Sunday, December 12, 2010

Meat: Politics and Perspective on Steroids

Human consumption of animals for food is an issue that seldom gets much media attention, except when it enters the political arena. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin recently accused Sarah Palin of killing animals for fun or political gain, and now the subject is hot.
First, let me be clear that as a resident of Wasilla, Alaska, I view Palin as a local and a national embarrassment unworthy of the relentless media attention she gets. I consider her a well-meaning but deeply ignorant human being who attended four colleges and obtained a degree but escaped without an education. I don’t, however, think she kills animals for fun. Hunting game animals in Alaska is a tradition more honorable by leaps and bounds, in my view, than factory farming. That said, Palin is enormously talented at turning tradition into ridicule and time-honored custom into propaganda. Seeing the flippant way she treats practically any subject she talks about, I can’t blame Sorkin for his assumption. I would also add that anyone who can’t shoot better than Palin should not hunt any animal, period.
The topic of killing animals for food can be likened to perspective on steroids. It’s a matter most people purposely avoid for purely selfish reasons: we don’t want to hear about things that make us uncomfortable, especially if it seems we are powerless to do anything about them. Now, before I go any further, let me clarify that I’m not a vegetarian, nor will I likely become one at this age. I’m not going to try to talk you into becoming one either. And for the record, I do hunt moose.
I’ve written before about the value of using dissonance as a guide for purposeful exploration in the pursuit of objectivity. When new information comes in that conflicts with what we perceive to be true, we’re forced to either deny the facts or adjust our thinking. One possible exception is the arena of politics, where factual information doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much as association and whose side one is on politically. But if we can put politics aside, the discomfort of dissonant information has something to teach us, and this applies to all of the subjects we encounter in life, not just emotional affairs of state.
One of the easiest ways to kick up some dissonance about the fragile notion of objectivity is to examine the subject of our dietary habits. Few of us give much thought to what goes on behind the grocery store shelves, especially the meat market. But, to my mind, no other subject puts ideology and the desire to be protected from reality—or to choose one’s own reality—in clearer perspective than the treatment of animals bred for human consumption.
When we put aside the moral issue of eating meat from domestic animals and examine it strictly as a matter of environmental economics, we can easily apprehend the egregious inefficiencies in sowing grain to produce meat. Sixteen pounds of grain plus an enormous amount of water are required to produce one pound of beef. It’s also clear that the world is losing topsoil at an alarming rate, making global famine a frequent occurrence. Thus we can conclude that the health of the planet and of human beings would be much improved if we dramatically reduced our consumption of red meat.
In his eloquent book Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, Charles Patterson makes a compelling case that the indifference we exhibit toward the needless suffering of animals breeds inhumanity among our own kind. Such suffering occurs on a scale so grand and so horrific that it’s almost incomprehensible. I will spare you the vivid daily details of factory slaughterhouses and the depraved indifference and abject cruelty that happen routinely behind those closed doors, but it’s not hard to find if you’re interested. (The movie Food Inc. is a good place to start.) I will, though, ask you one question that interjects morality back into this subject. If you were told that a particular furry mammal’s flesh tastes better when the animal is subjected to a rush of adrenalin just before it is killed, would you approve of burning it alive or beating it to death to improve the flavor? I didn’t think so. But it’s naïve to think this hasn’t happened in the past, doesn’t happen in the present, or won’t in the future.
If you feel you have thoroughly examined the morality of being a carnivore, and that no further reflection is necessary, try a simple thought experiment: Imagine you are sitting on a hilltop overlooking a canyon below and that before you is a seemingly infinite stage as far as the eye can see. Upon this stage, facing you, is every animal whose flesh you have personally eaten. You have to work at this for a while to get your mind around it. All of these creatures could and did feel pain.
Chances are, if you are a senior citizen like me, you can remember when livestock and farm animals had something of a life before they were slaughtered, but that was before industrial, assembly-line farming took over. Currently many creatures live in such tiny spaces that throughout the whole of their lives they don’t even have enough physical room to turn around. When we consider how many cattle might be represented in all of the hamburger we’ve consumed in the half-century or more that we’ve lived, you have to wonder if it’s even possible to position the stage in our thought experiment to include all of these animals without blotting out the earth and sky.
No, I’ve not adopted the vegetarian lifestyle, but I do intend to pay more attention to food choices and to speak up about the maltreatment of animals who suffer needlessly on industrial farms for the sake of expediency and profit—or for the sake of Sarah Palin’s reality television show. I do agree with Sorkin that Palin would kill damn near anything for political gain.
But back to factory farming. The ubiquity of supermarkets has had the effect of anesthetizing the general public from the inhumane realities of industrial farming. There is something deeply offensive about sending five-day-old calves to slaughter because it means veal will be slightly more tender. I’m reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion that “no view of life is valid that omits the odious facts,” and factory farming is the epitome of odiousness and thoughtlessness.
The stress we encounter in life is escalating exponentially, and the hidden immorality of it all may be in the realization that much of the food we eat represents the epitome of stress that could be avoided for pennies on the dollar. Surely the thoughtfulness required to kill animals humanely could ripple though society as a measure of unspoken respect for the sanctity of life itself and ultimately make the world a better place.
Think about it this way: If stressed people live on a diet of animals rife with stress hormones, what is the biological consequence for human health? What does this say about the quest for civilization? I believe the indifference that Patterson writes about leads to a kind of insensitivity that feeds on itself, dulling our senses and closing down our natural predilection for empathy. Moreover, this general disregard is fertile ground for arousing political contempt with a vengeance—something Sarah Palin is very good at.  
In her book Animals Make Us Human, Temple Grandin lets us off the hook a bit when she writes about her own cognitive dissonance. Because she cares strongly about the well-being of animals, one would expect her to agitate against the slaughterhouse industry instead of working for it as she does. She describes watching cattle going to their death, in an assembly-line system of her own design, when suddenly she began to cry. Then it occurred to her in a flash that without the industry itself, none of these animals would have ever existed in the first place. Moreover, when she considered the harshness of the order of life and death in the natural world, a humane death in a slaughterhouse seemed almost preferable. That said, Grandin has worked tirelessly for the humane treatment of animals raised for food.             
Learning more about this subject is the only way to break the seldom acknowledged codes of the ideologies that bind us together and pit us against one another. There are three books on meat for human consumption that I recommend highly: Eternal Treblinka by Charles Patterson, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I encourage you to read more about factory farming and to take the same approach with any subject that you have treated till now with only superficial knowledge, especially those you consider very important.
Too many of us have adamant opinions on subjects that, for all practical purposes, we know very little about, and this applies doubly to politics and supermarket food. On the latter subject Sorkin quotes Palin as having said, “Unless you’ve never worn leather shoes, sat upon a leather chair or eaten meat, save your condemnation.” Having worked in the oil industry for more than thirty years, I use a similar rationale that people who ride in automobiles, fly in airplanes, and use commercial products should save their condemnation of the use of fossil fuels as well. Nevertheless, I’m all for reducing our consumption of fossil fuels and exploring alternative energy, just as I’m all for treating the creatures we raise for food in a manner that enhances their brief well-being and fosters our humanity.
Reading and asking questions can take us beyond the deceptively antiseptic and seemingly benign shelves in our supermarkets. Yes, we may have to contend with some dissonance along the way, but if objectivity is the goal, it seems a shame not to follow that course. Indeed, that’s what books are for, except maybe for Sarah’s. But of course she doesn’t write her own books, she just poses for them. Metaphorically that’s all her political gesturing amounts to: an ideological pose and a shallow one at that. Here again I agree with Sorkin that The Learning Channel should be ashamed of itself, but not simply because of Palin. Their lineup of new programming is an insult to education.
In her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz writes about three tacks we most often take toward people with whom we disagree: The ignorance assumption, the idiocy assumption, and the evil assumption. People have in the past and will in the future accuse me of claiming Palin is ignorant because she doesn’t agree with me. And to that I say, you betcha. But Palin jumps to the third tack, which Schulz argues is the most dangerous, namely that the people who don’t agree with her are evil.
As those who participate already know, the greatest lesson of all of self-education is that things are seldom as they seem. Examining the food industry is good way to prove this to yourself. Then apply what you’ve learned to politics. The world could be a better place if more people would do this.

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