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On Honest Meat and Absent Referents

Angus directed me to Honest Meat (did I lose half of you? Does your head hurt?), and I couldn’t stop thinking about Carol AdamsThe Sexual Politics of Meat (and other texts by her). It’s just a blog, like Animal Person is just a blog, but it nevertheless raises important concerns for us as it gives us yet another small window into the lives and thoughts of people who probably think that they care a lot about nonhuman animals, and that their actions demonstrate how much they care.

I will use only one passage: a mere two sentences from the July 9 entry at Honest Meat, and then quote Adams. Referring to a gorgeous cow (there’s a photo), the Honest Meat author writes:

"Yes, she will be sitting on my dinner plate eventually, a fact of life
for most farm animals.  We are not operating a farm sanctuary- we have
to make a living from what we raise, and thus, those animals have to
produce something for human consumption."

Without rereading Adams, I flip through the text to what I have already underlined, and here’s a smattering:

  • "One does not eat meat without the death of an animal. Live animals are thus the absent referents in the concept of meat. The absent referent permits us to forget about the animal as an independent entity; it also enables us to resist efforts to make animals present (51)." The animals are "what" the author of the blog raises and they "have to produce something." The animals are mere commodities whom we have decided must "produce" so we may take from them, by force of course, whatever (and whenever) we wish.

  • "Without its referent point of the slaughtered, bleeding,
    butchered animal, meat becomes a free-floating image. Meat is seen as a
    vehicle of meaning and not as inherently meaningful; the referent
    ‘animal’ has been consumed (59)."
  • "Language can make animals absent from a discussion of meat because
    the acts of slaughtering and butchering have already rendered the
    animal as absent through death and dismemberment (79)."
  • "The use of adjectives in the phrases ‘humane slaughter’ and
    ‘forcible rape’ promotes a conceptual misfocusing that relativizes
    these acts of violence. . . . Just as all rapes are forcible, all
    slaughter of animals for food is inhumane regardless of what it is
    called (80)."
  • "Children, fresh observers of the dominant culture, raise issues
    about meat eating using a literal viewpoint. One part of the
    socialization process to the dominant culture is the encouragement of
    children to view the death of animals for food as acceptable; to do so
    they must think symbolically rather than literally . . . . One
    three-year old vegetarian demanded that he and his mother confront the
    local marketpersons with the literal truth that they were selling ‘poor
    dead mommie and baby animals’ (86)."
  • "Without cooking, meat would not be palatable [and] cooking also
    masks the horrors of a corpse and makes meat eating psychologically and
    aesthetically acceptable (126)."

Honest Meat includes a list of "Honest Producers." Producers. The people
produce animals whom they will slaughter and sell to other people who do not
need to eat them. The "producers" have Orwellian names like "Nature’s Harmony
Farm." What’s "honest" about that moniker?

There is also a list of "Honest Books," including all the usual
suspects, with very little honesty among them (Gail Eisnitz is on the
list, but surely only to justify the oxymoronic, absent-referent
concept of honest meat).

Finally, what concerns me the most about this site, as with the
authors claiming it’s possible to be compassionate carnivores, is that
a woman is the creator, and I expect more from women. I expect women to see the parallels between the treatment of women and the treatment of nonhuman animals, and be more likely to stand in solidarity with nonhuman animals and demonstrate their rejection of the dominance and violence of the male culture rather than substituting their own version.

There is no honesty in claiming animals must produce something
for human consumption. It is a choice to breed sentient nonhumans so
you may take milk from their children, take their menstrual excretions,
take their choices away from them, take their freedom, and take their
lives. There is no "must" in that equation. And as for the honesty of
"meat," we’d be in the ballpark of honesty if we said honest
slaughtered sentient beings or nonhuman animals. "Meat" is just a word
we use when we’re trying not to tell the truth.

If you haven’t visited and read the stories by people who used to breed and kill nonhuman animals for a living, entirely convinced that they were doing nothing wrong, now might be a good time.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Angus #

    Talk about the absent referent! Here's a comment on another site from someone who describes himself as an organic beef producer:

    "Beef are not grain eaters, they have to be forced to eat it. Neither are the shots and chemicals they're pumped up with to make them fat."

    Make sure the hamburger patch in your garden is organic.

    July 15, 2008
  2. Diana #

    Hi, I've been lurking here for awhile. This is my first comment.

    I visited that website and the post you quoted was the first one that caught my eye, probably because of the beautiful cow. So here are some (incoherent) thoughts of mine:

    1.) I think the rest of that passage is worth quoting too:

    "This cow is mad, well madly in love with my camera and my presence. She has known me since I bottle fed her as a calf. Because she was born with a twin brother, she is what is know as a freemartin and thus sterile (don't ask me for the biological explanation- it is a mystery to me). A sterile female dairy cow does not have a lot of use to a dairy farmer, so I got her for next to nothing. She is a Jersey cow, known for their rich, creamy milk. Too bad I won't get any of that, but I do plan to get some tasty, fatty meat from her."

    2.) The author obviously has some attachment to this cow. She describes a personality ("madly in love with my camera"), and a feeling of warmth ("I bottle-fed her as a calf") for this cow. Maybe, just maybe, this kind of person can be reached? Maybe she's likely to have an epiphany someday? In some capacity, she already views animals as friends. And if not her, maybe her 3 year-old son? I guess I'm just being naive here. I guess I just have trouble believing someone can display that level of cognitive dissonance.

    July 15, 2008
  3. Your site is one of the reasons I started my blog. The web is full of either industry rhetoric telling us to consume their mass-produced cr*p or vegan activists telling us how evil it is to consume animal products. The irony is that they both display the same sort of dogmatic, my-way-or-the-highway approach that causes us to tune out instead of listen and be educated. My blog is for the 95% of the human population that eats meat and the 99% of the human population that consumes animal products in the form of meat, milk, eggs, honey, leather, etc. Your way may work for that 1%, while I am trying to speak to the 99% with a viable alternative.

    Thank you for all the extra readers you have provided my blog.

    P.S. My husband has this funny little necklace made out of 6 gopher skulls that he collected when he used to grow vegetables for a living. These were gophers that he accidentally killed while doing his tractor work. Too bad vegetable production kills so many animals…..

    July 15, 2008
  4. Rebecca,

    Thanks for visiting and reading.

    A couple of thoughts:

    *I don't know about evil, but I can say that in my mind killing someone when you don't need to isn't morally justifiable, nor is it good karma.

    *95% of people doing something–including murdering sentient nonhumans, does not make it acceptable, or in need of an alternative other than ceasing the violence.

    *I find it your use of "viable" interesting, as viable means "able to live and grow" or "capable of living." The "alternative" you present is . . . more death.

    *Comparing growing and killing vegetables to the breeding, exploiting, torturing, maiming, branding, raping and butchering of beings who are as sentient as you and I, is not reasonable, as I'm sure you know.

    I do wish you would visit It is full of stories of people who spent their lives exploiting nonhumans, only to change their minds (and the lives of countless beings) and admit that they were betraying those they claimed to care about.

    July 15, 2008
  5. Dan #


    Too bad your husband can’t collect all the human skulls from traffic fatalities. If he could, he’d have 38,000 of them annually. Too bad driving cars faster than 30 mph kills so many (human) animals. Shall we kill more intentionally than we already do? According to your way of thinking, why not?

    You might want to read this entire essay if you can stay “tuned in.” It’s quite educational about how much more harmful a non-vegan diet is, and it doesn’t even count the poor health and environmental effects:

    Anyway, good luck with your blog telling everyone what they want to hear. You may get a lot of nods and yays, but I doubt you’ll make even one person *think*.

    July 15, 2008
  6. Angus #

    Rebecca is quite correct when she writes that vegetable production kills animals. However, since vegetable production is so much more land-efficient than meat production, a vegetable diet kills fewer animals. This is overwhelmingly true in the case of grain-fed animals, and also seems to be true in the case of grass-fed animals. Further, vegetable diets cause the least overall harm to animals. Here's an analysis of the matter:

    A vegan world would make possible a renaissance of wildlife and wild nature in general.

    The moderation-in-all-things mantra reminds me of a joke about the judge who insisted on taking a balanced approach in his decisions: he would not stray too far in the direction of injustice — or too far in the direction of justice.

    As you've said before, Mary, people just plain don't want to stop eating meat. In case I haven't already given you this hit-the-nail-on-the-head quotation from Lesli Bisgould, a Canadian animal-rights lawyer, here it is:

    "We have tried so hard for so long to identify the magic feature that qualitatively distinguishes the human from the nonhuman animals so as to justify the treatment we accord them. While the old favourites have been dismissed by science in the many decades since Darwin first said 'evolution' (they can’t reason, they don’t think, they can’t communicate, they don’t feel pain …) perhaps we have found one after all: let us never underestimate the unique power of the human mind to rationalize – and even make ourselves feel good about – behaviour that is harmful to others."

    July 15, 2008
  7. 85% of farmers in the Salinas Valley of California (the "Salad Bowl" of America) have ripped out riparian habitat, hedgerows, and non-crop vegetation in the last two years because they are afraid of wild animals carrying E.coli into their fields. These farmers are growing spinach, lettuce, and other leafy greens to feed vegetarians and omnivores. In fact, most of the 95% of wetlands in California that have been eradicated have been due to agriculture trying to extend its reach, agriculture that grows things like cotton, rice, fruit, and vegetables primarily. I would love it if vegan activists would start to analyze the increasing damage of fruit, vegetable, and grain production have on wildlife and habitat with equal fervor to your attack of animal-based agriculture. Then I would start to tune into your opinions and arguments. Learn more at to find out about the growing destruction of wild habitat created by leafy greens growers in California. This habitat destruction is only going to grow around the country as E.coli and salmonella outbreaks continue and Americans are disconnected from their food sources.

    Also, I was a vegetarian for 12 years, so I can understand many of your arguments. However, now that more humanely-raised animal products are available and models of production that do not harm the environment are increasingly the norm, I have become an omnivore.

    July 15, 2008
  8. Rebecca,
    In my mind, there is no such thing as humanely taking someone's physical freedom, reproductive freedom and life. "Models of production" is not something that someone who cares about sentient beings would say, and that's what concerns me most.

    I guess the $64,000 question is: Did you think that killing beings who are as sentient as your son was wrong when you were a vegetarian, and if so, what made you change your mind?

    Finally, there are plenty of discussions about the harm other foods cause people, animals and the environment. You're just not tuned into them. Here's one that's recent, very popular, and talked about on other sites, including mine:
    Here's my "On Harm in Veganism"

    The vegans who read Animal Person tend to think about harm of people (such as workers), nonhumans and the earth. There are plenty of us, and our goal is to tread as lightly as possible, avoid use of other beings, and not profit from the flesh, secretions, or even talents (like the speed of the Greyhounds I adopted) of others.

    July 16, 2008
  9. Like Mary, I was particularly troubled by this: "We have to make a living from what we raise, and thus, those animals have to produce something for human consumption." There is no "have to"; no one "has to" raise animals. Choosing to profit from animals' deaths, choosing to make your line of work the breeding and purchase of animals for the ultimate purpose of killing them, selling their dead bodies, and eating them, is just that–a choice (just like eating them in the first place is a choice). And I'm further bothered by wording that suggests the animals have some kind of obligation to fulfill ("those animals have to produce something," rather than "we must take something from, or kill, these animals"). By wording it this way, the author is putting responsibility on the animals, as if they owe her something, rather than taking ownership of her choice to buy, breed, raise, and kill them. Those animals don't "have to" do–and indeed do not do–anything. They do not produce meat for humans. They do not produce milk for humans. They have their milk and their lives taken by humans.

    July 16, 2008
  10. Patty #

    Rebecca inadvertently substantiated the argument for abolitionism when she stated:

    "Also, I was a vegetarian for 12 years…now that more humanely-raised animal products are available and models of production that do not harm the environment are increasingly the norm, I have become an omnivore."

    It may be anecdotal, but it is more evidence that "happy meat" draws people back to the unnecessary use of sentient beings.

    July 18, 2008
  11. Bea Elliott #

    Patty….. excellent point about "happy meat" adding even more credibility to abolition – And obviously these 12 and 15 year "vegetarians" lived fine without the "animal protein" – so indeed it's all about the irresistible, addiction to "taste" and not the "necessity" of meat for health.

    I found Rebecca's argument that animals must somehow "pay their way" in order to justify their existence sad. It echoes the familiar "what's in it for me?" greed that has become the mantra and scourge of modern man.

    July 22, 2008

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