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24.9.07

The Sexual Politics of Meat

I recently finished Carol Adams' The Sexual Politics of Meat, the most noted (contemporary) statement of the connection between vegetarianism* and feminism, and I was rather disappointed. In the early chapters she raises some interesting issues, which I had thought would be the main focus of the book, such as how meat eating is coded as masculine. But they end up underdeveloped as she pursues her (exaggerated, IMHO) concern for how vegetarians and vegetarian arguments are "silenced" in a patriarchal-omnivorous culture.

Throughout the book, Adams dwells on -- though rarely comes right out and stands behind -- a number of what I find to be the least compelling arguments for vegetarianism. Early in the book she repeatedly brings up the "if you saw how animals are slaughtered, or even just really thought about where your meat comes from, you wouldn't be able to bring yourself to eat it" argument. Of all the arguments that allow vegetarians to be painted as overly sentimental (and implicitly apolitical), this is number one. Further, I don't believe it's true. The insulation of meat eaters from the slaughter process is a recent and culturally specific development (though granted, so is the degree of brutality in modern meat production). So while modern Westerners may experience some shock when directly confronted with the realities of meat production, history seems to indicate that people are quite able to reconcile themselves to a fairly direct involvement in the slaughter of animals (much like men can fail to be horrified by the violence against women that they personally inflict). Indeed, in some cases people positively revel in the violence of the slaughter process that led to the meat on their table. Explicitly accepting, rather than hiding, the connection between animal-killing and meat-eating has become a common way of staking a claim to the legitimacy of an omnivorous menu and rebutting the above-mentioned vegetarian argument.

Adams spends a lot of time talking about the additional connection drawn by many early-20th-century Romantics between feminism and vegetarianism and pacifism. It's unclear precisely how much she buys this argument (though she does insist that Hitler was a health-vegetarian rather than an ethical-vegetarian and hence doesn't count as a counter-example). The evidence for this view is rather slim -- the fact of some overlap among activists for these causes, and certain conceptual parallels between the issues (parallels which, however logically valid, would have to be instantiated in a culture in order to be pragmatically efficacious).

She also seems to agree with the claim that a vegetarian diet is healthier than an omnivorous one, though she is unhappy with vegetarianism motivated solely by health considerations. I used to be exhibit one for the feasibility of an unhealthy vegetarian diet**. Connected to this is the claim that humans are "naturally" (anatomically and evolutionarily) herbivores. This argument is inconsistent with archaeological evidence, and gains its plausibility by attacking a straw-person counterargument that humans are naturally wholly carnivorous. Adams (following some comments by Plutarch) expands the naturalness argument in a particularly odd direction. She finds it significant that standard human meat-eating (in contrast to a chimpanzee-like opportunistic omnivory) requires a great variety of apparatus which is both artificial and serves to distance us from the animal -- implements for hunting or stock-raising, butchering tools, cooking fires, and seasonings. It's true that there are few animals that we could easily eat without such interventions. But the same is true for most vegetables -- have you ever tried eating raw wheat off the stalk, or uncooked potatoes? And in any case, the most macho-patriarchal forms of meat-eating are precisely those that involve the fewest processing steps -- e.g. bloody steaks and frat boys swallowing live goldfish.

Ultimately, though, I think my problems with this book are disciplinary in origin. Adams writes from a lit-crit perspective, but what I'm interested in reading would be written from an analytic philosophy or sociological perspective. My assessment of the book is in part a product of trying to translate what Adams is saying into a philosophy or sociology idiom.

* Though she says "vegetarian," it seems she's probably referring to veganism, though her precise position on what she calls "feminized protein" -- milk and eggs -- is hard to make out, and is typically sidelined in favor of focusing on meat (and the fact that it requires killing animals).

** American cuisine's tendency to downplay vegetables and rely on meat for many nutrients means that simply cutting out meat from one's diet can worsen it from a health standpoint -- you wind up eating too much cheese, white flour, and overprocessed soy substitutes.

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