The sanctimonious carnivore

I really don’t want to turn this into the all vegetarianism all the time blog. For one thing, I do have other interests. For another, I can only assume most readers don’t like being hectored about their dietary choices all the time. Plus, I’ve never been the proselityzing type.

But for whatever reason there seems to be a lot of stuff on the topic lately. Like this from the Post:

The path to becoming a more conscious carnivore has become a publishing industry trendlet. This spring also saw the release of “The Compassionate Carnivore: Or How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat,” by Catherine Friend (Da Capo, May 1), and “The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers,” by Scott Gold (Broadway Books, March 18). All three follow on the heels of last year’s critically acclaimed launch of a quarterly magazine, Meatpaper, which aims to assess the American “fleischgeist.”

The books address a topic that has long been taboo among carnivores. Many of them prefer not to think too much about the moral, ethical and environmental implications of eating meat. But recent exposés about inhumane treatment of food animals have made it harder for thinking meat-eaters to put such thoughts aside. At the same time, artisanal charcuterie, grass-fed beef and, most of all, bacon have become “it” foods for chefs and chowhounds.

As I’ve said repeatedly that I’m all for people eating less meat and eating more sustainable and humanely-raised meat. For one thing, there is, as I’m fond of quoting Andrew Linzey, no “pure land” on which to stand; I, for one, not being a vegan am responsible in part for the male chicks and male calves who are killed as “byproducts” of the egg and dairy industries (and that’s true even if you stick to cage-free eggs and organic dairy products). And even thoroughgoing vegans compete with animals for resources. So, no one here is in a position to cast stones.

I can’t help, though, but pick a few nits with some of the claims put forward by the new breed of compassionate carnivores. For instance:

Gold’s tale is likeably swashbuckling. (Chef and gustatory adventurer Anthony Bourdain clearly is one of his heroes.) But he doesn’t shy away from the meat of the matter. For Gold, being “shameless” means eating meat without shame, not eating it in a way that’s unprincipled or corrupt, the word’s secondary definition. “To be a real carnivore, a true carnivore, you have to be conscientious and discerning,” Gold says. “Eat good meat and source it well. Acknowledge where it comes from. And respect the fact that the animal died for your dinner.”

“The Compassionate Carnivore” takes a more nuanced approach. Author Friend paints a picture of her life on a sheep farm in Zumbrota, Minn., and provides a guide on how to be both an animal lover and an animal eater. In a chapter titled “Letter to the Lambs,” she writes: “Tomorrow morning, when we load you onto the trailer for your trip to the abattoir, we will be thinking about the life you’ve lived on this farm — running around the pasture at dusk, sleeping in the sun, and grazing enthusiastically for the tenderest bits of grass. We will say out loud, ‘Thank you.’ ”

This sort of pseudo-mystical talk about “thanking” the animals we kill for food reminds me a little too much of Rene Girard’s theory of the scapegoat. As you may recall, Girard proposes that the myths of many cultures are actually ways of covering up, or forgetting about, the murders of innocent victims. They posthumously turn the unwilling victims into quasi-divine sources of mystical power, power to heal the divisions within a community. This power is real in a sense because the scapegoat mechanism is the means by which conflicts within a community are defused – rivalry threatening to turn into violent conflict is focused on one, arbitrarily chosen victim whose “expulsion” restores, for a time at least, comity and peace.

Similarly, I can’t help but see the image of the animal who we “thank” for their “sacrifice” as a cover up of what is, if we’re being honest, the killing of an unwilling victim. Obscuring that fact strikes me as dishonest. Maybe it says something about our bad conscience that we feel the need to sanctify it this way.

Better, I think, is Karl Barth’s perspective:

If there is a freedom of man to kill animals, this signifies in any case the adoption of a qualified and in some sense enhanced responsibility. If that of his lordship over the living beast is serious enough, it takes on a new gravity when he sees himself compelled to express his lordship by depriving it of its life. He obviously cannot do this except under the pressure of necessity. Far less than all the other things which he dares to do in relation to animals, may this be ventured unthinkingly and as though it were self-evident. He must never treat this need for defensive and offensive action against the animal world as a natural one, nor include it as a normal element in his thinking and conduct. He must always shrink from the possibility even when he makes use of it. It always contains the sharp counter-question: Who are you, man, to claim that you must venture this to maintain, support, enrich and beautify your own life? What is there in your life that you feel compelled to take this aggressive step in its favour? We cannot but be reminded of the perversion from which the whole historical existence of the creature suffers and the guilt of which does not really reside in the beast but ultimately in man himself. (Quoted in Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 130)

Barth’s point here seems to be that killing shouldn’t be taken lightly or prettified or dressed up with some kind of nature mysticism. Whatever we may feel required to do under the pressure of necessity, it’s important to recognize that killing is not God’s ultimate will for creation, even if it is permitted under some circumstances (the analogy with Barth’s view of war as an ultima ratio is clear).

Further on, vegetarians are scolded for not playing the compassionate meat game:

“People who become complete vegetarians for the sake of animals are basically getting up from the table and leaving the room. Although they might work to help better animals’ lives through their words, those words won’t keep a sustainable farmer in business,” she writes in a chapter called “Making a Difference.” “Flexitarians, vegetarians who eat meat occasionally, are remaining at the table. Carnivores who choose to go meatless now and then are remaining at the table.”

Here’s the thing. While I’m all for supporting sustainable agriculture, veggies who think it’s wrong to kill an animal needlessly for food aren’t in the business of supporting animal agriculture. That doesn’t mean that sustainable farms aren’t preferable – for animals and people – to factory farms, but it’s an odd argument to accuse principled vegetarians of not wanting to make meat eating more palatable (pardon the expression).

Plus, there’s nothing stopping vegetarians from supporting sustainable agriculture and/or moves toward more humane forms of animal husbandry. Buying vegetables and other non-meat products from local farmers is one very good way. One can also support measures to reform animal agriculture even if one doesn’t consume its products. For instance, I’m happy to support the efforts of groups like the Humane Society, which are reformist rather than abolitionist organizations. I’m not sure that the complete abolition of animal agriculture is either possible or desirable, so I consider the efforts of these groups to ameliorate the worst abuses of factory farming to be good and necessary. Why is that “getting up from the table”?

OK I’ll try and make that my last shrill vegetarian post for a while. 🙂

4 thoughts on “The sanctimonious carnivore

  1. Similarly, I can’t help but see the image of the animal who we “thank” for their “sacrifice” as a cover up of what is, if we’re being honest, the killing of an unwilling victim. Obscuring that fact strikes me as dishonest.

    Thanking an animal for dying to feed you (or otherwise consecrating/sacralizing the act of killing, especially related to hunting) has a long and storied history across cultures, and has an especially rich history in indigenous practices in the Americas. I think many modern Christians are unable to speak to the issue because our own theological sensibilities get in the way. We have a tendency to compartmentalize everything rather than seeing a sense of transcendent unity in the world of nature.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it loses some of its power if you are simply at the meat counter thanking a nameless bull for providing you with a t-bone, but the idea of being connected to that which provides you sustenance is something I have long thought people needed to recover. I really do believe that this is part of what the self-sufficiency movement is all about:re-connecting with the earth and its resources in a substantive (perhaps even mystical) way.

  2. LP, that’s an interesting point and something worth thinking about some more. Is it proper, as Christians, to approach nature in a “mystical” way? Or, maybe more precisely, what would a Christian “nature mysticism” look like? I do think there’s something to be said for receivng nature’s gifts with a spirit of thankfulness – but to whom is that thankfulness properly directed? And how should the idea of the Fall affect our thinking about a spirituality of the natural world?

    At any rate, I’d certainly be inclined to cut Native Americans – killing under necessity and living much closer to the land as the were – a lot more slack here than modern urbanized gourmands.

  3. Pingback: Press and web reports up to February 2009 | Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics

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