“You can’t tear flesh by hand, you can’t tear hide by hand. Our anterior teeth are not suited for tearing flesh or hide. We don’t have large canine teeth, and we wouldn’t have been able to deal with food sources that require those large canines.” -Biological Anthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey
Have you ever heard this argument against meat-eating? Though many physiologists have shown that humans have since evolved to consume and digest meat, PETA argues that because we don’t “daydream about killing cows with your bare hands and eating them raw,” humans are instinctively and biologically herbivores.
While the premise is false (just kidding, haha), this idea is compelling in that it suggests a dichotomy in which meat-eaters, everyday, partake in something unnatural, and vegetarians or vegans are more connected with their natural selves. Interesting, but cynical.
This can be a moralizing tool of environmentalists, protesting against a livestock industry (and duly so) that is responsible globally for 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gases , but this posits meat-eaters are people who are “wrong,” engaged in illicit activity. As we all share the blame for the harm we’ve done to our planet and we could all do more to consciously reevaluate what we chose to put in our bodies and its environmental impact, but I can’t help but feel annoyed by the righteousness of such a simple binary.
Two stories I read recently, Jonathan Lethem’s short story “Pending Vegan” and South Korean writer Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, represent vegetarianism as the initial crack through socialized behavior, the beginning of a return into their natural beings. While I don’t agree with this conclusion, when posed as an allegorical question, whether or not meat-eating is natural/unnatural creates some really great psychological, behavioral-analysis.
In “Pending Vegan,” Lethem’s character Paul Espeseth takes his family to Sea-World. He already really doesn’t want to be there, but his situation is even worse because he’s on an antidepressant that, according to his therapist, creates a sense of “a kind of atmosphere of rot or corruption or peril creeping around the edges of the everyday world… ‘grub-in-meat syndrome.’”
He’s heard of the documentary exposes of these orca hells (even though he’s never watched one), he’s sympathetic towards the terrified animals being lurked by eager children, he’s read the “several famous polemics against the cruelty of farms and slaughterhouses.” But most of all, Espeseth’s uncomfortable with the way that he feeds his kids meat, promotes animal incarceration, while asking his kids to respect and care for them as a living species. This contradiction is why he’s named himself, secretly, the Pending Vegan, he is waiting to arrive as what he thinks he ought to be.
“Civilizing children was pretty much about inducing cognitive dissonance. His daughter’s balancing of their desire both to cuddle and to devour mammals was their ticket for entry to the human pageant. If Pending Vegan admitted to them that he now believed it wrong to eat animals – even while he still craved that tang of smoky steaks and salt-greasy bacon – he’d lower himself, in their eyes, to a state of childlike moral absolutism.”
The irony that this ethical ordeal occurs at Sea World is not lost to him. As his family sits down to eat and is served mystery meat drumsticks, he thinks
“See food, eat food.
Sea World. Eat World.”
Is everyone else like him, just not self-aware enough to see that they too live in contradiction? Is this a result of “civilizing”?
The first line of Kang’s “The Vegetarian” is “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” It has much darker of a theme than Lethem’s short story. Though the husband’s sentiment is anything but pride – he describes his wife Yeong-hye’s downward spiral into complete neurosis: her vegetarianism in a household that holds bulgogi as a sustenance, accompanied by a physique like the “skeletal frame of an invalid.”
Because the story is narrated by the husband, we hear his oblivious justifications of various abuse towards Yeong-hye. Her family vehemently rejects her dietary choice, and all try to reassert their control over her. Her parents and sister invite her over for interventions, they eventually begin to physically abuse her, and try to trick her into consuming animal flesh.
Yeong-hye, a typically average and acquiescent woman, obsessively denies any attempts to change her mind. In some ways, Kang suggests, the choice is not up to her. She has begun to have vividly cruel dreams:
“Trees thick with leaves, springtime’s green light. Families picnicking, little children running about, and that small, that delicious smell. Almost painfully vivid. The babbling stream, people spreading out rush mats to sit on, sucking on kimbap. Barbecuing meat, the sounds of singing and happy laughter. But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don’t let anyone see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.”
Vegetarianism, as a part of Yeong-hye’s life, is only a simple decision, but in many ways it is signaling her coming into her independence. Though she is disturbed and begins to live her daily life in very hollow ways, she says “I’m not an animal anymore,” as she renounces and rejects any standard set by convention, or upbringing. Though Lethem’s character, Paul Espeseth, would most likely tell her, that there is no such thing as complete detoxification. And Han Kang may agree, as Yeong-hye slowly deteriorates throughout her story.