A feminist-vegetarian ethic: An Interview with Carol J. Adams

95, no. 9 (September 2002), 10-13

Witness Magazine
by Marianne Arbogast

Carol Adams is an ecofeminist theologian, writer and activist who has worked extensively in the fields of domestic violence and animal advocacy.

How do you see the connection between oppression of animals and the oppression of women and other human beings?

For one thing, we often exhibit an anxiety about what we define as human, and historically western culture has controlled that definition very tightly. For a long time what was human was really white male. There's a feminist historian who said the period of time after the American Revolution was a very traumatic time period for women, because you had all this talk about human rights and yet women's rights were receding during that time. Human was defined as man, and implicitly it was defined as white.

We get movements that try to expand the definition of human because the recognition is that when something is defined as not human it does not have to be taken seriously -- it can be abused, it can be misused. When I see the pin, 'Feminism is the radical notion that women are human,' I can't agree with that. I don't want to simply redefine human to include women. I want to problematize the definition of human, and especially the theological point of view that there's God, us humans and everyone else in this hierarchy. Secondly, we can't accept the notion that the ends justify the means. And it seems to me that both meat-eating and the oppression of other people are justified because the end result is something that people want. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, I talk about the structure of the absent referent, that animals are made absent to meat-eating because they're killed. And they're made absent conceptually -- people really don't want to be reminded that they're eating a dead cow, a butchered lamb, a slaughtered pig. And the absent referent then becomes a free-floating thing. For instance, meat becomes a metaphor for what happens to women. Other beings who are not held in high regard may be equally victimized by the means/ends dichotomy. Thirdly, I'm against violence. Do the least harm possible. Oppression requires violence and implements of violence, and this violence usually involves three things: objectification of a being so that the being is seen as an object rather than as a living, breathing, suffering being; fragmentation, or butchering, so that the being's existence as a complete being is destroyed one way or another; and then consumption -- either literal consumption of the non-human animal or consumption of the fragmented woman through pornography, through prostitution, through rape, through battering. So I see a structure that creates entitlement to abuse because within the structure of the absent referent the states of objectification and fragmentation disappear and the consumed object is experienced without a past, without a history, without a biography, without individuality.

Many people today, especially with the growth of the environmental movement, would say that we shouldn't mistreat the earth or non-human creatures -- but they would see the food chain as a natural or divinely ordained thing, and would not see animals eating animals and humans eating non-human animals as mistreatment.

 I think we end up with two problems within religious circles. Meat-eating is both naturalized and spiritualized. This happened at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) where we did the first-ever panel on animals several years ago. What was so profound about the experience was that the arguments I heard from people there -- the scholars -- were the same arguments I hear when I'm on call-in radio stations here in Texas. When it comes to animals, the level of engagement and thought is pretty undeveloped.

So meat-eating is naturalized. There are two things we need to respond to here. One is that, supposedly, we humans get to eat animals because we're different from animals -- and then suddenly the justification for eating these non-humans is that other non-humans do it. We become inconsistent.

Secondly -- and I think this is part of patriarchal culture -- we not only symbolically uphold carnivores in our culture, we uphold what are called the top carnivores, carnivores that actually eat other carnivores. Most meat-eaters eat herbivores. Humans are a good example -- we eat cows, lambs, etc. Yet we uphold lions and eagles in a cultural mythology -- carnivorous beings who are actually more carnivorous than we are. The fact is, less than 6 percent of animals actually are carnivorous. We just have such an overabundance of carnivorous examples around -- nature shows celebrate the carnivore -- that we have a skewed view of why other animals actually die. Most other animals do not die because they are eaten by carnivores.

Now there are some people -- ecologists, environmentalists -- who say, I want to use everything and I thank the animal for the sacrifice, etc. I feel that this has a tendency to use the sacrificial language that Christianity has sort of sanctified without ever saying, well, maybe it's our turn to sacrifice. Why all these years is it only the nonhumans who are to sacrifice themselves to the humans? Maybe it's time for the humans to sacrifice ourselves to the nonhumans by not eating them. And secondly, how do we know that those animals wanted to be sacrificed -- especially if that argument is coming from someone who is not a hunter? They use -- in a sense they abuse -- a native relationship with animals. Out of all the native ways of relating to nonhumans, the only ones that are brought into the dominant culture are the ones that can be used to justify what we're already doing. There are lots of native cultures that didn't eat animals.

When we were at the AAR somebody stood up and said, it's a dog-eat-dog world. Well, my response is, no it isn't, dogs aren't eating dogs. Andrew Linzey, who really pioneered in this field, asked, didn't Jesus come to change that world? If we're Christians, why do we accept that it's a dog-eat-dog world in any of our relationships?

And if the naturalizing argument doesn't work, then the spiritualizing argument comes in: Well, we were given dominion, we are not like the other animals. But what is that dominion? The dominion in Gen. 1:26 is granted within a vegan world.

People spiritualize and they naturalize because they don't want to change -- you could easily spiritualize and naturalize a whole different argument.

You have advocated an ethic of care, rather than animal rights. How is this different?

Well, my concern about animal rights language is that it arises within the same philosophical framework that gave us a differentiation between what was man/human and everyone else. The universal rights language is part of the notion of the Enlightenment man, who was an autonomous being separate from everyone else. In fact, no one is autonomous. We first learn in relationship. We learn to walk, we learn to talk in relationships. So the ethics of care critiques the notion of the autonomous man upon which the fundamental right is based.

But secondly, the language of animal rights came out of a need to prove that not only was it non-emotional, but it was manly. We're not getting upset about non-humans, it's not that it's upsetting -- it's the right thing to do. And some of us have come along and said, it is upsetting. Being upset is a legitimate form of knowledge. Why can't we trust anger and other emotions that we feel when we hear about chickens being de-beaked and veal calves being removed from their mothers in less than 24 hours? Why can't outrage and caring truly inform who we are as people?

People come back and say, you're saying women care more than men. No, we're saying that a male-identified form of thinking has triumphed over a female-identified form of responding and thinking.

Part of your argument is that we're dissociated from the animal we're actually eating, we don't see the animal because we've made it into 'meat.' But there's another kind of argument that says that the real problem is that we have become separated from farming, for instance, and living close to the land; that we're separated from all of those natural realities, and if we feel bad when we think about it it's just some kind of sentimentalism because farmers or hunters don't feel bad. Some people in the men's movement have felt they ought to go out and kill a deer almost as a ritual.

So what's wrong with being sentimental? It goes back to the ethics of care. Perhaps sentiment is what we need. If there's something that makes you uneasy, perhaps the thing is not to conform your emotions to what culture is telling you, but to conform culture to what your emotions are telling you, which is that there might be something wrong here. I grew up in a farming community. I watched butchering as a child. My sister was allowed to dip the dead pig into the boiling water and there was a sort of gothic fascination there. And I'd go home and eat meat -- there was a complete disconnect. We were fascinated, but those animals were others, those animals were objectified beings. It is a violent process -- and most animals are not butchered down on the farm, they are butchered in a horrendous way.

And I think that this 'be-a-man' notion is exactly what, as Christians, we challenge. What's the shortest verse in the Bible? 'Jesus wept.' What did Jesus do in the Temple? What was happening in the Temple? Animals were being sold, for heaven's sakes. Jesus was angry about a lot of things, but perhaps one of them was that other beings were being sold there.

How do you see vegetarianism as a spiritual path?

For me, doing the least harm possible is a very spiritual path and a path with integrity. People think they're going to harm themselves by giving up meat -- there's some protective nature there that keeps them from connecting the dots about the environment and human well-being and health. It would be helpful for people to feel like being on a spiritual path includes interacting with change, even at the most basic level of what we're going to eat. Spiritual life is a life of abundance, but when it comes to meat-eating people think they're going to experience scarcity. The most important thing vegans can do is simply live a life of abundance.