On Not Eating Meat
And On Not Talking About Not Eating Meat
|Justin E. H. Smith||May 1|
Once I was on the organizing committee for a large scholarly organization’s annual international conference. It was terrible. The local hosts had proposed going with an all-vegetarian catering option during the three or so days of the event. An interminable debate by group e-mail followed, wherein various reasons for and against such a move were considered. Someone pointed out that, quite apart from any consideration of animal rights or human health, going “all-veg” would reduce the meeting’s carbon footprint, and this is something university administrators are increasingly prioritizing. Someone else “problematized” the point about health by informing us that some people in fact live with any number of conditions that effectively make them obligate carnivores, like tigers, and that an “all-veg” event would amount to a failure to respond to these people’s needs. Someone else then proposed that we send a dietary questionnaire to the hundred or so registered participants.
Naturally, my antisocial instincts were surging, and I may or may not have joined the conversation to say something like: Might the obligate carnivores among us simply walk across the street at lunchtime and order up a döner kebap? If this is too much work for them, couldn’t they just have some meat delivered from UberEats? And even if we provide them with meat at their noontime feeding, won’t they still have to see to it on their own in the evening, or once they’re out of our charge and back at the train station to return home? I mean, surely anyone who needs meat has found a way to move through the world and reliably to procure meat as they go?
If I did dare to communicate this much, I’m sure I sounded to my colleagues much like Joan Didion must have sounded to Alix Kate Shulman, who had been so intimidated by the thought of eating alone in a hotel restaurant surrounded by men that she instead settled for “eating a doughnut in her hotel room”. “To ask the obvious,” Didion writes in a 1972 New York Times review, “why [Shulman] stayed in hotels where only doughnuts could be obtained from room service — was to join this argument at its own spooky level”.
My beloved Joan Didion, my fellow Sacramentan, would no doubt also be terrible as a member of any organizing committee. For part of the purpose of organizing any social event at all —of regenerating society through communal encounters— is to validate the individual participants both as members of society and as the sort of individuals they are. When the common unifying pursuit of a community falls out of sight, moreover, compensation for this loss appears to come in the form of increased attention to accommodating individual differences.
Not surprisingly, over the past few years, as more or less all organizations have lost sight of their earlier reason for being, from the American Philosophical Association to the CIA (or at least have strategically pretended to lose sight), the sortal criteria for individuality have become both extremely important and extremely fine-grained. Thus it is now reasonable, for example, to anticipate in advance the relative proportions of “veg” and “non-veg” attendees at an academic conference. To suggest anything in a more Didionic spirit, as that we might take our individuality into our own hands, and be as we are without expectation of accommodation, is to risk appearing oblivious to the opposite dialectical pole of community. The self-sequestering misanthrope who knows how to get good room service has not solved the problem of sexual harassment in public spaces; but the woman who is making do with doughnuts she does not really want could evidently also stand to take a lesson in self-reliance from its patron saint Joan.
But wherever we dwell most comfortably between these two poles, it is not at all clear that the push to make social spaces —spaces of encounters of difference— responsive in an exceedingly fine-grained way to individual differences, is ever going to succeed in eliminating the friction of these encounters, or that it should. It is not clear to me that recognition of social identities, for example of vegetarians, is salutary for the vegetarians themselves, let alone helpful to the non-human animals that purportedly explain the existence of this human social type. Transforming convictions into identities, I want to say, is in the end the most efficient way to neutralize these convictions, as it were to geld the bull of real change.
This is perhaps a suitable point at which to reveal that I am myself “a veg”. I have not eaten beef or pork for over thirty years; I’ve eaten chicken perhaps a dozen times in that same period; I used to eat fish irregularly, but stopped doing so a year ago; I also stopped eating dairy at the same time, and am now therefore a “vegan”. (I will explain my scare quotes in due course.)
I almost never bring up this fact about myself. No doubt relatedly, I am also extremely self-sequestering. Like Nabokov, I prefer to eat “alone, and in a reclining position”, and I disdain the theater and ritual of fine dining. I believe the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten is a Filet-O-Fish; as far as my senses —so sharply attuned to other things— can tell, it just doesn’t get any better than that. I am aware that many will say no one with such dull papilles as mine should be permitted to live in France; perhaps someone will notify the authorities and ask them to reconsider my citizenship dossier (currently in preparation). Here I will invoke in turn Michel Foucault, who in a 1979 interview admitted that there’s nothing he loves more than going to the US and ordering “a club sandwich and a Coke”: gulping it all down, not having to talk with anyone about whether it’s good or not, moving on to more interesting things like philosophy, or LSD. There is much of genius to emerge from France besides its food.
My own alimentary preferences and requirements anyhow seem to me like the least interesting thing in the world, and I find it undignified to have to talk about them, let alone to “identify” with them. There is a very familiar conversation, whose script we all probably know, and that goes: “Oh you’re a vegetarian?” “Yes.” “Is that for health reasons? Or is it ethical?” At this point I always want to say: “Do you have, say, eight to ten hours free for an initial session in which we spell out what we mean by “ethical”?” Instead, I say: “A bit of both, really”.
I won’t attempt exhaustively to define ethics here, but I will say that as far as I can see there is no plausible ethical system in which all and only human beings are bearers of moral status, and in which the moral status they bear is infinite. It simply cannot be the case that we have infinite responsibility towards every other individual human being, and zero responsibility towards the billions of fellow mammals that are slaughtered every year. I can find no meaningful conception of the idea of community that does not extend beyond the boundaries of our species, and I consider attempts to construct such a community both morally abject and deeply unecological. I consider factory farming the most abhorrent institution of the contemporary world, not only for what it does to the environment, but for what it does to each individual animal it commoditizes and kills. I believe that the most tragic step along the path towards this state of perpetual atrocity was the desacralization of animal slaughter and the removal of the site of slaughter away from the public view and into hidden abattoirs behind thick walls beyond the bounds of the city, as described in Noëlie Viallès’s excellent ethnographic study of slaughterhouses, From Animal to Edible.
Do I think killing animals is wrong simpliciter, in an absolute, context-free way, according to some Peter Singer-style neo-utilitarian calculus? Of course not! But I don’t think anything is wrong in that way — not animal slaughter, not war, not cannibalism. All of these things are perfectly natural, and our species has been fundamentally shaped through them. But any effort to read what we should be doing now from reconstructions of our pristine state will never amount to anything more than an ideological fantasy, and so, while I think we have sufficient evidence that evolution has given Homo sapiens a naturally omnivorous diet (enabling us to eat rats and roaches, for example, in addition to cereals and fruits), killing animals is still an atrocity here and now (as are war and cannibalism, of course), and should be utterly abolished and prohibited.
Effectively managing the downscaling of the planet’s massive cattle and pig populations will be a tremendous effort. The predicament we have created is not one we can just walk away from, any more than we can walk away from our nuclear power plants. Adapting ourselves would be considerably easier than we generally imagine. It is sometimes said of religious faith that no matter what your religion is, there are billions of non-coreligionists out there who take you for a de-facto atheist. Similarly it might be said that every non-vegetarian is nonetheless a non-meat-eater for the vast majority of meats, and is thus practically a vegetarian already. Other than the subcultures of macho lore where you will hear tales about “that time I ate aardvark”, “that time I ate yak balls”, and so on —always with the same juvenile effusiveness with which a frat-boy might tell of his personal Scoville-unit records in the consumption of hot sauce—, for the most part meat-eaters just keep circling back around the handful of domestic staples on which modern agribusiness is built: cows, pigs, chickens. Sheep and goats continue to prevail mostly in parts of the world where husbandry has not been thoroughly industrialized, and relatedly these are also the animals that today you might be more likely to see slaughtered in a ritual and sacral setting.
But you, carnivorous reader, I am guessing, will not eat a rat, and your squeamishness here puts the lie to neo-Rousseauian fantasies about the preferability of a “paleo” diet, or of the naturalness of our current alimentary regime. If a Paleolithic ancestor were suddenly to appear in the middle of a modern city, he would likely begin by devouring the squirrels and pigeons in the parks, the worms in the gutter; he would then move on to your cat, and perhaps to you as well. Now that’s a meat-eater. You, by contrast, are a product of a long civilizing process, which among other things has involved successive subtractions of points of contact with the natural world.
This means in part a successive reduction of the number of animal species with which you will have any relation at all, including the relation of “being eaten by”, so that now the only animals suitable for such a relation are the ones that are industrially bred and maintained for this purpose alone. This is not carnivorism in any sense that is continuous with the vast stretch of human history, let alone with the carnivorism observed in other species; it is an historical aberration, a blip not only in planetary history but in human recorded history as well, unsustainable, and unprojectable into any plausible near-future. I am thus optimistic that meat abolition can be pursued along the same sort of timeline, by the same sort of pressures and policy changes, that have led to the near-elimination of smoking within my lifetime, at least in significant portions of the world. And just as this process was aided by the innovative marketing of e-cigarettes, so too lab-generated animal tissue might be a useful transitional alternative.
As a committed anti-utilitarian, I am free to say, without fear of contradiction, that one and the same act, bringing about the same “quantity” of pain, can have very different moral qualities depending on the inner state of the agent; or rather, the inner state of the agent can bring it about that the act is not the same act at all. Thus to slaughter an animal with due prayerfulness, with inward gratitude and awareness of this life that is your life’s equal — this is fine. But if you think you can withhold these graces, because your life is valuable while the animal’s is not, then may that noble beast gore you to death instead, you damned sinner.
There might seem to be a “disconnect” here between my stern moralizing on the one hand, so unlike me!, and on the other the casual tone in which I suggest that my fellow conferenciers step out for a kebap. If I really believed what I am saying, wouldn’t the rational and morally justified next step be to go and join the extremists, to cut off my ties with the carnivores and to take up arms alongside my comrades in the Animal Liberation Front or its splinters or imitators?
Ross Douthat has worked out a coherent response to the same sort of accusations of insincerity against those who oppose abortion on moral grounds (thanks to Ross for helping me find this piece, which is older than I had recalled it being). The suspicion is ever present, he reflects, that “if we really believed abortion to be murder, really murder, we wouldn’t be incrementalists and small-r republicans on the issue; we would support violence, rebellion, nullification, secession, you name it.” Douthat appeals to Catholic just-war theory in responding that “we should have a strong bias in favor of peaceful deliberation so long as deliberation remains possible.” This all seems right enough, and transferable from the one “issue” to the other. Yet I cannot help but wonder: under what conditions is deliberation possible? As an initial stab at an answer, I would say: not the present ones.
Quite apart from the strategic inefficacy or self-defeating consequences of joining, say, ALF, it is not at all clear to me that our relationship to other animals and to the natural world is best conceived in terms borrowed from human social reality, where different interest groups, sometimes with competing interests, are variously defended, promoted, signal-boosted, and overridden. Come to think of it, I’m not sure human social reality in general should be conceived in this way. But this is effectively what deliberation is reduced to in an era in which the closest thing we have to a public sphere is a scattering of privately owned websites running on gamified incentives. And so, one wishes (say) to enter this pseudo-public sphere as a “vegan”. What does one do? One follows the right people, retweets the right things; if one is sufficiently literate one echoes those same things in one’s own slightly modified words. One puts “vegan” in one’s bio.
It seems to me that even in the best-case scenario the only effect of “identifying” in this way, on social media or on a conference questionnaire, is to enable others to neutralize your conviction by construing it as a choice of certain issues alongside other possible issues, taken up within a free market of ideas. This is the same market ideology that represents the sum of our individual choices as the fullest possible expression of our politics. But my own choices, as I’ve already insisted, are the least of things: my dietary habits should be of no interest to anyone, and will make no difference at all for the fate of the world. I will even acknowledge that at a strictly practical level some of my choices may well be incoherent — my diet is emphatically not the product of an effective-altruist calculus, but rather a strange blend of Kafka-like hunger artistry, neo-Stylitism, deep visceral horror at the very thought of factory farming, as well as at least some actual nutritional and ecological good sense.
It seems to me that selecting this issue as the one I would like to identify with, and publicly demonstrating consistent dietary behavior as a way of proving that my identification is sincere, is a course of action at best irrelevant, and at worst an impediment, to the pursuit of true world-changing deliberation. The fools and narcissists are many who, attracted to a movement such as animal rights, believe that the way their cause is to be pursued is precisely by putting it in their bios and making it their brand, by aggressively showing you how committed to animals they are, how resistant they are to deviationist tendencies from the vegan party line. This social spectacle of purity is repulsive — it literally repels anyone whose own narcissism has not already landed them in the same line of work.
So it is not that I am not a vegan, but only that I consider it wholly irrelevant to any discussion of humans and animals that I would like to have to invoke this fact about my diet. In the depauperate terms of contemporary pseudo-debate, I find that in speaking “as a vegan”, suddenly the thing I am speaking for no longer seems worth it. It now seems like an “issue”. It seems worthy of the mockery it so often gets, the back-burner treatment, the deprioritization. Even whales —whales— start to seem like something no longer worth saving when “Save the Whales” becomes a slogan, and the only way to articulate how fully equal to us whales are is to adopt a language that will sound to others like the language of bumperstickers. This language is repulsive; it keeps things as they are. It keeps naval sonar bathymetry going and whales driving themselves to unsurvivable depths to escape the sound. I feel if we could really speak of the lives of whales, of who they are for themselves, such things would cease, both the mockery and the bathymetry.
I’ve been trying for some years to make the case for our shared political community with animals and plants, and have believed that this case, if I can get it across, will be far more powerful than any slogan I might adopt or any cause I might put in my bio. Sometimes I fear that the only real result is to come across as slippery and cagey, never really committing to any group that might in fact be helped by my involvement.
In an interview around the same period as the one cited above, Foucault was asked whether he is a Marxist, or a post-structuralist, or what? “I am a historian of science,” he replied, slipping away again. And then there is dour Joan again with her room service, door slammed shut to the fellow women who could really use her solidarity; perhaps she is articulating truths in there, but she is alone, alone. It seems to me that in that same 1972 review (published the exact same day I was born) she manages to articulate something true about womanhood, “that sense of living one’s deepest life under water, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death.” But she does so by turning her back on any hope of sisterly solidarity, by abjuration of slogans. (I am not a woman, so decide for yourself.)
It is noteworthy that in this era, when we rarely see bumperstickers anymore (I rarely even see t-shirts in pandemic-era Paris), the principal site for the insertion of one’s social-sorting slogans is one’s social-media “bio”, and perhaps also the “short bio” one might be asked to send by the organizers of Zoom-events.
In Greek antiquity a bios was a genre of writing that told of the life of an exceptional individual in as much richness as possible. This would later give way to “biography”: “life-writing”. In the late eighteenth century some of the very earliest occurrences of the word “biology” (or its Latin, French, and German cognates) had precisely the same meaning: to articulate a “biology” was to “give an account of a life in accordance with reason”. But soon the term was adjusted for giving an account of life in general, rather than of a particular life, and “biography” and “biology” —though as similar to one another as “geography” and “geology” are to each other— would appear to have nothing in common.
And now when we “give our bio”, our connection to living nature is the last thing on our minds. What is on our minds, often, is “politics”. But politics isn’t even human anymore, let alone animal; it’s algorithmic. And under such conditions the community we share with other beings cannot be meaningfully deliberated upon, cannot be expressed in terms that will make it matter. Under such conditions there may be no other move than for morality to decouple itself from politics, and for anyone who takes up a moral calling to turn their back, close the door, and at least try to come up with something new and true to say.