This year I began an imperfect journey towards vegetarianism, and it all started with Okja.
In May I took refuge in Buddhism, and one of the five precepts I undertook was that I would abstain from taking life. On the surface that’s easy – we don’t run around killing people – but the way Buddhism talks about life makes the whole question more complicated. In Buddhism we talk about not causing harm to ‘sentient beings,’ and science has caught up with Buddhism – if it has a nervous system, it’s probably sentient. The idea is that if it can feel pain you should avoid giving it pain.
So I had been working with that concept on a very small level – I started avoiding killing insects – when I began reading a book called Sapiens. It’s a history of homo sapiens from an evolutionary standpoint, and at one point late in the book the author makes an extraordinary claim: current factory farming practices are the greatest atrocity in which humanity has ever participated.
That sounds big when we have people among us who remember the Holocaust, but then you look at some of the numbers. 50 BILLION animals are raised and slaughtered in factory farms every year. That’s like 137 million A DAY.
Now, I’m not against eating meat per se. I don’t believe I am above or beyond the food chain. The problem, rather, is that factory farming is designed to be unfathomably cruel, and that’s where Okja comes in.
The very day I read these passages in Sapiens I attended a press screening of Okja. I knew nothing about the Bong Joon-ho film except that it was about a kid and a giant pig, and I certainly had no clue it would contain a factory farming message. But there I sat in the theater at Netflix HQ, Sapiens in my lap, and saw factory farming dramatized.
Here’s the thing: not only does Okja not sensationalize or sentimentalize factory farming, it actually underplays it. I really respect the film’s restraint, especially in never making Okja herself a truly anthropomorphized being. Okja, for all her specialness, remains an animal, but she’s an animal whose feelings we can understand. Just as we can understand the feelings of the animals we keep as pets.
I don’t really want to get into the horrors of factory farming here – they’re too numerous and upsetting and recounting them only makes this into one of those screeds that turns off meat eaters – but they’re profound. Watch Okja and then imagine what is done to the super pigs being done to your dog or your cat. What separates your pet from a cow, or from a real pig? Why do you think it would be cruel to do that to a dog, but not to a pig?
That’s what it all comes down to – cruelty. I will happily, and with gusto, eat beef that comes from a cow raised on a farm in good conditions and slaughtered humanely. I fucking love burgers so much. But the apocalyptic nature of factory farming – the intense suffering that is part and parcel of the process – has turned me into an 80% vegetarian (I struggle to move past eating fowl).
It’s all about suffering. Are the animals suffering? It seems that, from an objective point of view, they certainly are. There’s no question. We can discuss intelligence or souls or whatever nonsense you want to get into, but before we get into that we must establish one thing: animals can suffer. We have all seen it happen. Suffering is a bad thing. We know that we don’t like it when we suffer. Therefore it is wrong to knowingly and purposefully make anything that can experience suffering suffer. We have animal cruelty laws that make it illegal to treat your dog the way factory farmers treat their pigs, because we understand that it’s wrong to do that to a being that can suffer.
Once you begin to look at it this way it’s so obvious that you’re going to have to actively put it out of your mind to eat meat in the future. The question isn’t whether you, as an apex predator, deserve to eat a cow. It’s whether the cow deserves to suffer for your burger, and the cow is for sure, no question, scientifically guaranteed to be suffering badly in factory farming conditions.
Here’s the most controversial thing I’ll say here: I reject humanism, the current popular belief that human beings are the most important things in the universe. We are just animals with bigger brains. I don’t think we’re any more special than a pig or a bee or a dog. I think we’re all equally unspecial, but I also think we’re all equally deserving of peace and ease. I think it’s hypocritical to discuss human rights over a plate of hamburgers that were tortured to death. If you care about humans being cruel to humans, you should care about humans being cruel to other animals.
You know how George Takei joking around on Howard Stern under different cultural mores has become evidence against him on the stage of public opinion? That’s your Instagram feed of brunch bacon, 50 years hence. As it becomes easier and more reasonable and equally delicious to eat foods that require little to no cruelty, factory farming will slowly become exposed for the horror it is. And your complicity in it will, for future generations, mark you as a savage. Just as behavior and language that was perfectly acceptable forty years ago will today end careers and reputations, so modern diets will one day soon paint you as a monster.
Okja and Sapiens were big turning points for me, but maybe one of the biggest came from my friend Allie Goertz, who is one of the rare vegans who isn’t annoying about it. She was talking to me about veganism and I said to her, “I would like to cut out meat, but I just love burgers too much,” and she replied, “You think I don’t love burgers?”
It was such a small thing, but it stuck with me. Too often I see vegans who seem to have begun life at a place where they didn’t really like meat, or who can’t enjoy dairy anyway because of digestive issues. Too many vegans tell carnivores that you won’t miss the meat, that you’ll eventually lose your taste for it. But what Allie said resonated with me – yes, it’s a sacrifice. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Meat is fucking awesome, and bacon is heavenly. I miss bacon ALL THE TIME. I really miss pork in general.
But I don’t miss the idea of making a sentient being suffer for me to enjoy breakfast. And I believe that if enough people reject meat as it is currently produced we can, as a society, move back to a system where meat is raised and slaughtered humanely, with minimal to no suffering. But until a day like that comes, I just can’t take part in a system that is designed to make animals suffer.