Review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer Chapter Three: “Words/Meaning”

This is the third in a series of weekly posts dedicated to our book club selections. Tune in every Tuesday to discuss the pressing issues raised by these authoritative and popular authors. Whether you have the time to read along with me or not, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Pick up your copy of "Eating Animals", or catch up with the second chapter.

As I’ve read further into Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, I’ve become more aware of the way we use language when talking about animals. This afternoon, I called a man who raises grass fed beef. I wanted to learn more about the industry from the farmer’s perspective.

“Do you slaughter them yourselves?” I asked.

He answered politely, “We send them to a local facility to be processed.”

Cheese is processed. Data is processed. Cows are not processed. They are slaughtered. Often, we use words to remember. Just as often, if we’re not careful, we use them to forget.

As a novelist, Foer is keenly aware of the power of words. Most books about vegetarianism are written by activists, doctors, lawyers and scientists: practical people, who take words at face value. Safran Foer, however, tugs at words, pulls them apart, attempting to unmask their hidden meanings.

Acronyms are the most notorious examples of hiding in plain sight. CAFO means Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, a.k.a. factory farm. CFE means Common Farming Exemption, a regulation on the books in most states which “makes legal any method of raising farmed animals so long as it is commonly practiced within the industry” i.e. any practice, no matter how abusive, is legal as long as everyone does it. These exemptions override state laws about animal cruelty for no purpose other than the profit of agribusiness corporations, and constitute one of the many irrational double standards that Foer documents throughout the book.

There are other words too, more familiar to us, which we don’t question because we think we know what they mean. For example, Foer considers “sentimentality.” He notes that vegetarians are often accused of sentimentality, which he defines as “the valuing of emotions over reality” (indeed, he has since been accused of sentimentality in reviews of this book). He questions whether caring for the well being of an animal is based on emotion or reality, and gives the following example:

“Two friends are ordering lunch. One says, ‘I’m in the mood for a burger,’ and orders it. The other says, ‘I’m in the mood for a burger,” but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?”

What does it mean to be “in the mood for a burger?” All of us have attachments to different tastes, smells and textures. These sensations evoke emotions in us, feelings of pleasure, security, newness, and discovery. Throughout the book, Foer makes it clear that food is not just food. Food is a story, it’s a shared experience, it evokes memories and it is often at the center of our resolutions. But instead of simply chronicling the stories we tell about food and with food, he asks us to question them. Being in the mood for a burger isn’t, in itself, justification for eating one. A person who neglects to use his intelligence when deciding what to put in his mouth is actually the one guilty of sentimentality. In other word, he values the emotions that a certain food evokes in him without considering the reality of where that food comes from and what the effects of eating it will be on his body, his mind, other living beings and the environment.

It’s also important to understand that becoming a vegetarian is not simply a question of denying something pleasurable. Gradually, as a person loses the taste for blood, he begins to experience not just an enhanced sense of taste and discernment of flavor, but also a positive satisfaction and joy from his newly amicable relationship with animals. As Franz Kafka put it, watching fish in the Berlin Aquarium, “Now at last I can look at you in peace. I don’t eat you any more.”

The pleasure of sympathy and compassion is experienced on a level deeper than the tongue, and carries a weight that a fleeting physical sensation never can. A person who makes a commitment to consider those “things that are more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment” enters a new world, with new standards of pleasure and pain. The question is, how can he make this other world comprehensible to someone who has never experienced it?

The answer is not complicated. It can be as simple as sharing a meal. Most people, sitting down to a delicious plate of saffron rice, roasted sweet potatoes and fresh cucumber salad, feel a shift in their consciousness. Some part of their mind heaves a deep sigh of relief that this time, at least, their meal will involve no moral compromise or justification, no ethical wrangling or visceral confrontation with tendons, muscle and blood. Words can be used to enlighten or to obscure, but at the end of the day, when we sit down to eat with family and friends, no words can substitute for the deep-seated satisfaction of sharing a meal saturated in love rather than pain.