Why are we still debating the ethics of eating meat?

March 1, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

Last Wednesday, I attended a student-organized debate on the ethics of eating meat, despite being pretty decided on the issue itself. I don’t eat meat; I had the resources and the desire to stop eating meat in high school. And as evidenced by one audience member’s reaction to the animal rights activists who stormed the stage – “You’re preaching to the choir!” – there were probably others like me. Even so, when I left feeling disappointed, it wasn’t because my eating choices had been challenged.

The debate, facilitated by People for Animal Welfare (PAW) and co-sponsored by the Speakers Bureau, was also a speaking platform for our special guests: Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and Bruce Friedrich of The Good Food Institute. Mackey and Friedrich were to argue that eating meat is, in fact, neither healthy nor ethical. Arguing the negative were two Stanford debaters from the Class of 2018. They, unfortunately, could only skewer themselves with arguments like “Wouldn’t you eat a cow that had been struck by lightning?” Mackey and Friedrich were then free to use some of their most banal examples of anti-meat rhetoric. Maybe if we had let the audience provide rebuttals, we could’ve heard that (a) the carcinogenic effect of bacon is statistically significant but practically nonexistent, that (b) even vegans concede the Seventh Day Adventist health study was flawed, and that (c) Peter Singer uses his hedonistic utilitarian philosophy to justify both the liberation of animals as well as the devaluation of disabled people’s lives.

Aside from the eerie feeling of corporate greenwashing, perhaps the most troubling aspect of this debate is that it failed to provide an intersectional lens to a complex social issue, and in doing so, reified existing systems of oppression.

I have little more to say about disability rights (as I’m able-bodied), but maybe I can provide another perspective: that the rhetoric of meat-eating has been used throughout the history of the U.S. to foster racist and xenophobic sentiments. Consider this comment by Senator James G. Blaine when asked about Chinese immigration in 1874.

“I am opposed to making them citizens… You cannot work a man who must have beef and bread alongside of a man who can live on rice. In all such conflicts, and in all such struggles, the result is not to bring up the man who lives on rice to the beef-and-bread standard, but it is to bring down the beef-and-bread man to the rice standard.”

Using food as the pretext for an us-versus-them dichotomy sounds petty, but it resonates with the simple idea that “you are what you eat.” Thus, Blaine’s comment persisted. It preluded the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and later formed the basis of the American Federation of Labor’s 1902 manifesto to exclude Asian-American laborers from their ranks. Their piece was titled “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism.”

Fast-forward to the year 2011, and our very own Bruce Friedrich is touting messages like these:

“It is important for those of us in the West to remember that although we can’t do much to stop the Chinese and Indians from eating more meat, we can do a lot about our own diets.”

Us-versus-them, based on food. Except this time, instead of outright bigotry, we have the implicit idea that “the Chinese and Indians” will remain blissfully unaware of “our” reasoning, when the reverse could just as easily be argued.

You might have noticed that I’m not even trying to answer the question: “Should I eat meat?” That’s because I can’t speak for everyone. There are many personal factors that might dissuade someone from abiding by any diet, let alone veg*nism (veganism or vegetarianism). For instance, Mackey may have had the privilege of “training [himself] to eat and enjoy fruits, veggies, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds,” but many do not.

What I claim, then, is that there is a larger discussion to be had about meat – more than the idea that the world is split between vegans and omnivores, or that the animal rights activists would have “found out that they were on [Mackey’s] side” had they stayed. We had the chance to subvert this dichotomy on Wednesday, but instead, we butchered it.

– Kenneth Qin

Contact Kenneth Qin at kqin ‘at’ stanford.edu


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