By Philip O’Meara @philipomeara
“Oh, no, you’re not a veggie…”
Beyond its inconvenience (inconveniencing a friend or eating another mushroom risotto at an unimaginative restaurant), it’s the implication that being vegetarian is an inherently bad – or at least unhinged – position which has encouraged me to put down my reasoning in a blog post.
Before I go any further, I want to put in some disclaimers. The purpose of this is not to preach or moralise in any way – just present my point of view with as much balanced coherence as I can. I am not particularly moral (depending on your definition, of course), I’m not a saint (indeed with the sexual abstinence and piety, I don’t want to be one), I’m very frequently a hypocrite and this post may well be full of it.
For example, I sometimes drink organic milk, and though the companies assure me it’s from cows who are free to roam and well treated, I don’t know. But I haven’t investigated this fully, so I am currently guilty of the same willful ignorance I’m about to point out in others. I will also occasionally eat fish as long as I have good reason to suppose it’s line-caught from sustainable sources. This makes me not even a vegetarian, and therefore an utter hypocrite. I haven’t looked into it properly, and I know that if everyone on earth wanted to be a pescetarian, the fish would disappear. But fish live in the sea (don’t they?).
Another confession is that I don’t look too closely into the products I buy – shampoo, toothpaste, bread, HP sauce… who knows what suffering has occurred to make it to my table? Not me, and I can’t say “I’m doing my best” because it would be a lie. I could do so much more. This laptop I’m writing on – do I know what human suffering has gone into it? No. Has any? Probably. Did I check? No. So the message here is not “I’m better than you”, but “here are some things I’ve learned which I can’t both ignore and be honest.”
Reasons for being veggie
I understand that there are very good reasons of sustainability to be a vegetarian. I’m reliably informed that the resources needed to keep animals, even in the most barbaric and horrific torturous conditions, outweigh the nutritional benefits the animal provides to humanity. But this isn’t my reason for not eating animals, although it may be a good one. I might use this reason in a discussion to rationalise the decision I’ve made (which is partly although not entirely emotional and partly but not entirely subjective), but it just so happens not to be a reason that forms the basis of my opinion. I won’t go into that here, because there just isn’t time before you get bored!
Eating animals is right
Now – shock horror – I don’t actually believe that eating animals is wrong. I couldn’t make a case for it or a claim for it beyond my feelings. It happens a lot, animals have more or less always eaten each other. Now as it happens I couldn’t bring myself to slaughter a pig or chicken or cow. I see the life in my fellow creatures and couldn’t take it from them. I’m sure that in the right circumstances I could, but I’m not in those circumstances. I’m in privileged, sheltered, fed, clothed, housed and generally spoiled and pampered circumstance. And in this environment I wouldn’t kill an animal. And to avoid the most basic hypocrisy, I won’t eat what I wouldn’t kill. That’s my baseline.
But anyone who wanted to kill and eat an animal in necessary circumstances, I would not stand in your way. It also happens that I don’t enjoy the chewing of flesh (at least, mammal and bird flesh), because in my mind it feels too much like chewing human flesh, by which I mean chewing the flesh of a fellow being who is close enough on the tree of life to warrant such a comparison (more on that later). But this is beside the point, and it doesn’t constitute any argument for vegetarianism. My feelings are neither here nor there.
When someone asks “why are you veggie?”, I hear it as something akin to “why don’t you like to inflicting suffering?” In other words, in my mind it’s asking for justification of an absurd negative. So – assuming that you don’t like inflicting suffering, I’ll ask the opposite question: “why aren’t you vegetarian?” Here are the reasons I generally get from people
Might makes right
Those who say that because we have dominion over the animals, we may do as we wish – we are fitter and better adapted and therefore can do whatever we like (both in the sense of being able to and having the right to). I heard this one recently in France. This is colloquially known as “might makes right” and actually it’s the position I have the least argument with – at least we all know where we stand. It is true that we have the ability to cram animals in horrific conditions, abuse them and – eventually – run an ineffective electrical bolt through their half-animated corpses and then tuck into them around a family dinner. Although of course “might makes right” is the bugle-call of the psychopath, the genocidal dictator and he who is without empathy, or has had it suspended for him.
As an accompaniment to this view I have even heard the statement “but at the end of the day, they’re going to die” (this was in relation to battery hens, but it could relate to any animal in the industrial farming complex). Well, this is a true statement, but then at the end of the day, you’re going to die too. We are all going to die. Life is the important bit – and it’s the bit that matters to a being, even those who claim that they live in bliss after they die.
What an assumption we make. Every day – the assumption of life. Do you realise that you are alive? How often do you feel it? When you remember that you are alive, it becomes very important.
Humans are humans and animals are animals
This runs along the same lines as the above, but slightly watered down.
The same kind of tribalistic tendencies which place arbitrary divisions and say “our country is better than your country”, “our god is better than your god”, etc. results in this view “humans are better than animals” and draws another arbitrary line between humans and everything else. This binary illusion is the zenith of the “us and them” mentality. It claims that we are separate from and unrelated to all other life forms which we now know empirically is – thanks both to biology and particle physics – on every level, entirely untrue. The only position left is an utterly baseless assertion held for subjective purposes.
But this tribalism and drawing of arbitrary “us and them” lines, is precisely the same way of thinking and being that leads you to say: “we can enslave the Africans – they are subhuman”, “we can, indeed, enslave and systematically slaughter the Jews – Sie sind undermenschen – subhuman. Animals. Rats.” It’s the same principle. It’s blindness, willful ignorance that denies the reality that all living things are in fact related, share a common ancestor and – on some level – are all expressions of the same life-force itself which is an ongoing process starting around four billion years ago and continuing well beyond our lifetime and perhaps that of our planet, solar system, or even galaxy.
With this drawing of lines – this tendency to categorisation and eventually tribalism, anything goes. We may enslave, abuse, torture, mutilate, degrade and massacre anything that is “not one of us”. These lines are indeed arbitrary.
The foundation of our normal natural tendency to empathy – the basis of the golden rule “do unto others as you would have done unto you”, which I would call the positive and hopeful side of humanity, is the opposite of – and is poisoned by – tribalism. Us and them. Empathy breaks down at “us and them”, and the rise of this mentality destroys empathy.
We create their lives, we own them, so we can do what we want
It may well be that plants suffer. The extremist fruitarians think so. But I have no reason to suppose that. However, I do have reason to suppose that animals in our meat industries suffer immensely, for their entire lives. Now, there are those also who claim that because we breed them, we also have a right to treat them however we see fit. It’s essentially a god claim. We made them, we own them, and we can do what we want with them.
Firstly, of course, it’s not true. By breeding animals, we don’t create them; merely provide a situational aid to the natural process. After all, slave owners in America systematically bred their slaves to be strong by pairing the right couples together. So therefore we created these slaves, own them, and have a right to do with them as we wish. It’s precisely the same principle, and it goes nowhere – like many arguments – because the premise is faulty. By breeding animals, we don’t make them or create life, we just expediate the natural process. We don’t do any of the making – the animals, like all self-replicating life, do it for themselves, enabled by us.
Now yes, it’s true – if we had not bred pig A, he would not exist. So can we now do with it as we please? Well, if you grant it for this pig, you have to grant it for your pet dog, any slaves you may own (and for whom you paid good money) and – let us not forget – any children you may have created. The last example on this list should hammer home my point – do you own your children and can you abuse them in any way? You created them after all… Did Joseph Fritzl have the right to treat his daughter in the way he did? I mean he created her, which is more than can be said for breeders of animals. Imprisoned. Abused. Tortured. Enclosed. Enslaved. Who am I talking about here?
We are more intelligent and therefore superior
It’s a rationalisation of the more honest position of “might makes right”.
If you do object to lifelong suffering, torture and abuse of – say – a dog, then it seems to me that you must also object to the lifelong suffering, torture and abuse of – say – a pig. Now I use the example of a pig because they are often cited as being intelligent creatures – more so than dogs – able to solve more complex problems and (ironically) display a much higher level of empathy. I find it irritating when animal rights activists use this argument, because personally speaking I couldn’t give a rats arse (ptp) about intelligence, in the same way that I don’t believe it’s correct to be cruel to someone with learning difficulties… although that does seem to be the thick end of the argument being made here. I can’t think why I would rather torture a chicken than a pig, because they are both fellow living breathing creatures related to me who feel suffering and pain and express it in their shrieks. I feel these shrieks with my empathy, and it would compel me to stop in either case.
But humans are only superior to other animals in the sense that we have vastly more evolved brains. It’s another arbitrary line to say we are “superior” to birds, for instance. Birds can fly and we cannot, so in that sense birds are superior to us (note that our ability to build and operate aeroplanes is a reflection on our intelligence, not our ability to fly). This is why it’s both useless (unless you’re justifying cruelty, of course) and incorrect to think of any organism as superior or inferior. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a human. For example, it may be that our unique intelligence ends up being the same aspect of being human which kills us. Or it may not. But physically, humans are fairly poorly evolved – we have all sorts of physical ailments to highlight (as Darwin puts it) “the indelible stamp of our lowly origin”. It’s important to recognise this difference between “superior” and “different” because the former leads to the most abject suffering with apparent justification, and the latter leads to diversity, pluralism and an all-round better existence (if – of course – you think that a better existence is characterised by a reduction of suffering … you may not).
What we do now know from the fossil record is that although our intelligence now seems so far above the “other” animals and primates, it was not always so. Going back some tens of thousands of years there were many other species of the homo genus – loads and loads of them – with different levels of intelligence. No one can know whether they were “like us” but they certainly had elements of ritual – in as much as they buried their dead. But, like 99.9 per cent (at least) of every species that has ever lived, they are no more. Homo-sapiens are the last survivors of the homo hominid class. And we came so very close to utter extinction – only 70 000 years ago the DNA marker evidence suggests that us 7 billion – as we now are – was a piffling few thousand. And we could have disappeared at that point along with our other fellow hominids, who did indeed disappear. But as adaptation and luck would have it (or God, if you prefer to think, who favoured us over the others… ah, we’re returning to “us and them again”!) we survived, multiplied and made it. But it so could easily have been otherwise, and some other hominid could have gone on to write this blog post – or whatever their equivalent was. Before long, we won’t be here anymore. We often feel that we are somehow immortal, and the blindness to the bigger picture of the ultimate brief transience of human life is partly what leads to this idea that our lives are important, whereas all other life is not. Again: us and them, humans and animals.
Nice but duped people
Most people I know – and I believe – most people generally, are basically good. If we weren’t then we wouldn’t have functioning society, law and the like. We wouldn’t have got as far as society if this were not so. This comes from our innate ability to empathise. But nice people can be duped by nice pictures on packets and promises of good treatment. The fact is that people like eating meat, and the images of nice farms on packets can lead people to rationalise away the reality.
Now this was a more understandable position to take before the internet. But now we have quick and easy ways of gathering information, particularly information which makes us feel uncomfortable – “inconvenient truth” as they say.
This leads to unfortunate hypocrisies and double standards, as in the recent hysterical case of the giraffe at Copenhagen zoo. The same people who made comments such as “how can they kill, in cold blood, such a beautiful creature” are the same who – moments later – chomped down on a bacon sandwich which has not only been produced by a beautiful creature, but one that to a high probability lived its entire life in the most barbaric and abjectly torturous conditions.
So – you see – the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall dream – animals living out their lives in their natural habitat with dignity – is utterly impossible. It could indeed (and perhaps was) a reality when there were tens of thousands and even a few hundred million mouths to feed in the world, but if you have 7 billion people wanting to eat meat, there is only one way to do it – brutal, industrial, cruel, capricious, callous, psychopathic insanity. When we’re talking these numbers, it’s the only way. In order to sustain our want of eating animals, we must abandon our humanity, as we already have.
But you’re not going to make any difference
Quite right. I can’t bring down the system. In the same way, a German officer could not make a difference in refusing to slaughter Jews. It’s him or them. And, as shown by the Stanley Milgram experiments (and many others since), otherwise good people will sacrifice their humanity with the permission of authority. The same authority that says: eat the meat, it’s ok, this is Britain, we won’t let anything bad happen. Don’t believe them. But money makes the world go round, so here’s what I can do: I can refuse to put my money into the system, I can not be a part of it.
I have this vision that one day we will look back at these times, as we look back today at slavery, misogyny, sexual discrimination or any other of our lower moments (although don’t think for a second I’m implying these problems are solved) and say
“How was everyone so evil and inhuman? How did it go on with seemingly good people letting it continue? They had the open internet, this was the birth of mass-information… they had all the information they could possibly have needed, and yet somehow good people went on funding industrial cruelty – how could they?”
But I have hopes, and all the hopes come under awareness and knowledge. Slavery, sexual, racial and orientation discrimination are all legislated against, but this was not always so – steadily we progress. We put pictures on cigarette packets of diseased lungs in order to say to people “this is what can happen if you smoke – now it’s your choice.” This is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the steady decline of smoking in the last half century but do you know what has caused this decline? Knowledge, awareness and truth. Smoking is, indeed, bad for you – categorically and objectively. It’s now up to you whether you do it.
One of the most ruthless industries out there is that of battery hens. This holocaust-type industry is the pinnacle of viewing animals as objects. For me, it’s very nearly a no-brainer to ban battery-farming along with pigs in gestation crates. But this is the tip of the iceberg, and it won’t produce change. It’s not possible to produce enough meat to satisfy everyone and not resort to horrific methods. We can only stop the demand. We must choose between meat and compassion – the human race, with its current and growing population, doesn’t have enough room for both.
Just as we moved away from suave-looking people being sexy and smoking on cigarette advertising (i.e. being fed lies), we could also move away from the lies of nice-looking farm sketches on the side of packets of meat. How about a photograph (not an artist’s rendition) of the actual living conditions of the animal?
It sounds crazy now, but as technology marches forwards, I imagine a future where video is streamed live from where that animal lived on the supermarket aisles. When you’re standing at that meat aisle, looking at the misery of the animals, then you are informed. Then buy the meat if you like… and a packet of cigarettes. Like all progress it will be slow… people don’t like change, they don’t like to feel uncomfortable, and they don’t like the truth.
But bacon is tasty!
Eat a burger!
Fried chicken after a night out – what a legend!