Living Among Meat-Eaters: An Interview with Carol Adams

vol. 2, no. 6 (December 1995), pp. 6-7, 12
Satya: A Magazine of Vegetarianism, Environmentalism, and Animal Advocacy

Carol Adams has been working within the fields of violence against women and children and vegetarianism and animal advocacy for over twenty years. She is the author of a number of books, most notably  The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory and Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals. With Josephine Donovan, she has edited two volumes on feminism and animal issues. She lives outside of Dallas, Texas.

Q: To start with the obvious question. How do you live among meateaters?

A: I think one way I handle living among meateaters that I now ask them about it. On the plane last night I was sitting next to a child psychologist and we talked about the fact that I had had a vegetarian meal and he had eaten dead chicken. It was very fascinating because, when you say you're writing about it, then you can say to them: "So tell me. You've said that you know it's ethically wrong; so what happens when you sit down to eat meat?" Instead of me being seen as someone saying, "Look, you're doing something wrong; why do you keep doing this?" I get to ask a question which prompts them to reflect on what is the process that's cutting them off from their own ethical awareness. He talked about having a hole in his conscience and I said, "Yes, but I don't think so. Because our whole culture says it's okay." "Well," he said, "We've got a collective hole in our conscience."

Q: Do you feel angry?

A: When the New York Times has a whole article about the growth of factory farms with pigs and the effect of that on the environment and people, and it completely ignores animals, I feel very angry. But I take that anger and use it interpretively: what does this represent? What's going on here? So, theoretically, I can engage it even more; because I want to try and understand it and how we change it. Personally, I think I realized I needed to begin negotiating with people about what they were going to order at a restaurant, and giving myself permission to say what I want to say. Sometimes what meateaters do is so blatantly open to analysis that it leaves me dumbstruck. So I guess what I've done is I've taken that ongoing maddening frustration and anger and I've finally moved that so that it doesn't paralyze or immobilize me and I continue to see this whole thing as a process. After all, I used to be a meateater; I'm living among people who haven't completed the process that vegetarians go through.

Q: Do you find it always useful to go back into that mindset, and think, "Well, how did I go about denying this?" And how do we negotiate our families?

A: I think one we have personally handled this is we exiled ourselves. My whole family's in the north, I'm in Dallas. I don't go home for most of the important rituals I would usually have to sit through. So that I can exercise that kind of control. I did successfully negotiate a vegetarian barbecue, where the only thing barbecued were Notdogs and Boca Burgers. And it was a big success, but I had to negotiate that in advance. Some of the family members are very interested in vegetarianism; and some of my family members are very gourmet, controlling... So we don't talk about it. After all, meateaters live among meateaters. Everything they do is mirrored back to them as okay. Another way I handle that is through a feminist understanding of social process. For me it's becoming more and more profound that the way pornography mirrors back a message about who women are is the way a meateating culture mirrors back a message about what–not who--animals are. So, trying to reconfigure our conceptualization is very important.

Q: Do you think we should talk back, as it were?

A:  I think it is important sometimes to talk back. First of all, I do think that vegetarians think more literally than others, because you are restoring the "absent referent." We are not seeing food; we're seeing a corpse, we're seeing dead animals. Because we think literally as well metaphorically, our attempt to move the literal issue will arouse a certain degree of hostility and distress because our culture in general wants to move away from the literal. It wants to disengage. For instance, we don't want to know where our clothes come from. We don't want to know that the clothing is being made by children or women in terrible situations. We don't to restore that absent referent; we don't want the literal truth of what our culture produces for us to consume to be known. Secondly, I always say that vegetarians should not engage the issue of vegetarianism if there is a dead animal present and being eaten. Because there's just too much tension. The meateater is going to further need to justify what they're doing; even if they're not conscious of it. Because they're consuming at the moment.

Q: Do you agree with Karen Davis that we need to stop apologizing?

A: I love that. We do need to stop apologizing. Now I think Karen would operate differently about all this. She is adamant about the ethical stance, that we don't look away, that we don't refuse to engage. And I agree; and I'm not talking about apology. I'm not saying that we need a rhetoric of apology: "Oh, I'm so sorry I got you upset." But what I'm trying to do is push and say, "What makes you feel upset?" I think the process is not for us to say why we're vegetarians so much, because we're on the other side of that process. The process is to figure out what is catalytic for that person. Instead of me defending vegetarianism while people eat meat; I say, "How is it that you can keep eating meat when you know that it's cruel? I don't think we have to defend our diet. I think we need neither apology nor defensiveness. I remember the movie Babe. In a sense, to avoid consumption, Babe has to establish his individuality and thus his irreplaceability. He succeeds in being seen as a body with a biography, an individuality, and thus he succeeds in staying alive. But there's also a duck trying to establish his irreplaceability because ducks are seen as collective. They're collectived, seen as mass terms even when alive. But a duck is killed and the corpse is eaten at Christmas Time. At the end of the movie, when the credits were rolling it said that there was no cruelty against animals in this film. So my six-year-old said, "Does that mean they ate fake meat?" Which I felt was so profound, because we do not in our culture think it is cruel to eat animals. I mean a six year old vegetarian can just wipe away the whole culture of apology. What we need to do is create a wedge, and this guy last night said that something innovative takes quite a while to be accepted. He predicted that 200 years from now people wouldn't eat animals. And I said, "I don't want to wait 200 years. That's a lot of animals."

Q: I don't know we have 200 years to wait.

A: Well, yes. We don't. I can't say I have a blueprint for how to solve these family things. Because I do think that whatever issue a family or couple has, meateating and vegetarianism become vehicles for displacing those relationship issues that haven't been dealt with. So that it gets even further confusing. For a couple, for instance, the meateating/vegetarian issue will end up being about control: what can be brought into a kitchen; what pots can be used. All of those things become media of controlling behavior and for manipulating issues about love and affection.

Q: Is that because meat is a locus of power? Is that part of the whole process of thinking about meat?

A: Well, let's talk specifically about what is usually the make-up of this couple: which is usually that it's the woman who is the vegetarian and the man who is the meateater. I was just reading Carol Pateman's The Sexual Contract. She's talking about the wife and the status of wives. Before we ever had rights talk, before this notion of "fraternity, equality, liberty," before there was the Social Contract that is kind of foundational to Western philosophy, there was a Sexual Contract guaranteeing sexual access to women. One of the things about sexual access to women is that every man should have a wife; one of the duties of the wife is to serve the man. I was thinking about this in terms of meat, because so many women say to me: "I could be a vegetarian, but my husband can't." So clearly they're also deciding his moods are so important that they can't meet their own needs. It's so classic. Meateating becomes another vehicle for self-denial for placing the husband and the partner's needs first. And this goes back to the whole way in which women become caretakers, and end up denying their own bodies and their own needs. I think there is the fear of men's anger about not having meat at a meal. I don't mean battering: because when men batter and use meat as an excuse, that's not what's really going on. They're battering to establish control, and the absence of meat is just their most recent excuse. It can be vacuuming, it can be anything. Yet, there must be a lot of women who are fearful of what the absence of meat means to their husbands, and the kind of anger that that would generate. We are talking about people without any feminist analysis. They just know that not to offer meat would create anger, and perhaps require them to examine the relationship; a relationship in which clearly they do not have as much power. So, "meat as a locus of power" in terms of what I argue in The Sexual Politics of Meat, must include this understanding of the whole Sexual Contract and the expectation of duties for wives.

Q: How does an ecofeminist ethic of care think about animals?

A: People who eat animals are benefiting from a dominant/subordinate relationship, but our culture encourages invisibility of the structures enabling this, and invisibility of the animals hurt by this. Indeed, the animals are seen as unified masses. There is a complete denial of their individuality, so that it is not seen as subordination. We see meat as the ontological reason for animals' existence, that they are there to be eaten. But when you talk about intervening with an ecofeminist care-ethic, one of the things we need to say is, "What are you going through." It's not that we must say this empathetically only to other beings who can speak our language--as a way of connecting--but that we ask that of the "dairy" cow, the cow being milked, the chicken in a laying factory, and any animal slated to be killed. "What are you going through?" First of all, to see the legitimacy of that question, that animals are going through something, and secondly, to get educated about what that experience is. And we need to trust that if we placed ourselves in situations to learn the answer to this question, the animals will tell us, in ways other than words.

Q: What about meateaters who say, "I just love the taste of meat"?

A: Meat eaters are very happy eating vegetarian food, as long as they don't know it. One time, I made walnut balls, and everybody was convinced it was meat. They thought I had given in--"Oh, Carol has given in. And aren't these the most delicious." And they just enjoyed it so much, thinking that I had served them dead animals. It was so profound to me: because it was the symbol they were holding on to. Their stomach didn't know the difference; but as long as their minds were so lost, it didn't matter what was going into their stomachs. So I realized it's the symbolism that holds sway. The child psychologist on the plane said that he knew it was ethically wrong and he's been going longer and longer without meat. But then, he said, he starts craving meat. And I said, "Tell me what you crave. What is it about meat that you're craving?" "I don't know," he said. "It's a burger." I said, "You might be craving iron." Often I think our bodies are trained to convert a craving for a specific thing to how we've trained it: so that one vegetarian I know, when she was craving steak knew to translate that she was craving iron.

Q: So, how do we talk to meateaters?

A: The person with the least amount of information sets the discourse: consequently the meateater–who usually has less information about meateating than the vegetarian--sets the level of the discourse. We are brought down to that level to begin with. The question is how one brings all that knowledge in, because of the ignorance that is determining our level of engagement. I think that this is one of the things that's so frustrating for vegetarians: we talk about creating a non-violent world, but there's so much that's paralyzing us from maintaining that analysis because of the level of ignorance at which the issue is engaged. What needs to be addresses is precisely what is excluded by the level of discussion.

Q: What do you say when people say vegetarians have a hang-up about meat?

A: Because we live in a therapeutic culture right now, everything's going to be seen as an individual hang-up rather than as a political recognition and engagement. My answer is that vegetarians don't have a hang-up about meat. We have a problem with what people are saying is food. We're stepping back a level. Then people end up saying we're puritans, we're denying, we're ascetics: that we have some hang-up about pleasure--the same charge leveled at anti-pornography feminists. But there is no pleasure without privilege, the privilege to be a member of the dominant culture that's dominating women, people of color, and animals. We need to get the privilege acknowledged and the social structures that create privilege, and the way the privilege is rewarded through pleasure, a pleasure which actually arises from someone else's harm. It all goes back in a sense to the privilege of controlling. To raise vegetarianism as an ethical issue says to our culture's self-defined principles: "What we claim is not what we're doing."