Thursday, November 05, 2009

Omnivorism as the New Vegetarianism

I guess that there's only so far down a slippery slope someone can push an issue or an idea. Once you get to that point, it's sometimes easiest to cry uncle and
go on your way and effect change where things haven't been left a heaping mess. This morning, Prof. Gary L. Francione tweeted a story from the BBC's online News Magazine ("The Rise of the Non-Veggie Vegetarian") -- the sort of article that leaves you walking away with sore eyes (i.e. after you've rolled them so damn much). The article focuses, for the most part, on what one friend often calls 'pesky-tarians'--that strange breed of purportedly ethical eater that insists on self-labeling as 'vegetarian'.

The article points out that Britain's Vegetarian Society, "the custodian of British vegetarianism since 1847", defines a vegetarian as someone who "does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacean, or slaughter byproducts" and then goes on to explain the justifications those who eat fish give for doing so. In some cases, eating fish is defended for health reasons (and the article counters this by clarifying that "some nutritional benefits of eating oily fish can be gained" from eating substances like nuts and seeds). In other cases, those who cling to the vegetarian label, yet choose to eat fish, do so because they attribute less ethical weight or worth to fish, even though according to Revd Prof Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics:

"There is ample evidence in peer-reviewed scientific journals that mammals experience not just pain, but also mental suffering including fear, anticipation, foreboding, anxiety, stress, terror and trauma."
"The case for fish isn't so strong, but scientific evidence at least shows that they experience pain and fear. Anyone who wants to avoid causing pain should give up eating fish."
Of course, many will also point out or acknowledge that the "cuteness factor" has a lot to do with attitudes towards fish. Neither furry nor cuddly, they don't evoke the same reactions as wide-eyed calves or of fuzzy lambs teetering on shaky legs.

While the article does provide quotes and explanations of why, by definition, eating animals is not vegetarian, and although it clarifies how health and ethical arguments touted by some as justifying the eating of fish are more or less bunk, it continues to use the term "fish-eating vegetarians" to describe those who eat fish. Then it slips into an exploration of the words that have come and gone to describe these non-vegetarians who seek to associate themselves with vegetarianism. The word 'pescetarian', one that's been used to define omnivores who eschew all flesh other than that of fish, is described as being somewhat out of fashion; the newer term 'flexitarian' (which, let's face it, really just means 'omnivore') is brought up as the up-and-coming label to use for non-vegetarians who want to be identified with vegetarianism. The article goes on to describe 'meat avoiders' and 'meat reducers' and asserts that "one of the reasons it's so hard to assess the level of vegetarianism is because of the multiple definitions of the term."

The truth is that strong arguments have been made that the term 'vegetarian' as it is now commonly understood (i.e. as describing one who refrains from eating animal flesh, while still eating and / or otherwise using animal products)
does not reflect a lifestyle that differs in any significant moral way from omnivorism. So one could ask if it's even worth the bother to concern oneself over whether we now have so-called "fish-eating vegetarians". Is it really even all that relevant, since there's no moral distinction to be made between the consumption of animal flesh or of animal excretions? It seems to me that the issue at hand, with regards to terminology, should be to keep what's clear and consistent from being conflated with this whole heap of confusion from ongoing attempts to co-opt the term 'vegetarian'.

Perhaps it's time for vegans to stop concerning ourselves with the variations involved in the dietary choices of those who are on the path to veganism or who've stalled along the way to reach a plateau they feel is "good enough". Instead of arguing over whether or not we should commend people for shuffling out this or that product and worrying over the watering down of the term 'vegetarian', our focus--particularly for vegan abolitionists--should remain to deliver the clear and consistent message that all animal exploitation needs to be abolished and that the only truly ethical lifestyle choice one can make when it comes to our consideration of nonhuman animals is to go vegan and to remove oneself altogether from the cycle of slavery and slaughter of nonhumans. Think about it.


Heather said...

When I was 14 and first became a vegetarian (now vegan) my mom used to ask, "can't you eat fish and poultry? Those aren't real animals!". I also occasionally hear "I dont mind eating them- fish are ugly and birds are nasty" (if that's all it took to kill someone then most of the human population would be doomed)

Vera said...

You are my hero! Sometimes I get quite overwhelmed by so much information and it is easy to lose the focus. Thanks for the great blog.

Elizabeth Collins said...

You are right though in saying that vegetarianism has been omnivorism for a long time. I guess we just have to let that word go and concentrate on veganism (which is also getting usurped and corrupted. Damn!)

marinel said...

Is it really even all that relevant, since there's no moral distinction to be made between the consumption of animal flesh or of animal excretions?

I think it is relevant to all the vegetarians who choose the lifestyle for reasons that have nothing to do with ethics or morality (i.e. health). It's easier for them to tell friends and family they are vegetarians than to go through the list of every type of animal they do not consume whenever food related issues arise.