Tuesday, 22 November 2011

'Naturalness', semantic decay and veg(etari)anism (part two of three)

Tuesday 22 November 2011

In part one I deconstructed the arguments against vegetarianism and vegetarian Michael Kirby made by Miranda Devine in her article 'Everybody hurts but we've all got to eat'; part two responds to this article with my own ideas about eating meat.

I'm a newcomer to the whole veg(etari)an discourse, and the more I read into it, the clearer it becomes that I have little original to add to the discussion. But I made a decision a while ago that whenever I came to a point of indecision between speaking my mind and remaining silent, I would take the path of expressing myself, out of a belief that it is always better to say something than nothing, to act rather than not. That, and it can't hurt to restate sound arguments often made but rarely heard, to add your voice to a growing chorus. And so I persevere in the face of superfluity ...

The problem of 'naturalness'
The most common argument I hear justifying flesh-eating is that it's natural, an argument that I think can be split in two. The first of these holds that we have evolved to need meat, we are designed to eat it, and therefore we must continue to do so if our bodies are to function properly, the same way a lion cannot choose to give up eating meat because its body simply would not support a diet of any other kind. I believe this argument is factually untrue. Perhaps for the first time in our history, our technological and dietary knowledge is at a level where we can quite healthily live without eating meat (and it's looking better for the future, as well; the concept of laboratory-grown meat incites a kneejerk rejection and a shudder from hippie organic-enthusiasts and hearty meat-eaters alike, but I look forward to the guilt-free meal as long as scientists can convince me there's no harmful side-effects). Of course, meat is a very efficient way of gaining certain things that our bodies need, but it is not the only way. Is efficiency really a good enough reason for taking an animal's life? As for our being designed to eat meat, the physical similarities between humans and herbivores, along with the physical differences between humans and carnivores, have been well-documented. The evidence indicates that we were herbivores who opportunistically became omnivores, not carnivores who became omnivores. And our meat consumption today far exceeds anything we would have eaten in our evolutionary past. Meat would've been a rare addition to our diet, nowhere near the staple it is for many people today (Colleen Patrick-Goudreau).

The second argument under the 'naturalness' umbrella is not practical but moral: we evolved to eat meat, therefore it's okay – an irretriveably mixed-up bit of reasoning, to adapt a phrase from Rohinton Mistry. When does 'naturalness' ever guarantee that something is moral? People can and do justify all sorts of ridiculous positions with the argument that 'it's unnatural' (ahem, opposition to gay marriage), but even if not eating meat is unnatural, this is still a thoroughly flawed argument. So is everything we do in contemporary society. Medicine? Birth control? Abstinence? Monogamy? Technology? Supermarkets? Yep, all totally unnatural. I think vegetarian comedian Wil Anderson said it best in his show at Splendour in the Grass this year, when he posed his response to the argument, 'It's unnatural not to eat meat; even animals eat other animals – look at lions'. I paraphrase:

      Do you get all your ethical opinions from lions? What else do you
      do like lions? Do you sleep twenty hours a day like lions? Do you
      have a spiky, barbed penis like a lion? Do you sell Paddle Pops for
      a living like lions? Do you live in a wardrobe with a witch like

I'll come back to the issue of naturalness in the next section, but first, if there's any proof that I'm not some closed-minded bastard who has set opinions on every issue and will never change, as I was discussing in ''... So openminded that our brains drop out'', it's my attitude on this issue. I used to be a devoted carnivore and in actions, I still am. I love meat. I absolutely love it. I'm obsessed with food, and meat is one of my favourite kinds. So until very recently, whenever the issue of vegetarianism would come up, I'd scoff. I'd look at my vegetarian friends and family in bemusement. How could they possibly forgo the original carnal pleasure? I thought the idea was absurd. Even animals eat animals, me and my other carnivorous friends would say to one another. We're designed to eat meat. Animals are dumb. Anything to justify my love of meat and dismiss the points raised by vegetarianism. This, my friends, is the working of ideology. If you ask why something is okay and the best answer you can come up with is that it's natural or normal, that's probably a good indicator that ideology is at work. 'Ideologies try to hide the contingent nature of thoughts and activities within a culture' say Tony Schirato and Susan Yell. '[T]hey try to convince their audiences that certain values, ideas and activities are more or less natural, and that things have always been this way, or should remain this way.'

It takes a lot of thinking to undo ideological indoctrination, to challenge what people not only enjoy doing, but also what they have always been told is normal and natural, and what they see everyone else doing all the time. Perhaps this explains why, if you ask people why they do or don't eat meat, the don'ts seem generally to have more well-thought-out answers, because the only way they became don'ts in the first place is by observing and formulating reasons not to eat meat. The dos, conversely, tend to eat meat because they always have, and their answer is likely to reflect this reason. '[I]t's okay because we're the top of the food chain' is one answer I got when I asked my friends. In other words, it's okay to eat meat because we can. Or because we do. Contrast this with an answer from another friend, Matt Wheeler:

     I don't eat meat because it is a huge contributor to climate change;
     because it makes grain and other staples more expensive for the
     poor; because it takes huge amounts of water for a single serving
     of meat; because there isn't enough farming land to go around
     and meat takes 16 times as much land as vegetables to grow; 
     because factory farming is disgusting; because pigs are one of 
     the top ten most intelligent animals in the world; because 
     vegetarian food is easy and delicious; because vegetarians live 2 
     years longer on average than those on a typical western diet; 
     because I think 'stewardship' means 'look after' not 'take 
     advantage of'; and because I think it is always better to have 
     more empathy than to close one's eyes to the pain of others.

Desensitisation and semantic decay
What started us eating meat was, I assume, need. We haven't always been able to be selective about what we eat, and we couldn't deprive ourselves of such a rich source of nutrients. Nowadays I think it's less to do with desperation and more to do with desensitisation. Eating meat seems acceptable because we eat meat already, because everyone does it. This is what I call 'semantic decay': repetition eventually saps the meaning out of any practice. It's what causes the meanings of words and phrases to drift away completely from their original meanings without our notice as we get used to them. It's what makes religion such a poor conductor of morality. Once-moral instructions can eventually become mere empty rituals, self-enforced upon pain of eternal damnation, devoid of any personal emotion or conviction. Under religion, it is entirely possible for someone to feel guilty about saying 'Oh my God', but not about being complicit in a system that slaughters billions of animals a year, usually after they've led awful lives.

We can observe a kind of trend in semantic decay. The older the religion, the culture, or cultural institution and, therefore, the more repetition that has occurred, the more divorced meaning is from action. Perhaps this explains Miranda Devine's inability to comprehend Michael Kirby's point of view. I can't think of a culture in which there is more evidence of rampant semantic decay in the area of attitudes towards a kind of animal than Japan's, where Devine grew up. 'Fish died in abundance for the Japanese diet', she says in her article, and they had to. Japan's mountainous terrain being unsuitable for agriculture, it had to turn to the sea. If it hadn't, its people would have starved long ago. But it doesn't make it any easier for the non-desensitised to watch.

Everything I am about to say, I fully acknowledge, is a generalisation, but generalisations can be useful. To the Japanese, anything that lives in the ocean is just food. There's the whaling, of course, but then there's also the annual Taiji dolphin drive hunt, where dolphins are driven into a netted cove and slaughtered en masse, literally turning the sea red with blood.

From the documentary The Cove.

I've seen a Japanese vendor chase an octopus in a netted bag across a cement market floor as it tried to escape. I've seen Japanese chefs in a production line tearing out the eyes of live fugu (pufferfish), chopping off their tails and fins, shucking their elastic skin off over their heads like jumpers and tossing the mutilated fish, blind, bloody and gasping, into an industrial-sized bin of their already-expired companions. I've seen a Japanese diner pick a fish out of a fake, in-restaurant pond, then light up with glee when that same fish is brought out on a plate as sashimi, its uncooked flesh flayed out in a fan of wafer-thin slices, its body wrenched at an unnatural angle, its mouth sucking for air and its body twitching as its flesh is torn with chopsticks from its body.

'Give it to us raw, and wriggling.'

Now fish are not highly intelligent creatures, but that right there on your plate is a living organism with the capacity to feel pain, and it is suffering for no good reason. It's just sick. My personal aversion to seafood is mostly mental, a relic from my childhood that I know I could probably rid myself of if I wanted to. And for a while I did. It's socially debilitating to be picky, and it's looked upon as immature, so I planned to make myself get over it, but now I never will. What we're doing to the oceans is too terrible, and the world doesn't need one more fish-eater. Even caught and prepared in the usual way – by trawlers at sea, dead and cooked – a fish has to suffer too much to get to my plate. There's no quick way to kill fish caught en masse.

'As we become increasingly alienated from the sources of our food,' says Devine in her article, 'childish squeamishness is in the ascendancy'. In other words, those of us who don't want to eat meat are squeamish children. Thanks, your bitchiness (how do you like it?).

But aside from deploying Devine's own stunning rhetorical tactics against her, I really think she's got it the wrong way around. It's not that we're gaining childish squeamishness; it's that we're losing our heartless desensitisation. In the past we've needed to be desensitised to animal suffering in order to survive, and today people who make a living in the meat industry still need this desensitisation, but the rest of us, 'alienated from the sources of our food', are beginning to bring our attitudes towards animal welfare into line with our modern moral outlook. Predictably, being the enemy of the heart and mind that she is, the conservative Devine instinctively rejects this impulse, this change in the status quo. But I believe we should embrace it, as difficult as it is.

Returning to the issue of 'naturalness', those who justify their continued consumption of meat with that argument must consider this impulse. If it is natural for us to eat meat, then it is equally natural for us to feel squeamish about doing so, and the evidence is in our actions. Yes, our mouths water at the smell of sizzling bacon or roasting beef, but even Devine admits 'most people feel sadness at the death of animals'; we flinch when we see it actually happen. Just look at the rituals of penance and reverence codified into early cultures, which insisted on prayer after the killing of an animal, thanking it for giving its life – an attempt to absolve guilt if ever there was one. Kirby points to the packaging of meat, which allows us to think of it as the 'impersonal products of sterile, clean supermarkets' and of eating it as 'hygienic and somehow depersonalised. Or de-animalised.' Even the English language and our codes of etiquette enshrine this guilty discomfort: it's considered impolite to discuss the animal you're eating at any given time, or to talk about any graphic part of its preparation. There's something in the way we are so easily put off eating by talk of blood or guts that belies the supposed naturalness of our eating meat. In 'Consider the Lobster', David Foster Wallace points out that 'most mammals seem to require euphemisms like "beef" and "pork" that help us separate the meat from the living creature the meat once was'; we've craftily stolen words from the French to ease our guilt. Who among us can say when they watch a predator of Africa chasing down its prey, that it is not the hunted that they hope for, rather than the hunter? We know, in our logical minds, that it's unfair to favour the gazelle over the lion; the latter has the right to live as much as the former, but we know that if the lion doesn't get its way it will only go hungry; if the gazelle doesn't, it will die a terrifying death. If you can watch a zebra being brought down by a cackle of hyenas who, unlike lions, do not kill their prey before they begin eating it, without desperately wishing they would just end the zebra's suffering, there's something wrong with you.

The fact is, though, that almost everything we do, we do in spite of nature and the cruel ferocity of the natural order, not because of it. Evolution, when understood properly, is fascinating; both a beautiful and a terrible system, elegantly simplistic in its mindless, ruthless march onwards, propelled by death at every turn. And while evolution will continue to work in different ways on humanity, we have transcended it in many ways. Society operates to a large extent outside of evolution and against it; in so many ways it is cooperative, not competitive. Babies are not left on hillsides to die if they are deemed weak. The mentally ill, the physically disabled, the sick, the poor, the injured, the different, are not dispatched as they might be if nature took its course. We can, and should, seek to resist evolution, which is everything our morality is not. This doesn't mean we stand up and decry the hyena as immoral, and start going out and killing hyenas to protect zebras. It's true that there is a natural order* but it's also true that we are the only species on Earth capable of making a choice not to adhere to it. As Kirby says:

     If the human brain historically expanded because humans
     became carnivores, consuming cooked meat around the
     camp fire that encouraged social life among our forebears,
     why should we turn our backs on these existential
     developments of our species that made us who and what
     we are? The answer to that perfectly reasonable question
     is this. The ingestion of so much protein and the expansion
     of our human brain has produced a creature with a
     heightened capacity for moral reasoning.

*Incidentally, a hole in the arguments of those who try to marry the existence of a creator God with the process of evolution, who do not here have their usual recourse to 'free will'. As Paula Kirby (no relation of Michael Kirby's) asks in 'Evolution threatens Christianity', how could an omnibenevolent God ever set in motion such a monstrous process?

Concluding remarks
All that's left is to say a little about my own diet. I'm still eating meat, and a lot of it. You might see that as hypocritical, but I don't. This post has been more about convincing people to admit or recognise that eating animals is wrong rather than that they should give up doing so (although the two are obviously connected), and I don't judge anyone who continues eating meat. A lifetime of delicious meat-based meals and indoctrination doesn't vanish in a day. But I think it's important to be able to use moral reasoning independent of your actions, to recognise that you're doing something wrong even if you're still doing it, rather than just rationalising and justifying your current behaviours. In some ways, I've been thoroughly desensitised. When I look at a piece of meat, even a skin-covered chicken wing or a slab of beef with bones in it, I simply do not see an animal, I see food, and this is the biggest problem for me. But I'm making progress. The other night I was eating a bowl of Tilly's mum's caesar salad and I had a breakthrough (which should not reflect poorly on the quality of the salad; it's delicious). Getting to the bottom of the bowl after all the lettuce leaves had gone, I was left with a wet, stringy conglomerate of pale white chicken meat and bright pink bacon, and as I was shovelling it into my mouth, I was acutely aware that it was animal flesh that I was eating. The sensation was replaced immediately once it reached my mouth, of course, but nevertheless, that was a big step for me, and those moments are happening increasingly. I'm on my way to re-sensitisation.

For now, my plan has been to stop eating meat automatically. Usually when I'm out for lunch or whatever, I'll just grab a chicken sandwich or something, because that's just what I eat, not because I really want it. Now, unless I actively want a meat dish, I'll get the vegetarian option. As I've said before, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to give up meat entirely. I have almost no self-control, and I'm convinced those vegetarians who say, 'Oh that's what I used to say, but I was surprised by how easy it was' just never enjoyed meat as much as I do, or else we're different blood types or something. But strategies like making meat my special option rather than my general one, and another thing I'm trying called 'Meatless Monday', will and in the former case already have made a big difference to how much meat I eat, which has to have a gradual effect on how many animals I cause to die for my selfish enjoyment of their flesh.

Often in discussion of vegetarianism and related issues, commentators talk about how our treatment of animals might be looked upon by future generations, an interesting idea to entertain. In his reasoned, ever self-questioning way, Wallace says, in reference to the Maine Lobster Festival (MLF):

     if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters
     can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on
     aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-
     fest. Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why?
     Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations
     will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in
     much the same way we now view Nero's entertainments or
     Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a
     comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems
     extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less
     important than human beings; and when it comes to defending
     such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I
     have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat
     certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it,
     and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of
     personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible
     instead of just selfishly convenient.

I for one can certainly imagine a more enlightened populace looking back on us as we do our own forebears. It's hard not to see the trend developing over the last hundred years, of extending rights to ever smaller segments of the population, starting with the largest demographic, women, and moving through oppressed races, nations, and ethnic groups; then, in recent years, disabled and gay people. Not to undermine the valiant efforts of today's animal rights activists and campaigners, who are seemingly ahead of their time, but might not we, as a society, turn our full attention to animals when we run out of human minorities? Might not the next mainstream social movement be for animal rights?

Part three looks at anthropocentrism and hierarchising life.

Thank you to everyone who's taken the time to read this gargantuan post (almost 4000 words) and to my friends for their enthusiastic response to part one, which gave me the motivation to power through and finally finish this. Thanks to Wil Anderson and Lisa Dempster for retweeting it and exposing it to the wider veg(etari)an community, and to everyone else who's retweeted it since. Thanks Sam Glass for directing me to the David Foster Wallace article, and to Alissa for telling me about Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's podcasts. Thanks finally to Matt Wheeler, whose account of why he is a vegetarian was too cogent to resist including; you should all go and check out his amazing, custom, whittled artworks!

Wil Anderson's live comedy panel, Wil Does Parky, at Splendour in the Grass, Woodford, Queensland, Australia. Sunday 31 July 2011.

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

Peter Jackson's film, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, by New Line Cinema, 5 December 2002.

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

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

Paula Kirby's blog post, 'Evolution threatens Christianity', on The Washington Post's On Faith forum, 3:26pm 24 August 2011.

Rohinton Mistry's short story, 'Condolence Visit', in his short-story cycle Tales from Firozsha Baag, published by Faber & Faber in 2006.

Colleen Patrick-Godreau's podcast, 'Humans are meant to eat meat. Just look at these incisors in my mouth', from her podcast series Vegetarian Food for Thought: Inspiring a Joyful, Sustainable, Compassionate Diet.

Louis Psihoy's documentary, The Cove.

Charles Rangley-Wilson's documentary, Fish! A Japanese Obsession, by KEO Films, 23 March 2009.

Tony Schirato and Susan Yell's 'Ideology', in Communication and Cultural Literacy: An Introduction, published by Allen & Unwin in 2000.

David Foster Wallace's essay, 'Consider the Lobster', in Gourmet Magazine in August 2004.

Matt Wheeler's private correspondence via Facebook, 10:27pm Tuesday 11 October 2011.


  1. Excellent! Also, nice font. Do you know what it's called?

  2. Great arguments...but rather than a meat free monday, perhaps only eat meat with days containing an 'M'...

  3. Thanks, guys. It's good, isn't it, Nick? It's called 'Copse'. And that's the goal, Will!

  4. This is what all blogging should be like!

  5. Great comprehensive piece. Forgive me if I'm being dense but is sentience the basis for your contention/premise that - "Our lives are the most valuable and the most important." - and if so, could you elaborate on how you figure that?

  6. Haha, you mean longwinded and indigestible, Sam?

    Thanks for your interest and compliments, A. I'm not sure how well I explained it, but for me, if we decide to judge the value of a being's life on its capacity to think/feel/suffer, humans have the greatest ability to do those things, so our lives are the most valuable. What might be confusing was my interchangeable use of 'sentience' and 'capacity to ...' because sentience isn't really gradable - it's either sentient or not - but most places where I said 'sentience' I meant more 'level of ability to think and feel.' Does that answer your question?