Monday, December 20, 2010

On eating meat

46. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

"Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about 'eating animals,' they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism. It's a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case. (What assumptions did you make upon seeing the title of this book?)"

The Omnivore's Dilemma discussed how the age-old dilemma has changed after the emergence of factory farming and big-time operations: instead of learning from past generations what's good and safe to eat, now we learn from big marketing campaigns. And they are not always so truthful. The Dilemma urged people to be more aware of what they eat.

Safran Foer goes one step further in addition to discussing the health effects of eating factory-farmed meat. As Pollan pointed out in Dilemma and Safran Foer hinted at in the quote above, people probably would not want to eat meat anymore once they'd see what happens in massive slaughterhouses. Safran Foer then poses a question of ethics and conscience: after you have read this book, and all these stories from farmers (both factory and small-time, and their workers), from him visiting a variety of farms, from researchers, are you still able to eat factory farmed meat with good conscience?

In Safran Foer's view, the acceptable answers to this are yes or no. If your conscience is fine with eating basically tortured animals, then that's cool. At least you have had that dialog with yourself, and you have decided that the rights of your taste buds go beyond the rights of those animals. If your conscience is not fine with that notion, then that's cool too: you might want to start figuring out what would be a more conscientious way of eating for you. However, if the book moves the reader enough to start buying small-farm meat in order to assuage further animal suffering and risks of promoting world-wide animal-borne illnesses, but the same reader still ends up sometimes buying factory-farmed meat because it's more convenient in certain situations... to these people Safran Foer says, You didn't get my point. (He actually does explicitly say this.)

After reading the book, I felt I could hear Safran Foer's voice in each chapter: When I show you this, how does it effect your view on what you eat? Think hard now, because I don't want you to look away and ignore this. Made up your mind? Don't tell me the answer! OK, let's move onto the next case.

Like he says in the early pages of the book, this is not a clear-cut case for vegetarianism (although he is a vegetarian). This is a case for people making conscious choices about what they eat, and to be content with the choices they have made.

What I found especially enjoyable in this book was that Safran Foer gave a clear voice to people on different sides of the isle. There are little vignettes--some pages long--from all the people he met that read like letters: there is a vegetarian slaughterhouse builder, who tells us why he has chosen this path; there is a vegetarian hog farmer, who battles between her choice of giving people a more humane option of consuming meat while still condoning some of the inhumane practices that come with the territory; there is a factory farmer who understands where small-time farmers are coming from, but not how they are going to feed the whole world cheaply, and so on. Just when you  have read one of these letters and go "Yeah, that's a good point!" an opposing view is offered in the next letter. And not once is this used as a simple "good guys vs. bad guys" dialogue. The reader can relate to the concerns of everyone, even if he or she does not agree with everything they say.

I lived on a farm, so I have had to already negotiate with myself on eating meats. Then again, I lived on a tiny farm in a small country, where there are no feedlots or massive, massive slaughterhouses that employ illegal immigrants cheaply (at least there is no expose yet on that!). The negotiating I did was based on different factors than the ones I need to base my views on here in the United States. The book definitely made me feel uncomfortable about my eating habits, which is a strong case for pointing out that I am not entirely at ease with the choices I make.

A book I did not really read.

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left by David Crystal

I can't really count this toward my read books, because I merely skimmed it. This was not because I did not enjoy the book: quite the contrary, I agreed with everything Crystal said, and I liked his often humorous style, too. I just already knew the arguments he was making (that often fall, unfortunately, to deaf ears), so I just ended up looking for bits that I was not familiar with yet.

This book is basically Crystal being puzzled at his friend and colleague Lynne Truss's surprisingly militarist view on language in Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The problem with being a prescriptivist like Truss is that other equally militant prescriptivists are going to tear you apart once they find even an itty-bitty error in your writing, and they will call your bluff for being any kind of an authority on language. And that's what happened to Truss in reviews: her book was ruthlessly taken apart by other militant linguists who pointed out that her comma usage was terrible, and that she often fell for the same mistakes that she accused others of. All that is left is people fighting about who is being most vigilant, instead of people fighting for clearly communicated language.

As Crystal points out, a lot of the times correct and incorrect English usage is based on simply arbitrary rules, created by someone who just harbored a personal grudge toward a certain writing style. As an example, Shakespeare often ended his sentences with a preposition and split his infinitives (because it makes sense in English, unlike in Latin from where this rule was adopted). Likewise a lot of other, great writers of the past. But if you bring this up to the language pundits, they have an answer ready for you: See, even the great writers make big mistakes. So really, you don't stand a chance to ever writing properly. Only if you read and read [the manual of my devising, nobody else's] will you become a better human being.

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