Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Meat Trade News Daily

I’ve been pleased to see that Eric Vollmer’s Calgary Herald interview piece from early December has now also appeared in several other CanWest places—most recently The Montreal Gazette. Rather more surprising is its appearance in the Dec. 12 issue of Meat Trade News Daily, an international, web-based compendium of published material about the industry. Interestingly, the piece does not appear there as it does in the various CanWest places, under something close to its original heading (“Dystopian Novel Finds Origin in Animal Rights”), but rather under the heading “Canada—Conspiracy Theories over Environment and Farming.” Here’s the link:

CanWest holds the copyright, and is in bankruptcy protection; they may be less amused than I am by this misuse of their property.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Words After an Afterword

Does Animals argue for animal rights? Or only for treating non-human animals better? Does it argue that humans should all be vegetarians, even vegans—or does it simply ask humans to give up factory farmed meat and dairy products for free-range ones?

I’m not entirely sure. That may seem odd for the author of a novel that has been said by more than one reader to be too direct and too obvious in its message. But it is the truth. The main thrust of Animals is of course against factory farming; that much is (I trust) abundantly clear. But what of the vexed issues beyond that? My own views have to some degree shifted over the years; indeed, I suspect they shifted in the course of writing the novel. I have leanings, but I am indeed not entirely sure-not sure about my own beliefs, and not even sure as to what the book may argue on this point.

And I’m not alone. My old friend Tom Hurka, a philosopher who is one of our best and liveliest thinkers on ethics and aesthetics, mentioned when he joined me in Toronto this past season to speak about the book (and about the ethics of human animals dealing with non-human ones) that his reactions had differed on first and second reading. On one reading he had seen Broderick more as an unreliable narrator, and on another had imagined that the book (I won’t say “the author”) was endorsing a good deal of what Broderick has to say.

Interestingly, two online reviews of the novel that I have come across recently are at entirely opposite poles on this point. I don’t mean simply that they take opposing views; they also disagree completely about what is being argued for in Animals. Kentia Gueletina in The Lyon concludes that the book reads “like a treatise on animal rights and the virtues of becoming a vegetarian.” Calling it “one of the most scarring books” she has ever read, she concedes that “the quality of the writing is actually very good,” but disapproves of what she sees as its message: “it would make a good pamphlet for the more extreme (and I mean extreme) Animal Rights movements.”

In fact the book is (I think) careful to steer clear of the difficult issue of whether or not non-human animals have or should possess those abstract qualities many human animals call “rights.” Too careful, by some reckonings. David Regan has just posted his review of the book on his Animals in Canada site. I won’t quibble here over several small points in his review I might take issue with him over. The important thing is that on one very large point he is absolutely right, and I have been quite wrong:

All this puzzling over Broderick is made moot in the end by LePan’s Afterword. Here it becomes clear that the character’s ethical position, far from being a joke or a warning, and in addition to perhaps being a reaction to childhood trauma, is the same as his author’s. Both Broderick and LePan are arguing – passionately, eloquently, earnestly – for an end to factory farming, for improved welfare for food animals, but neither is arguing for animal rights, neither is arguing for the abolition of animal use. There is nothing wrong with this position per se; it’s common and often convincing in contemporary discussions of our obligations toward non-humans. But within the world of LePan’s novel – where humans with intellectual disabilities are stand-ins for, are equated with, non-human animals – it is absolutely untenable, as it suggests that it might be acceptable to use humans with intellectual disabilities for food so long as we do not factory farm them. Broderick defends the indefensible, and rather than laugh or scoff at him, LePan wants us to take him seriously. This failure to condemn the killing and eating of humans with intellectual disabilities does not, obviously, mean that LePan might actually support such a practice. No reader could possibly come away from his book thinking so. Nevertheless, while Broderick’s three-dimensionality, his humanity, makes for good fiction, it is also despicable philosophy and dangerous politics, and these are realms that LePan clearly wants his novel to exist in.

Aesthetically there is I think much to be said for leaving a good deal of uncertainty over the degree to which the book endorses or undercuts Broderick's various positions. But as it stands the Afterword acts in the most unhelpful of ways to remove much of that uncertainty; I am entirely persuaded that the elements of the Afterword that Regan points to are as damaging aesthetically as they are philosophically. Another perceptive recent reader—Deborah Robbins—pointed out to me last month that the afterword anachronistically referenced humans killing and eating pigs and chickens and so on. I made a note to have those lines changed on the first reprint of the Canadian edition, and in the forthcoming US edition—but somehow I still didn’t get the larger underlying point Robbins was making, until Regan made it for me even more forcefully. How I missed the larger problem I don't know; the only explanation I can offer is that with the Afterword I really had left the world of the novel behind, and was focusing on the world of today, and on factory farming. In any case, I now see clearly that the Afterword as it now stands does not connect coherently with the novel. my apologies for having gotten that one large thing so very wrong. I am posting now on my website a revised Afterword that (I hope!) takes account of this problem. My thanks to David and to Deborah for pointing me towards better things!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Humans and Other Animals

What’s wrong with these sentences?

1. Sturgeon are larger than freshwater fish.

2. The eagle was flying higher than the birds.

It’s not a difficult question to answer; the error is immediately obvious to anyone possessing even a passing acquaintance with biology and with the English language. Sturgeon are freshwater fish, and eagles are birds. To be correct, the sentences should read

Sturgeon are larger than other freshwater fish.

The eagle was flying higher than the other birds.

Yet we very frequently see no error when we read sentences such as the following:

3. Throughout our history, our understanding of animals and of our relationship to them has been debated.

4. The way we view animals determines how we treat them.

To be correct, such sentences as these should also include the word other:

Throughout our history, our understanding of other animals and of our relationship to them has been debated.

The way we view other animals determines how we treat them.

Is this just to carp over a trivial distinction? No more so than it is to suggest there is a problem with sentences such as “Slaves should never sleep in the same quarters as people,” or “The gestation period of man is nine months.” As researchers long ago discovered, the way we use language both reflects and helps to shape our thinking. Though there are still some who resist, most of us accept that it makes a difference whether or not we use language that implies that certain classes of people are not people at all. In the same way, it must make a difference (in shaping as well as in reflecting our attitudes) if we use language implying that humans are not animals. If we treated all non-human animals well, it would arguably be a trivial distinction indeed. But the fact is that we don’t; throughout the world non-human animals are horrifically mistreated; here in North America, over 99% of the meat and dairy products we consume come from animals who spend their lives in conditions of extreme hardship in factory farms. The more we are in the habit of speaking of (and thinking of) those fellow animals as creatures entirely different from ourselves, the better able we are to rationalize the cruelty that we condone—and that our behavior as consumers actively supports.

Ironically enough, examples 3 and 4 above are taken (slightly modified) from an excellent book called The Inner World of Farm Animals, which presents a wealth of research demonstrating that farm animals are far closer to humans in their intellectual and emotional capabilities than has commonly been assumed. Even those who are working to challenge the old stereotypes, in other words, sometimes use language that helps to reinforce them. It took us a long time to learn the importance of being careful about how we use man; no doubt the same will be true of animals. But it is surely time to start learning.