Monday, June 28, 2010

Avoiding Conflict

I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. I love watching Larry David get into meaningless conflicts and hilarious shouting matches with strangers, friends, salesmen and colleagues. Watching the show is like getting immersed in a world with such commonplace amusing conflicts. And I relate to Larry: I'm often running scenarios through my head about what I might say in a hypothetical imagined situation, or what I should have said in some situation past.

Today a door to door salesman came to my door. I always attempt to be friendly with the people who knock on my door, whether they are selling windows or a religion. Generally I try to make it quickly clear (while smiling and friendly) that I won't be interested, so both the salesman and myself can just get back to our business. I was friendly and smiling with this salesman, who was really working it. He seemed to be selling some sort cleaning product, and when he asked me a question, I told him I just use water to clean things and that I wasn't interested. He kept pressing, but I insisted I use water and no soap, and said thanks and bye.

The salesman started talking loudly to my next door neighbors (whom he had evidently just spoken to). Loudly enough for me to hear, he said something like "He wasn't nice like you said. Actually, he was kind of a jerk." He talked a bit more and once more said that I had been a jerk.

For half a second, I actually thought of opening the door and saying "Hey now. You don't need to stand here in my yard calling me a jerk." I really think I could have, and would have been within my rights. I probably wouldn't have gotten the chance to go further, but if I could, I might have continued: "I was friendly enough, but I'm not interested in your product. You're the one who knocked on my door: what do I owe you? How am I a jerk for declining the product you're selling, and trying to do it quickly enough so you can go on your way? You don't have to stand here and insult me: I really didn't do anything to you. That's rude."

For half a second--I mean, it wasn't just an idle thought, I actually thought about opening the door and saying something. But I didn't. I realized I wasn't mad at all at this guy. I wasn't annoyed. I wasn't really insulted--he doesn't really know me and I wasn't really a jerk, so what do I care? Actually, it was pleasant to find out the neighbors told him I'm nice (best compliment I've received in months!). For what reason would I have opened the door to say something to him? To yell? For what? For pride? My pride wasn't wounded. To assert my authority? I felt no need. To defend myself? Why?

I could have opened the door. I could have said something to the person. I probably would have said it reasonably, but who knows? Could it have turned into a shouting match? Probably not, but the discussion certainly might have gotten testy. I didn't feel any real emotion about a salesman who doesn't know me calling me a jerk, but if we started an open conflict, who knows what emotions, from him or me, might have gotten sparked.

A little thing. I had nothing to gain from opening the door to complain to a man I didn't know that he shouldn't call me a jerk. Nothing to gain at all. No benefit to me, no benefit to the man. An open conflict could have erupted, and over nothing. I let it go because I didn't really care.

In He Came Preaching Peace, John Howard Yoder writes:

"The only way to end the war is to make peace, and for that someone has to die. Someone has to back down. Someone has to be humiliated. Someone has to come up with an alternative, a vision of a new order for which one is ready to sacrifice one's future, one's popularity and even one's life."

Overly dramatic words to use in relation to my brief encounter with a salesman, no doubt. But there is a point here relevant to our personal relationships and encounters. Sometimes to escape a conflict, somebody must be willing to back down, to let things go, to be willing to cede something to the other party. When I read different details of the Henry Louis Gates arrest incident, regardless of who was right or wrong, I thought this: if either of these men had been interested in resolving the situation without major conflict, it could have been done. It would have taken one of the men backing down, letting things go, accepting briefly being "subordinate" (a word from Yoder), but that would have done it. Sometimes it is little things, little moments of letting things go, that matter--or more accurately, that make things not matter.

So even when I want to, I don't pull a Larry David. I'm glad he does it in his fictional universe: it makes for hilarious television. In my real life universe, however, I'll avoid conflict as much as I can.

The Logic of Warmongers

We must commit military violence until we succeed, because if we fail we will have to commit more military violence for a very long time.

We must continue this war, because if we don't, we're going to have to continue this war for a long time into the future.

What, that's not what Ross Douthat is saying?

I'm never quite amazed at the arguments for starting or for perpetuating military violence. Strip them down, and they'd be silly if they weren't so devastating.

Douthat also has some problems with language in this column that are worthy further critique. There's no real "paradox" in saying if we succeed we get to leave more quickly, but it's this sentence that disturbs me with its inherent contradictions:

"We can’t hold the current course indefinitely, and we won’t: President Obama’s decision to set a public deadline was a mistake, but everyone knows there are limits to how long the surge of forces can go on."

We can't keep this up "indefinitely," but it's a mistake to actually state a deadline publicly, but everybody knows there's a limit--a limit which is, evidently given the mistake of a public deadline, "indefinite." That sort of argument--it can't be indefinite but we can't actually say what the limit is (so it's actually "indefinite") is the sort of logic used to perpetuate long-term war.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Reading Masson's "The Face on Your Plate"

My experience reading Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food.

Personally Motivating
Masson's argument against eggs and dairy is compelling and utterly convincing. I have a mostly vegan diet, and reading this book has motivated me to make the exceptions to that "mostly" as few and limited as I can (and perhaps doing away with the "mostly" part altogether).

Masson's discussion in the final chapter on the health benefits of a vegan diet and general prescriptions for healthy eating is also convincing for me. There's not too much he suggests that I haven't already heard about (and have been moving toward), but I still found reading it motivational and convincing.

It's not often I read a book that I can say will directly impact the way I live my life. I can say this about The Face on Your Plate. I want to point out that it makes some of the critiques I offer below seem a bit shallow.

Eating and Words
Masson discusses language of animals and food:

"The word 'veal' was chosen because it has no resonance in English. In fact, it is simply the translation of the French veau (calf) because it would offend some people's sensibilities to be asked if they would like to be served calf for dinner. It's not dissimilar from "pork," which comes from the French porc, meaning pig. Americans don't like to ask for a pig for breakfast. "Bacon" means nothing to us beyond its use for breakfast; we have no other associations. "Hamburger" or "burger" do not resonate with us or conjure up images of cows peacefully grazing, minding their own business and getting on with their own lives (We do, however, speak of chicken, lamb, and calves' liver without blushing--so, go figure)."

Masson is talking about the ways people often distance, distort, or hide our food choices so that they don't have to think about the animal they are actually consuming. This is, in my view, a real phenomenon, and there are many ways people do this (including the way we use language); Masson explores this well in the later chapter "Denial." But Masson states that the words are chosen deliberately to hide the animal ("was chosen because," "because it would"). I do not believe this to be the case: the history of the English language actually offers an explanation why our words for animals-as-food are often different from our words for actual-animals.

C.M. Millward explains in A Biography of the English Language that the English language has thousands of French "loanwords," brought in after the French speaking Normans conquered English speaking England in 1066. These loanwords entered several semantic areas, including food; Millward lists some French loanwords in English associated with food and eating:

"dinner, supper, taste, broil, fry, plate, goblet, serve, beverage, sauce, salad, gravy, fruit, grape, beef, pork, mutton, salmon, sugar, onion, cloves, mustard."

There are historical reasons why our words for animals-as-food feature French words (which seem disassociated with actual-animals to English speakers) and not match our words for actual-animals. Words involving food and eating feature a lot of French loanwords in part because "English household servants would have learned French words like table, boil, serve, roast, and dine." However, as Millward explains:

"With this pervasive influence of French in so many semantic areas, it is surprising (and even consoling) to discover that some aspects of English life remained relatively untouched by French loanwords. One [...] area was farming and agriculture in general. The word farm itself is from French, and agriculture is a loan from Latin. However, the Norman masters themselves apparently left their English servants to work the fields by themselves, for most basic farming terminology remains native English to this day."

Millward then provides a list of words associated with farming that "come down directly from Old English," including many words for animals: "ox, horse, cow, swine, sheep, hen, goose, duck."

There is the linguistic history of English that suggests Masson is inaccurate here: we have a lot of French words for animals-as-food and Anglo-Saxon words for actual-animals not as a deliberate con, but for specific historical reasons. But there are also a couple of tells in his paragraph which hint themselves that he's not quite right. One such tell is in his "go figure" parenthetical. In fact, we do have French loanwords for animals-as-food for chicken (poultry) and sheep (mutton), yet English speakers still often use the more familiar actual-animal word for these types of food: this suggests there is something other than distancing/distorting going on with the less familiar French words. And secondly, Masson's argument implicitly suggests that English speakers from around the world are subject to and party to a linguistic conspiracy to distance and distort the reality of meat from eaters, but that French speakers around the world are, apparently, more naturally comfortable linguistically admitting they are eating animals. This may be true, but I doubt it, especially since there is an historical linguistic explanation for French loanwords for food.

Perhaps Masson isn't indicting the English language itself of this distortion, but is referring only to the word "veal." But the Oxford English Dictionary (available online via subscription) defines veal as "1. The flesh of a calf as an article of diet" and "2. A calf, esp. as killed for food or intended for this purpose. Now rare." For the first definition, the OED cites Chaucer using the word around 1386, and a couple other references in the early 15th century. These uses almost seem to conflate the word "veal" as actual-animal and as animal-for-food: Chaucer writes "'Bet is,' quod he, 'a pyk than a pikerell, And bet than olde boef is the tendre vel'," and around 1400 Mandeville writes "Thei eten but lytille or non of Flessche of Veel or of Beef." These uses of "veal" are quite old, and appear not long after the French influence altered the English language. It would seem odd to me to argue that the word was "chosen because" it doesn't remind people they are eating a baby cow; it seems far more likely that the word wasn't really chosen at all, but simply entered English organically from the French influence.

The distancing of actual-animal from animal-as-food in an English speaker's consciousness may certainly be an effect of having different words for animals-as-food than for actual-animals. That is not, however, the cause of this difference.

This is not the only part of the book where I found Masson's argument sloppy (I'm not nearly as comfortable with the science as with the English language, but I'm pretty sure in the introduction Masson counters the argument that meat consumption had an evolutionary impact on human brain size relative to other primates by citing evidence that human brain size is impacted during infancy, and that the breast-feeding mother's diet--whether meating-eating, vegetarian, or vegan--has no impact on brain growth and size. Showing that meat-eating has no impact on contemporary human brain size relative to other humans is interesting, but doesn't seem to address the argument of how meat-eating affected human evolution to get us to this point, relative to other primates. But like I said, I'm not nearly as comfortable interpreting science as language, so I could be wrong--hence being stuck in parentheses). But these very occasional lapses in sound logic and evidence do not cause me to doubt Masson's larger points or his specific claims: he is generally narrow, specific, and diligent about identifying sources.

Personal Problems
I suffer from two problems when I read books that detail the reality and consequences of factory farming. The first is the repetition: no matter how informative or well-written, a lot of the material Masson presents I've already encountered in other books, articles, and blogs I've read as somebody who follows these issues. However, I don't see this as a significant problem: I still learn things, and I still find re-reading material educational and edifying.

My second problem is more existential: when I read about the ways humans are wrecking the earth, I tend to despair, losing hope that anything can or will be done about it. I used to be, on the whole (despite some obsessive-compulsive tendencies, paranoia, and anxiety) a largely optimistic person, seeing affirmations of life everywhere and feeling hopeful for the future. As I've learned more about the ways humans are devastating the environment, my long-range view has become, alas, rather pessimistic. Sometimes my greatest hope is just that the things humans are doing to wreck the earth don't take major effect until my children have lived long, happy lives.

I wouldn't blame reading about environmental issues alone on my nearly despairing pessimism. The hope I felt for political change in '06 and '08 was strong, but now I can't even envision the serious political will to end the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there are the Minnesota Vikings. It may seem trivial in the big picture, but for over a decade, I believed at the beginning of each season that the Vikings were going to finally win the Super Bowl that season. After all the massive hopes of the 2009 season, for it to end the way it did in that NFC title game, I've gone into sports despair, which no doubt effects my broader view.

And I'm also now a parent. I love my children too dearly for words, and the strongest hopes I have are for them: that they are healthy, that they are happy, that their lives can be filled with joy and purpose, and that the world can be beautiful for them, that they can bring their beauty to the world. Having children is also nerve-wracking, filled with anxiety, fear, and (for me at least) near-constant worry. So to think about the future, while being aware of the impact humans are having on earth's environment, while hoping and fearing mostly for my children, can lead me toward a sense of dread.

Writing Problems
There are some repetition issues and some odd organizational choices in the book that do not negatively affect the reading. There was another problem, however. I think when vegetarians and vegans write about food and eating, it is necessary, effective, and understandable that they would insert themselves into the book to a certain degree. I think, however, this book features just a bit too much of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson sharing how interesting Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is. That may sound harsh, and it's probably not that bad, but it's certainly the impression a reader can be left with as Masson ends the book by talking about which foods he likes best (and why) and describing the types of food he regularly eats. Sometimes Masson's inclusion of his own experiences or tastes don't really contribute much to the argument, and his use of himself as an anecdotal argument for veganism occasionally comes off as "Look at me: I'm 68 but look at all the amazing things I can do and how amazing I am."

Having said that, this is the kind of book Masson wanted to write, and frankly if I were going to write about the topic, I'd be constantly tempted to inject my own experiences and tastes, too. The subtitle of the book seems to suggest a more objective than subjective approach to the subject, but that doesn't mean that would actually be preferable, and that can be found elsewhere too. Just as Jonathan Safran Foer did in Eating Animals, I think on the whole it works for a vegetarian or vegan writer to inject his/her own idiosyncratic style and personality into the book.

That last chapter, "A Day in the Life of a Vegan"
The final chapter of the book features two parts, really: Masson gives a pretty good overview of the health impact of a vegan diet and advice for how to eat healthy, and then gives a description of the wide variety of healthy foods vegans can eat, as well as a description of the foods he eats. And while I criticized this point just a few sentences earlier (right up there!), I actually found the latter part interesting for reasons I don't understand. I have no idea why: there were a lot of plant-based foods discussed (most that I already know about and eat a lot), and Masson shared a lot of his personal history and liking for this food (which shouldn't interest me at all, but did). I know that as a mostly vegan vegetarian (who has also lost over 50 pounds and is concerned with living healthy), food is directly on my mind quite a bit, and I'm always conscious of what I'm eating, so it's what I want to talk about. I try to avoid it (why do others care what I'm eating), but I am glad Masson wrote about it.

However, I would make two points. First, in this chapter Masson does a great job selling the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle, but he doesn't do much to make it sound appealing to people who don't already like fruits and vegetables. I do, and found this interesting. If my brother (hi there, buddy) read this chapter, he wouldn't find the food terribly appealing. Having said that (I'm going to deliberately use this phrase frequently from now on to honor Jerry Seinfeld), how else can a vegan advocating a healthy lifestyle write about it? "You're supposed to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. Here are a bunch of the wide varieties of healthy and delicious fruits and vegetables." What are you supposed to do to convince somebody who doesn't like something that he/she should? It's like saying "Oh, you think soccer's boring, but you're wrong, you should find it interesting." It's a tough sell.

Second, while Masson seems to think he's describing his typical day as a vegan in order to show how easy and simple it is, his description is not, in fact, easy and simple. Hey, a writer describing his day as a vegan can only really describe his own day as a vegan, so it's hard to blame him. But I think a lot of readers would find his description a bit intimidating. Having said that, when a person adopts a way of living, it quickly becomes simple to him/her. In comparison to Masson, I think my typical vegan day is much, much simpler. However, if I started to explain it to others, the specifics of the description might make it seem more complicated than it really is. I take it for granted as easy, even lazy, but I think to others it may not be so.

On the whole
I'll finish with a melodramatic statement that I nevertheless believe is true. I wish for more people to read this book; I think the world will be a better place if they do.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Knowing the score

Shane Claiborne's "Confusing our Kids" at Sojourners' blog.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Response to "Humans first"

At not one sparrow, Dean Ohlman explores how Christians can respond to the question, "Aren't people more important than animals?" This is a question posed to animal advocates not only by Christians, and I would like to propose another response to this question.

I think an individual with literally zero concern for the suffering of animals, but compassion and concern for human beings and humankind, should be a committed opponent of the way animals are currently used on our planet.

The first chapter of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Face On Your Plate, "The Only World We Have," focuses not on the suffering of animals, but on the environmental and health impact of factory farming. The chapter offers us many examples to raise questions about how current animal agriculture impacts human beings.

Animal agriculture is a major contributor to global warming. How does this affect human beings?

Factory farming creates a massive amount of animal waste (the poop and pee), which has a devastating impact on the local environment, and a history of making people living nearby such farms sick. How does this affect human beings?

The conditions of factory farms, including the excessive overuse of non-therapeutic antibiotics on animals, may lead to superbugs resistant to our drugs, and may one day become responsible for a global flu pandemic. How will that affect human beings?

Raising animals for food requires massively more resources, including fresh water and arable land, than growing plants for food. How will scarcity of water affect human beings? Will we deplete the earth's good soil? How does use of resources for meat affect worldwide hunger and undernourishment?

It is important that we continue to inform people about the impact factory farming has on the world, and on us. A person with zero regard for animals, when informed of the truth of factory farming, may emerge as an ally and opponent of factory farming. When I read about such things, I am, frankly, terrified (more on this in a later post). I only became serious about environmentalism after and because of becoming a vegetarian, but more and more I'm coming to see the cause/effect direction can go the other way too.

And that's how the question could be answered. To a religious person committed to a belief that God granted us the right to dominate animals, or to a cynic unconcerned with the suffering and death of animals, or to a conscientious person sincerely struggling to make life better for humankind, I would say, for now, forget about the animals. I would ask another question: can we continue and support an industrial activity that has the potential to wreak such catastrophic consequences on human beings, and that wastes so many resources that might otherwise be used to help human beings?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Christianity and Eating Animals

"Churches are paying closer attention to connections between humans and animals" by Lisa Black (via Mark Hawthorne)

It is a deeply ingrained belief in Christianity: God gave humans dominion over the animals, interpreted to mean we can use them for our own purposes in whatever way we choose. I think, however, that a discussion of our relationship with animals can fit into mainstream Christianity. Christian animal advocates can focus on two areas when discussing animals with fellow Christians.

Stewardship. Stewardship is a regularly discussed, mainstream concept in the Lutheran churches I've been a part of. God grants us many gifts, but they still belong to God: we are stewards of God's things, and we must be good stewards. The focus on stewardship leads directly to a Christian environmentalism: God granted us the earth, and it is our duty to take care of it and protect it, not use it up however we see fit, ultimately destroying it.

Stewardship, I believe, also leads us directly to concern for animals, for even in a mainstream Christian view, we are also stewards of the animals God created. So we can ask questions. We can be specific: is it good stewardship to cut off a chicken's beak and make it live its entire life in a very small cage? We can also be broad: is any part of the factory farming system really good stewardship of God's creations?

Compassion. I come back to this argument again and again: if you eat animals, you choose your own momentary pleasure over the life of an animal. In the modern developed world, we do not eat meat for our survival, but for tradition and for pleasure. As Christians, can we really selfishly choose our own pleasure over the life of a living creature? A creature that thinks, feels, and suffers? As we learn more about the mental and emotional capacities of animals, and as we learn more about the ways they suffer in the factory farming system, I wonder if we can set aside our basic Christian principles in order to continue our focus on superiority and dominion.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Defensive Ethics

There is no moral argument in favor of eating animals; at best, one can offer a defense of meat eating. There is no argument that eating meat is ethically superior to not eating meat; one can only attempt to offer a defense of eating meat as an ethically acceptable activity. Rarely does anybody argue that it is wrong not to eat meat; all that can be done is to defend eating meat (and such defenses are, in my view, weak). Both compassion and reason are on the side of not eating animals.

But the same logic applies to vegetarianism and veganism. At best, a vegetarian can offer a defense of dairy and/or eggs: it would be unreasonable to claim that consuming dairy and/or eggs is ethically preferable to not consuming it. That is not to say that meat-eating is to vegetarianism as vegetarianism is to veganism: I consider vegans and vegetarians to be on the same side (I know some see the firmer line between consuming any animal products and not; I see the firmer line between consuming animal flesh and not).* And not all acts calling for a defensive ethic are equal: obvious some acts of choice can be defended, some can't be (or can't be as easily). But the parallel is there.

*I'm still a mostly vegan vegetarian--I haven't shaken the "mostly" yet. The purpose of a little-read blog is for self-wrestling.