Monday, November 10, 2008

Thinking, thinking, or: I wonder some thoughts and think some things

I've been thinking a bit recently about what it is that makes people decide to go veg*n, and, more importantly, what it is that stops them.

I know many people - caring, intelligent, aware people - who have a little place in their hearts that makes them sigh and say "I wish I could go vegetarian", or "I cry when I watch RSPCA Animal Rescue!", or "I wish I could; it's just too hard", or makes them rush to assure us of their credentials with "I only buy cruelty-free meat!" , "I only buy organic!" or "I only eat a little bit!" or "I only buy free-range!". I don't really want to knock these statements (although I really don't think the cow cares that much that you think when a bolt was put through its brain it was 'cruelty-free'), because misguided and diversionary as I think they are, they demonstrate an awareness of the farm-to-fork continuum and it's certainly better than not giving a toss at all.

But if you have that awareness, if you actively consider the choices you make in the supermarket or at the butcher, if you genuinely do not want animals to suffer, if you believe that intensive animal breeding is environmentally disastrous, if you think that eating animal products is unhealthy, and really wish you could go veg*n - what stops you?

A good friend of mine has recently made this choice. She has become increasingly uncomfortable with her growing knowledge of what happens to animals bred for meat, and is now unable to reconcile this understanding with meat-eating. She came to this position all on her own - her family are not veg*n by any means, and she only spoke to me about it when she had almost entirely made the decision by herself. I commend her for making that conceptual, emotional and intellectual connection all on her own, and I’m really proud of her.

Other people, though, often tell me how they wish they could. This could be that they wish they could stop eating meat, or they wish they could drop dairy, or go vegan altogether. It’s hard for me to understand this both on a personal level and on an ethical one. I don't think that when I was vegetarian I ever went through this - when I opened my eyes (or had them opened), there was no wish, only do (thus spake Master Yoda). This fits in with my general approach to most things - I am impatient, avaricious and once I have made a decision I have to put it into action right that very moment.

But I am genuinely intrigued about how people who know, understand and reject animal breeding practices (or poor environmental practices, health issues or whatever the issue is that speaks most to that person) can in effect sit on this information while they make wishes. I really don' t mean to make that sound critical - I was vegetarian for almost 17 years before 'upgrading' to veganism, and I as I have written before, towards the end of that time vegetarianism was more of a habit than an ethical choice or conscious decision to me. But now that I am here, I cannot understand how people who see the truth can continue to ignore it because it is difficult, or inconvenient, or because they're 'just not ready'.

So what to do? I don’t want to lecture or harangue, patronise or critique. I don’t want to make people feel guilty or uncomfortable, meaning that they wouldn’t want to talk to me and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to explain or encourage. But I do want to say something – to feel that I have not stood idly by, to encourage someone along a path that they have stumbled upon, or just to, excuse the horrid Americanism, ‘represent’.

I'm not a big fan of calling people out (well, I might if they said something unutterably stupid like “You’ll die without meat” or “But the fox likes to be hunted!”. But not if they were just trying to help). If someone said to me that they buy only organic meat, I wouldn't blast them with stories about crating, milking or slaughter. Although there is a place for shock tactics and brutal honesty, that isn't it. Shock tactics are justified and necessary in the face of knowing and deliberate cruelty, or heartless disregard and callousness. It is not ok where there is ignorance, fuzzy-minded thinking or misguided good intentions. Not where someone is struggling to recognise and overcome a lifelong, societally-enforced paradigm of animal exploitation. Not where they have tried to be polite and friendly and connect with about something they think you have in common.

In my opinion, it is more productive and strategically long-term in outlook to commend that person on actively thinking about their food, and test whether they are receptive to hearing a bit more (and it's also just better manners!). They have demonstrated that they are thinking and exercising their conscience and doing what they think is a good thing - to become derisive or dismissive is counter-productive and more likely to stop their efforts right there, mister. By speaking to them in a manner which respects their choices so far and the efforts they have made, it establishes a dialogue which is not marred by hostility, confrontation and rudeness, and sets the scene for future discussion and debate.

And without creating that space, we will be forever on the outer and too marginalised to connect with the mainstream. We will be unable to explain, encourage, and educate about what we believe in. And that, dear friends, is just plain dumb.


Lisa Dempster said...

Are you in my brain? I was thinking about the farm to fork continuum just today! Freaky.

I was reading a bunch of food writing today and it was awash with ethical justifations for supporting the dairy industry (the cows like it! we only buy happy meat! the meat is 'field-harvested' (i.e. killed in the field to save them from the trauma of the slaughterhouse)!). It was making me really mad, not to mention it just makes for really hollow reading (cue lots of eye rolling)... but actually, that kind of meat-justification hasn't really been present in food writing until recent times, so hopefully the growing awareness of where meat comes from (the farm-fork continuum, as you so eloquently put it) will eventually lead to people realising that there's no such thing as ethical meat eating, no matter how organic or 'happy' the meat supposedly is.

For me, when the leap from omni came, it came quickly, after reading one book. Why that book as opposed to the loads of others I'd read before it? I guess I was just ready for it. I'm hoping the people who are currently desperately defending their meat choices will one day make the leap I did...

Congrats to your friend - bring her to the next potluck!

Miss T said...

I think you’re quite right. The sooner people realise that there is no such thing as ethical, humane, environmental or cruelty-free meat or animal products, the better. It’s a salve for what they already know; in the same way that the distinction made between domestic and farm animals helps us eat chops in front of the family dog without likening one to the other.

I very much take your point about why that particular book/comment/trigger thing … for me it was the same: it took one book and I’m still not sure why it was that that particular book triggered something so enormous when I had spent years consciously in deliberate denial. It just happened on its own.

I guess, having now considered that point, part of why I am reluctant to be confrontational about people’s pride in buying organic/free-range/etc meat is that I don’t want to cause a defensive reaction which feeds and resolves their own denial. By taking a more conciliatory/discursive approach, I guess I feel like I’m encouraging or softening the ground for their own moment of change, whenever it may come. As you rightly point out, any kind of awareness about the ethics of food in public is quite new, and hopefully the person who is interested enough to think about where their meat comes from, will next start to think about the animal who became the meat. Seeing as it took so long for my own to appear (January 1990 to September 2007 … ) I think it’s only fair that I try to make a big effort to exercise patience in encouraging this process (something which is a real trial for snappy, grumpy-pants me!).

a vegan about town said...

Inevitably, or insofar as I have found it, being conciliatory in itself feeds the denial. I mean, if someone says, "I only eat happy meat!" what do you say? If you give a conciliatory 'yay you' sort of reaction, that's not really telling the person yay for thinking about their food choices, that's confirming that the vegan thinks eating happy meat is okay.

My really big peeve is when people tell me they eat happy meat, free range eggs, etc, and then bitch about how the Chinese pretend to be nice people but they're not because they EAT HORSES. This happens to me more often then you'd think (given I'm a Chinese vegan). But my whole life, not just now but my whole life, I've seen no difference between cow and horse, or whatever. It's all dead flesh.

I agree that people should be - okay, not commended, but something, for thinking about their food choices in any way, environmental, sustainable, cruelty, whatever. People get in such habits, they get so fixated on what is food and what isn't (so many examples, so this one: all the people who said 'and there'll be meat' when the invites went out for mine and D's Really Big Party earlier this year. uh NO, it's OUR WEDDING, and WE'RE VEGANS, but they just didn't get it, because it's 'what you do'). But 'habit' is the answer to all of it - people get used to what they know, and then everything different is funny or suspect (you should see the looks some people give at the Chinese food I eat).

I myself tend to not bring it up unprompted, but if a situation warrants it I'll make a comment. I try not to give the appearance of being one of "those" vegans on the grounds that stupid people might possibly pay more attention to my words if I only say inflammatory things occasionally.

Miss T said...

Good point, VAT. I should clarify that by conciliatory I don't meant "good for you, the cows must love you for eating their happy meat", but more that I would note that it's good that they're actively thinking about their food and that it's a good start. I would usually then discuss something similar and veganish whilst not actually telling them that the choice that they think was pretty good is in fact (evil! stupid!) less than ideal. Like you said, it's change in their habits and some change is better, in my opinion, than not even realising there is a habit at all.

I also hear the "Chinese/(insert other culture of choice) eat dog/(insert other animal), it's so disgusting..." quite a bit. I think it just highlights the false dichotomy we have created between pet-animal and eat-animal.