I didn’t eat meat for two years in high school. When asked my reasoning, I would say that I was choosing not to support the meat industry because of the human rights abuses committed against its workers, because of the environmental damage resulting from its practices, and because of the inhumane treatment given to animals. I did not, I would say, think it inherently wrong to eat animals.
That changed when a read a short story in Spanish modern lit. The piece, “Adios, Cordera!” by Clarín, tells the story of a rural family in the midst of an industrializing Spain who are forced to sell their precious cow for necessary money. Later, the boy is drafted into a war. While the piece is nominally realist, exploring the encroachment of mechanization into the rural environment (both the cow and the boy are taken away by the newly constructed train), a connection was evident. The cow, who had been a sustaining force both emotionally and economically for the poor and motherless family would be nothing more than a single meal to someone able to afford it (let it be known that while I am typing this piece in word, the grammar tool is telling me I should be using “which” as opposed to “who” in regards to the cow). The loss in war of a boy would devastate this family but would be an entirely disposable life for the royalty who enlisted him.
After recognizing this connection, I could not, in good conscience, eat meat.
Throughout history, we have taken steps closer to understanding that the exploitation of those less powerful than us for our benefit is wrong. But have we fully achieved and embraced this understanding? We outlawed slavery! We have a minimum working age!
But we still have Steubenville, in which a significant amount of the public has defended or rationalized exploitation at the expense of the exploited.
I recently wrote to two of my male friends who, in light of a conversation we’d had about the Steubenville rape cases, had expressed confusion and concern over the degree of responsibility held by someone who committed an assault while intoxicated.
I could see that their potential to harm someone else is scary to them, because they are compassionate human beings. I could see that the potential for them to be convicted of a crime they did not intend to commit was scary to them, because they are logical human beings.
To better understand the potential for either of these things, I urged them to think about power—physical and socio-political. I urged them to be aware of the ways in which their physical power can inflict harm on another, even without their intention and particularly when they do not have full control of it. I urged them to consider our country’s history of denying women political and legal agency and of skewing, pretty outrageously, what constitutes consent. This history manifests itself in a culture that empowers fewer than half of survivors to report their assault, and a legal system that results in 3-6% of rapists ever spending a day in jail (when accounting for unreported rapes—ghttp://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/reporting-rates).
I told them that sexual assault is about power and control – even if you don’t intend to use that power for harm. Pledging not to assault means you check your own power, both physical and social. It means you resist the impulse to put physical gratification over your responsibility to ensure you do not inflict harm on others. It means you deny the permission much of society has given you to do so.
I now feel as though I could say virtually the same things in regards to the exploitation of animals.
In her piece “Animals as Vulnerable Subjects: Beyond Interest-Convergence, Hierachy, and Property,” Ani B. Satz asserts, “the suffering of animals in factory farms, laboratories, the entertainment industry, and households must be weighed against human satisfaction derived from the use of animals in these contexts” (7). The example she provides is whether or not human enjoyment in consuming a ham sandwich outweighs the profound suffering of a pig confined and immobilized in a gestation crate for the entirety of its life before slaughter.
If we are compassionate beings, we will say it is not. By killing animals purely for our enjoyment of their flavor, we are not responsibly checking our power. Beyond compassion, I think we all have a self-preserving stake in this mentality, because if we can have it towards another, we can surely have it towards each other.