This is the first of a series of posts that I will write on the subject of vegetarianism, each approaching the issue from a separate viewpoint.
If you had asked me three years ago what I thought about vegetarianism, I would have probably laughed the idea off. The idea of giving up meat would have seemed quite strange to me back then, as it does to most people on this planet! Like most of you probably did, I grew up in a household where meat was the central part of each meal. Bacon or sausage at breakfast, deli slices for lunch and a chicken/beef concoction for dinner time – whatever meal it was, meat was surely on the menu.
During those years of my life, I never had any reason to question eating meat for three meals a day. I grew up with that being normal, with my peers and extended family all eating in a similar manner – meat serving as the central part of the meal, with sides of veggies, grains, maybe some fruit, all washed down with a glass of milk of course! This type of meal has become pretty much commonplace in the United States (and from what I can tell so far, the same is true in Australia), with the large majority of the population consuming meat with nearly every meal.
Vegetarianism is not ‘The Norm’
So it is completely understandable that moving to a vegetarian diet seems foreign to people who are accustomed to this pattern. In fact, the most common question such persons have when they consider a vegetarian diet is, “what the heck would I eat instead?“. The idea of not having ham, chicken or turkey slices for sandwiches or hamburgers and ribs for a good old fashioned grill-out, leaves a lot of people quite confused about what would be consumed in the place of these items, as well as quite depressed about missing out on these ‘delicious’ foods. No hot dogs at the ball game? No beef in my queso dip? No more shrimp tacos? Giving up such things leads most to jump to a “No thanks!” perhaps followed by the claim “I could never give up meat”.
If this is your current line of thinking, and you are like most of the rest of folks out there eating meat for three meals a day, let me, perhaps unexpectedly concede to you that I don’t blame you and I completely understand where you are coming from. I spent the first 23 years of my life eating meat thinking the same way you do, so how could I not understand? (I think a lot of vegetarians forget that they too once ate meat.) You don’t want to give up 50 cent wing night, pepperoni pizza or bacon strips, because darn-it, ‘meat tastes good’. And as long as you continue to think that of meat in terms of only its taste, you will probably continue to eat meat.
Why Give Up Meat? It ‘Tastes So Good’
All this talk of meat being ‘delicious‘ and ‘tasting good‘ all naturally begs the question, “why would anyone want to give up eating meat?”. Well, given that there are a lot of people who forgo flesh-feasting all together, there obviously must be some serious motivation to do so. Their abstinence from things that most people find amazingly tasty, such as cheeseburgers or corndogs, must be driven by a much different line of thinking than that of the meat-eating types. So what is going on in their heads? What could be the reason behind such a lifestyle change?
Well the way I see it, there are three major reasons why people become vegetarians. First, they often see an ethical dilemma present in the ‘eating’ of other beings, and are driven by some level of empathy or ‘higher moral calling’ to absolve themselves of carcass munching – I term these types the ‘compassionate’ vegetarians. Second, some stop eating meat for health reasons which, with meat consumption directly connected to a wide variety of diseases (including cancer), is quite a wise thing to do. Third, people often decide to eat less meat, or avoid it altogether due the very large impact that the rearing of animals for consumption has on the environment. And as I mentioned, I will be addressing all three of these categories separately in a series of ‘vegetarian’ blogposts.
The Compassionate Vegetarian
So we begin with what I’ve termed the ‘compassionate’ realm of thought motivating the adoption of a animal-death free diet. Wait, why such the harsh wording there? Well, this might seem silly to point out, but it can stimulate a rather profound moment of thought when one actually stops to realize – something had to die for me to eat the meat on my plate. Yes, I know that you are probably aware of this blatantly obvious fact, but then again I ask you to question yourself, are you really?
When you eat that forkful of chicken marsala or beef lasagna, are you truly aware of what you are consuming? Do you have a concept of what that mouthful of dinner is connected to? You are eating the flesh of another being. One that was brought into this world through the miracle of conception and was born to a mother who cared for it fiercely. Over time, it awkwardly learned to walk/fly/hop, happily played with its brothers/sisters/neighbors and, eventually, grew up into an adult.
After maturing, its life was ended in a slaughterhouse and its carcass was sent through a processing plant, wherein its body parts were hewn apart and separated into categories of desirability. The parts were then packaged and shipped in all different directions, until resting conveniently in the aisles of a supermarket or arriving in the kitchen of the restaurant you may be visiting. Finally, after preparations of widely varying fanciness, a small piece of that animal’s body ended up on your fork, where it has been effectively reduced from a living, breathing creature, to nothing more than a mouthful of a recipe. One that most people probably eat rather mindlessly while watching TV or chatting with family.
For meat eaters everywhere, this detachment that modern society provides is incredibly convenient. For them, meat is often no more than a red-hued, saran-wrapped item in the refrigerator section of the IGA or some strange amalgamation of animal termed a ‘patty’ or a ‘link’. There, in the sterile environment of a Wal Mart or a restaurant, meat is delivered to you blindly and guilt-free. In this system, there is no risk becoming attached to an animal that you raised on your own. No need to feel the fear of the animal as it is cornered, bound and prepared to be slaughtered. No need to look it in the eyes with a weapon in your hands, and be forced into accepting the responsibility for its death. Instead, some calloused man with a pneumatic bolt gun delivers head shots to cattle on a assembly line in Dodge City, Kansas so that you can eat your steak guilt-free. Instead, poor immigrant workers brave the blood gurgling screams of pigs dying in a South Carolina slaughterhouse so that you can have cheap, crispy bacon on a quiet Sunday morning with no blood on your hands.
“Quick and Painless”
For those of you who, at this juncture, may take some comfort in the idea that dying with a bolt flying through your skull is ‘quick and painless’, you are forgetting that providing meat at the levels we demand it (three meals a day!) does not involved green pastures and sunshine, but rather, an unsightly, industrial scale process. One that packs animals into inhumane spaces where they wade in their own excrement and are fed unnatural, hormone ridden, cannibalistic diets that push their bodies painfully to the point of failure.
When ready for slaughter, this process has yielded chickens whose legs are too week to hold them up, turkeys who cannot upright themselves after a fall, and cows that are so sick that they need more antibiotics in one week than most humans see in a lifetime. Far from a ‘short and sweet’ death, the animals that are grown within the ‘factory like’ settings of the modern meat industry are sick and miserable for most of their lives. Rest assured, there is no escaping it, meat rearing is an ugly process full of pain and suffering. And that’s for more than just the animals, but also for the people working there.
So what does this have to do with you as a meat-eater? Well, returning to that forkful of chicken marsala, by taking that bite, you are supporting this process. There is no avoiding this fact. You are a fundamental link in the basic supply-demand curve, wherein each dollar you spend on meat is a vote of confidence in the system that provided it. At this juncture, I’ve found that many will respond to the above with ‘yeah, but I just don’t think about it‘ or some other permutation of the ‘ignorance is bliss‘ mantra. Well if that’s you, I urge you to reconsider your apathy. You demanded that animal’s death and someone else provided it due to that demand. You stop, they stop. Who is responsible?
Furthermore, do you realize that just by drawing that conclusion or making that excuse, you are acknowledging that there is something immoral/undesirable about killing animals? By taking point of view, you have acknowledged that, somewhere within you, there exists the feeling, the deep knowing that killing other beings is not something to be taken lightly. That you would feel remorseful having done so, and would rather avoid doing it.
Think of your reactions to the death of animals when you were young. Did you see your grandfather filleting fish you’d caught? Watch a zebra disemboweled by a lion pride during a National Geographic special? What was your natural reaction to such things before you were trained by society to accept them as ‘part of life’? Before you were numbed to the reality of eating other beings by ritually repeating it thrice daily? You used to think such things were terrible! They probably made you feel like crying! Truly, most of us could not perform a youtube search on animal slaughter and not shed a tear while watching. Deep down, we know that the suffering and death of other beings is undesirable, yet most of us still live in a manner the directly supports it. Why? Because we can do it in a system where we consume a creature without understanding the suffering and pain involved, without ‘feeling responsible’… but make no mistake, you are.
All Hail, The Wise and Powerful Human
For another group of people, a response along the lines of: ’Yes, you melon-headed-fruit maniac, but humans and animals are fundamentally different – we are self aware and much more intelligent than animals are.’ Ok, if that’s you, then lets look at that line of thinking once more. The premise here is that humans and animals are in some manner ‘separate’ and that humans are ‘greater’ or ‘wiser’ than animals and that justifies to treat them terribly and killing them without remorse. I’d have to argue that is a very silly argument for a being of such ‘wisdom’!
First, you are forgetting that humans are animals too. We evolved from primate-like origins, slowly and surely, just like the rest of nature (if you are a Creationist that believes humans are made in ‘God’s Image’ and have a soul while animals don’t, I challenge you to consider what Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden (hint: not meat) for a different perspective from the one I’m currently espousing). Thus, upon closer inspection, one will observe that, even with their more basic level of self-awareness, animals share much more in common with us that we care to realize. They desire safety, warmth, food, companionship, affection and dislike pain, fear, cold, hunger. They have hearts, lungs, brains, stomachs, livers and blood, and when these systems fail, they die. They also have tongues, noses, ears, eyes and nerves, meaning that they taste, smell, hear, see and feel.
Lie: “Animals Don’t Know What is Happening to Them”
Speaking of which, have you ever been around an animal that is about to be slaughtered? The feeling of fear within them is intense. Their cries are haunting. Sure, we cannot know exactly what an animal is thinking, but the contextual clues present at the time of their death are quite clear - they are quite capable of understanding fear, feeling the pain of a blade, and experiencing the suffering of dying. What crazy self-righteous perspective allows us to rationalize that their pain is any different than ours? Or that they do not understand what is happening to them? Such arguments are nonsensical.
Turn the tables for a moment, if you were wrangled into a pen so narrow you couldn’t turn around, forcibly marched into a room that reeked of the blood and urine of your friends and then hung upside down with your throat cut open, you would behave just like a pig does. Hearing the cries of your peers ahead of you, you would feel deep fear, you would tremble and when your time came, you would scream for your life. So much for being ‘separate’ or ‘different’ from animals.
Lie: “It’s Okay, We’re in Charge Here”
And secondly, since when does a greater level of intelligence empower one with the right to kill a being of lower mental capability? What kind of perverse moral logic does this suggest? Beyond that, we must acknowledge that scientific discoveries are continually suggesting that animals are more intelligent than we think. For example, recent studies with dolphins have shaken the assumptions that humans are the only species that is ‘self aware’ and elephants have been observed to have ‘death rituals’ and show compassion to each other, both activities that were once thought to be the defining quality of humans. Expect discoveries such as these to continue!
For the purpose of connecting this argument to ‘food’, let’s take pigs for example. Pigs are also incredibly intelligent animals, with advanced social behavior on par with that of primates and the reasoning abilities of a three year old child. They are known to be intensely loyal, very affectionate and also make great pets.
Speaking of pets, would you eat your pet? Of course you wouldn’t! This probably seems like a silly question to ask, but why wouldn’t you? Most likely, you’ve been around your pet enough to see how ‘alive’ they are. You understand their individual personality, their likes/dislikes. Well guess what? The same is true of the animals you are eating. There is no real difference between your pet dog or cat and, say, a chicken or a cow (read ‘wings’ and ‘burgers’ by some). Sure, it is much more ‘normal’ to have a dog or cat as a pet, but there are places in the world where a dog is what’s for dinner. These are social constructs, things that we accept, but rarely question (kind of like eating meat three times a day…). But when we do take a moment to re-think, we may come to see them in a different light.
And by the way, using the excuse “But it’s just a ____ ” for killing an animal is a pitiful argument.
Alright, I Feel Bad, Now What?
So at this point, there are three groups of people reading this blog post (there were originally four, but the fourth group already stopped reading, ha!).
The first is the group that already agreed with me from the start and are happy to hear another message promulgating the veggo lifestyle. If that is you, take it upon yourself to spread this blog post (and other info) around to those you know who are questioning their meat-intensive lifestyle. Start conversations with them about vegetarianism (note: ‘conversations’ ARE NOT ‘arguments’. Arguments are usually pointless). But most importantly, be an example of how fun, interesting and TASTY being a vegetarian is! This is your mission.
The second group are the people who find the above commentary unconvincing and want to debate it further. If that’s you, I can understand your position. You are keen on defending your right to eat animals because it is hardwired into your lifestyle. You don’t want to give up ‘delicious’ meat. And until you start to think of meat differently, you will maintain a host of reasons why it is okay to kill for it. I’m not going to be able to force you into accepting my way of thinking… only you have the power to change your mind. If you are comfortable with the death and suffering of other beings for your dietary pleasure, I will not be able to evoke compassion from within you through a simple blog post (but I’d love to chat more sometime ).
The third group are those who are considering the adoption of vegetarianism. If that’s you, I’m thrilled you’re reading this post. If you have one single solitary little part of your being that thinks ‘I sure don’t like all this pain and suffering stuff‘, do yourself a favor and let that part of you grow unbounded. Let go of your preconceptions. Release yourself from the expectations of others and embrace that inner voice. It will take you into a happier and more fulfilling life, I promise you. Unleash your compassionate feelings and start taking responsibility for your diet. But don’t feel overwhelmed by the questions, by the unknown. That’s the exciting part. Maybe you can start with eating less meat, experimenting with vegetarian recipes. Perhaps you could ‘go veggie one day a week‘ and see how you feel. Eventually, or perhaps immediately, you may feel ready to stop eating meat completely.
If you do make that decision, it will be noticeable. Your mind will be clearer, your body will feel lighter and you will have just taken a giant leap towards being a happier, more fulfilled person. Freeing yourself from the weight of the pain, suffering and death of other living beings brings about a wondrous change within you. It’s no secret that compassionate thoughts are the most joyful, satisfying and happy thoughts you can have! It’s been scientifically proven!
Not convinced? Check back for forthcoming posts on the environmental and health oriented reasons for going vegetarian. And I’ve got something special in mind for you meat eaters… maybe next time.
Wow, look at me, a whole post without blabbing on about fruit! Aren’t you proud?