Against meat (but not eggs and dairy?)
Jonathan Safran Foer published a thoughtful article in the New York Times this week about his journey towards vegetarianism. I have some issues with it, which I’ll get into at the end, but I’m nevertheless pleased that this got published. It’s the most eloquent and culturally aware piece I’ve read on vegetarianism in quite some time.
First, he does a good job of exposing the absurdity of torturing and killing a sentient being merely because we like the way it tastes:
This isn’t animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Yet taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.
He also summarizes the frightening environmental factors at play, as well as the fact that labels like “free range” and “cage free” are pretty much bullshit in terms of animal welfare.
Once a person recognizes that going veg is “the right thing to do” (in as far as we tend to see our personal ethics as universal), it’s another thing to actually carry it out after a lifetime spent chowing down on delicious “hurt chickens.” He spills a lot of ink describing his imperfect attempts at cutting out meat over the course of his life, which I think is important. Just because you fail a bunch of times in a row doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up over it or give up. Having children, Foer says, was what ultimately inspired him and his wife to give up meat for good:
Children confront us with our paradoxes and dishonesty, and we are exposed. You need to find an answer for every why — Why do we do this? Why don’t we do that? — and often there isn’t a good one. So you say, simply, because. Or you tell a story that you know isn’t true. And whether or not your face reddens, you blush. The shame of parenthood — which is a good shame — is that we want our children to be more whole than we are, to have satisfactory answers. My children not only inspired me to reconsider what kind of eating animal I would be, but also shamed me into reconsideration.
That paragraph was so good it almost made me want to squeeze a few out myself (almost).
He also paints a vivid picture of his grandmother’s relationship with food. An argument often leveled against vegetarianism is that it’s somehow offensive to one’s cultural past. “How dare you not eat your grandmother’s chicken?” But Foer sees that it’s not really about what they’re eating (and in fact, he admits, her chicken was not objectively very good), but the fact that she made it for them, with love. Flavors are pegged to memories, but it’s the memories that matter. There’s no reason you can’t create sensory traditions and move your bloodline towards a more virtuous future at the same time. I love the way he weaves family into the story, especially in the end when he describes how his grandmother, a Jewish World War Two refugee, stuck to her moral guns even in the face of death:
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”
Although I have a tough time equating religious superstition with more logical motivations, his grandmother’s refusal to abandon her core beliefs even to potentially save her own life serves as a pretty strong example to those who would do something they know/feel is wrong in exchange for a few minutes of tasty time. It also puts it in terms that readers who engage in (or at least respect) religion are likely to understand.
However, I have an important question for Foer: why not vegan? He cops to knowing “cage free” and “free range” labels are pretty much meaningless, so I have no doubt he’s aware of the suffering that goes on at commercial egg and dairy farms in addition to meat farms. Why not, then, take the next logical step and cut out those products as well? Is it because the animals aren’t raised explicitly for slaughter? (Though make no bones about it, they are all eventually slaughtered.) This wouldn’t make sense, as Foer takes no issue with killing an animal to eat it, only with the way in which animals are treated (though I would argue that there’s no such thing as a painless death, and even if there was, it’s still not cool to cut a happy life short just cause you feel like getting your grill on). I can think of two reasons why he doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of veganism:
1) Foer has yet to complete his moral journey towards “not hurting anything” and knows it, but doesn’t want to discuss it here because it would mar his perfect narrative of moral maturation, making the article excessively long and messy.
2) Foer actually is a vegan, but either he or his editor thought that would be perceived as too “extreme” a stance for the New York Times’ readership.
Puzzling omission of veganism aside, it’s a good piece and one that bears reading, forwarding, sharing with your mom, etc. I’m even starting to feel inspired to tackle the subject myself. I will admit that I’ve avoided writing about veganism in the past at least in part because it would necessitate a casting off of that postmodern whatever-shrug I tend to adopt when I’m trying to be funny (which is most of the time), despite the fact that I’m actually a great big nerd who cares way too much about shit. But I’ve been giving myself a little more credit than that lately, so you can probably expect some “serious” (but hopefully still un-boring) stories from me soon. Aren’t I just a multifaceted fucking gemstone?