Anat Pick — Pt. II of Fleshing out the Morality of Meat: Thoughts on the New York Times’s contest “Calling All Carnivores"

Anat  PickThe following is the second half of a post by Anat Pick, author of Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film.

Pick is, in part, responding to Calling All Carnivores, a contest from The Ethicist, a feature in the New York Times Magazine. The judges for the contest—Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light—will select the best essay on why it is ethical to eat meat.

As Timothy Pachirat recently argued in Every Twelve Seconds, it is not quite the case that if slaughterhouses had glass walls everyone would be vegetarian. The “new moralists,” those who portray the consumption of animal flesh as an enlightened and conscientious choice, sensitive to both the lives of animals and to the higher value of human culinary discernment—namely Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and their American counterparts—have put slaughter on primetime television, proving that killing itself can be made to disappear in the act. This is one of our dubious powers: to remain blind in full view of reality. Blindness ensues from the new moralists’ refusal to question the morality of killing, the fact that animal life is subjected again and again to human whims. Somehow, somewhere along the way, the moral conversation turned into something else, bracketing off the fundamentals and magnifying incidental details—the hows and wheres of killing—turning the obvious commonplace that it is preferable for sentient animals to die without having suffered unimaginably before into the entire moral debate.

Accordingly, in their “Calling All Carnivores: Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat” contest, The New York Times chose to ask the wrong question, and by so doing predetermined the contest’s results. The judges—Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mark Bittman, and Andrew Light—were hand-reared for the job. On the shortlist, not a single “default” or “bravado” essay proclaiming that eating meat is moral “because we say so,” because none of those eaten (largely herbivores, largely docile, at present unarmed) can make us see otherwise. After all, isn’t the ultimate proof that it is okay to eat meat the very fact that we’re doing it?

The runners up unsurprisingly mirrored the (all-male) panel of judges. Peter Singer, who has been championing the (strictly unfoodie) idea of laboratory grown meat, got his essay (the winning essay of the popular vote, by a landslide). The remaining runners-up fit the new moralist mold of sensitive, conflicted carnivores. Not a single Swiftian voice among them to recklessly shake the “massy pillars”—columns, rather—of Ariel Kaminer’s Ethicist. In my mind, the contest’s rarified air has come to resemble the Philistine palace that Samson destroyed, crashing its roof on the heads of those ancient and illustrious foodies, or in Milton’s own words from Samson Agonistes, “upon the heads of all who sat beneath/ Lords, ladies, captains, counsellors, or priests/ Their choice nobility and flower…. Met from all parts to solemnize this feast.”

New York Times dining writer Kim Severson thinks butchers are sexy. I wonder if she’s read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s tale on the connections between bloodlust and lust. In case she hasn’t, I should send her a copy of the short story “Blood.” It is one thing to proclaim blade-wielding butchers are exciting (though I doubt Severson means the people of color, ex-convicts, documented and undocumented immigrants who make up a sizeable portion of workers in industrialized slaughterhouses), quite another to drill down and admit a profound and sadistic attraction to violence. Swift and Singer (not Peter, Isaac) confront this deep psychological truth; Severson is as oblivious as a babe in the midst of her savvy. Such absent-mindedness is unattractive in an intelligent, thinking adult.

Conversations are framed in a particular way, and questions often contain their own latent answers. But the best essays historically have been those that questioned the question, not those that yield answers written in advance in invisible ink. Essays are exercises in living thought, not presentations of arguments. Of the selected essays, vegans logically favor “I’m About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years,” by a long term vegetarian looking forward to sampling a lab-grown hamburger. As uncharitable to my fellow vegans as I may seem, this too misses Swift and Singer’s point about blood and violence, aspects of meat production and consumption that in vitro meat purports to transcend. Beyond the arguments for and against cultured meat, we shouldn’t sidestep the issue by pretending that meat eating has nothing to do with the titillations of violence. And while factory farming produces its own well-documented aesthetic, it is no accident that descriptions of foodie concoctions often rival the gruesome assemblages of movie nasties like The Human Centipede.

Those who choose to not consume dead animals can draw comfort from the faulty premise of The New York Times competition since the unasked question lingers on in the form of the contest’s putrid air of bad faith. Bad faith hangs like New York smog over this exercise, palpable even to the most earnest of meat eaters. Unless, by some Freudian slip, the New York Times secretly wished for the scenarios of Singer and Swift, or that fantastic South Park episode, “Desperate Times,” in which, momentarily stranded in a snow storm, “survivors” who “haven’t eaten since breakfast” rush to decide which of the group shall be eaten. I like to imagine that among the unpublished essays, one exists that extols the virtues cannibalism in a vicious satire worthy of Trey Parker, Matt Stone, or Jonathan Swift.

What is eating? Eating is not a thought exercise. It isn’t the product of philosophical calculation. Eating is ingesting, it is an encountering, a coming into contact with the material abundance and nourishment of food. Eating is an intimate relation with the world as an interconnected plane. It is the engaging of desire. The pleasures of food as testimony of earthly love—not of something self-serving and elitist, unthinkingly dubbed “high culture”—mark our relation to the range of beings with and around us. We do not need to tout violence as our claim to worldliness, a case for culture and nature alike red in tooth and claw. There is nothing otherworldly or ascetic about the moral choice to not eat animals. It merely asserts that where there is no necessity, where there is choice, it is better to let live than to kill. Deflecting the problem of meat eating by ignoring its root in the seductive powers of violence is the fate of the gentle carnivore who eats from the forbidden fruit, yet continues unknowing.

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