I remember with perfect clarity the day it finally clicked for me just how completely meaningless the word "vegetarian" is. It was around six years ago and a friend and I had decided to have a bite and a beer at his favourite restaurant, something we used to do a few times a month. He had been a longtime vegetarian and was a fan of this particular place because it had over a dozen vegetarian appetizers and entrees on its large menu. Also, it was licensed -- thus, there was beer -- and stayed open a little later than most downtown eating establishments. The numerous vegetarian dishes ranged from cheesy artichoke dip to quesadillas. The only two vegan-friendly edibles were the overpriced processed sweet potato fries (hold the pesto mayo dip) and a bland tofu coconut curry dish (hold the buttered piece of ciabatta strangely ordinarily served on the side). I went for the company and nothing else.
My friend was a regular there and the staff was aware of his dietary preferences, so we would ordinarily go and be greeted by a server carrying menus and his favourite beer, and we would be left to suss out what we wanted. (I rarely cracked the menu open, usually resigned to getting the usual plateful of sweet potato fries.) This particular evening, a new server showed up and started rattling off the list of dinner specials, first describing some sort of beef platter . My friend interrupted her politely.
"We don't need to hear the specials," he told her. "We're both vegetarians."
"Oh," she said, looking unsure of what to do.
"Well, I eat fish, but my friend doesn't eat any animal products at all."
The server smiled and looked confused, then left to get our beers.
"I guess you're probably not happy that I'm eating fish again," my friend said, not looking up from the menu. "I'm doing it for health reasons."
"Why would I not be happy?"
"Well, because you think it's wrong."
"I don't control your choices. Besides, there's no real ethical difference between eating meat and eating other animal products."
At this, my friend looked up, frowning. "So you think that just because I'm not vegan, I'm no different from anyone else who eats meat?"
"I know that you mean well, but there really is no difference. Animals are still used and animals still die and end up served to others as meat in the dairy and egg industries. We've talked about this before. Why don't we talk about something else?"
"So you don't think that it matters that in the 20 or more years I've been vegetarian, I've saved lives by not eating meat? How many lives have you saved in the less than a year you've been vegan?"
"It's not a contest," I told him, uncomfortable with how the conversation was going. "Let's just talk about something else for now," I again suggested.
"At least I'm not eating meat. That may not matter to you, but it does matter and it matters to me."
I couldn't help it and asked, gingerly, whether he thought it mattered to the fish.
"Fish can't feel pain. They're not the same as cows."
Quietly, I said: "They can and they are."
"Well, not all vegetarians agree with that."
"Neither of us is really a vegetarian," I offered, thinking back to his earlier assertion to the server.
"We both don't eat meat," he said to me. "That makes us vegetarian. Would you rather I call myself a pescetarian? That's still a type of vegetarian, just like a vegan is a type of vegetarian."
"I don't see veganism as a subset of vegetarianism," I told him.
I explained to him that "vegetarian" is a blanket term for various degrees of animal use restricted to diet. These days, in mainstream media, those various degrees of animal use have been expanded to loosely include eating fish, but an overwhelming majority of vegetarians disagree with this and see it as a watering down of a term whose original definition clearly excludes eating animal flesh. They disagree with it for two obvious reasons. The first is that it confuses things when they use the term to try to explain what they won't eat (i.e. meat). The second is that many view eating meat as somehow being morally different from consuming other animal products.
"But you don't think there's a difference between eating meat or cheese, so why do you care?"
"I don't, really. I just found it sort of funny that you told the waitress that we were both vegetarians.
"Well, you don't eat meat, so how are you not a vegetarian?"
I explained that since vegetarianism is strictly about diet and since the term is understood to include animal use, even in one's diet, that it has nothing to do with veganism. It has more in common with regular old eating-of-everything-ism, which is also understood to include animal use.I explained that the only morally relevant distinction concerns whether someone is vegan or non-vegan.
"So you think that you're better than vegetarians, then?" he asked.
"I don't think that I'm better than anybody. You know that. But veganism is the rejection of all animal exploitation. It involves avoiding all avoidable animal use and it isn't restricted to diet. To call me a vegetarian would suggest that I might eat eggs or dairy and that it's highly possible that I would -- or at least could -- wear wool, leather and so on. It's a completely useless label for me to use practically, plus it has nothing to do with what I believe in. I don't see veganism as a subset of a diet that involves various degrees of animal exploitation while involving likely animal use in other areas. Veganism is no more a specific subset of vegetarianism than it is a subset of eating-everything-ism."
By this time, our server had returned to take our order.
"So, I guess that you don't care, then, if I order the fried clams and chips?" my friend asked.
"Actually, if you did, I might have to leave."
"Aha! So even with all of this talk, you really do think that eating meat is worse than eating other animal products! I knew it!"
"No," I half-smiled, sadly. "It would just really, really smell."
Monday, May 12, 2014
Posted by M at Monday, May 12, 2014