For much of my childhood, I had one clear goal: I would leave home the moment I was legally permitted to do so. When I finally achieved that goal—a few months late—I was both hopeful and bereft. My great, defining trial was now behind me. What next?
I had to deal with pragmatic concerns above all (work, food, and shelter) but my first major independent choice now seems significant: I decided to become vegetarian.
I didn’t know any vegetarians at the time—it was, and still is, an uncommon decision in the working-class world. Most of my friends, girlfriends and workmates took me for a lunatic—and they may have been right.
I can’t claim to know the exact reasons behind my decision, but I recall reading several books about Buddhism, and being deeply attracted to the prospect of abstaining from unnecessary cruelties—and less concerned with the prospect of eradicating my desires, or the suffering they were said to produce. It didn’t particularly matter to me that I wanted to eat meat. I’d grown up among adults whose failures and dysfunctions had much to do with their incapacity or unwillingness to control their impulses, so I had every reason to be wary of my own. The important thing was to abstain from compulsions or reflexive attitudes that produced needless suffering for others, and to thereby differentiate myself from the dominant group. (I was only sixteen, so rebellion was innately attractive.)
I held to that first decision well enough, despite some setbacks: after a few months of ill health in my late teens, a doctor instructed me to add meat to my diet, so I became omnivorous again and tried to put the uneasiness out of mind. But it wouldn’t last long.
I’ve now been vegetarian for 16 years. In the beginning, I occasionally found myself eating meat after long nights of heavy drinking, but I wasn’t too dismayed by those infidelities—the perfect being the enemy of the good—and the yearning for meat eventually vanished. For the past two years, I’ve been comfortably vegan. If my decision to give up meat involved anything resembling moral fortitude in the beginning, it doesn’t any more. It’s now a default setting.
My veganism doesn’t feel like an imposition, and I have no special affinity for fellow tofu-munchers. The question has always been ‘What can I bear?’ not ‘How good can I be?’ or ‘What tribe is right for me?’ It offers no sense of accomplishment or pride; it’s just there.
Nevertheless, many people register my culinary predilections as an acute and unforgiving judgement. On discovering my shameful (or shame-inducing?) secret—typically over a social lunch or dinner—they are compelled to rehearse their reasons for not being vegetarian. Which is not a conversation that I’m particularly inclined to have, for several reasons: the role of interrogator or confessor doesn’t suit me; I’ve heard every argument for and against; and I typically have other things on my mind.
Above all, I’m vegan because, as a child, I experienced something of what it is to be treated like an animal. And what sort of madman would reveal that over lunch?
I would dearly like to live in a world filled with people who choose to abstain from and discourage avoidable cruelties. Instead, most of us exhibit deep concern for our own kind—our social, cultural, or political group, our gender or species—and have diminishing concern for those who fall outside whatever boundaries we’ve inherited or adopted. That is a reality.
It is also true that those who are treated ‘like animals’ are not always transformed by the experience in the manner that I was transformed by it. Their oppressors are condemned for making a category error, not a relational error; for many, social progress occurs when those who were once mistreated are fully absorbed into the dominant group, which continues to deal with ‘lesser’ creatures as it likes.
Civility and sociability require us to submit to the prevailing sensibility. In a masculine culture, we acclimatise ourselves to domineering behaviour; in a post-industrial meat-eating culture, we accept automated mass slaughter, and the jubilant preparation and consumption of its spoils. For this reason, I find it hard to fully sympathise with well-off and well-educated people who are enraged by ‘structural inequalities’ that have hampered their progress in life if those same people happen relish meat. Maybe that’s uncharitable, but people reveal themselves in the ways they employ the power they possess, and ‘punching down’ is remarkably universal.
None of my friends are vegan. Many of them have desperately strong moral concerns—they bemoan the mistreatment refugees, the evils of colonialism, the perils of homophobia and racism, as I do. But there’s a fixed limit to that concern. For most, the plight of disadvantaged and dispossessed people is a source of great shame and distress, while the horrors of factory farming are sadly unavoidable.
But what could be more avoidable? The condition of animals is so dire that progress is easily achieved. There is no need to form collectives, to fight governments or lobby groups, to persuade unsympathetic voters or protest against large corporations. Nor is there a need to promote the welfare of animals over vulnerable or long-suffering people. It is so much simpler than that.
Instead of eating meat, you don’t.