Jonathan S. Foer: Vegetarianism

“I am a hypocrite,” he announced, explaining why he wasn’t a vegan as well, but being a hypocrite was fine, as long as he did something good. It would easier, he stated, to live without opinions, but then you’d be taking the easy way out. You would simply not care. He acknowledges right off that no, everyone can’t be vegetarians. It would be an insurmountable challenge to convert the world. Then what is there to do?

Every person cares about animals—there is no one who thinks it is outright okay to kick a dog. But not everyone is willing to stop eating meat. And that’s the problem, Foer says, that there seems to be only one choice. Either you are a moral vegetarian who cares or an omnivore who does not. Eating vegetarian seems to apply an absolutist policy. He also touched on some friends who had sworn vegetarianism only to have “one bad night” and quit.

In his book Eating Animals, Foer leaves room for people like me, omnivores. The word “vegetarian” seems too all-inclusive. Everyone has “baseline decency, a minimal goodness,” so why not apply that as well as absolutist ideas? One could simply eat vegetarian meals rather than live vegetarian. If there is something you can’t live without eating, eat that, but just because you may like sushi, don’t eat a hamburger just because.

College of Charleston promotional poster

This struck me as his strongest point: there is a spectrum of what we can do to combat factory farming. We don’t all have to convert, only consider the ugly subject in a clear and honest way. Today, it’s easier than ever to live a little more ethically. Even gas stations sell “free range” eggs.

Foer went on to talk about Charleston and its remnants of slavery. We look back at slavery as this great evil, and those who didn’t try to be a solution, they were the problem. One day, he explains, we will view factory farming in those same terms.

Many questions he received accused him of the hypocrisy he admitted to in the first minute of his speech. He has eaten meat, yes, he admits, by accident. But it’s not just one choice to stop, but a series of choices. Each time we sit down to eat, we are confronted with the choice to eat animals or not eat them. The meat industry has simply betted that people find that desire to know the truth so unappetizing, they remain ignorant on purpose.

Foer supports rational thought and direct conversation about controversy. Caring is something we should do more as we grow older, not less; we need not grow complacent with what we have done, but can continue effective change that may make us proud to look back at our lives.

The speeches and the book gave me a remarkable impression and while I don’t intend to swear off meat like so many of my Charleston comrades have done, I intend to significantly cut my meat consumption. Even if you’re adverse to something like vegetarianism, ignorance should not be your reasoning to ignore the problem; read Eating Animals if ever you get the chance.

At one point, Foer told the anecdote of eating lamb after this book was published. While eating dinner at his agent’s house, he realized too late a dish she served contained chopped up bits of lamb. Just because of that experience, he couldn’t just give up—it was really okay that one that. The point, he stresses, is not that he tries to just stop eating meat. The point is for him to not choose to eat meat. That choice matters, and everyone time he makes the choice, it matters, as it can for us.

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Jonathan S. Foer: Storytelling

Photo Credit by Maria Mansfield Richardson of the CofC Honors College

Because he had to talk at lengths about his ideas concerning vegetarianism in his final session, Foer allowed in the first forum a more general discussion of his ideas concerning fiction. Readers of his fiction work pounced upon this opportunity to question him concerning Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated.

He began by answering a girl’s question about Oscar, the protagonist of Extremely Loud, whether or not he based that character on himself or someone he knew. No, he said, not really. Characters have to be believable, but not in a journalistic sense. “If I wanted to write a book that accurately portrayed a nine year old, I would have interviewed a nine-year old.”

There is a difference, though, he contests, between journalistic and novelistic truth. We as readers may believe exaggerations and oddities through a story because it serves a greater truth. “Fiction isn’t about the facts,” Foer said, “just about what you know without someone telling you.” He made a point to emphasize that books that resonate the most with us simply “feel true.”

Next he told an anecdote about the first time he talked with a fan in public, over a radio broadcasting show. He sat wearing headphones, ready to discuss Illuminated, when the first caller phoned up. “Your story, that’s the story of my family, something that tells my story—” This man must be just like me, Foer thought: a young Jewish man, reaching back in time for his heritage. The man continued “—as a sixty year old black man from Trenton, I thought nobody would get it right.”

This illustrates the innate universalism of personal stories. Even emotions we think that we exclusively express, the feelings we believe alienate, those are the things that unite us to other people from a myriad of backgrounds. Books connect us in a beautiful way. Foer learned, we are not always closest to the people who look most like us, not just people with the same skin color or ideas, but instead with people who share similar stories.

“Does it get any easier?” asks the next spectator, a fledgling writer. Foer shook his head. It doesn’t get easier, never does. In fact, he asserted, it gets harder with each book he attempts to write. You have to choose a story you’re willing to stick with for a very long time. He put it quite simply: “People who continue to write become writers. The others just stop.”

He addressed also the critical analyses of his work, at first calling BS on the whole trope. But he admitted that once a book leaves an author’s desk, it’s no longer only his. Once a book goes out into the world, it gets better because each reader breathes life into it.

Foer sets up this contrast: either “interpretation of literature” is nonsense, authors subconsciously place info into stories, or maybe books are flexible. Maybe books can mean more than what they’re meant to mean. This was a fresh insight—that just because authors don’t intend a theme doesn’t mean the book can’t have it. Readers are people who like to be provoked, challenged—they make a story more full by comparing it to their own stories. They add in bits until the story sprawls and is out of the author’s control; this is not a bad thing.

Books, Foer explained, are not the party—they’re the invitation to the party. Where you go and what you do once you reach the party is the choice of the reader.

Jonathan S. Foer: A Campus Visit

During orientation for the College of Charleston, each Freshman received a copy of Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest nonfiction book about factory farming, meat consumerism, and cultural ideas surrounding meat. For most of the year, many of the lectures, documentary showings, and group involvement activities have centered around discussing the impact of farming animals and how we do and should feel about it.

Very often, we discussed these ideas in class and how we felt about them. In fact, scroll down and there is a picture of my BGS (Beyond George Street) class discussing the book in Rivers Green. (I’m the one in the plaid shirt).

During his first speech (which I attended at 2:00pm), he mentioned that his goal certainly was not to attempt to convert a generation to vegetarianism—something he deemed impossible. When I received the book back in June, however, that’s exactly what I felt like he meant to do. What a snot-nosed liberal policy-pusher, I thought, shoving his green-leaf ideology down our throats.

Only, it didn’t, not really. He leaves a lot of room for improvement—moral wiggle room. The attacks you expect him to make he never truly makes because he accosts not you—the omnivore—but the industry as a whole. Rather than approaching the subject with a mind to depress and horrify the reader, he attempts to uplift by sympathizing with the plight to better ourselves.

I, like many others I am sure, were reluctant to read the book out of fear he would impose moral superiority. In fact, the book is a shocking choice, considering College of Charleston’s various sponsors. Surely, they expected some flak from alumni contributors or local restaurants. During his final speech, made in the TD Arena before hundreds of students and citizens of the community, he took an early jab at an advertisement above his head.

“What’s this?” He looked up, indicating the Kickin’ Chicken banner above his head. He made the point that with sponsors like these for our stadium, reading the book might be questionable. He also inquired after the name, making vague connections to animal cruelty in the form of kicking chickens.

I arrived at these presentations with a pretense, ready to berating, but Foer proved more reasonable than he seemed. The day previous I attended a vegan potluck outside of the library, and I actually enjoyed this food. If it were an option in the cafeteria, surely I would choose it over half-cooked hamburgers on stale buns or suspiciously pink hot dogs. Why not listen to what he had to say?

Yesterday, Foer explained his position in his own words, and if you missed the presentations, I will write a recap of what was discussed.

With a newly grown beard, he looked more like James Franco than he did in his cover photo. He took the stage of the first forum, engaging the participants on a personal level. He explained his own college experiences and his experiences with college but seguing into a discussion about his work. In the next two posts, I will paraphrase things discussed both about vegetarianism and storytelling. Read both or read either, depending on what you’re interesting in, but do take his ideas in consideration.

{These essays, recording some of the interview questions asked, will be posted later this evening or early tomorrow morning.}