• Fri, Apr 6 2012

The New York Times Only Asked Men To Discuss Meat Ethics, So We Asked Carol J. Adams

A few weekends ago, the New York Times Magazine‘s resident ethicist, Ariel Kaminer, posed an interesting question: Is eating meat ethical? She asked that readers send in essays (they’re due on Sunday), to be judged by a panel of prominent experts, including the Times‘ outspoken “flexitarian” Mark Bittman, and Eating Animals author Jonathan Safron Foer. I’m looking forward to reading the discussions that will follow, but the panel presents a major flaw: It’s entirely white, and entirely male.

There are, it seems, either no females that Kaminer or the magazine see fit to discuss the ethics of meat–or none who would participate. I emailed Kaminer asking for a comment some time ago, but have yet to receive a response to clarify why women are missing.  Regardless, I don’t think that any food ethics can or should be discussed in a gender vacuum. So I asked a well-known female writer on the subject, Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics Of Meat, to chime in.

Satirized here in the Hair-Pin (and demonstrated in this article right on cue), it’s nearly impossible to discuss PETA–or vegetarianism/veganism, for that matter–on the internet without someone referencing Adams’ iconic book, which finds close ties between feminism and the meat industry. And, amid our country’s current gender climate, it seems more important than ever to ensure that influential women like Adams are included.

the sexual politics of meatSo, while the Times is not including her (or any person of non-male gender, or any person of color) in the discussion, I’m going to insert it. Here is what Adams had to say, when I posed a few questions to her.

The New York Times Magazine is asking readers to submit essays arguing that eating meat is ethical. The essays will be judged by a panel of influential voices who have spoken out against the practice of eating meat. Did the Times ask you to participate?

No.

First, let’s establish that it isn’t this monolithic thing: “the Times.” It is one person, Ariel Kaminer, who is the new “Ethicist.” According to information I found online, an editor at the Times wanted to diversify that position and the longtime “Ethicist”—who actually seemed to have some background in thinking ethically—was let go. Kaminer comes to this position from the Arts and Leisure section of the Times. The Times immediately placed an image on the “Ethicist” page that announces a “woman” is now the Ethicist—a svelte, skirted individual is depicted. As some one who spends a lot of time looking at images and how they reify, interpret, or extend the sexual politics of meat, I noticed immediately how the cues they used announced her “gender” in this image (and they are the same cues used in meat advertisements to make domesticated animals “female” and inviting, i.e., consummable).

Why do you think they opted for more recently-known (and male) personalities, such as Jonathan Safron Foer and Mark Bittman?

Again, it was not a “they” but Ariel Kaminer. I believe a part of thinking ethically is thinking self-critically (“let’s see, what are the implications of what I am choosing to do?”) It appears that she did not employ this kind of self-critical apparatus (“hmm, I have selected all white men for this panel, what will this say?”). Or it might have been the fact that she didn’t even notice she had done this. After all, panels of white men have been the status quo for so many years, and as we know, the Republicans had just held a hearing on birth control that featured only men.

Let’s remember the insight about who is “marked” and who is not marked in our culture. Until Black Liberation and Women’s Liberation began to change consciousness in the late 60s and early 70s, white men were unmarked, that is, their whiteness and maleness were untheorized and unremarkable. We all have to resist a kind of “colonization of consciousness” in which we participate in maintaining what is normative because that is what we are used to seeing. The irony here is that the Times helps to create what is normative and who the experts are. Whoever is quoted in interviews and is invited to be a guest writer in the Magazine section, becomes more well known.

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  • Elena

    To address a couple points, whether or not people need to eat meat to be healthy is a different question from whether or not eating meat is ethical, so I don’t think the Times was remiss in excluding a nutritionist. Consider a case like this: no one would argue for cannibalism on the basis that ‘people must sometimes cannibalise to stay alive.’ If people have had to cannibalise to stay alive in any situation, that doesn’t mean cannibalism is ethically okay, it just means that self-preservation sometimes trumps ethics. So, philosophically, the points are totally separate.

    I’m also not convinced that the lack of diversity of their panel is particularly problematic or telling. At least among philosophers, the vast majority are white males (like it or not) so for any panel of philosophers drawn together, statistically speaking, they are very likely to be all white male. This isn’t an ideal state of affairs, but it’s more of a fact rather than active discrimination. As a female philosopher, I’m optimistic that the field will become more diverse in time. However, I’m afraid being too quick to point out their failure to include women (while it does admirably promote awareness of the issue) might create a culture in which those putting together panels feel obliged to include women BECAUSE they’re women, rather than because they have good ideas, which is hardly a victory for female philosophers!

    • Hanna Brooks Olsen

      I would argue that a lack of diversity on any panel is problematic and telling.

    • Shara

      “this might create a culture in which those putting together panels feel obliged to include women BECAUSE they’re women, rather than because they have good ideas, which is hardly a victory for female philosophers!”

      I don’t think trying to create gender-inclusive panels is going to lead to people putting random women without “good ideas” on their panels just to fulfill a gender requirement, and especially not when there are currently *so many* female philosophers out there with “good ideas” who get passed over for recognition because of their gender.

  • jemand

    I was a third generation vegetarian until 22. I am an ex Seventh Day Adventist. Vegetarianism was associated with an incredible counter cultural separatism that encouraged a kind of extreme fundamentalism.

    And the gendered nature of Seventh Day Adventist communities, practices, and doctrines, especially in the more traditional and multi-generational groups can be quite marked, and really not necessarily conducive to being a woman making her own decisions. Although I didn’t personally run up against strictures very often.

    So, now I eat meat. I cannot overstate how confining, constricting, incredibly self-defeating it was to try to smash myself into the roles that had been built up for me for the last few years I did it. Vegetarianism played a role, a small role granted, but definitely a part.

    Eating meat is a signal of identity and belonging to the larger culture, a culture which, for all it’s problems, (and there are MANY), it still has INCREDIBLY more freedom than what I came from, and food is a very social event. Sharing the food that others consider normal, sharing food others consider nostalgic, sharing food that goes back to histories that have been marked off for me because of generations of participation a more separatist movement, means a lot to me.

    I do recognize environmental and animal rights arguments, I don’t eat that much meat on my own at home, but right now, eating as a social activity? I’ve done my time being the one to stick out and feel guilty evangelizing and always being the one the group had to organize around, (if I ever DID get to socialize with people who didn’t have the same religious rules), and honestly the consciousness of a salmon, say, doesn’t really seem to be enough to outweigh the mark of identity, the statement of moving away from a world with arbitrary constrained boundaries, and joining the wider world.

    I suppose I would support a wider American culture that was vegetarian… but I’m not going to be the one who singlehandedly is aiming to save the world, I’m not the one who’s going to wear a badge of separatism in the service of a kind of moral superiority for every casual social interaction for the rest of my life.

    This isn’t really, I guess, a real justification for the ethics of eating meat.

    This is just why *I* eat meat. And I suppose I thought it interesting since the article *did* mention Seventh Day Adventists (though to be fair to the community, there are a lot more open churches, as well as the pretty close minded ones I experienced.)

  • J Tan

    My family and I used to eat meat for many years till the day we watched with sadness how animals trembled and cried in fear, panic and suffered in great pain when they were dragged to be slaughtered. Since that day we cannot say I do not know and turn away from the sufferings of those poor animals. Every night and on every Sunday Church Service I pray to The Lord’ for a kinder world so animals can be treated humanely. Each time I pray I can’t help holding back my tears. We cannot participate in the cruelty we had seen and have stopped eating meat for more than four years.
    Eating meat is one’s choice. Whether men or women who eat meat, all participation in eating meat contribute to animal sufferings and cruelty