Friday, October 8, 2010

JSF vs. Bourdain part I: Ethics is hard to do, Ethics is easy to do.

In my last post of links, I linked to this debate between Jonathan Safren Foer and Anthony Bourdain. I had started this post talking about that debate in more depth, but sort of decided not to finish writing. But after this post by Dr. J, and also with the comments from AnPac, I think it is probably a good idea to finish this post. So, here it goes. There is a lot that could be said about this discussion, but I want to talk about the issues of community.

Bourdain argues that meat is fundamental to community. He goes so far as to say: "To me, the human experience, human communication and curiosity, trump any ethical concerns one might have with killing and eating animals" I really love this in the debate, because Bourdain has this revealing pause between ethical concerns and the rest of the sentence. As if to some degree, Bourdain sort of believes that experience, communication, curiosity trump ethics as such. And on some level Bourdain certainly doesn't believe that ethics takes a second seat to experience, communication, and curiosity. On the other hand, I'm sure he does. We all do. We all have moments where those three seem far more important than the well-being of our fellow travelers.

Ethics is remarkably isolating.
I'm sure we have all felt this way (or at least, I kinda hope we all have). We've been around someone who tells a horribly sexist, racist, and/or heterosexist joke and everyone else around us laughs. It's an utterly debilitating moment. We are suddenly left with several choices: Do we give in? Do we play along? Do we laugh, or at least sorta smile and wince? Do we wait for that slap on the back of camaraderie, and whispered voice, "I always thought you were a stick in the mud before, I'm glad to know you're just like the rest of us"? Do we instead speak out? Do we confront people? And we know, we know we will be that person again. The predictable one, the one who always brings up these issues. So, instead of having the backslap of camaraderie, we get the disgusted tones of "Why can't you take a joke?" But we know why, we know what is at stake, we know how important it is to change. So, we have these moments where being ethical means shutting off culture, means shutting off communication. It is profoundly isolating.
Sometimes it isn't just a moment, though. Sometimes we experience a whole culture that is dedicated to destroying a livable life for those around us. Sometimes we see not just a small group of people, but we see people we respect and love and care for engaging in actions we also know are terrible and wrong. And because of the very way society is structured, you know you cannot get through the day without in some part taking advantage of a system that systematically exploits other beings. All of this can be true without ever talking about animals. Being ethical is hard to do. As Derrida puts it in "Eating Well", "responsibility is excessive or it is not a responsibility."
This is one of the brilliant and honest things that J.M Coetzee does in his lectures/stories "The Lives of Animals" (.pdf). In them the main character Elizabeth Costello carries with her a wounded nature (the phrase comes from Cora Diamond's reading of it in Philosophy & Animal Life), part of which is the way in which she is often separated from others. This happens twice in the stories around the table. The reader can be under no illusion that Costello's attempt at living a more ethical life is one that divides her many of the people around her.

Ethics brings us together.
Coetzee is honest to depict that wounded nature in "The Lives of Animals". At the same time, it is only half of the story. I'm sure we have all felt this way (or at least I hope so), the moment of being around a group and realizing they get me. They get what I think is important, where I come from. Being at a conference and coming back energized and refreshed. Going to a rally, protest, or other event and despite what you are opposing being so horrific, feeling the profound high of being part of a community. Again, all of this can be true even without talking about animals and vegetarianism. However, it is interesting to note one vegetarian story.
As Leela Gandhi relates in her wonderful book Affective Communities, Mahatma Gandhi came to England without any strong anti-colonial desires. He was a vegetarian not out of personal ethical or religious reasons, but out of a promise he made to his mother. However, being vegetarian often forced him into marginal associations, groups that were more at the fringes of British society. Particularly, he fell in with Henry Salt and the Vegetarian Society by eating at their restaurants. It was while he was with them that he became radicalized. He embraced vegetarianism, anti-colonialism, and anti-capitalism. Gandhi's promise to his mother first isolated him, and then gave him a community. It fundamentally changed the way he would have experienced British culture and society, it fundamentally changed his life.
In this sense, ethics is not about isolation, but it can often cause that. Ethics is about changing and shifting where we find our community, where we find our energy and joy and connections. Vegetarianism has not been a deprivation for me, it has only opened up new vistas for experience and experimentation that I could not have found while my desires were rooted in the eating of flesh.