I’ve always eaten meat; meat was what was thought to build muscles when I was young. It was good for the blood, nourished the brain, and kept your teeth strong and healthy. Plants, I was told, were harder to digest, and so you only needed to resort to them to keep you regular.
Things have changed, though, and what once seemed obvious has now been called into question -more than question: anathema. Meat has become the Antichrist, and to defend it in many circles is to cross a boundary -to trespass onto sacred soil. The very word has become an obscenity to some nowadays; I don’t get invited out for dinner much these days…
Okay, maybe they’re right -I probably shouldn’t lust after meat. But I don’t like it being thrown in my face. Not the meat, you understand -nobody throws meat around very much anymore; what they offer me instead is kale, seldom cleverly disguised. Nowadays, everybody feels compelled to serve a main course of plants of one sort or another that they’ve stashed away like a Gideon Bible from a too-easy-to-reach fridge.
I’m exaggerating, of course, but the religious fervour that is being wrapped around herbivory makes me wonder if it is in fact a psychological displacement – you know, an unconscious transfer of an intense emotion from one object to another that is more acceptable… And it is often proclaimed as ex cathedra: infallible. Indisputable.
Perhaps those who espouse this new religion have a valid point, however; it is not the wisdom that I am contesting so much as the hubris, the arrogance with which it is proclaimed -and, often, the source from which it is derived. Sometimes it’s as simple as an article they’ve just read on Facebook, or seen prominently displayed on the front cover of a magazine at the checkout counter in Safeway. The word ‘meat’ is always capitalized and in bold, coloured typeface as if it were an exposé on somebody in public office, and is usually followed by ‘heart attack’, ‘stroke’ or something to suggest that the unwitting offenders are now needlessly demented as a result.
And yet, surely the best way to change an opinion is not to attack it, but to listen, and try for common ground -use diplomacy, in other words. A non-zero-sum approach. I do not crave meat, and when I discovered the terrible conditions in factory farms, I have substantially reduced my carnivority. But all the same, I object to being guilted if I happen to admire a particularly attractive beef tenderloin lying provocatively behind glass in the meat section of the supermarket. You just can’t make lentils that seductive, I don’t think. And as for tofu…
Anyway, I’ve come to wonder if there actually is something to the concept of Original Sin to which I and my parents were, apparently, the unsuspecting victims. Fortunately, I was heartened to find an article in Aeon that addressed my concerns without the Scriptural exhortations for repentance: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-vegetarians-should-be-prepared-to-bend-their-own-rules
Alberto Giubilini, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the time of his writing the essay, discusses the dilemma a staunch vegetarian, or vegan, might find herself in if confronted with a pork chop on her plate when invited to a friend’s place for dinner. I mean what should she do? To complain or refuse to eat it would be rude, and yet if she pretended she did not find it a problem, would that be morally untenable? ‘Chances are that what she has been served won’t be the kind of humanely raised meat that some (but not all) ethical vegetarians find permissible to consume. More likely, it would be the product of cruel, intensive factory farming. Eating the meat under these circumstances couldn’t then be an act of what the philosopher Jeff McMahan calls ‘benign carnivorism’… Most vegetarians are concerned about animal suffering caused by meat consumption, or about the impact of factory farming on the environment.’
‘Now, if we agree that one of the good reasons for being vegetarian is that eating meat to some degree encourages practices that cause animal suffering, then at a first glance it might seem that eating meat only rarely is morally permissible… because it is very likely that eating meat only occasionally will not have any impact on the amount of suffering inflicted on animals.’
It’s a slippery slope, however. If a vegetarian (or vegan) accedes to the call of politeness, it dilutes the message. ‘In other words, the positive impact of being a vegetarian, in terms of reduction of animal suffering, might be amplified when vegetarianism is publicly defended and demonstrated in social contexts. And, conversely, making exceptions to vegetarianism might convey the message that eating meat is not so bad after all.’
But then we stumble onto my objection with the Plant Gospel: ‘If people perceive vegetarianism as a position that allows for no exception, they are probably less likely to become vegetarian. A flexible moral position is more appealing than a rigid one that allows for no exceptions. It is more likely that people would be convinced to become flexible vegetarians – that is, that they abstain from eating meat with some exceptions – than to become rigid vegetarians, and being a flexible vegetarian is preferable, from a moral perspective, to being a carnivore.’
And yet, for true believers it is often hard to deviate from the glory road; when you know the destination, every detour is a betrayal of the cause, I suppose. Me? Well, if I were ever able to ingratiate myself sufficiently to someone and was invited to their place for dinner, how would I react if they had forgotten that I had all my own teeth and sloshed a steaming kale and bean stew into my bowl? Would I tell them that I really objected to plants being raised in captivity and then being summarily snatched from the sun they had come to love and expect? Would I feel guilty as I dipped my gluten-free bun in the bowl in secret hopes of ameliorating the taste? Would I over-indulge in the raw celery just to exercise my teeth, or maybe skip second helpings of the delicate crispy pan-fried garlic tofu?
Nope. When you’re a bachelor, food is food, eh?