I haven’t eaten animals for over 15 years, which is more than half my life. I tell people I’m vegan because that used to be true. It’s less of a lie and more of a reflex—and much easier than saying, I eat this but not that, unless I’m somewhere else, in which case I’ll eat that. When I say I haven’t eaten animals for over 15 years, I really only mean land animals: depending on where I am or even sometimes my mood, I have eaten fish (an animal that many do not see as such) and crustaceans (an animal that is culturally excluded from being an animal, but is still very much one, regardless of what we believe).
I dramatically went vegan for the first time for a few good reasons—factory farming’s environmental impact, namely—but mostly because I wanted to be different and shocking, a pre-teen declaring that I was no longer dependent on the food my mom made. I felt very objective about the whole thing, arguing that it’s theoretically okay to eat animals, but not now, not with the way we eat animals—so cruelly, unnecessarily, and wastefully. Since then I’ve flitted between veganism, vegetarianism, and pescetarianism, for no good reasons, just many small reasons rolled into one—essentially, because I wanted to. Looser food restrictions make it easier to be social (and to travel); it’s easier to get a lot of protein if I eat animal products and/or fish (I’ve been trying to do a pull-up); tuna melts taste good and are enjoyable to eat (especially when they’re made by my brother). I have created arbitrary rules that have attempted to balance my desire to not inflict cruelty on animals, while also allowing myself to have a more flexible and fun—and yes, delicious—life. These rules don’t totally fool me; I know, both in my heart and in my brain, that being vegan is one of the most moral ways to be a consumer. And yet, every day I wake up and eat eggs.
Once, many years ago, an ex-boyfriend wore his Michael Vick jersey to Whole Foods. (Vick, an NFL quarterback, had at the time just been sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for his involvement in a dog fighting ring.) In the parking lot, another customer asked him if he knew what Vick did, and if so, how could he support him? My ex pointed to the chicken breasts in her cart and said, “Lady, I’m vegan.” In her eyes, making dogs fight solely for the entertainment of humans was presumably beyond the pale: unnecessary and cruel. In his eyes, the brutality was true of all human-caused suffering of animals, not just dog fighting. (Like most Philadelphians, my ex had a deep obsession with the Eagles—he also thought that the obsession with Vick’s particular crime as opposed to so many others was hypocritical and racist.)
Many don’t even see the chickens, cows, and pigs we eat as animals, only cuts of meat; undoubtedly a food product, but rarely a living thing, and nothing like the dogs and cats that lick our faces and sleep in our beds and live in our homes. Pet-animals are our friends or at least creatures that we love; food-animals are something else entirely, a whole new species of being (or really not-being, because we rarely think of them as being alive at all). Our relationship with other living beings is complicated—people cry watching commercials about animal cruelty while they eat hamburgers—and yet is rarely examined in popular culture. We love animals; we also eat them. Why?
The animal rights movement as we know it today began in 19th century England. In 1800, an anti-animal cruelty bill was introduced into Parliament, and in 1824, animal welfare advocates created the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 1970, the term specieism was coined, which, according to academic and philosopher Peter Singer, is “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” This includes eating animals and using their fur for clothing, of course, but also when we pick and choose which animals are worthy of our companionship and which are worthy of our dinner menu. Specieism, according to advocates, is when humans treat animals differently than they treat each other, and also when we treat different animals, well, differently. It’s both a violation of the golden rule and an arbitrary, variable, culturally construed set of guidelines. The most committed animal rights activists have compared specieism to other kinds of discrimination like racism, sexism, and transphobia, much to the chagrin and anger of people who have experienced that kind of bigotry.
The notorious organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has publicly compared “anti-animal” phrases like “bring home the bacon” and “kill two birds with one stone” to racist language. This kind of cringe-worthy behavior has made people (like me) who would otherwise be sympathetic to their views run as far away from them as possible. But even beyond the specific tonal failures of some of PETA’s campaigns, animal rights’ activists have often faced criticism for their priorities—in a world with so much suffering, with millions of people hungry and homeless, it can be grating to see people singularly focused on non-humans. If we agree that animals deserve safety, comfort, and the right to a nice, long life, then it should be a no-brainer to say that humans do, too. And yet many of these animal activists have very little to say about the workers in meat processing and packing plants, which, according to the Economic Policy Institute, are part of “one of the most dangerous and exploitative industries in the country.” Meat and poultry plants have one of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the country, due to workplaces full of knives, saws, and other dangerous, moving machinery. COVID has also exploded in meat processing and packing plants, and bosses haven’t really been held responsible. Industry workers are disproportionately immigrants and people of color, and because of their lack of power in our society, no one really cares about what happens at their jobs. This unfortunately includes groups like PETA, who commit a kind of specieism of their own: not caring about humans.
Most animals killed for food in the United States live objectively terrible lives. Chickens can spend their entire lives inside, never feeling dirt or grass beneath them, never feeling the full sun on their beaks. They’re often crowded next to, above, or below thousands and thousands of other chickens, living amid their own waste and quickly spreading disease. These chickens are lopsided, for lack of a better word. To satisfy consumers, their breasts are bred to grow large, but the rest of their bodies don’t keep up—sometimes they can’t even support their own weight unable to access food and water, they die. Other times their living conditions are so vile that they literally peck each other to death. To avoid this, their beaks are often cut off. Often, dead chickens are not removed from their pens, their rotting bodies trapped next to the living. Cows’ lives aren’t much better. Dairy cows are forced to provide a near constant supply of milk, which means they’re basically always pregnant. Due to their high milk production, they often get mastitis, a painful infection in the udder (pregnant women can also suffer from this). Their calves are taken from them almost immediately after birth, to be raised for veal or to become dairy cows themselves. Pigs, which are known to be even smarter and more emotionally intelligent than our beloved dogs, are often stuck in crates that are basically the size of their bodies, which means they’re unable to move around at all. Their piglets, when born, often get trampled to death—and when the adult pigs are no longer able to get pregnant, they’re killed for their meat. 95 percent of farm animals in the United States endure lives like this.
The horrors of factory farming are so great, so vast, that most people don’t want to know about them—probably at least in part because they will feel conflicted about their continued choices. (My best friend, who is vegan, thinks that meat-eaters hate vegans not because they feel judged by them, but because they judge themselves in vegans’ presence.) Once, when I was more smug about my dietary choices, I lent my mom Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. The premise of the book is that the author is trying to figure out how to talk about eating animals with his newborn son, or to decide if they should be eating them at all. My mom read the entire thing—which included gruesome details about factory farms and their conditions—and told me that she didn’t believe it could be real. (As Nathan J. Robinson wrote about factory farming: “The truth is disturbing, which is why it’s so easily ignored.”) My mother thought the stories about factory farms had to be greatly exaggerated; surely if it were true, someone would put a stop to it. But she did more research on her own and came to all of the same conclusions: factory farming is real and almost unspeakably heinous. She still eats animals, but now only buys meat from small farms near her home, never from the grocery store or at restaurants.
As a former vegan, I understand the potential smugness that the diet (or lifestyle, or worldview, depending on how you see it) holds. It makes you the ultimate consumer. It gives you the power to throw up your hands and say, don’t look at me—I’ve done all I can. It allows you to believe that you have successfully cut cruelty from your life, and that if everyone did the same, the world would be a much more gentle and loving place for animals. While that may be true to some extent, it doesn’t tell the full story of animal agriculture or why we eat what we eat or even why we buy what we buy. Plenty of vegans wear fast fashion, which much like factory farming is both detrimental to the environment and horribly exploitative of workers (see Frankie Leach’s article in this issue for more.) Some argue that even if fast fashion is morally wrong, buying it is necessary because many can’t afford to purchase ethically-made clothes. That may be true, but then it could also be true that buying meat in some capacity is more affordable (or just easier) than adopting a vegan diet. It would be easy to label this hypocrisy, but it’s really just a function of our society and the globalized industries that help create it. No matter how hard one person may try, our consumer choices rarely fully align with our values. After all, I’m typing this essay about the ethics of eating animals on a MacBook Air, which was maybe made by a child.
In actor Wallace Shawn’s show, The Fever, he plays a man who stumbled upon Marx’s Capital and begins to learn about commodity fetishism. He says:
But what really determines the value of a coat? The coat’s price comes from its history, the history of all the people who were involved in making it and selling it and all the particular relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form relationships with all of those people, and yet we hide those relationships from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. “I like this coat,” we say, “It’s not expensive,” as if that were a fact about the *coat* and not the end of a story about all the people who made it and sold it.
This is true, of course, about the clothes we buy—we see the color and feel the texture and decide if the fit is flattering—while ignoring or more likely just forgetting the women who sewed them, the shippers who packed them, and the logistics workers who either delivered them to a store or to our doorstep. But this is also true about the food we eat. Not only do we ignore or forget the workers who kill, cut, inspect, clean, and process animals for meat, but we ignore or forget that the meat was ever an animal at all. To change this, to understand the history of every single living being involved with our ability to clothe and feed ourselves, we need to do a lot more than to just ask people to buy the right stuff.
Individual actions, while powerful in their own right, don’t carry the weight or the power to fundamentally alter the systems which they’re attempting to impact, unless they’re carried out as part of a broader, collective effort. Production of all kinds—including food and livestock—is part of an expansive and intricate globalized economy. Anything short of a massive, international movement that moves a large number of people to adopt a vegan diet and simultaneously brings forward demands on the livestock industry as a whole would be unlikely to have much if any impact on the lives of the animals sent to slaughter, the workers involved in their slaughtering, and the accelerating climate impacts which are intensified by meat consumption and factory farming. In order to effect the kind of change that is needed to address the heinous conditions in factory farms, nothing short of systemic change—that treats humans, animals, and the planet itself as worthy of dignity and respect—will be enough.
Most of my earliest food memories are also memories of my bubby, chopping carrots in my family’s kitchen for some holiday meal, the knife reaching the band-aids on her thumb. I can still taste the chicken with its crisp, salty skin and juicy meat. She’s been gone for a few years now, and stopped cooking a few years before that, but my siblings and I still talk about her cooking—even tuna hoagies tasted better when they were made by her. The saying “made with love” isn’t just a saying. Food is more than sustenance, more than taste—it’s family, memories, community, ritual, culture. If your family eats meat, choosing to stop eating it is a disruption. Maybe not the biggest disruption in the world, but it’s a change, a small gap between you and the people you love. If it isn’t just your family that eats meat, but your entire community, the gap widens. Vegan activists have often come under fire for oversimplifying how easy it is to become vegan. For many people, giving up meat is not just giving up meat: it’s giving up a connection to the people you love, the rituals you practice, and to everything you may know.
If you asked the average person if they intended to, wanted to, or even were okay with causing other sentient beings intense and prolonged suffering, most would say no. (94 percent of Americans agree that the animals we eat don’t deserve abuse or cruelty.) But this is a different question than causing animals any pain at all. Many people, myself included sometimes, think it’s okay for animals to die so humans are able to use them for food or other supposed necessities—the circle of life and all that. And there are certainly ways to kill animals while also minimizing their pain and suffering, allowing them to live longer lives, and preserving some of their dignity. Many Indigenous groups, who have historically maintained a different relationship to the land than industrialized societies, have often had a very different understanding of animal rights than most western vegans. Animal rights activists have clashed with Indigenous communities over seal hunting, whale hunting, and sled dog racing (along with the general use of working dogs), believing these practices to be unnecessary and cruel. But the Indigenous communities in question depend on these activities for food and trade, want to maintain their history and traditions, and generally have a completely different perspective on what it means to care for animals. An article in Indian Country Today explains that “policy makers and animal rights activists whose knowledge is based on positivistic reasoning, see animals in a paternalistic manner—as ‘helpless’ creatures that must be protected from the ‘savage and cruel exploits’ of human beings…Meanwhile, Indigenous people such as the Inuit agree that ‘animals also possess rights—the right to refuse Inuit hunters, to be treated with respect, to be hunted and used wisely.’” Yes, animals in these societies are hunted, killed, and eaten, but the relationship between human and animal is seen as reciprocal, another kind of social relationship.
No matter what animal rights activists do or say, or how compelling their arguments are in terms of climate, health, and moral kindness, people will still eat meat—because it’s culturally important, cheap and available, or just because it tastes good. Short of a total restructuring of our economy and society (which socialists are fighting for every day!)—food-animals will be part of our milieu, no matter how upsetting the cruelty is for some of us. I am lucky that I am able to buy the most expensive eggs at the grocery store, the ones that say cruelty-free on the carton, but I still eat them when I don’t actually have to. Sometimes socialists will say things like “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” meaning that there are no clean hands in a dirty world, no way to individually extract oneself from the exploitation that is central to the production of all the goods we consume. While everything I wrote above—about consumer choices and our individual moral code—is true, it’s also true that we don’t get to just do nothing. It’s good when people try to make choices to live their day-to-day lives in such a way that aligns with their values and supports a vision of the world we all deserve, whether that’s choosing to be vegan, buying union-made products, and so on. But in order to implement that vision, we need to act collectively. Ending the misery and suffering of the animals—and the workers!—in the food production industry is no different. If you’re reading this, you probably should quit eating animals (or at the very least, try to limit your consumption of them)—it’s the moral thing to do. But that’s just the start: the rest, of course, is much harder. You won’t be able to buy your way to morality; you’ll have to act.