Meat me halfway
Wherein the Shameless Carnivore
is beset by a shameful hypocrite
by Chris Colin
Ed note: You can read Scott Gold's response to this
article, and Chris Colin's response to Gold, here.
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 cuteoverload.com
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
“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
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,
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
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
* * *
“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
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
* * *
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
* * *
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.