Here I think about our relationship with, attitudes to and use of animal flesh, including our own within modern industrialised societies.
I took this title from Mary Midgley’s The Myths We Live By (p. 143) and her context relates to a common Enlightenment dualism between mind and body and the progressive subjugation of the body established by René Descartes. In Midgley’s words:
When the sages of the Enlightenment deposed of God and demystified Mother Nature, they did not leave us without an object of reverence. The human soul, renamed as the individual – free, autonomous, and creative – succeeded to that post, and has been confirmed in it with increasing confidence ever since.
It was this soul (or mind) that determined a distinctly human rationality whereas the body was too closely aligned with other animals for civilization’s great project of human domination of nature. The latest ultimate guise of this way of thinking is that the body can be disposed of entirely, so according to the physicist Freeman Dyson:
It is impossible to set any limit to the variety of physical forms that life may assume…It is conceivable that in another 10 years life could evolve away from flesh and blood and become embodied in an interstellar black cloud…or in a sentient computer… Freeman Dyson, ‘Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe’, [Reviews of Modern Physics 51, 1979, pp447-60]
There are two clear indications of our attitude to flesh: nakedness and meat. The first manifests itself in an embarrassment of flesh and even a fear of it coupled with a confusion of naked flesh with sexual intention. The second involves the mass industrialised consumption of animal flesh as an ideology (carnism) whilst treating it as normal and natural human behaviour.
The other word for naked is nude which implies a more ideological or cultural stance – ie deliberately being naked for a particular purpose such as posing for a work of art. Naked is just our natural form without clothing. One advantage of clothing other than the obvious one of warmth and protection is that it promotes domesticity and emphasises our difference from other animals both of which are cornerstones of civilisation. As such, clothing has become normalised and any deviation is considered a deliberate act – nudity.
Nudity is most associated with art or entertainment – particularly pornography, it is a spectacle. This is why the naked body has become strongly associated with sexual activity. It is also one of the reasons so many of us are repulsed by nudity: Either the nude person’s physique will not satisfy culturally adopted notions of sexual aesthetics – or if it does, the perceived sexy display will not be appropriate at that time and particularly in public – it may well be regarded as a threat – especially if children are present.
Our own bodies are the most natural manifestations of our humanity and yet that humanity is met with indignence, embarrassment and fear. The annual World Naked Bike Ride challenges such reactions because it tends to be overtly fun with the participants clearly enjoying themselves. In my experience of taking part, onlookers tend to view naked cyclists with a mixture of amusement, bemusement and very occasionally disgust. I have discussed this event much further here.
Carnism is an ideology that most of its adopters are unaware of because they think that an appetite for flesh is normal and therefore unworthy of definition. By contrast they regard vegetarianism, pescetarianism and veganism as deviations from the norm that require definition. But the consumption of flesh in modern industrialised societies is not necessary as there is a plentiful supply of plant based foods with study after study showing that a well balanced plant based diet can exceed human nutritional requirements. There are also millions of vegans globally many of whom are extremely fit.
The carnist relationship to flesh is a complex one. It ranges from the squeamish to gluttony, but the general principle of meat consumption is packaging and particularly suppression of its brutal and violent production methods. Carnists are thus encouraged to forget that they are consuming flesh by having no contact with its living or mutilated form and the final product is well packaged and generally does not resemble a dead animal. While vegans may well be keen to get closer to the origins of their food and take part in its production, carnists are unlikely to even want to think about where their meat comes from.
So carnism presents a paradoxical relationship to flesh; a desire for it and a denial of it. However, we are talking about two different forms of flesh here: a desire for meat and a denial of the animal that was killed to obtain it. This separation might be more apparent were it not for a vastly lucrative food industry that invests millions of dollars, euros and pounds on advertising along with rituals such as Christmas, Thanksgiving day and Sunday lunch that promote a high consumption of flesh.
Carnists do not fear or hate the flesh of non-human animals in the same way as most of us fear or hate human flesh. But the tendency is to hate the idea of eating flesh which is why the word ‘carnism’ is not universally adopted and still doesn’t appear in most dictionaries. Likewise, nudity is the idea of being naked in public, but there is no equivalent definition to wearing clothes in public. As with eating meat, the idea is denied – our perverse separation from our humanity with our bodies and industrial slaughter obscured and normalised.
At the crux of this separation is our fraught relationship to flesh, one that the vast majority of us would rather forget. This relationship has been deeply ingrained within societies that have adopted industrial civilisation as their organising principle. Religion was used to tame our wildness and enforce a deeply ingrained subservience to God, the priest, and a vast strata of hierarchy. The Enlightenment heralded a new approach that would place an entirely rational human mind at the centre of the same morality that makes us behave ‘properly’ and work hard.
The denial of our flesh, its fear and hatred, are bound up in a morality that has been handed down over generations, prescribed and instilled into us at a very young age. We can be imprisoned for being naked in public yet remunerated for the mass slaughter for our fellow animals. We have a dangerously perverse hatred, fear and confusion of our own fundamental nature of flesh.