If you saw a goat-shaped cloud in the sky recently, it might have been the soul of one of Mark Zuckerberg’s meals. The CEO of facebook and anti-hero of David Fincher’s The Social Network recently announced that he has already murdered a goat, a chicken, a pig and a lobster as part of a one-year plan to eat only animals he has snuffed out himself, in a quest to get in touch with the death that produces the flesh on his plate.
The burning question now is “So how to vegans feel about this?” Zuckerberg is killing animals, which vegans are against. But then again, so does everyone else — they’re just less direct about it. Since vegans are not a monolithic entity (as vegan commenters never tire of reminding me), it’s impossible to specify a single vegan reaction, because there is a variety of views. However, only one of these views is interesting, so that’s the one I’m going to talk about.
For some vegans, there is just one possible sound conclusion to arrive at if you ever think about food even for a second — veganism. Pondering the source of your sustenance, the ethics of killing animals, health and sustainability is a one-way road that splits into two paths. Take the left path and you go straight to veganism. Take the right path and you dilly-dally pointlessly in lacto-ovo vegetarianism for a while as you delay facing the full consequences of your new knowledge. That road, of course, eventually curves into veganism. Thinking about food must lead to veganism eventually.
So these vegans tend to get irritated when people think about food and then arrive at a conclusion other than veganism. This is one reason that the paleo diet crowd is such a bother. They’ve rejected the Standard American Diet and the government’s nutritional propaganda, and yet they still eat plenty of meat. Wrong answer, guys. To vegans with this perspective, Zuckerberg got off to a good start by realizing he was disconnected from his food and by wanting to remedy this by investigating the blood-letting that makes his meals possible, but he fumbled the second he picked up a knife instead of a box of tofu.
Once you think thought A (“Where did this flesh on my plate come from?”), then you have to think thought B (“Go vegan”). That’s just how thoughts work, Zuckerberg.
However, Zuckerberg got some grudging respect from a few vegans who take that tact of, “At least he’s facing the consequences of his diet, which is more than most meat eaters do.” But these vegans are revealing latent speciesism, since I doubt anti-slavery abolitionists ever said that they had greater respect for the slave masters who faced the suffering enslavement caused than they had for those those who bought cotton-based products and never thought about it.
For the most part, any respect Zuckerberg got from vegans through his direct participation in animal killings was mitigated by horror that he could face that death and then refer to it as “a good experience.” For many vegans, the point of “going veg” is to wash your hands of responsibility for animal deaths and go back to thinking that you can live without causing harm. Zuckerberg, by deciding to actively participate in the killing rather than shun it completely, did the opposite of this.
One of the ideas behind veganism is that if you don’t think you could kill an animal yourself, then you shouldn’t be hiring strangers to do it. Zuckerberg’s one-year plan and his reaction to the killings threatens to undercut the vegan assumption that most people could never kill an animal themselves. If most people would actually feel fine about personally killing animals for food, there’s either something wrong with veganism, or there’s something wrong with people. Most vegans lean toward the latter.
In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer writes:
Having little exposure to animals makes it much easier to push aside questions about how our actions might influence their treatment. The problem posed by meat has become an abstract one: there is no individual animal, no singular look of joy or suffering, no wagging tail, and no scream. The philosopher Elaine Scarry has observed that “beauty always takes place in the particular.” Cruelty, on the other hand, prefers abstraction.
Some have tried to resolve to resolve this gap by hunting or butchering an animal themselves, as if those experiences might somehow legitimize the endeavor of eating animals. This is very silly. Murdering someone would surely prove that you are capable of killing, but it wouldn’t be the most reasonable way to understand why you should or shouldn’t do it.
Killing an animal oneself is more often than not a way to forget the problem while pretending to remember. This is perhaps more harmful than ignorance. it’s always possible to wake someone from sleep, but no amount of noise will wake someone who is pretending to be asleep. (102)
This quote gets at what vegans often don’t like about conscientious omnivores, ex-vegans and people like Zuckerberg who can face the death their existences cause and march on anyway. There is no converting such people. They are confidently and intentionally taking a non-vegan path. Those who are “asleep” — not yet vegan, due to ignorance — could still wake up and be persuaded by Eating Animals. There is no hope for the meat eater who watches Meet Your Meat and then beheads a chicken.
In this way, for many vegans, a thoughtful omnivorism is worse than a thoughtless one. If vegans are right that there is no difference between purchasing a dead animal and killing the animal yourself, Zuckerberg is technically no better or worse than any other meat eater. The key difference is that he lacks ignorance of the death caused by his desire for flesh. This ignorance is often the one thing that vegans have to say in defense of meat eaters. When you no longer have it, you’ve lost your one excuse to not be vegan — and that makes you a bad person.
There is a moral subjectivism to Zuckerberg’s approach that vegans don’t like. His thinking seems to be that meat eating is okay as long as you can kill the animal yourself and not feel bad about it. This is an affront to logical veganism, which wants to claim that killing an animal is wrong no matter how you feel about it.
Though most people get into ethical veganism because of an emotional revulsion to animal suffering and death, mockery from defensive meat eaters forces vegans to memorize all the logical arguments. It’s not hard for vegans to win debates with points they’ve cribbed from Peter Singer, Gary Francione, Tom Regan and Jonathan Safran Foer; meat eaters are the majority and rarely have to defend themselves, so they haven’t seen the need to come up with good counter-arguments.
Nevertheless, veganism is a stance that primarily hinges on emotion. This does not make veganism silly or futile, but it does mean that there’s nothing for vegans to say to people who do not share their emotional feelings for animals.
Vegans cannot make us feel emotional responses that we don’t have. They certainly do try, like by putting dogs and pigs side-by-side and demanding that feel the same thing about one as we feel about the other, but emotions aren’t always so easy to manipulate. Vegans can tell us that we are compassionate and empathetic and that we would feel horrible if we understood the pain and suffering that went into our meals. But if we then went out and killed the animals ourselves and felt fine, what would vegans say then?
Well, they would probably switch over to logical veganism and then tell us that our lack of feeling is a logical error. That is what Carter Dillard of the Animal Legal Defense Fund tried on Zuckerberg, in an article called “A Challenge for Mr. Zuckerberg”:
Zuckerberg deserves credit for getting at least halfway through a mental lesson most people never bother to start. A new personal challenge could be for him to take this thought process to its logical conclusion, and to then act. … But Mr. Zuckerberg falls a bit short by not taking the thought where it obviously wants to go: Suffering and death are not only so meaningful that we should be compelled to see them, but they are so because qualitatively, and inescapably, they are horrifying things. … Mr. Zuckerberg’s next personal challenge could be to act on this insight and go vegan. Doing so would show animals not just the attention but also the compassion they, like us, yearn for.
Animal suffering and death is objectively, qualitatively, inescapably horrifying? How can that be true if Zuckerberg is not horrified? Going fully through with thinking about food must lead to veganism? But why? If Zuckerberg cuts a goat’s neck and feels fine about it, how is the logical conclusion for him to go vegan? (Let me guess — the argument from marginal cases.)
Vegans often accuse meat eaters of taking the easy way out and sticking with their habits and tradition of meat eating rather than thinking about where their food comes from. But when they think about where their food comes from and then decide to pay more for humanely raised meat or learn to hunt, then veganism becomes the easy way out and vegans wonder why meat eaters perversely subject themselves to such hassles when they could take the simple approach and give up animal products entirely.
Vegansaurus!’s Laura Beck, for instance, wrote, “Zuckerberg talks about how hard it was to kill a lobster, and we have to wonder, then why do it? Why not go all David Foster Wallace on that lobster’s ass and NOT eat it?”
And Jake Richardson at Care2 wrote:
So it seems a little odd that Zuckerberg stopped in his dietary change at killing his own animals for meat, when it is much easier and less harmful to animals and to one’s own health, to simply stop eating an animal-based diet. … If he is really interested in sustainability, why doesn’t he just drop meat altogether?
But it wouldn’t really be thinking about food if there were an inevitable conclusion that everyone had to agree with and follow, would it?