I have an important paper and presentation due tomorrow at 2 PM. It is 10:26 PM the night before said paper and presentation are due. And … I have not begun writing either of them.
(Sorry, Mom. But who am I kidding? You especially understand the dire and unnecessary complexities of my academic paper-writing habits. Honestly, my procrastination tendencies go back to elementary school, and we both know it.)
Instead, I am writing this blog post. I am also eating this while I write. The situation is not ironic.
Earlier this evening, I attended an event as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival entitled, “Jonathan Safran Foer on (Not) Eating Animals.” Foer—a well-dressed and well-versed Jewish man in his early 30’s—is the author of critically acclaimed fiction novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. More importantly (in my eyes, at least) he is the author of the 2009 nonfiction book Eating Animals. I read this book shortly after becoming vegetarian, and it became a formative experience in my journey to becoming vegan earlier this year. In writing the book, Foer (himself a vegetarian) asks hugely unanswerable questions about how and why we eat meat and whether we should eat meat—and at the end of the book, the questions remain unanswered.
For him and for me, the answer to these questions was simple: No, we should not eat meat. However, for you, the answer may be different. And before attending the event tonight, I thought that your answer, if different than mine, would always be wrong, and that mine would always be right. But it’s just not that simple.
“We all have different stories.” At the beginning of the event, the moderator asked Foer to read aloud a passage from the first chapter of Eating Animals, a true story his grandmother told him when he was a little boy about her experiences living through World War II. A young Jewish refugee, Foer’s grandmother made her way alone across Eastern Europe to seek shelter from the Germans. Starving, with sores all over her body from eating garbage off the streets, she felt close to death when a Russian farmer offered a bit of meat to her. Foer, about nine-years-old, asked her, “‘He saved your life?'” She replied, “‘No. I didn’t eat it. It was pork.'” He asked, “‘Because you’re kosher? But you could have died.'” And she answered him, “‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save. There’s no reason to be alive.'”
We all have different stories, different ideas about how we define ourselves, about the type of person we want to be, about what we eat. Your food story is not the same as mine, and it is certainly not the same as Foer’s or his grandmother’s. “However,” Foer explains,”There is one shared element among all of our stories. Everyone has some moral discomfort with eating animals.”
And it’s true. Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about the fact that you were once eating a living thing. There’s a time in all of our lives when we think to ourselves, An animal had to die so that I could eat what I’m eating right now.
“I go to a lot of high schools,” Foer explained. “It’s where change happens. I ask the students, ‘Would you pay $5 for the best hamburger in the world?’ They almost always say yes. I ask them, ‘Would you pay $10?’ They say yes. ‘$100?’ Yes. ‘$100,000?’ They usually say no. There is always a price that is too much, financially. Then I ask them, ‘Would you buy a hamburger if you knew the animal was living indoors instead of outdoors?’ They say yes. ‘If they weren’t allowed to exhibit species-specific behaviors?’ Yes. ‘If they experienced their personal slaughter in 15 minutes?’ An hour?’ No. Everyone has a place that is too much. Everyone has some degree of sensitivity to eating animals.”
What price would you pay? It’s not like we are uneducated about animal cruelty or about the environmental and ecological impacts of factory farming. We’ve all seen (or have come in contact with) the pamphlets and the photographs and the documentaries. We all know that we have a food system that is unnecessarily cruel to animals. But most of us are indifferent.
“We all walk around depressed,” Foer boldly stated tonight. “We are ignoring things that matter a lot to us.” Morals, ethics, behavior. “But you know what? It feels good to say, ‘I care about this. I care about something.'” And it does. I personally feel good about being vegan. Making educated and purposeful choices feels much better to me than the feeling of eating chicken fingers.
“It is a huge relief. It’s not triumph or pride. It is the relief of becoming closer to yourself, of being able to look at something, namely yourself, without having to avert your eyes. Like the feeling you get when you walk past a homeless person without giving him any money. Or when you give only a dollar when you know you could have given so much more.” How many of us have ever looked at a restaurant menu item with meat in it, brought to mind the ethical/moral/social/economic/ecological implications of ordering the item … and yet ordered it anyway? How many of us have experienced the shame involved in eating meat? I guarantee almost everyone. Franz Kafka, after becoming vegetarian, once muttered in German to a fish in an aquarium, “Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore.”
For me, it is a relief to not feel shame about eating meat. It is a relief to look at my meal and not feel guilt about what I am eating. Friends still whisper to me while eating out a restaurant, “Sorry for ordering this [insert meat item here].” But I know they’re not apologizing to me. They’re apologizing to themselves for feeling their own shame.
But here’s the thing: eating meat (or not eating meat) is not black and white. It can be (it is for me), but for the majority of people in the world, it isn’t. “I eat as little meat as possible,” Foer explained, “which, for me, means zero. Some people can’t do that. Some people can’t eat zero meat. But some people approach it in the same way. They eat as little meat as possible—whatever that means for them.”
There is a middle ground to eating meat. You don’t have to be a hippy-dippy PETA fanatic OR a self-proclaimed meat-lover. Eating or not eating meat cannot and should not be an “all-or-nothing” identity. There is a spectrum of ethics involved in every bite of meat we eat, and contemplating these ethics shouldn’t have to be shameful or hypocritical. Doing good for yourself, for your environment, for your economy, for your society, and for your morals can be inspiring—whether it’s just for one meal or for the rest of your life.
“It just requires shifting our perspective—from an identity of vanity to one of being humble and flexible and appreciative of the complexity of our world. To being forgiving of our shortcomings and to being willing to engage in the problems of our food system. You don’t have to love an animal to say some things are worth preserving, like our air, our water, or our baseline human dignity. The solution to factory farming doesn’t require a new system of values. It only requires us to act on the values we already have—to pause for a second and ask ourselves, ‘Is this what I really want?’ We are the generation who will be asked, ‘What did you do when you watched the videos? What did you do when you read the stories? What did you do?'”
If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save. With every new day, every new minute, and every new meal, we decide the kind of story we want to tell about ourselves. Every day, we must attempt to answer the questions that seem unanswerable. And every day, we are given the choice to look at ourselves directly in the eyes or to avert them.
What will you do today?
Disclaimer: Much of the quotes from tonight’s event are not exactly verbatim. I scrawled down as much as I could of Foer’s words as quickly as I could … but sometimes it just wasn’t quick enough. All quotes are, however, based entirely in truth and integrity of what was spoken tonight.
If you would like to borrow my copy of Eating Animals, please let me know. I am always willing to lend it out to anyone who asks.
UPDATE, 11/20/13: Foer’s interview is now on YouTube. Please check it out, because his actual words are much more eloquent than were my slightly incoherent scribbles.