Culture Rant #2: Issue 18 / Summer 2019

Meat is Metaphor, Life is Metaphor

Written by Madison Snider

Language can only proximate our realities. We learn it as a code, a system we agree to play along with in order to communicate beyond the present. It requires a level of flexibility from its users. Language is metaphor and each word requires interpretive work on the part of communicators. It is when we begin to conflate objects and processes with words that we can run into trouble. Our ability for flexibility is variable not only among language users, but dependent on the language being used. We are not so easily offended by someone who refers to a tomato as a fruit as we are, say, someone who misgenders us. This conflict, that of divergent metaphors, became clear to me in a strange comparison between two seemingly disparate controversies of the day: the introduction of lab-grown meat and the Alabama Human Life Protection Act of 2019—the metaphorical debacle of the former enlightening a fatal flaw in the rhetoric of the later.

I begin with the lab-grown meat. With increasing developments of lab-grown meat, animosity has sparked between more traditional livestock and meat production industries and scientists working toward bringing these products to market. The controversy involves important questions about regulations, safety, industry economics, and consumer rights, but interestingly it also centers around the use of the term “meat.” I will not interrogate any of the scientific, economic, or legislative bases for these controversies, as they are outside my expertise and the scope of this essay. What I do find interesting is the conceptualization of legitimacy in naming a product that can speak to a wider array of phenomena.

These naming controversies are not foreign to the FDA. Dairy farmers have similarly protested the naming of alternative, plant-based drinks as “milk.” In response to a growing demand for nut-milk alternatives, this effort may seem futile. But both naming conflicts point to a larger friction in our understanding of the metaphor to which they attend. For those who believe “meat” is only meat if it is raised, slaughtered, and butchered, then the metaphor and language around it is meant to reflect the entirety of this process. Meat is not what is between the buns of your hamburger; it’s the cow that was raised, its slaughter, and the mechanized butchering process that ensued. If we subscribe to the more traditional and conservative side of the “meat” debate herein, we are demanding that the term serve as a metaphor for all these things. If the demand by traditional meat producers is that meat cannot be grown in a lab and justly be named as such, then what most starkly differentiates it becomes critical. Thus, traditional meat producers, in taking up a cause to maintain a monopoly on the term “meat,” highlight the processes that distinguish them from the laboratory. The horrors of industrialized agriculture, particularly in regard to animal cruelty, greenhouse gas emissions, and health safety hazards, are well-known. However, without a widespread overhaul of these systems, rhetoric around the integrity of the term “meat” by industrial meat producers is only highlighting their processes, perhaps further driving their critics to side with the lab-grown meat side of the debate.

Taking up the “meat” controversy, we see contradiction over language and metaphor having implications on legitimacy with potentially grave economic and political repercussions. If we are more progressive in our constitution of what “meat” is, then we may find ourselves less adhered to this processual metaphor and more willing to focus on the material of that which is on our dinner plate. This has many technical layers, to which my twelfth-grade biology background cannot attend, but suffice to say that the biological, chemical, or genetic degree to which you feel comfortable defining something as “meat” is indicative not of its “meat-ness” but of the metaphor for “meat” with which you feel most comfortable. I recognize this oversimplification of a conflict with real economic, political, and social stakes. I use it here, and in this manner, as a means for which to set us up for the more controversial topic of the Alabama Human Life Protection Act. Much like the lab-grown meat controversy, there seems to be an affective eruption between the naming of meat-products and the legislative lines drawn in the name of protecting life.

On May 15, 2019, Alabama signed into legislation a hotly-debated ban on abortion which includes a ban on abortions in the case of rape or incest. This direct provocation of the judicial system, in hopes of making it to the Supreme Court and to overturn Roe v Wade, is perhaps most perplexing in its use of metaphor. Life is central to both sides of the debate. For those who are anti-choice, when life begins is of utmost importance and the general consensus is that it begins at conception. Conception, the joining of an egg and sperm that may lead to childbirth, has long been held up to those who most staunchly adhere to an anti-choice stance as the biological, and perhaps holy, moment in which life begins. Those who are pro-choice speak to a more nuanced understanding of life which includes the ability to choose what happens to your body and have autonomy over family planning. These metaphors for life inherently do not map onto the other. While these metaphors reflect realities, one is logically broken.

The definition of life for anti-choicer conjures images of miracles and babies already crawling. In the words of Alabama Governor Kay Ivey in response to the bill, “This legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.” And yet, the very stipulations of the bill rupture this neat definition of life as conception and beyond. In response to questioning about the stipulation that embryos created through in vitro fertilization (I.V.F.) fall outside the scope of the “Life Protection Act,” Alabama State Senator Clyde Chambliss said, “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.”

The egg is just an egg. The fertilized egg is no longer a life.

This signals a logical rupture that cannot be overlooked. Senator Chambliss illustrates here what pro-choice activists have long been arguing: the metaphor for life as conception, or embryo, is null and void. One of the architects of this very law said it himself. The egg in a lab is not what is really of concern here. The embryo’s life and control over its destiny is not of concern here. If this does not constitute life, that metaphor anti-choicers cling to, then is a child born out of I.V.F. not a life? Does it only become a life when inserted into the uterus of a womxn? And if so, what then differentiates the life of the womxn from that of the embryo?

What is clear is that the concern here is womxn’s bodies. What is being controlled is the body within whom an embryo exists. The protection of the embryo is only of concern so long as there is a womxn’s body at stake, thus the real metaphor for life for anti-choicers is control over womxn’s bodies. This is the strongest metaphor they have, and they wrote it for themselves.

What can come from a petri-dish? A hamburger? A human? On the part of the latter, yes. It would be ludicrous to deny that a child born out of I.V.F. is not a life. Then the argument that life begins at conception is equally ludicrous. So then when? If the fetus is of utmost concern, as anti-choicers posit, then why the emphasis and requirement that womxn’s bodies be implicated in its protection? Perhaps there ought to be a reconvening around what the definition of life is, or at least to which metaphor we all should subscribe. Currently, as insisted in this latest legislation, life is defined as a womxn being legally bound to carry out a pregnancy. Everything before and after is overlooked. The pregnancy, beyond its enforcement, and life, beyond the womb, is of little concern. Like those who believe in a traditional and narrow definition of meat, by designing the metaphor as such, one effectively shines a light on the horrifying realities of pregnancy in the U.S.: extremely high medical costs, disproportionately high maternal mortality rates, abysmal parental leave, debilitatingly high childcare costs. Like looking at a factory farm might make one rethink that Big Mac, looking at pregnancy in America might make one rethink that pregnancy. However, according to the state of Alabama, one’s ability to make that choice infringes on their conception of life.


Madison Snider is a curious student and chronic overthinker now living in Seattle. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Communication at the University of Washington with research interests in the intersection of public space, resistance, and online discourse.

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