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Michael Pollan and Anthropomorphism

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Michael Pollan and Anthropomorphism

By James McWilliams
August 2012

If only Pollan and his foodie followers would own the emotions they project onto animals, validate them, and, thusly empowered, take on the food system as vegan revolutionaries rather than pandering scribblers twisting logic at every turn so they can have their elite cut of meat and eat it too.

Michael Pollan anthropomorphism eating animalsMichael Pollan, in his Houdini-like efforts to escape the ethical implications of eating animals, has come down hard on the practice of anthropomorphizing. Speaking in a PBS interview, he said of cows, “I’m very careful not to anthropomorphize them.” This stance is common among the Pollanites in the sustainable food movement.

First off, a clarification. In praising anthropomorphizing, as I’m preparing to do, I am not suggesting that humans should exclusively view animals through the lens of human characteristics. That would be an intolerable form of speciesism. We must recognize—imagine, really—that different species have qualities and feelings independent of our own. That said, the art of responsible anthropomorphizing—by projecting human emotions onto non-human animals—acknowledges our shared evolutionary heritage with those animals.

It confirms that my experience of suffering has a counterpart in the suffering of another species. I’m speaking about anthropomorphizing, in essence, as a basic way for humans to connect with and better understand the emotional lives of animals, however impartial that understanding may be. (Maybe there is a better word for what I’m doing?

Anyway, why do Pollan and the foodie hordes reject the idea of anthropomorphizing? I think it’s a defense mechanism that serves the purpose of maintaining distance between the human heart and the emotional richness of the farm animals we raise and kill for food we don’t need. Rather than exploring the implications of what benefits studious anthropomorphizing might bring, it makes more sense for those who refuse to confront the ethics of unnecessary animal exploitation to dismiss anthropomorphizing as sentimental, unscientific, and weak-minded.

Acknowledging its potential power to inspire a change of heart raises too many problems for those unprepared to fully explore the deeper meaning of their food choices. (As a side note, every one of these deniers of anthropomorphism should pick up Jenny Brown’s new book, The Lucky Ones, a book I’m still reading–and loving–and will be writing about in the near future.)

Even the most inveterate deniers of anthropomorphizing, however, cannot avoid doing it. This includes Pollan himself. Writing about pigs housed in concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs), Pollan (in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) engages in the best kind of thoughtful anthropomorphizing. He notes how radical hog confinement results in a “depressed pig,” a “demoralized pig,” and a pig divorced from his “natural predilections.” When he visited a free-range farm swarming with pigs being pigs, Pollan admitted that he “couldn’t look at their tails . . . without thinking about the fate of pigtails in industrial hog production” (where tails are docked.) Noting that pigs in confined circumstances experience a “learned helplessness,” he comments, “it’s not surprising that an animal as intelligent as a pig would get depressed under these circumstances.”

Gotcha, Michael. And good for you for letting down your guard. These remarks are genuinely persuasive examples of Pollan’s thoughtful observation of animal life. Whether intending to or not, Pollan–due to his sharp anthropomorphic gaze–is connecting with pigs through the lens of human emotion, confirming that they do indeed have intrinsic worth independent of humans, and acknowledging, in essence, that their lives matter enough not to be treated like inanimate objects, as they are in the industrial settings that Pollan has so brilliantly exposed and eloquently despised.

If only Pollan and his foodie followers would own the emotions they project onto animals, validate them, and, thusly empowered, take on the food system as vegan revolutionaries rather than pandering scribblers twisting logic at every turn so they can have their elite cut of meat and eat it too.