There Goes My Hamburger!

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I can see it in the eyes of some people as soon as I take to the podium, the fear that the author of Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations is going to tell them they shouldn’t eat meat. “There goes my hamburger,” they think as they look the other way.

While it is true that I don’t eat meat, it is not true that I don’t like the taste of meat or that I think eating meat is inherently wrong. In fact, I think that if any of us is paying attention, the arguments all fall short. Yes, yes, I have noticed the predator-prey relationship in ecosystems. In fact I have seen more of it with my own eyes than most urban dwellers, and I don’t see that it has much at all to do with human factory farming. Yes, yes, I am ready to acknowledge that plants are living beings too, and possessed of their own kind of sentience, that when I eat them I am taking a life. What this all leads me to conclude is that life on this planet is incredibly expensive and valuable, since each being so strongly wills to live and since each must also live at the cost of many others. That is a stunning fact and one that I have not yet found the moral courage to incorporate into my way of being, for it would mean that I should consume only what I need of anything, and further, that I should understand that my own life will be required for the sustenance of others. So much for my rights!

There are also the nutritional fads and fancies to consider, the fact that we have gone over the last decade from thinking that vegetarian is the nutritional ideal (avoiding those nasty fats) to currently thinking that paleo is the ideal, eating those healthy fats and avoiding the nasty carbs and processed foods. But, what on earth do you think your meat is, if not processed food? The fact of these inevitable and well-worn nutritional fads and arguments is what interests me right now, as though we need only make up some logical line of reasoning that includes loose reference to some disconnected facts and, voila! like magic, we are justified in doing exactly what we intended to do before bothering with the thinking exercise.

The fact is that we like meat, we like the taste of it so much that we will go to great lengths to ignore that we are taking the lives of sentient beings in order to have so much meat that we throw it away in great gobs. We call ourselves consumers and feel not only entitled to consume, but defined by that activity, along with its necessary twin, production. So animals, living and sentient beings are called “livestock,” and then, after we have slaughtered them, they are called beef, pork, nuggetses, sausages, links, mince, etc. We don’t have to say cow, pig, chicken, dog, horse, and whoever else gets ground up by us producers and sold to us consumers. We don’t have to draw up images of those big cow eyes, or pig snouts, or chicken feet, much less the mother-baby relationship that is the heart of our “production.”

I like meat, too. I had a hard time getting to vegetarian. I am in no position to judge another person for not being a vegetarian. But I am in a position to challenge lame arguments in myself and others, to call a lie a lie and an uncomfortable truth still the truth. Last week, the Arizona state legislature passed a law declaring that “livestock” are not animals. Why? So that agribusiness can proceed without reference to animal cruelty laws, so that they can cause all the pain and suffering they like, in the name of efficiency. Some municipalities have entertained laws making it illegal to videotape or otherwise record farm work. Why? Because when people see where their meat comes from, they are disgusted. They decide they don’t want it that badly, or that they want it differently. Why should agri-business care if people choose to eat less meat and pay more for it? A dollar is a dollar whether it buys an ounce or a pound of meat.

I had blood drawn for some medical tests in the wake of a mystery illness recently. As the woman in her early twenties attached a fourth tube to the needle she’d fixed with tape to the inside of my elbow, I laughed and asked how many tubes she was planning to take. “Gee,” I said, “I’m going to need a steak, except that I’m a vegetarian.”

“You are?” she asked. “Did you hear that?” she said to her equally young colleague, repeating what I’d said and telling me that they’d just been discussing a YouTube video that showed factory farmed chicken production. “It’s disgusting!” she proclaimed repeatedly, and she asked me how to learn what her options are. I told her there are some ethical meat producers and that she could begin there, eat less meat and better meat, better for her, better for the chickens.

The thing about this particular young woman is that she is like most people. She doesn’t want to cause unnecessary suffering, and she doesn’t want to eat things that are disgusting. The place to begin is simple; know where your meat comes from. Because there is such a thing as reality, and in reality, there is no such thing as livestock, only animals.