On meat, fat and trolls

David Benatar replies to Jake Gordin, and some of the responders on the comment section

Jake Gordin ("Missing the Meat of the Matter", Politicsweb, 29 April 2013) has replied to my criticism of his article on the uselessness of student activism. He makes lots of concessions and strikes a more reasoned and less dismissive tone. These are to be welcomed.

He suggests, however, that I have focused on the fat and missed the meat of his article, namely that student activism is useless unless "the issue in question is taking place in the same country as the university and thus student activism will have the issue continuously banging its head against the country's front door". Whether or not that claim is true it is inapplicable to eating meat, which is taking place in this country (among others).

Mr Gordin also says that I have misunderstood the last part of his argument. He says that he was not presenting his own view but instead that of the meat industry which, he said, would be unmoved by student vegetarian activism. I agree that part of his point was about the meat industry's perspective, but he also said that "killing animals ... [is] not wrong, it's how life works" in a paragraph that seems to be speaking about him and his fellow meat eaters, not the meat industry.

It is, of course, true that the meat industry is unlikely to be persuaded of its wickedness. As Upton Sinclair said, it "is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." However, that does not mean that it is impossible to bring about change. If one can incrementally bring about a decrease in demand for meat, the opinions of the meat industry will simply be moot. When there is less demand they will have to provide less.

While I am fully cognizant of the obstacles to bringing about changes of mind, there is ample evidence that such change can be brought about, albeit slowly. Activists, whether student or otherwise, can play a part in bringing about such change. Slavery was a massive industry, providing financial benefit to those who captured and sold slaves, those who transported them, and those who purchased and used them. Yet that industry did eventually come to an end in some places (even if it still persists in some forms in other places). There is enough to be pessimistic about without clinging to the erroneous view that "economic and industrial behemoths" cannot be brought to their knees (or, failing that, at least reduced in size). Indeed clinging to such beliefs is the surest way of making the prophecy self-fulfilling.

Since Mr Gordin now presents a more open-minded approach, I renew my suggestion that he take some Philosophy courses and most especially Applied Ethics. He'll find that there is much to learn. He'll also see how much we enjoy good humour, including delicious jokes about eating animals. (My "beef" is not with humour. It's a good sauce to serve alongside measured, clear and careful argument when one is serving a serious intellectual meal. However, if humour is the main course, it belongs in places where people go for that sort of meal - the "happy meal" or perhaps the "funny meal".)

In contrast to Mr Gordin's conciliatory tone, his willingness to make concessions and the early signs of his willingness to consider the arguments, we find the many trolls lurking on the Politicsweb site. The overwhelming majority of them are incoherent and barely literate. (Witness, for example, the grammatical and spelling errors, and the resultant negative impact on clarity.) They seem to think the strength of a point is proportional to the degree of the invective.

The most intemperate of them are typically those who lack the courage even to identify themselves by their proper names. They add nothing of value to the issues being discussed. I strongly recommend that Politicsweb consider a policy (as, for example, the Daily Maverick has - see here) of requiring those adding comments to the site to identify themselves publicly under their proper names. This may elevate the level of the discussion and contribute to the civility of discourse.

David Benatar is Professor and Head of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town.

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