I’ve yet to feel the deep, urgent repulsion toward meat products that seems to be the aim of so much vegan propaganda. I’ve also not entirely been taken up by the food movement’s tempting moral asylum available by eating free-range, antibiotic-free, organic and local animals. Documentaries “Earthlings” and “Meet Your Meat” and books “Slaughterhouse” and the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” all are among the usual meat re-education fodder, and chances are you’ve read or seen at least one of them. What did that media do for you? Do you find yourself thinking about the animals that “gave their lives,” as some farmers argue, in order for you to have that four-dollar bucket of fried-chicken pieces from the cafeteria or that medium-rare filet?
What’s more likely is that you don’t usually stand in line imagining the lives of the animals you eat, the lives of the people employed in processing those animals and the state of the ecosystems downstream from where those animals are grown. You’re busy, poor and hungry, and bacon is something that comes from somewhere, sure, but more importantly, it arrives on your plate. You hardly notice it because it’s affordable, plentiful, socially acceptable and it tastes good. Is there anything wrong with that? Many equally emphatic people would argue both yes and no.
Agriculture accounts for nearly 15 percent of global anthropogenic GHG emissions, which doesn’t sound like a lot but is actually a larger contribution than that of global transportation. The vast majority of animals used for food — many of whom are mutilated, medicated and kept in grotesque conditions — are raised in factory farms. Unless you specifically seek and vet humane sources, chances are that the sandwich you’re eating is a product of this system.
Michael Pollan has mulled over this extensively in a fleet of books. He says in the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” that “the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world.” His profound engagement manifests in sometimes eating meat that meets his tangled mat of ethical standards. This line of thinking generally tends toward responsible husbandry, local sources and organic products. Meat like this is priced out of the reach of most but is a sufficient middle ground for those who wish to eat animals and feel affirmed while doing it.
Others argue that meat isn’t a necessary component of our diets at all. It may be that we’re only able to eat it as regularly as we do because of the disembodied natural and intellectual origins of so much of our meat. The factories — or farms, on rare occasions — are virtually always logistically distant and therefore easy to ignore. Jonathan Safran Foer discusses this culture of disassociation in his seminal book “Eating Animals.” He uncomfortably explores the deliberate nature of our forgetfulness when we eat meat and the normalcy which encourages a habit morally loose in a way that we might otherwise be opposed to. By eating meat thoughtlessly, he says, we automatically subscribe ourselves to a system problematic in its permissiveness and corrupt in its exploitation of other living entities.
In the “Animal That Therefore I Am,” Jacques Derrida calls the subjugation of the animal “violence in the most morally neutral sense of the term” — something that we undeniably attempt to dissimulate globally “to organize … the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence.” Some acts of violence are, well, more violent than others, and it’s easy to feel mostly benign when you’re out for breakfast. The moral outrage you experience when you watch a brutalized factory-farm worker slice off the end of a live pig’s nose like a slab of salami is crushing, until it’s not. Then, you’re eating a burger a week later, and you can feel that you’re letting yourself down, but it’s not as uncomfortable as it is tasty. How can we stay engaged with this material — engaged with our consumption habits as well as with the picture, the face of what we’re eating? Forgive the platitude, but each time we make a food purchase, we’re making a decision, mindlessly or otherwise. Foregoing our responsibility to actively participate in this decision is at once the simplest and most suspect choice.
Upon learning that I was writing this, my friend said to be sure to give equal time to meat-tolerant perspectives, because she “wants to eat meat still.” This essentially is what it comes down to: people do whatever they want to do and build an artifice of morality around it to affirm their decision. You can feel liberated in not eating animals, which you don’t really need to eat, as Foer argues — or you can feel justified in voting with your dollars for humane living and dying conditions for the animals you do eat, as Pollan advocates. Eating animal products is an issue of particularly huge environmental, ethical and political significance, as well as a decision unique in its immediacy and its vulnerability to the choice of the consumer. What could an increased mindfulness do, if anything, for you, the way you eat and the lives of the animals that you eat? It’s entirely up to you whether your next meal will be, as Foer says, either a receptacle of your forgetting or a receptacle of your concern.
“Off the Beat” columns are guest columns written by Daily Cal staff until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.