It's commonplace for American food commentators to discuss the contradictions and nuances of meat. From "The Omnivore's Dilemma" to "The Compassionate Carnivore," authors maintain that meat's moral ambiguity makes it delectable and interesting to ponder. Grist spent this summer on a pedantic expedition into the controversies around "meat." The Wall Street Journal held a panel which I attended on "the culinary and cultural aspects of meat." This past Friday the Yale Sustainable Food Project made its annual pig roast more comfortable for attendees by embedding it in a scholarly conference.
In toasting the pig, organizers read a poem documenting the sexual violence of meat as an example, apparently, of the way our lives are mired in webs of moral quandaries. With chuckles and raised glasses, professors and students toasted and then ate the body of a pig, newly aware of the complexities behind that pig's arrival at the table.
The complexities of "meat" are all the rage. Authors admit to the cognitive dissonance involved in eating animals in the hope of inner peace and a stable and pleasant outcome.
But not only is this a woeful way to approach a moral issue: "meat" - and animal agriculture - is not really all that morally complicated. It only seems complex because of the way it's been built up, because of the massive cognitive architecture erected to assuage our moral fear, because, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt has powerfully argued, humans are not rational but rationalizing creatures, and we have rationalized the hell out of "meat." Animal liberation, in a glaring example of projection, is often held to be a highfalutin intellectual philosophy when at its core it actually rests on the rejection of false complexities: a denial of the moral categorization of the world by species in favor of the far simpler idea that we are all equal. It is the "meat" eater who introduces complexity by trying to build ever more complex excuses for an injustice.
Politicians often hide behind an illusory complexity to avoid taking an indefensible position. I'm thinking of the now go-to line among Republican candidates that marriage equality is a difficult issue on which reasonable people can disagree or that the existence of anthropogenic climate change is a scientifically challenging issue where only scientists are equipped take a position. In fact, there are very few moral philosophers who even study same-sex marriage because it's so lacking in philosophical interest and the question of whether man-made climate change is happening is fairly settled. And the morality of meat is one more area of remarkable consensus.
A false complexity creates emotional distance from an uncomfortable issue. People use big words and complicated euphemisms when talking about issues that make them uncomfortable (think of how Scalia talks about "homosexuals" rather than "gays"). We've evolved to confabulate to cover up our mental errors, creating a thicket of weeds for anyone trying to correct us. In the case of "meat," it is a comforting act of mental masturbation over an animal's dead body.
Those who wish not to face a stark reality fetishize complexity. There is a cottage industry around doing this for meat, but this aloof pondering of animals' moral status over a plate of their dead flesh is not simply a pleasurable activity - it is an intellectually untenable and deadly choice.