Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Politics of Meat

I basically agree that eating meat in itself is not immoral, at least that is what I have told myself as I continue to eat it. For me, the issue is the "way" in which we currently raise animals and slaughter them--factory style, injecting drugs, inhumane (kind of a stupid word, but at least it communicates a sense) conditions, environmental pollution, issues of sustainability...

Has anyone read Michel Faber's brilliant novel Under the Skin that acts as a parable about factory style slaughter of animals (in the dystopian tradition of 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Lord of Flies, We)--allowing us to see it from the animal's viewpoint (particularly vivid for a male perspective).

Melissa, who is a vegetarian, has Carol Adam's The Sexual Politics of Meat sitting by our computer as I write this and the first chapter "The Patriarchal Texts of Meat" has very vivid examples of how we raise our food and what we eat plays a strong role in our attitude toward our fellow humans (in Adam's case of men toward women--which she demonstrates with visual advertisements that sexualize meat eating).

Many Holocaust survivors made strong connections between their experiences and the factory style breeding and slaughtering of animals, becoming vegetarian/vegan as a result. Richard Rubenstein in his brilliant book The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the the American Future makes the same point in the development of a ruthlessly efficient technocratic-bureaucratic order that understands only the bottom-line of efficiency--the most bang for your buck. As a reader of Rubenstein's book states:

Modernity laid the foundation, and bureaucracy provided the means. Bureaucracy's roots are deep in military organization. Both require a hierarchical structure with decisions made only at the top. Both require layers of non-individuals who follow orders without thought or input, even if the end of the process is massive death. We were (are) just following orders. Just let me do my job. Don't bother me. Bombing cities, manufacturing cigarettes, dealing drugs, killing the earth become matters not of choice but of necessity. To make a moral judgment - any moral judgment - is to set oneself outside society.

Can we make the same assumption along the lines of those who work in the trade of factory style slaughter--anyone see the recent videos of the chicken factory workers in the Kentucky Fried Chicken scandal? Furthermore, anyone who has choosen the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle understands very vividly how our society treats anyone who chooses to step outside its dominant order.

If we can understand the setting up of camps for the apatrides (history being repeated in the "War on Terror") as leading to the atrocities of the concentration camps of WWII, could we also make the argument for the development of factory style slaughtering of animals as a step in the same direction?

Cunning of History

Giorgio Agamben in "The Open: Man and Animal", "Means Without Ends," and "State of Exception" has been wrestling with these philosophical issues. A review of his work states:

1. There is a certain humanist line of thinking that suggests that violence is invariably accompanied by what can be described as ‘dehumanisation.’ According to this standpoint, the instigator of violence suspends the humanity of his or her victim, in order to circumvent the ethical deterrents that would normally prevent the use of violence. In many respects this strikes us as true: the human subject of violence is frequently ‘objectified,’ they are treated as ‘pigs,’ ‘vermin,’ ‘dogs,’ as sub-human. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the greatest acts of violence against humans appear to be accompanied by a dehumanisation that is of commensurate intensity. The Holocaust was no exception to this. Dehumanisation was found in the Nazi labour and extermination camps, not only in the forms of violence and death prevalent there (for example cattle cars and mass exterminations), but in the plight of those in the camps, who as a result of starvation, brutal working conditions, indignity and violence, are said to have lost touch with their ‘humanity.’ A survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau recalls: "You could watch human beings turning into animals" (Volkel in Steinhoff, Pechel and Showalter, 1991: 236).

2. The humanist will say "Stop treating humans like animals: respect the human and violence will not be possible." But there is alternative line of thinking that responds in an apparently oblique way to the humanist: "Stop treating animals like we treat animals; then it will not be possible to treat humans like animals." Understood in this fashion, human violence represents not only a capacity for dehumanisation alone, but is tied closely to the justification of violence against the non-human. This reflects not only the capacity for humans to harm each other, but draws attention to the sustained incarceration, torture and violence that is directed towards animals in slaughterhouses, experimental laboratories and factory farms. It was perhaps this line of thinking that prompted novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer to observe "In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."

Should we introduce the concerns of animals into the "political sphere"? How disconnected must we be from the environment to think that they do not deserve the same considerations that humans do... is our domination, exploitation and mistreatment a sign of our collective (in)sanity. If we can make a designation of the slippery slope of the "state of exception" leading to the destructive depersonalization of humans, can we not delineate that same process in our treatment of animals?:

Giorgio Agamben: Means Without Ends


Susannity! (Susanne) said...

hmmm, i don't know how i feel about some of those parallelisms. i will have to think on it some more. while i have often thought of the welfare of food animals, the hard truth it comes down to is that we are omnivores. how to reconcile that and our love of animals is a tough one.

Airplane Radio said...

I agree with Susanne. I don't condone animanl abuse but in some cases sooner or later, he will be killed. I love meat. I freakin' love it. I love it so much that if a buddy says they want to go vegetarian, I simply say "No". (Although I'm just joshing them.)

Of course we shouldn't slam chickens across the wall.

Still, I hate PETA. With a passion.

Thivai Abhor said...


I start this off by stating that I am a meat eater (although less and less these days as I learn more about the process), so I sympathize with your position... I generally prefer animals to humans as they are generally much more intelligent and rational, so I have a difficult time rationalizing them as inferior beings.

I do not believe that humans are plant eaters that fell from grace and became meat eaters, but I am very concerned about our detachment from the process of meat production and the extreme abuses of animals in factory-style production and the dangers to humans from this process.


Just to think about this... If we are not concerned about the production of meat and just say "bring it on," does through your choices are you not condoning "animal abuse"?

What would you say to Melissa who has been a vegetarian for a decade--would you tell her "no"?

Thanks for both of your opinions... I'm still struggling with this--its a deep moral/ethical concern of mine and it is not easy map out (being so disconnected to the processing of both my meat and plant food)

Airplane Radio said...

Well Thivai, you have to understand you're talking to a person that eats veal and loves it. Even if it was called "Tortured Baby Cow" on the menu, it won't stop me from adding marinara on it.

So maybe I'm a heartless guy. I could say get people to inspect the way workers treat animals in these houses, but I still like veal, something that people consider immoral. I guess I'm struggling to. I just don't want any animal people to blow up my kitchen because they don't like my lunch. Animals kill each other in the most gruesome ways, to eat, don't they? The one takes that comment depends if they belive in some hierarchy between the animal and human. I'm sort of turning atheist these days so I don't see a ladder like that.

I would only tell Melissa no if she knew I was joking. It's ones perogative if they want to be a vegetarian of course! Eating flesh isn't the default of human sustinence.

jessica, from down the hall said...

I don't think that eating meat is immoral, either, because it's natural. But I think that the acceptibilty of producing masses of animals for cheap consumption by humans who are eerily detached from the process of how we get "meat" is very disturbing, indeed. I'm still thinking over the parallels, too (and am thinking that I wouldn't make them), but I do agree that this is predicated on a hierarchy that feels almost as constructed and arbitrary as hierarchies that are based on race, class, and gender. (Or at least, constructed in the same way.)

We need a word that conveys the same sense as "inhumane" without reinforcing the hierarchy that separates human animals from non-human animals.

I became a vegetarian 15 years ago, at 12. I was living with a meat-and- potatoes family in a rural town, and it was very difficult to constantly validate my decision. In most people's opinions, I wasn't just taking an unpopular stance on an issue, but was also creating the very issue, itself. I didn't call myself "vegetarian" for a few years because I didn't want to be the person who was challenging their social conventions. (I was only 12!) I felt like I was imposing my ethics on others just by naming them. How odd, to think that I was that sold on (and intimidated by) that community's inflexibility.

Neha said...

Let me state this first. I am a vegetarian, and no, it isn't out of a moral choice.

I was brought up in a family where vegetarianism was a norm. And I don't think any less of people who eat meat. However, as an animal lover, I have concerns about the way we treat animals.

Perhaps then, the crucial question centers around the fact that while we are omnivores, we are also in the business of assembly line production. An animal gets reduced to something that gets packaged.

Meat in the market is a consumer good. That is how it is sold. And produced. Cutting costs, and advertising to increase sales. As a result we consume more meat than we probably need to or want to. More meat is wasted than it would be in smaller meat packaging units. Less and less of the animal is eaten.

So you have ribs, and and legs alone, and the rest goes to the bin. This cannot be compared to how animals eat other animals. They kill when they are hungry, and kill just enough to fill their stomachs, and no part of the animal is really wasted. Animals don't freeze meat for the entire season. They don't fatten their kill on harmful chemicals before killing.

So the comparison to other animals is unfair and misleading.

I think the issue then is. People are free to eat meat. And nobody can really morally pronounce it unethical. But ... one should know where the meat comes from.

Another line of thought, which I probably won't talk too much about now. I completely agree with the sexuality and the inherent patriarchy with which consumerist meat eating habits are inculcated.

Women are often referred to as meat. Women are de-humanized, objectified etc. Okay, too much. Will probably blog about this. Thanks for the (vegan) brain chow.

Airplane Radio said...

If people have problems with the way animals are killed, isn't that an aesthetical issue and not a moral one?

I'll stop stealing lines from tv shows.

Mad Mike said...

I eat and like meat, but I do not like the way animals are treated today in many counties to mass produce food.
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated," Mahatma Gandhi.

Thivai Abhor said...

Airplane, Check Neha's comments for my feelings about comparing the raising, sequestering and slaughtering of baby cows to make veal...

Jessica Down the Hall,

Greetings, this is definitely one of the main ideas in the post ... our detachment from the production of our foods. Can anyone recognize a super market packaged piece of meat for what it is...?

Your correct, I'm pushing my parallelism to the extreme--I'm thinking "what if..." which doesn't always depend on hard facts and looks toward possibilities...

Perhaps I should have titled this the Politics of (post) Modern Meat?

As you know it is very difficult for vegetarian's in this society--why is it viewed as "strange" ... when I was practicing vegetarianism I almost went insane with an overload of meat ads and images... hopefully that soon dissipates the longer one is a vegetarian (especially since I will try it again).


I couldn't say it better, your response sums up what i am trying to say... I'm also thinking of "meat", but also everything in our lives ... what does it do to us to be so clueless of the origins of our food, clothing, tools, entertainments, information, news .... how are we all the more easily exploited or brainwashed or intimidate or apathetic or... by this disconnection?

Check out Rebecca Solinit's "The Silence of the Lambswool Cardigan"...

you and Jessica both speak to her concerns!!!


Please tell me that you are not saying that the way we kill animals is an issues of "aesthetics"?

Mad Mike,

Gandhi's quote is important to think about. Have you ever been over at a house of someone you don't know and you see them strike their pet... how does that affect your perception of them? What does it say about a society that accepts brutal and unfeeling (as in numbe to the implications) cruelty (as in cruel for no possible reason, other than profits or just plain meanness--we won't starve if we do this another way) in the raising and slaughtering of animals.

This is not just the slaughtering of animals, but our everyday treatment of them, for instance the use of BST in dairy cattle that causes their udders to swell to extreme sizes and causes infections--great pain to the cattle... for no reason other than to increase production... but for no same reason as we already have way too much and farmers are paid not to produce milk and excess milk is often dumped!

Thanks everyone!