The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Petty Justification of Eating Animals

In one of the four courses I’m currently taking at Vassar, entitled “Process, Prose, and Pedagogy,” we analyze the writing process in order to strengthen our own rhetorical prowess. The course’s assignments include a series of three essays examining the rhetorical strategy of the author of a particular text. The first essay focuses on pathos, or how the author manages the audience’s feelings; the second concerns ethos, or how the author establishes his/her own character in the text’s agrument; the third centers on logos, or how the author creates logical support central to the text. As the subject of my essays, I chose a text that has effectively persuaded a vast number of individuals, but with which I take great issue: Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I wanted to grapple with this book in order to better understand how a man who has so closely examined the problems inherent in our food system can still advocate for the consumption of animals, and how he has inspired individuals to more deeply connect with their food without truly considering the ethical implications of eating meat. In my first essay, that focusing on pathos, I argue that Pollan harbors a hidden agenda in writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one through which he seeks to justify his own meat eating—about which he clearly experiences a great deal of moral discomfort—by persuaing both his audience and himself of the acceptability of eating meat. In garnering a cult following, Pollan essentially creates an army of ardent ominvores to protect him against the vegans and animal rightists who urge individuals to question their habits and gustatory pleasures. I’ve included the full text of my essay below. Enjoy.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Petty Justification of Eating Animals

In his journalistic investigation into the depths of industrial agriculture, Michael Pollan analyzes “what it is we’re eating, where it came from, how it found its way to our table, and what […] it really cost” in an effort to provide both himself and his readers with an educated answer to the surprisingly complex question of “what should we have for dinner?” (Pollan 411, 1). However, what appears as a noble attempt to develop a fuller understanding of the personal, social, and environmental implications of food choices soon reveals itself as a quest to justify Pollan’s own desire to continue eating meat despite its undeniable detriments to animals, human health, and the environment. Indeed, the mere title of Pollan’s book—The Omnivore’s Dilemma— as well as his assertion in the book’s introduction that “omnivory offers the pleasures of variety,” exposes the author’s gustatory preferences that prompt him to ask which meat to eat, rather than if to eat meat at all (Pollan 4). This preemptive refusal, due to mere gastronomic pleasure, to consider methods of eating responsibly that do not involve meat renders Pollan’s investigative endeavor essentially meaningless—why would he take the time and effort to thoroughly examine the consequences of his food choices if he vowed at the outset to not allow his discoveries to truly shift his eating habits? Why would he write an entire book delving into the minute details of industrialized food production only to advise himself and his audience to eat less processed foods and consider the origins of their meals, considering that his intelligent, upper-middle class readers probably don’t regard these suggestions as strange?

Analyzing Pollan’s manipulation of his audience’s emotions provides a sufficient answer to these inquiries and reveals his ulterior motive. Pollan evokes his readers’ visceral reactions toward the treatment of animals only when discussing the “humane” farm of Joel Salatin—if one can deem any operation that slaughters sentient beings to fulfill another’s mere gastronomic pleasure as “humane”. I certainly cannot. In addition, he appeals to his audience’s instinctive desire to belong and arouses their defense mechanisms when examining vegetarianism. Through this dual, meticulous management of his readers’ emotions, Pollan succeeds in his ultimate goal of persuading both his audience and himself of the acceptability of eating meat, due to his own obduracy toward being persuaded otherwise.

Pollan only discusses the inhumane treatment of animals used in industrial agriculture when immediately contrasting it with Salatin’s supposedly ideal handling of the animals on his family’s farm, so as not to dissuade readers from eating meat entirely and to create in them a sense of pride in eating animals raised “humanely.” When introducing CAFOs—Controlled Animal Feeding Operations owned by agribusinesses that raise and slaughter 99% of the animals consumed in America today—Pollan focuses almost solely on the dangers to human health posed by consuming the meat of the animals raised in these unsanitary, crowded facilities (Farm Forward). Evoking in his readers disgust toward contaminated meat and fear for their personal health, Pollan forces his readers to associate what they eat with the E. coli-ridden manure in CAFOs: “…[bacteria] can find their way from the manure on the ground to [the cows’] hide and from there into our hamburgers” (Pollan 82). Pollan’s decision to omit any discussion of CAFOs’ mistreatment of sentient beings from this chapter—except to remind readers that the meat “machines” “ha[ve], of course, […] quite different identit[ies]—as […] animal[s], I mean”—and to instead center his discourse on human health risks prompts his audience to ask, “Where can I buy meat that won’t give me a fatal infection?” rather than, “Where can I buy tofu since I no longer wish to contribute to the suffering of animals raised and slaughtered for human consumption?” (Pollan 81). By barely acknowledging the pressing aspect of animal suffering inherent in agriculture and centering his discussion on human health risks posed by CAFOs, Pollan prevents his readers from making a truly informed decision concerning their eating habits, and essentially chooses for his readers which of the aforementioned questions they ask.

Having succeeded in not deterring his readers from eating animals in general, Pollan calms their fears of unsanitary meat by presenting meat produced on Joel Salatin’s family-run farm in Virginia as a desirable alternative to that of CAFOs. In this chapter, Pollan strategically includes descriptions of the mistreatment of pigs raised on CAFOs juxtaposed with images of Salatin’s animals grazing in bucolic bliss to persuade his readers of the acceptability of eating meat from animals who have enjoyed supposedly happy lives. Pollan inspires pity in his readers toward the “tens of thousands of hogs [living on CAFOs who] spend their entire lives ignorant of earth or straw or sunshine, crowded together beneath a metal roof standing on metal slats suspended over a septic tank,” and evokes their sentiment of nobility toward Salatin, whose pigs “happily root” in the “hog heaven” of his farm (Pollan 218, 219). Even though Pollan previously attested not to “know enough about the emotional life of a steer to say with confidence that [the cows on CAFOs were] miserable, bored, or indifferent,” he now seems quite confident in attributing emotions of contentedness to the animals raised on Salatin’s farm in order to inspire a sense of comfort in his readers in knowing that Salatin provides enjoyable lives for his animals before slaughtering them for human consumption (Pollan 80). Would his animals find the latter event enjoyable, as well? Pollan’s mention of the “ham salad” that he ate for lunch on Salatin’s farm coupled with his use of phrases like “morally powerful” and “integrity” imparts to his readers the pride he takes in eating animals raised by Salatin and appeals to the anti-industrial tendencies he has evoked in his audience from detailing the injustices perpetrated by CAFOs (Pollan 219, 235). Even though Pollan displays a sheer lack of respect for animals by eating the flesh of pigs in front of the living beings from which it came—an act devoid of any moral integrity—he intends for his readers to regard it as noble. Pollan’s prioritization of taste preferences over the continuation of an animal’s life proves so powerful that he cannot realize the ethical problems in doing so, rendering it impossible for him or the audience hanging onto his every word to question such a prioritization or to consider the possibility of abstaining from eating meat altogether.

Pollan disenfranchises vegetarianism as an ill-considered, undesirable lifestyle in order to further justify omnivory to both himself and his readers. He accomplishes this by creating a wall between his readers and vegetarians by “othering” the latter group, as well as invoking in his readers a feeling of defensiveness toward animal rightists. Pollan begins his discussion of vegetarianism’s inherent flaws by summarizing the arguments of Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and father of modern philosophy against exploiting animals to serve human means. Prefacing Singer’s theories by stating that they “thr[e]w [him] and [his] meat eating […] on the defensive,” Pollan prompts his fellow meat-eating readers to feel wary of and adversarial toward both Singer and the rest of the animal rights community (Pollan 307). Presenting animal rightists as manipulative—“Bentham here is playing a powerful card”—and overly demanding—“For Singer [the fact that animals are of a different species than human beings is] not good enough”—Pollan dissuades readers from wanting to associate with this radical “fringe movement” (Pollan 308, 305). Pollan further appeals to his readers’ instinctual desire to belong to a group of strong social standing (aka omnivores) by asserting that omnivory “is […] more sociable, at least in a society where vegetarians still represent a relatively tiny minority” and that “what troubles [him] most about [his temporary] vegetarianism is the subtle way it alienates [him] from other people” (Pollan 313, 314). To erase the final speck of consideration his readers might have still harbored toward vegetarianism up to this point in his book, Pollan satirizes vegetarians as annoying and “preachy” to recall in his readers the memory of their past interactions with bothersome vegetarians: “Like any self-respecting vegetarian (and we are nothing if not self-respecting) I will now burden you with my obligatory compromises and ethical distinctions” (Pollan 313). (Side note: if Pollan takes such issue with “preachy” individuals, perhaps he should reconsider his own deification of Salatin, from whom Pollan asserts that “buying a pastured [chicken] […] qualifies as an act of social, environmental, nutritional, and political redemption” [Pollan 241].) Who could blame Pollan’s audience from clinging to their meat-eating in order to avoid fraternizing with such an offending group of people? However, a more critical reading of Pollan’s emotional manipulation of his audience reveals his use of ad hominem to personally attack animal rightists rather than their arguments, against which he actually says quite little. This employment of a logical fallacy to defend his omnivory exposes the threatened nature of his responses to vegetarianism, as well as his unwillingness to fully ruminate upon the logical reasons individuals offer for living in such a manner. A distinct image of a Pollan with his fingers plugged into his hears singing, “La-la-la-la-la!” springs to mind.

Even though Pollan acknowledges the ethical implications of eating meat, he refuses to extend his consideration of these implications to “humanely raised” meat due to his fierce attachment to his own desire to eat meat and the gustatory pleasure he receives from doing so. Pollan thus reveals his goal in writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma to persuade his audience of the acceptability of eating animals in order to justify his own moral dilemma—the real “omnivore’s dilemma”. Though in his investigation of America’s industrial food chain Pollan attempts to foster a deeper connection with the food he eats, he instead ultimately succeeds at developing a stronger relationship with his meat-eating by emotionally distancing himself from the animals killed to satisfy his tastebuds. Indeed, Pollan outright asserts that he “would simply rather not be reminded of exactly what meat is or what it takes to bring to our plate” (Pollan 304). Encouraging his readers to maintain the cognitive dissonance in their eating habits already conditioned by an omnivorous society, Pollan engages in quite the example of irresponsible journalism by essentially perpetuating the pervasiveness of violence toward marginalized beings in our society. The Omnivore’s Dilemma thus does not “reveal the greater issues” with today’s American diet nor “set standards for ethical eating,” as praises from The New Yorker and Los Angeles Times contend, respectively. Instead, it self-servingly seeks to justify Pollan’s own petty desire to continue consuming meat while creating a cult of ardent omnivores to protect Pollan against the unappetizing reality—in terms of animal suffering, human health, and the environment—of eating animals.

Works Cited

Farm Forward. “Factory Farming.” Farm Forward. Farm Forward, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2013. http://www.farmforward.com/farming-forward/factory-farming.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

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4 thoughts on “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Petty Justification of Eating Animals

  1. Pingback: Need a new book? | go green cuisine

  2. I find this kind of ridiculous. Michael Pollan managed to encase convincing evidence of pretty much exactly why everything with the modern food system is wrong. There is no moral problem with eating meat, everybody dies. If animals are raised humanely, there’s no issue with eating their tasty meat. Maybe if animal rights activists stopped pushing for people to stop eating meat based on some made up moral problem then they would actually get somewhere. I don’t have a problem with your preference not to eat meat; I respect it, I’m sure its much healthier. But you aren’t going to convince a worthwhile enough amount of people to stop eating meat to make a change, so why don’t you spend your time spreading knowledge about the industry and policy flaws that could actually be changed, and pushing for reform?

    Cheers

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