Among the Dead

I don’t usually write too much about veganism/vegetarianism since it is a deeply personal issue (but see here, and here, and here). However, I have been trying to write more about deeply personal issues and I recently revisited one of my favorite albums from way back in the late ’80’s. The album was Symphonies of Sickness by Carcass. I think it holds up really well and is still (I think) the best from early Carcass. It also made me revisit some of my younger self’s thoughts on vegetarianism.

For the record I was raised vegetarian. I was taught by my mom to believe in what I will call The Fundamental Equivalence of Flesh. For my mom animals were to be thought of as akin to children in terms of their mental lives. And the role of Human Beings was either to stay out of the way and let the animals live their lives, to offer help if and when one encountered an animal in distress, and to care for companion animals (in a way appropriate to their nature) as if they were furry siblings.

I was also kept home until I entered 1st Grade and so did not fully realize that the way things were in my house was not the way things were generally. We had lots of animals wherever we lived. Dogs, cats, mice, rats, ducks, chickens, a turkey, horses, a goat, a ferret, various birds. Not all at the same time of course! But we would take in stray animals and we would also volunteer at a local animal sanctuary. My mom and my sister liked to ride horses and we couldn’t really afford it so volunteering was a way to earn horse privileges for them and to help the animals (for the record, I preferred reading and video games to riding horses). Because of the constant contact with all kinds of animals I could see how they were individuals. The ducks all had their own unique personalities, which each differed in ways from the chickens.

Of course I found out pretty quickly how things really were, and to be honest I was not the most passive grade-school vegetarian in the world. My first day of school I refused to eat my hamburger (and I vaguely remember making mooing noises as my classmates ate their hamburgers in the school cafeteria). They had to call my mom, who sided with me. Another time we were at a Salvation Army eating (free) food when I found a hotdog in my beans. I stood up on the table and yelled ‘we don’t eat this!’ I could tell a million stories about growing up vegetarian (and how things have changed over time) but here I am focusing on how I felt(/still feel) coming from this background into the way our society actually views animals.

To make a long story short, I was pretty traumatized by the casual way that people treat dead animals. I felt surrounded by the dead. Putting a dead animal on the table and eating it seemed so bizarre to me. That is a person there! I have muscle, they have muscle. I have bone and blood as do they. I remember, much later when I was a teenager, being in a big room filled with people eating ribs. The cacophony of rending flesh, grunting, and lip smacking together with the macabre and gruesomely smeared faces of the people in that room haunted my dreams for sometime afterwards. I seemed to be surrounded by creatures who were fueled by death. Their every action made possible by the suffering of innocent creatures.

And these creatures felt bad for me! They thought I was missing out on some experience (the taste of flesh) that they could not imagine living without. That was the most mind-f*&king part of the whole experience. Everywhere I looked there were dead animals. In the store, at school, on the buss, in the street, at my friends houses, on tv, in movies, everywhere. When I see a cooking show I see brutality and terror where other people see ‘surf and turf’. On Thanksgiving I feel numb inside thinking about the number of turkeys killed and making an appearance on family tables, where there are kids!

These people were eating my friends and they felt bad for me! I remember wondering about the turkey on Thanksgiving at my grandparents house. I had had a pet turkey and I wondered what this one was like. Shy, timid, aggressive, cocky, curious? Watching people smile and tear apart something you think of as a friend is a terrifying experience.

I understand that in the Grand Scheme of Things I have had a fairly privileged life and, while it is true that growing up the way I did required that we go hungry at various points rather than eat meat, it is also true that being able to live a vegetarian (now vegan) life is expensive and not possible for everyone who wants to do it, but I am mostly trying to talk about how I felt as a young man growing up vegetarian. So now we come to Carcass. As someone with this background, and who worked in fast food restaurants I viewed Carcass as an embodied (and awesomely aggressive) argument for vegetarianism. Their very album cover presents animal and human bodies on a par forcing one to come to grips with the facts at hand: meat is meat and we are all made of meat.

When they describe revolting subjects like an ‘edible autopsy’ or ‘exhume to consume’ people are (rightly) shocked. They are used to hearing, seeing, etc, animal bodies talked about in this way but not human bodies. It was always hard to communicate how brutalized I felt by meat and how weird it was for people to tell me to ‘pick off’ the meat from my pizza or to take out the hamburger and still eat the bun and vegetables. Would they do that if there were a human thumb on the pizza? For me there was no difference between the two cases. So, yes, I love(d) Cannibal Corpse and Carcass (and Napalm Death) but that was because (I liked the music and) it pressed the case for the Fundamental Equivalence of Flesh, which was for my younger self the primary reason for being vegetarian.

As a final note let me just say that my views have somewhat changed over time but I still feel fundamentally alienated by this. One thing that has not changed is that I am not trying to suggest that human lives are less important than animal lives. I was always the first to admit that I would not starve to death with a hamburger on a deserted island. I would (probably) eat the hamburger at some point when I was hungry enough and my survival was on the line (I assume I would do this based on what I know about human psychology). I think that is a Red Herring in this debate. I know there are many terrible things happening to humans and I cry over those things as well. still, I can’t help but think that if our attitudes towards animals changed we would all be better off.

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