Friday, August 6, 2010

Arguments for Eating Animals: Bad Faith, Disavowal, and Addiction

This post is immediately inspired by a comment Tim Morton made in this post by Levi, but I've been planning on writing something like this for a bit.

Those of us who argue for vegetarianism and veganism hear a wide plethora of arguments for eating animals (or against vegetarianism and veganism). Frequently they are delivered in the form of questions. Occasionally there are questions given by the genuinely curious, but usually these are questions meant to delegitimatize the veg position. These questions tend toward gray areas, morally complex areas, in order to legitimate a whole host of behaviors that are not particularly morally complex. It is like if I said I'm against killing people, and someone goes, "Well, what about to protect yourself from immediate harm?" And then I go, "Okay, I mean against killing people who aren't attacking you." Then the person responds, "Well, what about Hitler? Wouldn't you have killed Hitler?" And then you go, "Okay, I am against killing people who aren't mass murders". And then the person goes, "Well, say you have a chance to kill Hitler before he became Hitler, wouldn't you kill Hitler." And then, with all those exceptions, the other person goes out and kills the first person they run into. This whole argument is bollocks, and obviously bollocks. The philosophical argument is less about if you should or shouldn't be vegetarians and vegans, and more about why people don't buy the arguments. This is a major point made by Bill Martin in his Ethical Marxism, and I am in full agreement. So, what drives these arguments for eating animals?

Well, one argument is that these arguments are based in bad faith, in the way that Sartre describes in Anti-Semite and Jew. However, rather than anti-semitism, we are dealing instead with speciesism. John Sanbonmatsu makes almost this exact argument in his paper he delivered at ICAS. In this case, the same fears that drive one to hate the Jew also drives one to hate the Animal. It is an argument that comes out of a great deal of insecurity, a great deal of personal hatred turned outward against animals, and it is by destroying animals that the one with bad faith manages to reassure oneself.

A related but different argument can come from the psychoanalytic concept of Verleugnung, of disavowal. This is a major argument advanced by Derrida in The Animal That Therefore I Am. In this case there are two major disseminations of disavowal. The first is a disavowal of that there is no such thing Man on one side of the line, and Animal on the other side. The second disavowal is of the violence we do to other animals. As Derrida puts it,
Neither can one seriously deny the disavowal that this involves. No one can deny seriously any more, or for very long, that men do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty or to hide it from themselves; in order to organize on a global scale the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence, which some would compare to the worst cases of genocide[.] (pp. 25-26)

This passage also hints at a third disavowal, a disavowal of disavowal. A forgetting of forgetting. We'll return to this point.

I've gone rather quickly over the issues of bad faith and disavowal. There are long and complicated philosophical histories and theoretical nuances I've jumped over. But I wanted to move into another point, one that doesn't seem to be out there. This is something I've been thinking about for a while, but the way that Morton/Bryant say the following point is nice:
Moreover, as Morton likes to put it, the Big Mac is not comfort food (a semiotic determination), but rather the Big Mack is comfort. That is, the Big Mac interacts physiologically with our bodies in a variety of ways that produce particular Stimmung.

What does that mean? Well, it means that particular kinds of food don't make you feel better just by nostalgia or magic. Rather, it chemically alters your mood, like coffee in the morning. Particular foods are remarkably addictive. It is from this perspective I can understand that I can understand something from Pollan that has never made sense. At one point he argues that saying we can eat without animal flesh is like saying we can reproduce without sex. That has always floored me, because who in their right mind believes that eating an animal is the same as having sex? Well, an addict would go there. That gives the particular logic of the flesh eater an entirely other dimension: these aren't the domination of the speciesist acting in bad faith, this isn't the psychoanalytical disavowal, rather this is the incoherent, and rather lame, excuses that one hears from addicts all the time. Anyone who has ever hung out with people who feel the pressure to stop their addiction has probably heard variations of these excuses. "You aren't so pure yourself", "I play the lottery to help the schools and children", etc. Now, there are some draw backs that some people might have with the rhetoric of addiction to talk about flesh eaters. One is that it seems to turn the flesh eater into victim. Not only are animals victimized, but those who eat animals are also victimized in their eating of them. The reductio ad absurdum of this is something like, "Why do you make me eat you by tasting so good?". Of course, part of the issue is taste has nothing to do this (whatever you may feel now; coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol didn't taste so good the first time. And parenting advice often features long discussions and how to get children to eat flesh). But the other point is that oppression and domination are seldom so easily one sided. While the animal is not oppressing the addict, the addiction certainly is. And like with many addictions, this one is certainly causes us all sorts of harms. Do I really need to engage the long laundry list of the ways that cheap animal flesh and products are causing rampant health issues and environmental issues? This shit (often literally) is killing us, but very few of us are even willing to cut back, much less get off the sauce entirely. Another objection in talking about addiction is it makes veganism sound like a hard thing to do. Many of you have read or heard Francione make the arguments that we need to present veganism and simple and easy step. Except... you know... it usually isn't for most people. Many people have trouble going vegan, and many of them relapse again and again (just like addicts). I'm not sure which is strategically a better idea, presenting veganism as a hard but important thing, or presenting it as an easy thing. But the truth is that for most people going vegan won't be easy. Lastly, an objection in talking in terms of addiction, it lets many people off the hook. They can say, "I can't help it, I'm an addict." Well, that just sounds like another lame excuse. More importantly, if it is an addiction then that means different steps need to be taken to combat this issue.

Now, I'm not sure it is addiction. And I am certainly not sure if it is addiction over bad faith and disavowal (it's probably all three and then some). Earlier Derrida hinted at the disavowal of disavowal. In many ways that is what we are stuck with in the present discussion. Vegetarians and vegans are forced to basically take arguments for eating animals as legitimate. Any discussion on what propels to keep eating meat is taken as an illegitimate discourse because it assumes that vegetarianism and veganism are won arguments. That means that the sort of theoretical discourses that exam other forms of systematic violence are not usually or publicly brought to the issue of other animals. However, I find this discussion to be both more useful and philosophically rewarding than to deal with the "So, if you were a life boat and you had a Picasso, a horse, and your mother..." one more time.