Category Archives: nonviolence

In-vitro meat as ideological barometer

My food politics class has been discussing food, science, and the influence of ideology on food policy choices (hence Zizek’s RSA Animate – I generally disagree with his conclusions, but he’s right to point out what’s wrong with a certain kind of ethical consumerism, and his critique of environmentalism-as-ideology is apposite). Specifically, we just finished reading Robert Paarlberg’s Food Politics, which I assigned to counterbalance pretty much everything else in the course (Patel, Nestle, Pollan, Foer, Visser, Estabrook). My main problem with food technology isn’t so much the technology itself, but its near-exclusive dominance by a few powerful actors with ‘special’ rather than ‘public’ interests. That said, I share the technologists’ skepticism of the idea that nature provides a useful normative template.

In this vein, the media flurry around in-vitro meat provides an excellent case study. It’s no surprise that this is getting a lot of attention, because it sits at the intersection of academic and public discourses about: authenticity, alienation, disgust, sustainability, animal ethics, food safety, and the role of technology in society. And as Haidt and Bailey note, traditional conservative-liberal divides can break down when discussing food, technology, and purity.

I’m curious to track this potential fracturing of the food movement, with Pollan et al‘s ‘eat whole foods’ on the one side and the likes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) on the other. In some respects, these debates also apply to the ‘fake’ meats made from textured soy protein, which many people would probably regard as far less yuck-inducing.

In an era of increasing alienation from the means of production, the back-to-the-roots food movement provides an avenue for empathic priming and hands-on learning. But the reality is that we’re eventually going to embrace ever-increasing levels of technological manipulation of the living environment. The relevant questions for me are when this biotech revolution will really take off, and how it’ll be regulated at the national and international levels. But maybe I read too much speculative fiction.

On food safety, people also tend to forget that inaction is a form of action – and this is what inaction looks like. This is also a domain where the Zizekian challenge of environmentalism-as-ideology comes into play: many environmentalists in the Global North have a knee-jerk opposition to artificial as opposed to natural systems, with the result that rich-world environmental elites sometimes transpose their own circumstances and agendas on the Global South. (This whole Green Revolution for Africa debate is complex and contested, but surely such personal biases should be challenged, or at least examined?) A lot of the science here seems to be looking for predetermined answers, whether it’s the agroecological or organic approach trying to prove that GMOs are dangerous, or the Gates Foundation doing the opposite. This is bad science, probably on both sides. But neutrality may be out of reach in such contested terrain.

So do vegetarians really have ‘a moral obligation to eat in-vitro meat’? I wouldn’t go that far, but the topic is definitely ‘good to think’, to borrow from Levi-Strauss. They’ve got a ways to go, in any case.

Epic Meal Time: the personal and the political

 I’m reluctant to post this, for a number of reasons: first, I don’t want to give them money or traffic; second, I don’t want to be “unpardonably lacking in humor“; third, the gendering going on here is so in your face that it’s farcical; and fourth, bacon fetishism really bothers me. But I can’t help it: one of my students posted this last class, and I’ve been mulling on it.

One of my first thoughts was that this would be a good exercise for implementing Walzer’s communitarian complex egalitarianism: just as money shouldn’t be able to buy unlimited political power, nor should one have license to waste so much for so little reason (whatever your friendly industry shills over at CCF might tell you). Another thought: this is among the strongest arguments I’ve seen that we need an ethic of care, and that our gender stereotypes are killing us (and, literally, killing others) with structural violence.

But many of my students didn’t see it this way–it was “just fun”, in a way that issues concerning, say, universal suffrage or child labor wouldn’t be (pace Gingrich). Or maybe food is different? Or maybe the norms I’m discussing are in cascade, and haven’t yet been internalized.

I don’t know, but I did almost hurl when watching this in class.

Material girl

So apparently the Humane Society International (HSI) has appointed Ke$ha as its first global ambassador. One blogger writes that “her music is seen to have an underlying message of acceptance of all living creatures” – funny, I must have missed that part.

I’ve thought a lot about whether the identification of animal protection as a ‘hollywood issue’ is a net benefit or liability. On the one hand, we live in a culture of celebrity fetishization – when in Rome, and all that. On the other hand, this allows almost everyone else to dismiss animal advocacy as frivolous moral fluff.

This isn’t to say that a lot of celebrities don’t do very helpful work protecting animals. I just don’t know why capitalist-marketing-behemoth-engineered-sex-and-drug-youth-brainnumbing-blathering-machine Ke$ha’s advocacy would do more good than Pam Anderson’s boobs in reducing the commodification and objectification of sentient living beings.

(I was going to write about Contagion, regulatory policy, and the reach of the state – but I didn’t.)

‘Nonviolence’, systemic violence, and nonhuman animals

(April fools) concept art by Art Lebedev, "The Dog Leash for Dog Haters"

I brought my political thought class to a talk by Ghanaian nonviolent peace activist and 2011 UML peace scholar Leyma Gbowee. She gave an excellent talk on the nature of systemic violence in Liberia, where she served as a truth and reconciliation commission member, and I look forward to hearing what my students thought. Having just returned from the Critical Animal Studies conference in Ontario, though, I couldn’t help but ask whether her definition of systemic violence extended to our treatment of nonhuman animals. I thought this was especially relevant given that she closed her talk with a line from Dr. King’s Nobel acceptance speech: “all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

It was frustrating, albeit completely understandable, to find that her answer was mostly dismissive, with some conciliatory gestures towards environmentalism (she based her views on the prioritization argument–that hungry humans come first, in this case). The exchange reminded me of the critical feminist presenting at Brock who couldn’t understand why her colleagues didn’t see the link between human and nonhuman oppression (and of a similar argument, in this case in philosophy, laid out in James Rachels’ “The Basic Argument for Vegetarianism). I wasn’t expecting Gbowee to respond positively to my question–and I tried to phrase it tactfully and politely, so as not to derail the conversation, which until then had been purely anthropocentric–but it does strike me as problematic to try to address the roots of systemic violence without acknowledging the link between violence to nonhumans and violence to humans. The example she gave was actually telling: a congregation was unable to get aid funding because their pastor had, by coincidence, been videotaped shooing/kicking a stray dog. Gbowee dismissed such behavior as common–and, indeed, I don’t know the level of severity of the kick, so it may not have risen to the level of cruelty–but isn’t this categorically ‘violent’ behavior?

I fully appreciate that Gbowee was talking about a very different kind of systemic violence–and she did so passionately and persuasively. Specifically, she referenced the ex-slaves who ‘founded’ Liberia in 1822 and how they brought with them some heavy cultural baggage, to put it mildly. And I don’t necessarily expect people living in food insecurity to begin to moralize their food choices in anything resembling what is happening throughout the rich world. By the same token, I can see how some would call foul by comparing shooing a dog to the kind of atrocious sexual and other violence Gbowee documents. Even from a results-oriented perspective, though, nonviolence seems to me to require a systems perspective.

Gbowee, like Dr. King, is also clearly in the Christian religion tradition, and would likely be unreceptive to anti-speciesist arguments (as against Dominion/stewardship-based arguments). But I can’t help but be depressed that such ardent, intelligent, and vocal advocates aren’t (yet) inclined to broaden the scope of what counts as psychologically destructive violence.

Edit: link to the talk, with Q & A at the end, here.

2nd Edit (4/26): After an email back-and-forth with Dr. Andrew Linzey, I should qualify my statement about religion and stewardship – I need to read up on a theology based in service rather than one based in dominion, apparently, and hopefully will do so asap.