Thursday, 23 April 2015

Abusing animals and abusing people - food for thought

Chris Hedges is a provocative and challenging writer - exciting and irritating in sometimes equal measure.  That's how I felt about his piece on 'Choosing Life', in which he argues that the breeding of animals for food has a numbing effect on our sensitivity to violence. We can even feel tenderness for the animals/people we intend to kill, despite suffering from a 'loss of empathy and compassion for other living beings'. That is why torturers are sometimes affectionate towards prisoners. Here is the gist of Hedges' argument:
CowsA culture that kills, including for food, must create a belief system that inures people to suffering. This is the only way the slaughter of other sentient beings is possible. This numbness allows us to dehumanize Muslims in the Middle East and our own poor, unemployed, underpaid and mentally ill, as well as the more than 9 billion land animals killed for food each year in the United States and the 70 billion land animals killed for food each year across the world. If we added fish, the numbers would be in the trillions.
Predictably enough, he brings in a reference to the Nazis - which somebody told me recently was a sign of having lost an argument. 

I admit to being an omnivore and feeling some discomfort about Hedges' challenge to my eating habits. However, my main concern is the over-simplification of complex questions as to why human beings hurt and kill other creatures - human and animal - and my wariness of Hedge's utopian tendencies with regard to the moral benefits of veganism.

I do not need persuading that modern factory farming methods are barbaric - consumerism is the most voracious of idols in its appetite for unlimited supplies of the blood and flesh of tortured victims. Yet it seems to me a huge leap from acknowledging that to making a necessary connection between veganism and non-violence. I could go on at length about questions that arise with regard to the hunting and dietary traditions, and the fighting traditions, of different cultures and eras, as needing far more nuanced analysis. I could even be persuaded to make a flamboyant connection between certain unique features of neo-liberal capitalist cultures like our own, namely factory farming and the arms trade - they are both, after all, forms of mechanised butchery driven by market demands - but still, I think Hedges over-eggs his case, and meatier arguments are required.

Nevertheless, soon after reading his article I went back to Giorgio Agamben's little big book, The Open: Man and Animal - little because it's a series of short, sketchy essays, big because it's full of challenging ideas about our perceptions of what it is that separates us from the other animals with which we have so much in common. Here, for example, is a paragraph from the end of a chapter titled 'Mysterium disiunctionis':
In our culture, man has always been thought of as the articulation and conjunction of a body and a soul, of a living thing and a logos, of a natural (or animal) element and a supernatural or social or divine element. We must learn instead to think of man as what results from the incongruity of these two elements, and investigate not the metaphysical mystery of conjunction, but rather the practical and political mystery of separation. What is man, if he is always the place - and, at the same time, the result - of ceaseless divisions and caesurae? It is more urgent to work on these divisions, to ask in what way - within man - has man been separated from non-man, and the animal from the human, than it is to take positions on the great issues, on so-called human rights and values. And perhaps even the most luminous sphere of our relations with the divine depends, in some way on that darker one which separates us from the animal. (p. 16)
Boccaccio, De Mulieribus Claris, 16th Century codex, University of Pennsylvania

Passages like that enrapture me and send me back hungry for more. Yet when I returned to Agamben after reading Hedges' article, here is what I read in a chapter titled 'Poverty in the World', based on Heidegger's 'Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics', about the animal's 'poverty in world' (Weltarmut) and 'world-forming' (weltbildend) man:
For a vivid example of captivation, which can never open itself to a world, Heidegger refers to the experiment (previously described by Uexküll) in which a bee is placed in front of a cup full of honey in a laboratory. If, once it has begun to suck, the bee's abdomen is cut away, it will continue happily to suck while the honey visibly streams out of its open abdomen. (p. 52)
I threw the book aside, too sickened to read on. I thought of Josef Mengele's experiments in Auschwitz, and the horrors of scientific curiosity that cannot tell the difference between what we can do and what we should do. I also thought of the unresolved ambiguity about Heidegger's relationship to Nazism. How many steps is it from cutting off the abdomen of a living bee in order to see what happens, to experimenting on human twins? If a person is fascinated by the former, does he or she experience a gradual numbing of the moral sensitivity that might unambiguously condemn the latter? A giant, unthinkable leap, or a series of imperceptibly small steps towards the abyss? Maybe Chris Hedges is right.

At least, reading Agamben and Hedges together further persuades me that there are certain connections we ought to be making, as science thrusts us further and further towards a radical rupture in humankind - between the wealthy post-human cyborg, and the destitute homo sacer (which is the title of Agamben's best-known work), who lacks even the rights of animals. And is that day not already upon us, as the despairing refugees of north Africa and Syria wash up on the shores of Europe, without rights or laws to protect them, without any of the basic attributes which today enable a living being to include itself among the rights-bearing creatures of God's creation? Is there a connection between our indifference as to where our food comes from, and our indifference as to what happens to our human neighbours? Food for thought.

Cynocephali (dog-headed human figures) in the Kievan Psalter, 1397


  1. Have you come across Carol J Adams' "The Sexual Politics of Meat"? I found her arguments for the connection between meat eating, misogyny, and racism, if not totally compelling, then at least worthy of serious consideration.

  2. Have you come across the work of Carol J. Adams? The book for which she is most renowned is "The Sexual Politics of Meat", published in 1990 and re-issued a few years ago. She makes links between women's oppression and meat eating, and used to teach theology courses on domestic violence (she was originally taught by Mary Daly).

    Adams does not claim to be an academic, but asserts that some feminist theory contains a previously unperceived vegetarian critique. I don't think her work is quite as heavy as Agamben, but it's worth a read and it links in with your final question, making an additional connection between patriarchy and meat.

  3. A thought-provoking piece. Thank you.
    At what point up the chain does it become unethical to kill I ask myself, as antibiotics kill the "bad" bacteria in my gut that elsewhere prevents the planet being overrun with organic debris?
    We become sentimental and concerned at what point? Not with living bacteria that threatens, not with flies that spread disease, then when?

    The early Hebrews were known as the only people with concern for the animals they had to slaughter for food. Some other tribes in the area cut a limb off an animal to eat leaving it alive for another meal of fresh meat.
    We are carnivores. Our teeth show that. Concern for animals arises when poverty decreases.

    Jesus ate fish, even cooked it after the Resurrection. That's good enough for me. The creature had to struggle and suffocate or receive a blow before the meal.
    We are promised that the lion will lie down with the lamb...but not yet.

  4. [continued...]
    You chose the Cynocephali to illustrate your point Tina.
    One legend says St Christopher was rewarded by having his dog head removed returning him to the ranks of the elite - superior humankind.
    Do any of the Church Fathers show compassion for animals or are they considered lesser beings in Creation like the human female - there to be tamed and used?


Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.