Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Sexual Politics of Meat

[I fashioned this sermon 20 years ago, June, 1991. It transformed me. I became a complete non-meat eater. It's interesting to return to this book's provocative critical feminist perspective, the linking of vegetarianism and feminism. I particularly like Ms. Adams' identification of vegetarianism as a reform movement. My predictions two decades ago regarding the ethical frontier of animal rights, may be coming true, as evidenced by UCH's emergent Animal Ministry initiative.]

Prove All Things

A critical attitude is one of Unitarian Universalism's distinctive traits. The first Unitarian sermon (Channing, 1819) used the text, "Prove all things, hold fast to that which good." For nearly two centuries, we Unitarians have examined, through the twin lenses of reason and experience, whatever has been presented to us as truth. In part, this critical attitude is fueled by a belief in progress – that revelation is ongoing, that knowledge is ever increasing, and that the individual and society may improve through advancing information and ongoing inspiration.

Within Unitarianism, it began 200 years ago, when Enlightenment reason looked critically at Puritan dogma and tradition, as well as the Bible. Within a generation, Idealism, taking the name of Transcendentalism, looked critically at first-generation Unitarianism based solely on a rational reliance on Scripture. Next, at mid-19th century, abolitionism looked critically at the prevailing social and political structure and declared slavery a great evil. In the latter years of the 19th century, evolution and science looked critically at supernatural assumptions and proposed a new naturalism. As this 20th century began, a modern humanism, motivated by the social and physical sciences, asserted a new naturalism over an old supernaturalism. In our own era (the latter days of the 20th century), feminism has significantly challenged thousands of years of cultural patriarchy, reestablishing the order of relationships and seeking to recast social structures of access and power.

Through two centuries of "proving all things, holding fast to that which is good," there has been real advancement of insight and understanding, resulting in new realizations. I even say there has been movement toward perfection, though our reach will always exceed our grasp regarding absolute perfection.

Ethical Vegetarianism

This morning, I'm going to talk about vegetarianism as a critical outlook and the beginning of a reform movement, potentially as important as any that has moved Unitarianism toward the twin purposes of perfection of character and perfection of society.

My remarks draw from a recent book, The Sexual Politics Of Meat: A Feminist Vegetarian Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams. Perhaps I was waiting for such a book to come along. I was certainly ready for it. Every chapter brought consciousness-raising insight.

Before talking about the contents of the book and how the contents affected my outlook, I will review my own relationship with meat:

· When I was young my parents raised and harvested chickens. My father chopped off the chickens ' heads with a hatchet. The expression "like a chicken with its head cut off" always had vivid meaning for me. I can still see in my memory’s eye, headless birds careening about with blood spurting from severed necks. My mother cleaned them. I watched the plucking of feathers and smelled the distinctive aroma of eviscerated intestines. These were unforgettable formative experiences.

· Raised Catholic, Fridays were meatless; and since I wouldn't eat fish, one day each week, until I went off to college, I was vegetarian – perhaps, a bowl of potato soup or breaded zucchini.

· The first time I found meat truly repulsive occurred when I was in my early 20s. While living in Ottawa, Ontario, we were invited to a summer cottage along the Ottawa River for a Canada Day pig roast. When we arrived, a suckling pig was impaled on a spit, slowly turning above a bed of glowing coals. The flesh proved to be soft and sweet, pink and moist. It was remarkable and not in a good way. (I flashed Jonathan Swift's famous satire, "A Modest Proposal.") Served on a platter, its snout agape, I had a difficult time eating the exceedingly young, roasted flesh sliced from the carcass.

· Several years later, circa 1973, while viewing an autopsy as part of my ministerial training, standing a safe distance from the cadaver's chest being opened with a spinning saw, from the corner of my eye, I watched a lab assistant meticulously cleaning fat from a human liver. From that moment, I never ate liver again. It was also the beginning of an ethical realization that I shouldn't be eating meat at all.

· A dozen years ago, circa 1978, during my first year as a minister, I stopped eating red meat. And while I continued to eat chicken and fish, I began to avoid those so-called white meats, too.

· It was also early in my ministry that I began to read seriously Albert Schweitzer’s, finding his reverence for life ethic – “that which enhances life is good, that which destroys life is evil “– especially congenial to my own progressing way of knowing and doing.

· A couple of years ago, Ellie and I spent an afternoon on a fair sized Wisconsin dairy farm. It was a bad day for the farmer. The night before, a cow had strangled itself, when it twisted its neck in a stanchion. It was lying in the muck behind the barn with blood still draining from its nostrils and its eyes staring blankly. The renderer’s truck arrived, full of contorted carcasses, to winch another dead cow aboard. During the afternoon milking, a young cow being milked for the first time after giving birth broke free and rampaged through the barn; the farmer, taking no chance, shot it. The rifle shot resounded while we bottle-fed his calves soon to be slaughtered for veal. This experience started me thinking about dairy products as I had years earlier begun to think about meat.

· I'm not a true vegetarian, since I've continued to eat animal flesh, though only white meat and even that meat infrequently. Yet my progressing consciousness hasn't allowed my conscience to rest. I don't think a moment of eating any animal flesh has passed in the last dozen years without an accompanying awareness that to do so was probably not morally right.

The Sexual Politics Of Meat is a book I am ready for. It is propitious and will probably change my behavior. Carol Adams' reasoning is compelling – hard for me to ignore when processed by my own power to reason and through my life experiences.

A Feminist Critique

The thesis of The Sexual Politics Of Meat is provocative. Ms. Adams maintains that the same cultural attitudes and hierarchies of power that oppress women also oppress animals. As women have been and continue to be objectified – not respected for their spirit of being – similarly the spirit of being of animals is not respected; therefore the animals are objectified. In her book Ms. Adams presents vegetarianism as not a fad but as a valid and valuable reform – a logical extension and application of feminist criticism.

Ms. Adams' analysis of the meaning of meat is an exercise in demythologizing symbolic language, revealing how language masks reality and enforces patriarchy. She writes:

"From the leather in our shoes, the soap so we use to cleanse our face, the down in our comforter, the meat we eat, and the dairy products we rely on, our world as we know it structured around the dependence on the death of the other animals. The death of the other animals is an accepted part of life, either envisioned as being granted in Genesis 1:26 by a human-oriented God who instructs us that we may dominate the animals or conceptualized as a right because of superior rationality. For those who hold to the dominant viewpoint in our culture, the surprise is not that animals are oppressed (though that is not the term they would use to express human beings relationship to the other animals), the surprise is that anyone would object to this. Our culture generally accepts animals' oppression and finds nothing ethically or politically disturbing about the exploitation of animals for the benefit of people. Hence our language is structured to convey this acceptance.”

She makes a compelling argument regarding meat in terms of what she calls an absent referent. What is meat, really? Meat is the flesh of a dead animal. In every instance, when you say meat, the absent referent is a once living animal. You eat a hamburger, well, the absent referent is cow. How did that cow die? It was slaughtered – stunned and bled, thereby killed, then dismembered and ground. But rather than think of meat in this manner, we obfuscate and distance ourselves from the reality through symbolic language.

Ms. Adams correctly points out that for most of us, suburbanites and urbanites, our major interaction with animals is through meat, though we don't often think about it in such a manner. "We eat them. This simple fact is the key to our attitudes to other animals, and also the key to what each one of us can do about changing these attitudes." She suggests when you eat meat, think, how am I now interacting with an animal?

Saying that probably makes you uncomfortable. I know that it makes me uncomfortable. Adams knows this, too, observing:

"On an emotional level everyone has some discomfort with the eating of animals. This discomfort is seen when people do not want to be reminded of what they are eating while eating, nor to be informed of the slaughterhouse activities that make meat eating possible; it also is revealed by the personal taboo that each person has toward some form of meat: either because of its form, such as organ meats, or because of its source, such as pig or rat, insects or rodents. The intellectual framework of language that enshrouds meat eating protects these emotional responses from beginning examined. This is nothing new; language has always sided with us in sidestepping sticky problems of conceptualization by obfuscating the situation."

Ms. Adams asks, do you see yourself as eating a succession of chops, burgers, and steaks? Real food for real people? Or do you see yourself consuming – as does the average American in a lifetime – 43 pigs, 3 lambs, 11 cows, 4 calves, 1107 chickens, 45 turkeys, and 861 fish?

She further points out that language is not just male-centered but also human-centered. We generally use the word animal as though it did not apply to us, too. Our language is structured to avoid our essential biological identity with non-human animals.

Here we squarely face the real issue of the relationship between human animals and non-human animals. Is it moral to use animals – to turn them them into things, to objectify them? Indeed, a deeper issue involves what we UUs call the interdependent web of existence, specifically our place in an intricate web of life where life form is connected to life form. What does it mean when we say we have respect for the interdependent web of existence? What is that respect for, if not for life in all forms, what Ms. Adams calls the spirit of being. Throughout her critical analysis, Ms. Adams observes that much of the protein we eat comes from the female of the species – what she calls feminized protein.

Ethical vegetarianism joined to an animal rights movement challenge long held attitudes of oppression and violence by human animals on non-human animals. In the Sexual Politics Of Meat Ms. Adams joins the feminist cause to the cause of ethical vegetarianism – challenging the attitudes of the patriarchy, that are oppressive (not respectful of life) and do violence (hurtful of life). At the very heart of her argument for feminism and vegetarianism is reverence for a spirit of life no matter what form a life may take. Life is sacred. Ms. Adams recommends that an effective personal strategy to undermine the patriarchy with its violent and death-dealing ways is to, in her poetic phrasing, "eat rice have faith in women." In this regard, vegetarianism is not a fad, but is a serious and potentially powerful reform movement.

I've been long pondering the meaning of meat within my own life. This book galvanizes years of thinking and leads to these personal conclusions:

1. The distinction between human and nonhuman animals continues to dissolve into a swelling naturalism. It's clearer and clearer to me that the spirit of being in me identifies with the spirit of being in all creatures. I am more and more loath to do violence on other creatures, as well as on fellow human beings.
2. There is not just an ethic but also an aesthetic in vegetarianism. Vegetarianism transforms what is a social obsession – eating – into a more thoughtful and graceful act. And when eating is so, it enhances my whole pattern of living.
3. That being an ethical vegetarian is indeed a powerful personal political act challenging a dysfunctional and dangerous existing order, as well as giving ongoing persuasive witness to a more fitting and beneficial order.
4. Vegetarianism fits into a "seamless garment" scheme of reverence for life, pushing my humanism into the deeper spirituality of what I call Natural Religion.

I've left out big pieces of Carol Adams' analysis, particularly regarding the cultural identification of meat eating with maleness, superiority, and power. Though her book is only 190 pages, the reasoning in those pages is dense and rich. The book is part cultural history, part moral philosophy, and part literary criticism. (For instance she deals with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a significant vegetarian text.) It's a tough but good read.

And What About You?

I suspect that many of you have felt discomfort this morning – a dis-ease. Some images have been gory and other images have been discomforting. There's good cause why you should find them so. Examine your responses, particularly the visceral feelings. And then examine the arguments of ethical vegetarianism, as presented by Ms. Adams. Ponder the practical meaning of meat (the missing referent) and how that meaning permeates your life. Think about the reform – the perfection – of your character and of society that vegetarianism may offer.

At the very least, prove to your satisfaction through your abilities to think and experience that meat eating is right and good. ("Prove all things." and as always, "hold fast to that which is good.")