. This will have been offset by the water cost of slaughter, by the compassion and goodwill shown by sparing the oxen (which will be beneficial to the university’s reputation), by the consideration towards the oxen themselves who will not have to suffer terror and agony and have their lives cut unnaturally short, and by the promotion of the concept that sustainability does not have to mean giving up compassion.
You can still avoid condemning the oxen while saving face. You needn’t frame it as ‘backing down’ or having ‘bethought ye’ that you were mistaken. You can frame it in any number of ways: being strong-armed by the rabid vegan activists; doing it to protect the university’s reputation; having concluded that it is important to include compassion in the sustainability model; having, in the democratic spirit, acknowledged the vote of the tens of thousands who have asked for mercy for the oxen; or having, as the mature individuals that you are, come up with a compromise whereby you will postpone consumption of your bovine friends until their lives come to a natural end. (I realise that this may mean starving in a paddock when their teeth have gone; perhaps that would be time for euthanasia, but as far as I know, the oxen still have their teeth and can live happily for some time longer). Even if you do frame it as having changed your mind, you will garner praise and respect for that, because for vast numbers of people, saving lives trumps saving face.
In closing, I implore you to spare the oxen, because killing them is irreversible, because all that your valuable institution has set out to do can be achieved without killing them, and because if the final say were theirs, irrespective of any abstraction, they would choose life.
Antonia Fraser Fujinaga