Friday, July 31, 2009

Whizbang Chicken Plucker, Or: The Arbitrary Distinction between Food and Companion Animals

Recently, one of my Flickr contacts posted this picture of the "Whizbang Chicken Plucker" (the video of the "thing in action" is linked as well, and I would recommend that you take the couple minutes to watch it before reading this post)*.
I won't say anything about the contact, except that she's interested in sustainable living, and I'm guessing this to be one of the things she's doing to get to know this step in producing "food." I would definitely agree with the sentiment of the endeavor--that it is good for people to be familiar with the processes behind the manufacturing of food: too often, we separate the product from the process; we are urged to consume the packaged and convenient flesh and ignore what is done to the animal. However, the video is distressing: the handling of the chickens is nonchalant, and as the machine is ripping the feathers out of the chickens, the onlookers even chuckle. Why?

Since becoming vegan, I have been more and more sensitive to the construction of normative behaviors--how people defend, justify, and ignore what to me (us) seems unacceptable, despicable, disgusting. This was just another instance--the chicken-plucking--to which I was more sensitive. It is not just something that is perhaps repulsive--although it is that, in its graphic display of what the animal goes through to become "meat;" the reaction of the participants is symptomatic of the overall attitude: the laugh is at the spectacle, rather than the actual occurrence of the killing and deformation of the creatures. Despite being aware of the process of dismembering the chickens, there is no change in perception, and the animal is viewed as just that--a means to human ends, not as an entity with interests of its own.
It's peculiar--so often people say that they don't wish to think of the process that takes the animal from its life to their plate, etc., but it is apparent that even thinking (and seeing) the process doesn't directly disrupt that: the chickens being de-feathered in the Whizbang were already seen as food before the process (and thus, casually held by the feet and dunked in cold water beforehand--not a dead being, but food).
This separation is cultivated in our culture--the inconsistency between the treatment of companion and "food animals" is forgotten; if the distinction was recognized as completely arbitrary, perhaps the state of affairs would be different. I'm not sure what else to say at this point, so I'll leave it up to Matt to continue in his (longer) post in the same vein.

*After I started writing the post, I looked up the instrument--the plucker--and was dismayed to find several YouTube videos of "the thing in action"...apparently, this is a very common device--just something I didn't know about; and of course--arguably--it is a much more "humane" way to mutilate chickens and remove their feathers.

Some thoughts on ethical veganism.

Much of this post is in reply to Pat, who asked some questions about our views on eating meat. I don't want to speak for both of us, so I'll just answer for myself and Kat can add or amend as she sees fit. I think one way of discussing vegetarianism and veganism is to describe why and how I first came to these decisions. Some of the hurdles that vegans and vegetarians face is a lack of understanding about the decision or even about what such decisions entail. Unfortunately, many vegetarians and vegans become defensive when they are questioned by others instead of trying to offer any explanation. This can only lead to more misunderstanding.

I turned to vegetarianism because I could no longer separate the animal from the meat. I tried to separate the idea of the animal from the thing on my dinner plate, but realized that this disconnect was harmful and unnatural. There must be a direct connection between cause and effect, before and after, and to deny this is to deny an essential part of our own understanding. However, this separation is made easy for us by those from whom we buy such products. We are disconnected from our own source of nutrition because we don't see where it comes from or what it must face. This disconnect practically does not exist where vegetables are considered. We see plant growth everyday and know how it operates, but we don't see the same thing with meat. Along with this disconnect comes a loss of connection with the source of our nutrition. Our relationship to the packaged meat in the store is a fetish for the real relationship which must exist but is lost with the animal, and the plants and the earth before that.

The other aspect which originally led to my vegetarianism was a growth in my perception of the rights to happiness and life that other beings possess. I won't argue that all animals are equal or that animals are equal to humans (I do think that there is an affinity for proximity and likeness). I will say, however, that mutual respect is a premium I could never get around. It is unnecessary for me to end the life of another animal in order for me to remain healthy, and even to thrive. Consumption of these items is a luxury that necessarily comes at the detriment of others.

This may lead to the question of animals that die of natural causes. The question may be stated: "Is one ethically permitted to consume an animal, provided one does not cause the death of the animal?" In some cases, the question is moot. If an animal dies of illness or is killed by a predator, the carcass will likely be unfit to eat. In other cases, an animal that dies of old age would likely be unpalatable. So this question asks of unlikely circumstances that involve an animal dying in such a way as to leave a carcass which would be safe and palatable to eat. I would still answer this question in the negative. This question depends upon a view of eating flesh as normal. A vegan like myself wouldn't even think about this as an option anymore than an omnivore would think of pieces of wood or leather as viable food options.

Perhaps a different way of viewing the question would be to consider veganism as a positive, or liberating philosophy instead of a negative, or limiting, philosophy. Veganism is not built around the idea that I must refrain from eating one thing or another, but that my dedication to the recognition of the rights of sentient beings precludes my viewing them as consumable object, or objects at all for that matter. If one considers a liberating view of veganism, the question of eating animals or what they produce is null. It is only when one considers veganism from the limiting perspective that such loop holes become true questions.

Finally, the question may arise regarding the celebration of an animal's life by eating it. Pat asks about our views on this subject, but quickly points out that he doesn't mean a beloved dog, but a pet cow or chicken. I think that this question also relates to whether we view veganism as a liberating or limiting philosophy. If we see it as the former, then their is no question that the consumption of a pet is always inappropriate, whatever sort of animal the pet is. This question leads to two other questions, though: in what way would eating an animal be considered honoring its life? and what really is the difference between a cow and a dog? I don't see the connection between eating a pet and honor. Perhaps because of my point of view on the matter, I can only see this as degrading. As for the second question: why would we make a distinction between a dog and a cow? As far as I can see, this distinction is arbitrary. If a person kept a cow as a pet in the same way that s/he would keep a dog as a pet, then I would imagine that person would be just as horrified at the prospect of eating the cow as the dog. Just because a cow is conventionally labeled "food" would not change the way the owner would care for it or regard it.

There is more that I could write, but I think I'll cut it off here. Thanks Pat for your questions. I hope that I was able to provide some answers. Feel free to reply or ask more, I'm open to what others think, too.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Power of Prayer

There have been a lot of posts about this guy lately, but I thought I'd just take a moment to add my opinion.  Wiley Drake, a minister of the Southern Baptist church has been praying for Barack Obama's death.  Drake has also previously gone out of his way to deprecate and harass gays (you can read more here and here).
While it is impossible for me to take someone like this man seriously, the problem is that many people do take him at face value.  Recent events such as the shooting death of Dr. George Tiller and the shooting spree in the Knoxville Unitarian Universalist church last summer demonstrate that people do indeed take these messages of hatred and destruction very seriously.  
Wiley Drake abuses his authority within the church to stroke his own vanity and what he does is nothing short of incitement to violence.  

Monday, July 13, 2009

Left, Right, and "New Atheists"

I've been reading a lot of blogs lately and one trend that disturbs me is the grandiose posturing of whichever politically entrenched group each blogger takes him/herself to represent.  The news of Palin's resignation from Alaskan government, revelation of the Young Republican's racist comments on facebook, the ongoing degradation of Obama and his family that has nothing to do with political issues, etc have sparked heated back and forth between bloggers and those who comment. I value rhetoric and logical argument, in fact these are values I hope to impart to my students every semester.  I strive to show them that they can learn to disagree without enmity or hatred.  That when they disagree they must have the courage to stand up for their opinion and I try to give them the tools they need to support it.  The commentary I've been reading is filled with innuendo, poorly conceived argumentation, and a tightly-held curtain of patriotic self-righteousness.  This is a poor example for those who are just entering the debate.  They are encouraged to believe that the one who shouts the loudest or makes the most outrageous claims is correct, that hunches are synonymous with facts, and that fear is an appropriate rhetorical tool.  
Today I'm going to go back to my books.  I'm going to immerse myself in others' wisdom and try to ferret out a little more of what makes sense to me instead of getting lost in unwonted vitriol.  
Tomorrow I'm going to work on my syllabus for the upcoming school year.  I have some revisions to make to patch some leaks in my course from last year.  I've been kicking around some ideas to encourage my students to value revision, as well.  Tomorrow will be good.