I'd blogged about Nicolette Hahn Niman back in June when she'd written about taking on "Mad Cowboy" Howard Lyman in a "debate" in Berkeley. She's the wife of "happy meat" producing Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman and she publicizes that she's a vegetarian to present herself as a well-rounded commentator on the issue of whether or not it's ethical to use animals. The Nimans are still ranching, so it's no surprise that the missus would argue for the morality of eating (or otherwise exploiting) animals. I mean, it's her bread and butter, right?
Although in her debate with Lyman, Hahn Niman focused on attacking the environmental arguments that are sometimes used against animal agriculture, in her latest piece in The Atlantic ("Dogs Aren't Dinner: The Flaws in an Argument for Veganism"), she instead opts to attack the validity of comparing one species of non-human (e.g. pigs) to another (e.g. dogs) to educate others about this strange aspect of speciesism of which Gary L. Francione has written extensively in his books and on his website. She writes:
[L]ately, it seems as if every time I turn around, a vegan is insisting that feasting on a pork chop is morally equivalent to eating a hunk of dog meat. It's irrational, illogical, and hypocritical, they say, to treat pigs as meals but dogs as friends.Hahn Niman makes it clear that the thought of eating her own beloved dog is "mortifying" to her, but that regardless of being "pummeled with this argument at every turn" that she thinks it's full of flaws.
Custom and Culture, Oh My!
According to Nicolette Hahn Niman, people have let things like "income, geography, climate, culture, heritage, habit, and even, to a certain extent evolution" dictate what is or isn't food for years and holding a belief that it is wrong to eat dogs stems from this and that it's "no more contradictory to eat a pig but not a dog than it is to eat arugula but not purslane". She also asserts that the "glaringly obvious issue of relationships" gets ignored when people point out the irrationality of calling one animal "food" while calling the other "pet":
The human relationship with dogs is unique. For as many as 30,000 years, dogs have literally been indispensible [sic ]members of the human family. Quite naturally, many humans have qualms about eating a family member.So, just because something has come to be a certain way and has been a certain way for a long time, it's flawed to question that this has been so? I mean, once upon a time someone like Hahn Niman would not have been allowed to hold-- never mind express -- an opinion about the workings of the world. For a very long time in the West, a woman's place was in the home, tending to the needs of her husband and raising his children. When arguments were raised that women were as intelligent, as rational and as worthy as men -- that they were and are persons, those arguments were met with appeals to tradition and other such balderdash, as well.
Hahn Niman then goes on to talk about how different cultures have different taboos and how up until recently in Hawaii, for instance, it was quite ordinary to raise pigs and dogs for human consumption. She describes this as being a bit of an exception to how most of us in the West view dogs and goes on to talk about how the evolution of humankind's relationship with them -- the evolution of our assignment of a particularly use or role to them -- is what has established our present-day relationship with them, as well as what has led to the taboo that many hold dear against consuming them. Hell, Hahn Niman even quotes good old Temple "Down the Chute, Bossy!" Grandin to establish why it is that many humans won't eat dogs. I won't repeat her condensed history of canine domestication here, since you can read it for yourself in the article (and you may very well have read all about it before). It certainly explains one aspect of what feeds into our speciesism and explains our favoured treatment of one type of animal we've come to use, but is it really sufficient in indirectly providing a justification for why we should not consider whether to use and eat others?
So, Nicolette Hahn Niman tells us why many humans will not eat dogs. Her given throughout her piece seems to be that animals are here to be used by people and the majority of them to be eaten, with the exception of a favoured few such as domesticated members of the Canidae family who've found themselves a higher calling by being more useful to our ancestors than in just conveniently filling their bellies. The truth is, however, that these days Fido's role has less to do with helping us preserve our lives or to preserve the lives of our family members, and more to do with being a cute and fluffy giver of affection in the home. No doubt, as Hahn Niman suggests, the fact that dogs have ingratiated themselves to us and have come to be considered family members of ours comes as the result of the short stint by which canine-human relations were symbiotic. But do we really keep bringing dogs into our homes because we feel we owe them a favour for having helped our great-great-great-great-great-grandparents hunt once-upon-a-time?
We've conditioned ourselves to view dogs as off-limits when it comes to what we put on our plates, but are we incapable of factoring other things into our consideration of how we use animals now? For instance, when abolitionist animal rights advocates bring up speciesism, it's not to question how we've come to view this or that species, but rather, to point out that the criteria we use is sort of arbitrary unless we factor in what Francione illustrates in his work should be the only basic criteria determining whether or not we should use other animals: sentience. Hahn Niman argues that culture has shaped our culinary choices, but what animal advocates ask in talking about speciesism is that we dig further to consider the morality of animal use rather than shrug off this or that use and write it off to tradition. Are we not capable of becoming moral agents and of determining right from wrong and then making our choices according to this determination?
When comparing one animal to another, we are asking our fellow humans to consider the tortures we inflict on a certain species and to examine their justifications for it and whether those justifications would hold up if those same tortures were inflicted upon our beloved dogs. We point out that pigs have as much interest in living out their own lives as do dogs and that it's simply bizarre to exclude an animal such as a pig from the moral consideration we'd give to an animal such as a dog. We ask that instead of writing off this inconsistency to culture or tradition that people instead consider that the same reasons we would most viscerally protest putting a dog through the hell that we do animals raised for food are just as applicable to those animals we raise for food. Of course Nicolette Hahn Niman disagrees, which as it turns out is lucky for the beloved Great Dane she mentions in her article, but not so lucky for the animals she and her husband profit from as raise them and send them off to slaughter.
To learn more about speciesism, sentience and what we really owe non-human animals, please visit Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach.