Monday, May 12, 2014

I Am Not a Vegetarian

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."


WritePublishDie said...

Without trying to sound too misanthropic -- human beings are pathetic. We have played the role of the dominating oppressor for so long that even after the gruesome examples of our other forms of discrimination and ill-treatment of others, we still fail to recognize our part in the worst of our atrocities.

In an attempt to assuage our guilt, we will go to great lengths -- even by rationalizing the extent of our involvement with something as heinous and egregiously inexcusable as unnecessary killing. We try to minimize the appearance of our complicity with such shockingly violent acts as the slaughter of thinking, feeling beings by choosing only the minimal response necessary for relief from the associated angst. Short of actually rectifying the problem, we instead cater only to our own squeamishness at the sight of a gutted, roasted corpse.

Case in point: I once knew a lacto-ovo-vegetarian whose experience preparing a dead turkey during the Thanksgiving holiday was visceral enough to put her off eating animal flesh forever, but who then lived for decades blithely consuming dairy and eggs, deluded that she was doing enough to eradicate any culpability she might have once shared with meat eaters. I never understood the illogical dichotomy she had embraced in her dietary choices pertaining to non-human animals.

Which is why I never became a vegetarian. I transitioned straight from omnivore to vegan. Although I did spend an unfortunately long time gradually removing animal-derived foods from my life before finally becoming a vegan, I could never justify inhibiting my transition by settling into the vegetarian lifestyle.

And yet “vegetarian” is in itself such a good word, divorced from its modern understanding. When taken literally, it connotes nothing of bovine milk or fowl eggs. At one time, vegans were known as “strict vegetarians”. I think a better term for today would be “true vegetarians”. It is unfortunate that a definition redemption remains unfeasible. But the label “vegan”, possibly etymologically pared from the word “vegetarian” to its most potent quintessence, carries with it an even more appropriate sense of stridency and adamancy that the former label never embodied: one of uncompromising clarity, insisting on nothing less than total liberation and the end of captivity, ownership, and commodification of our fellow earthlings.

That’s why I deplore attempts to reduce the import “vegan” carries in order to make it more appealing: veganist, veganish, 95% vegan, vegan before 6pm, etc. Just as the word “vegetarian” has lost the power of audacity and impeccable virtuosity, so also “vegan” may become so diluted and contaminated with irrelevant ideas as to become useless. Will we be seen as just another of the myriad dietary proclivities such as those currently bandied about the fad-oriented public? Are those deemed “pescetarians”, “selectarians”, and “plant-based eaters” rightfully deserving of the same consideration regarding the moral message?

WritePublishDie said...

(message continued from previous)
If the label “vegan” likewise becomes corrupted beyond recognition, what then? What would be the appropriate moniker for those of us unwilling to participate in even a nominal amount of slavery, torture, and murder?

Alas, the thought of going somewhere to eat and having the only cruelty-free choice be that of greasy french fries is enough to forego such outings altogether. Every vegan knows full well the experience of patronizing a restaurant and being faced with virtually no options, being treated like some pariah masochistically bent on esoteric food choices. It feels like punishment for inadvertently calling attention to their insensitivity.

The place where I live (Memphis, Tennessee) is currently celebrating its “world famous” Barbeque Festival in which untold numbers of hungry gawkers will assemble around their porcine indulgences with nary a care as to the creatures whose demonstrable sentience, emotion, personality, and intelligence didn’t seem to matter one iota when considering whether or not they would become a meal. The intractable devotion by these salivators to their chosen culinary peculiarity at this heralded event should never be underestimated. They would rather quit food altogether than accept suitable substitutes for their cherished meat extravaganza. Just a whisper of the word “vegan” would bring about all manner of coarse humor and ignorant scorn. I’ve spent enough time around these folks to know.

And yet I fail to see the difference between these people and those vegetarians devoted to their organic dairy and cage-free eggs purchased from Whole Foods. Somehow, I’m supposed to pretend to be a fellow compatriot in our supposedly mutual cause of animal welfare.

But the question remains: what does it matter how good the intentions, when the net result of harm remains equivalent (or maybe even worse)? Please don’t misunderstand me, I appreciate every action every person takes to reduce their negative impact on animals. Nevertheless, the minimum ethical standard regarding animal use is -- none. It’s worth repeating the abolitionist mantra here: the moral baseline in our involvement with animals must be veganism. Vegetarianism just doesn’t suffice.

If omnivores can lay claim to meat without moral justification, and similarly vegetarians can lay claim to dairy and eggs without moral justification, then what is the difference? Animals are not and never should have been considered a resource free for the taking by either group. Exploitation is exploitation, regardless of form.

My objective with this response was not to disparage or lambaste vegetarians out of my own sense of superiority, but to explain how vegetarianism is just another exercise in self-placation. It is just a diversion for our conscience, not a solution for the animals.