Sunday, November 21, 2010

Angry and Self-Righteous?

Try googling “self-righteous” or “angry” in combination with “meat eaters” or “carnivores.” Then try the same thing with “vegetarians” or “vegans,” and compare. The numbers I just got totaled 2,912 on the meat eaters/carnivores side of the ledger, 40,280 on the vegetarian/vegan side. What is happening here?

One can surely find angry or self-righteous people of all sorts. Yet the vegetarians and vegans I’ve met tend to be, if anything, more gentle and unassuming than most.* That’s particularly striking, I think, given how much there is for them to be angry about—and, to be sure, you can find many vegans who express anger and frustration over the system of institutionalized cruelty that is at the heart of today’s factory farming. What you hardly ever find are vegans or vegetarians making angry attacks on the people who eat factory farmed meat and dairy products.

The vast majority of meat eaters are just as reasonable in the other direction. But a surprisingly large minority get very angry and self-righteous accusing vegans and vegetarians of being angry and self-righteous. If you haven’t run into this sort of thing, you can get a good sense of what I’m referring to by checking out or People for the Eating of Tasty Animals. One gentle vegan was brave enough on the latter forum recently to put forward a long and carefully considered argument as to the environmental damage done by the system through which North Americans obtain meat and dairy products. The contributor was anything but angry or self-righteous, ending with the thought that “we ought to be respectful of each other. Everyone's views are important.” The responses he received? Here is one of the more polite: “I've heard these arguments ad nauseam from self-righteous vegans such as yourself. While it may be true that it takes more energy and resources to raise the livestock that you so detest, it will continue to be done because the human race is omnivorous.”

This sort of approach to argument is nothing new, of course. Angry and self-righteous defenders of male privilege fought for two hundred years in this way against equality for women—angrily, unreasonably, and self-righteously accusing bluestockings and feminists of being angry, unreasonable, and self-righteous, while putting forward little by way of actual argument (other than the claim that male superiority came naturally to them, and thus would continue). Defenders of slavery angrily accused anti-slavery campaigners of being angry and self-righteous do-gooders, and insisted that the system would never change, since it was in accord with the natural order.

The habit of accusing others of the unpleasant emotions one exhibits oneself is of course an enormously widespread psychological phenomenon—and it’s particularly common with hot button issues where change is perceived as a threat. Interestingly, though, angry bloggers are not the only ones who sometimes substitute ad hominem attacks for reasoned argument when it comes to attacking vegans and vegetarians. Even Michael Pollan, who many would regard as a fellow traveler of the veggie crowd, ends his discussion in The Omnivore's Dilemma of the pros and cons of vegetarianism by resorting to unsupported assertion as to the psychological makeup of those who have decided not to eat meat:
I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.

The diction and syntax here is far more sophisticated than is that of the angry meat eater on the Tasty Animals forum (and condescension rather than anger seems here to be the dominant feeling), but Pollan’s “argument” is in essence identical. The way it has always been in the past is “reality,” and we shouldn’t mess with that; indeed, it would be presumptuous of us to do so, hubristic. Here again is the same old “argument” that was used in the rear guard struggles against slavery, against equal rights for women, against giving the vote to the poor—the list goes on a long way. Happily, Pollan does in fact want to change the reality of today’s factory farming, and to change the reality of the unhealthy levels at which North Americans consume meat and dairy products. He chooses to eat very little meat himself, and advises others to do the same. Why would he have felt the need along the way to suggest that hubris is inherent in the approach of those who choose to eat no meat at all? I'm sure I don't know--and no doubt it is best not to speculate on that score. But it's good to see that Pollan has recently adopted a less condescending attitude: in one 2010 interview he went so far as to say that he now has "enormous respect for vegetarians." Perhaps it will take a little longer for the "Vegetarians Are Evil" group to reach the same point.

*I will note one recent case in point. This past week I joined Prof. Janelle Schwartz’s very interesting “Literature and the Environment” class at Loyola University in New Orleans, where Animals has been one of the assigned texts this term. One of the students identified himself as vegan; in doing so, though, he emphasized that he regarded this as a matter of personal choice. He felt going vegan was an appropriate response to today’s factory farming and, more generally, to the current state of the world’s environment, and he was happy to make a case for going vegan—but to do so gently and respectfully. He never suggested that the road he had taken was the only appropriate response to the current set of environmental conditions—indeed, he suggested that at other moments in world history he might not advocate or adopt veganism himself. In my experience the vast majority of vegans are just as thoughtful and as respectful of others as was this student.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

New York, Peterborough, happy endings

The two Animals events this past week could hardly have been more different. The first, a reading in the KGB Bar’s Sunday Evening Fiction series (with Matthew Pitt, whose fine collection Attention Please Now is new this year) was entirely conventional in its format: two or three dozen people listening to authors read, and then drinking and chatting. The venue was delightful, as was the dark Russian beer—and so was the evening generally. (There's a write-up at NBC New York Online:

The second, at the Only Café in Peterborough, Ontario on Thursday, attracted only seven people, almost all of them old friends of mine from the years in the late eighties and early nineties when I was starting Broadview Press. Sean Kane, whose own books include the extraordinary Wisdom of the Mythtellers, wisely suggested we just pull a couple of tables together and forget about having a formal event. That turned out to be a lot more fun, not least of all in hearing of other literary events with small turnouts—Sean recounted one story of poet Dennis Lee flying from Toronto to Vancouver for an “event” to which one person showed up.

The low turnout in Peterborough fits in with the larger picture for Animals in Canada: despite some fine reviews, a year after publication the Canadian edition has sold fewer than a thousand copies. Some of this, I'm sure, is simply a reflection of the fact that Canadians remain resistant to expressions of concern over how farm animals are treated. (Driving into Peterborough I noticed the huge Sealtest Dairy sign: “where good things never change.” No doubt people want to believe that their milk and cheese have not changed in Sealtest's 60 years; most would prefer not to know that lower prices and higher outputs have been achieved by adopting methods that greatly increase the suffering of animals.)

But I’m sure there is also a good deal about the book itself that has contributed to the Canadian edition being—so far, at least—a commercial failure. For one thing, it’s not a book that lends itself to sale through word of mouth. Many people who have read it have clearly found it deeply moving—“devastating,” even—but how many of us are likely to say to our friends, “hey, I read this great book recently; you should give it a try. It’s really disturbing, and maybe not in a way that you can easily leave behind when you stop reading. Oh, and don’t count on a happy ending to the book. … But you’ll love it!” As I mentioned to the group on Thursday night, I have thought of proposing to UK publishers a version of Animals that would give the book a less bleak ending (as well as cutting back on the footnotes that several reviewers have complained about).

Like most people who have read the book and been moved by it, my companions at the Only Café weren’t keen on the idea of giving the book a happier ending. And from any aesthetic angle, nor am I; I have no reason to think it would be a better work in any literary sense if the story ended differently. But it might be more effective in encouraging positive change. Certainly it is the case that most of the novels that are known for having helped to inspire significant social change recount tragic events but do not end on a note of devastation or despair. Mary Barton, Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Black Beauty, The Jungle—in all of them the story takes a hopeful turn at the end.

A couple of years ago one of the pre-publication readers of Animals (a former editor at a major publishing house) suggested to me that I should change the ending—that readers “deserve” a happier ending than they are given in Animals. Jonathan Franzen has recently spoken in a similar vein about his own writing:
There’s so much to be upset about in the world, I feel an obligation from time to time to have the final note in a book not be a despairing one. Or an ironic one. To actually maintain the possibility of some kind of hope. (The Globe and Mail, August 27, 2010)

The ideas that readers deserve a happy ending or that writers have an obligation not to strike a despairing final chord seems ludicrous on the face of it; would anyone seriously suggest that readers of Madame Bovary, or Jude the Obscure, or The House of Mirth (or, for that matter, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear) deserve a happy ending? Surely we should never try to make tragedy a no-go zone for literature.

But Franzen’s reference point in suggesting that readers may deserve hopeful endings is clearly not literature but life—life at a specific point in human history. The obligation to provide happy, hopeful endings exists because “there’s so much to be upset about in the world.” With all around us so grim, in other words, we must be given hope. It’s an idea that might ring true if we were talking of readers facing extraordinary privation; if the Black Death is all around or you have just lost everything in the Haitian earthquake you might fairly be thought to “deserve” a little light reading. But surely such an idea isn’t applicable to the majority of readers in North America today. Indeed, it seems almost self indulgent to suggest that most of us in North America have too many upsetting things to deal with. Even as we come out of a deep recession, most of us in North America are extraordinarily pampered by comparison with most people, here or elsewhere, at any other time in history. And we are, if anything, shielded too often from the true horror and tragedy that is the reality for humans in much of the rest of the world. Most people hear about such horror only very briefly in the context of an extraordinary disaster such as an earthquake, and then the upsetting truth is tucked away again out of view.

Such is surely the case for the horrors endured by non-human animals—horrors rarely reported by the media, horrors hidden from view behind the walls of North America’s factory farms. Animals, of course, is a work that aims quite deliberately to look behind those walls and to upset the reader. And I don’t think as a matter of aesthetics that it goes too far. But it may well be that it does go too far as a matter of practical reality—that it would have a better chance of influencing more people in the direction of positive change if it ended more happily. And that would be no negligible thing; I think I’ll write that letter to a UK editor tomorrow!

* * *

A question prompted by the above: is there some correlation between the flourishing of tragic literature and a relative absence of tragedy in society at large? The age of the Black Death was also the age of the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Compared to the horrors of that era Shakespeare’s England was a place of ease and contentment—and on the stage tragedy flourished. A few generations later a land exhausted by the horrors of the English Civil War had no wish to face Shakespeare’s King Lear—except in Nahum Tate’s new “happy ending” version. The great tragedies of the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries—by Flaubert, Hardy, Wharton, and others—come from times that for all their troubles were tranquil and prosperous relative to, say, the time of the French revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, or that of WWI. Perhaps it is not by coincidence that the literature of Europe or North America has not tended successfully towards tragedy since WWII and the Holocaust. But we are now almost as far distant from 1945 as Hardy was from Waterloo when he began to write his great tragedies. Perhaps we are almost ready again ourselves for tragic literary forms; perhaps the reception that The Road has received is one sign that we might be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


There has been an interesting little discussion recently on the Page 247 blog about Animals—about the questions regarding non-human animals that are at the heart of the novel, but also about the question of what is appropriate or inappropriate in dealing with sensitive issues.

The blogger began the discussion with a posting likening Animals to Brave New World and calling it “a difficult and challenging read” that prompted some contradictory thoughts; “LePan claims his main argument is against factory farming and for the humane treatment of our food animals, but I was left with a much broader sense of ‘let’s stop eating meat and fish, period.’”

The most interesting comment posted thus far has been from “El Fay,” who takes the discussion in quite a different direction. El Fay also finds the premise of the book “disturbing—but for all the wrong reasons.” He or she argues that comparing marginalized peoples to [non-human] animals is “highly problematic due to the history of labeling many of these groups as sub-human,” and points to a recent PETA blog posting as an example of why this sort of comparison is “so troubling.”

The PETA ad is indeed deeply troubling. It shows a photo of Tiger Woods with the following words superimposed:
… for little tigers too.
Help keep your cats (and dogs) out of trouble; always spay and neuter.

The advertisement seems to me to be offensive in several ways. To start with, the “bad thing” in this case wasn’t the amount of sex—it was infidelity. But the more serious issue is the way the advertisement engages with the long-standing myth propagated by racists that black sexuality is inherently dangerous—and the accompanying view that it needs to be controlled, forcibly if necessary. As another blogger (Renee of Womanist Musings) has pointed out, the ad displays no sensitivity whatsoever “to the ways in which black bodies have been stereotyped” or to the “history of black men being castrated for having relations with white women.” The advertisement doesn’t engage with what is sometimes referred to as 'the myth of the big black buck' by questioning that pernicious myth in any way. Quite the opposite; it feeds off it in pursuit of a cheap laugh.

Is Animals insensitive—or downright offensive—in parallel ways? There is no question that it also deals with material that is highly sensitive; the list of categories under which humans have labeled other humans as subhuman is appallingly long (Jews, women, blacks, native North Americans, Chinese, Armenians, Roma, Tutsi, those suffering from disabilities, gays and lesbians, Protestants, Catholics, Ndebele—it goes on and on and on), and what humans have done to other humans, using these labels as justification, is endlessly horrific.

Far from joining in (or feeding off) that sort of labeling, Animals is deeply critical of it. But is the very fact of its using story material of this sort inappropriate? Why use story material of this sort in the first place?

For one thing, to point out what I think are entirely legitimate (albeit provocative) parallels. For it is not just other humans that we humans have had a habit of separating into categories that result in horrific cruelty. We have developed habits of classifying dogs and elephants, for example, as beings to be treated with kindness and respect, and pigs as beings who we can in good conscience subject to lives of endless suffering before we kill them. To draw parallels between that sort of labeling and the labeling of other humans as sub-human is not to make a claim as to degrees of wrong; I have no wish to defend the view that our treatment of non-human animals is as bad as the ways in which various human groups have been treated. That simply does not to me seem a fruitful discussion; the point is rather that the process is similar—the process of labeling in such a way as to justify horrific cruelty.

There is another reason too for using this sort of story material in Animals. The reality is that most of us tend to be more readily capable of imaginative sympathy with other humans than we are with non-human creatures. The closer a protagonist “standing in” for a non-human animal is to a human being, the more easy it is likely to be to bring home to readers the horrific realities of factory farming in a way that may engage their imaginative sympathy—and lead to real change. And clearly the book has led to at least some such change; a significant number of readers have been in touch to say that they have changed their eating habits as a result of the book, either reducing or eliminating from their diets foods that are the product of the cruelties of factory farming.

The strategy, then, has at least to some extent been effective. But from fairly early on I recognized that it was indeed a highly problematic approach. There is a thin line in dealing with sensitive subjects that it is important not to cross; it would be essential in this case not to inadvertently create the impression that the book was in any way disrespectful towards people with disabilities—that it could be read as in any way questioning the legitimacy of their rights, or the importance of their ongoing struggles.

I won’t go into detail here as to the book’s narrative strategies (the ways, for example, in which Broderick is shown to be an unreliable narrator). But I will say that I am confident that the book cannot be fairly read as in any way supportive of discrimination against people with disabilities. It’s not a solitary confidence, I may add. I don’t have unbounded faith in my own knowledge or my own judgment in such matters, and I thus thought it appropriate to consult a number of people who are far better versed than I am in issues relating to human disability. I am particularly indebted to one academic, who is also a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, for reading the unpublished manuscript and making a considerable number of helpful suggestions—as a result of which I made numerous revisions, some of them quite significant.

As to the Page 247 blogger’s lingering suspicion that Animals doesn’t just criticize factory farming but also leaves “a much broader sense of ‘let’s stop eating meat and fish, period’”—that’s a question I’d like to leave for the moment—and let others weigh in on.

Monday, August 2, 2010

No Country for Animals

I caught up last night with Kevin Newman's No Country for Animals, which aired last Wednesday on the Global television network. I found it an absolutely first-rate documentary--the first program I've seen to give a good overview of how non-human animals are treated in Canada, and of how little legal recourse there is to stop the horror. Twyla Francois of Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Farm Animals is interviewed extensively for the show; her commentary is excellent--as is the footage she provides showing what goes on behind the walls of Canadian factory farms. And there is very good (and extensive) coverage of how far behind many European countries Canada is in its approach.

Google "No Country for Animals" and you'll be able to download and watch the show--I can't recommend it too highly.

* * *

No new reviews of Animals since the Publishers' Weekly and Boston Globe ones of several weeks ago, but two very positive reviews were posted on recently--both from distinguished readers:
“If you read any novel, read this! Animals is one of the most important Canadian novels to have emerged in many years. ... What can get lost in the brilliance of the satire is just how beautiful the writing is—always at its most poetic at all the most awful moments. ... The final sections were about the saddest thing that I have read, but never in a way that seemed needless or opportunistic or excessive....”
-Paul Keen, Professor and Chair, English Department, Carleton University

“As gripping as it is important, LePan's brilliant first novel tackles the largest moral issue of our time...”
-Jonathan Balcombe, author of Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals

It now looks as if there will be a San Francisco Animals event November 23. More soon.

Afterwords and Prefaces

Why should an afterword appear with a work such as Animals—indeed, with any work of fiction? (Or, for that matter, a preface by the author?) Surely a literary work should “speak for itself” without the author endeavoring to “control” the reader’s response.

Such has been the conventional wisdom for generations now—interestingly, the conventional wisdom as much of deconstructionist or post-modern critics of the 1990s or 2000s as of the leading critics of the 1950s and 1960s. Like the view that didactic or polemical literature cannot be good literature, it has for the most part been assumed or asserted rather than argued. And, like that view, it has flimsy foundations.

Of course no author should be allowed to “control” the response of the reader—and no author could do so. Inevitably (and appropriately), the author’s voice will be only one voice among many. But on what grounds should it be seen as inappropriate for authors to comment on their work? I can see the argument against doing so directly during the course of a novel. Aesthetically, it is certainly arguable that an author is well advised not to step outside the movement of the fictional world of the novel to comment on its progress. (There are plausible arguments in the other direction too, as any reader familiar with Henry Fielding’s novels must be aware.) But words such as “Preface” and “Afterword” signal clearly text that is outside the novel—text that shares the same covers but is no more part of the novel itself than are the blurbs often found on the opening page or the author interviews and other “reading club” material that is often found at the back. These things may all be part of the book, but they are not part of the novel.

Why would novelists want to comment directly on their work through a preface or afterword? One obvious point is that by including something of that sort adjacent to the novel one ensures that all readers will notice it and will have the opportunity to read it—as one is unable to do by commenting on one’s own work through a newspaper interview or a website or a blog. And there are surely many matters on which it is not unnatural for authors to wish to communicate to all readers. First and foremost, perhaps, is the question of how authors may see the imaginary worlds they have created as connecting to the real world. “How close to reality is all this?” may well be the first question of many readers. It was in response to such questions that Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her preface to Mary Barton: she laments that “the woes, which come with ever-returning tide-like flood to overwhelm the workmen in our manufacturing towns, pass unregarded by all but the sufferers” and speaks of how the more she discovered of this suffering, the “more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony.” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote both a preface and a final chapter—she did not call it an afterword, but it was clearly outside the novel itself—to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in order to answer “whether this narrative is a true one”—whether the narrative truthfully portrayed the actual horrors of slavery. Animals is written to address a very different issue from that of slavery, but like that work it runs along parallel lines to various works of non-fiction and of argument that have tried to present the facts and to present a variety of reasoned arguments. The parallel role of the novel in such cases is to enlist imagination alongside reason and emotion in the cause of pointing the way towards positive change. Even for those that have had access to the facts and the arguments, such a work can provoke a different and sometimes more powerful response. But there will always also be those who come to the relevant issues as presented through the imagination without prior knowledge of the facts and arguments. “What’s written here about factory farming in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—is it true?” they may well wonder. An afterword can provide only the briefest of responses to this sort of question—but it can, after such a novel ends, provide a useful beginning.

That said, I think that making clear the author’s moral intent or trying to clarify the connections between the facts of a novel and the facts of the real world are only two of an almost unlimited range of appropriate purposes to which an author’s afterword may appropriately be turned. Ursula LeGuin uses the afterword to Lavinia to speak to the aesthetic choices she made in re-fashioning classical material. Henry James in his famous prefaces also focuses largely on the aesthetic choices he has made—and no more than LeGuin or Gaskell or Stowe should he be accused of trying to “control” the responses of his readers, or of refusing to allow his novels to “speak for themselves.” He is simply exercising his right to put his own voice forward about his own work. In the visual arts nowadays it is entirely accepted—indeed, it is expected—that artists will foreground something of their interpretation of their own work when it is presented to the public. There is no good reason to feel it inappropriate for authors to be granted parallel opportunities.

[Most of the material in this posting originally appeared in advance of the publication of the Canadian edition of Animals in 2009.]

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fiction and Purpose

The first review of Animals in a major American newspaper appeared over the past weekend in The Boston Globe. On the whole it's quite positive, and I think the reviewer (Thrity Umrigar) is in a number of respects very perceptive. But I would quibble with her suggestion that to the extent the novel succeeds it does so "almost despite itself." The central problem with the novel is, in her view, that it is not really a novel at all: "this is a political tract disguised as a novel."

To what extent can a novel be written to further a specific political agenda and still be a novel? More generally, what purpose does or should literature fulfill? For most of the millennia over which such questions have been posed, the answers have included ethical or political goals. As often as not, indeed, those goals have been accorded explicit priority over any aesthetic or epistemological ones. In the Western world, from Plato through the eighteenth century, a widely held view was that all literature should play an active part in helping to make us better people, in helping to make a better world—including in ways that were explicitly political. In the nineteenth century fewer and fewer believed that it was the responsibility of all literature to play such a role, but a very great many—from George Eliot to Bernard Shaw to George Orwell—believed that literature could play such a role, believed at a minimum that such a role was one of its legitimate functions. In recent generations in the Western world, though, it has been all the other way. Literature is expected to eschew explicit ethical or political goals; according to the prevailing wisdom, there is almost nothing more damning than for a work to be (or be perceived to be) didactic or polemical.

Yet, while it is almost universally agreed that literature is not the place to express an explicit ethical or political agenda, it is agreed just as widely that literature somehow fulfills a set of broader but less clearly defined ethical and socio-political aims. It is a truism (almost a bromide) that, in general, reading literature enriches and broadens our understanding of other humans, and of the world.

One of the interesting things about these assumptions is that we have very little evidence to support the one that is universally accepted as true, whereas we have ample evidence to support the one that is universally assumed to be false. That reading increases one’s understanding in ways that make one better as a person is intuitively an attractive position. But only recently have people begun to test it empirically, and the evidence is thus far inconclusive (to my mind at least--see my posting "A Good Read," November 24, 2009). There is a great deal of evidence, however, that reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle led hundreds of thousands of people in the early twentieth century to press for changes in working conditions in slaughterhouses, and that real change ensued. There is a great deal of evidence that in the 1840s and 1850s hundreds of thousands were influenced by openly didactic novels such as Oliver Twist and Mary Barton to sympathize with those in wretched poverty, and to support legislation to ameliorate conditions imposed by ruthless factory owners. (In her preface to the first edition of Mary Barton Elizabeth Gaskell writes directly of her intent in writing the novel—to “give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people”; she goes on to urge that “whatever public effort can do in the way of legislation, or private effort in the way of merciful deeds…should be done, and that speedily.”) And real change ensued. So too with other novels, and with other issues. Black Beauty was written to change attitudes about the treatment of horses—and did so. Ramona was written to change attitudes about the treatment of native peoples in America—and did so. Uncle Tom’s Cabin—perhaps the most widely read book of the nineteenth century—is universally acknowledged to have helped to turn the tide of public opinion in the United States against slavery.

Are we so very sure that we should be dismissing moral purpose of this sort as inappropriate to serious literature?

To be fair, dismissing the didactic or polemical is generally done not on the grounds that the didactic or polemical can’t make a difference to readers’ attitudes, but on the grounds that a work which aspires first and foremost to an ethical or political purpose cannot be “good” literature. We assume that an overt moral purpose will necessarily be accompanied by a lack of psychological shading, by an absence of intellectual subtlety, by a crudeness of style—in short, that a didactic or polemical work of literature will be “merely” didactic or polemical. And doubtless there have been many works over the centuries that have been just that. But as soon as one begins to cite examples at the other end of the spectrum, the argument that there is any necessary connection between didacticism and aesthetic failure falls apart. Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, George Orwell—some of the greatest writers of the past few centuries have written work that can fairly be described as didactic or polemical, but that is also almost universally accepted as having met extraordinarily high standards of aesthetic accomplishment. Tellingly, the critical consensus regarding Mary Barton is that the first half of the novel—comprising an imaginative polemic against the oppression of the poor—is far better realized aesthetically than is the more romantic and individualistic material that comes to the fore towards the book’s conclusion. Even Uncle Tom’s Cabin—long derided as a sentimental page turner—is now starting to be much more favorably assessed from an aesthetic point of view.

Animals is unashamedly a work in this tradition; as the afterword makes clear, it is a novel written with an explicit ethical and political purpose: to influence readers against the evils of factory farming. Along the way, it tries to explore a number of other questions—the ways in which humans are able to rationalize unconscionable behavior, for example, and the ways in which the “dividing line” separating the human from the non-human may be formed. It also aims to interest and stimulate readers in the way that conventional novels do—I certainly hope that readers will be engaged by the psychology of the characters, and by what the interactions between them reveal about their natures. And I hope too that the novel will go beyond what I intended it to be—will “take on a life of its own,” as the phrase goes. Already it has done so for me. I could feel it taking on an emotional life of its own as the tears streamed down my cheeks while I was writing the first draft of the end of Part One. I could feel it taking on a formal and stylistic life of its own as I tried to work out the intricacies of narrative viewpoint and the novel became a much more layered work than I had intended—in some ways almost a postmodern one. I could feel it taking on an intellectual life of its own as I came to realize that the interplay between the viewpoints of the various characters might end up pointing towards more thoroughgoing changes in behavior than I have adopted in my own life, or than I would feel comfortable in promoting with complete confidence. But I hope that under it all a purposeful core still glows with a white heat—a core that is entirely simple and straightforward. I will judge the novel to have failed in the way that I care about most if it does not influence many readers to think again—and feel again, or perhaps for the first time—the horror of what humans are doing to other creatures in order to obtain cheap food for themselves.

It would be foolish to expect that Animals and other works of the imagination today* can make anything like as much of a difference in bringing such cruelty to an end as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other works of fiction of its era did in ending slavery. But it is never foolish to hope.

* Other such works I am aware of include James Agee’s “A Mother’s Tale” (available online), Angus Taylor’s tale and accompanying philosophical discussion “Hunting for Consistency” (published in Philosophy Now, 2008), and Claude Lalumière’s story “The Ethical Treatment of Meat” (published in a collection entitled Objects of Worship.

[Most of the material in this posting originally appeared in advance of the publication of the Canadian edition of Animals in 2009.]

Monday, May 24, 2010

Akrasia, Animals, Orwell

A few days ago I was struck by a reference from philosopher Matthew C. Altman to “akrasia-- the phenomenon of not doing what we know to be right.” I would take it that the term has been quite widely used by philosophers (from the ancient Greeks through to the present day), but that it has been used for the most part with regard to matters of the individual will—such as controlling our urge to gluttony, or to smoke, or to commit vengeful acts. But Altman’s suggestion that the concept is also applicable in an area such as ethical vegetarianism strikes me as entirely sound. Indeed, I suspect it can apply to a wide range of social and political issues.

By coincidence, the same theme comes up in a book I was re-reading last week: George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. It’s a book that has at its heart a factual investigation of what it was like in 1930s England to live as part of a working-class family in which no one had work. The facts are still shocking, and the book is still moving. Orwell accompanies the specifics of his investigation with several chapters of rambling ruminations on class, socialism, imperialism, and related topics; these ruminations are on the whole far less satisfying than the reporting, but in the midst of them comes this very interesting observation about imperialism, which of course Orwell came to know at first hand as a member of the police force in British-controlled Burma:
It is not possible to be part of such a system without recognizing it as an unjustifiable tyranny. Even the thickest-skinned Anglo-Indian is aware of this. Every ‘native’ face he sees in the street brings home to him his monstrous intrusion. And the majority of Anglo-Indians, intermittently at least, are not so complacent about their position as people in England believe. From the most unexpected people, from gin-pickled old scoundrels high up in the Government service, I have heard some such remark as ‘Of course we’ve no right in this blasted country at all….’

In short, even those who knew that the system they worked to support was wrong kept working to support it: akrasia. There are surely strong parallels too between this sort of sentiment and one common pattern of thought during the long struggle in the Western world to end the slave trade, and then to end slavery itself; there are many documented cases of people who found it difficult either to take a strong stand against the evils of slavery or to give up their own slaves, even after they had come to the conclusion that slavery was wrong. Akrasia on the broad canvas of political issues may have at least as interesting a history as akrasia of the more familiar variety.

How is "social-political akrasia" (if we may call it that) resolved? Some seem able to make accommodations all their lives with their awareness that the way they live their lives supports what they believe to be wrong. Change for the better can eventually occur, of course. But for whatever reason, we humans seem to have a limited capacity for rapid changes in habitual behavior. There are a great many psychological (and often economic) factors that can lead behavior to lag belief. It would be good to do x, but it would cost me financially is perhaps the most common (and largely subconscious) template for extended inaction, but it is one of many.

When change does come it can take many forms. Orwell famously remade his life once he returned from imperial service, dedicating himself to the struggle against imperialism and, more broadly, class prejudice. He did this through his writing but also through the experiences that became the basis for the writing: living as a tramp, living among unemployed coal miners, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He managed in the most dramatic of ways to cure his akrasia.

It would be foolish to hope that most would have the courage to follow Orwell’s example, remaking a life on ethical grounds in ways that made it much less comfortable. But what of middle-class people today whose akrasia is primarily a matter of buying goods from companies that they know behave highly unethically, or of eating factory-farmed meat and dairy products when they are more or less aware of what goes on in factory farms, and know that it is deeply wrong? In cases such as these the self sacrifice involved is on a different scale from that of Orwell’s—some additional expenditure, but no real hardship, and no danger. How may such humans be persuaded by those who have overcome each particular form of akrasia to change our ways?

Surely in large part through the persuaders being open, impersonal, and accepting. Open in stating the case and in striving for what they believe to be right. But impersonal when it comes to the beliefs and habits of other individuals. In arguing against cruelty to non-human animals, or imperialism, or slavery it surely helps to personalize the victims whose lives you hope to improve. But it is rarely helpful to make things personal in the other direction; indeed, it is quite likely to be counterproductive if one tries to argue directly to a meat eater not only that vegetarianism is a general good but also that he should become vegetarian right now.

And accepting. Not in the public sphere (where it is surely right to argue as loudly as possible that the cruel, the oppressive, and the heartless are absolutely unacceptable), but rather in our approach to individual hearts and minds. Most important of all, perhaps, the approach we each take to our own heart and mind.
How does the rest of our psyche respond when this sort of disconnect occurs within ourselves—when we are not doing what we know to be right? Understandably enough, we are uncomfortable with it; none of us likes to be confronted on an ongoing basis with an image of ourselves that falls well short of our ideals. And rather than accept the reality of that image, we may prefer to somehow distort the picture. We may start to find excuses to belittle either the ideals themselves, or the people who hold them and who have managed to change their behavior. (Was it for this reason that “do-gooder” became primarily a term of abuse in the 1980s and 90s?) Without looking into the matter too closely, we may start to label the ideals naïve and impractical. We may fall back on ad hominems; the ways in which animals rights activists and vegans and feminists are caricatured today are not unlike nineteenth and early twentieth-century caricatures of anti-slavery activists and suffragettes and advocates of better factory conditions.

And we may go further. We may transfer the irritation or outright anger we feel at ourselves for not living up to certain ideals onto the ideals themselves, or onto the people who are striving to bring them closer to reality. The mind is thereby working to destroy any disconnect between the person we are and the person we would like to be—but doing so in the nastiest of ways.

I would suggest that a better way to deal with this sort of disconnect within ourselves is to accept it as something we can live with for the moment. I should stress that phrase “for the moment”; the worst course of action is surely one that would lead us to become perpetually comfortable with all our failings. Just as important as accepting that immediate change may not always be possible is filing away in a not-too-out-of-the-way place an intent to change our behavior, at least to some significant degree.

I will own that I may be too influenced here by an awareness of my own psyche; one’s own case always seems the most salient somehow. I have written in the Afterword to Animals about the long lag that occurred for me between the realization that factory farming was horrifically wrong and the moment when I began to actually change my behavior. And I have written too about how, when I did begin to change, “slow stages” made change much more easily do-able. For me that is not an isolated case; for some years when I was living in Calgary I had the vague notion that I should in some way volunteer to help the homeless, but I did nothing. Only when a friend and her son mentioned that they were volunteering did I finally act myself. And the same pattern continues: I am persuaded now that it would be right for me to start giving at least 10% of my income in the cause of reducing global poverty, but my level of charitable giving is for the moment far below that. My guess is that this will be the second time in my life when a book by Peter Singer ends up exerting a considerable influence on my behavior. For the moment, though, I am still in a state of akrasia.

* * *

Let me add a postscript here about Orwell. For someone so extraordinarily alert both to subtle nuances and to clear moral imperatives where class and imperialism were concerned, he was astonishingly lacking in sensitivity on matters relating to gender—and even more so on matters relating to the ethics of vegetarianism. This was emphatically not akrasia: Orwell did not at any level think he should be supporting the betterment of women, or ethical vegetarianism. Indeed, he seems to have registered issues such as these as having little or no ethical content whatsoever—other than that feminists and vegetarians displayed a style that deserved to be mocked. Here he is, for example, writing in The Road to Wigan Pier on some of the obstacles to getting the general population to realize the superiority of socialism over capitalism:
…there is the horrible—the really disquieting—prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. … For instance, I have here a prospectus from another summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say ‘whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian.’ This kind of thing is in itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people [from Socialism]. And their instinct is pretty sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years to the life of his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.

The logical sleights of hand here are almost breathtaking—first and foremost among them, the insistence on improving one’s own health as the only possible motive for vegetarianism. Could Orwell really have been entirely ignorant of what was already by the 1930s a long tradition in his own culture of vegetarianism on grounds relating to the treatment of non-human animals? Could he really have been as unsympathetic as he appears to be towards feminists, when the struggle of women to achieve the vote was only a few years past? One thing at least is clear; we are none of us without blind spots.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Identity and Politics

Over the radio this morning Michael Enright was reflecting on “The Champions,” an old NFB film about the era of Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque (now, like other NFB films, available free online)—and lamenting that no one today measures up to the level of intelligence and passion they brought to the debating of the great issues of the day. Surely they were both great figures. But how much did the great issue that preoccupied them really matter? It is fifteen years since Quebec’s 1995 referendum, thirty since the 1980 one—and fifty years since the July 1960 election that brought the Lesage Liberals to power and ushered in the Quiet Revolution. The social and economic changes that have occurred in Quebec have been more dramatic than in the rest of Canada, simply because 1950s Quebec was so much more of a closed society. But the paths have been parallel (the degree to which 1950s English Canada was a closed and intolerant society is often forgotten). On those parallel paths Quebec and English Canada have grown modern economies and open societies. Gender equality and racial and religious tolerance (in the context of a secularized public sphere) have become accepted by virtually all; sexual orientation is to the large majority regarded as being in the same category. Providing a social safety net—Medicare, help for the poor, help for the unemployed, and so on—is considered by most to be a core principle. The value of the non-human environment—and the principle that its protection must sometimes trump narrow economic concerns—is accepted near universally. So too is the importance of reaching out to the world—and acting generously to those in need. Compared to the importance of such things as these, how much value inheres in the fact of our having remained one nation state rather than two?

Certainly I would say now that it is a lot less important than I once believed. And far, far less important than following through on the core principles that we* feel define us, but that a very great deal of the time we fail to live up to. In Quebec as in English Canada we like to believe that we are more compassionate towards the rest of the world than are the Americans, that we are more tolerant than Americans are, that we behave more responsibly towards the environment. But America is in fact considerably better in all these areas than Canadians like to believe, and Canada considerably worse. In all these areas our goodwill tends to come to the fore only in response to the visible. When the headlines are filled with images of the devastation in Haiti or in Banda Aceh, we are among the world’s most generous—yet on an ongoing basis we are among the least generous of developed nations in the assistance we give to the world’s poor. When the effects of pollution or global warming are plainly before us, our track record of doing something about such problems is a decent one—but we remain unperturbed if our electricity comes from heavily polluting coal-fired generators that remain out of view. We are rightly outraged if we are shown pictures of ducks suffering the effects of tailings from the tar sands—but we would prefer not to know that millions and millions of non-human animals confined in closed sheds are treated with horrific cruelty in order to provide human animals in Canada with meat and dairy products at rock bottom prices. If we can open our eyes to some of these great issues—and act to bring about change for the better—I for one will care little if we are one nation state or two. Or, indeed, new states in an America led by the likes of Barack Obama.

* I should own to being an unusual and in some ways a reluctant participant in this sort of national "we." I have lived most of my life in Canada, hold a Canadian passport, and very much feel myself to be Canadian. But I do not feel myself in any way to be exclusively Canadian. That is not merely (or mainly) a matter of my having been born in the United States, and being as a result an American as well as a Canadian. Or even, more broadly, of having lived in Britain and Zimbabwe as well as in the United States and in Canada; it's more a matter of having come increasingly to distrust nationalisms of all sorts.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Where the Money Comes From

Why have environmentalists not made opposition to factory farming a priority? For years now there has been broad agreement among independent researchers as to the horrors of factory farming. It presents huge health risks for humans, and is almost as ruinous to the broader environment as it is cruel to the animals it condemns to lives of suffering. The risk to humans as well as to non-human animals from the systematic overuse of antibiotics, the impossibility of disposing of the vast quantities of excrement produced without damage to land and water—that’s the start of a very long list of negatives. Yet many environmental groups do not even mention factory farming on their websites, and those that do—such as the David Suzuki Foundation—tend to be extraordinarily timid in their recommendations. Not for a moment do they suggest that anyone who cares about environmental quality should consider becoming a vegan. They don’t even suggest that if we choose to eat meat and dairy products we should eat only free-range, organically produced meat and dairy products. Far from it. “Here are some fun suggestions for things you can do,” the Meatrix site recommended by Suzuki brightly suggests, and then proceeds to recommend reading books, seeing movies, and “going meatless even one day a week.” It’s much the same with other environmental groups; cautious endorsements of “Meatless Mondays” represent about the furthest they are willing to go. Why so toothless?

One reason may be philosophical. As Angus Taylor sets out in his fine book Animals and Ethics, some environmentalists have long regarded those who advocate on behalf of non-human animals with suspicion—as “sentimentalists who are unwilling to face up to the realities of life and death.” If we ascribe rights to non-human animals, does logic require that we interfere in nature so as to protect wild animals from their natural predators? To what degree should non-human animals be granted moral standing? These may indeed be vexed issues. But as is increasingly recognized, agreement on those sorts of philosophical issues is not required in order to form a coalition against factory farming; relgious people who believe humans should have dominion over other animals can on this issue be in broad agreement with secular environmentalists, with those who support animal rights, and with those whose primary concern is for human health. From all angles, factory farming causes horrendous damage—and, thankfully, these days most environmental groups acknowledge that fact. Yet confronting factory farming remains at or near the bottom of their list of priorities. Again, why?

Could it be a funding issue? That suggestion is raised in an October 21 2008 article, “Eating Less Meat is Critical to Our Planet’s Future”; Dennis Cunningham of the International Institute for Sustainable Development notes that “when environmental groups apply to governments or large corporations for money to produce an education program, the funding organization can dictate the priorities such a program should take. And no government wants to risk offending a powerful agriculture lobby by telling people to eat less meat — even if it’s good for them.”

Certainly it’s always interesting to know where the money is coming from. Take for instance this past week’s story about Frank Mitloehner, an academic who presented a paper entitled “Clearing the Air” at a conference of the American Chemical Society in which he questioned the Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2008 estimate that our meat-eating ways are responsible for a higher percentage of the world’s carbon emissions (they estimated 18%) than is the entire transportation category (an estimated 15%). Apparently the statistics deserve to be questioned; the UN has admitted flaws in the FAO's calculations, and arguments over what the true percentages are will doubtless continue for some time.* The interesting thing about Mitloehner’s paper, though, is that he doesn't stop at querying meat-eating’s percentage contribution to global warming. He takes a big leap beyond that to broad prescriptions for world agricultural policy: “Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries....The developed world’s efforts should focus not on reducing meat and milk consumption,” says Mitloehner, “but rather on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries, where growing populations need more nutritious food.” Far from shutting down the factory farms, in other words, he wants to expand them. Through what mechanism might hunger be more easily reduced by raising cows and pigs rather than by growing grains and legumes for direct human consumption (when common sense as well as the weight of much expert opinion points in the other direction)? Mitloehner does not dwell on that question. And he says nothing about dangers to human health from such things as the overuse of antibiotics, nothing about the damage to the world's water supply from the run-off of excrement from factory farms, and (of course) nothing about the issue of cruelty to animals. Even if we accepted the suggestion that our meat-eating habits in no way contribute to global warming, in other words, there are many, many reasons to oppose factory farming. Instead, Mitloehner endorses a call for “replacing current suboptimal production with advanced production methods — at every step from feed production, through livestock production and processing, to distribution and marketing.”

Here’s one piece of information about his paper that you won’t find in the reports on Fox News or in Time Magazine or in the Toronto Sun: the paper “is a synthesis of research... Writing the synthesis was supported by a $26,000 research grant from the Beef Checkoff Program, which funds research and other activities, including promotion and consumer education, through fees on beef producers in the U.S.” Mitloehner goes on to report that in total he “has received $5 million in research funding, with 5 percent of the total from agricultural commodities groups, such as beef producers.” That 5% may sound small — until one remembers that 5% of $5 million is still a hefty $250,000. Interestingly, his research seems almost all to have been on such subjects as ammonia levels in the factory farming of pigs rather than on global warming. Here's a sample, from a study that received $40,000 in funding from the National Pork Board: “Acute and Chronic effects of Ammonia on...Nursery Pigs”:
Most of the existing guidlines and recommendations for animal houses are set at limits ranging from 20 to 50 parts per million of ammonia. Our studies indicated that pigs respond to ammonia with systemic inflamation and stress responses. However, even 50 ppm does not dramatically seem to affect animal performance.

Freely translated, that means that even though the nursery pigs may be suffering more from higher levels of anmmonia, the higher levels do not result in greater “aggressive behaviors” or — no doubt most important — in any change in feeding behavior. The authors make no recommendation that intensive pig farms cut back on ammonia levels; so much for “Clearing the Air.”

* As Vaughan Black of Dalhousie University has pointed out to me, there is no consensus that the true figure is lower than 18%; indeed, the report Livestock and Climate Change, published a few months ago by the World Watch Institute, puts the figure at about 50%.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Aging and Changing

Do humans naturally tend to become more conservative as we age? Some part of me—the part which never wants to learn how to work new gadgets—feels that is surely true. But another part very much hopes it isn’t. That’s the part of me that resists the thought that I might be destined to become more politically conservative as I age—and that wants to believe that humans won’t become less likely with age to be able to change their behavior toward non-human animals.

It has long been a truism that as we age we tend to move to the right politically—and more generally to become steadily less receptive to change. Whenever this topic comes up someone to the right of center always trots out the saying, “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart; if he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain”*—a saying so well balanced rhetorically that people tend to start nodding their heads in agreement before they realize that the list of those it would class as brainless includes the likes of Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf….

Research now suggests the saying to be wrong in another crucial respect; it’s simply not true that that there’s a natural tendency for humans on average to become steadily more conservative as they age. Studies published in 2007 and 2008 study by Nicholas Danigelis, Melissa Hardy, and Stephen J. Cutler (most notably “Population Aging, Intracohort Aging, and Sociological Attitudes,” American Sociological Review, vol. 72, no. 5, October 2007) conclude that there is no clear trend towards greater political conservatism in middle age—and that over the period 1972-2004 Americans aged 60 and over became considerably more liberal in their attitudes regarding such things as the political and economic roles of women and of African Americans, and the politics of sexual orientation.

Those results seem consistent with surveys from the past ten years of attitudes and habits regarding eating animal products. Since the late 1990s there has been a substantial movement towards vegetarianism among Americans. Interestingly, though, the change seems to have occurred at a faster rate among older people than it has among young. In 2000 4.5 % of Americans reported that they never ate meat; by 2009 the percentage had grown to 8%. The current number for young people is also just under 8%—but it has increased only 2% since 2000 (Harris polls, as reported by the Vegetarian Resource Group). In America at least, this sort of change has been happening faster among adults than it has among young people.

I’ll end with a piece of anecdotal evidence that the old are never too old to change. Among the very first people to be persuaded by reading Animals to change their eating habits was someone who had recently turned 90—the poet P.K. Page. It’s hard to imagine that many of us will be sufficiently open-minded at that age to make truly significant changes—but P.K. was surely extraordinary. With how many people in their nineties does it seem as natural to talk about sexual love, or politics, or religion as it does to talk about the health of relatives, or the weather, or the distant past? And how many people in their nineties talk not only with wisdom but with spark and sharp insight? In 2009 P.K. published four books—and they were good books too. When she died this past January 14 she was 93. I had come to know her only in her late 80s, my early 50s; I so wish I could have known her longer.

*No one seems to be sure where the saying originated; in slightly different versions it has been attributed to Churchill, Bismark, Clemenceau, and others.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Soylent Green and Animals

I’ve never been knowledgeable about science fiction, and I confess to never having heard of Soylent Green before an old friend mentioned it to me in 2007, after I had outlined to him the storyline of Animals. More than a few others have mentioned Soylent Green to me since, and Soft Skull Press, the New York company that will publish the American edition of Animals this spring, has been pitching it to the book trade as “Soylent Green meets ‘A Modest Proposal.’”

I still have not read the Harry Harrison novel Make Room! Make Room! on which Soylent Green is based, but I did finally get around recently to seeing the Richard Fleischer film starring Charlton Heston. From one angle Soylent Green is indeed similar to Animals—like Animals (and, of course, like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”) it has at its center the idea of humans eating other humans. But it is a work with a message that points in an entirely different direction. Both Soylent Green and Animals are dystopias depicting worlds in which resources have been depleted and there is widespread poverty. But in the world of Soylent Green the root cause of the trouble is overpopulation. The population of New York alone has ballooned to 40 million, farmland has been paved over, food is scarce. Everyone relies on rations produced by the Soylent Corporation—Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, produced from vegetable extracts, and the high-protein Soylent Green—said to be produced from plankton. Then comes the revelation: it’s not from plankton at all. “Soon they’ll be breeding us like cattle. You’ve got to warn everyone and tell them. Soylent Green is people! We’ve got to stop them somehow!” is the memorable cry of Robert Thorn (the Charlton Heston character) at the movie’s end. The horror at the heart of Soylent Green, then, is not that animals raised for food are treated with terrible cruelty; it is that we might contemplate treating humans as we do other animals. The crucial scene in the movie is one in which the elderly Sol Roth (played by Edward G. Robinson) has been persuaded to make room for others by allowing his life to come to an end. The horror is that his flesh will be converted into protein rich Soylent Green after his death. Appalling though that is, the horror begins and ends there, with no analogy drawn to the ongoing horrors factory farming imposes on living animals--horrors that were becoming the norm in America just as the film was being made. (Far from being treated cruelly as he prepares for death, indeed, Roth is thoroughly pampered.) Soylent Green, in other words, does not ask us to care how cattle are treated (let alone wonder if we should be killing them); its message is simply watch out, lest we start treating each other as we do cattle.

Is that such a bad message to convey? Or was it in 1973? As it turned out, yes, though it need not have been. Had people reacted to the scare-mongering about overpopulation in part by cutting down drastically on their consumption of meat and dairy products (as Frances Moore Lappé advised in her 1971 Diet for a Small Planet), it would have been a very good thing indeed. But few reacted in that way. The important response came not from any change in individual behavior, but from scientists and from industry. Famously, Norman Borlaug and others led a “green revolution” that greatly increased crop yields. Even that, it is now argued, may have been far from an unmitigated good. But the great evil came in the corresponding increase in yields in meat production. Here is O.E. Kolari of the American Meat Institute:

The doubling of the population in such a short span of time will tax the world's resources. ... The ability of American agriculture to supply adequate food, and in our particular area, meat, to needy peoples of the world, can be seriously questioned. ... The most serious food shortage in the future will be protein of high quality, and here is where the meat industry becomes important. … Meat production is steadily increasing in the United States, and improvements in meat production in the United States and other parts of the world suggest an adequate meat supply in the years ahead, although a doubling of meat production within the next 15-20 years may be required. ... It can be calculated that an increase in the efficiency of production may be expected to reduce production costs and, therefore, also selling price by as much as 20%. ... Changes in the development of new products, new facilities, and other developments in the meat industry may not be as rapid as one would like to see ... but changes are occurring, and change is the hallmark of progress. (O.E. Kolari, "The Use of Animal Protein for Food," in Journal of Animal Science, 1966, 25, pp 567, 569, 571)

That may sound largely benign, but as Kolari and others called for further “improvements” of the sort that had already begun in the American meat industry, the practical effect was again and again to ratchet up the cruelty, all in the name of greater yield, of "efficiency," of “improvement,” in a process that continues to this day. They were ahead of the doomsayers; Kolari’s article was published in 1966, two years before Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, seven years before Soylent Green. But one practical effect of the population doomsayers of the 1960s and the 1970s was to foster an unquestioning acceptance of “improvements” that were already underway in the meat and dairy industries—and an abiding reluctance among most of us to know how those “improvements” are usually achieved. The implicit assumption may have been unstated, but it is not hard to discern: if greater "efficiency" in the meat industry was necessary to stave off some of the horrors that would otherwise result from human overpopulation, well, that was a price non-human animals would have to pay. Soylent Green today is a film that's hard to take seriously--it's entertaining in all sorts of ways it probably didn't mean to be. But to the extent that it had serious effects in its day, it's hard to imagine that they were for the good.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Meat Trade News Daily

I’ve been pleased to see that Eric Vollmer’s Calgary Herald interview piece from early December has now also appeared in several other CanWest places—most recently The Montreal Gazette. Rather more surprising is its appearance in the Dec. 12 issue of Meat Trade News Daily, an international, web-based compendium of published material about the industry. Interestingly, the piece does not appear there as it does in the various CanWest places, under something close to its original heading (“Dystopian Novel Finds Origin in Animal Rights”), but rather under the heading “Canada—Conspiracy Theories over Environment and Farming.” Here’s the link:

CanWest holds the copyright, and is in bankruptcy protection; they may be less amused than I am by this misuse of their property.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Words After an Afterword

Does Animals argue for animal rights? Or only for treating non-human animals better? Does it argue that humans should all be vegetarians, even vegans—or does it simply ask humans to give up factory farmed meat and dairy products for free-range ones?

I’m not entirely sure. That may seem odd for the author of a novel that has been said by more than one reader to be too direct and too obvious in its message. But it is the truth. The main thrust of Animals is of course against factory farming; that much is (I trust) abundantly clear. But what of the vexed issues beyond that? My own views have to some degree shifted over the years; indeed, I suspect they shifted in the course of writing the novel. I have leanings, but I am indeed not entirely sure-not sure about my own beliefs, and not even sure as to what the book may argue on this point.

And I’m not alone. My old friend Tom Hurka, a philosopher who is one of our best and liveliest thinkers on ethics and aesthetics, mentioned when he joined me in Toronto this past season to speak about the book (and about the ethics of human animals dealing with non-human ones) that his reactions had differed on first and second reading. On one reading he had seen Broderick more as an unreliable narrator, and on another had imagined that the book (I won’t say “the author”) was endorsing a good deal of what Broderick has to say.

Interestingly, two online reviews of the novel that I have come across recently are at entirely opposite poles on this point. I don’t mean simply that they take opposing views; they also disagree completely about what is being argued for in Animals. Kentia Gueletina in The Lyon concludes that the book reads “like a treatise on animal rights and the virtues of becoming a vegetarian.” Calling it “one of the most scarring books” she has ever read, she concedes that “the quality of the writing is actually very good,” but disapproves of what she sees as its message: “it would make a good pamphlet for the more extreme (and I mean extreme) Animal Rights movements.”

In fact the book is (I think) careful to steer clear of the difficult issue of whether or not non-human animals have or should possess those abstract qualities many human animals call “rights.” Too careful, by some reckonings. David Regan has just posted his review of the book on his Animals in Canada site. I won’t quibble here over several small points in his review I might take issue with him over. The important thing is that on one very large point he is absolutely right, and I have been quite wrong:

All this puzzling over Broderick is made moot in the end by LePan’s Afterword. Here it becomes clear that the character’s ethical position, far from being a joke or a warning, and in addition to perhaps being a reaction to childhood trauma, is the same as his author’s. Both Broderick and LePan are arguing – passionately, eloquently, earnestly – for an end to factory farming, for improved welfare for food animals, but neither is arguing for animal rights, neither is arguing for the abolition of animal use. There is nothing wrong with this position per se; it’s common and often convincing in contemporary discussions of our obligations toward non-humans. But within the world of LePan’s novel – where humans with intellectual disabilities are stand-ins for, are equated with, non-human animals – it is absolutely untenable, as it suggests that it might be acceptable to use humans with intellectual disabilities for food so long as we do not factory farm them. Broderick defends the indefensible, and rather than laugh or scoff at him, LePan wants us to take him seriously. This failure to condemn the killing and eating of humans with intellectual disabilities does not, obviously, mean that LePan might actually support such a practice. No reader could possibly come away from his book thinking so. Nevertheless, while Broderick’s three-dimensionality, his humanity, makes for good fiction, it is also despicable philosophy and dangerous politics, and these are realms that LePan clearly wants his novel to exist in.

Aesthetically there is I think much to be said for leaving a good deal of uncertainty over the degree to which the book endorses or undercuts Broderick's various positions. But as it stands the Afterword acts in the most unhelpful of ways to remove much of that uncertainty; I am entirely persuaded that the elements of the Afterword that Regan points to are as damaging aesthetically as they are philosophically. Another perceptive recent reader—Deborah Robbins—pointed out to me last month that the afterword anachronistically referenced humans killing and eating pigs and chickens and so on. I made a note to have those lines changed on the first reprint of the Canadian edition, and in the forthcoming US edition—but somehow I still didn’t get the larger underlying point Robbins was making, until Regan made it for me even more forcefully. How I missed the larger problem I don't know; the only explanation I can offer is that with the Afterword I really had left the world of the novel behind, and was focusing on the world of today, and on factory farming. In any case, I now see clearly that the Afterword as it now stands does not connect coherently with the novel. my apologies for having gotten that one large thing so very wrong. I am posting now on my website a revised Afterword that (I hope!) takes account of this problem. My thanks to David and to Deborah for pointing me towards better things!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Humans and Other Animals

What’s wrong with these sentences?

1. Sturgeon are larger than freshwater fish.

2. The eagle was flying higher than the birds.

It’s not a difficult question to answer; the error is immediately obvious to anyone possessing even a passing acquaintance with biology and with the English language. Sturgeon are freshwater fish, and eagles are birds. To be correct, the sentences should read

Sturgeon are larger than other freshwater fish.

The eagle was flying higher than the other birds.

Yet we very frequently see no error when we read sentences such as the following:

3. Throughout our history, our understanding of animals and of our relationship to them has been debated.

4. The way we view animals determines how we treat them.

To be correct, such sentences as these should also include the word other:

Throughout our history, our understanding of other animals and of our relationship to them has been debated.

The way we view other animals determines how we treat them.

Is this just to carp over a trivial distinction? No more so than it is to suggest there is a problem with sentences such as “Slaves should never sleep in the same quarters as people,” or “The gestation period of man is nine months.” As researchers long ago discovered, the way we use language both reflects and helps to shape our thinking. Though there are still some who resist, most of us accept that it makes a difference whether or not we use language that implies that certain classes of people are not people at all. In the same way, it must make a difference (in shaping as well as in reflecting our attitudes) if we use language implying that humans are not animals. If we treated all non-human animals well, it would arguably be a trivial distinction indeed. But the fact is that we don’t; throughout the world non-human animals are horrifically mistreated; here in North America, over 99% of the meat and dairy products we consume come from animals who spend their lives in conditions of extreme hardship in factory farms. The more we are in the habit of speaking of (and thinking of) those fellow animals as creatures entirely different from ourselves, the better able we are to rationalize the cruelty that we condone—and that our behavior as consumers actively supports.

Ironically enough, examples 3 and 4 above are taken (slightly modified) from an excellent book called The Inner World of Farm Animals, which presents a wealth of research demonstrating that farm animals are far closer to humans in their intellectual and emotional capabilities than has commonly been assumed. Even those who are working to challenge the old stereotypes, in other words, sometimes use language that helps to reinforce them. It took us a long time to learn the importance of being careful about how we use man; no doubt the same will be true of animals. But it is surely time to start learning.