What’s For Dinner?

The New York Times recently had a series on rabbits as a source of food. They ran, among other things, an article about community workshops on slaughtering rabbits and a Q&A with a rabbit farmer. And the response in comments was extremely interesting. Tristan (who keeps pet rabbits) and I were talking about the series and he said that  “the rabbits have SO MUCH character” talking about the rabbits in the accompanying photo slideshow. A vegetarian for most of his life, he added “I never used to get ill at the sight people cooking meat until I had pets. Now I see meat and think of mr bunny man.”

A tawny bunny playing in the snow, viewed from the side.

(Photo by Flickr user Madeleine_)

Most of us here in the United States see a rabbit and we do not see food. Rabbits are pets, surely! Or they are wild animals. Rabbit does crop up on menus now and then, sometimes to protest from customers, and some butchers do sell it, but by and large it’s not a common meat, in contrast with cow, pig, and chicken. Other meats we don’t see commonly on offer in the US: horse, dog, cat.

Commenters on the New York Times site came up with all kinds of rationales for why it’s ok to eat some animals, but not others. Others challenged viewing any nonhuman animals as a source of food.

What is comes down to, though, is cultural aversions. People in some cultures are raised thinking of some animals of food and others as not-food, and these values are deep. I’ve eaten rabbit and horse, but I can’t see myself eating cat or dog, ever. I can make blustering arguments about food chain efficiency and so forth, but what it really comes down to is a cultural aversion to viewing some animals as food.

My position on meat is paradoxical and entangled. I believe that eating industrially produced meat is wrong. I believe that all animals have character and it pains me to see images of animals on factory farms, to see expressive and fascinating and sensitive and intelligent living beings confined in unpleasant conditions for the sole purpose of ending up on my plate. It bothers me.

And at this point, I do eat mostly vegetarian at home. But not entirely. Because I cannot disentangle myself from meat. And thus, I have a hard time with conversations like this. I believe that eating meat is wrong, but I do it. As a hypocrite, am I really qualified to criticize people with strong cultural aversions to eating certain animals? And why is it that people cling to their justifications, instead of simply admitting that, yes, there are cultural differences involved here? And how is it possible to have an ethical stance on something and directly contradict it at the dinner table? (Because of compartmentalization, evidently.)

The struggle over eating meat is one which intrigues me because it seems to be one of the few areas in which multiple facets of social justice intersect and some grey areas are allowed, in part I think because many people, like me, are attached to their meat and want to find a way to justify meat consumption. Rather than being about vegetarianism versus omnivorism, it incorporates more complicated questions, like whether or not it’s possible to raise and slaughter animals humanely, to produce animal products without suffering, and whether or not animals should be ranked on a hierarchy.

Everyone needs to eat; not everyone needs to eat meat. But the meat argument is still intensely personal for many people. And a fair amount of criticism and mud gets slung when people start arguing over the nitty gritty details. Much of the argument also ignores issues such as poverty (which limits ethical food buying choices) and disabilities (which can limit cooking ability or create dietary restrictions). Even as the movement intersects with environmentalism, animal welfare, and food politics, it excludes other perspectives which might be brought to bear on the debate.

Some of these perspectives are probably excluded because they are inconvenient. For someone living below the poverty line, most arguments about food politics take place in the abstract. You can believe certain things about food but you can’t act on those beliefs because it is expensive to do so. And despite the challenges which middle class people occasionally embark upon in which they try to eat below the poverty line for a month, many of these people don’t seem to understand the complexities of  being poor. It’s easy to eat below the poverty line for a month when you still have access to varied food choices via a car and time to shop. It’s easy, too, when you have the time to do things like making stews which can be stretched over several days. And when you know that an end is in sight; you may have a rough time for a month, but then you can go back to your routine.

Simulations often fail because while they may provide people with some perspective, they do  not actually put people in the shoes (or lack thereof) of others. It is really difficult to truly understand the perspective of a lived experience you have not lived; I’d like to see some of these people completing food challenges while living in food deserts. Cooking on a hotplate. Living without a refrigerator. Working 80 hours a week, raising children, and managing a disability. Not having access to a kitchen at all.

And then I would like to see them actually integrating different perspectives into the larger argument about meat, ethics, and dietary choices. Because this is a large and complicated discussion.