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50 Chapter 4 Institutionalized Harm through Meat Eating Unlike genocide, which figures prominently in the public imagination as harm, most of us take for granted the killing of nonhuman animals for food. The killing of nonhumans is mundane and implicates most of us. How do we do it? One answer is that we do not. In these times, for large segments of the world’s population, we delegate the killing of animals to other agents and reenter the scene as consumers of meat. I am referring here to the multibillion-dollar factory farm and meatpacking industries. These industries see to it that the harm they do to animals is largely invisible, in part by disseminating mystifying vocabularies. Activists have succeeded in exposing harm to nonhumans, although people selectively take up the available information. This chapter probes the logics of harm to nonhumans from meat eating, a case of highly institutionalized harm. The chapter is built on qualitative interviews with sixty meat eaters as well as scholarly and popular works concerning meat eating.1 As with genocide, speakers reduced their targets—here quite radically, to objects. They claimed a license to harm and emphasized their powerlessness not to harm or to stop harm. They drew on an array of cultural themes to make these claims, having to do, for example, with custom, habit, and evolutionary adaptation. Few of those we interviewed offered reasons for meat eating embedded in stories, which I attribute to the fact that meat eating is habitual and normative, qualities that do not generally incite storytelling. Reduction of Nonhumans We saw in chapter 3 that genocidal agents conjure a threatening Other. In contrast, those implicated in the killing of animals for meat conjure them as mostly benign: they reduce them to objects for human use. The objectification of nonhumans could be quite literal, as when research participant Brie called farm animals “things that are actually raised for slaughter.”2 And Ali reasoned, “I figure it’s their purpose in life to be eaten,” thus implying that nonhumans do not have interests independent of humans. Speakers conveyed a good deal of awareness about the role that reduction plays in their ability to eat meat. Several told us that they could not eat the flesh of an animal they had known. Ann observed, “When you look at the meat section, you’re looking for a good-looking steak. . . . You don’t think of the cow itself.” Similarly, Michelle explained, “I’ll go to the store and buy [meat] ’cause I don’t know that cow, but I wouldn’t eat the cow that I knew the name to.” These speakers emphasized the role of language (“steak”) or its absence—the absence of a name for the animal—in the reduction of nonhumans. Institutional Logics The reduction of nonhuman animals is big business. From birth to death, on farms and in so-called processing plants and slaughterhouses, animals including chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows, fish, and shellfish are conceived as “mere pieces of biological equipment used for the manufacture of protein” (Hamilton 2006, 158). The terms “meat” and “seafood” denote animal flesh rendered suitable as food—a reduced form of matter . Animals are resources, counted, for example, in pounds and not as individuals; their suffering is hidden behind terms usually Institutionalized Harm through Meat Eating 51 W h y W e H a r m 52 reserved for objects, like “bird damage” instead of injury (Stibbe 2001, 155). The vitality of nonhumans is denied both before and after they are killed (Adams 1994). Meat eaters deploy similar language. Not surprisingly, all of our research participants used terms that signify reduced nonhumans : meat, pork, bacon, steak, poultry, and so forth. This is common parlance. Besides, several spoke as though living animals are already their dead selves—already the food they would be made into. Ann shared, “When I see a cow, I think, ‘Oh, that could go in my freezer.’” Don referred to animals as food in the following exchange: Interviewer: Do you eat meat? Don: Yes. Interviewer: Okay. I do too, so that’s not a judgment call. Don: [Light chuckle.] Interviewer: But, um. Is that harm? Don: No. That’s food. Interviewer: No, that’s food. Don: That’s food. Interviewer: Uh. [Pause.] It’s okay to kill them because . . . Don: It’s okay to kill animals . . . because they’re . . . food. That’s what they’re for. Interviewer: That’s what they’re for. [Pause.] Is that harming them? Don: Not...


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