Those close to me have learnt that it is impossible for us to watch cookery programmes of the Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall variety together. He enrages me, along with most of his pig wrangling, orchard pruning friends. It’s not him as a person, per say, I do enjoy his squiffy hair and poetic nuances, rather it’s an attitude that he represents and that many people display: Hugh claims to care deeply about an animal’s welfare and yet thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to kill and eat that animal for no good reason (other than the satiation of his rustic fantasies!). This seems inconsistent to me, verging on hypocrisy. I cannot quite get my head around how you can care about a creature and still condone it’s murder. This is the topic that will test me more than any other in finding a balanced discussion, but I’ll have a good go.
So, as I’m squirming on the sofa, watching the joy with which Hugh slaps his beloved pigs on the rump and sends them to slaughter with a chilling smile, what can we say about his behaviour?
In fairness to Hugh, he’s just jumping on the bandwagon. Animal welfare is, quite rightly, a hot topic at the moment – it shows that thankfully people are starting to take an interest in where their food comes from, but it’s had this peculiar effect.
I think it comes down to a fundamental clash between desire and conscience – with increased exposure to the reality of the meat industry, and the surge of interest in alternative ways of living – for the health of mind and body – people are feeling some discomfort with their behaviour. We are starting to think about what eating meat entails, whether it’s good for us and what it means to have an animal suffer and die for our benefit, but jarring against this growing awareness is our desire and the enjoyment we take from a good meal. Pleasures of the flesh, so to speak, are ancient – a cultural norm that we have taken for granted for centuries. Meat represents luxury, energy and satisfaction. This new germ of guilt is uncomfortable – it needs to be assimilated with the things we want, and the things that we believe we need. Such disorder in our values makes us uneasy – I think this is what has led Hugh and so many others to the puzzling conclusion that it’s okay to eat the meat providing we have done everything we can to ensure that an animal’s life is comfortable up until the point of death – the death itself becomes a sort of blind spot. We have developed some moral interest in each step of the animal’s life – from the way it is reared, the conditions in which it is kept and the way it is slaughtered. This moral input seems to satisfy our collective conscience and means we can go back to enjoying our steak dinners with a patched up moral framework in place.
What’s the other alternative then, to this skewed thinking? Sometimes, during one of my more savage outbursts (usually Hugh fuelled) I might declare that it would be better for people give up the pretence of caring all together – at least that would show some consistency. Perhaps the fretting masses should either stop eating meat or just remove themselves from the moral debate altogether, admit that they do not care about the animal’s life or its death and enjoy their meat without a trace of guilt. But that doesn’t really solve the problem, and it leaves us with a nation of callous and barbaric individuals – which I don’t for a moment believe to be the case. People do feel guilt, it’s evident in everything we have discussed so far, and it’s promising!
People aren’t going to stop eating meat overnight, if it is going to happen it will be in increments, so maybe we should embrace the ‘Hugh effect’, for all its inconsistency, as a positive sign of changing attitudes and behaviours. All of us are guilty of some hypocrisy or inconsistency if we examine our behaviour closely enough. That’s part of being human. But there are ways we can moderate our behaviour to do the best we can in the circumstances we find ourselves in – fortunately we are seeing the wobbly start of evolving attitudes. So of course it’s better that Hugh treats his animals with respect while they are alive. The next step is to ask ourselves: would it not be better still if those animals just went on living?