26 April 2017
Hypocrites of Life
It was a beautiful sunny day, the azure sky obscured by only a few fluffy white clouds lazily rolling by. We were outside on the driveway with chalk, my five-year-old nephew and I, drawing what we hoped looked like zoo animals. I was in the middle of shading in my sadly distorted lion’s mane when I glanced up to see my nephew standing and grinding his foot in the pavement in the universal “squish-a-bug” twist. “Landon! What are you doing? Stop!” I called over to him, mildly horrified. He looked up with an innocent face. “Why auntie? It’s only an ant. It was crawling on my chalk,” he justified. “Because,” I say, “it wasn’t hurting you. You didn’t have to kill it. It’s wrong.”
Morals are principles and standard of living based on what conceived good behavior is. Right from wrong, black from white, as children we are taught acceptable behavior and are expected to comply to society’s rules. These values that have been in place, unchallenged, allow us to continue living in ignorant bliss of the inconsistencies within them. In reality, our morals are incredibly controversial, with exceptions and loopholes throughout for the sake of our conscience. In “Consider the Lobster” David Foster Wallace uses lobster as the backbone of his position on the moral ambiguity practiced when cooking and eating animals. Hal Herzog uses the paradoxical relationship between humans and animals to define what he calls “the troubled middle,” a morally gray area between the black and white in “Animals Like Us.” Taking a solid stance against the practice of embalming, Jessica Mitford exposes man’s fear of death in “The Story of Service.” Wallace, Herzog, and Mitford brutally exploit several long upheld American hypocrisies and force us to reconsider our preconceived orthodox morals.
We categorize animals based on their beneficial contribution to human life. For those who desire companionship, animals provide unconditional love and acceptance. Dogs, specifically have become ingrained into our lives so completely, half of all dog owners consider their dogs as family (Herzog 245). With the ability to convey emotions and intelligence, specific animals are ranked higher in value than others and therefore receive better treatment. However, animals that lack this ability are not so fortunate. Enter the lobster, whose relationship with us is boiled down—literally—to providing a delicious meal for “our gustatory pleasure” (Wallace 503). We have stuffed the lobster into our food category and ranked its meat as a delicacy, seafood equivalent to steak (Wallace 500). The lobster is in no way man’s best friend. Instead of loved for its emotional capacity, lobster is revered for its quality of meat. The hypocrisy lies in the perceived value of these animals, and how we decide which are morally acceptable to consume. Imagine if dogs were considered a delicacy, instead of the lobster, like in Korea “a puppy can be a pet or an item on the menu” and are known as meat dogs (Herzog 244). The thought of eating a dog, a companion we now think of as family is horrifying. Almost all animals have the capacity to act as a food source, yet we cringe at the thought of eating those we categorize as pets. By refusing to acknowledge this stark similarity, we continue this controversial treatment of animals, allowing the morality of our actions to remain concealed.
As humans, we find ourselves making excuses and justifications for killing animals. Wallace exploits the macabre fashion in which we prepare a lobster dinner—by boiling them alive. He points out how lobsters exhibit preference, a base analog to emotion, to not being boiled alive exemplified by “the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot…this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience” (508). But instead of facing the facts, we turn to less reliable sources that claim a lobster’s nervous system is so simple, it does not command the capacity to feel pain (Wallace 504). We placate our consciences by choosing to accept less reliable facts and figures, allowing us to continue justifying our actions towards the lobster. Likewise, Herzog says “I oppose testing the toxicity of oven cleaner and eye shadow animals, but would sacrifice a lot of mice to find a cure for cancer” (247). While Herzog denounces animal testing he also crucifies mice in the same sentence. Of course, none would argue that a mouse’s life is worth more than a human’s, so the profound defense for our actions remain. Whether gustatory or scientific, we justify the death of animals for our own personal gain to keep a clean conscience and maintain our high moral stature.
Of course, many will disagree on the grounds that there exists those who find the mistreatment of animals deplorable. Vegetarians and vegans believe in the rights of animals, thus refusing to indulge in consuming animals or using animal products. Yet, I have a friend who calls herself a “part time vegetarian.” While she abhors the industry’s treatment of mass produced animals, she loves a good chicken pad-Thai. Herzog notes this is oftentimes the case, with ex-vegetarians outnumbering current vegetarians in the United States by a ratio of three to one (242). While many try to for the moral high ground, more oftentimes than not our desires overshadow our opposition to killing animals.
Death has varying degrees of impact on our lives, depending on how it relates to us. We have become increasingly desensitized to death from a distance, death indirectly related to our personal lives. Wallace introduces us to the Maine Lobster Festival, where thousands of people attend to eat over 25,000 pounds of Maine lobster, all cooked in the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, the festival’s main attraction (204). Hundreds of lobsters are boiled alive in front of the crowd, suffering little to no moral quandaries on the mass murder of these animals. However, emotions become more complicated when death has a direct impact. We go through great lengths to obscure the face of death, employing morticians, to make our loved ones look peaceful. The body of the deceased is “sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, roughed, and neatly dressed,” and arranged to look more lifelike (Mitford 43). The industry employs its workers to use a distinct vocabulary, practicing deathless words such as “service, not funeral…casket, not coffin…deceased, not dead” to maintain the illusion that death is not present, not a corporeal thing that has occurred to our loved ones (Mitford 52). The first funeral I attended was for my uncle on my mother’s side, who passed away from a heart attack. I remember my father talking about what to expect for the funeral, specifically that the service included an open casket. He warned me that Uncle Larry wouldn’t look the same, that his face would be layered with cosmetics. My father stressed that I shouldn’t touch him, and when I asked him to elaborate he explained that my uncle would be cold, hard, not how people are supposed to feel and he wanted me to remember my uncle the way he was, boisterous, loud, full of life. I remember looking into the casket that day thinking my uncle’s face was a sad representation of what he should be. We employ funeral industries to make death ambiguous for our loved ones, yet eagerly feed into festivals centered around the death of hundreds of animals. We morally object death, go through great pains to hide its face, but only when it pertains to us, not animals, which we celebrate and look forward to.
Some of our moral limits are based on information or lack thereof about the world. By allowing ourselves to remain misinformed and unexposed we lead morally complicit lives. Herzog describes a situation in which a man read a copy of The Animals’ Agenda, influencing him to become a vegan, convinced his girlfriend to become a vegetarian. He also began to question the morality of keeping his pet cockatiel until he released it into the sky (a paradox in itself since the domesticated bird will not likely survive its newfound freedom) (243). It wasn’t until he read the magazine article and became informed about the treatment of animals that the man Herzog described completely realigned his morals and way of life. Being informed changes the way we view the world. Mitford speculates that the reason embalmers are reticent about the process is because it is “possible he fears that public information about embalming might lead patrons to wonder if they really want this service” for their loved ones (45). In my case, she was right; after reading her detailed exposure of the embalming process I’ve begun considering alternative forms to funeral services. Knowledge ultimately changes your outlook on life, shifting your morals and values you once thought were concrete.
We exist in a world not of black and white, but of grey, with exceptions and loopholes impounded exponentially upon themselves. The nature of our morals mirror that of the world we live in, constantly changing, complex. They shape our way of perceiving the world, helping us choose between right and wrong. When we call into question the controversies impressed within these principles, we are forced to reconsider our way of living. How do we decide the worth of a life? Why are some lives worth more than others? How do we justify our actions? As beings of higher intelligence, it is inevitable that we come across these moral quandaries. The way in which we choose to answer these questions represents the base of our moral selves, and determines the type of life we wish to live.
Herzog, Hal. “Animals Like Us.” Emerging: Contemporary Readings for Writers. Bedford/St.
Martin’s, 2010, pp. 241-248.
Mitford, Jessica. “The Story of Service.” The American Way of Death Revisited. Vintage, 1998,
Wallace, David Foster. “Consider the Lobster.” Emerging: Contemporary Readings for Writers.
Bedford/St. Martins, 2010, pp. 497-512.