Meatpaper zero

Meat me halfway
Wherein the Shameless Carnivore is beset by a shameful hypocrite
by Chris Colin
MARCH, 2007

Ed note: You can read Scott Gold's response to this article, and Chris Colin's response to Gold, here.

TWO MORAL POSITIONS dominate the landscape of meat eating, I was thinking recently, and these positions coincide with clear courses of action. In one, killing animals for food is wrong—ergo vegetarianism. In the other, cows, pigs, chicken and fish dart about for the taking, and the brining, and the broiling—ergo unapologetic meat-eating.

These two modes constitute the logical poles of the meat question, and yet they exclude a vast percentage of the population. What about those of us who eat meat but with unclean conscience? Those critter-nuzzlers among us who linger at but later find ourselves amidst chops and cutlets? Might our chinless set be allotted an acre of moral real estate all its own? If so, how to articulate that morality—or do wussy postures like ours even deserve articulation? The questions were formless and abstract until I encountered Scott Gold.

Gold is but the civilian identity of his hero-devouring hero, the Shameless Carnivore. The Shameless Carnivore is, in turn, the sybaritic, flesh-savoring persona behind the blog and forthcoming Broadway Books tome of the same name. Emboldened by book contract and fortified by untold proteins, the Shameless Carnivore is part-foodie, part-evangelist:

“It must be said,” S.C. dutifully reports on his blog, “defenseless animals taste really, really good. So this website is my rallying cry. A call to arms. I’m certain that there’s a veritable army of carnivores out there just like me, ready and waiting for someone to come forth waving that blood-red banner high, unabashed, in true carnivorous splendor.”

To Gold’s Shameless Carnivore I emerged to myself as a Shameful Carnivore—and with this clear new identity I suddenly felt prepared to plant a trepidatious little flag: I would embrace my hypocrisy much as S.C. embraced his meat-eating.

Throughout his site, S.C. ranged over the varieties of exotic animal he proudly tucked into, pausing here and there for oddly hostile jabs at vegetarians and vegans. We were different cuts of beef, he and I. Of course I ate the same stuff as S.C. (well, not the guinea pig). But where he felt pride, I felt guilt. Where he felt entitlement, I felt... more guilt.

Then something happened. With the minor drama of an epiphany, my guilt morphed into a new philosophy of meat eating. Was I a hypocrite? I was! Did I contradict myself? I did! But this, I thought—this was life itself. My inconsistency was wildly lame, but it doubled as a bracing marker of what humans do every second of every day. I would embrace my hypocrisy much as S.C. embraced his meat-eating, I decided. Atop this exciting new clarity I planted a dubious little flag all my own: To Gold’s Shameless Carnivore I emerged to myself as a Shameful Carnivore.

Because, who, after all, isn’t a hypocrite? Even the most ethical among us can’t help but perpetuate fundamental inequities through his or her very existence on a finite planet. Certainly we can, and should, endeavor to limit the damage. But just as one comes to accept sorrow or grief as part of being-ness, I reasoned that hypocrisy, too, ought to be recognized. Partly this is so the correction process can begin. Partly this is in hopes of pulling the curtains back on a minor corner of the human experience. With every reluctant ribeye I’d go to hell a little—but in the process say something painfully true. Easier than writing a novel, anyway.

Emboldened by theory and fortified by carrot sticks, I challenged S.C. to a debate. I wanted by turns to convince him of my idea, and for him to convince me of his. Graciously he accepted. Below I reproduce representative snippets of our lengthy exchange, which began in July and ended, with smoke pouring out from under the hood, two months later. It did not go well—by September I was generally making an ass of myself and S.C. was comparing his meat-consumption, favorably, to the assassination of Hitler.

Shameless Carnivore: Now, you identified yourself—quite aptly, I feel—as a “shameful carnivore,” meaning I gather that you eat meat but feel ambiguously about it. I have a bone to pick with this, so to speak. The problem, as I see it, is that our society has progressed to the point where people never really have to confront the fact that, believe it or not, meat comes from animals, animals that were once alive, breathing, bleating, mooing, clucking, eating, drinking, having sex with other animals and, quite possibly, happy. You just find your anonymous little shrink-wrapped package helpfully labeled “ground chuck” (ask yourself—would you really know what it would be if it didn’t have that helpful little sticker?), take it home and turn it into hamburger helper or spaghetti bolognese or whatever, not having to trouble your mind with the plain truth that a cow had to die for this… It’s a cop-out, denial at the highest stage, and cowardly to boot…

I [also] feel quite strongly that it’s disrespectful to the animal that died to provide you with that meat in the first place. I don’t eat meat because I hate animals; on the contrary, I eat meat because I love animals. I respect animals, especially the ones who I know have to die to nourish me.

*    *    *

“I eat meat because I love animals?” This struck me as destroying-villages-in-order-to-save-them logic. Moreover it didn’t seem my embrace-the-hypocrisy line had made the impression I was hoping for. I decided to push back a bit.

Me: You noted with displeasure that people live in a kind of fantasy world regarding the source of their meat, and rarely give the matter the honest, unflinching consideration it deserves. I agree. But then you consign my moral misgivings to this same phenomenon. I probably should have been clearer from the start: I’m calling myself (flippantly, of course) a shameful carnivore precisely *because* I know where the meat comes from. It’s true that lots of people live in the denial you refer to. But it’s also true that lots of people have pulled back the curtain and, rather than concluding that they should merely embrace the uncomfortable meat-truth, they do something much more impressive: they abstain.

Me, I’m not impressive. I’ve cut back now and then but I still eat the stuff. Presumably this is because I lack the resolve to go cold turkey on the cold turkey, but partly it’s something else, too: I think I’ve concluded that man’s moral relationship to meat nowadays perfectly articulates a broader human condition. We live inconsistently, even the most ethical people—it’s unavoidable…

Incidentally, if you’re wondering how I can stand to sound so self-righteous, it’s only because I know, and readily admit, that I’m not righteous at all. Like I said, I talk the talk but still don’t walk the walk. That moral highhorse? I’m only pointing at it from underneath. That’s sort of my point. I can *see* what righteousness might look like, but I’m not there.

*    *    *

I sat back and patiently awaited S.C.’s philosophical capitulation—a teary thing dotted with “Now I sees” and “Amens.” Instead, he took issue with my very premise, not so much dismantling it as thumbing his nose at it from afar.

SC: I’d say that I don’t see [meat-eating] as inherently wrong, so long as the animals are treated as humanely as possible given the fact that they’re going to become dinner. There are some practices that are difficult not to see as barbaric, if not downright cruel: foie gras, ortolan, etc. I still eat foie gras, though, and I love it. Sucks for the goose or duck, no doubt, but damned if it doesn’t taste amazing. These are things I like to call “tragically delicious.” Wrong? Maybe, but oh so tasty! But when it comes to cows or turkeys or pigs or chickens, I’ll eat them, I’ll enjoy them, and it’ll be a chilly day in Hades when some whiney, self-rightous hippie dickweed makes me feel like I’m morally inferior because of that.

You can’t avoid the basic truth that if it weren’t for our ancestors eating meat (and they sure as hell didn’t have any moral quandaries about it), most of us wouldn’t be here today. Carnivorism is our evolutionary legacy.

*    *    *

For the record, what’s wrong with making people feel morally inferior? Aren’t some people morally inferior? Certain presidents come to mind.

Rather than pursuing that losing strategy, I took issue with the evolutionary legacy bit. Also with S.C.’s playing both sides of the animal fence—acknowledging their suffering but eschewing guilt. I find it easier to get my mind around those who simply don’t acknowledge the suffering in the first place. Once you venture that animals should be “treated as humanely as possible” before eating them, seems to me the ethical slope gets extremely slippery.

Me: It could be said our species was designed to do lots of bad things: drag cave-women around by their hair, keep slaves, build nuclear bombs, whatever. Just because we *can* do it and we’ve *been* doing it for ages doesn’t mean it’s right… We’re a species that’s demonstrated impressive feats of self-sacrifice in more heroic times, and we could conduct the culinary equivalent now…

If you don’t think it’s wrong to kill animals, I totally accept that, and I sorta appreciate the hardcore-ness of it. What I don’t accept is a person having it both ways. In other words, don’t hint that “maybe” it’s wrong, and by all means don’t speak of humane treatment prior to the slaughter… If it’s okay to harm them, it’s okay to harm them. If it’s not, it’s not.

*    *    *

The wheels had begun to come off the cart; possibly I kicked them off. S.C. kept his council for a spell—as he explained, he preferred conversations about which animals tasted best, and with which sauce—but eventually dug in for one last go.

SC: Your argument that eating meat is fundamentally hypocritical has logical flaws. It might be a valid deduction (which doesn’t mean it’s RIGHT or CORRECT), but it’s not sound, because it’s predicated on a faulty premise. In order to admit that any sort of hypocrisy is going on, one needs to consent to the idea that killing animals to nourish ourselves is wrong. I don’t feel this way—I’ve said it before, but let me elaborate. I’m a moral relativist (which many people, especially religious fundamentalists, consider a sinful way of living), but I’m simply unable to concede that there are inherent right actions and wrong actions, right/wrong thoughts or deeds. For me, the world is just filled with too many gray areas for that to be the case, although for their own self-satisfaction and ease of making sense of things, many folks gravitate toward this sense of strict moral dichotomy. For them, killing is wrong, no matter what. But what about killing one to save many? The old thought-experiment of assassinating Hitler to prevent the Holocaust comes to mind. Would that be wrong?

*    *    *

Of course it wouldn’t be wrong. I imagine I’d not only assassinate old Hitler but make him into a delicious enchilada if I thought it would etc., etc. But this is beside the point. The point, incidentally, was lost long ago, I began to realize, as it often is in overheated-but-abstract discussions like this. I didn’t want S.C. to stop eating meat, or to eat more of it. He didn’t want either of those from me, either. But I did have hopes we could beef-talk our way towards some reconciliation of shame and shamelessness, of the grayness fogging so many of life’s choices. Maybe these conversations are best over a burger.

Ed note: You can read Scott Gold's response to this article, and Chris Colin's response to Gold, here.


Chris Colin is the author of What Really Happened to the Class of ‘93 and lives in San Francisco. He is made of meat.


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Zero.

The Shameless Carnivore eating deep-fried bull testicles. Photo by Eric Gold.