Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Eating Animals doesn’t have a subtitle. But if it did, it could be “The Two Faces of Livestock Agriculture.” Well written and well researched, it describes both the violent reality of the factory farming of animals, as well as a more humane form of livestock agriculture practiced by a few small operators.
What should we make of this book? Should we read it and recommend it, or not?
Eating Animals invites comparison with the much older classic, Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. Foer’s style is more journalistic; he doesn’t just lay out the facts, as Singer does, he tells a story. Foer relates the intensely violent reality of factory farming, including a clandestine visit to a factory farm with an undercover animal activist and conversations with slaughterhouse workers. But he also talks about his encounters with the various small operators attempting a more humane form of animal agriculture.
Be warned; some of the descriptions are extremely graphic. Am I the only one who is bothered by this sort of thing? Certainly we should be informed about the awful violence of factory farms, and should take action to stop it, but how many scenes of graphic violence do we need to see before we are informed and can take action?
I would suggest caution, especially for vegetarians and vegans, in taking in too many graphic descriptions of violence. After a while, you start becoming really desensitized and angry by all of this; it’s not always a good thing. It’s similar to what happens when soldiers are told stories of enemy atrocities to “pump them up” before they go into a war zone. The entire animal rights movement sometimes seems to have disappeared into a war zone about three decades ago.
This is not to say that this tactic can’t be useful, just that we should be cautious not only about who we shower with these descriptions, but how we view it ourselves. There’s a fine line between something that’s just shocking enough to prod into action, and something that sends the viewer into denial, anger, and emotional deadening.
The other significant aspect of Foer’s writing, which was both a plus and a minus for the book, is his descriptions of the smaller livestock operators in the business of what some vegetarians derisively refer to as “happy meat.” It was a plus because he has actually talked to them and visited their facilities. Understandably, he developed a certain rapport and sympathy with them — and actually, they look pretty good when stacked up against factory farm owners. He even comes across a vegetarian rancher and a vegan who builds slaughterhouses.
The downside of this is that it leaves us unclear where exactly his book is going. Foer says he is a “committed vegetarian,” but that he also supports the “best” of livestock agriculture and that his book is not a “straightforward case for vegetarianism.”
So, what does this mean? Is his book a case for vegetarianism, just not a straightforward one? Or is it a straightforward case for something else — perhaps the abolition of factory farms? Or is it something else altogether? And who, therefore, is the intended audience for this book? Even at the end of the book we don’t know, and he doesn’t seem to know either.
Peter Singer may not have Foer’s narrative style, but we miss Singer’s ability to clearly sort out issues. The obvious question here is, isn’t killing an innocent animal still somehow, like, wrong? And if so, why is it so difficult for Foer to bring himself to this explicit conclusion?
While I respect those producing “humane meat,” don’t we need better ways of fighting evil than simply reducing its size and scope? To make an analogy, Bush’s lies and aggressive war in Iraq were certainly not nearly as bad as Hitler’s lies and invasion of Poland — but does that mean we should encourage this sort of thing?
In Foer’s defense, perhaps this book is not a case for anything. Perhaps Foer just wants to describe what’s going on, without making judgment; or perhaps he’s still in an ambiguous space himself, and has chosen to write a book anyway. His real audience is likely to be people who are in a similar place — who are themselves still not sure of what to think or how to feel in the face of the realities of eating animals. May this book give them a way of thinking and talking about it, too.