Truth exists in various shades and titrations. If truth could be had pure and unfiltered, and it’s hard to say if it could be, people would revolt, as they do, by adding in other truths to filter out the hard ones. Is it true that animals have souls? What is a soul? Put more concretely, do millions and millions of animals like cows and pigs suffer greatly from confinement in tiny pens, separation from their babies and being herded to violent, bloody deaths so that we can have affordable meat?
OK, sure, yes, they do, it’s true, they may very well suffer greatly. And we, of course, wouldn’t like that either, being penned into tiny cells, having our offspring seized at birth, being herded to our murders. We wouldn’t like that at all. If we related too much to the feelings of animals destined to be meat we’d make the inevitable comparisons to Auschwitz and we’d be appropriately outraged.
So, in order to make the plain truth less horrible, more palatable, if you will, we add in other truths, and slightly adulterated truths: their meat is delicious, in proper portions and cooked the right way it is very nutritious, humans have always eaten animals, many animals eat other animals, our digestive tracts were designed to assimilate the proteins of meat, our teeth enable us to eat meat, people need to eat meat to survive, animals have much less self-awareness than humans, grass fed cows and free range chickens at least have a nicer, more natural life, etc.
My father joined PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) after his retirement when he had time to reflect on this industrial cruelty to animals. Although he continued to eat meat (I believe he stopped eating cow, and he had only once tasted pig), he ate meat much more sparingly and with a sense that it was wrong.
I’m not saying vegetarians are more moral than carnivores and omnivores, we have the easy example of Mr. Hitler to debunk that idea, but in order to eat and enjoy meat we have to forget that the dish on our plate was once part of an animal that felt affection, and sorrow, and fear. And, more than that, an animal that had lived a life of unimaginable pain and despair in order to be sold to us as meat for as low a price as we are able to pay.
I make all the necessary arguments when my shrimp dish arrives in a restaurant, and I’m challenged to reconcile eating once sentient sea creatures with my moralistic refusal to eat birds and mammals. I make some causal, slightly sheepish remark about their lack of higher consciousness– though I know the argument to be complete bullshit.
I do this because our kind can never do anything in good conscience without justifying it, no matter how feebly. This brilliant piece by David Foster Wallace says it all, in the moment he describes the supposedly unfeeling lobster’s clear preference for not being boiled alive.
Anyway, away from this uncomfortable animal/meat truth metaphor, and eschewing further practical arguments against the industrialized mass-killing machine that gives us affordable meat (preservation of the rain forest, reducing our carbon footprint, more efficient use of farm land, reducing diseases caused by diets of fatty meat, eliminating world hunger, etc.) and leaving aside the strong case for not eating fish either, let’s have a look at a controversy I’ve touched on regarding my father and his blond former friend and colleague. The subtle but undeniable nature of the truth may emerge, Rashomon-like, from their contrasting views of the terminal event in their friendship.
My father was very close to Gladys. My sister would probably agree that he loved Gladys, from the way he talked about her at the dinner table. They got each other, had similar dark senses of humor, could talk on the phone for long stretches, although they didn’t do it often, and laugh at terrible things. Gladys had divorced her husband after she got tired of being beaten on, but not before taking a frying pan to the man’s head. My father loved this image. I suppose part of him wished he’d grabbed the violent little tyrant who called him Sonny and given her head a couple of playful passes with a light skillet.
Gladys had sadness in her life. “Irv, I’m a barren woman,” she’d told my father, explaining a lot in a few words. My father and Gladys got each other and deeply appreciated each other, it was an uncomplicated mutual friendship. It might have been the deepest friendship either of them ever had.
My father and his blond friend had a more complicated relationship. Unlike Gladys, she both idolized (at first) and competed with my father. My father both supported and undermined her at every turn. It was simply his way, how he had learned to do it. She was a talented folk singer with a beautiful, pure voice and my father encouraged her to sing, although surely never without a quip about how neurotic she was to be so self-conscious with such a beautiful voice. This way he was able to compliment her and make her feel even more self-conscious at the same time.
I heard her perform before fairly large audiences a couple of times and she was great. My father invited her, a young WASP, to a Young Judaea function where she sang for an appreciative audience of Jewish teenagers. I remember that performance very well, my sister and I were sitting on the floor a few feet from her. She moved that crowd with her guitar, her beautiful voice, her passion. She led sing-alongs in the second part of her show that brought smiles to every face and it was inspiring to hear all those voices joined in hopeful song.
It was only later that I found out that she’d vomited shortly before the performance and was covered in cold sweat as she began singing those songs of social commentary and protest I remember so well. I can still hear her beautiful voice singing “here’s to you, my rambling boy, may all your rambling bring you joy…”
In hindsight it seems inevitable that the two, once so close, would have a falling out, just as it seems inevitable now that my father and Gladys, who had a much more uncomplicated friendship, never would. Inevitable, also, that irreconcilable sibling rivalries would rear up among these three surrogate family members, with my father in play. My father was a man who always took sides in the zero-sum world he lived in.
The three were at a conference where they would be presenting their work to some large, important audience. They had divided up what each of them would present and how they would present it. The conference was a big deal, as I recall it was sort of the culmination and validation of their years of work as the Office of Intergroup Relations at the Human Relations Unit of the Board of Education. The conference was at a hotel somewhere, and very prestigious, as I remember it.
It’s not hard to imagine the case of nerves each of them must have had right before they took the stage in that big auditorium. That there was some controversy over how they’d present their talk is undeniable now. There was disagreement afterwards over what the exact agreement had been. Evelyn (why pretend that’s not her name, or that she had no name?) got up to present her talk moments after either Gladys or my father had completely undermined the points she was about to make.
According to my father, that was Evelyn’s insane perception and her insistence on being right and far from what had actually occurred. The “agreement” she remembered was nothing more than what she had wanted to present all along, the very points they’d argued about. She had rejected the good counsel of Gladys and my father, become more and more contentious, and insisted on doing it her way, no matter what the rest of the group thought, no matter what the consequences for the group might have been.
It was, according to my father, part of her pathology, an escalation of her war to be right no matter what. That she quit the Unit soon after was, to my father, the proof that she was creating a pretext to feel like the innocent victim and to leave in righteous anger and start her next career, as a therapist, a career in which she could never be told she was wrong by anyone, unless that person was insane.
Evelyn’s story is equally straightforward. They had discussed how they’d present their work and each agreed to present a certain aspect of it. Everything had been agreed to beforehand. Evelyn had written and practiced delivering her remarks in accordance with that understanding. She was doing what they all agreed she should be doing. She even ran the speech by Gladys and my father shortly before the conference and they both told her it was good to go.
Then, right before she took the podium, one of them, in their remarks, cut the legs out from under her by undermining everything she was about to say. They had changed the script on her with no time for her to make any adjustments. Her speech, in this sudden new context, was now ridiculous and humiliating to deliver.
As she got ready to speak she was flooded with the terrifying feeling of having been betrayed by two people she loved and trusted. She could not remember a worse betrayal, she said, since early childhood. Her childhood, as she told it, was as horrendous as my father’s had been. In both cases it was their mad mothers who had made their early lives hell. As she took the platform, she felt like she was again standing in that hell.
I assume that both of these stories, Evelyn’s and my fathers, are essentially true. It’s not that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, either. Was there a misunderstanding? Apparently so. Was there anxiety, and rivalry, and the ultimate taking of sides? Yes. But undeniable truth is there in both accounts, and it is not somewhere in the middle.
This Solomon-like splitting of the baby so characteristic of our dualistic culture is one of the root causes of human idiocy, it seems to me. The truth is not to be found by a judicious balancing of both sides, though truths may weigh on both sides of an argument. The truth is in large part what was honestly felt by each of the parties, what motivated them to act as they did, and to feel justified. In this case, I don’t see anyone as lying or even distorting.
They are telling the story as they each perceived it and there is not even anything inconsistent in the two versions, except for the placement of blame and what is emphasized and what is left out. I can readily accept the basic truthful contours of both versions of this story.
In other cases there is much more truth on one side than on the other. Often this is most inconvenient, of course, and gives way to emotional screaming instead of actual intelligent discussion.
While it’s true that most scientists who study the climate predict dire events including disastrous sea level rise, and that many attribute much of the effect to the carbon human industry pumps into the atmosphere, there are other scientists who downplay the human role in global warming. The truth, as presented on fair and balanced outlets like Fox News, lies somewhere in the middle, we are told. The “debate” is shaped by its framing: there may be reasons to be alarmed but the alarmists must not be allowed to prevail over skeptics who deserve to have an equal say in the debate.
Which is probably as close as a profit driven corporate entity like Fox can ever come to the the truth of a given issue, given the demographics, the sponsors, the particular market place for their ideas. As a result, instead of an earnest search for solutions to vexing problems we get this “both sides of the debate must be heard” kind of infotainment. In the post-Fairness Doctrine age in which we live, Americans remain the most obstinate deniers of human involvement in climate change of any nation on earth. Climate change may be already dramatically playing out across the globe, but we suspect the motives of those who keep trying to make it front page news.
In fact, current day Evelyn will send you a series of learned articles actually proving that the whole climate alarmist thing is financed by people like Al Gore and George Soros who have a devious political agenda of their own. Though I disagree with that position, and it’s pointless to argue with someone who believes it with unshakable faith, her reflex to be right does not necessarily invalidate her view of what happened at that long-ago conference with my father and Gladys.
Nor, of course, does my father’s story seem lacking in truth. We see things as we must and in light of our lived experiences. Is it possible to be an honest, gentle, sensitive person who protects the weak, loves babies and animals, is a champion of social justice and also be a brutal and destructive prick capable of doing exactly what Evelyn accused him of, and worse? Absolutely.
You will see a vivid illustration of this when I describe my father’s vicious behavior toward my shy, vulnerable one-time girlfriend, Francoise. She was a beautiful caramel colored girl, the daughter of a French mother and an angry black G.I. His treatment of her the first time they met (and the only time) is a hideous example of a white ‘race man’ dedicated to racial equality, whose best friends were blacks and a hipster who hung out with blacks (who ended up driving himself into a fatal one car crash when his daughter was about to give birth to an arrogant black guy’s baby), behaving like Archie Bunker, Lester Maddox and George Wallace, rolled into one silent, glowering Jewish guy with mutton chop sideburns. I will untangle that last, long non-sentence for you in the coming days.