Whether you are a vegetarian or meat-eater, you are at some point going to be questioned about what you eat. Outside of my immediate circle of family and friends, I’m often the only vegetarian. I grew up with the impression that meat-eating was inevitably linked to cruelty and lack of compassion, an assumption that I’ve had to look at in my interactions with those who eat animals.
The first one who indirectly challenged this assumption was my grandmother, the only meat-eater I knew well as a kid. Not only was she the sweetest person I knew, but she had this keen sense of compassion. For example, she stopped me several times from spitting my gum out the car-window (which I probably shouldn’t have been doing anyhow). Her concern, however, was not littering. Instead, she was worried about ants: “They can get stuck and die a slow horrible death. It’s awful.” She shuddered every time she told me this. The first time it happened, I thought of asking why she cared about the life of an ant? Why didn’t she care about the life of a fish, a cow, or a pig? It seemed so contradictory that I didn’t know how to ask. Also, I didn’t want to remind my grandma about that invisible line between us. It was only at her house that I ever saw meat on the table. In fact, if my parents were there, I wasn’t allowed to dine at the same table as my grandparents, unless the food was 100% veg-friendly. By sitting at the same table, my parents explained, I was indirectly participating in or condoning eating meat. As a kid, I was unhappy about this separation, but as an adult, I tend to agree with my parents. Just recently, I sat down to eat with some friends. When I noticed the big slabs of steak on their plates, I just lost my appetite and felt slightly sick. As a life-long vegetarian I represent a minority, but most people who choose a vegetarian diet will at some point question the ethics and compassion of those who don’t.
Even if I mentally question those who eat animals, I often stay away from that argument. At the surface, I think I’m not militant enough to take on the vegetarian-vs-eating animals fight. But I’m fascinated by the people who do and the different viewpoints they come up with. Michael Pollan, for example, definitely tries to create a synthesis in his book The Omnivores Dilemma arguing for a moderate and mindful consumption of meat. Then there is Jonathan Safran Foer who takes the opposite view in Eating Animals, maintaining that eating animals cannot be justified. Despite my strict upbringing, I feel that it’s possible for me to stand in the middle-ground and look at both sides. I recognize that there are reasons behind a person’s choice to eat animals. Still, when I come across someone who is an uncompromising vegetarian, I admire that. It takes guts to stand up to societal norms; let’s face it, we live in a meat-eating society. In the Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams writes that we are “overwhelmed by an ongoing cultural and political commitment to meat eating.” When I encounter someone like this, I wonder if I’m simply being wimpy in my silence or if I am truly able to hold space for two opposite camps.
When I read Nobel prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s book The Lives of Animals I definitely got the “I’m a wimp” feeling. Despite being a introverted recluse, Coetzee is outspoken about animal rights. His meta-fiction novella looks at meat-eating and its implications from several different angles. Elizabeth Costello, the fictional character in the novella, is a relentless vegetarian. She takes on the giants of Western thinking and criticizes ‘reason’ which has crowned itself above emotion. Reason, indeed, has been used by some of the big names in Western thinking, like Descartes, to argue that animals don’t feel pain, that they are “automata” or machines. It might sound ludicrous to us now and has obviously been disproved, but this kind of investment in logic and reason is still very much at work in our society. Based on questions I’ve personally received, many people don’t even think it’s possible to survive and be healthy on a vegetarian diet! From experience then, I agree with Adams that there is a commitment to eating meat, so much so that people turn a blind eye to how animals are treated in slaughterhouses. When I think about the practical reality of how many animals are killed on factory-farms, I feel like my silence on the topic is like turning a blind eye.
While we may choose to ignore the facts, Foer insists that helplessness or indifference aren’t really options anymore, because “in the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is wrap your fingers around a knife handle.” Coetzee chooses to gloss over the horrors of the slaughterhouse, but Foer meticulously documents it in Eating Animals. What Coetzee does instead is to draw an analogy between the meat-industry and the Holocaust to fully conjure up the horror of the current animal situation. This parallel, also called “the dreaded comparison” by scholar Marjorie Spiegel, looms largely over Coetzee’s ethical argument. Although we as a culture may not believe in sin or pollution, “we do believe in their psychic correlates,” and anyone participating in the meat-industry is tainted. In the very signs of normalcy (healthy appetites, hearty laughter), Coetzee’s character Costello sees “how deeply seated pollution is.” It would be hard to disagree that something foul is going on, when according to Foer, the annual number of animals killed globally is fifty billion (nine of which belong to the United States.) These number are calculated with “the utmost meticulousness,” Foer says, and “are studied, debated, projected, and practically revered like a cult object by the industry. They are no mere facts, but the announcement of a victory.” As for the idea that the animals are slaughtered humanely, Temple Grandin, the penultimate animal-whisperer, writes in Animals in Translation that cows are the animals she loves best, and she has felt conflicted by her own work in designing “humane slaughter.” As it is today, meat-eating as a dietary choice is one thing, but factory-farming – where animals are raised only to be killed – is quite another. While the former may in some ways find justification, the latter, I’m certain, finds none.
If you are a meat-eater and still reading, I congratulate you; I’m aware that this directness can be off-putting. If you do think that meat-eating and/or factory farming is justifiable, there is actually a great opportunity for you right now to voice your opinion, and I don’t mean as comments to my blog (though those are welcome to, as long as their respectful, as I’m attempting to be). Rather, in a contest asking “Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat” The New York Times wants to hear from carnivores only. Several of the authors mentioned above, like Pollan and Foer are judges: The deadline is April 8, 2012, in case you find that you are sufficiently convinced of your choices to argue for them.
The confusion we humans have about our relationships to animals is never more evident to me than in the case of pets. My grandma’s compassion for ants may seem funny or skewed , but I see this double-standard all the time in people. Cats and dogs are rescued and loved, and pets are pampered to no end. People are disturbed and indignant about the mistreatment of these particular animals. Indeed, for shock-value, Foer suggests: why not eat the millions of stray dogs that are put to sleep every year in the U.S.A? This strange societal double standard was also addressed in The New York Times last year when columnist Mark Bittman remarked, “if I keep a pig as a pet, I can’t kick it. If I keep a pig I intend to sell for food, I can pretty much torture it.” Why is the life of a cat, a dog, or a bunny more valuable than the life of a pig, chicken, or cow?
Although I don’t want to be a fanatic or extremist, I do resonate with the views presented by Foer in Eating Animals and Coetzee’s in The Lives of Animals. As an adult, my reasons for being vegetarian have only cemented for humanitarian, environmental, and ethical reasons. But since I’ve always been vegetarian, I do see that it’s been easy, indeed natural, for me to embrace this lifestyle. So I acknowledge that others with completely different backgrounds would find their way more natural. Really, the contradictory nature of the information out there by doctors and people in general only confuses the issue further. Choosing vegetarianism is almost viewed as a perilous health-hazard these days! We are encouraged not to question the double-standards at work in our cultural sentiments.
While the state of animals today concerns me a great deal, I value my friendships with non-vegetarians and have in many ways suspended my judgment and allowed the question of diet to slip to the background. I do find it hard to eat in places where meat is conspicuous, but my desire to maintain good friendships has overshadowed my need to speak up. Every so often, however, I do question the integrity of my silence. For now, I choose to be an example of a healthy thriving vegetarian myself; your choice to eat meat is like your choice of spirituality; I am not going to tell you that my God is better than yours.