It’s hard to condemn China’s popular dog meat festival when we have so many of our own animal-based festivals right here in the United States.
By James McWilliams
A dog looks out from its cage at a stall as it is displayed by a vendor as he waits for customers during a dog meat festival at a market in Yulin. (Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
It probably wasn’t on your calendar. But between June 21 and June 30 the annual Lychee and Dog Meat Festival took place in Yulin, China. While declining in popularity, eating dog meat remains common enough throughout Asia. In the Shaanxi province, it’s more than common: It’s a delicacy considered central to the region’s culinary identity.
This dietary preference has spelled trouble for Asian canines. In years past, over 10,000 dogs — some strays, some farmed, some possibly stolen from pet owners — were slaughtered to sate the palates of festivalgoers eager to sample such fare as “crispy dog” and “dog hot pot.” The prevailing belief that the taste of dog meat improves when the animal is killed while in distress hasn’t helped the festival’s global appeal and, with reports of horrific slaughter accumulating, this year’s attendance numbers — as well as the number of dogs killed — have dropped. Still, for the diehard aficionados of dog meat, the festival remains an annual rager to be defended at all costs, on grounds both culinary and cultural.
“If the Yulin dog meat festival weren’t real, philosophers would have dreamt it up,” says Bob Fischer, a Texas State philosopher and author of The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat. Indeed, dog meat presents conscientious Westerners with a perfect conundrum. It pits an enlightened expectation of cultural tolerance — live and let live! — against our deep emotional attachment to dogs as companion animals — an attachment that makes eating them seem, at the least, morally repugnant.
We easily condemn the dog festival (because we own dogs as pets) while celebrating the pork one (because we typically don’t own pigs as pets and go nuts over bacon).
The inability to reconcile these prevailing sentiments places those who want to condemn the Yulin festival — and I’m assuming this includes a lot of us — in a tight spot. Of course, to argue that cultural respect for a region’s culinary identity need not extend to accepting dog meat is fine. But such an argument has implications closer to home. For starters, it requires shuttering our own burgeoning animal-based festivals, despite their powerful appeal to culinary heritage. Talk to a Mainer about closing down the Maine Lobster Fest, now in it’s 69th year, and see how long that conversation lasts.
Moral opposition to the Yulin dog festival ultimately demands more from us than ending local meat festivals at home. It also warrants a level of ethical consistency that few of us are prepared to embrace on a larger scale. Consider, for example, why we would be obligated to oppose, say, the Virginia Pork Fest alongside the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival. Philosophically speaking, the fact that dogs are pets while pigs (generally) aren’t is irrelevant. What’s morally relevant is that a pig suffers no more or less than a dog. They are comparably intelligent creatures (in fact, the pig is likely smarter); they are equally self-aware; they react similarly to and remember pain; and they enjoy rich social lives. From an ethical perspective, then, to kill one species is no more or less morally wrong than to kill the other.
Based on current dietary habits, Westerners aren’t remotely close to embracing such logic. Fischer explains that the Yulin festival “Makes plain the inconsistencies in Western attitudes toward animals.” He’s especially insistent that “there’s no particularly good reason to be horrified by dog meat while drooling over bacon,” noting that “our response seems doubly hypocritical when we recall that roughly 1.2 million dogs are euthanized each year in shelters.” We might think it’s morally problematic to eat dogs, but, as Fischer reminds us, “we don’t seem to mind killing them when they become inconvenient.”
(Photo: Neil P. Mockford/Getty Images)
So why not just eat them here at home? Enter culture. Culture — especially culinary culture — is a powerfully seductive social phenomenon that’s integral to human happiness. What we rarely consider, though, is that culture can also serve as a legitimate means of moral exoneration, a kind of cover-up for lazy, amoral thinking of the sort that allows us to eat pigs, love dogs, and rest easy.
Western food enthusiasts have exploited a pervasive rights-run-amok trend to re-assure us that we have a right to eat whatever foods are deemed integral to regional identity — an identity that, somehow or other, transcends the moral judgments we reserve for non food-related situations (do you know many tolerant Westerners who will accept genital mutilation in other countries?). This right, moreover, evidently comes without having to honor the duties that our moral systems implicitly ask us to recognize. Thus we easily condemn the dog festival (because we own dogs as pets) while celebrating the pork one (because we typically don’t own pigs as pets and go nuts over bacon). Thus culture, for no reason better than tradition (which is a dangerous justification for anything), trumps moral reasoning.
“It’s convenient to think that rightness and wrongness track our purposes, that whether it’s fine to eat an animal depends on the role we’ve assigned to it — food or companion,” Fischer says. But that’s not how morality works — especially when it comes to eating dogs. If you want to condemn the Yulin dog festival on the grounds that cultural tolerance should not extend to endorsing gratuitous canine suffering, by all means do it. But you will also have to turn a mirror on our own culinary culture and condemn as equally barbaric the Maine Lobster Festival, the Virginia Pork Fest, the Texas Rattlesnake Roundup, the Luling, Louisiana Alligator Festival, and New Jersey’s Shad Fest. To do otherwise is to spice up your regional culinary culture with a heavy dose of hypocrisy, if not an added dash of xenophobia.