Until fairly recently, meat-eating wasn’t an issue at all. You didn’t think about meat, you just ingested it. Nowadays, writes Finnish critic Antti Nylén, it’s hard to imagine a more extreme phenomenon than modern meat consumption. So how can meat-eating still be possible?
Fatalism comes easy if the fate is someone else’s.
There’s a certain type of conservatism that takes on an almost elegiac quality in its statements on the ultimate inexplicability of the world. The myth of complexity is the salvation of the conservative thinker; it is the object of his love, his praise and his undying gratitude. When the background noise of the unbridled, indistinct, mystical “forces” of sin, nature and capitalism reaches a crescendo, the conservative can be sure of feeling at one with himself, serene on the uncomplicated foreground of the world at large. His affairs are all in order, because the rest of the world is in shambles. Or as Alain Badiou has it: “Our world is in no way as ‘complex’ as those who wish to ensure its perpetuation claim.”1
In fact, the most difficult things are those that are held to be difficult – in the sense of being “preserved” (Lat. conservare). Nobody’s making us. It’s a maxim that applies often, if not always.
Veganism, for instance, a practice commonly held to be blisteringly difficult, is actually ridiculously easy. To be idle while others act.
Then there are downright arduous things, like building the Great Wall or translating the Iliad, but I am not concerned with those.
An impossible thing is a phenomenon unto itself. You can no more transform yourself into a millipede than you can spontaneously grow an extra arm, because human nature is simple: it is physical. Therein lies the beginning and the end of any and all metaphysical significance. The world, too, is simple and physical; the world = the Earth.
However, other things held to be difficult are often easy, but just as often neglected. Why is that?
Some people just can’t stop eating meat, as they themselves pretend to wail, even though they know eating meat to be a gaping, blood-soaked nightmare and a major reason for the careering of our biosphere towards irrevocable doom. It’s just so hard not to, is their well-rehearsed moan.
I have met these people personally, and they give me pause. Are they under the sway of two competing wills, a good and a bad? Because how are they able to continue their meat-eating habit, which is, after all, a singularly extreme way of life? Do they justify it with the stronger of their two wills, or – paradoxically – with the weaker?
Can they even be said to have a will at all, and if so, how can they trivialize such a calamitous issue?
“Oh come on, surely there are bigger things afoot in the world than the violent, futile lives and ugly deaths of billions of sentient creatures and the unrestrained misuse of clean water and agriculture!”
Reluctant meat-eaters owe someone, mainly themselves, a long explanation.
Are they just liars? I would perhaps have a touch more respect for them if they were simply to say that they see nothing amiss with modern meat consumption and have absolutely no intention of quitting meat. An oafish philistine who admits to being an oafish philistine is a much more palatable figure than an oafish philistine who claims to be a sensitive proponent of what’s right.
Or do they say to themselves, “I would like to become a vegetarian!”, only to whisper in their hearts, “But not yet”?
In other words, are they procrastinators, citizens of their own private hells? If so, they deserve our pity and our prayers. Or do they invoke the Hail Mary dogma of complexity that is so dear to all conservatives?
Since the will seems entirely independent of both knowledge and acknowledging, there arises the need for an even more deep-seated nudge. The ancient, mystic laws of the world (and our metaphysically understood “human nature”) ought to be subject to a proper change – but they’re not. I ought to become enlightened – but I won’t. What a glorious imperative for sticking to business as usual.
Then again, there’s nothing actually wrong with the old model. Let’s face it, at least it works… Adherents of constancy are constantly singing pragmatism’s praises: if it works, it has to be right. However, it can only be due to some providential miracle that the modern meat industry does work. So far there hasn’t been a single truly large-scale animal disease epidemic; the apocalypse has not come.
And if God doesn’t punish us, it must mean that He’s fairly happy with us.
But this is sheer superstition, not to mention badly concealed atheism. A God who is used to justify a lifestyle is a used-up God, a deity wrung dry.
In the ranks of the oppressed, pragmatists and conservatives are as rare as sceptics and atheists. And each and every caged chicken is a destructive radical, a potential political terrorist, even though it lives in a world that functions with breathtaking ease. Each and every porcine inmate at an intensive livestock farm believes that God, if no one else, will save him. The pig does not believe it has been granted the gift of life by a benevolent God: an obvious affront to the sanctity of life. He knows he’s been given the kiss of death. His world is simple, understandable, tangible and unbearable.
In late 2011, author Joonas Konstig outlined some features of a certain type of human carnivore in the Finnish magazine Image with the title “Lihan ilot” (“Carnal pleasures”).2 He is a disillusioned former vegetarian (who quit because he didn’t feel admired enough for his sacrifice) and, above all else, a defensive meat-eater. He is saddened by the fact that eating meat has become a moral dilemma – that it has been brought up as an issue in the first place.
“How can meat have a bad reputation nowadays?” he complains. Until fairly recently it had no reputation at all. It was viewed with clear-cut pragmatism. You didn’t think about it, you ingested it.
When someone takes on the Herculean task of justifying and explaining their meat-eating habit as directly as that, it raises one’s expectations inconsolably. The letdown comes as no surprise.
Konstig’s article is replete with choked-back sobs and a general anxiety over the tarnished reputation of meat-eating, not to mention a whole series of heavy-handed platitudes. Some gems: “Most of the world’s environmental problems are ultimately due to population growth.” (For which, read: “Other people besides me have the gall to exist. Why can’t I just be left in peace and do what I like?”). The moral implications of the author’s qualms are given little attention: “No doubt there are unsightly grievances involved in intensive meat production.” (“Grievance” – the squeamish critic’s go-to synonym for “injustice”.) He also recounts the oft-told scientific fable about the primate whose mental faculties were swelled by meat in the primeval era: “The rich calories of fatty meat helped give us our large brains.” (Do we want our tiny manikin-sized brains back – back to nature and tree branches?) But perhaps the article’s fundamental concern is for the newly matured radical conservative who has seen the light and abandoned his telltale heart in favour of a good head on his shoulders. Konstig asserts that “susceptible youngsters should be protected from all kinds of fanatics”.
Extreme measures are never for the best: this much we know, as the phrase expresses a well-established convention. Its implications, however, may well quickly become unconventional, the moment that extremism is adequately defined.
As already stated, it’s hard to imagine a more extreme phenomenon or a more horrendous form of fanaticism than modern meat consumption. Veganism is moderate, dull and even old-fashioned in comparison.
Konstig seems not to comprehend the fact that meat-eating itself began to systematically ruin its own reputation in the mid-twentieth century. Now all that work is paying off. The well-established pragmatic ways of the meat-eater, which Konstig so yearns for, are gone forever. It’s impossible to be a meat-eater without attaching oneself to the industry, to everything it represents and upholds, just like calling oneself a Nazi can’t be done anymore without causing violent tremors of rancour in the community. It seems that pretty much every opinion ought to be qualified with long, Konstigesque excuses. It’s all Hitler’s fault for being too ambitious. (The Holocaust should have been brought about on a less industrial scale, in smaller organizational units of some kind, in family-owned camps, organically – the victims should have been given more space, sunlight, stimulating activities and so on).
Joonas Konstig is as desperate as an admirer of fascism who isn’t sure how to phrase his admiration without sounding like a monster. He isn’t even slightly willing to repent of his meat-eating, but is just as unable to hide from the irrefutable knowledge of the unethical nature of modern meat consumption (those pesky “grievances”). He first tries to disguise it by resorting to arguments of single-handed killing, or hunting, which has been purged of all the henchmen and machinery of the meat industry (the whole affair begins and ends with a weapon in your hand, rifle or knife), and then goes on to unconvincingly inhabit the dream world of harmonic tradition-based production, where the soil, the grass, all the little bugs and all the cows, as well as human beings, are part of an ideal symbiosis, a device of perpetual ecological motion.
Konstig himself is aware that his daydream is nothing more than that: a fantasy. Someone should spring-clean the hell out of the system (oh, and reduce the world population), but nobody will.
Because he is unwilling, unable and unequipped to take full responsibility for his radical eating habits, Konstig decides to lash out against vegetarians and blame them not only for corrupting the hearts and minds of our youth, but for the horrors of intensive livestock farming as well: “Deciding not to back any form of meat production isn’t the way to encourage meat producers to treat their animals well.” It is here that the article touches the slimy reaches of rock bottom, both intellectually and morally.
Eating meat, for defensive meat-eaters, is a so-called inalienable right, a fundamental pillar of life. That is what Konstig has illustrated with great aplomb, because he has failed in his genuine attempt to abandon his lifeline.
But I’ll leave off Konstig now. Instead let’s look at me.
The last time I consciously ate the meat of a warm-blooded animal was in the summer or fall of 1990, and fish hasn’t passed my lips since the early 1990s. The deeper psychological motivations for my decision to quit meat at the age of 17 are subject to speculation, but my conscious reasons were purely animal rights-related. I wanted to wash my hands of the entire meat industry because it struck me as fundamentally wrong.
Nowadays, thinking about the meat industry mainly throws up feelings of numb, glazed sadness and an incurable sense of alienation, because meat-eating, with its ideology and its politics, is ubiquitous. There is no escape. Imagine an atheist of true conviction being forced to participate in an unending Sunday Mass, permanently surrounded by icons and his head full of the sound of hymns. Now imagine him being expected to behave with patience and tact.
Against this background, it is instructive to realize that, even today, almost as a rule and irrespective of my mood, when I see meat pictured in an ad or as part of an article in a women’s magazine, I inadvertently shudder with slight (and yet convincing) hunger. In the image I see food that I don’t think is there, and I don’t see the violence that I do think is there. Admitting to this reaction, brought on by cultural forces though it may be, is a cause of shame for me. I’ve never discussed the phenomenon with other vegetarians, but I suspect it to be common. Even those brought up as vegetarians from the cradle onward have always lived in a world of meat-eaters. Vegetarians do not suffer unduly in a world infused with ceaseless images of meat. Its signals are familiar to them. Their bodies are used to reacting to them “correctly”.
It is possible, of course, that this instinctive, unintentional vegetarian okaying of meat may simply be the psyche’s way of avoiding conflict-induced insanity, but that isn’t a potentiality I’m interested in right now. The reaction itself makes you wonder, though. It represents the timeless tale of the division of mind and body, of logic and the senses.
At least two comparable scenarios come to mind. If an image that speaks to my sexual inclinations surfaces in my field of vision, as is more than likely in most public spaces, it will grab my attention almost regardless of my state of mind. I inadvertently shudder with slight (and yet convincing) arousal. I won’t necessarily linger on the lingerie pages of an ad catalogue for longer than when perusing the toaster section as I lazily flip through the products and bargains, but my sensory faculties and my organs will react to the imagery in very different ways. This discrepancy carries a special relevance.
The second scenario deals with racism or discrimination in general. Certain types of disparity are admittedly impossible to miss. If a person enters a bus all twisted up in a wheelchair, or if a dark-skinned individual hops on, I don’t see a human being, but an invalid or a black man. If I see two men in one another’s arms kissing, I don’t see two people or even two men, but rather say to myself, “Ah, homosexuals.” Something in me does something to my perception and classifies it in the blink of an eye before my consciousness, my intellect, my morals or my convictions have a chance to intervene.
It may already be apparent what it is I’m getting at. I want to speak on behalf of the civilized individual who does not allow his primitive responses to hold sway over his better judgement, but constantly seeks to master those responses. A sexist bigot is someone who thinks he knows where the truth of the matter lies (“I have needs”), and insists that the whole world submit to it forthwith. Similarly, a racist sets himself up as an authority on diversity, based on his self-evident ability to spot differences in people: “The colour of a person’s skin (or any other arbitrary external quality) has to mean something, because my attention is instinctively drawn to it. It irritates me. So here, let me respond to the irritation, and not to my own irritability! … You know, I think I’ll just abandon the obligations of civilized society and become a racist.”
My examples are mixed. Malicious statements concerning the handicapped and summary discrimination are rare these days. They are considered inappropriate and, therefore, subject to sanction. Old-fashioned racism has also lost all credibility; no one admits to being a racist anymore. Homophobia, however, is still permissible in certain contexts. Homosexuality is an issue that people want to know your opinion on, as though the exchange of opinions might fix some supposed problem. There are MPs who feel strongly that giving equal legal consideration to different types of people violates the rights of “the normal”. But soon they, too, will be dismissed as nothing but inaudibly grumbling relics. I’m an optimist.
And not only that but, by all accounts, it appears that modern meat consumption is slowly (“but surely”, I feel the optimist’s need to add) becoming outmoded too. It is still permissible to act in accordance with the exhortations of meat culture “texts” (typically meat ads). It is still permissible to openly advocate meat-eating. But, increasingly, for many (as for Joonas Konstig) the “carnal pleasures” of indulging in meat have already been spoiled.
Their meat has been spoiled by knowledge. We all know with growing accuracy just how the modern meat industry functions.
Ugly knowledge is hard to digest. But we can no longer fight the truth like we used to: it forces itself down our throats.
Finland’s largest daily, Helsingin Sanomat, published the results of a large-scale poll, according to which, 66 per cent of the population consider intensive livestock farming unacceptable. It is possible to draw two conclusions from this staggering percentage: either, before long, the meat industry in its current form will be shut down and the whole system will be rebuilt (or “re-deconstructed”); or – if the industry is left unchanged – 66 per cent of the population will turn vegan. But there is a third projection: that the eating of morally rotten meat will continue unchecked until the souls of 66 per cent of the population shrivel up in horror.
True sadism, enjoying another person’s distress, is very rare. Normal people would rather just remain oblivious to the suffering of others. Knowledge would spoil their fun, that is, their ability to enjoy the things gleaned or taken from these Others.
Internet porn, for example. How much do I want to know about the people in the images that proliferate online? Do I want to know that the twenty-something slip of a girl liberally displaying her genitalia and anus was last raped a fortnight ago (are those bruises? Did they miss a spot in the editing booth?), that she lives alone in an inhospitable foreign country, earns four euros a week doing porn or that Leo Tolstoy is her favourite author? Of course I don’t, not if I want images of her to excite my libido. The truth is a huge killjoy, while the right kinds of fantasies are what get the juices flowing. I want to know her name, as long as it isn’t her real name.
The fact that saves the typical porn consumer’s bacon is that it is impossible to discover anything about the performers involved. He or she, the consumer, just needs to chase away the wrong types of images and use self-suggestion to make him or herself assume that everything is okay. The hypocrisy is so blatant that some voices from the peanut gallery occasionally fantasize about “fair trade pornography”, properly regulated erotica whose ethical sheets would be guaranteed to be clean.3 I find the idea distasteful and dishonourable. As with the bemoaning of the so-called grievances concerning meat production and the mooning over organically slaughtered creatures, it is a way of evading responsibility: “Hey, Mr. Producer, give me organic porn or I’ll stick to the old kind and it’ll be all your fault!” And when the problem is reduced to one of arrangement, there is no light left to shed upon the fundamental issues of virtue ethics and life philosophy: How important is pornography really? Does it improve our lives somehow? To what extent is it analogous with drug abuse – and if so, how does that affect my moral compass? What is the nature of the relationship that is formed between me and the model in the photograph or video? Is it in fact (and not just in theory) the same as my relationship with the pizza delivery guy, from whom I purchase a service without caring about him as a person (as has been suggested)?4 Does it really not matter to me whether my daughter gets a summer job working at a pizzeria or on a porn set?
Watching child, animal or snuff pornography is an altogether blacker kettle of fish. Doing so may be explained as a form of true sadism; after all, the injustice is plainly visible in the material itself. But it is certainly possible to will oneself to see things erroneously, to form the idea that “they actually like it”, that resenting child porn is just left- or right-wing propaganda or sentimental exaggeration. Thoughts like these, of course, require a tremendous force of will; in a way it is anti-civilized behaviour, an inverted overcoming of the self, twisted self-persuasion, a resolute collapse, deliberately seeing jet-black as snow-white, a leap of faith into oblivion. In light of this, it is likely that heroic self-deception is more common than honest-to-God sadism.
The moral principles of meat-eating are not dissimilar: they rely on the support of a powerful myth, and on an unwavering faith in things being peachy despite some incidental drawbacks, because “here in Finland we definitely know our way around industry supervision”.
When it comes to meat-eating, a state of exception tacitly applies, as in war: the spilling of innocent blood has to be concealed. Like strategic army bases, slaughterhouses are hidden. When war or meat-eating is revealed to be repulsive and out of control, it’s bad for business. In the winter of 2011, a video was leaked that showed American soldiers urinating on the bodies of dead combatants in Afghanistan. The impact of images like these on war is the same as the effect of meatismurder.info on meat-eating: sharp as a knife but transient. The myth of the “Neat and Tidy” immediately begins to repair itself, but if the shocks come frequently enough, the myth will eventually lose its regenerative capacities. And then something changes.
The rules of engagement in war and meat are nothing if not exacting. Meat-eating involves its own war crimes. Few omnivorous Finns could bring themselves to eat Chinese dog or endangered game like whale because, in Finland, the myth doesn’t extend to these forms of meat consumption. Not everybody can eat duck liver or foie gras, the production of which is prohibited in Finland. It is nonetheless available in some of the country’s swankier grocery stores. Products like these, which can only be produced through a willingness to apply blind, furious violence, can only be enjoyed by those on the outskirts of the myths of meat who are truly set on pursuing their decidedly shady desires. These people are in the same boat as the child pornographer – the background has to be embraced (by the sadist) or it has to be denied and explained away (through wilful self-deception). Once again, I believe the latter to be more prevalent. Years ago, writer-director Jukka Mannerkorpi proved the point beautifully in an article for Helsingin Sanomat, arguing that making foie gras just means availing oneself of the greedy goose’s “natural tendencies”. Not only that, but the creature actually enjoys being force-fed corn twice a day with a hydraulic pump. All is well. It has to be. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel the desire to pig out on fancy animal livers in the first place.5
But the ideal of a dignified, civilized life would require a sense of justice and conscience to weigh more in the scales than gut reactions and primitive desires.
The truth has to be thicker than blood.
It isn’t a demand made by me, but by civilized society itself.
How can meat-eating still be possible? What to do if the vegetarian option is not an option?
Konstig, as demonstrated, suggests an escape in the form of butchery using one’s own hands. And some form of sacrificial cult.
He ends his essay in Image with a recipe that incorporates a series of moral imperatives: “Show appreciation. Respect the bird that has died for you. Enjoy your food. Feel pride.”
I can understand the temptations of hedonistic spirituality full well, but demanding “respect” seems problematic. How should this sacrificial cult be practiced as part of everyday life? What if you don’t always remember to show appreciation and respect, or to feel enjoyment and pride? Does something break in Heaven? Do we risk the wrath of a bloodthirsty God?
Maybe resorting to some illusory ceremony really does gloss over the despicableness and injustice more efficiently than simple denial, but should we be reciting spells or conducting rites just in case?
Shouldn’t we be calling a spade a spade and act superstitiously in the open?
I can’t work out how serious the writer Timo Hännikäinen was when he proposed just that in his blog, writing about Georges Franju’s warped slaughterhouse documentary Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1948): “Perhaps modern man should start putting religious symbols and medals of some kind on their refrigerators. They would remind us of the animals and plants that have lain down their lives for us.”6
Now, without pursuing the obvious illogicality of plants somehow “laying down their lives”, I’m going to highlight and leave hanging Konstig’s paradox that the animals we murder with our highly advanced arsenals still somehow manage to admirably “lay down their lives for us”.
A platitude can sometimes be identified by its profound incoherence.
I mean, what on Earth is meant here by “for us”? For us so we wouldn’t have to die? Or kill ourselves? Does someone have to be put to the sword regardless?
Does the pious demand for respect mean that the sacrifice is more important than the food?
No. It obviously doesn’t mean anything at all!
The point is simply to cover up something detestable with “religious symbols and medals”.
Respect is easy when its true object is one’s own good fortune.
Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, translated by Ray Brassier, Stanford University Press, 1997
I'm reminded of a column written by Rosa Meriläinen for hs.fi. Author Jarkko Tontti shared her point of view in his blog for the magazine Vihreä Lanka (14 June 2010), saying: "Rosa Meriläinen is calling for fair trade porn. That's the spirit! Those who broadcast their shock at porn are unwitting supporters of a class in stasis, and it's [sic] idea of sex is marital, prudish and typical" (original in Finnish: www.vihrealanka.fi/blogi/pornoa). The argument is identical to Konstig's take on organic meat: the most wretched villains are those who abstain completely. We can't have that! Porn/meat can and should be criticized, but only if you scrupulously consume it yourself.
The argument is from researcher Tommi Paalanen's blog entry, which was circulated in social media in the summer of 2010, around the time of a so-called "porn demonstration" organized by the Helsinki Association of Freethinkers. The strategy of the argument is to claim that porn "treats people like objects" (for which it has habitually been criticized), and in the same breath it points out that this is a commonplace practice. "For instance, in ice hockey the goalkeeper is a physical object that covers most of the goal" (original in Finnish: www.widerscreen.fi/2009-2/esineellistaminen-ja-pornografia/). Jarkko Tontti also found the pizza delivery analogy entirely convincing. He repeated it in his above-mentioned blog post: "When I order a vegetarian pizza to my home, the delivery employee is a means to satisfying my appetite." (How relevant, by the way, that Tontti stresses the fact that his appetite-satisfying pizza is "vegetarian". He wants to underline his consciousness of the gender politics of meat: the great friend of porn, pictures of human meat, wouldn't be caught dead looking with longing at the meat of animals.)
Here's what Mannerkorpi wrote (Helsingin Sanomat, 29 June 2000, original in Finnish): "Opponents of fattening have their work cut out for them if they think they can nullify a millennia-long tradition. As a descendant of a migratory species, the goose is a real glutton given the chance. The fattening process takes advantage of the bird's own natural tendencies. And those responsible for the practice know full well that if you want good meat, let alone liver, the animal has to be content with his lot. The liver of an abused bird would be worthless, and its sales would soon plummet." We must never forget this small printed miracle of brutality and cowardice -- nor forgive it. So it falls upon us to bow our heads in pious gratitude.
Original in Finnish; see Marginalia, 15 April 2011, timohannikainen.blogspot.de/2011/04/elainten-veri.html
Published 25 October 2013
Original in Finnish
Translated by Kasper Salonen
First published by Nuori Voima 1/2012 (Finnish version); Eurozine (English version)
Contributed by Nuori Voima © Antti Nylén / Nuori Voima / EurozinePDF/PRINT