Today on the Huffington Post, actress/activist Natalie Portman has an impassioned defense of Jonathan Safran Foer's vegetarian manifesto Eating Animals. She writes that "being polite to your tablemates" shouldn't trump morality.
Portman reiterates a lot of the points Foer made in his New York Times Magazine essay a couple weeks ago, namely, that "food is symbolic of what we believe in" and that when we teach children how to eat, we are teaching them values as well. She argues persuasively that factory farming leads to not just animal but also human suffering — the phrase "copious amounts of pig shit sprayed into the air" may be all that's necessary to put some people off of mass-produced pork. None of this is new, but all of it is thought-provoking, whether you eat meat or not. Where Portman starts to bother me, though, is here:
I say that Foer's ethical charge against animal eating is brave because not only is it unpopular, it has also been characterized as unmanly, inconsiderate, and juvenile. But he reminds us that being a man, and a human, takes more thought than just "This is tasty, and that's why I do it." He posits that consideration, as promoted by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma, which has more to do with being polite to your tablemates than sticking to your own ideals, would be absurd if applied to any other belief (e.g., I don't believe in rape, but if it's what it takes to please my dinner hosts, then so be it).
I too find the idea that vegetarianism is "unmanly" sexist and obnoxious. But Portman — and Foer — lose me a bit when they discount the importance of consideration. Part of this, I have no doubt, is personal. As I've said here before, I'm very nonconfrontational in person — I don't mind spewing my beliefs on a blog, but I absolutely hate telling people what to do in their own dining rooms. And I hate refusing meat at people's homes (though, except for fish, I still do it), because I feel that I'm implicitly criticizing the way of life of someone who's showing me hospitality. I completely understand people who don't cook meat themselves, but are willing to eat it when the host serves it, and I constantly struggle with the conflict between politeness and vegetarianism.
There's an element of sheer cowardice here — I don't want my friends to think of me as that annoying, proselytizing vegetarian. I've heard all the jibes Portman mentions ("What if you find out that carrots feel pain, too? Then what'll you eat?" and "Hitler was a vegetarian, too, you know"), they make me upset, and I try to avoid hearing them again. Portman would probably say I should just suck it up, that my concern for my host's feelings and for my own is nothing compared to the suffering of animals. Thing is, I don't like Portman's example. It would of course be "absurd" to say to oneself, "I don't believe in rape, but if it's what it takes to please my dinner hosts, then so be it." But eating meat is not the same as rape.
Maybe it's just a particularly bad day for comparing things to rape, but Portman's words make me angry. Women are not the same as pigs, and while I wouldn't befriend a known rapist, most of my friends eat meat, and I consider them good, moral people. Many ethicists believe that animals should have the same rights as human beings, and that hurting an animal is as morally repugnant as hurting a human. Their arguments have a strong basis — the capacity of animals to feel pain and psychological suffering — and they deserve hearing. At the same time, I cannot hear meat-eating and rape in the same breath without feeling that the enormity of the rapist's crime is being minimized. I know this was not Portman's intent; I know she isn't trying to trivialize sexual violence (although the fact that she signed a petition in support of Roman Polanski does call into question whether she takes rape seriously in all cases). Still, I think the morality of meat is more complicated than she lets on.
Yes, animals suffer. Yes, factory farming (which is, it's important to remember, not the only option for the cultivation of livestock) is bad for human beings too. And yes, some scientists believe that we need to eat far less meat or even no meat at all if we want to stop global warming. But there are greater and lesser evils in this world, and I believe that eating animals is a lesser crime than sexually assaulting a human being. Portman writes that Foer "unites the two sides of the animal eating debate in their reasoning" when he argues that humans are different from animals, and thus have different responsibilities. But if we truly want to unite the two sides — and, I would argue, if we want to reduce meat consumption the world over — we would do well to avoid demonizing the large majority of people who don't yet agree with us.