Sunday, January 22, 2006

On the whale

Sorry this sounds like a bit of a high-horse sermon – but this is how I see it:

A whale that confused itself up the Thames into Central London, dying during the rescue operation grabs all the attention on Sky news yesterday. Outsiders must think that the British are mad, or their “bellies are too full” as the saying goes.

For myself, I cannot explain how people who regularly consumer meat without giving a nanosecond's thought to the implications of the act (the suffering involved, the way in which life is reduced within an assembly line of death environment) can suddenly emote about one random mammal that becomes confused in the water.

Let's be honest, most of those glued to the telly would not pass up the chance of eating whale meat, if visiting Norway or Japan. So they are being drawn to the spectacle first, then being carried along with arbitrary sympathy second.

As Aristotle identified 2000+ years ago, ethics begins with the capacity of one’s moral imagination: being able to imagine what it is like to be other than oneself. Most people do not take the time to map out the limits of their own moral imagination it seems to me: perhaps they like to buy organic food or free-range eggs (if they live in the West), and perhaps they take their newspapers and bottles to the recycle banks, but beyond that, the imagination fades. Bob Geldoff doesn’t help with his bedraggled sanctimonies.

It's in this vaporous atmosphere that the media can grab attention (a Princess dies in a car crash, a whale flounders in the shallows of a city), and an en masse emote is conjured up out of thin air. All is forgotten a few weeks later. Nothing changes.

All those who are mourning the loss of a solitary whale yesterday, ask yourself this: what have you done to campaign against commercial whaling in the past? Has it even enter the rim of your consciousness as an issue worth making a noise about? Will you continue to eat meat (fish, mammals or otherwise) with unquestioning abandon? What then did you let happen to you yesterday, as you felt sorrow for the animal when it convulsed and died?

If life goes on as normal for you (you make no noise, you continue to eat animals), you have just been had by the media. Congratulations.


oda,  12:27 pm  

"Sorry this sounds like a bit of a high-horse sermon" - Jeremy


mw 1:10 pm  

I guess this answers some of the issues raised by a posting on the same phenomenon, on my blog. Answers some of the issues raised on a personal level since the whale died at 7pm London time last night. Even answers some of the dilemmas acknowledged by public commentators as the drama was unfolding - how thousands can flock to the banks of the Thames, fretting for one marine animal when we know that Japan & Norway are actively killing hundreds of whales daily.

But your post does not answer all the questions, and I wonder whether you would have answers to some of the questions I could throw your way too. The point I'm trying to make, is that no one has all the answers.

Vegetarianism is a choice, should remain a choice, with the recognition that it may not be a choice for many - and that this is valid, too. That one is not vegetarian does not mean that one condones the killing/eating of every animal. It does not mean also, that one would necessarily eat a whale in Norway or Japan... I passed up the opportunity to eat certain kind of game (zebra, giraffe, crocodile) in an 'exotic meat' restaurant in Nairobi once. And in my youth, when they captured an awonriwon (newt) in a small town once, they distributed the exotic meat round all the houses on the street. I refused to eat, and didn't eat stew or meat for days. No way was I going to eat it after seeing all the beautiful colours it had on it's back.

And there is a marked difference in the conveyor-belt, mass killing of animals/chickens to end up on the supermarket shelves in the West in such a way that the buyer completely forgets that it once had a life - to the killings of rams for Sallah, for instance. Those in whose compounds a ram is killed, see the killing; they know a life has been taken - albeit an animal life. That said, I passed on a railway line at Oshodi last year and saw stacks and stacks of bone parts belonging to cows & goats... and that looked to me like the scene of a massacre, and horrified me.

It's complex...

What I know is this: there are animals and there are animals - and that bottle-nosed whale was as magnificent as they come. I don't think I've been had by the media; it is the nature of our existence in these times, that we will experience these feelings en-masse and in an instantaneous fashion, because of media blanket coverage. Am I to blame SKY News for deeming the first whale in those waters in nearly a hundred years worthy of such coverage? In some societies, they would think they've been visited by a god. And I hasten to add, that whilst the British are not exactly calling the UnFreedWilly a god, they're saying the next best thing - that maybe he is an 'envoy' from the deep - to highlight the plight of whales.

Which is why we're even discussing this right now. And this is good enough for me.

Anonymous,  7:12 pm  

If "vegetarianism is a choice, should remain a choice", does that mean that being a carnivore is not a choice? So, as an adult carnivore I have not exercised the power of choice all this years. There was me thinking that I had made an informed decision to look into my cultural norms and decided that I like what I see and I’ll continue to devour flesh and then bang I am told that only vegetarians I have made the choice.

As the critically conscious person I claim myself to be, I am aware that when it comes to issues about animals I am deeply anthropomorphic. I make the kind of unthought, wish-washy statements that you make: “there are animals and there are animals – and that bottle-nosed whale was as magnificent as they come”. Lets face it, such a distinction is untenable, an instance of our own anthropomorphism. All animals, whether whales, zabras, goats etc have feelings. Ever hear the cry or look into the eyes of a goat when the hands of death beckons during Sallah? A feeling saddness crosses my heart, but then I clean it dry with the thought that they taste so good. I am very clear that animals have feelings and emote just as much as humans, but this does not stop me from consuming them. In fact I relish the taste of their flesh (even if I only stop at goat, pigs, seafood and cows) – I love the taste of fried meat. My own sensuous taste desire reigns supereme over the knowledge that all animals (whales or goat) have their own magnificence, beauty and intelligence. But yet I continue to devour them.

As an unrepented carnivore I get irritated with the smogness of vegetarians especially vegans (they are even more extreme), but I am aware that the source of my irritation lies in the fact that they reflect back to me my own weakness in the face of my knowledge. They show me that I don’t always act on my knowledge. Vegans and vegetarians have thought through their choice in the way that many non-heterosexuals would have had to think through their sexual choice amidst ignorance, indifference and potential threats in the way that we carnivores and heterosexuals rarely ever do. This is why Jeremy’s comments sounds to me a “a bit of a high-horse sermon”. But I recognise that the problem is not with Jeremy, but with my kind of people with false sentiments. Vegetarians have positions, and they are not afraid to state it. I wonder if it is possible for us carnivores to stand up and defend our position. I know I certainly will not be able to defend my position beyond the fact that meat taste so good and anyway they are there to be eaten. The people that invented halal meat recognise the sacredness of all life - animals and humans alike - that is why they ask us to pray before killing animals. And in animist cultures, they pray before cutting down trees etc. Still, I’d like some carnivores to help construct an argument in defence of our practice so I can throw it back at my smog wheat-grass drinking, lentils eating, veg friends.

I had to witness the numerous killing of rams during this last Sallah celebration, I don’t see any difference between that kind of killing and the conveyor-belt, mass killing of animals and chicken. They are the same. Killing is killing. Lets not try and make ourselves feel better by trying to distinguish between the two. Both consumers know that a life has been taken and both are indifferent to that life – that is the bottom life. When I lived in the States, everytime I ate meat I was well aware that a life has been taken, but that knowledge did not stop me from eating that life. Hell no. I continue to condone bloodletting to satiate my own desire. Animals are only by the by. Anyone who thinks that one animal life is better or more worthy than animal is deluded. It is rather like saying that one human life is better or worthy than another – living in a country like Nigeria where I am constantly reminded that my life is worth less than another makes me very uncomfortable. It is either we accept that all animal lives are important and non should be killed for our own consumption or agree they are the same and all cultures can decide which animal they want to devour. In my case, I make no distinction between the killing of whales, grass-cutters, snails, zebras and the killing of goats, chicken, cows, pigs (on convey-belt or naija compound style) for consumption, even as I am fully aware that they have consciousness, and can emote just like any humans. I just haven’t reach a stage of giving up on devouring flesh just yet. Maybe in the next life time.

Thank you Jeremy, I fully accept that I have been duped by the media and I am not ashamed to admit to that. I accept that until I can present an argument for eating animals, I am just merely reproducing without question norms of my society. Sorry O.

Teju Cole 10:03 pm  

I don't think you're on a high horse at all Jeremy. I think you're honestly grappling with some potent questions. I appreciate that.

What we need is a shared language for thinking through these things.

The mediated mass-hysteria is one thing (I didn't mourn for Diana, and I didn't mourn for the whale either). But the question of slaughtering animals for consumption is quite another.

I am not a vegetarian. The main reasons for this is that 1, meat eating does not disgust me, and 2, it does not offend me ethically. However, I can imagine that either or both reaction is possible in others.

How do we talk across that divide? This is an interesting question. It might also even be relevant to other hot-button issues of our day. For instance, some people believe that abortion is literally murder. We need a way of thinking that can grant that, while we don't think that abortion is literally homicidal, that it is indeed an unpleasant ordeal, and not something to be taken lightly. From there, we can argue that it ought to be kept within the realm of privatre choice, for such and such a reason. But making it seem as if it is the same as stepping out for an icecream cone does nothing to persuade those who are militant opponents.

So, getting back from my digression, how does a meat-eater talk to a vegan? What concessions can we make to each other? Well, we could start with saying, "Jeremy, I understand that this here burger disgusts you. I respect that. I want to know why you feel the way you do." and you might say, "Teju, I understand that you actually like the way chicken tikka masala tastes. But do you think enjoyment is sufficient reason for doing something? What do you think separates humans from other animals?" And I might say, "What do you think separates animals from plants, or plants from stones?" And so on.

In other words, taking each other seriously, and not viewing the differences as evidence of serious moral failings.

But getting back to the whale, I happen to be deeply irritated by the sentimentality of westerners. Jeremy is right. No one will remember the goddamn whale next week. Darfur is depressing me very deeply right now, as is the situation of black Africans in Cairo. Both of these have been gnawing at my mind for a couple of years now. The BBC can broadcast whatever they want, but the real crimes are out there, and no one is really doing a damn thing about them.

So I might agree (even as a confirmed flesh-eater) that we need a better way of processing our animal-derived foods, but I certainly think we should attend to human life first.

Peace bro.

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