Veg Voices: A Reading
By Tom Regan
Ten years have passed since Reuters (the News Service) carried a story with the headline: “Study finds tainted, drug resistant meats common.”
“Harmful bacteria in meat and poultry,” the story begins, “are becoming more resistant to antibiotics due to the long-controversial practice of feeding the drugs to cattle and other animals, according to research published in a recent issue of the new england journal of medicine. The practice of giving healthy livestock antibiotics to promote growth and profits makes salmonella and similar organisms that sometimes can cause severe disease immune to the drugs and should be scrapped, according to an accompanying editorial.”
Or (to put the same point more simply): eater beware! That meat on your plate could kill you.
To anyone even modestly interested in the relationship between health and food, this comes as no surprise.
For a long time now we have known that a high fat, high cholesterol (in other words, an animal-based) diet is not good for us.
For a long time now we have known that an animal-based diet is causally implicated in the three major causes of human mortality: cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
(Incidentally, the fourth leading cause is fatal drug reactions to prescription drugs, which kills over 100,000 people a year, just in America.)
The good news is, more and more people are learning why eating an animal-based diet is like playing with matches over a gas can.
Morgan spurlock’s hugely successful book and movie, Super Size Me, may have focused on McDonalds, but the film’s central message was about what we eat, not merely where we eat.
Because of the book and movie’s success, joined with the efforts of many others, including Erik Schlossher’s book and movie, Fast Food Nation, tens of millions of people are getting the message: an animal-based diet can make you sick a lot of the time, just as it can kill you some of the time.
You would think most people would already know this. The truth has been out there, for all to see, for a very long time. So we ask: why has it taken so long for the truth to trickle down to mass culture? This is an interesting question, one that I cannot fully explore on this occasion.
Here I note only that part of the explanation (and a large part, at that) can be found in the steady flood of misinformation the public is fed by the advertising arms of the farmed animal abusing industries.
Read any newspaper or magazine. Watch any television station or listen to any radio program. Pieces of the dead flesh of animals (aka “meat”) as well as products taken from them (milk and eggs, for example): what we read and watch are highly favorable images of these industries produce.
Eating them is healthy. Eating them is tasty. Eating them is fun. Eating them is . . . Well, eating them is one of life’s true blessings.
When most people living in affluent nations are fed the same diet of positive reinforcement, day after day, year after year, from cradle to grave — when this is true, is it any wonder that it takes time and effort to get the real truth out? The question answers itself.
But let’s be honest with ourselves. None of us always does what is in our best interests. In fact, some of us (and not just we irish, by the way) — some of us seem to make a career out of doing the opposite.
So even if it is true, as it is, that an animal-based diet is not good for us — goes against the grain of our informed self-interest — that doesn’t mean that we (you and I), or other people will, on the spot, stop eating that way.
Still, it is hard for anyone to stand-up in public and boast about acting unwisely. Myself, even when I was a serious meat eater, I cannot recall ever taking the podium to declare, “My name is Tom, and I am trying to make myself sick and kill myself by eating what I do!”
Clearly, counsels of prudence call on all of us to think twice about the food we eat and, having done so, to reduce consumption of meat and other animal products. I do not know how any rational, informed person can question this. Neither do I know how any of us could do less when it comes to what we feed our children. If it is not in our self interest to eat an animal-based diet, it cannot be any better for our children to do so. Anyone half seriously concerned about living a longer, healthier life, or wishing the same for their loved ones, will do well to explore the many virtues of what I will be calling “v diets,” short for vegetarianism (no animal flesh) and veganism (no animal flesh and no animal products, such as eggs and cheese). I’ll have more to say about these diets shortly.
Here I note that even if we all agree on this much, we could all stop short of vegetarianism let alone veganism. Concerns for health alone need not a vegetarian or vegan make.
To resolve to eat less meat or less animal products, even much less, which is all that health concerns can dictate, is not quite the same as to resolve to eat no meat or no animal products.
The same conclusion applies to other familiar pro-v-diet arguments — for example, one saying that the integrity, diversity and sustainability of the ecosystem are being destroyed because of the demands of mass animal agriculture, another saying that we could feed the world’s hungry if we ate lower on the food chain.
Neither of these arguments asks that we stop eating meat or animal products completely, because neither rules out an occasional visit to kfc or a once-a-month binge at the fat laden trough bubbling beneath McDonald’s ubiquitous golden arches — universally the most recognizable symbol in today’s world, by the way, recognized by more people than the cross of Jesus or the Star of David, for example.
No, if there are compelling reasons for living as a vegetarian (no meat at all—and that includes poultry and fish, by the way, neither of which is a vegetable, the last I heard) — or living as a vegan (no meat at all plus [or should I say ‘minus’ all animal products) — if there are compelling reasons for living as a vegetarian or vegan, we will have to look for other considerations against adopting a v-diet, not just most of the time, but all of the time.
Where might we find such considerations?
This simple question has a complex answer. It is not that these considerations are not to be found. Rather, it is that the most important voices speaking out in behalf of v-diets have been silenced so successfully that it comes as a surprise to most people to learn how long the canonical voices have been speaking, and whose voices they are.
I will turn to these voices below. First, though, there are two preliminary points we need to have before us — two important truths that occupy common ground for all of us, regardless of what we do or do not eat.
First, as children, we learn to eat what we are taught to eat, and what we are taught to eat typically (not always, but typically) is the prevailing diet of our particular time and place and circumstances. The food that, from our earliest years, we are "used to" eating, the diet we find "natural," is one way our culture imprints itself on us.
In affluent nations this diet not only includes, it has been built around "meat" — or, to speak accurately, the flesh of dead nonhuman animals. In other parts of the world, especially among the poor but also in wealthy locales (for example, various parts of india, where religious customs proscribe meat eating), a significantly different diet prevails and is seen as the "natural" one.
When the world’s population was six billion (a mere decade ago) it was estimated that the diet of fully two-third's of the world's population does not include meat, at least on a regular basis. But there is no one diet that is "natural" for all humans; rather, there are many different dietary customs, just as there are many different styles of dress and architecture, many different marriage and burial rites.
If history teaches us anything, it teaches this: we cannot infer that something is right, or just, or good, or wise just because it is customary.
Throughout the greater part of western history, for example, it was customary to deny to women various rights and privileges that were routinely granted to men, and many racial and religious minorities, as a matter of custom, have experienced centuries of unjust treatment at the hands of an oppressive majority.
If custom were an adequate standard of the right and the good, it would be reasonable to conclude that such discrimination against women and racial minorities was right and good.
But it is not reasonable to draw this conclusion, any more than it would have been reasonable to infer that the earth is flat because, at a given point in time, most people believed that it was.
Widely shared beliefs and practices often turn out to be wrong. Thus, even while, in the western world at least, it has been customary to eat meat, and even though it is customary for most people alive today not to do so, at least on a regular basis, these facts do not address let alone settle questions about the morality of eating one way or the other.
The second important truth we should recall is how schizophrenic we tend to be when it comes to how we view and treat our “pets” (our companion animals), on the one hand, and other animals, farmed animals in particular, on the other.
Concerning the former: for most of us, the cats, dogs or other animals who share their life with us are as much members of our families as are the humans living with us — sometimes more so. They are our friends, and we, theirs. Our heart feels for them deeply and (we hope) the love we extend is reciprocated — though with cats, you never be sure.
Let no one raise a hand to threaten or harm our dog or cat lest they risk decisive reprisal. One might as well make to strike our child.
So it is that you and I cannot doubt the human capacity to extend our love and care beyond our species. And yet for most people these bonds of love and care stop short of universal embrace. Not all animals find a place within the circle of our compassion, the most conspicuous among “outsiders” being (arguably) the ones we eat.
If these “outsiders” were less aware of the world, less capable of feeling, less willing to bond with us than the “insiders” living in our home, we could point to these differences and say, “there, you see. That is why we dismember and consume the outsiders but will not suffer to have some fool raise a hand against our insiders.”
But (of course) the insiders and outsiders do not differ in these ways. If anything, they are the same when it comes to their awareness of the world, their capacity to feel, their willingness to bond.
Some explain this difference in our behavior by noting that we give names to some animals while others remain anonymous.
The American philosopher Nel Noddings favors this view. To name an animal, she thinks, is to enter into a personal relationship that has various unwritten rules and regulations, one of which is, “we will not eat you.” So, while it would be wrong for me to eat Bossie the Cow or Babe the Pig, after having named them, I do nothing wrong if I grill a steak or fry pork chops that come from strangers (so to speak).
I think there is something to what Noddings believes, but not what she thinks it is. I think naming an animal is a way of sealing a special relationship, analogous to rites of baptism with humans — a relationship that binds us to special duties of care.
It is as if I were to say: “You, who I have named: for you I must see to it that food and water, warmth and shelter, companionship and other of life’s necessities are available.”
In a very real sense, in my day-to-day life, these obligations to this animal rank first in my obligations to all animals.
But from the fact that I have special duties to help these animals it does not follow that I do nothing wrong if I ignore other animals, support what harms them, or (in particular) if I dismember and consume their bodies or support those who do so.
To make this clearer, consider the analogous human situation. My wife and I have children, who (as a symbol of our close relationship) we name and to whom we have special obligations. In a very real sense, in our day-to-day life, our obligations to our children rank first among our obligations to all children.
But from the fact that we have special duties to our children, it does not follow that we do nothing wrong if we ignore other children, support what harms them, or (in particular) dismember and consume their bodies or support those who do so. The moral logic in the one case is the same as the moral logic in the other.
True, the social or psychic distance that separates us from farmed animals might explain why we find it easier to have others do to them what we would not dream of doing to our animal companions, let alone our children. But our finding something easy to do in no way justifies our doing it.
As mentioned earlier, there is a chorus of v-diet voices whose members speak out against eating meat and (sometimes) other animal products. We should not be surprised, I think, that their voices have been largely silenced — silenced so successfully that comparatively few people know whose voices they are.
They are the voices of Plato and Pythagoras, Porphyry and Plutarch, Seneca and Plotinus, Ovid and Horace, St. Francis and Leonardo, Maimonedes and Sir Thomas Moore, Byron and Shelly, Voltaire and Rousseau, Newton and Shaw, Emerson and Thoreau, Tolstoy and Wagner, for example.
Nothing even modestly approaching a complete audition of these many voices is possible on this occasion. The most I can do, in the time at our disposal, is to share with you some of what has been said in favor of v-diets, beyond the health, environmental, and other concerns mentioned earlier, in the hope of leaving you with some “food for thought” (so to speak) that you might take with you when we part.
A fitting place to begin to listen to what they have to say is with the "three ps": Pythagoras, Porphyry, Plutarch.
Pythagoras, the greek philosopher and mathematician, was born in 570 and died in 490 BCE. Everyone who's made it through plane geometry knows something about Pythagoras, famous for formulating the theorem named after him. Yet few know that Pythagoras was a dedicated vegetarian . . . with a difference.
While all meat was out, not all vegetables were in. For Pythagoras takes a dim — one might even say a grim — view of beans. In what became known as 'the Pythagorean diet,' which was synonymous with a vegetarian diet well into the 19th century, beans were strictly forbidden. For almost 2,500 years, you could not be a true vegetarian if . . . you . . . ate . . . beans.
Why? Why this resolute proscription against eating beans?
By any measure, Pythagoras answers, beans are not meant for human consumption. As for the evidence: among the most favored by some Pythagorians was that beans are not good for our bodies, not good for our minds, not good for our souls because of their notable association with . . . flatulence.
Surely (some Pythagorians reasoned) there must be something wrong with beans for them to make that sort of auditory disturbance.
Pythagoras's classic vegetarian text is titled “On the Eating of Flesh.” Those familiar with this work know that in it Pythagoras argues for the transmigration of souls.
According to Pythagoras, nonhuman animals are reincarnated human beings. Cows and pigs might look like cows and pigs, but, truth to tell, they actually are human beings dressed-up (as it were) as cows and pigs, at least for a while.
Justice and compassion shown to cows and pigs, then, despite all appearances to the contrary, are justice and compassion shown to humans.
Needless to say, Pythagoras's teachings about the transmigration of souls did not find a welcome home in the orthodoxy of either Judaism or Christianity. In neither of these traditions are humans, despite being animals, lowered (even temporarily) to the status of other animals. Had things been different — had the idea of the transmigration of souls caught on and shaped our dominant religious traditions in the west — who knows but that Pythagorean vegetarianism would have turned out to be the dietary orthodoxy of our world — with the consequence, it should be noted, that today's vegetarians would not be eating so many, and so many different kinds of . . . beans — with what benefit to the ozone layer, I leave it for others to estimate.
As for the greek neo-platonist Porphyry (233-306 AD), he takes a more modern view in his classic work, On Abstinence From Animal Food. The reason Porphyry writes "On Abstinence" is interesting. A friend had converted to Christianity and had thereupon joyfully abandoned vegetarianism. In "On Abstinence," Porphyry endeavors to persuade his friend to return to the vegetarian fold.
Porphyry maintains that nonhuman animals deserve moral consideration because of who they are (sentient creatures), not because of who they are not (human beings imprisoned in animal bodies).
As is true of Pythagoras, Porphyry believes that human beings are not by nature meat-eaters. And (as is also true of Pythagoras) Porphyry despairs over his failure to convert his friend and others of his contemporaries to vegetarianism. How to open their ears? Their eyes? Their hearts?
“Well,” Porphyry asks, in effect, “why not imagine what the circumstances might have been for the “first man” (the first human being) who took up a piece of animal flesh to eat. The wonder of it all, Porphyry thinks, is not that people, like himself, should choose not to eat meat — should choose not to consume parts of someone else’s dead, decaying body (which is what "meat" is, really) — but that someone (the first man) chose to do so. Porphyry writes:
"For my part I . . . wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man who did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds? . . . It is the man who first began these practices that one should seek out, not him who all too late desisted."
"All too late desisted" . . . As is true of most of us, who ate meat for many years before becoming vegetarians or vegans.
And, as for the roman essayist Plutarch (56-120 BCE), author of On the Eating of Flesh, he may be credited with penning one of the most eloquent sentences ever written in the name of vegetarianism:
"But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh," he writes, "we deprive an innocent creature "of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy."
Famous for his lives of Greek and Roman statesmen, Plutarch would have a claim to immortality based simply on the stunning eloquence of this single sentence.
But less we give Plutarch less than is his due, we should note that, like Pythagoras and Porphyry, he despairs over the difficulty of converting the great mass of people to abstain from flesh in their diet. To challenge their flesh-eating ways, he writes, is like "talk(ing) to bellies which have no ears."
Like "talking to bellies which have no ears."
All vegetarians and vegans can relate to that.
Then there is Leonardo (1452-1519), Leonardo DaVinci, the greatest mind of the Italian Renaissance, famous for some of the world’s most magnificent paintings, including The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, and renowned for the great sweep of his intellect, which took in all that was known while he was alive, extending to anatomy, astronomy, mathematics and natural history. Less well known but highly relevant in the present context is Leonardo’s untutored love of animals. The historian Edward MacCurdy writes that “[t]he mere idea of permitting the existence of unnecessary suffering, still more that of taking life, was abhorrent to him.”
Early in life, by all accounts, he adopted a vegetarian diet, for ethical reasons, preferring salads, cereals, vegetables, mushrooms, and pasta, with a special fondness for minestrone. Sparing no sarcasm, Leonardo assails human vanity in these words: “King of the animals — as [humans] have described [themselves] — I should rather say king of the beasts, thou being the greatest — because thou dost help them, in order that they give thee their children for the benefit of the gullet, of which thou has made a tomb for all animals.”
The flesh-eaters stomach, “a tomb”? An arresting image, to say the least. As a vegan, even milk and cheese were suspect because they involve theft. “Of the beasts from whom cheese is made,” he writes, “the milk will be taken from the tiny children.”
Leonardo’s animal consciousness extended beyond his abhorrence for meat. He was keenly interested in understanding flight (his notebooks contain pictures of rudimentary helicopters, for example) and could not bare the sight of birds in captivity. The story is told of how, on many occasions, he would purchase birds, lift them from their prisons, and then (we must imagine he held them ever so gently as) he set them free.
Not many those who practice a vegetarian or vegan diet are as precosious as Leonardo. At least this is what those I know have told me. Most lack leonardo’s natural empathy and sympathy, lack his (it seems) innate desire to help and protect. Unlike Leonardo, our initial understanding of animals is a hand-me–down understanding. Successfully acculturated, we uncritically internalize the cultural paradigm. We see animals as our culture sees them. Because the paradigm in American culture in particular, and western culture in general, sees other animals as existing for us, having no other purpose for being in the world than to serve human needs or satisfy human desires, we see them that way too. Thus it is that pigs, for example, fulfil their purpose when they end-up as lunchmeat between two slices of bread. This sad fact has an upside we do well to remember. For if we can change that paradigm in our life, then there is no reason why others cannot change that paradigm in theirs. Indeed, if there is one unifying theme in the message of the v-voices, it is that all people can be awakened to the moral imperative of changing what we eat, and what we don’t.
Gandhi’s voice will be heard in vegetarianism’s choir. Gandhi was raised a vegetarian and (except for a few illicit mouthsful of beef in his youth) was a vegetarian all his life.
However, it was not until he went to london to study law that he developed his personal reasons for living as he did.
His thinking is simple.
• in our life, we should strive to do the least harm.
• if we eat meat, we are complicit in causing more harm than if we did not eat meat.
• therefore, we should stop eating meat.
People can disagree about how far Gandhi’s thinking goes, but there is no denying the challenge it presents.
Gandhi learned much during his years in london. For example, consider these words he spoke in his 1931 speech to the London Vegetarian Society:
“Forty years ago I used to mix freely with vegetarianism. There was at that time hardly a vegetarian restaurant in London that I had not visited. I made it a point, out of curiosity, to visit everyone of them. Naturally, therefore, I came into close contact with many vegetarians. I found at the tables [he ruefully relates] that largely the conversation turned on food and disease . . . Nothing but food and nothing but disease.”
Of course, if Gandhi were alive today, he would see how much times have changed. Today at table vegetarians do not talk only about food and disease. Today we talk about food and degenerative disease.
Gandhi’s voice, in my view, must be heard. Who among the purified vegans assembled here would dare suggest that the quality of our life belongs on the same screen as the Mahatma’s?
May I have a show of hands?
Yes, just as I thought: none.
So when Gandhi declares, “If anybody said that I should die if I did not take beef-tea or mutton, even under medical advice, I would prefer death,” today’s vegans would with one voice sigh in admiration and solidarity, and collectively murmur, “is that Gandhi a principled vegan or what?”
But we do well to remember that, only a few lines earlier, this same man, fearlessly ready to face death rather than take beef-tea or mutton, relates: “I would give up milk if I could but I cannot, I have made that experiment times without number. I could not, after serious illness, regain my strength unless I went back to milk.”
Gandhi was not happy about milk in his diet. He says of it: it “has been the tragedy of my life.”
Fortunately for him, this was before vegan chat groups on the internet. Imagine the avalanche of self-righteous ridicule he would have faced, whose logic is, it seems, “if you’re not perfect, Mr. Gandhi, you’re not any good at all.”
So, yes, Gandhi’s voice must be heard, not only because of the good he did and the good he represents, but also because of his keen awareness of his moral limitations, as when he reminds us that, in his words, “We all must err.”
In a similar vein, Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds meat eaters everywhere of the responsibility they bear.
“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”
I read Emerson to mean: the blood of innocent animals is on every meat-eater’s hands, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not.
Another essential voice, I think, is that of Shelly, the immortal English romantic poet — he the uncompromising voice of vegetarianism, atheism, and free love (not necessarily in that order).
“It is only by softening and disguising dead flesh by culinary preparation,” Shelley writes in his Vindication of the Natural Diet, “that [meat] is rendered susceptible of mastication and digestion; and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror, does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust.”
Powerful words. There is no denying that. But not the most powerful in this context, I think. That honor goes (by a wide margin, in my opinion) to the Twentieth Century Nobel Prize Winning French writer Romaine Rolland.
Rolland’s major ten volume novel, Jean-Christophe, tells the story of a composer and musician who withdraws from the world and reflects on its many evils. This is not a comic novel. It is filled to overflowing with what rolland believes is the worst tragedy in the world: the slaughter of animals for food. Writes rolland:
“With all the vehemence of his . . . Nature [Christophe] probed to the depths of the tragedy of the universe: He suffered all the suffering of the world, and was left raw and bleeding. He could not think of the animals without shuddering in anguish. He looked into the eyes of the beasts and saw a soul like his own, a soul which could not speak: but the eyes cried for it: ‘what have I done to you? Why do you hurt me?’
“He could not bear to see the most ordinary sights that he had seen hundreds of times — a calf crying in a wicker pen, with its big, protruding eyes, with its bluish whites and pink lids, and white lashes, its curly white tufts on its forehead, its purple snout, its knock-kneed legs; a lamb being carried by a peasant with its four legs tied together, hanging head down, trying to hold its head up, moaning like a child, bleating and lolling its gray tongue; fowls huddled together in a basket; the distant squeals of a pig being bled to death; a fish being cleaned on the kitchen table . . . The nameless tortures which men inflict on such innocent creatures made his heart ache. Grant animals,” Rolland writes, “grant animals a ray of reason, imagine what a frightful nightmare the world is to them: a dream of cold-blooded men, blind and deaf, cutting their throats, slitting them open, gutting them, cutting them into pieces, cooking them alive, sometimes laughing at them and their contortions as they writhe in agony. Is there anything more atrocious among the cannibals . . . ? To a man whose mind is free there is something more intolerable in the sufferings of animals than in the sufferings of men. For with the latter it is at least admitted that suffering is evil and that the man who causes it is a criminal. But thousands of animals are uselessly butchered every day without a shadow of remorse. If any man were to refer to it, he would be thought ridiculous. And it is an unpardonable crime. That alone is the justification of all that men suffer. It cries vengeance upon god. If there exists a good god, then even the most humble of living things must be saved. If god is good only to the strong, if there is no justice for the weak and the lowly, for the poor creatures who are offered up as a sacrifice to humanity, then there is no such thing as goodness, no such thing as justice . . . ”
To my mind, there are no more powerful, no more insightful, no more penetrating words than these in all the centuries-old literature on vegetarianism. My very soul bleeds when I read them, a semantic dagger thrust into the heart of all that is decent. The pity of it is, Rolland’s words, like those of the others quoted above, are so little known, so rarely heard.
Better (or maybe I should say worse?) Than words is reality — in this case the reality of slaughter. The philosopher Marti Kheel recommends seeing death first-hand over reading philosophers writing about their favorite theories.
My own view is somewhat different. My own view is that different people respond to different opportunities. Theories reach some. Viewing slaughter face-to-face reaches others. Leo Tolstoy, one of the world’s greatest novelists, most famous for his epic War and Peace, is among the latter. No saint, this man. Any doubts about this just ask his wife — and leave it at that.
Like others, Tolstoy laments those practicioners of an animal-based diet who “look and see not; listen and hear not.” “There is,” he writes, “no bad odor, no sound, no monstrosity, to which man cannot become so accustomed that he ceases” to see, to hear, to smell the look, the sound, the odor of evil.
Tolstoy had heard all the old, familiar reasons why killing animals to eat is acceptable, even natural. God allows it. Custom sanctions it. Whatever. Stuffing animals down our throats is just fine. Tolstoy thinks otherwise.
Tolstoy does something few of us have done. As Marti Kheel recommends, he goes directly to the source of evil: he visits a slaughterhouse. The setting is russia, the time, late in the 19th century. “At first,” he writes, “I felt ashamed . . . to see with my own eyes the reality of the question raised when vegetarianism is discussed . . . As one always is ashamed of going to look at suffering which . . . one cannot avert.”
Once at the slaughterhouse, Tolstoy meets workers who don’t like their work. One butcher admits that eating meat isn’t necessary but [he says], “What can I do? I must earn my bread.” Another is troubled, “Especially when [the animals] are quiet, tame cattle. They come, poor things, trusting you. It is very pitiful.”
After watching in horror as larger animals meet their end, Tolstoy relates that he then entered “the compartment where small animals are slaughtered — a . . . chamber with asphalt floor, and tables with backs, on which sheep and calves are killed. Here the work was already finished; in the long room, already impregnated with the smell of blood, were only two butchers. One was blowing into the leg of a dead lamb and patting the swollen stomach with his hand; the other, a young fellow in an apron besmeared with blood, was smoking a bent cigarette. There was no one else in the long, dark chamber, filled with a heavy smell. After me, there entered a man, apparently an ex-soldier, bringing in a young yearling ram, black with a white mark on its neck, and its legs tied. This animal he placed upon one of the tables, as if upon a bed. The old soldier greeted the butchers, with whom he was evidently acquainted, and began to ask when their master allowed them leave. The fellow with the cigarette approached with a knife, sharpened it on the edge of the table, and answered that they were free on holidays. The live lamb was lying as quietly as the dead inflated one, except that it was briskly wagging its short tail and its sides were heaving more quickly than usual. The soldier pressed down its uplifted head gently, without effort; the butcher, still continuing the conversation, grasped with his left hand the head of the lamb and cut its throat. The ram quivered, and the little tail stiffened and ceased to wave. The fellow, while waiting for the blood to flow, began to relight his cigarette, which had gone out. The blood flowed and the ram began to writhe. The conversation continued without the slightest interruption. It was,” Tolstoy concludes, “it was horribly revolting.”
For us today it would come as a relief to learn that contemporary slaughterhouses are less “revolting” than the one Tolstoy describes. The truth is otherwise, as Gail Eisnitz documents in her book about the American slaughter industry in general, hog slaughter in particular.
Hog slaughter represents a variation on the main theme of the meat packing industry. Hogs are driven up a narrow restrainer where the “stunner” gives them an electric shock that is supposed to render them unconscious. They are then shackled with chains attached to their rear legs, hoisted so that they dangle up-side down, and placed on a conveyor belt where they meet the “sticker,” whose job is to slit the animals’ throats. After being bled to death, the pigs are submerged in a tank of boiling water, then eviscerated, having never regained consciousness. At least this is the way things are supposed to work in theory. As a matter of practice, as Eisnitz found after speaking with workers, actual hog slaughter frequently does not measure-up to theory.
The following is a not untypical example. Donny Tice and Alec Wainwright [in order to protect her sources, Eisnitz changed their names] are interviewed. In an earlier conversation, Tice had described some of the things he did to the hogs. It was now Wainwright’s turn. Writes Eisnitz:
“not yet out of his teens, wainright had already been working as a day-shift shackler for two years.
“Wainwright talked about the same games as Tice had — the stun operator would intentionally misstun hogs so that Wainwright would have a hard time shackling them.
“Sometimes,” he said, “when the chain stops for a little while and we have time to screw around with the hog, we’ll half stun it. It’ll start freakin out, going crazy. It’ll be sitting there yelping.”
Other times, when a hog would get loose outside the catch pen, [Wainwright] and his co-workers would chase it up to the scalding tank and force it to jump in. “When that happens,” he said, “we tell the foreman he accidentally jumped in.”
Wainwright had little new to add to what Tice had already told me, but he did confirm Tice’s claims of gratuitous cruelty to the animals. And while Tice’s confession had seemed both painful and cathartic for him, Wainwright, in telling me of his atrocities against the already doomed pigs, chortled with delight as if recounting a schoolboy prank.
“Why do you do it?” I asked.
“Because it’s something to do,” Wainwright said. “Like when our utility guy takes the ol’ bar and beats the hell out of the hogs in the catch pen. That’s kind of fun. I do it, too.”
“How often do you do it?”
“I dunno,” he replied.
To “beat the hell” out of an animal and find it “kind of fun” illustrates the depths of cruelty to which we humans can sink. Perhaps Eisnitz is correct when she sees workers like Tice and Wainwright, not just the pigs going to slaughter, as victims of the system of mechanized death that defines day-to-day activities in America’s 2,700 slaughterhouses.
Recall Emerson’s haunting words: “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”
Why do the overwhelming majority of people in our countries actively support the slaughter of animals (now in excess of ten billion a year, just in the United States; more than 50 billion annually worldwide; 950,000 per minute, 16,000 every second, in excess of five and a half million during the time it has taken me to read these words — in excess of five and a half million.
How is it possible that most people in our countries support a practice (the violent destruction of live animals) in which most would not and could not participate themselves, a practice that most people (once they see it or have it described) find, in Tolstoy’s words, “horribly revolting”?
I mentioned several reasons early in my presentation. For example, the role of custom in shaping diets people find “natural,” and the role of money spent by animal abusing industries to present meat consumption in a positive light. Here I add a final consideration, for your consideration.
As Carol Adams observes, how we talk about what we do to animals is itself designed to deny that we do it. “‘Someone kills animals so that I can eat their corpses as meat,’” she writes, “becomes ‘animals are killed to be eaten as meat,’ then ‘animals are meat,’ and finally ‘meat animals’ thus ‘meat.’ Something we do to animals . . . becomes instead something that is part of animals’ nature, and we lose consideration of our role entirely.”
Yes, many people do that: “Lose consideration of their role entirely.”
Tolstoy was not one of them.
Tolstoy positions the decision to be a vegetarian within the larger perspective of the decision to take control of one’s life — the resolve to live without killing other life that feels.
“What, then, do I wish to say?” He asks. “That in order to be moral people must cease to eat meat? Not at all. I only wish to say that for a good life a certain order of good actions is indispensable; that if a man’s aspirations toward right living be serious they will inevitably follow one definite sequence; and that in this sequence the first virtue a man will strive after will be self-control, self-restraint. And in seeking for self-control a man will inevitably follow one definite sequence, and in this sequence the first thing will be self-control in food-fasting. And in fasting, if he be really and seriously seeking to live a good life, the first thing from which he will abstain will always be the use of animal food . . . because it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to the moral feeling — [the act of] killing; [an act that] is called forth only by greediness and the desire for tasty food.”
Is Tolstoy right? Can we gain a sense of control over and direction for our lives by taking this first step? Is this something worth looking into, something we might try ourselves, if we have not already done so?
I think you know where I stand and also something about why I do so. It’s because of what I’ve learned from Porphyry and Plutarch, Shelly and Emerson, rolland, Gandhi, and the others I’ve mentioned along the way.
“I advance no exaggerated or fanciful claim for vegetarianism,” writes the English humanitarian, Henry Salt. “It is not, as some have asserted, a panacea for human ills; it is something far more rational — an essential part of the modern humanitarian movement, which can make no true progress without it. Vegetarianism is the diet of the future, as flesh-food is the diet of the past. In that striking and common contrast, a fruit shop side by side with a butcher’s, we have a most significant object lesson. There, on the one hand, are the barbarities of the savage custom — the headless carcasses, stiffened into a ghastly semblance of life, the joints and steaks and goblets with their sickening odour, the harsh grating of the bone-saw, and the dull thud of the chopper — a perpetual crying protest against the horrors of flesh eating. And, as if this were not witness sufficient, here, close alongside, is a wealth of golden fruit, a sight to make a poet happy, the only food that is entirely congenial to the physical structure and the natural instincts of mankind, that can satisfy the highest human aspirations. Can we doubt as we gaze at this contrast that whatever immediate steps may need to be gradually taken, whatever difficulties to be overcome, the path of progression from the barbarities to the humanities of diet lies clear and unmistakably before us?”
Who can doubt indeed?
And lest (as I close) I be accused of too great a slight to the great poets who have spoken on behalf of animals, may we all take strength from these stirring words, “The voice of the Voiceless,” penned by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.
I am the voice of the voiceless:
Through me, the dumb shall speak;
Till the deaf world’s ear be made to hear
The cry of the wordless weak.
From street, from cage and from kennel,
From jungle and stall, the wail
Of my tortured kin proclaims the sin
Of the mighty against the frail
For love is the true religion,
And love is the law sublime;
And all is wrought, where love is not
Will die at the touch of time.
Oh shame on the mothers of mortals
Who have not stopped to teach
Of the sorrow that lies in dear, dumb eyes,
The sorrow that has no speech.
The same power formed the sparrow
That fashioned man the king;
The god of the whole gave a living soul
To furred and to feathered thing.
And I am my brother’s keeper,
And I will fight his fight;
And speak the word for beast and bird
Till the world shall set things right.
So, yes, I add, with a slight editorial change:
We are the voice of the voiceless:
Through us, the dumb shall speak;
Till the deaf world’s ear be made to hear
The cry of the wordless weak.
P.1, for Rueters, see Tainted, drug-resistant meat common; Studies stir debate on antibiotic use in livestock
P. 2. For statistics regarding fatal drug reactions, see U.S. General Accounting Office, report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Human resources and Intergovernmental Relations, Committee on Government Operations, House of Representatives, FDA Drug Review, Post approval risks, 1976-1985 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990).
P. 10. For Nel Noddings, see Caring: A Feminist Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkely: University of California Press, 1984.
Pp. 12-14. For Pythagoras, see pp. 13-22 in K.S. Walters and Lisa Portmess, Eds. Ethical Vegetarianism, Albany: State University of New York, 1998.
Pp. 14-16. For Porphyry, see Ibid. Pp. 35-45.
Pp. 16-17. For Plutarch, see Ibid. Pp. 27-34.
Pp. 17-18. For Leonardo’s views, see David Hurwitz, Leonardo DaVinci’s Ethical Vegetarianism
Pp. 20-22. For Gandhi, see Walters and Portmess, Op. Cit., 139-144.
P. 22. For Emerson, Wikiquote
P. 23. For Shelley, see Walters and Portmess, Op. Cit., 69-74.
Pp. 23-25. For Rolland, see Ibid. 135-37.
P. 26. For Marti Kheel, see From Heroic to Holistic Ethics: The Ecofeminist Challenge, pp. 243-271 in Greta Gaard (Ed.). Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Pp. 26-28. For Tolstoy, see Walters and Portmess, Op. Cit., 97-105.
Pp. 28-31. For Eiznitz, see pp. 97-98, Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry. Amherst, NY: Proemtheus Books, 1997.
P. 32. For Carol Adams, see Ecofeminism and the Eating of Animals. Hypatia. 6 Spring 1991, 137.
Pp. 32-33. For Tolstoy, see Op. Cit.
Pp. 33-34. For Salt, see Walters and Portmess, pp. 115-125.