This text1 argues that we are not simply or passively immersed in natural or social culinary traditions or taste preferences, and we do not cling to our practices solely by “force of habit” or inertia – rather, these practices have meaning for us, a specific significance to which we are actively committed. As such, it isn’t really people’s ignorance or lack of awareness that the animal liberation movement must contend with, but their interests, desires and resolve. This is, in fact, a political combat in which diverging interests clash. Once we realise this, it will be possible to carry out political analysis and action in alignment with reality.
There is a game called “exquisite corpse”. It was the surrealists, I am told, who gave it this name; the object is to create random sequences of words, and the surrealists were fond of these sometimes striking, haphazard combinations.
The expression “exquisite corpse” itself was probably created during a round of this game and then chosen as its name. This sequence of words was undoubtedly the product of chance, but the fact that it was chosen among all other options was not; we can imagine that it struck the surrealists as the quintessential example of the combinations only chance could produce – something so strange, so completely absurd, so unimaginable that it could be encountered only by accident.
Perhaps these surrealists were seated at the dinner table as they raved over this game’s ability to produce unlikely oddities, and wondered whether, after all, “exquisite corpse” didn’t remind them of something…
“Psychoanalysis says that strange things are often familiar things, things already seen, but what then is this familiar thing? First of all, we so rarely see corpses! This chicken is excellent.”
“Yes, rarely, especially exquisite ones.”
“And yet, that reminds me of something – I can’t think what, pass me another wing; say, we could use this, ‘exquisite corpse’, as the name of the game.”
Innocents with bloody hands
The expression chosen as the epitome of these strange word combinations thus literally designates objects that are among the most ordinary in our day-to-day lives: the dead bodies of non-human animals which, in our culture, are the indispensable foundation of every type of cuisine. There is a kind of disconnect here: do people realise what they’re eating?
Pro-vegetarian literature often suggests that meat-eaters are victims too, and not the ones at fault. It implies that everything is orchestrated to keep consumers from realising what meat is, to mask its real nature, to eliminate the “negative connotations” of death and suffering. This, we are told, is why slaughterhouses were moved outside of cities and why meat is displayed in aseptic trays at supermarkets. Consumers are depicted as innocents who have been duped by capitalists, technocrats, McDonald’s and factory farm2.
This way of presenting things seems to have been designed to free consumers of culpability, because paradoxically enough, a feeling of guilt over an action can easily drive someone to repeat it. Every steak that a meat-eater consumes reassures them and becomes a self-directed message: “It can’t be wrong, since I’m doing it again.” If they were on the other hand to realise the seriousness of their actions, they would have to face their past and accept it without being able to justify it.
Unfortunately, unless we condemn only a few specific aspects of meat consumption, such as the additional suffering inflicted at factory farms, the force-feeding of geese or ritual slaughter, and thereby implicitly justify the principle of killing others to eat them as long as they are not human, it is difficult to believe in consumers’ innocence. It’s hard to believe they eat meat because the government or the butchers’ union hides the fact that meat is dead animals. Personally, when I used to eat meat, I already knew what it was, and I don’t think I was the only one.
This “innocence” leads nearly everyone to contemplate, choose, handle, cut up, bite into, chew and swallow pieces of animals killed for this purpose, and to make this practice the focus of day-to-day conversations about how exquisite various pieces of corpses taste. Such innocence leaves room for scepticism.
The ordinary reality of the way meat is advertised and marketed contradicts the hypothesis of innocence and points to one of intent. Advertising ensures we are reminded of the origin of meat, the living animal3, even if this is done with stylised representations. Butcher shops and delicatessens are decorated with drawings of laughing animals while on tins of tuna, fish smile to entice shoppers. In France, people speak of “celebrating pigs” when eating them. A grocery chain designed a two-page, full-colour advert with the heading “8 days for pork lovers – a celebration of pigs” accompanied by a photo of a fully recognisable pig’s head surrounded by packaged feet, tails, blood (black pudding) and so on. A flyer printed for the Christmas season showed people clinking glasses over a lobster and featured a play on words referring to the animal’s suffering4. A wine brand displayed bottles of Bordeaux against a blood-red background alongside dead game hanging by their necks. In countless fish markets and restaurants, live sea creatures are presented in aquariums for customers to choose from. And although slaughterhouses have indeed been moved from city centres (as many other industries have), this doesn’t stop the butcher shop on my street from decorating the wall behind their counter with an enormous photo of an old slaughterhouse in Lyon with hundreds of cattle waiting to be killed. Customers in line at this counter cannot forget what it is they have come for.
Murdering out of habit?
Some say that humans are so attached to eating meat because it’s a habit, and because they like its taste. But does this kind of explanation hold up?
The force of habit does exist, but it varies greatly. For habit to account for the perpetuation of meat-eating – the question of its origin is left in the shadows by default – we must explain how it can be powerful enough to overcome the reasons people may have for stopping. And such reasons do exist. Of course, many people are insensitive to the suffering of non-human animals – activists in animal-protection organisations are generally also meat-eaters, and often proudly so. But meat comes at a high price to humanity as a whole, since its production requires pillaging the developing world and harming the environment in a number of ways. It also has a high cost for the individual consumer, who pays more than a vegetarian both financially and in terms of the impact on their health – it has been proven that the large amounts of meat most people eat contribute to the development of cardiovascular diseases and intestinal cancers. We would thus have to show that the habit is so strong that humans prefer to kill and cause suffering to non-humans, deprive fellow humans of food, damage their own environment, spend more money than necessary and put their own health or even life at risk rather than change this habit. And this strange behaviour is not that of a single person, or a few, but the majority: it is, in our society, what just about everyone does.
The taste of murder
Some will say that eating meat is a habit based on taste, which is a particularly powerful sense. But would being deprived of desserts (which usually hold great appeal) or cheese or eggs or green vegetables be experienced as a hardship as brutal as being deprived of meat? People who travel to different countries eat different food. If they encounter dishes they don’t like in the lands they visit, they complain about it upon their return: “How awful the food is there!” But rarely do they call it a deprivation: they would have liked a different type of good food in place of the kind they normally eat at home, and are disappointed not because the food is different but because they think it is bad; they feel that what they usually eat could have been replaced by something else that tastes good. It is only when, in the country in question, they are not served meat, or are given insufficient amounts of it, that they say something was lacking: they feel from the outset that only meat can replace meat – that any meat, even with a new flavour, can replace the kind they normally eat. Those who think that the habit of taste is what makes people remain so attached to meat need to account for the fact that all types of meat, from calamari to leg of lamb to andouillette sausage, have a particular flavour in common, and the fact that this taste, more than any other, is attractive and powerful enough for being deprived of it to cause this strong feeling of lack.
Identifying a common flavour such as this and assessing its power could at first seem difficult, since as the adage goes, “there’s no accounting for taste”. But then attributing meat-eating to a habit of taste would prove unfounded.
My thinking is that this explanation is accurate but insufficient, because it is in fact possible to account for taste. Some basic gustatory preferences do exist outside of cultural influence. It has been found, for example, that infants in all countries prefer sweetness to bitterness. But everyone knows the sway culture holds in this regard. Adults learn to like the bitterness of coffee and the burn of hot pepper and whisky. The very perception of taste depends on a multitude of factors. What we call taste is traditionally described by physiologists as a combination of the sensory input from the tongue and nose. The sense of smell actually predominates, since the tongue can identify only sweet, salty, acidic and bitter tastes, no combination of which can recreate the rich variety of flavours we enjoy in a meal. When we have a cold, food seems tasteless although the sense of smell is actually the only faculty impaired. The highly emotional nature of the sense of smell has been much discussed, and the same goes for the sense of taste defined more broadly. If the taste of meat is attractive and powerful, its smell is largely responsible for this: to the tongue, meat is merely somewhat salty. And the sense of smell is inseparable from emotion.
Other factors, as I have mentioned, include sensations (burning), sound (the crunch of potato chips), texture and appearance. When we eat raspberry-flavoured pink yogurt, we clearly recognise the taste of the fruit. But if we sample it blindfolded, we’re unable to tell whether it’s raspberry or banana. A single scent can be perceived as pleasant or unpleasant, depending on its source – for instance, cheese or the feet of someone who’s just removed their shoes and socks. The emotion of tastes and smells cannot be disassociated from what we know of their origins.
When I was young and therefore worry-free (as far as I recall), my mother often served us spaghetti with tomato sauce. This is still my favourite dish. And the smell of tomato sauce always makes me think of spaghetti, and vice-versa. For me, spaghetti and tomato sauce basically have one and the same scent, although they have absolutely no odorant substances in common. It is the emotional experience in which spaghetti and tomato sauce are associated that determines how I perceive them, together or separately, and that means I have just one box in my head for both, a box labelled “taste of spaghetti with tomato sauce” and linked to the corresponding memories.
I think the specific gustatory attraction that meat holds – one that is at least partly responsible for what humans do each and every second to a myriad of sentient beings in farms, slaughterhouses and fishing nets – implies that meats of all kinds have something appealing in common. Taste is said to be subjective, mysterious and inexplicable, but I feel in this case it’s quite transparent. To determine what taste all meats have in common, we need to find out what, objectively speaking, they share. And this something, found in fried quail, sausage, sheep’s brains and crab alike, the only objective common denominator of these substances, the unique characteristic they all share, is the fact that they’re the dead bodies of beings that were previously alive and sentient, and that were killed because people wanted to eat them.
No one can deny that the life and death of an individual, whether human or animal, have deep emotional resonance. And society’s willingness for this death to be dispensed at whim can leave no one indifferent. All meats have murder in common – they all evoke the same emotion, and are all perceived as having fundamentally the same taste. There’s just one box for the taste of meat, and it’s labelled “taste of murder”.
The greater the suffering inflicted on an animal, tradition tells us, the better its flesh will taste. This applies not only to cats and dogs in Korea, killed slowly by hanging, but also to the live chickens whose feathers are pulled out at restaurants in France for the same purpose.
In a book on humanity’s relationship to nature, English historian Keith Thomas describes animal slaughter in England in the 16th century:
In order to make their meat white, calves, and sometimes lambs, were stuck in the neck so that the blood would run out; then the wound was stopped and the animal allowed to linger on for another day.5
He also cites a common method for slaughtering pigs in the same era:
“After he is brawned for your turn, thrust a knife into one of his flanks and let him run with it till he die; [or] gently bait him with muzzled dogs.”6
And, as a character in 19th-century English author Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure says, again about pigs:
“The meat must be well bled, and to do that he must die slow. . . . I was brought up to it, and I know. Every good butcher keeps un bleeding long. He ought to be eight or ten minutes dying, at least.”7
Everyone knows that foie gras is obtained by force-feeding birds until their livers are diseased and enlarged. Yet it isn’t eaten only by thuggish bullies, but also (and especially) by people considered to be refined and civilised. Here again, suffering confers value and prestige. Caviar, to cite another such example, is cut out of the bellies of sturgeon without anaesthesia.
Today, battery cages are a source of great suffering for farm animals. But it’s simply the methodical continuation of old traditions, as Thomas notes. For instance, in the 17th century, “Dorset lambs were specially reared for the Christmas tables of the nobility and gentry by being imprisoned in little dark cabins.” And if calves are now systematically raised in tiny enclosures and severely mistreated (deprived of fibre and iron), it is to give their meat the pale colour that fetches a good price.
It is true that the opposite also exists; factory farms have now acquired a reputation for producing bland meat. But on this subject we also find the very widespread – and unfortunately false – idea that animals raised in this way become so unnatural that they do not even suffer, that they’re mere machines. Excessive torture is thought to make a victim unable to feel. It is therefore the calf raised with its mother, the one that has something to miss when its life is taken, that will now give us flavourful meat.
Once again, suffering and good flavour coincide. But I think we would be wasting our time here too if we looked to chemistry for an explanation of how suffering makes meat taste better. Torturing and killing is kind of the same thing, in the end. Suffering is not a chemical compound, but it still adds flavour and emotion. And if we like the flavour and emotion of meat, then the flavour and emotion of meat that has suffered (meat that is even more “meat”) will be even better.
Why so much hate?
The description I’ve just given of meat-eaters’ motivations would seem to portray them as bloodthirsty monsters. But are they? I myself ate meat for many years, and I don’t think I was so different at that time, psychologically speaking, than I am now. Was I then, unlike now, attracted to murder, violence and torture?
This may not be the right question to ask. We’re practically all attracted to murder, violence and torture. The reason for this is unclear, but it may have something to do with anxiety over our own death8. In any case, this tendency towards Schadenfreude does seem almost universal9. We find great enjoyment in watching a horror film, playing a war game or reading the history of the Third Reich. But the sense of domination acquired by oppressing others is not felt merely at an individual level when it comes to meat. Society as a whole does not yet seem to have learned to define itself in terms other than being against others, and now that equality among humans has achieved recognition, in principle at least, these others can only be non-humans. By eating the meat placed on our tables, we reassure ourselves of our own status as dominators, of our place among our fellows and within the society that has granted us this power to kill. Even the poorest homeless person can buy a tin of sardines and will be given a slice of Christmas turkey at the soup kitchen10.
The pleasure of killing and causing suffering in our imagination, the satisfaction we take from symbolic domination, are, as such, essentially the same as the pleasure we would take from actually doing these things. The difference, and it is a major one, is not in what the doer of the action feels, but in what the victim experiences. In the first case there is no victim and in the second there is. In the first case, there is no reason to abstain, unless we find such things indelicate or harmful to our own character, for example. In the second case, there is a very compelling reason – an ethical one – for abstaining: the victims’ suffering.
Humans eat animals without seeming to realise that terrible things are actually happening to make this possible. Or rather, it isn’t that the suffering and deaths of non-humans are not perceived as real – they would lose all their value if this were the case. Quite simply, in ethical terms, this suffering, these deaths, just don’t count. When I ate meat, I didn’t feel any more bloodthirsty than a kid playing a war game – an ethical consideration of animals just never occurred to me. This is what American psychologist Don Barnes calls “conditioned ethical blindness”11: any ethical consideration of non-humans would have unpleasant implications for us – recognising the abomination of what we’re doing and ceasing to do it, thus giving up the pleasures of what it offers and adopting an embarrassing social position. Such consideration is thus inhibited.
Asking humans to stop eating meat seems like asking fairly little of them. It doesn’t seem like asking anything at all since, leaving aside the animals’ interests for a moment, humans clearly have something to gain for themselves from ceasing to eat them. People already widely accept the idea of changing one’s diet for health reasons or for the developing world. Asking them to stop eating animals for the animals’ sake therefore seems like asking at most that we take their interests into account just a little bit.
It would be a good start if, in getting people to care just a little bit about the interests of non-humans, we could inspire them to stop eating animals. Unfortunately, in reality, meat-eating is centrally important in cultural terms to most humans. Asking them to stop eating meat is therefore asking a lot.
This is the trap that animal liberation activists seem to find themselves in. Starting from the assumption that the interests of all individuals deserve equal consideration, we advocate for an end to the central speciesist practice that is the consumption of meat; but as this comes across as a weak demand based on weak or even purely personal arguments (health, sympathy for animals), the real message – animal equality – gets lost in the shuffle. We have great difficulty spreading our message with this argument, which is systematically perceived as weak.
In response to the weak message we convey in spite of ourselves with our pro-vegetarian activism – that animals’ interests deserve a little bit of consideration – people find themselves, as soon as they imagine actually ceasing to eat meat – confronted by their strong albeit unformulated interest in continuing to eat it. Meat-eaters may even feel that they agree with us – they concur that if, as appearances suggest, it costs so little to not eat meat, then we should stop. They just feel that we are wrong when it comes to them because they really like meat; it would cost them a lot to stop eating it. So very naively, they express approval of what we do: “Good for you! Keep it up.” But vegetarianism is not for them.
The temptation to stress how easy and nice it is to be vegetarian, and how beneficial it is for our health, thus only strengthens this trap. So should we take the opposite approach with our message and talk about how difficult it is to be vegetarian? I think so. Of course, it’s always good to explain, since many are still unaware, that living without eating meat is possible, and that no special effort is even required to be healthy – no complicated gymnastics need be done to “replace” animal protein12. But we should show people that we realise meat is important to them. We need to show them that we know we aren’t asking something small, that we know we’re asking them to give up a practice that’s central to their relationship to society, to their friends and family, to themselves and to their own death. We’re asking them to be brave; we must show them that we realise this. We’re asking this of them because even though the corpses they consume are exquisite, the consequences of this consumption are horrible. And because even though this practice brings pleasure and reassurance, stopping it is the only just choice.
David Olivier is co-founder of the magazine Les Cahiers antispécistes, of the Veggie Pride march and of the annual meetings called Les Estivales de la Question Animale. He is a theoretician and a grassroots egalitarian activist. Co-author of the Manifesto for the Abolition of Apartheid International. Holder of a PhD in fundamental physics, he is currently working on the idea that sentience can be explained by the properties of matter, a matter yet to be proven. His personal page: http://david.olivier.name/fr/david-olivier
- This is a translation of David Olivier’s article, “Le goût et le meurtre“, which appeared in Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 9, January 1994; translated by Elisabeth Lyman (proofreading by Holly James). This text was also published in Brazilian Portuguese in Les Cahiers antispécistes under the title “O paladar e o assassinato“, translated by Anna Cristina Xavier and edited by Valderramos.
- On two side-by-side pages, a flyer designed by a British nonprofit shows the public “what they do to animals” (battery raising, etc.), and “what they do to you” (hormone-laden meat, etc.). Apart from this “they”, who, the flyer seems to suggest, should probably be shot, everyone is an innocent victim.
- A famous French advert shows a cow running alongside a rugby player with the slogan “Quel punch, le bœuf”(which translates roughly to “What punch beef packs”), encouraging the public to eat beef if they, too, want to experience this vitality. The connection between the meat and the living being is clear from both the visual and the language – in French, bœuf is also a word for cattle.
- “À Noël, c’est toujours les mêmes qui trinquent!” (“At Christmas, the same ones always clink glasses/pay the price”).
- Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500–1800, London: Allen Lane, 1983.
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, New York: Modern Library, 1967. First published in 1895.
- If murder holds such appeal, it may be because killing is a victory – albeit a limited one, as all victories are – over death: by killing, we command death, we are masters of it. We choose the time it will arrive and, when a farm animal is involved, it is even we who decide that it will die, for without our desire to murder, it would never have existed. By rubbing shoulders with death, we gain a sense of having tamed it, having got it under our control. Eating well and living well means consuming meat, celebrating and putting death out of our minds by putting it on the table. It’s also a celebration of the being that was killed and now occupies the place of honour since its flesh, once consumed, will become a lifeforce again. Vegetarians, on the other hand, are seen as sad creatures who passively await death, who will endure death without ever inflicting it upon another.
- Murder doesn’t just attract – it also repels. Many people are revolted by meat. But this doesn’t contradict my statements: here too, the taste attributed to meat is linked to the act that produces it. Overall, it’s clear that an attraction to this taste is what most often prevails.
- On this topic, I recommend Nick Fiddes. Meat: A Natural Symbol. London: Routledge, 1991.
- Donald J. Barnes, “A Matter of Change” in Peter Singer (ed.), In Defense of Animals, New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 157-167.
- As for any child, consulting a paediatrician about the nutrition of a vegan child is recommended.