Warning: long post
'I blame Peter Singer for turning my wife into a vegetarian,' said a friend of mine about fifteen years ago, and it was enough to send me off to read some Singer and see what the story was. I have continued to admire Singer even through the radical ideas that have made a lot of people write him off or worse, partly because I admire anyone rational and detached enough not to be automatically, unthinkingly anthropocentric, and partly because I also admire anyone who can follow a train of thought all the way to its logical destination without losing her or his nerve.
Also falling squarely into both these categories is novelist J.M. Coetzee, well-known for his views on animals and meat-eating, and since he and his partner Dorothy Driver moved to Adelaide it's been my good fortune to have encountered them in various places. One of the most memorable of these occasions was a public reading at a fundraiser in the Adelaide Hills where Coetzee read a passage from Boyhood about watching men on a farm kill a sheep.
Coetzee is not an elaborator, at least not in the writerly sense of what John Steinbeck once called 'hooptedoodle', but the unexpressed horror and fear and revulsion felt by the watching child is there in the syntax of these quiet sentences. Listening to the reading was a very weird experience, because on the one hand I could feel the horror in the writing, and on the other hand could imagine the scene very clearly because I'd seen this sight myself, many times, at a similar age in a similar place. And for me it's an interesting but matter-of-fact memory, framed by the context of a very happy childhood.
If you grew up on a farm in the 1940s or 50s or 60s, this was just something you saw. In my case we were (like every other kid in the district) inured to it as a natural part of farm life. If you farmed sheep -- and in those parts, everybody did -- you would regularly kill one for meat as a matter of course. There was even a kind of unspoken primitive-hunter-type 'honour the creature' thing going on when animals were killed to eat. My sisters and I, from a very young age, would be neither encouraged to watch nor discouraged from watching the sheep being quickly killed, hung and gutted, but if we were on the spot then we were expected to make ourselves useful, mostly by being handed a bowl of warm brains and kidneys and told 'Here, take that up to Mummy.'
Sheep destined for the table, like the doomed chooks for special-occasion meals, were killed quickly and efficiently; the worst thing they felt was a few moments of fear. A quick death was mandatory. A sharp, clear line was drawn between killing for food and causing pointless pain and suffering.
Any cruelty or neglect shown to animals was despised, and failure to look after one's animals properly was cause for shame. In tandem with the vivid but undistressing memories I have of watching sheep be killed, there are equally vivid memories of my father trundling around in rain, hail and gale in the middle of the night, bodily lifting pregnant ewes or newly shorn sheep into the back of the ute or even, in uteless years, the boot of the car to drive them to shelter.
Obviously much of this was economically based and God knows sheep are very hard to love, but whatever the motives may have been, I grew up steeped in an ethos of treating all animals humanely. Sheepdogs and farm cats were loved, cared for and regarded as individual creatures with personalities and feelings.
All of which is to say that I grew up with a clear sense of the difference between neglecting or mistreating animals, on the one hand, and on the other hand raising them in the open, providing protection from predators and weather, making sure there was always water and plenty to eat, keeping them mainly for wool and eggs and occasionally killing a sheep, a chook or a goose quickly and humanely for food. I think these things were too deeply imprinted ever to be erased.
So, on the continuing-to-eat-meat side of the argument:
-- I grew up in the country; there was enough money; my parents loved each other and me. Beliefs acquired in that sort of childhood cannot be shed easily, if at all.
-- I don't regard eating meat as in any way unclean or defiling.
-- I appreciate the benefits of protein and iron.
-- I really like meat.
-- These days I am very, very careful when shopping about the conditions under which the animals for animal products were raised. Eggs and chooks are free range only. I never eat pork or cured meats at all.
-- I take the point about the environment, but my shopping habits don't support the sorts of farms that do it the most damage, and in any case I think there are more urgent environmental disasters happening, and in any case anyway, I think it is too late.
-- Most of the extreme 'animal liberationist' rhetoric and behaviour I've seen has looked hysterical, irrational, ignorant, sentimental, self-righteous and/or obsessed.
And yet, and yet:
-- I once found myself, after several weeks of getting very run down through overwork and no proper meals, tearing into a couple of half-cooked veal chops still dripping with bloody juices, standing over the sink like Mia Farrow chowing down on raw hearts in Rosemary's Baby. I know the body demands meat -- but look at that comparison I drew there. Why is Mia Farrow chowing down on raw hearts? Because she's been possessed by the devil.
-- A.S. Byatt, perhaps the single living writer I admire most, spoke more than 20 years ago at the Melbourne Writers' Festival about how lived experience gets used in writing fiction. She told a story about opening her fridge one day, seeing the assorted sausages and bacon and chops and chooks, and thinking 'My God, this thing is full of death.'
-- I have no respect for or patience with the anthropocentric view that all other species are there for our convenience, and even less with the view that might is right and therefore the smartest species gets to treat all the others any way it likes.
-- I have even less respect for or patience with people who argue that animals do not have a 'self', feel emotion, or think; that to me simply indicates that these people have never spent any time with animals.
I can't imagine taking up a formal position on this, or sticking to it if I did. But what with Singer and Coetzee and Byatt, and living with two cats and a gardenful of birds, and the disgusting conditions -- physically as well as ethically disgusting -- under which so many animals are farmed, I can see myself moving further and further away from meat-eating. Not with any conscious resolve or intention to stop altogether, but more in the spirit of what Gertrude Stein once said about her unintentional estrangement from her brother. 'Little by little, we never met again.'