By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
“As bad as it is to use euphemisms, it seems even worse when a word like ‘meat’ isn’t even thought of as a euphemism by people.” – Mike Spurlino
“The word meat is likely the most overused euphemism of them all.” – Craig Cline
Drawing by Leslie Goldberg. “With friends like these . . .”
When asked in the past if I ate meat, I used to say “No.” When pressed whether this included chicken and fish, I said “Yes.” Now when the question comes up, I say, “I don’t eat animals.”
In 1974 I stopped eating animals after reading Leo Tolstoy’s essay describing his visit to a Moscow slaughterhouse. Before that, I was, I regret, an avid meateater. I did not make the connection, before Tolstoy’s essay, between “meat” and animals. That essay, “The First Step,” changed everything. I instantly became one of those people who, in the words of former chicken slaughterhouse worker Virgil Butler and his partner Laura Alexander, “could no longer look at a piece of meat anymore without seeing the sad face of the suffering animal who had lived in it when the animal was still alive.”
Picturing the face of an animal in a piece of meat after Tolstoy’s revelation, I felt sick of meat, and now I am sick of the word “meat.” Why?
“Meat” versus “Flesh”
Philosopher John Sanbonmatsu writes in “Why ‘Fake’ Meat Isn’t“: “Only in recent decades have we come to associate the word ‘meat’ exclusively with the flesh of animals. The word derives from the Old English mete, for food, nourishment or sustenance.”
But do we in fact associate the word “meat” with the flesh of animals in modern industrial society? I think we do not. The word “meat” in contemporary experience is separate from the animals the “meat” comes from, whatever its association with animals and their flesh at a time when raising and slaughtering animals was an integral part of everyday life on farms and in cities and towns.
Unlike “meat,” the word “flesh” conjures more readily the fact of a once living creature. While the meat from an animal is indeed dead flesh, it evokes less an animal’s body and more just food, whatever the food’s origin. “Flesh” is more complex and inclusive by comparison. By standard definition, it is “the soft substance consisting of muscle and fat that is found between the skin and bones of an animal or a human.”
Consider further that in the Bible, “flesh” is not just a synonym for meat; rather, it encompasses living creatures, seemingly of all species, as in Isaiah 40.5: “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Forgetting “Meat” is Dead
So detached from the animals from whom “meat” is obtained are most people in modern society that I believe few even think about meat as something that is dead. What starts as the conscious employment of euphemism by exploiters and market manipulators morphs through conventional usage into a nearly or completely unconscious linguistic and perceptual event, similar to how the animals are transubstantiated literally into edible products called “meat,” divorced from living creatures and the violence that meat represents.
An article in the February 1, 2020 issue of TIME magazine, “How China Could Change the World by Taking Meat Off the Menu,” says that “Until recently, the primary motivation for people to shun meat was concern for animal welfare. Not anymore.” This article provides an encouraging look at the growing appeal of plant-based foods in industrialized countries. But, I wonder, when were the majority of people motivated to shun meat out of concern for animal welfare? Animal rights activist Cynthia Cruser wrote to me that the article “mentioned animal welfare only once, and referred to it as some irrelevant passé subject which has been replaced by really important matters.”
Animal Welfare, Animals’ Rights, Animal-Free
Indeed, the term “animal welfare” is itself a euphemism, akin to a dead metaphor, “which has lost the original imagery of its meaning by extensive, repetitive, and popular usage.” But the euphemism “animal welfare” is not only dead: it’s a lie that reduces the animals and their human-caused misery to an abstraction that amounts to nothing more at best than abusing animals less abusively, less traumatically, less horribly.
Those who speak approvingly of “animal welfare” compound the problem by defining it illogically as treating the animals “more humanely.” But you cannot treat animals who by definition are being treated inhumanely, “more humanely.” Animal welfare is an institutionalized term referring to animal use that, as such, precludes the animals so used from truly faring well.
Even the term “animal rights” can obstruct the animals from view. For this reason, Veda Stram, managing editor of the All-Creatures.Org newsletter and website, has proposed a shift from speaking of “animal rights” to saying “animals’ rights” in order to keep the animals in sight.
Of course, we can’t always avoid the term “meat” in our advocacy, but we could say flesh a little more often than we do, and we could put the animals into discussions of food more frequently. That said, it’s wonderful seeing the words “vegan” and “plant-based” appearing more and more often on food, household, and personal care products. Time was when these terms never appeared in a supermarket.
In addition to “vegan,” “plant-based,” and “plant-powered,” I like to call vegan products animal-free. This puts the animals into focus and links them to the concept of liberation – their liberation and ours. “Free” conveys a welcome release from all sorts of captivity: Animal-free, egg-free, dairy-free, meat-free sound inviting, compared with “eggless,” “meatless,” and the like, which evoke blandness and deprivation.
Knowing Where Your Food Comes From
Thinking about putting the faces of animals back into the “meat” as an escape from euphemism and the dissociation of meat from animals, I’m aware that this project is also that of people who, in the opposite direction, enjoy slaughtering their own animals. Such people describe their pleasure in turning a living creature into something dead. They refuse “not knowing where your food comes from” and tout their liberation from such ignorance.
Similarly, the belief that “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian” is contradicted by people who prefer to select their own animals to be killed in front of them or behind a blood-spattered curtain in a live or “wet” animal market. They are not deterred by the sight or smell of suffering or the cries of the animals being slaughtered. Asked about it, they state a preference for this experience over buying meat in a supermarket.
One Day, All Flesh May Be Free
There is no shortcut to getting the majority of people to care enough about the animals who suffer and die for food to stop eating them on that account alone, whether the animals are visible or invisible. It’s exasperating, but we cannot succumb to frustration. Rather than give up, we must realize that the journey toward animal liberation has only just begun, and that we must stay the course in pursuit of the day when all flesh will, with our persistence, we hope, see this glorious day together. – Karen Davis
KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl (Lantern Books, 2019).