Last night I went to Stanford to watch John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, and Bruce Friedrich, an old school animal rights advocate, debate two members of the Stanford debate team. The specific question asked in the debate was “is eating meat ethical?”
I think about this question constantly. I’ve read a ton of stuff from all the major animal rights thinkers, I’ve been to many ranches, I’ve seen animals slaughtered, I’ve rocked a vegan diet for years at a time, and I’ve watched countless youtube videos and debates about the subject. I’m about as informed on the subject as you might want to get and this is where I stand: it’s probably better not to eat meat, but I still eat meat for no better reason than I like the taste, which is, on the surface, a very poor reason from an ethical standpoint. Though, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of an aesthetic angle that shifts the calculus of the argument a bit. Right now it’s not that good of an argument.
If you’re competing in a formal debate setting, arguing in favor of eating meat is pretty difficult. The vast majority of the science seems to back up veganism as the healthiest and most utilitarian diet available. Your paleo/Crossfit types can usually be counted on to bring up some blogger debunkings of The China Study (which have also been debunked in a kind of Inception of debunking, it’s just turtles all the way down man) or a fringe definition of health that cheers for cholesterol and whatnot. I’ve read all that stuff as well, but it just doesn’t seem to be as vetted as the mainstream science.
Pro-meat people generally do one of two things in a debate. First, they try to prove that meat is actually not all that harmful to your health or the environment. They might even concede that though some meat is bad, there are some magical meats so nutritious you’d be a dumb ass not to eat them. These arguments are usually easy to argue against if the opposition and audience aren’t too opposed to mainstream science.
Second, they’ll walk out some kind argument that relies on the fact that humans have eaten meat all throughout history, on every continent, and that it’s our god given right to eat all of JEHOVAH’s creatures. These arguments are much more interesting because they get into our history and our future as a species. If there is a possibility to make an aesthetic case for eating meat that outperforms a utilitarian argument, it’s to be found somewhere in this neighborhood.
If you want to hear an excellent debate, make time to check out the IQ2 Debate, Don’t Eat Anything with a Face. It features some real heavy hitters on both sides. Arguing for the motion was Dr. Neal Bernard (cardiologist) and Gene Bauer (animal rescuer); arguing against, Chris Masterjohn (diet guru) and Joel Salatin (famous rancher). The vegans stomped the meat guys in this debate, though partly because Salatin weakened his side by trying to reframe the resolution as something like “you shouldn’t eat anything with a face unless it comes from my swell farm.” You have to be really slick to pull off trickery with the resolution. Salatin would’ve been far better served by sticking to his rural charms and environmentalist bona fides. Masterjohn isn’t a dullard, but he was simply outclassed by Dr. Bernard on health points.
I should really walk this stuff out more, but I’m going to table the deeper analysis of the specific things you might bring up as arguments in favor of talking about the specific debate last night.
Mackey and Friedrich wiped the floor with the Stanford debaters, which really surprised me. I thought Stanford Law students on the debate team would be much better prepared. They picked the most easily debunked pro-meat positions (“bro, you need protein, bro”) and did nothing to counter the vegan points.
Honestly, the City College Debate Club had way more talent back when I was an undergrad (I wasn’t on the team, a serious regret of mine).
If I was given the chance to debate the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you better trust and believe I’d go as hard as I could to crush him or her. In a debate, even if you are wrong and don’t have the evidence on your side, you should still be able to advance positions that score points and chop away at your opponent’s arguments. Hell, you should at least make the crowd laugh. These kids were terribly prepared and lost badly.
The real show took place before the debate. About 15 animal right activists in the crowd staged a chanting style protest, imploring John Mackey to end the sale of animal products at Whole Foods Market. They held the floor for about 20 minutes, chanting and holding up placards that said, “What is Whole Foods Hiding?”
Here’s the deal, Whole Foods isn’t hiding anything. I work there, so you can take my word or leave it, but everything these protestors are worried about is completely transparent. You might not like what Whole Foods is up to and you might even be fair in thinking John Mackey is an appropriate personality to engage with this stuff, but no one is hiding anything. I actually expected to work for Whole Foods for just long enough to find out how evil it was on the inside.
Truthfully, I was a little disappointed to find the people who work for Whole Foods are a stand up bunch of primates. I thought I’d be able to write a killer book about how much it sucked, instead I ended up with a pretty good career.
Back to the protestors. I admire these folks for having the sand to get in front of a crowd of people and make some noise for what they believe in. I don’t think what they did last night was in any way effective. I’d guess at least half of the crowd (including the protestors) were already vegetarian or have some kind of raised food consciousness. If they had stuck around, they would’ve seen Mackey and Friedrich make great arguments and win the debate.
For me, the best, most compelling form of vegan activism is living a life that’s so vibrant and kickass you can’t ignore it. I’m thinking of people like John Joseph (Cro-Mags) and Rich Roll. Looking fit and doing well in academics or athletics is, to my mind, essential to selling people on all this vegetable shit.
I’m going to start a 90 day vegan challenge as of right now and it’s not because of the protestors. It’s because of the strength of John Mackey’s arguments and the performance I’m seeing from some of these crazy ass YouTube people (ALSO, IT IS TO BE NOTED MY WIFE IS A HARDCORE VEGAN AND WILL CLAIM SOME RESPONSIBILITY). As I go forward with this, I’m going to write about it, so if you want to read more about anything I skimmed over above, mention it in the comments.