Some notes for the reader:
- I saw Laura in the library and she said that she hoped that my final paper would make her laugh. Not wanting to kill the pos vibes, I told her that it would despite the fact that my subject is not very funny. I put jokes in the footnotes, ignore them if you don’t get my sense of humor.
- This essay is about a caricature version of myself. I simplify a set of weird, complicated experiences down to an ultra-quick story that borrows elements from my mostly uninspiring life. I obviously left out a lot (you should be thankful I decided against telling about my sex life, even though there is certainly something to say. Just read the essay, you’ll get what I’m talking about.)
- This paper was possible because of Leila Nadir and the amazing students in this semester’s Food/Media class.
Two and a half weeks before I was done with senior year, my relationship to food transformed. Work on my senior thesis stalled when code I was working with wasn’t creating the correct figures that I needed for my presentation and write-up. My adviser was out of town, I was scheduled to present a poster in a week, and I was in over my head.
Once I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to fix the problem by myself and wouldn’t have new research to present at the undergrad expo, I got so stressed I stopped being hungry. The sight and smell of food grossed me out. I tried to eat because I knew badly hunger would affect my ability to do good work. Bad nerves can cause nausea, but there was also a component of self-punishment: I was disciplining myself for being a sub-par student.
Expressing my academic insecurities through food is nothing new. My first efforts at vegetarianism were a major piece of an identity that I created sophomore year in response to the U of R’s environment.
This story starts the year before. I had a wonderful freshmen year. I smoked a lot of weed and played video games with my friends all day. I missed a lot of class and rarely studied. I ate delicious garbage like wings all the time and gained a bunch of weight. I had friends I liked, I rarely worried about the future, and I was happy when I wasn’t taking a test or writing a paper.
But my dad told me the summer before sophomore year that he wouldn’t pay for me to get a 2.85 GPA. This lit a fire under my ass because I liked college!
So my sophomore year featured a profound shift in my academic and social life. I started working really hard, spending endless hours in the library. I got scared of leisure time that threatened to distance me from good grades. I spent far less time with my friends, viewing time not devoted to grades or quantifiable extra-circulars wasted hours. The loss of some valuable friendships didn’t really trouble me: I thought it was a necessary externality of getting good grades.
Food was a way I ran away from personal pleasure When I started being vegetarian, I consciously did so for solely environmental reasons. I looked down upon, and happily talked negatively of, other vegetarians for whom the well-being of animals was a motivating factor. One aspect of this was an insecure young man performing heteronormativity by rejecting a focus on feelings and cute animals. But my desire to be a responsible student was also at play: I was embodying the characteristics I thought my dad and professors and future bosses wanted: motivated, responsible, rational, predictable. By adopting a low-emissions diet, I was extending my studies of environmental science into every aspect of my life. And by doing so for purely logical, results-oriented reasons, I was sub-consciously trying to avoid my messy feelings which seemed like a threat to my success.
I honestly wanted to be above eating for pleasure. I focused on protein to get bigger muscles, ignoring how I didn’t like what I was eating. I seriously judged those who ate to excess just like I judged those who openly enjoyed their leisure time.
This new identity that I forged such a short period of time succeeded in achieving the goal of getting my grades up and making sure my dad still paid tuition. It utterly failed in making me happy. What was so remarkable about this new Sasha was how consistent he was. His answer to all problems was to run to the stacks. By making sure he was never happy with any amount of work he did, he replaced the rise of pride and fall of humility with all-purpose misery.
But I found some wiggle room by my senior year. I realized I could try to be a little happy sometimes without torpedoing my GPA. I was working towards the middle ground between uptight robot and lazy stoner shmuck. I realized I could spice my food and express my love of eating with friends without being overwhelmed by gluttony and putting that freshmen fifteen back on.
I started to really enjoy food shopping. I talked about food with others, and wasn’t so afraid to talk about what I ate and even liked. I enjoyed myself at the farm sanctuary, allowing myself to form an affectionate relationship with a rescued animal was even though it wasn’t a rational response to the horrors of the meat industry. (This may seem trivial, but it was a meaningful departure from the cold hard logic of my previous versions of vegetarianism/veganism, which had been about transcending feeling.) I engaged with others about how to eat responsibly, and shared jokes about how difficult it was to make good choices. I was becoming comfortable with the pursuit of personal pleasure, and food was helping me get there.
But then came my fiasco in the lab at the very very end of senior year. I was so hard on myself for not being more foresighted, so disgusted at myself for being a lacking student, that food took a new role. The part of my brain in charge of preventing a descent into irresponsible freshmen-year Sasha got it’s starring role back. And it wasn’t happy that I still made mistakes even at the wise old age of 22.
And with that part of my brain back at the steering wheel, it decided that my failures warranted the harshest punishment it could muster via food. I wasn’t going to get to eat without nausea. I would walk to hillside to get a meal, microwave it, and leave 3/4 of it uneaten next to the computer. I would walk home having eaten barely anything all day and force down two pieces of matzah as I played games on my Iphone.
I was angry at myself for taking Saturdays off, for taking my lunch breaks to spend with my friends. In sophomore year fashion, I decided that all the problems I was facing were 100% my fault and that it would take a 100% focus just to keep my head above water.
I never consciously wanted to punish myself. People make mistakes. A project like that thesis was something new that I had never had to prepare for before. That experience made me realize that I need to learn how to forgive. Specifically, to forgive valuing personal pleasure over making responsible choices. I haven’t yet figured out how to forgive myself. But I do know how to forgive other people. So I’ll look outwards first.
There is a choice that every person I know makes every day. This choice involves the abuse and torture of thousands of beings, and it’s so clearly a matter of black and white to me. This choice is whether or not to eat meat.
But most people don’t understand meat eating through that context of good and evil. They understand it through a discourse whose primary architects are meat-eaters. Sarah Mills explains how perception to shaped by discourse in her book Discourse: “… the only way we have to apprehend reality is through discourse and discursive structures. In the process of apprehending, we categorise and interpret experience and events according to the structures available to us. (54)” Meat-eaters engage with a set of answers to the question “why eat meat?” The answers to this question include
- Humans evolved to eat meat
- Wolves, bears, and lions aren’t amoral, are they?
- Meat is manly
- Humans have earned their role as dominant creatures, and we should take full advantage
- Meat tastes good
If the anxious, judgmental, uptight, leisure-fearing part of Sasha can find a way to understand these sub-discourses, then that part of Sasha can also find a way to forgive meat eating. And then maybe that part of Sasha can learn how to forgive himself.
The idea that humans evolved to eat meat plays to the idea that we need to learn from our ancestors. I share this respect of evolutionary direction. I’m a big believer in how fresh air and walking in the woods are a more reliable path to happiness than TV or video games. It’s an essentialist discourse about what humans were created to do, a discourse that I engage in.
And that essentialist line of thinking is bolstered by the fact that evolution created carnivorous animals. It’s not the wolves’ job to consider the happiness of the lamb, it’s just the wolves’ job to feed its own pups. It’s not humankind’s role to look out for the feelings of the organisms we share the earth with. Without bleeding-heart omni-caring humans, there would be no expression of benevolence on earth. Evolution just selects for survival.
My fingers are buzzing with a counter-argument that wants to be tapped out so bad. But that’s not what this essay is about. This essay is about engaging with ideas that makes me uncomfortable instead of dividing the issue up into black and white like I’ve been doing all semester.
My most egregious crime against the humanities was when Leila assigned Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.” I didn’t read closely at all. I was so upset about Wallace’s lack of conviction! He admitted that the question of whether or not lobsters feel pain doesn’t have an easy answer. His writing lacked confidence: “I am also very concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused (64).” When Polland said “I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian… Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris” he was attacking my clean-cut vegan discourse of good vs evil, which some people understandably want no part in. They can accept a level of moral ambiguity associated with their choices. I’ve had no room for ambiguity for so much of the past three years. Maybe I could use some.
Is anything about the discourse of meat and masculinity my U of R self could understand? There is a deeply ingrained discourse about how eating meat is a way to achieve heteronormative masculinity. Carol Adams examined this aspect of meat advertising with her slideshow on the sexual politics of meat, which included advertisements like this one
That’s pretty fucking weird. Still, it’s just a silly cartoon, at least they don’t rope actual women into this sex-meat cross-fetishization. You can probably guess where I’m going with this.
By reducing both animals and women as commodities that have potential to please men, advertisers participate in a discourse that says that the value of women, like animal flesh, is controlled by market forces. Getting wings or getting pussy is as simple as engaging with the market. Control of commodity combined with the competition required by masculine heteronormativity leads to a focus on domination.
Meat is also a way to distance one’s self from the fear of hunger. The internet is rich with videos of men eating quantities of meat remarkable in both dollar value and weight. In a world where TV’s second biggest portrayal of the developing world (outdone only by terrorism) are shots of wide-eyed hungry children accompanied by the pleas of Hollywood actors to do something, the fixation on such an inefficient and sensory-rich food source is a way to remind ourselves that we are still winners in the global food order. People fear hunger and compensate by embodying abundance, often via meat.
Carol Adam’s slideshow and the “Epic Mealtime” genre both give insight to a discourse of hierarchy. Which uptight Sasha is very familiar with. He defined himself through competition: he wanted to out-study his classmates. From where I sit today, I can certainly forgive getting caught up in a way to define one’s self via an established hierarchy and then uncritically playing by the rules to try and get to the top.
But what about that last bullet point, the bullet point that meat tastes good? That rationalization for eating meat isn’t wrapped up in any complex pre-existing societal structures, it doesn’t play to any hidden insecurities, it doesn’t give anyone an avenue for finding self-worth.
It’s just about valuing pleasure. Eric Foer expresses this so perfectly on page 74 his book “Eating Animals”
“Sentimentality is widely considered out of touch, weak. Very often, those who express concern about (or even an interest in) the conditions in which farmed animals are raised are disregarded as sentimentalists. But it’s worth taking a step back to ask who is the sentimentalist and who is the realist… 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?”
Stoic, morally upright, broomstick-up-his-ass Sasha knows eating meat is an expression of valuing one’s own momentary pleasure over the life of another being and the health of the planet. He knows that anyone who does such thing is simply weak, succumbing to their own desires which they should have control over. Because the difference between eating meat and not eating meat is the difference between experiencing the salty, savory taste of a steak versus the incomparable taste of a couscous-chickpea-spinach salad.
Except that isn’t true. Food is culture, memory, community, identity. My list of bullet points needs one more: once meat becomes an established part of one’s diet, it takes on a significance most don’t really think about and even fewer can adequately explain. I am one of those who can’t really explain. I’ll let Eric Foer do it:
“To give up the taste of sushi or roasted chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting…Remembering and forgetting are part of the same mental process. To write down one detail of an event is to not write down another (unless you keep writing forever). To remember one thing is to let another slip from remembrance (unless you keep recalling forever). There is ethical as well as violent forgetting. (189)”
Totally transforming one’s diet to conform to a new set of rules is violent forgetting. In my case, these new rules were based on carbon emissions data, but for some they are a response to seeing a documentary, or going to a farm sanctuary and feeling a connection to the animals. Changing one’s diet can mean changing one’s identity. Changing one’s identity to rapidly can lead to painful losses of community and identity.
Freshmen year Sasha had a lot of qualities I’m happy to be away with. But he also had some I’d like to get back, but can’t yet find. He didn’t worry about the future the way I do now. He didn’t take himself so seriously. He let go of context and reason and what was expected of him too much, but today I can’t let go of context at all. Those of you who heard me rant and yell in Food/Media know how much I want to prove how smart I am and everything I can recall. Freshmen year Sasha didn’t feel he had so much to prove.
There are many reasons people have for throwing one’s identity away. Mine was to gain the discipline I felt I needed to succeed at the U of R. Having gone through that experience, I don’t wish it on anyone, even if they eat beef twenty times a week and I think they could use some self-control.
I have thought hard about the power of discourse and achieved forgiving meat-eaters. That means I can forgive myself, right?
I’m sitting here in the library, having turned in that gosh-darned senior thesis and feeling about a thousand times less stressed, not believing that the essay therapy worked. I actually do feel better, both about being surrounded by omnivores and about having left my research project for the last minute.
Good people subject to weird discourses do shitty things to themselves and others. I was in an environment that put an emphasis on competition. I uncritically internalized that at first, but then I matured and realized that I had other goals that needed to coexist with grades. It didn’t stop this most recent freakout, but the best I can do is think critically about what happened. Which I’m doing.
So the next time I’m so angry and disgusted at myself, I need to remember that my hyper-competitive mindset and the linear definition of success and value that come with it are a construct that I borrowed from the U of R. Food has helped me find avenues to think outside that discourse. The least I could is show a little love and enjoy eating even when I’m pissed off.
 I got a C in Writing 105
 This is getting recursive. I’m being hard on myself about being hard on myself. I take myself too seriously, then I don’t take myself seriously at all.
 That’s “crime against the humanities,” not to be confused with crimes against humanity, which are generally much worse. In this case my crime against the humanities was thinking in terms of how to arrive at the correct answer instead of thinking in terms of questions that have no right answer. My crimes are due to the fact that the meat-eating issue just gets me so worked up! I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m boiling over with counter-arguments to the pillars these meat-eating discourses stand on. But I’ve been so worried about being right for such a long time. This essay is about understanding how to cope when things go wrong.
 Unless you’re a polar bear sitting on a melting iceberg
 The consumption arms race youtube video world also features a subset of videos where heavily made up women in skimpy outfits eat unusually large portions of meat. I have an intuition that there is some deep-seated Freudian reason why men are so interested in watching giant pieces of meat enter tiny women, I just can’t figure out what is is.
 The time Nina told us her boyfriend ordered tofu at a restaurant after he came to farm sanctuary with us was my favorite moment of the Food/Media class.
 And eat meat with shit ground up in it. Just because I’ve forgiven omnivores doesn’t mean I’m getting off my high, high vegan horse.