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Thursday, June 30, 2011

ASLE, Animals, Contextual Moral Vegetarianism, and Me


Part 2: Things go Dark and Creepy

Now that I’ve ruminated about all the productive and positive things that happened at ASLE, here’s a bit about what I presented: an essay on the role of contextual moral vegetarianism in Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi. To be clear (again), ASLE is about literature and representations of the environment in literature, but, perhaps, because I have had limited experience in the real world, literature functions for me as a way of accessing the real world, and this is one of the main themes that I incorporate in my teaching: that nothing one reads in a fictional work of literature is any less true than what one reads about and learns in a history class.  As Nobel Prize winning South African author Nadine Gordimer states in “Living in the Interregnum,” her 1981 James Lecture presented at the Institute for the Humanities, “nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction.”

In Life of Pi, the title character is an ethical vegetarian…until he’s stranded for 227 days on a lifeboat, adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, his sole companion a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. In terms of my essay, it’s largely based on a bit of theoretical shifting that is a part of the realization that being vegan/vegetarian makes no sense in certain contextual situations (duh, right?).  What is one to do, for example, on a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean?  Such a scenario is the extreme case, but Pi’s ability to contextualize his diet, to partake of sea creatures (and possibly even to partake of the flesh of another human) situates vegetarianism and veganism as dietary choices that can only be made in certain (privileged) circumstances.
 
Here’s the start of the essay:
Perhaps nowhere is the conflicting nature of the Western rhetoric of species preservation more apparent than in much of the current debate surrounding vegetarianism.  In conjunction with the twentieth and twenty-first century Holocene extinction spasm has occurred the rise and commercialization of a vegetarian diet as an ethical imperative and as a presumed reaction to and proposed remedy for environmental destruction – including species decimation.  Arguments in favor of such an ideology often cite, among other factors, the environmental damage done by factory farms and the depletion of arable land as a result of overgrazing.  Despite Anthony Bourdain’s limited claim that "vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans ... are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit,” arguments in favor of a vegetarian diet focus on a politics of compassionate consumption, the health benefits of eschewing meat, and the positive environmental impact to which such a diet contributes.  Bruce Friedrich offers one such argument: the amount of land used to satisfy the food requirements of a vegan for one year is 1/16 acre; for a meat eater, the figure is 20 times as high.  Similarly, “it requires 300 gallons of water to feed a vegan for a day.  It requires about four times as much to feed a vegetarian, and 14 times as much to feed a meat eater.”

OK, all well and good.  But despite such statistics, vegetarians are the “enemy” and vegans are “Hezbollah.” (by the way, that’s the worst analogy ever in the history of faulty analogies.  Seriously: hez·bol·lah [Arab. khes-bah-lah]–noun a radical ShiΚΏite Muslim organization in Lebanon engaged in guerrilla warfare against Israel. veg·an [vej-uhn; especially Brit. vee-guhn]–noun a vegetarian who omits all animal products from the diet).  So, if this is the general perception (and I kinda think that it is), how do we crazy animal rights people convince the rest of the world that being veg matters or is helpful (or is healthful or that being compassionate to animals – the ones that aren’t pets – is necessary)?
 
Intermission.  Consider Scott Adam’s assessment in Dilbert for more on the crazy:


Oh, and by the way, a big fat fuck off to Anthony Bourdain, who capitalizes on being a vegan hater.  Anyone can cook with meat; it takes talent to cook without it.

The Ramones tee-shirt notwithstanding, he’s still a dillweed. 

Here’s Deane Curtin on the subject of contextual moral vegetarianism – and Deane Curtin is a major source for my thinking in this essay: In Environmental Ethics for a Postcolonial World, Curtin has claimed that he can imagine saying “to a dominant white culture, which has perfected the global food market and excelled at industrial farming, that we have an obligation to be vegetarian,” but he notes that
as a ‘contextual moral vegetarian,’ I cannot refer to an absolute moral rule that prohibits meat eating under all circumstances. There may be some contexts in which another response is appropriate. Though I am committed to moral vegetarianism, I cannot say that I would never kill an animal for food.

Mostly, I tend to agree with Curtin’s statement that in the West, we white folks have a moral obligation to be veg – and I also recognize the racial implications of such an assertion.  I’d argue a bit differently, that perhaps race may be a part of the contextual picture, but socio-economic status is probably a bigger factor.  Carol Adams deals that the contention that veganism/vegetarianism is a particular form of racism – an argument often posited in order to support the cultural significance of a subordinate (read as “nonwhite”) population’s ancestral and familial connections to a meat eating – by linking the oppression of nonwhite groups to the oppression of animals.  And that’s an argument I get as well – and I’ve written about that idea all over the non-blog world, so I won’t rehash my sentiments here. 

In terms of who should be and who has a contextual right not to be veg, I prefer not to make pronouncements beyond the fact that I’ve never understood the reasons offered by people who have given me (almost always uninvited) their opinions as to why not.

But I also understand the contextual argument, particularly given all kinds of racial, socio-economic, and global circumstances that do not support vegetarianism or, on the more extreme end, veganism.  For example, Curtin goes further to discuss the Makah nation of Washington State; the Nation asserts that it has a right to hunt gray whales, a species that was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1994 (Curtin 137).  For the Makah people, whaling’s cultural significance has become a key aspect of their cultural renaissance.  Despite the United States government’s allocation of 20 gray whales to the Makah over a four-year period, however, animal rights and environmental activists have protested Makah whaling and denounced the practice.

OK: so back to ASLE.  Here’s me trying to discuss this contextual vegetarian ethos, and then there’s this bumper sticker displaying a precise example of such an ethos:


I can’t find any information that links this organization, the Fur Harvesters of North Bay, Ontario, to native peoples, even though the image on the sticker is of a stylized image of a native person, a trapper, disenfranchised by the whites who invaded North America (there are links on Fur Harvesters’ web page for such things as “furisgreen.com and “Origin Assured," which, while arguing for the green and sustainable nature of fur, convince me of absolutely nothing).  

The image, for whatever it’s worth, capitalizes not only on the concept of context, of native people’s cultural history of hunting and trapping but also on the (false) belief that hunting and trapping is a way of protecting women from harm.  By such logic, if one hunts and kills animals, one is less likely to hunt and prey upon and kill women (little old ladies in this case).  The sexual politics of fur.  What a problematic phrase, in oh so many ways.

But there is much evidence to support a counter-argument, that there are connections between the killing/abuse/hunting of animals and the killing/abuse/hunting of humans – predominantly women and children.  So let’s start with Ed Gein a hunter, who gutted his female victims like deer. 

I get that Gein was batshit cuh-raaz-ee, so perhaps his example is not exactly representative. 

But here’s an article in Newsweek on the subject of the links between animal cruelty and the murder of humans and another from PETA on the connections between animal abuse and domestic violence.  Lastly, CBS News has this 2009 story of a deer hunter who shot and killed six other hunters – one of whom was female. 

Canadian author Margaret Atwood's novel Surfacing makes clear the connections between hunting and trapping animals for fur in Canada and the objectification of women and nonwhite minorities: “‘Do you realize,’ David says, ‘that this country is founded on the bodies of dead animals?  Dead fish, dead seals, and historically dead beavers, the beaver is to this country what the black man is to the United States’” (46).  And later, when the unnamed narrator doesn’t understand David’s joke that “a split beaver” (141) should emblazon Canada’s flag instead of the maple leaf, he responds, “where’ve you been living?  It’s slang for cunt” (141). The narrative that kids who hunt animals grow up not to hurt women or other members of society, well, that’s specious logic at best, no matter what the context.

I’ve written too much and still managed not to say anything about Lauren Spierer, who’s still missing.  And then there’s Crystal Grubb, who isn’t missing anymore. Yep, context – here as well as in matters of vegetarianism/veganism – matters. 


3 comments:

  1. Of course, context always matters.

    This week, quite a few of the contributors to my news feed in facebook have been going on about the Casey Anthony trial. Only a few even acknowledge that this is but one in thousands of cases of missing/murdered children. That doesn't make her case any less important, of course, but the exaggerated media attention does diminish the social importance of those uncounted others. But this sweet white girl with a sexy mom... how could she not make news? My guess is that if we were to ask a DSS worker about missing/abused/murdered black kids in the projects, we'd get an earful. But that doesn't attract round-the-clock viewing.

    Context always matters.

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  2. Last week, a decomposed female body was found in a creek near where Lauren Spierer went missing. There was, of course, much speculation that the body would turn out to be Spierer. But it seems that this woman was African American. So now all the news stories are about how "the body in the creek isn't Lauren Spierer." Here's one example: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/2011/07/05/2011-07-05_body_found_in_indianapolis_creek_is_not_missing_student_lauren_spierer_coroner.html

    So the body isn't Spierer. OK. But there is nothing -- and I mean nothing -- in the news about who this dead woman might be. I mean, here is a dead body floating face up in a creek. It's the body of a woman. Something horrible has obviously happened to her. Somewhere, someone is missing her. Yet all that's out there is information about who she is NOT. She is not Lauren Spierer; she is not white. She is not, therefore, worthy of further consideration.

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  3. Wow. So the body isn't that of Lauren Spierer. Probably good news for Spierer's family. But the media lets it end there? Again, wow. WOW.

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