Last year at Thanksgiving, I took a really careful look at the turkey. Even though it was only my family of four gathered to celebrate with relatives over Zoom, the bird was enormous, shiny, golden, greasy, bare. As usual, I took a helping of dark meat and sat down at the table to eat. The meat was hard to chew.
Before Thanksgiving of 2020, and especially before enrolling at Wes, I had always been a fairly unquestioning meat eater. When my sister and I were younger and played recreational sports, we would often stop at the local Five Guys for a quick hamburger dinner with my mother, before practice. We knew that my dad didn’t enjoy fast food, so it was a special treat that just the three of us could share. I phased out meat a little bit when I arrived at Wesleyan and experienced the luxury of the vegan line at Usdan, but still relied on meat as a protein source, particularly because of the physical and caloric demands of my continued involvement in athletics.
Looking at the Thanksgiving turkey that day, though, I began to see meat consumption differently. Maybe it was the fact that COVID-19 gave me a break from sports and a time to reflect, maybe the ethical philosophy courses I had taken were finally starting to sink in, or maybe the influence of my vegan partner was getting to me (though I swore to my friends that it was not my new relationship that prompted me to change my mind about meat-eating). Whatever it was (retrospectively, my partner did have a lot to do with it), I began to see the turkey on the table not as a value-neutral, metaphysically meaningless food source but rather as the carcass of a being that once had agency and now had been reduced to an object of consumption. I was flooded with emotion and discomfort.
Earlier this year, I read Octavia Butler’s famous piece “Bloodchild” for the first time—the story actually came up in three out of my four classes that semester at around the same time, which felt like some kind of sign. In the short story, the Tlic, an insect-like species, rather violently lay their eggs in male humans in order to reproduce. After witnessing the bloody death of another human man whose hatchlings have been eating him from the inside, the male protagonist Gan rethinks his commitment to his Tlic partner T’Gatoi, but ultimately allows her to lay her eggs inside him due to his familial commitments.
Like any good piece of science fiction, Butler’s story effectively builds an alternate world that resonates with readers but is distant enough from their own to provoke feelings of deep discomfort and strangeness. Gan’s human body is warped and exposed by the presence of the eggs of an outsider, which are not particularly welcome. In a society where humans are subjugated, consent to fertilization becomes a gray area, more a matter of duty or species-determined fate than a true choice.
I found the bodily domination by the Tlic in “Bloodchild” disturbing and dark, and I imagine that most readers felt the same way. In conjunction with Butler’s broader commentary about gender, reproduction, and power, I believe that engaging in the eating of animals subsists on a “Bloodchild” adjacent logic of bodily subordination for the good of a singular species: as humans eating animals, we posit that there are some “othered” bodies that are worth less than ours, and we exploit them. Feeding, breeding, and genetically modifying animals for the purpose of consumption with the ultimate goal of fueling our collective reproductive agenda feels, or should feel, just as dark and concerning as the invasive fertilization methods of Butler’s Tlic.
I am a firm believer that knowledge is socially produced, which situates me as an opponent of human exceptionalism, or the idea that humans are fundamentally different than and superior to other animal species. I’ll elaborate: as humans, we have created particular hierarchies of intelligence based on cultural touchstones, like the ability to add and subtract numbers. Because chimpanzees are unable to add and subtract numbers, many humans view them as less intelligent.
I would argue, perhaps naively, that chimpanzees are only less intelligent than humans according to human markers of intelligence; to view the species through a human-oriented framework is to neglect the capabilities that they possess, many of which are particularly relevant to their environment, such as being able to recall object placement. Viewing chimps as less intelligent also centralizes humans as the point of comparison to our great ape relatives, when in reality, chimps probably don’t care much whether or not we think they are smart, except to the degree that our assessment of them and their proximity to us dictates the degree of violence we enact on them and their habitats.
In fact, aside from human intervention, all animals seem to exist pretty happily in their own societies with their own systems of knowledge. Other nonhuman animals, like bees, live in groups that are highly complex and regulated. Perhaps that very remark even contradicts my earlier point; animal societies do not need to resemble human societies in order to be important and worthy of ethical consideration. It feels to me like a huge mistake, and a lack of imagination, to dismiss animal lifestyles and experiences and to reduce individual animals to exploited non-subjects, like turkeys on Thanksgiving tables.
Philosophical analysis aside, the ethical implications of meat-eating seem fairly straightforward. Consuming meat, and especially red meat, is harmful to individual animals, bad for the environment, and detrimental to individual health. So why do so many people continue to eat other animals?
I can think of innumerable reasons. I know that for many people, eating meat constitutes part of their cultural practice. For some, meat is a quick and easy way to access protein. Though avoiding meat turns out to be cheaper than buying it regularly, in many (especially, low-income) areas high-quality fruit and vegetables are difficult to access. Not everyone has the privilege of regular, unbudgeted visits to the produce section of Whole Foods, and pushes for vegetarianism and veganism, to my eye, tend to neglect the elements of class privilege that come with the decision to eat a particular diet, or the ability to substantially alter one’s diet at all. Even on Wesleyan’s campus, vegetarian and vegan options are most accessible to those who are willing to spend extra points at Swings or Weshop––as delicious as Usdan’s vegan line can be, it is not always available, nor does eating there for every meal seem at all realistic.
Personally, I do have the class privilege to be able to comfortably eat a vegetarian diet, and I view my decision to do so as a strategy for utilizing said privilege for the greater social good. I respect others who are able to make a similar decision, and I also respect those who are not. I also believe that advocacy for vegetarianism and veganism must be, and is implicitly, tied to the fight for racial justice and anti-capitalism; considerations about meat-eating must acknowledge that such dietary decisions (or lack of ability to make such decisions) are multifaceted and intersectional.
Needless to say, I will not be partaking in the Thanksgiving turkey this year, and I may never again. I am comfortable with this decision, and whenever it becomes inconvenient or difficult, I remember my respect and love for my animal friends.
Emma Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
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