Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Miranda devine: enemy of the heart, the mind, and vegetarianism (part one of three)

Tuesday 11 October 2011
(updated Friday 14 October 2011)

I've had a post about eating meat, in a fragmentary, incipient form, drifting around mournfully in Tintin's purgatory for some time now, awaiting that catalyst I was talking about in 'The urgency of nonfiction' to call it into being, when who should publish an article on the subject but my favourite News Limited columnist. Y'know. Just to get the content of this blog up to a healthy 300% responses to Miranda Devine. Articulating my views on the subject and critiquing Devine, however, caused this piece to swell to a gargantuan size, so I'll post it all in three parts instead, with part one focusing on deconstructing Devine's argument, and parts two and three responding to that argument in order to detail my own.

Devine's opinion piece, 'Everybody hurts, but we've all got to eat', delivered in her trademark casuistic style, is a critical response to an earlier article that appeared in The Australian, authored by Michael Kirby AC, CMG (that's Companion of the Order of Australia and Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, for those of you not up on your orders of chivalry), highly respected public figure, influential academic, eloquent orator, former Justice of the High Court of Australia the highest court in the land and the final court of appeal in the Commonwealth, invested with the authority to rule on matters of the constitution, and possessing the recently demonstrated power to overturn the expressed will of the Parliament. Seriously, Miranda. Go home. You're out of your league, here.

But in examining the piece, I think I've come to a realisation about why it is, specifically, that Devine infuriates me so much. She constantly makes herself an enemy of the two characteristics I value above all else in life: empathy and critical thinking. And I think my criticisms of the piece can largely be organised along these lines, I suppose because the errors she makes in it are moral (empathetic) and rhetorical (critical).

Empathy first. The piece, which contains numerous derogatory references to 'sentimentality', makes Devine's contempt for 'excessive' compassion known from its opening, when she patronises Kirby for his sensitivity: 'It sounds very kind to swear off eating meat because you looked into the eyes of a cow, which former High Court judge Michael Kirby explains as the reason for his latter day vegetarianism'.

That crazy old coot! Getting all choked up, letting his emotions run away with him, going to all that trouble to make a drastic lifestyle change, and for what? 'Cause he got up a little too close and personal with a bloody bullock!

Now, as I said above, Kirby was a judge, and when you're working with the law, you have to be 'judicious' with language. Understandably that's a foreign concept for Miranda, but it doesn't give her licence to take what I'm sure were Kirby's carefully considered words, rearrange them, and then blame him for it. 'Animals raised for slaughter' she quotes from Kirby, 'cannot explain the suffering, pain and fear they feel. But humans who empathise sufficiently, can do so.'

'In other words', she garbles, doing what she does best, 'those of us who eat meat do not have sufficient empathy. Thanks, your worship.'

See, no. You don't get to do that. 'Other words' is right. I know someone as semantically challenged as you might find it hard to believe, but there's a subtle and important difference between 'not empathising sufficiently' and 'not having sufficient empathy'. By changing 'empathising' (verb) into 'empathy' (noun), you've also changed the word modifying 'empathising', the adverb 'sufficiently' into the adjective 'sufficient' and made the verb 'having'. You've taken it from not performing a process to the right extent, to not possessing enough of a quality. If Kirby had meant 'not having sufficient empathy', I'm sure that's what he would've said. Honestly!

Later Devine similarly misrepresents vegetarians and animal rights activists altogether, saying that 'this creeping idea that "meat is murder" is just moral vanity', that 'vegetarian moralising is [being] thrust down our throats' by the likes of Kirby and US author Jonathon Safran Foer, and that animal activism is simply the 'parasitical companion' of this moralising. Firstly, what a bitch! And secondly, did I just read a CONSERVATIVE CATHOLIC COLUMNIST complain about MORALISING!? I only ask because I couldn't concentrate properly over the sound of that pot and kettle being repeatedly smashed together in my ear. Far out.

Animal cruelty is continuing on a massive scale, and we know it is. The industry is a major contributor to climate change. Animals experience fear, pain, affection, and many of the other emotions we do, making the view that unnecessarily killing them for our own enjoyment is bad a reasonable one. To reduce the often heartfelt and profoundly personal decision of millions to forgo meat andor take up the fight of animal welfare, in the face of all of this and more, to a mere 'moral vanity' or 'parasite' is staggeringly callous and inaccurate. And to charge Kirby, of all people, with thrusting moralising down the public's throats is a sickening untruth. His articles are imbued with the sense of a wise, sensitive, loving man calmly laying out his ratio decedendi, submitting it to the public forum, gently coaxing you with carefully laid sentences to consider his point of view. Nothing like the coarse, poorly reasoned diatribes of Ms Devine, shamelessly appealing to the lowest common denominator thrice weekly.

It takes cold cynicism to misrepresent Kirby the way Devine does. I think he's best vindicated by a quote from another of his articles on the issue where he praises Australian philosopher Peter Singer for not seeking 'to convert the unwilling', for recognising that 'many people are at different stages on the issue of animal welfare.' Do those sound like the compliments of an absolutist ideologue determined to force-feed his opinions to the public like a bowl of vegetables?

Furthermore, the idea that meat is murder is actually quite a credible one. Fair enough, you don't have to agree but, you know, murder involves killing something and eating animals involves killing something. The similarities are remarkable! In fact, under the laws of logic Miranda usually subscribes to, that would make them exactly the same thing (cf Devine's Dictionary entry for definition of 'detrimental fatherlessness').

Which leads me to the critical thinking side of things. The keystone of Devine's argument in the piece is that 'scientists discovered that plants have feelings too'. She concedes that 'most people feel sadness at the death of animals' and confesses to her own brief stint with vegetarianism, which she says came to an end with the revelation that some plants can experience pain. Incidentally, I love how the results of a couple of studies by scientists are enough to convince her to recommence eating meat, but the overwhelming consensus of every national scientific association in the world, without any reputable dissenters, isn't enough to convince her of the threat of manmade climate change.

'The point is', Devine declares, 'that if you took sentimental thoughts about food to their logical conclusion, you wouldn't eat at all.' That sentence really does encapsulate her contempt for empathy in others and her inability to reason with any depth. I mean, if you take anything to its logical conclusion you get a ridiculous result. If you take political correctness to its logical conclusion, you get a stifled society. If you take Christianity to its logical conclusion, you get America. If you take capitalist-fuelled carnivorism to its logical conclusion, you get the KFC Double Down. It's about how far you want to take it; it's about which point along that line you think is right and reasonable.

Personally, I'm unconvinced that automatic hormonal reactions and chain sequences from one plant to another catalysed by external factors constitute any evidence of plant sentience, neither in terms of perception or communication; evolution has had many other incredible effects elsewhere without causing speculation that the organisms displaying those effects are somehow self-aware. Science may prove me wrong one day, but it's beyond the point: Devine's simplistic conclusion is that abstaining from meat doesn't make sense because no matter what you eat you are causing pain and killing something. This logic pretty much justifies cannibalism. If there is no scale of value for different forms of life, if killing a plant is the same as killing a pig, then so too is it the same as killing a person. This is starting to become a pattern in Devine's work: over-generalisation. It's a mistake infants make during language acquisition. Just as children whose fathers have abandoned them are the same, in Miranda's eyes, as children with two mothers, eating vegetables is just as bad as eating animals because they both 'feel pain', even though animals necessarily have a much greater capacity for suffering. I will expound upon these issues further in part three.

For now, vegetarianism is plagued by this kind of one-dimensional thinking. You either have to go the whole way or no way; you're carnivore or vegan; you're a realist or an idealist hippie, but this isn't the case. It reminds me of a clip from US talk show The View that I came across on YouTube one night in Santorini during a glut of 'cyperactivity' after too long without internet access, in which vegan actress Alicia Silverstone (seemingly) snubs former Survivor: Australia contestant Elisabeth Hasselbeck, one of the show's conservative panel members, over her earlier argument with Rosie O'Donnell. What she then says in terse response to Hasselbeck's comment that she always questions 'vegetarians that walk around with leather shoes' sums it up: 'Well I likeI'm happy when anybody does anything good, so it's okay if they are veggie and have leather shoes'. SHUT DOWN. More eloquent is a quote from vegan podcaster, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, whose podcasts are available for free on iTunes, that I've been directed to by a newly vegan friend since I first wrote this post: 'Don't do nothing because you can't do everything. Do something. Anything.'

It's advice that could be used in any area of life. You don't have to be a vegetarian to acknowledge that it's the right thing to do, to aspire to that lifestyle. Kirby himself says

     I have not become a strict vegetarian. Still less a vegan. I eat eggs
     and see no moral problem with that whatseoever if the eggs are
     produced by free range chickens. I still eat fish, an inconsistency
     of which I am constantly reminded by my partner. But gradually,
     step by step, I continue to make moves towards the world of
     vegetarianism. But so far, I am not pure. Except when it comes to
     meat and poultry. They are out, banished entirely from my diet.

It's not about giving up meat 'cold-turkey', so to speak, in a blaze of self-righteousness. You can reduce your consumption, you can buy organic and free range, you can support animal rights, you can experiment with that magical set of ingredients that sometimes, somehow, can be combined in such a way as to make you not even realise there's no meat in your meal (cheese, tomato-based sauces, eggs, mushrooms, potato products and other carbs, and nuts).

But it's not enough for Devine to make an attack on empathy, to sully the debate with her one-dimensional arguments and distortions of those who disagree with her. No, she's got to take this opportunity to attack her most hated enemy, the educated, urban Left. It's one of her favourite topics. Particularly she revels in dichotomising it with good old fashioned, true blue, salt of the earth Aussie battlers. The farmers. The manufacturers. 'Labour's aspirational base'. It's something she knows all about, being a moneyed Liberal Partyvoting city-dweller who grew up in what she herself calls 'uber-urban' Tokyo. It's not those tye-dye-wearing, chai-latte-sipping, bicycle-riding, dreadlock-sporting, manmade-climate-change-believing, vegan-cafe-patronising, hyphen-using intellectually elitist Glebocrats like Kirby who empathise with the animals; it's the 'dwindling few who live on the land and grow our food'. Why? 'Because it is in their face every day.' It makes them 'more balanced people, more honest, more realistic than the citified others who prefer not to know.'

The citified others who prefer not to know. She does know how to turn a phrase, doesn't she?

'Not wanting to know' has nothing to do with Kirby, who cites animal welfare violations as one of the reasons behind his abandoning meat, and who YOU JUST QUOTED talking about 'the suffering, pain and fear' experienced by animals raised for slaughter.


And similarly, this citycountry binary has nothing to do with the issue; it just derails the argument. If it is wrong to eat animals, it is wrong regardless of whether people live in the country or the city. It's simply a way of Devine giving herself something to talk about. There are, I think, very few intelligent arguments you can make against vegetarianism (see part two), so she needs to find something she can sneer at and rail against in order to sound convincing and provocative. 

Devine's solution to 'bridging the gap' she has invented between city and country attitudes to death is poetry, a tactic I agree with but towards an end I don't. To deploy poetry, or any artform, against empathy seems to me a contradiction and, in a way, it does backfire. Her idea of 'bridging the gap' is city people realising that death is natural and shutting up about animal rights, but that didactic purpose is not necessarily served by the poem,'The Early Purges' by Seamus Heaney, which she credits Dr Greg Hertzler for citing:

     I was six when I first saw kittens drown.
     Dan Taggart pitched them, 'the scraggy wee shits',
     Into a bucket; a frail metal sound,

     Soft paws scraping like mad. But their tiny din
     Was soon soused. They were slung on the snout
     Of the pump and the the water pumped in.

     'Sure, isn't it better for them now?' Dan said.
     Like wet gloves they bobbed and shone till he sluiced
     Them out on the dunghill, glossy and dead.

     Suddenly frightened, for days I sadly hung
     Round the yard, watching the three sogged remains
     Turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung

     Until I forgot them. But the fear came back
     When Dan trapped big rats, snared rabbits, shot crows
     Or, with a sickening tug, pulled old hens' necks.

     Still, living displaces false sentiments
     And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown
     I just shrug, 'Bloody pups'. It makes sense:

     'Prevention of cruelty' talk cuts ice in town
     Where they consider death unnatural
     But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.

Any first-year literature student knows there's more to a poem than the surface-level meaning, and the narrator's voice is not necessarily the poet's, even in a highly autobiographical poem. 'The Early Purges' could just as easily be a lament for the loss of innocence, the hardening, the desensitising that comes with a hard life on the farm, as a criticism of 'prevention of cruelty' talk' and, in fact, I think the evidence supports that reading. If the subjects of the poem went to work killing the 'farm pests' with grim resignation, or even just indifference, perhaps Devine's interpretation would be more plausible, but first Dan Taggart and then the narrator exhibit a malignant attitude to the infant animals that goes beyond what they must do to maintain a 'well-run farm', calling them 'scraggy wee shits' and '[b]loody pups'. This suggests, perhaps, that the poem depicts the worldview that it does as a means of lamenting the necessity of this hardening of sentiment, this cycle of acquired callousness that must be perpetuated as a side-effect of farm life.

In part two and three, I'll respond to Devine's piece with my own outline of why I think vegetarian morality has it right.

Miranda Devine's 'Everybody hurts, but we've all got to eat', in The Sunday Telegraph, Wednesday 5 October 2011.

Seamus Heaney's 'The Early Purges'.

Michael Kirby's 'Animals deserve our protection', in The Australian, Saturday 1 October 2011.

Michael Kirby's 'Sense and sensibility about our fellow sentient creatures', in The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 6 August 2010.


  1. See, no. You don't get to do that. 'Other words' is right. I know someone as semantically challenged as you might find it hard to believe, but there's a subtle and important difference between 'not empathising sufficiently' and 'not having sufficient empathy'. By changing 'empathising' (verb) into 'empathy' (noun), you've also changed the word modifying 'empathising', the adverb 'sufficiently' into the adjective 'sufficient' and made the verb 'having'. You've taken it from not performing a process to the right extent, to not possessing enough of a quality.

    Huh, so Systemic Functional Linguistics does have its uses.