After The Sexual Politics of Meat: An Interview with Carol J. Adams

Carol J. Adams is the author of the groundbreaking 1990 work The Sexual Politics of Meat, and many other books, including Living Among Meat Eaters and Prayers for Animals. Adams studied at the University of Rochester and Yale Divinity School, before serving as an executive director of an interfaith agency providing for basic needs in western New York State in the late ’70s and ’80s.

Adams started a hotline for battered women and served as chairperson for the Housing Committee of the New York Governor’s Commission on Domestic Violence from 1984-87. She moved to Dallas, Texas, in 1987 with her partner, the Rev. Bruce Buchanan, who runs a downtown homeless day centre (The Stewpot), where she volunteers. Adams is currently working on a memoir about caregiving and continues to tour The Sexual Politics of Meat slideshow around the world.

I know plenty of very thoughtful, engaged activists involved in working against everything from misogyny, to homophobia, to ecocide, who also don’t seem to have much of an issue with eating meat, or “carcasses,” as you put it. What’s the dissonance?

Why do people who really care about social justice not see the other animals as part of that issue? I think there are several reasons. One is human exceptionalism: we grow up defining and knowing ourselves based on our differences from other animals. We’re the ones who talk, or have opposable thumbs, or the ones with consciousness, or the ones with a soul (even though we could look at the Hebrew scriptures and challenge that). But whatever the notion of human exceptionalism is, it creates a hierarchy where we have to address those issues first, for instance, by proving them immaterial or wrong.

The way I’ve often had it raised is, Why are you working for animals? or, Why are you talking about that when there are so many hungry people in the world? In fact, I was at the American Academy of Religion back in the ’90s, and that was the question I was asked: “How could we waste our time on animals?” There’s that human exceptionalism functioning, and I’ve called it retrograde humanism: a knee-jerk reaction that ignores interconnections and grasps onto human suffering as needed to be addressed first.

So a second issue arises: how do we see interconnections if those interconnections are generally hidden from us? After all, we could point out that hunger, environmental degradation, climate change, land use, and water crises, among other pressing “human” concerns, are directly related to the production of meat and dairy.

The majority of animals suffering in the United States are farmed animals, what I call terminal animals: animals being raised to become food. The structure of the absent referent – in which animals disappear literally and conceptually to become our food – results in people not seeing their “hamburger” or so-called “chicken wings” as interactions with other animals. They see these as interactions with food. So the animal aspect of food justice issues disappears.

We live in an unjust world. By way of human exceptionalism, we’ve made it seem as though what happens to the other animals is not even an ethical concern. It’s tragic that we conceive of humans as needing others to suffer for us.

Because of retrograde humanism, we have a hierarchy of social justice concerns that even, in a sense, Peter Singer in Animal Liberation participates in when he says, “first there was the Black Liberation Movement, then there was the Women’s Liberation Movement, then there was the Gay Liberation Movement, now it’s time for Animal Liberation,” as if there were a kind of teleological fulfillment in the linear progression of liberal activism, and the earlier ones had been solved.

But here’s the mistake: There was a Black Liberation Movement, and the issues they identified aren’t resolved. There was a Women’s Liberation Movement, and those issues too aren’t resolved. And there was a Gay Liberation Movement – which we would now term LGBTI, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersex – and the issues have not been resolved. Something I’ve tried to do, especially in Neither Man Nor Beast, is articulate that as long as we “other” the animals, they exist as the negative by which disenfranchised humans are defined as well.

It is claimed, “feminism is the radical notion that women are human too.” Well, that’s not my radical notion. I want to challenge this notion of human. To begin with, it is delimited by who was defining it for so many centuries: white, male, propertied Europeans. And from them we get that you’re rational, not emotional; autonomous, not interconnected; male-identified. No one is truly automonous, we don’t learn to walk or talk on our own. We learn in community. But we’ve had these dualistic structures and we don’t even realize we succumbed to their limited frameworks. One of them is human/animal, even though humans are animals.

Throughout The Sexual Politics of Meat, you emphasize the way language reinforces our conceptions of the world: there’s the reference to non-human animals as “it” – stripping them of a gender – and calling it “meat” instead of a “carcass.” How can one who is concerned about such issues begin to change their language or realize the way we talk has a huge impact on how we see the world?

Awakening to the fact that we make animals an absent referent in language so that they disappear as individuals is probably related to an accompanying act: trying not to participate in the structures of oppression that create animals as absent referents (i.e., eating them). I think it’s a constant process of learning. I noticed that for many years animal activists were still using the word “brutal.” Well, the word “brutal” comes from “brute,” which was the word for “animal.” So you’re saying, “you’re being animal-like in hurting animals.” Well, no, we’re trying to liberate conceptually descriptive words that maintain oppressive attitudes.

In Pornography of Meat, I look at the way we use comparisons to animals to keep from seeing human-related issues too. For instance, if we call a rapist or batterer “animal-like,” what we’re doing is implying that it’s not something they can control: it was their “animal” nature rather than acknowledging that these behaviours are very deliberate and planned. So when humans are acting in ways that represent a “human” act of planning, executing, controlling, in order for us not to deal with the true violence that was planned, we then call that by some “animal” term. We deny agency while libelling the other animals, as though all animalkind is violent by “nature.”

One of my favourite quotes from Sexual Politics was “since the fall of man is attributed to a woman and animals, the Brotherhood of Man excludes both women and animals.” How significant is the Judeo-Christian origin story in shaping our grand narrative about who is defined as “human” and who belongs to the “Brotherhood”?

First, let’s just say that for some people the Bible offers a way of upholding and defending human-centrism. They’re not really engaging with the Bible. Just like those who are convinced they know what the Bible says about “homosexuals.” Or proof-texting about women not preaching in church. There are times when arguing with a proof-texter is appropriate, however, when someone proof-texts they’re already telling me that they’re setting the boundaries of the conversation in a certain way that I might not want to accept. If I were going to engage at this level, I might begin by saying: “Do you wear jewelry? Do you shave? Do you masturbate? What does the Bible say about that?” The goal is to point out the hypocrisy of inconsistently using Bible passages.

Genesis 1:26 – that we were “given” dominion over animals, whatever that dominion is – is within a Genesis 1:29 (i.e., vegan) world. The question is why proof-texters uncouple those passages. They don’t want to be reminded that within their own framework their acts are disobedient.

There’s a wonderful essay in “Good News for Animals.” The author wanted to know why so many Mennonite farmers were operating large factory farms in the Midwest, and he said the telos of a pig is to root in the ground. What these factory farms do is impede the ability for pigs to fulfill their telos. I am deeply moved by that insight. We deny the animals the lives God gave them.

I often want to step outside of the circumscribed conversation created by proof-texting.

One of the things I believe – and I said this in Living Among Meat Eaters – is, people are perfectly happy eating vegan food as long as they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. They’re not going to be defensive. They’re just going to know they’re enjoying good food. It’s the minute they feel they’re deprived of their right to make a decision about what they’re eating that prompts a reaction. In fact, we are deprived of that all the time whenever we go to somebody’s house! That’s the nature (and joy) of hospitality: we don’t make the decisions about what is served when we are guests.

People act and argue defensively – Genesis 1, or Jesus and the pigs (Mark 5:13) – because they don’t know how to argue with their stomach. We’re going to hear different arguments from different people, but the basic impulse is there. They’re trying to justify not changing. They’re working so hard to not change. Guess what? Their stomachs don’t actually know they haven’t eaten meat when they’re at a vegan meal. And neither
do their minds, unless they’re told. Their taste buds are happy! That’s one reason I don’t remind people they are eating a vegan meal. I like to think they will incubate this information, and later say, “That was a delicious meal and Carol is a vegan. Oh! I ate a delicious vegan meal.” Then, I hope the next thought is, “Well, maybe I should explore this more.”

You make it clear in Sexual Politics that you’re a cultural worker, not an academic. You’ve been involved in advocating for and helping battered women and involved in animal rights for many decades. What keeps you grounded, from getting depressed, or anxious, or saying it’s not worth it in the end?

There’s a quote from Susan B. Anthony about how she always had great company. She wasn’t doing it alone. Václav Havel said we have to do what we’re doing to change the world not because we know that we’ll prevail, but because it’s the right thing to do. We can’t measure success by some sort of end goal. We have to simply subsume ourselves in the process of it. I think that ties into an ecofeminist philosophy.

I’m not saying I don’t get depressed. I’m not saying I don’t get anxious. One simply can’t let knowledge about all the wrongs that exist in the world cohabit with who you basically are. You have to be able to enjoy lying on a bed with your dog, or watching a black dog sunbathe. I find joy in cooking. I find joy in meeting people and talking about vegan recipes. I don’t know at this point whether when vegans get together they always talk about recipes or whether I force the conversation when I’m travelling around the country or the world.

People think we’re asking them to give things up. That we’re asking them to give up joy, the joy of a relaxed meal, or the joy of whatever dead animal they love to consume. We’re just asking them to realize that their source of joy can change. The kind of joy that you’re deriving from depriving animals of their lives is a sort of hollow joy.

During a hospice death, it’s said that you don’t give up hope, but what you’re hoping for is something different. No longer hoping that my mother stays alive, but instead hoping she has a good death. But there is still hope; its focus is different.

Many meat eaters act as though they would fall off the edges of the earth or something equally dire if they stop eating meat and dairy as though there will no longer be joy in what they eat. By becoming vegan, they’re just changing their source of joy. But it takes time. It takes consciousness.

People say to me, “Oh Carol, I could be vegan if you cooked all my meals.” Well, learn how to cook. I make a sweet potato dish with hoisin sauce. Truly: you buy an organic sweet potato, you slice it and slather hoisin sauce on the slices and you bake it. That’s it. People swear by this recipe. There’s nothing elaborate here. Wonderful fruit salads are just so joyful and easy to prepare. Think about the actual joy conveyed through Genesis 1, including Genesis 1:29: we’ve been created within a beautiful world and given this food to eat, and this is truly joyful.

Now it could be argued that the average flesh-eater is afraid of knowing too much. They are afraid that grief will destroy them. I wrote a book of prayers and tried to articulate some prayers for animals that really accessed my sense of grief over what was happening to them. I realized, yes we feel grief. The grief doesn’t destroy us. It’s kind of like when somebody dies and people go to their house; they don’t know how to sit with grief. They’re tongue-tied.

There are things we can do to live with grief. We don’t have to banish it. We don’t say, “Grieve three days then go back to work.” Figure out a way in which grief lives with you, accompanies you, because there is something to grieve in our world. This is a grievable world. What’s happening to animals is grievable. And what I want people to know is this grief doesn’t destroy us. It helps us. If I can grieve, it means I can meet the animals in their sufferings and reach out to them. When people say, “Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know,” they’re – through ignorance – preserving suffering. And that is selfish.

But it’s also because we don’t have the kind of emotional education that would say, The grief, in a sense, can make you more human (if we could release “human” from being a definition that’s oppositional to the natural world and other animals). Grief helps you become who you are, who you could be. We should be grieving this world. To only feel joy in this world is to miss something rather huge. The joy of delicious vegan food co-exists with (and helps to temper) my sense of grief, anger, and alienation towards the nonchalant violence perpetrated against the other animals.

To envision a world where we greet each other’s possibilities (including the other animals) and to create a world where those possibilities can be lived and achieved – that to me is justice.

James Wilt is a Geez contributing editor and freelance writer living in Calgary, Alberta.

Issue 38

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 38, Summer 2015, Animal Being.

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Issue 38, Summer 2015

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