Imagine you are an undercover journalist sent to work for four days in a slaughterhouse. You are absolutely revolted by everything involved in the job you are given. Not surprising since it entails, “carving the cheeks out of 20-pound hog heads...at a pork processing plant in Manitoba.” The experience leads you to turn vegetarian. How long after that would you be prepared to return to meat? Never? At least a few years? A recent blog entry by ‘Animal Person’ alerted us to a May 14th, 2008 Washington Post article by Jane Black entitled, “For Meat-Eating Authors, A More Tender Approach.” Black’s piece gives us some indication of just how much the notion of ‘happy meat’ is catching on. Black begins her account with the story of Susan Bourette – she’s the journalist carving out the cheeks of pigs for four days.
So, after her thoroughly ‘revolting’ experience, how long before Bourette starts eating flesh again. Never? At least a few years? No, not on your nelly – “five weeks, one day and 13 hours.” Heaven knows what her health was like before but after 5 weeks as a vegetarian, with at least one ‘vegan feast’ thrown in, she’s described as being, “pale as sticky rice” and “as weak as Scotch broth.”
Black’s article, btw, is rather strange, as weird as a love scene in an Austin Powers movie, because throughout the article human beings are described as ‘carnivores’. Thus, Bourette is said to be pained by being a failed vegetarian and sets out to gain an understanding of her own “carnivorous ways” and humanity’s “love affair with meat”. And so the quest of becoming a “more conscious carnivore” is detailed in Bourette’s new book, Meat: A Love Story. Her book is one of a growing number to celebrate flesh eating, or at least deal with the guilt of it, so long as it is happy meat.
Other titles include The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend. The subtitle is telling, apart from the attempt at a witty comment on contemporary environmentalism: “How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat.” Scott Gold’s more strident, The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers, also gets a mention, as does a recently launched magazine called Meatpaper. These are the new publications for the ‘thinking meat eater’. Author Roger Horowitz, who apparently does not shy away from the instrumentalities in human-nonhuman relations, is quoted by Black saying that, “there's a great market opportunity for people to talk about what really happens when you eat meat and tell people that it’s okay.”
Ah, yes, the ‘thinking meat eater’ requires reassurance that “it’s okay” to eat someone else’s body parts. When Black goes looking for a common theme in these publications, she finds this: “Carnivores should not feel guilty. Nor should they cede the moral high ground to vegetarians and vegans, whose answer to the complex questions raised by eating animals is to abstain entirely. Instead...carnivores should celebrate their decision to eat meat by being conscientious about what they choose.” Apparently Gold thinks it worthwhile for meat eaters to say to themselves, “I am a carnivore and I’m damned proud of it,” which is an odd thing to be proud of if one really thought biological determinism was key to all of this.
While Scott Gold writes that one should respect those who have died to provide dinner, Catherine Friend’s elegy to sheep being taken to be killed just made me want to call for the sick bag: “Tomorrow morning, when we load you onto the trailer for your trip to the abattoir, we will be thinking about the life you’ve lived on this farm -- running around the pasture at dusk, sleeping in the sun, and grazing enthusiastically for the tenderest bits of grass. We will say out loud, ‘Thank you.’”
After that, who can be shocked to learn that Friend also has a strange view on veganism and vegan education? For example, she says, “People who become complete vegetarians for the sake of animals are basically getting up from the table and leaving the room.” So, what is a better way of ‘staying at the table’ (whatever that means in the first place). No surprises here: being a ‘Flexitarian’ is recommended, along with praise for “carnivores who choose to go meatless now and then.”
Finally, Jane Black cites PeTA’s boss, Ingrid Newkirk, writing in the early 1990s, while still presumably influenced by the rights-based philosophy of Gary Francione. This is the sort of thing Ingrid was saying before coming up with the bright idea of gassing chickens: “Yes, you can be a less horrid meat eater and reduce the sum total of your environmental impact and cruelty to animals and clog your arteries less...But why are these people so desperate to cling to a really bad habit? This is just guilt deflection. It’s like saying, ‘I’m still going to abuse children, but I’m going to be conscious about it and get them from a small family.”
Of course there are sociological – and indeed psychological theories – that can aid an understanding of the happy meat phenomenon, if only those about people tending to comply with dominant social norms and values; those that highlight the influence a social group has over individuals; and those that underline the fact that it is far easier to swim with the flow of social forces than swim against. Sociologically, we could even congratulate Susan Bourette for lasting 5 weeks as a vegetarian in a meat-eating world. On the other hand, 5 weeks is pretty pathetic, isn’t it, and especially when it is implied that this short period was enough to damage her health. What did she adopt, a junk-food vegetarianism? She should have gone straight to a healthy vegan diet. I find it almost impossible to believe that a resourceful middle class journalist was unable to find healthful meat-free meals.
I have not read Bourette’s book as yet, so I hope that she accompanied her mission to understand her “carnivorous ways” with a thorough examination of the reasons why she couldn’t maintain a meat-free diet for much more than a month. I certainly hope she does not tap into the view, far too prevalent at the moment, that vegetarianism - and especially veganism - is ‘too hard’, or that vegans must be somehow ‘special’ to tolerate such a ‘fanatical’ lifestyle. Such views, as everyone who reads Francione’s blog knows, are current in the mainstream animal protection movement at the moment. Perhaps those who work for PeTA and take this line ought to re-read their founder’s early views on human-nonhuman relations – because the Ingrid Newkirk of old is likely to have argued that it is hardly fanatical for us not to abuse children all the time.