Yesterday I went on my first hunting expedition. Don’t worry – nothing was killed! We just drove around a lot, walked around a little, and failed to shoot an elk.
Since I’ve started eating meat again (infrequently, strictly game or home-grown, never store bought), I feel that ideological consistency demands my participation in the process of turning a living animal into a food product for human consumption. Also, getting up really early to go do something special is its own kind of adventure (my wake-up call was at 4:30 am).
There were five of us, three of whom were just along for the ride, although I did carry a .45 with me “just in case” (the odds of me actually shooting something were about 1 in 5,000; the fact that I had a handgun and not a rifle further reduced the odds to about 1 in 50,000). I guess having a gun on my hip just made me feel cool.
On the ride to the east pines, where we would be hunting, energy drinks were consumed and cigarettes were smoked. I sipped coffee from my sock-insulated mason jar and annoyed everyone by rolling my window all the way down.
Dawn was breaking as we reached our destination and the light on the mountains was spectacular.
Two people stayed in the car and the rest of us fanned out to search for our quarry. I didn’t think much about the elk as an individual as I prowled the landscape, feeling predatory. I did think about it later though, and was a little taken aback by my theoretical willingness to slay a majestic animal. There was all sorts of intellectual justification at work; humans are predators, meat-eating is an integral part of our culture, it’s cold and money’s tight and meat is a great winter protein and calorie source, the suffering of the animal would be as brief as possible.
But not too very long ago I didn’t eat meat at all. The difference, I believe, is cultural. When I was living in a city, eating meat was no more than an indulgence. The relationship of the thing on the plate to the living animal it had been was tangential at best. “Meat” seemed abstract, unnecessary. And the attitude of meat eaters (who were still the majority by far) in Seattle, a progressive city with many “alternavores” often seemed oppositional, smug about their ability to feast on flesh and dismissive of vegetarians as sentimental, bleedy-hearted fools.
Here, however, meat-eating is not a statement. It’s a way of life, and people aren’t squeamish when confronted with slaughter and butchery (god, that just sounds lovely, doesn’t it?). I’ve even met a cohort of Seventh Day Adventists (a traditionally vegetarian, pacifist Christian denomination) who hunt!
Cultural flexibility comes easy to me. And while there are some things that still make me skin-crawlingly uncomfortable (casual use of what I, in my residual PC squeamishness, refer to as the “N-word”, for instance) I’ve adapted readily to many facets of life in conservative, rural America. What does this say about me? Is the ethical foundation of my character really that shaky?
I like to think not. There are some things that I hold constant: I will never be comfortable with racism or homophobia, casual or otherwise. I believe that reproductive freedom and family-planning services are fundamental to a healthy society and essential to women’s and children’s dignity and well being. I also believe that government regulation and taxation are necessary, if not quite evils, bummers. But when it comes to eating animals, my speciesism kicks in, and I find it easy to change my perspective.
I love and respect animals deeply, and I would never wish suffering or cruelty upon another living creature (although there are arguably some humans who deserve it). However, all of us distinguish to some degree between those we hold dear and those who fall outside the circle of our moral consideration. We differentiate between pets and livestock. Between civilians and soldiers. Between the victims of a car crash in our own town and the victims of an earthquake halfway around the world. Between American babies in the womb and malnourished babies in sub-Saharan Africa. Between the charismatic, beautiful Siberian tiger and the grotesque, bizarre-looking Chinese giant salamander, both of which are critically endangered (have you even heard of the Chinese giant salamander?).
Simply put, our circle of empathy can only accommodate so much. If we were to have equally strong responses to every instance of tragedy and suffering, life would be simply un-livable. Those of us who aren’t sociopaths would be weighed down by crushing despair. A good life, and a coherent response to evil and injustice in the world, requires us to be selective in our sympathies, to pick our battles. I used to use silly, reductionist logic when confronted with a battle I didn’t identify with: protesters outside restaurants decrying their use of foie gras, for instance, or people with animal rescue operations. Although I was a vegetarian and an animal lover, people came first in my moral consideration, and still do. How could you, like, care about animals when people are suffering?
Unfortunately, though, suffering is not a zero-sum game. We can’t eliminate human suffering and then move on to other species. Everyone is moved by something in particular; we can’t all be equally concerned with prison reform and food security in Sudan and early childhood education in the American south and LGBT rights and the protection of artists and dissidents in China and Tlingit language preservation and the conservation of the three-toed sloth.
Similarly, our everyday choices reflect a limited capacity to care about things. Among the most committed vegetarians I know, all drive cars and consume agricultural goods whose production entails the death of animals. I don’t know anyone, no matter how zealous their social advocacy and support of social justice, who doesn’t use fossil fuel in some form or wear at least some clothing made in a sweatshop. Total ideological consistency is a full-time job, and often an extremely isolating proposition. I think the greatest hope for our communities, and for human society in general, rests on the fellow-feeling we share with our neighbors. If we can understand and respect those with whom we share geographical proximity, and thus concerns critical to our daily lives, our circle of empathy can gradually expand. But getting wrapped up in ideological absolutes creates a type of solipsism that can lead us to be dismissive of others who don’t share our beliefs. And I think that’s really, really dangerous.
Hence, I try to blend in here as much as possible. To avoid ruffling feathers. To demonstrate my respect for people and their way of life, and in doing so to foster mutual receptivity and create space for dialogue about what’s important. There are some things I’d never compromise; I’ll never make a racist or homophobic remark just to “fit in”. But I’ve found that hunting and eating animals is something I’m at least tentatively comfortable with, something I can justify without compromising my basic morality.