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Jonathan Safran Foer (with Aaron Gross, left) spoke to a packed Thorne Auditorium at Northwestern Thursday evening.

Beyond 'meat is murder': Jonathan Safran Foer talks vegetarianism at Chicago Humanities Week

by Sara Kupper
Nov 07, 2013


Sara Kupper/MEDILL

A ticket for the event.

Author Jonathan Safran Foer is a vegetarian and animal rights advocate, but he has a confession to make: “I actually don’t love animals, curiously enough.”

When he visited a farm for book research and surrounded himself with pigs and cows, Safran Foer couldn’t wait to leave. But “you don’t have to love an animal to say there are ways we shouldn’t treat them,” he said.

Safran Foer became a vegetarian at age 9. He has gone back and forth from vegetarianism “a dozen or two dozen times” since then, and his dietary and moral journey was the topic of a talk Thursday evening at Northwestern School of Law for Chicago Humanities Week. The talk served as a follow-up to the author’s 2009 examination of vegetarianism and the factory-farm industry, “Eating Animals.”

Guided by questions from Farm Forward CEO Aaron Gross, Safran Foer delved into the stories humans tell ourselves to justify our eating habits. One of his stories concerned his grandmother, who, while starving during the Holocaust, nevertheless refused pork from a Russian farmer because it was not kosher. “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save,” she told her grandson. Another story featured  writer Franz Kafka at a Berlin aquarium — Kafka could only look at the aquarium’s fish in peace after deciding he would never eat fish again.

Much of Safran Foer’s talk focused on the morality attached to the animal rights debate. Everyone agrees, he said, that it’s wrong to have a food system that is cruel to animals, and “76 percent of Americans agree that farms need stricter anti-cruelty measures … that’s broad to the point of sounding universal.” But people turn away from video footage of factory farms or even books such as “Eating Animals” because they don’t want to subject themselves to “a kind of low-level shame.”

The shame, he said, stems from animals’ ability to “represent parts of ourselves we want to forget” —our “animal instincts.” But when we forget about animals, he said, we begin to forget about ourselves.

Animal rights is an issue beyond the dichotomy of “meat is murder, or it’s not” and “you’re a vegetarian, or you’re not,” Safran Foer argued. Some may address the atrocities of factory farming by cutting meat out of their diet entirely; others may simply eat less meat because a total shift to vegetarianism would be too difficult. In our response to the problem of factory farms, people must be “more humble, more flexible, more appreciative of how complicated the world is and how messy it is to be a human being,” the author said.

Safran Foer’s audience of hundreds comprised young and old, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.

Nancy Chrystal, a proud vegan, brought her three vegetarian daughters to the talk — one of whom, she added, “went vegetarian because of [Safran Foer’s] book.”

Kyle Allen-Niesen and Carter Sherman, sophomores at Northwestern University, bought tickets not because of their eating habits, but because of their support for the author himself.

“He’s an incredible author,” Allen-Niesen said. “I watched his commencement speech at Middlebury [College] over the summer.” Sherman, meanwhile, counts Safran Foer’s 2002 novel "Everything is Illuminated" among her favorite books.

Dee Hannan attended Safran Foer’s talk to better understand her own humanity. The talk, she said, complemented a class she is taking at National Louis University on what makes us human and “the genetic basis for morality.”

Some members of the audience expressed dissatisfaction with the author’s approach, through pointed questions after the talk.

“What about supporting farms that raise animals ethically?” one woman asked, to which Safran Foer responded, “Supporting these farms is like supporting a factory that treats its child laborers well … the animals might have good lives, but it is not a system I can get excited about.”

Another man, a vegetarian of 30 years, declared himself “concerned” about Safran Foer’s “moralistic vein” and wondered whether wearing leather shoes made him a bad person.

Other audience members, however, delighted in Safran Foer’s treatment of the topic. “He’s good at conveying his thoughts without generic answers,” said Mauricio Herrera. Herrera, a vegan, runs the Vegan Chicago book club; "Eating Animals" is the first book the club read.

“He’s all about the middle. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, which is more approachable. There are so many people who can’t face the extremes,” Herrera said.

To those people — to all people struggling with eating animals — Safran Foer offered the following advice: treating animals properly “doesn’t require trillions of dollars, just to act on the morals we already have."