A friend of mine and his sister came over to visit one night. His sister was in her early twenties and enthusiastic about various political causes. Many things she had become aware of disgusted and horrified her about American society, business, and government. She was a vegetarian and had decided on this lifestyle for moral reasons rather than reasons of health.
I tried to keep the conversation away from politics, not because I disagreed with her, but because there are few things I find more discomforting than passionate political argument. It reminds me too much of who I was in my late teens and early twenties, back when I was a better and more committed person, back when I thought I could align my life and my beliefs.
Somehow, despite my attempts to keep to uncontroversial topics, the fact came out that I had been a vegetarian for thirteen years.
“Why were you?” my friend’s sister asked.
“Because I didn’t like the idea of benefiting from the suffering of animals if I could avoid it,” I said.
“But now you eat meat,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “I went to Kenya, and friends told me it would be hard to be a vegetarian in Kenya, so I started eating meat again. When I got home, I kept eating meat.”
“But . . . the suffering of animals . . .”
“I still believe that,” I said. “But to be American is to benefit from suffering. If I wanted to avoid benefiting from suffering, I would give away everything I own and go live in a shack in the woods without electricity, without clothes made in factories, without a car, and with only the food I’d grown in a garden or gotten from local super-organic farmers. I don’t want to live like that. Picking and choosing what oppressions to avoid isn’t satisfying. It lets me feel more righteous and moral than I have any right to feel. I prefer to look at my plate and say: this is part of the corpse of an animal that was once alive, that may have experienced tremendous pain and even fear in a factory farm. It was born and tortured so that I—and millions of people like me—could enjoy eating it.”
Of course, I didn’t say exactly that. I said something about not wanting to pretend to be more ethical in my lifestyle than I actually am, and I said something about not wanting to pretend it’s possible to be both a citizen of the United States and a morally virtuous person. But I stumbled in my words, not having thought them through.
I hadn’t thought them through because I hadn’t made any attempt to justify my return to eating meat before. That I started eating meat again was, indeed, because I went to Kenya and wanted as full a range of options for eating as possible. That I continued eating meat when I returned had little to do with any sort of moral or political position and much to do with simple convenience. I liked being able to choose from a full menu at restaurants, liked being able to visit people for meals without having to warn them about my limitations. I was thrilled I could avoid the clichéd questions that carnivores seem to think are so important when they encounter someone who doesn’t share their tastes: “If other animals kill and eat animals, isn’t it natural? Don’t you think plants have feelings, too, and aren’t you being discriminatory against them? If you were trapped in the middle of nowhere and starving, wouldn’t you eat a hamburger?”
I was not a vociferous or self-righteous vegetarian. I ate every day with people who were eating meat around me and I never commented unless provoked. When I visited the homes of people who were not vegetarian, I offered to bring my own food. I knew the choice was mine and the only person I could judge was myself. Nonetheless, carnivores often see the simple fact of vegetarianism as a judgment against them, and many of them try, then, to argue the vegetarian back to the land of what J.M. Coetzee once called “Meat Country.” Apostates are hated by the cult of meat eaters.
Since I returned to that cult, many people have said to me something along the lines of, “Glad you finally saw the light!” I am one of them again, back in the fold, obedient to the conveniences of the culture, no longer an outlier putting their own choices into relief against my own.
Eating meat, though, is for me simply a convenience, like driving a car or wearing clothes made in sweatshops. There is less struggle and friction in my life by doing it rather than not doing it, just as there is less friction in my life by paying taxes rather than refusing to contribute money toward a government that goes to other countries and kills people to protect and strengthen the system that allows me the comforts I enjoy. I could create excuses for my complicity, I could justify my deeds with cynical or fatalistic words, I could cite moments of compassion to burnish an image of myself as a good person, I could say my personal choices are insignificant in a system full of gross inequities and vast iniquities. All would be, to some extent or another, true; all would be, on the whole, a lie. I live the life that is convenient to me.
I remembered the conversation with my friend’s sister this week when I read some items at The Huffington Post concerning Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Eating Animals. Most of the blog posts highlighted the horrors of industrial farming. Writers justified their own noble choices for what to eat and how to live. I admired them. They are willing to allow inconvenience into their lives and to work against a system of conveniences that disgusts them. The hope is that as more people join them in disgust, the systems may change, shifting convenience toward more humane and sustainable practices. It will become easier and easier for carnivores such as myself to ingest the corpses of animals that have been less tortured. Technologies will change, allowing humane killing to be easier to produce on the mass scale necessary for hundreds of millions of people to benefit from it. Convenience and values will be more aligned.
It is this last idea that I am uncomfortable with. Perhaps it is an unconscious remnant from my New England ancestors—taciturn, ascetic, Puritan, skeptical of luxury and ease—but I rebel against the idea that values should be convenient. The easy choices should be the evil choices. Here, though, my postmodernist tendencies clash with my Puritan forebears, because I don’t believe in evil as an essential quality. “Evil” is a label we stick on actions and events we disapprove of, actions and events that are in some way horrifying to our sense of how people should behave and how society should be organized. We may have good reasons for thinking that people should behave in a particular way or that society should be organized according to certain guidelines. Order is generally more productive than chaos, and thus most people prefer it.
Few lives, though, are composed from choices between good and evil. From the chaos of desire and opportunity we clear whatever path we can find across the mess of every day. I eat meat; I burn cheap oil; I wear factory clothes; I pay the government to fight for me and for the people like me who want these things to remain convenient through the systems that provide and support my access to them. I would be pleased if those systems did not require suffering, but my allegiance is to the systems and the convenience they provide.
It is these truths that keep me coming back to The Grand Inquisitor and Omelas and to the writings of two men who do not eat corpses, Peter Singer and J.M. Coetzee, and one man who, as far as I know, does: Wallace Shawn (whose latest play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, posits an armageddon created by technology that allows animals to benefit from cannibalism—technology that is hardly science fiction in some industrial farms). It is through literature—with its parables, fables, allegories, allusions, and metacognitive flim-flam that I find the most powerful connection to the irresolveable questions of how to live. It is connection that is needed, a reflection on the self, an awareness produced by frustration at maddening what-ifs.
The systems creating our conveniences also create suffering, yes, but the systems and their implications are too complex for their facts to be their only meaning. The fact is that I have chosen to eat corpses. What it means, though, to say “I have chosen to eat corpses” cannot be contained in facts.