I think therefore I’m vegan

Most people might assume that being a vegan is about food; however, I, as a vegan, think about food very little. One reason is that what is generally considered food, images of which bombard me relentlessly, is not an edible substance but chunks and shreds and pieces of dead animals—a blatant fact that meat eaters like to ignore. As for edible stuff, I am happy about what I consume, but thoughts of it do not consume me. (That approach to food happens also to be part of Stoicism 101.)  Eating is the easy part. There are lots of tasty things to eat without inflicting cruelty and death on any creature, and once one adopts that approach, the culturally programmed desire for a meat product vanishes and leaves in its wake a sense of the repulsiveness of putting a part of a dead animal into one’s mouth.

Rather than dwelling on food, then, I think a great deal about philosophical and social issues: morality, human selfishness, human cruelty, evil, culture, the extent to which culture will inure humans to any atrocity, nonhuman suffering, hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, religion, and why some people develop compassion, while others don’t.

For example, one vegan-related thought I have frequently is that humans generally have it really good and should stop complaining about their petty troubles because unless they are among the truly oppressed (enslaved, held captive by a sexual predator in a basement, etc.) any trouble in their lives pales in comparison to the lot of all the sentient creatures we forcibly impregnate, confine, deprive of their young, and drag to a horrifying death. (Putting our own lives in perspective and stopping the whining about whether or not we are satisfied, happy, having a good time etc. is also an idea imported from my adopted philosophical  system of Roman Stoicism). Along those same lines, when I heard that the Boston Marathon bomber was condemned to death, I thought, okay, I am not going to get worked up about that even though I am against the death penalty (yet another manifestation of our love to-kill society) because how many other creatures who are innocent suffer the same fate.

On the level of the day-to-day, I think about how to live with and maintain respect for people , some very near and dear, who so willfully disregard the reality of meat that they seem to revel in their ability to be ignorant. I grapple with disgust at people who have huge incomes and can’t think of anything to do with it other than buy a bigger house or another car when great wealth could fund a campaign of awareness.

I hope that all my thinking will be productive, since as a Stoic I know there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking. We are the sum of our actions not our thoughts, so I need to figure out more ways to do and justly deserve the epigram: “I am vegan therefore I act.”

A Day in the Life

7:00 a.m. With my morning cup of coffee pick up The New York Times to see on the front page of the style section a festival in Umbria in which the big event is whole roasted pigs (“The Pinnacle of Pork” headline) complete with photo of the carcass of a charred pig.  Spend unbudgeted time writing to the editor to protest this as representing “the pinnacle” of nothing except barbaric insensitivity.

9:00 a.m. Go to the grocery store; avert my eyes from the slabs, chunks, and ground up parts of farm animals. Faced with buying “real” milk for a family member, and wonder if I must compromise by supporting a product resulting from forced pregnancy and premature mother-calf separation.

11:00 a.m. Walk with my dog, Mia. In the parking lot by the ball field where she likes to sniff sits a monster truck with the license plate “BOWHUNTR” and a rear windshield and bumper on which are plastered an assortment of white decals of deer heads and modern bow machines.  Hanging from the rearview mirror is an upside down stag. Reflect with awe at his need to define himself by this activity and with disgust at what must be his notion of himself: mighty predator in nature, he of the mega truck and high tech bow.

12:00 p.m. Get email regarding upcoming visit of in-laws and recollect previous gathering notable for offers to bring “pigs in a blanket” to my house “for us carnivores” ha ha.

1:00 p.m. Meet friend for lunch at beach club that offers not one vegan dish expect for a salad. Suggestions / complaints have not been appreciated apparently even though I pay a small fortune for the very exclusive right to show up and face the menu (would like to unjoin, but not my call). Friend cannot equate the food on her plate with what went on to produce it. Suggest that she give it a try.

3:00  p.m. Breaking news about latest gun violence: turn on the television to get update. Five minutes of commercials touting meals formed with every species of soit disant edible animal. Please stuff your already oversized gut with surf and turf, sizzling steak, bacon on a burger, chicken and more chicken—truly endless.

4:30 p.m.  Errand time: Get into car and turn on radio show, Fresh Air, in time to hear Terry Gross ask Jonathan Balcombe  about the most humane way to kill an animal for food, given that “not everyone can be a vegan.”  Hallelujah moment of the day: Balcombe corrects her, very diplomatically, by pointing out that there are so many wonderful plant based foods, no one has to eat meat, and he goes on to clarify that there is no humane slaughter only some ways that might be less cruel than others.

5:00 p.m. Write Johnathan Balcombe an email thanking him. Can’t avoid remembering that dear Frans De Waal, another scientist who studied animals and wrote a book to prove how intelligent and social they are and how much amazingly “like us” they are and to expound on how terribly attached he has become to animals only to remain a staunch eater of them, reconciling those two antipodal attitudes on the basis that there are some animals in nature who are predators; great logic, there Frans. What good does having an intellect do a person if he can satisfy himself with such conclusions? Fight urge to drink heavily.

10:00 p.m. Seek refuge in bed. Reading to get sleepy, pick up the latest New Yorker: restaurant review with picture of veal chops. A reminder of what I know all too well: this magazine, which has liberal tendencies when it comes to the LBGT community, civil rights, gun violence, health care and many other human-impacting issues has shown itself in article after article to lack even the tiniest shred of compassion for animals. It adores articles about restaurants that serve whole baby pigs and where you can find the best barbequed animals. Yeah, that article “The True Cue” was really an important piece of journalism. Pick up a book in which hopefully no one will be eating.

11:00 p.m. Nighttime television, episode recorded from previous night: unfunny joke about almond milk being “unnatural.”

11:15 p.m. Try to sleep, wondering in the dark at the inexplicable capacity for selfish blind cruelty and tossing around the recurring thought that there should be a study on why some people have no qualms about animal suffering and others do. Why, why is that? Realize the point is academic and a nonstarter, with the familiar sense of hopelessness; try my old TM mantra to distract my mind and get away from reality until sleep closes in.

Two Questions

Two factors prevent most people from quitting meat.  I arrive at that conclusion from conversations with various and numerous people – friends, family, and total strangers; the only unifying characteristic is that they do not think twice about eating meat. I could also for the sake of further anecdotal evidence invoke my own experience as a one-time meat eater.

The first impediment is the belief that humans need meat in their diet. Meat eaters feel they know the science when they haven’t read a single word on the topic, or maybe they have fallen subject to misinformation. The latest unbiased scientific evidence establishes that we can all do fine without meat (of course it actually says that we would be better off without meat). Given that this barrier is objective and factual, it should be easy to refute with the scientific facts; but, if people deny global warming and the need for vaccines, they can also refute the evidence that humans do not need meat. I think we can chalk this objection up to willful ignorance. Why would anyone prefer to remain ignorant?

The second reason cited for not feeling any compunction about killing and eating the body of an animal is that “those animals” are different from dogs (or cats, horses, dolphins, monkeys, let’s see, what other species are not on the menu?) I mention dogs because they are eaten in China, as a fairly recent article in The New York times informed us. I have heard more than once the exclamation with horror, “They eat dogs in China!”   I concede a difference between dogs and farm animals is that dogs are in our houses. That we have decided to treat them better than other species says something about us more than about them. If we had taken to having pigs in the house to keep us company, to assist us in finding food, and to be our eyes and ears, then they would have names and find a place in our hearts and we would then cringe at the thought of eating them. Pigs are as intelligent as dogs, trainable, sociable, affectionate, and useful.  Above all, pigs and all farm animals — all animals — have interests, feelings, emotions, and can suffer. To supplant the idea that it’s okay to treat farm animals in a way that we would never treat our dogs, takes one simple question of a common moral type: “Would I want my dog to be treated like that?” Because farm animals are kept out of sight, we have to exert ourselves a little to know what conditions are like.  Books, the internet, and documentaries will do the trick  (although it would be optimal if everyone got the chance to visit a real farm and slaughter house, preferably as a school field trip) and then, if the sights and sounds of those animals are not enough, then a little imagination is required: what if that was my dog subjected to procedures without anesthesia, constant confinement in metal cages in factories, forced impregnation, loss of puppies resulting from that forcible pregnancy leaving the mother bereft and whining with grief, forced feeding, and the miserable truck ride without any food or water to  hell, complete with the smell, sights, and sounds of death –a death that is painful, terrifying, and violent.

I assert that once people get over the beliefs that meat is a dietary necessity and that  farm animals are different in any relevant way, they will necessarily have to make a change because who would declare the following: “I know that I don’t have any need to eat meat and by that eating it, I am inflicting horrific suffering on animals, who despite being a different species, are as capable of feelings and suffering as my dog, whom I protect and love, but I will do it anyway because I don’t care about suffering.”

Who could say that?

Killing is the Answer

Under “The National Briefing” in the New York Times this week, appeared the news that Yellowstone National Park officials want to kill one thousand buffalo. The reason is that they might carry disease to livestock. This is a cycle of killing: kill the bison so that ranchers can raise cattle and kill them. Killing is so commonplace when it comes to nonhumans: we kill them to eat, to wear, to experiment on, even for trivial inquiries, and for entertainment.  With killing such an unquestioned part of the acceptable approach in our lives, small wonder we are violent in general. How many of the mass shooters at schools and in movie theaters were hunters; how many would have hesitated to kill an animal? It seems axiomatic that if we did not kill nonhuman animals, we would not so easily kill humans.

The argument that we should stop killing animals because it primes us to kill humans is well known in the animal rights debate and is disfavored by some activists for two reasons. It is easily impeached, and it is not the real reason we should not exploit and kill animals. Regarding the former, the counter argument is easily made that there are a lot of people who kill nonhuman animals who do not kill humans, so there is not a cause and effect relationship. To address that counter argument, I would point out that many people who eat animals or take advantage of them do not do it themselves and manage to keep it up only through complete ignorance or by turning the blind eye of convenience and expediency; that there is indeed a correlation and that animal killing is a gateway to human killing because, as pointed out in the opening paragraph, our mass shooters would not hesitate to kill a nonhuman; they generally did so and enjoyed inflicting suffering on them. On the second objection, I agree that it is more intellectually comprehensive and honest to stop killing animals for the reason that a difference in species does not abolish a moral obligation to have compassion for others. The realization of the evils of speciesism, as developed perfectly by Peter Singer, should change anyone’s outlook on our cruelty toward nonhumans on every level, at least for anyone who has a brain and a conscience strong enough to question culture. Culture—there’s the rub. A mental groundwork  must be laid before any idea like compassion can take root; the understanding, maybe even epiphany, that culture is not sacrosanct, that it is up for critique and needs to be questioned; that just because great grandpa did such and such does not make it right; that just because “everyone” is doing it, does not make it right.  Reaching that point centers the problem because people cling to culture to define themselves and gain a sense of identity.  They are lost having to think for themselves. If you can’t think for yourself, than how could you reach the conclusion that you are somehow better than the nonhumans you mistreat and eat.

The Practice of Not Thinking

I heard on the radio that there is a movie coming out about David Foster Wallace. I have read very little by him, but I always take notice of the name because he was my brother’s favorite writer. I am not drawn to his style of writing, but my opinion will stop there pending better acquaintance with his work. I am, however, very drawn to his essay “Consider the Lobster.”  I can relate to his experience at a lobster festival, having had to endure a Maine lobster dinner on a large scale at Bowdoin College.  It was impossible to look away; the boiled creatures were everywhere. How do we engage in such cruelty?  We simply don’t think, just as Wallace points out in this excerpt I have reprinted below. How many of the ills of the world can we attribute to a lack of thought and a reliance on that self-serving substitute for thinking, culture? Countless, no doubt. I would be curious to know if Wallace’s depression arose, to any extent, from a sad disgust with the practices of human beings such as the one he describes here. I also wonder if anyone did shy away from eating lobster after reading his essay in “Gourmet Magazine” or elsewhere.

“However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into a steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster is fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little light-weight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole purpose of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?”