Over at Deeply Problematic, RMJ recently wrote about a logical inconsistency which is a personal failing of mine: eating meat. Her post, “On being an unethically meat-eating feminist,” is a good read, and I’m not going to bother to try and summarize it here. It’s a quick read, she explores the issue in some interesting ways, and while the ultimate conclusion on the issue I reached is a little different from hers, I definitely respect where she’s coming from.
I should note, as a general disclaimer, that the conclusion I reach in this post is for me, personally. It is not meant to be an indictment or condemnation of anyone else; I’m talking about a complex issue with a lot of nuances, from an entirely personal perspective. Other people may share this conclusion with me, and that’s terrific, but people may also disagree with me, and have lots of valid points for argument. In other words, if what you read offends or upsets you, know that I’m not talking about you, here, I’m talking about me, and that the issue being discussed here has no one right answer. Although I would observe that I tend to react most violently to things which cut too close to home, so an intense reaction is something well worth examining.
Very well, disclaimer over, let’s begin.
How can a feminist who claims to be opposed to structural oppression support a system which relies on structural oppression to survive? How can an environmentalist who claims to care about the environment and is fully aware of the environmental damage caused by industrial meat production eat meat? How can an animal welfare advocate who walks out of films or stops reading books when animal cruelty is depicted eat meat?
I’ve been mulling this issue ever since I read RMJ’s post. I thought about any number of justifications for my actions, and wrote some flowery prose, but the ultimate conclusion I reached is that, being a feminist, environmentalist, and animal welfare advocate, my decision to eat meat and animal products is inherently hypocritical. There is no point in trying to hide, rationalize, or justify it. Simply put, I think that eating meat and animal products is wrong, there’s a whole slew of reasons why it’s wrong, I was a vegetarian and later a vegan for years, and yet I now eat meat and animal products.
It cannot be justified.
But it does provide an opportunity to explore the extreme compartmentalization involved in recognizing that eating meat is wrong, yet continuing to do it. Humans have evolved a pretty high ability to compartmentalize. You essentially have to in order to survive, because actually feeling everything all the time would become unbearable, quickly oversaturating you. I have to be able to read a horrific article about child rape and go to work three minutes later, and stick that article in a dark, private place to examine later. I have to recognize that at every minute of every day, horrible things are happening all over the world, horrible things are probably happening to people I know, but I cannot feel that, because if I did, I would become totally nonfunctional.
I’ve often argued that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, which makes me paradoxically part of a problem I claim to be trying to fight. I think that abuse of nonhuman animals is unacceptable. The torment of animals raised for sport, food, entertainment, research, and other human whims is despicable. There are no degrees of torture to me; I view the deliberate torture of an animal as morally equivalent to torturing a human (although I know that others will disagree with me, which is a separate issue). I also believe that non-willful torment, such as confinement in industrial agriculture, repeated breedings in puppy mills, being raced to death on the track, is also despicable. I believe that attempting to justify torment of nonhuman animals in the name of science, or entertainment, or nutrition is morally bankrupt.
Yet, I deliberately feed into a system which I find despicable. And the simple reason for it is that I enjoy meat and animal products, and I lack the personal will to stop eating commercially produced animal products, because I want to eat animal products, and humane sources for everything I want to eat are not available. (Have you ever tried to find humane-certified Brie?!) I should point out that ethically I do not have a problem with raising animals for milk, eggs, and meat; I do not view humane, rapid death as a form of torture and have in fact slaughtered animals for food. I do have a problem with raising animals in a way which invites or demands cruelty, and doing so in a way which is environmentally harmful. So, I’m not opposed to eating animal products and meat on ethical grounds, just to participating in commercial agriculture. However, I do recognize that other people believe that killing/raising animals for food is morally wrong, period, no matter how it’s done, and I respect that and think that there are some very good supporting arguments for that belief.
And, the thing is, veganism and vegetarianism are actually relatively recent introductions in the animal rights movement. Cleveland Amory, one of my all time personal animal rights heroes, openly ate meat and animal products, and relates an anecdote from the early days of the adoption of vegan diets by animal rights activists when employees of the Black Beauty Ranch, who cared deeply about animal rights and believed that all life should be respected, expressed amazement when a crew of visiting animal rights activists cooked a vegan meal. Veganism and vegetarianism in the West started primarily as an outgrowth of the health foods movement, not as a wing of the animal welfare movement (though of course there are examples of animal welfare advocates historically who did refrain from eating animal products).
In other words, compartmentalization is not new. There’s a long history of sitting down for a steak dinner and engaging in animal welfare advocacy or animal rights activism after dessert. Of openly serving meat and other animal products at animal welfare events and fundraisers, even! It’s an ethical issue which many people in the movement have struggled with, just as feminists have recognized that eating meat is problematic if they truly care about systems of oppression, and environmentalists have seen that radical reductions in meat eating would benefit the environment tremendously, so maybe they should stop eating meat.
There are justifications on all sides of the issue. If we didn’t raise animals for food, they wouldn’t exist! I say, fine, better to not exist than to live a life of torment and fear, and I feel the same way about companion animals who are bred and then discarded to die on the streets. I need to eat meat for my health! Actually, not so much; most people can fulfill their dietary needs from an animal-free diet, although they may need the advice of an experienced nutritionist. Farm animals and companion animals are different! or I view nonhuman animals in differing categories, and have more sympathy for animals in some categories than others! To that I say, life is life. If you believe that living organisms should have the right to live freely and happily, their species should be irrelevant. A cow and a cat are morally equivalent in my eyes, not least because in some cultures, it’s morally unacceptable to eat cows, and in others, it’s morally unacceptable to eat cats.
I’m not necessarily sure that I am willing to cede the moral high ground to vegans and vegetarians (who are vegan and vegetarian for lots of reasons, not just ethical ones), because I think this is a complicated issue. I am definitely not willing to sit down and be told that I “don’t care enough” or “don’t care,” period, about nonhuman animals because I choose to eat meat and animal products. I freely and openly recognize that I am a raging hypocrite, and it is something I struggle with every time I grate Parmesan cheese, roast a chicken, eat shrimp fried rice. If I was a better person, I would at least be making all of my animal product purchases from ethical sources, rather than just some of them, even if I couldn’t commit to a vegan or vegetarian diet. That doesn’t mean that my ethical beliefs about the treatment of nonhuman animals are invalidated, or that I am not allowed to talk about animal welfare issues. Just like the fact that I own and drive a car doesn’t mean that I can’t support public transit, or can’t encourage walking/biking friendly spaces. If we threw everyone with logical inconsistencies and ethical failings out of social justice movements, they’d be pretty empty. Likewise, if we excluded everyone who didn’t agree with us from the movements we are involved in, the size of the movement would shrink radically.
Unlike RMJ, I don’t think that meat eating (or the consumption of other animal products) is an inherently antifeminist act. I think that eating meat can be reconcilable with feminism if it is done in the right way. I am not doing it in the right way. This is something which I need to remedy.
Sure, this could be written off as a scramble for justification because I feel uncomfortable with being a hypocrite and I am trying to make myself out as less of one. But, the thing is, I know I’m a hypocrite, I don’t enjoy being attacked for it by sanctimonious people, I’m not trying to hide it, and I am every bit as willing to work to improve animal welfare as someone who is not a hypocrite about animal welfare issues. Do you want to have a holier than thou movement, or an inclusive one? Do you want people like me to recognize, fight, and perhaps overcome our hypocrisy, or to believe that we shouldn’t bother at all if we can’t be the right kind of activist? The same whiff of elitism which contaminates the food movement is a big problem in the animal welfare movement; sure, it would be better if no one ate animals and animal products, but kids, that ain’t gonna happen, so let’s try to make it better.
Are you telling me that there’s not a single logical inconsistency in your life?