Still being quite distraught after seeing Earthlings on Wednesday, I’ve been trying hard to put the ongoing catastrophe of violence against animals into a larger moral context. It is easy to emphasize violence against animals because it is so highly cruel, and because we are so immediately present to what it produces – one can hardly walk around a city without seeing meat, dairy, leather, etc… But, perhaps I am simply fetishizing a certain kind of immediacy, as citizens of a US client state, am I not immediately related to numerous wars, to the support for brutal dictators, and to economic imperialism which threatens to impoverish any nation which does not abide by Washington‘s orders? And anyway, doesn’t Zizek call vegetarians “degenerates”? Well, perhaps he is not the best moral authority on account of claiming to be a monster. So, I went to google and searched “Chomsky +Vegan” – a series of correspondances turned up, this being the most relevant response: (I can’t guarantee the authenticity of this correspondance).
Chomsky: I’ve discussed animal rights here and there, mostly in response to questions. It’s true that it’s not a huge effort — though it is a considerable one — to live a vegan lifestyle. It’s even easier to give up a lot of what we do to contribute to saving 1 billion people who are dying from hunger, or to stave off the serious threat to species survival that will destroy animal life too, or to try to prevent the destruction of biodiversity, or…. Your arguments hold just as well for these and innumerable other morally obligatory commitments, many of them I think ranking higher than using animals for human use. Should we, for example, buy commercial products from (and thus help fund) corporations that are contributing to global destruction? Try to avoid them.
But time and energy are finite, and each of us sets priorities, inevitably.
I’m not teaching grad courses on ethics, or on these issues. I have taught undergrad courses for many years (on my own time) on matters that seem urgent to me, the kind I write and speak about.
To be clear, I’m not challenging our priorities. Merely trying to indicate my own.
These priorities correspond with how I felt about the treatment of animals before I saw earthlings. “It is a horrible violence, out there”, I thought, but my distance from it allowed me to categorize it as only one violence among many. When you expose yourself to the content of the violence directly, however, you recognize that it is violence not because it is suffering but because it is callously imposed suffering. When I first became vegetarian (temporarily) back in undergrad, my reason was “the callous treatment of animals is a force of degeneration to the human moral character”. I have never believed this statement to the extent that I now believe it now – the disaster of the treatment of animals can not be measured in the suffering of animals, but in our lack of concern for that suffering, and in the immediacy of our complicity in it – in our food, our clothes. Heck, according to this TED talk, pork pretty much everything from roads to toothpaste.
But, what I disagree with him Chomsky’s response to veganism is not so much his priorities, but the way he characterizes obligation: “Your arguments hold just as well for these and innumerable other morally obligatory commitments”. In fact, veganism is not the taking up of a morally obligatory commitment, it is a strategic adherence to an ideal shared by many, directed towards an end. It is a project shared, participated in by many people together – it is a cause of coming together (at Toad Lane’s vegan-pot lucks, for instance), and it is – in my eyes at least – in need of constant re-evaluation to increase its prospects for expanding, becoming mainstream, and being an important part of moral revolution.
In other words, I disagree with Chomsky on veganism in the same way that I disagree with his charge the BDS against Israel is hypocritical. Actions done in common are not hypocritical if they apply a standard in a tactically useful manner – standards can only come into being in the world if applied in tactically considered manners anyway. The question of becoming vegan, or of taking a stand against global warming or Israeli apartheid is not about what moral demands are abstractly placed on us by the totality of chaos in the world – but rather are choices we can take, from the particular situations we find ourselves, to ally with others and strive together for a fairer world.