30 June 2011

Dazed and confused: Self-admitted carnist defends 'cruelty-free' meat

In a superficial and ultimately self-serving article on Time.com, food writer Josh Ozersky attempts to reconcile his love of animal flesh with his commitment to cruelty-free meat production. Not only does Ozersky fail in this task, but he manages (in a mere seven paragraphs) to ignore, misrepresent, and confuse so many critical concepts that it's difficult to formulate a coherent response. Nevertheless, given that its association with Time confers to Ozersky's piece an imprimatur of credibility it doesn't deserve, a response there must be. So allow me to address three of the article's most egregious flaws:

Misunderstanding #1: Vegetarian food = rabbit food
Like many unapologetic meat addicts, Ozersky blithely dismisses any possibility of epicurean delight in a plant-based diet. "Vegetarians," he claims, "miss the point." And what exactly is this "point" that escapes our vegetally befuddled minds? Here's Ozersky's penetrating insight:
"People aren't going to start eating carrots three times a day. It's just not going to happen."
His mockery doesn't stop there. Vegetarians, in Ozersky's portrayal, are pathetic little folks who just "sit there" and "ask for oatmeal" while "everybody else is eating delicious sausages and hamburgers."

That vegetarian dining can be a scrumptious, fully satisfying experience escapes Ozersky entirely. Now, I know that many of his unfortunate choices of expression are meant to be funny. It's his shtick; I get it. And maybe, somewhere deep down, Ozersky might even concede the existence of people who manage to find lip-smacking, tastebud-tingling joy in meals devoid of animal products. But by perpetuating the tired "rabbit food" stereotype of the vegetarian diet, Ozersky reinforces the false assumption that plant-based eating is, by definition, bland, unappetizing, and restrictive to the point of asceticism.

If you're going to pick a fight with vegetarians, at least have the decency to play fair. I, like most vegetarians and vegans, used to be a meat eater too. Not only did I eat meat, but I loved it, craved it, savored it. But I can honestly say that these days, when I'm digging into my second helping of vegan lasagna — with its savory, toothsome morsels of homemade seitan and its luscious, creamy layers of cashew-based ricotta — I'm as gustatorily satiated as I ever was when I noshed on animal carcasses and curdled cows' milk.

Lest Ozersky's readers have any doubts, carrots and oatmeal do not represent the end-all and be-all of vegetarian cuisine. Like Ozersky, I still have a "human appetite— and I even enjoy "delicious sausages and hamburgers," though not ones requiring the slaughter of sentient beings. What's more, in adopting veganism, my food choices have expanded, not shrunk. As a typical meat-eater, nearly all of my meals were dominated by just three species: cows, chickens, and pigs. (And the contents of my fridge reflected this narrow view of comestibles.) Now, my fridge and cupboard contain an array of foodstuffs far more diverse than anything I'd known before. No wonder the average American, dependent as she is on a teensy handful of victuals, becomes alarmed when asked to imagine life without those few items. What's left to eat? Nothing but oatmeal and carrots, if you believe Ozersky.

As a professional food writer, Ozersky has a duty to produce pieces that are, regardless of his personal biases, accurate and informed. He loves meat, and he loves defending his love of meat. I get that. Which is why I don't expect him to walk the walk of vegetarianism. But if he's going to write about us, he ought to know how to talk the talk.

Misunderstanding #2: The concept of 'carnism' is a joke
Ozersky begins his article by proudly claiming he's learned a new word: carnist. According to him, this term is nothing more than another ridiculous, politically correct label:
"Giving special names [carnist] to nearly universal attributes [meat eating] is a tactic used by people seeking to undercut the 'normal' status of a particular lifestyle."
But wait a second. Just because Ozersky thinks it makes sense to blow off carnism so easily, should we? The term, coined in 2001 by Dr. Melanie Joy, refers not to the act of meat-eating (which is carnivorism), but to the ideology that underlies that act. Like all culturally dominant belief systems, carnism exerts a profound effect on us, though until we recognize its existence, we're completely unaware of its influence. 

By putting a name to this invisible belief system, Dr. Joy has shed valuable light on the underpinnings of meat-eating. We all take for granted that vegetarians and vegans eat what they eat (or don't eat what they don't eat) because of a belief. Sure, there's always that person who says, "I just don't like the taste of meat" or "I'm a vegan/vegetarian solely for health reasons." But in most cases the vegetarian rationale is more along the lines of "I don't believe in killing/hurting animals," or "I don't believe in the environmental/social/ethical consequences of modern meat production." Ultimately, though, it's the vegetarian's belief that is driving his actions. 

What's so brilliant about Joy's invention of the term carnism is that it allows us to see that there's also a belief driving the actions of meat eaters. Because meat consumption is the norm, meat-eaters are seldom, if ever, forced to explain the thinking behind their eating the way vegetarians are. (In all the years I ate meat, I was never asked at a cookout, "Why are you eating that chicken breast?" But in the relatively short time I've been vegan, I'm constantly asked to justify my food choices: "What, no Thanksgiving turkey? Why not?").

Joy, who's the author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, explains that vegetarians aren't the only ones bringing their beliefs to the dinner table:
"Most people view eating animals as a given, rather than a choice; in meat-eating cultures around the world people typically don’t think about why they find the meat of some animals disgusting and the meat of other animals appetizing, or why they eat any animals at all. However, the reason that many people eat pigs but not dogs, for example, is because they do have a belief system when it comes to eating animals."
Ozersky's unwillingness to consider the implications of carnism is disappointing, to say the least. While there's no room here to fully discuss every important aspect of this prevailing ideology, here are two that deserve attention (much more can be found at the carnism.com website): 
  • Meat production and consumption, the most far-reaching and widely supported form of nonhuman animal exploitation, is dependent on carnist thinking.
  • Carnism is based on convoluted logic. People who rail against the abuse of dogs and cats (evil puppy mills and animal hoarders are typical bugaboos) generally don't make a peep about the abuse of cows and pigs. (CAFO's and factory farming, anyone?)
Apparently, Ozersky knows it's wrong to mistreat animals, and he knows that eating meat means he's an "accessory to the torment of animals," but he's willing to do it anyway because he's determined to stay "hip deep in steaks and chops." No, that's not a misquote. Ozersky is shameless in putting his taste for flesh ahead of all other concerns. To wit, here's the paragraph I found most disturbing: 
"First of all, I get the point made by animal-rights activists. Their primary arguments (that eating other animals is unnecessary, that their lives are as valuable as ours, that eating meat has catastrophic effects on our environment) are, to be honest, unanswerable. I admit that. I just don't want to stop eating meat. In fact, I want to eat even more of it than I do, if that's possible. But you won't hear me making bumper-sticker arguments like: 'If God wanted us to eat lettuce, he wouldn't have given us teeth.'"
To demonstrate just how offensive and vile this statement is, I've rewritten it below by changing the players but maintaining the Ozersky's reasoning:
First of all, I get the point made by abolitionists. Their primary arguments (that enslaving other humans is unnecessary, that their lives are as valuable as ours, that slavery has catastrophic effects on our democracy) are, to be honest, unanswerable. I admit that. I just don't want to stop owning slaves. In fact, I want to own even more of them than I do, if that's possible. But you won't hear me making bumper-sticker arguments like: "If God didn't want us to own slaves, he wouldn't have given us iron shackles." 
Does that argument sound ridiculous? Of course it does, because it is. But the same basic thought patterns that once made slavery a "normal" facet of human culture are what make industrial meat production seem normal today — only the former ideology we call racism, while the latter is carnism.  It's because of carnism that Ozersky can write about the institution of meat production and meat eating with such callous obtuseness.

For those who may object to any comparison of meat-eating and slavery, let me say that my point here is to stress the institutionalized nature of both practices. (To what degree these practices are or are not morally equivalent, I'll leave for another day.) That said, substitute "meat eating" and "animal" for the words "slavery" and "slave" in the following passage (from Milton Meltzer's book Slavery: A World History) and see what happens:
"The institution of slavery was universal throughout much of history. It was a tradition everyone grew up with. It seemed essential to the social and economic life of the community, and man's conscience was seldom troubled by it . . . . How much slavery was taken for granted can be judged from the absence of discussion in ancient literature. Slavery existed in every society . . . . Yet most ancient authors did not write about it as a problem. They may have conjectured about its origin or detailed the slave's life, but few imagined it was possible to abolish it." 

Misunderstanding #3: Trying to prevent animal suffering is unrealistic
My final disappointment with Ozersky's article is how deeply pessimistic it is. Like the ancient authors referred to by Meltzer, Ozersky is unable to imagine a world where animals are not made to suffer. 

On the one hand, he prides himself on his annual meat festival that uses only "humanely raised" animals; he praises Whole Foods for their "five-tier animal-welfare grading system" and Temple Grandin for her "minimal-stress slaughterhouse designs"; and he advocates for farm inspections by the USDA and for state anticruelty laws to be applied "for livestock the same as . . . for cute puppies." 

But ultimately, Ozersky has no faith in any of these measures. In his mind, people are selfish. Not only are they not going to stop eating meat, they're not even going to make an effort to seek out meat from "idyllic" farms. Instead, they're going to keep shopping at "regular stores and eating chili at bars, and bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches at diners and delis." The government, in Ozersky's view, is no better. He undercuts his own dream of USDA farm inspections and livestock anticruelty laws by bluntly declaring: "neither of these things will ever happen." 

It helps to keep in mind that people like Ozersky were around when slavery and child labor and the subjugation of women and all sorts of other iniquities were in fashion. I'm biracial, and it was three years after my parents' wedding that laws against interracial marriage were deemed unconstitutional in the U.S. As I look at back at history, I see that meaningful societal change does happen, in spite of legions of cynics and soldiers of the status quo. Unlike Josh Ozersky, I believe there are better heroes to be found than Tony Soprano and a better peace to be made than one that "rests on this side of pork chops." 

My problem with Ozersky is not that he craves too much, but that he aspires to so little. 

Elizabeth Gordon | Facebook
Elizabeth is an Asian-Appalachian writer, activist, and college professor living in north central Massachusetts. Once an avowed carnivore, she was a vegetarian for 15 years before making the conversion to veganism. She is passionate about trying to live a life that lessens, rather than contributes to, the amount of cruelty and suffering in this world. Follow Elizabeth on her Vegosphere blog and Facebook page.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/melanieseasons/