Raising the steaksApril 18, 2009
Was discussing with a similarly red-blooded friend yesterday how we could each happily go vegetarian if it weren’t for the love of a bloody good steak. Or a good bloody steak, more to the point.
Even so, it behoves us to continue to consider the ecological and moral impact of eating meat, I think.
So I read this Salon article with interest, an interview with Jeffrey Masson, the author of “The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food“.
He’s rather more emphatic than the omnivore-friendly Michael Pollan, and certainly more in-your-face than David Foster Wallace (whose essay on the lobster I love precisely because of the way he canvasses his own uncertainty about these matters).
Rather, Masson takes the Peter Singer approach of total veganism as the only moral way to live. I’ve only read this one interview with Masson, and already find his voice deeply irritating (elsewhere I see that he is the kind of person who says things like “When I was teaching Sanskrit at the University of Toronoto in the 1970s …” – of course he was teaching Sanskrit…)
But sad to say, I can’t find much fault with his logic. It seems pretty basic – and like Foster Wallace, he’s convincing about carnivores’ denial being the only thing that allows us to keep chowing down on cow:
… so many more people now want to eat organic and local and fresh, and that’s all to the good. However, I notice, and what I find wonderful is in these organic farmers markets sprouting up all over the country, you rarely see animals.
I think part of the reason for that is people don’t want to see it. It’s not like a market in France where you can go and choose a chicken, and they kill it for you right there. We do not like to be reminded of where our meat comes from.
Later, he elaborates on this denial:
What is the difference between a pig and a dog in terms of cognitive abilities, ability to be clean and affectionate? Pigs would sleep at the foot of your bed if you allowed them. They’re very clean. They love to be stroked. They’re affectionate. The difference between a pig and a dog in terms of their emotion, not at all. In terms of their willingness to accept us as a kind of co-species, also nothing. In fact, they’re closer to us in a way than cats. You can call the pig, and the pig will come.
The only difference is that we have decided, in our great wisdom, that we are going to eat them, and we’re not going to treat them as pets. We’re not going to name them. They’re going to grow on farms. They’re a commodity for us. They’re not a living, sentient being. We don’t see them, we don’t look into the eye of a pig and see another being there.
Where do you think that this denial comes from?
I think that every society has always had a certain amount of guilt when it comes to killing an animal. Look at indigenous Americans. They used to do ceremonies. They took it very seriously. It was not something that they engaged in lightly. And I think that the explanation for that is not a religious explanation. It’s because they felt bad about killing them.
Anybody with any kind of feelings, with any kinds of sentiment, goes out and if they have to kill an animal, they feel bad about it.
For most of us, the experience of eating meat is pretty sanitized. We don’t have to kill the animal, and as you say we don’t have to call it what it is when we eat it.
We change the name. We call it “hamburger.” What kind or resonance does the word “hamburger” have for you? None. They don’t say: “Give me the cow.” They don’t say: “Pass the pig.” They say: “Give me bacon.” “Veal,” even.
This last bit reminds me of a friend’s shamefaced guilt a few years ago in allowing her small daughter to go on believing that ham “comes from” pigs in the way that eggs come from chickens, or milk from cows. Not that Mr Masson lets us get away with thinking milk or eggs are okay, either, damn it all.
Oh lord. What’s there to say, if you don’t want to join the ranks of hippie-hating Shooters Party types but still want to eat steak? Think I’ll go running back to Michael Pollan …