Monday, 13 February 2012

Interview with a Meat-Eater

Many times during this blog (and specifically in the last post) I have championed the importance of civilised dialogue and argued that we must overcome assumptions and defensiveness if we’re ever to make progress in our conversations with others about veganism. And yet, despite wanting this open discussion, I never question my friends about their attitudes towards meat-eating. This is partly because my close friends are extremely supportive of my veganism, I’m grateful for this and don’t want to rock the boat, and partly because I’m scared – scared of sounding confrontational, preachy, or like I’m judging them in some way (which is the last thing I’d ever want to do – I love my friends to bits, they’re incredible people!).

And yet, surely, if anyone is going to give me the time for a proper discussion about this, with all stereotypes out of the window (as we already know, like, and respect one another), it should be my friends. But it takes someone pretty special to sit and be challenged about their meat-eating.  I have a friend who always listens to my rants about conversations I’ve had with meat-eaters and never takes it personally – she can separate my frustration with the meat industry from my friendship and view of her, and more often than not she gets just as angry as me at the nonsensical arguments people present to defend their diet.

With all this in mind, asking her for a more personal conversation about this subject felt like a risky move, as I might lose my neutrality with her on this issue and consequently lose a most precious sounding board forever!

However, a video was released yesterday that made me put these reservations aside and realise that this issue is so big and urgent that I need to stop being hung up on conserving the image of the friendly vegan and just tackle this problem head on. The video features undercover footage taken from a British, Red Tractor ‘Quality Assured’ farm in Norfolk (though Compassion in World Farming have recently spoken out about the deceptiveness of the Red Tractor logo). The footage was some of the most shocking I have ever seen. That this is going on in an ‘animal loving nation’ is staggering, but the most sobering fact is that our animal welfare standards are among the highest in the world. We’re supposed to be leading the way for Europe.

The footage contains graphic images and is extremely upsetting, but this is why it is so important that it is seen. As one commentator wrote, ‘If it’s good enough for your stomach, it’s good enough for your eyes as far as I’m concerned,’ and I echo that sentiment. Anyone who buys pork has a moral obligation to see the brutality their money is funding. If you can’t watch this, how can you eat this?

When I see these images, I feel appalled, devastated, and heartbroken. And I am also astounded. Astounded that anyone I know can watch this video and not consider switching to a vegetarian diet. As I’ve said before, this isn’t a situation complicated by politics, governments, war, or drought – this is a simple exchange of money for meat. If we stop funding this cruelty, it will stop happening. The scale is just incomprehensible. 60 billion animals slaughtered every year for food. Every single year. And we are paying for it.

So, what's a vegan to do?  I realised that I needed to understand the thoughts of someone I love and respect who eats meat. I wanted to know what is stopping them from becoming vegetarian. Why does this video have a different effect on me than it does on them?

My friend is by far one of the most intelligent people I know, someone who I respect and admire, and I wanted to understand her reasons for supporting the meat industry with her hard-earned cash (okay, not too hard earned – we’re both PhD students, after all!). And, above all, I wanted her to be able to be honest and extensive in her answers. (Something that just can’t be achieved over a dinner table in a wine-fuelled heated debate…)

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried at all about asking her to give me hand with this. She gave me a hug and said she’d be happy to help, confidently asserting that ‘You shouldn’t hold views that you’re not prepared to defend.’

Finally. Some actual dialogue where both sides want to hear what the other has to say.

This interview is an attempt to grapple with the barriers that divide veggies and meaties, and investigate the issues we’re trying to overcome when we engage in a dialogue about animal rights and vegan living.

I showed my friend the video above and asked her some questions. I was genuinely interested to hear what she had to say, and I hope you are too.

Here are her honest and open answers…

Could we have some background on you?

I'm 25, and I've eaten meat all my life. That felt pretty weird to write, actually. Especially considering the number of times I've asked my veggie friends "how long have you been a vegetarian?".

When Hayles asked me to contribute to the blog, I was delighted. This is an issue that has been on my mind a lot over the past couple of years – for several reasons. However, I was also slightly dubious – am I here as the big bad wolf (carnivore)? Hopefully, what this post will be is a chance for me to reflect upon my own decisions, choices and lifestyle (something which is always healthy to do) and perhaps temper the "us vs. them" trajectory of most debates between vegetarians and meat-munchers.

Some background about my meat consumption: We try and buy our meat from a local and award-winning butcher, and I've chatted to him in the past about how he visits the farms that supply him – and would never get meat from a farm that he hasn't visited. I always feel much more comfortable with this type of supply chain than buying supermarket meat. When we do buy meat from the supermarket, we buy products marked free-range, freedom food and/or outdoor reared.

What is your initial response to the video?

The video is horrific. I did think about prefixing that sentence with "obviously it goes without saying", but I didn't, because, actually, that is what needs saying. And vegetarians and meat-eaters alike need to be standing up and saying that. In fact, especially meat-eaters. We are the ones whose cash is going to keep farms like that in business, so we need to be clear to farmers, butchers, abattoirs etc. what welfare standards we demand from them. Meat eaters need to be angrier about this video than vegetarians are – because it's us that are being sold a lie. British pork's recent advertising, and the Red Tractor campaign in general, have tried to present British farming as having higher welfare standards, and, whilst one has to be wary about generalisations based upon limited evidence, it's obvious that in this case this is simply not true.

I think the two most shocking things for me were the complete sense of sport in violence that many of the workers seemed to display, and the clear ill-health of many of the animals. In the first instance, whilst I find the behaviour abhorrent and inexcusable, I try to understand that that violence is symptomatic of wider contexts – firstly, the context of their work environment, which is obviously a depressing one, possibly the context of a socio-economic climate in which these workers feel powerless, and finally, the context of a world in which this violence to animals is pre-determined by the very structures of the food supply chain. With regards to the second point, this is another reason why meat eaters should be angrier about this than vegetarians. You guys might be appalled to see animals diseased, decaying, infected – but I'm appalled and I might have eaten that!

When you eat meat, do you make the connection between the product and the living animal?

This was one of the very first things that struck me after watching the video – how easy it is in our society to completely disconnect from the meat we are eating and the living animal that it once was. It is (purposefully, by the meat industry and supermarkets) made so difficult to see that slice of ham in your lunchtime buttie as one of those abused piglets. I know that I am very guilty of this, and it's something that really hit home to me this week as I was watching BBC1's Super Smart Animals over a plate of (really very delicious) chicken and chorizo traybake. I actually turned to my partner and said, "if they show a chicken on this programme and it's really clever, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to finish this meal." I did finish it. We can have a debate about the complete hypocrisy of this position in the comments, if you like.

What I suppose I'm getting at here is a culture that encourages this divorcement between animals and meat, and one which I willingly follow. Why? Partly out of habit, routine, tradition. Convenience. Enjoyment. Ease. I suppose the issue is that I have yet to feel strongly enough to actively force myself to make that connection, against the grain, each time I eat meat. I think that's one thing that vegetarians are up against when they are fighting to convince people to change their diets. You've already made that connection, and, once you've forced yourself to make it repeatedly (every meal, in fact, as you actively choose not to eat meat), it must be easy to forget how ingrained the disconnect is. I'm not saying it is an easy transition for anyone, but that, once achieved, you are perhaps coming at the issue from a very different subject position that makes a successful dialogue with meat-eaters about their diets and choices quite difficult. It's hard to empathise with a position that you have previously worked to force yourself out of.

Do you think you could kill an animal yourself?

Yes, I do think I could, and actually I think I'd be more comfortable eating meat if I had killed it myself. It would depend upon what the animal was, though. Sorry, I'm species-ist! I wouldn't necessarily describe myself as an animal-lover, although I don’t like to see or like the thought of animals suffering, which is why do try and make buying choices that purport to have offered animals a more pleasant life.

How would you feel about your siblings/future children working in a slaughterhouse?

I think everyone wants better for their children than this, but I would work in a slaughterhouse myself if necessary – again, I actually think it would be more legitimate for me to continue eating meat having experienced the process first-hand (if I wanted to, after that!). I grew up in farming-land, and one of the best local rumours was about the abattoir, where they allegedly doubled your pay if you lasted longer than two weeks! I never had this confirmed, but it does suggest rather a grim picture. Again, though, I would feel more fully informed in my decision either way if I'd actually experienced the environment. It's another way in which culture/the industry conditions that disconnect.

What is the biggest thing stopping you from becoming vegetarian?

I'm not sure there is one single issue – it's more like a complex entanglement of lots of mini-issues. Partly, they are logistical – but what would I eat?! *pictures self living off chips and toast* In a way, I know this is rubbish, because we try and have a meat-free day each week anyway, and have in the past done a week of all-veggie meals. And no one starved!

I'm also worried about health – one of my colleagues was a vegetarian and broke her leg pretty badly (like, basically shattered the thing to bits, bless her). The doctors couldn't figure out why it wasn't healing, until they finally quizzed her on her diet, and strongly recommended she try eating meat again, which she reluctantly did. The leg then healed, and she has since been fearful of being veggie again. I would worry that I wasn't giving my body all it needed. To address the obvious counter-argument here, yes, I am aware that there is no way that we physically need to eat as much meat as is currently the norm in British society. My point is just that I would be wary of eliminating meat altogether for that reason. Equally if I became pregnant or ill, I'm not sure I would want to be veggie during those periods.

Also, it would be amiss of me not to write another major reason just because I'm worried about sounding selfish – but I do love the taste of meat. Me and my partner are real foodies and we love cooking and trying out new restaurants and exploring local foods when we're on holiday. There you go. It's not a very intellectual or noble reason, but I suppose it is a big one for a lot of meat-eaters, me included.

What is the second biggest thing?

Another consideration is the impact that it would have on those around me, and their reactions to it. My partner has always been receptive to the idea of veggie-days and veggie-weeks, but I would worry that I was making him miss out on something he really, really loves if I were to go veggie. I know that he would support me no matter what, so that wouldn't be a concern, but I'd hate to feel I was depriving him through my own choices. Obviously he could continue to eat meat as he wished, but since we cook together and eat the same thing, we'd either have to change that or he be mostly veggie!

Lots of my friends are veggie, so that wouldn't be an issue…in fact I'm guessing some would be positively delighted. (Just a hunch, Hayles!) I think that my family, however, would have a harder time understanding. And would rip the piss out of me no end. There's a lot of banter in my house. I know that they would definitely respect my decision and not judge me for it, but there is a part of me that would worry about feeling left out of things like roasts and BBQs (both big deals in my house!).

Do you feel that there would be anything that would change your mind about the issue?

If my partner wanted to, I would definitely do it. If it became impossible to buy high-welfare meat, I couldn't bring myself to buy the supermarket stuff, so I'd have no choice!

I wanted to write down some things that I think would be good about becoming vegetarian, so this might be a good place:

• I wouldn't have any guilty moments re. eating meat.

• There are some great veggie foods which I think it would be legitimate to increase my consumption of, i.e. chips, chocolate, mushrooms, and Linda McCartney lattices.

• Hayles would be so, so happy!

If you were in the minority, and 95% of the world were vegetarian, would you still continue to eat meat/support factory farming?

No. As I've said, I think it's mostly a cultural thing, so no.

If your partner went vegetarian, would you?

Yes, excepting any health issues.

And lastly, what do you think is the main reason people have become so defensive about this issue?

I suppose eating meat is a big part of our culture, and people see vegetarianism as somehow a threat to it. Also, eating meat in the presence of a vegetarian exposes some uncomfortable conflicts that I think a lot of people feel but don't necessarily think about unless forced – hence the defensiveness.

So there you go! The floor is open. Please leave a comment (and give my friend a round of applause for stepping up to the podium…luckily, there are no lambs to the slaughter here!)

Peace and love to you all.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Why the hate?

I came out of my January hibernation (thank goodness that month’s over with…) renewed and ready to work towards a more compassionate 2012.  Unfortunately, good old Twitter had other ideas, and threw an article my way that made me feel more frustrated than ever about contemporary attitudes towards veganism.

Sali Owen published an article on the Guardian website yesterday posing the question: ‘So, what is an ethical vegan?’, hoping to distinguish this stance from people who are vegan for health and fitness reasons. What I want to discuss is not the article itself, but the absolutely astonishing reaction to it from readers of the paper. You can check out the comments here (I warn you, though, have a stress ball handy!), but to sum them up, they range from the standard base jokes we experience all of the time from meat-eaters (the top rated comment being: ‘I don't discriminate against farmed species - they all taste lovely’) to accusations of moral superiority: ‘It's just another way for them to worship at the altar of Better Than You.’ There are also comments that contain arguments so ridiculous that I am genuinely surprised these people are allowed to vote (one can only hope that they are really vegans writing satirically):

'What about the countless bacteria you slaughter every time you wash your hands?'

'If it is the fear of death in your food source which is the issue, then surely picking on a carrot is discriminatory on species with no concept of their own life?'

'Do Vegans oppose Breast feeding? Presumably they do. If its wrong to drink cows milk it must also be wrong to drink Human milk' [Sic] (Despite reading the Guardian, the rules of grammar and punctuation are evidently lost on this poor fellow.)

Countless other commenters make unsubstantiated and ignorant protestations about how vegans are denying what is ‘natural’, as if factory farming is in any way, shape, or form reflective of nature. There could be nothing less natural than the lives these animals lead. There could be nothing less natural than the average consumer’s complete and utter detachment from the source of the food they are eating.

What’s a vegan to do? I just cannot understand why articles like this get such a hateful reaction from the meat-eating community. And why all these accusations of moral superiority?! I can only conclude that these feelings come from within the meat-eaters themselves, because there is nothing ‘preachy’ about Owen’s article, and anyone that is vegan will know that if moral superiority were really what we were after, there are much simpler and less stressful ways to get it (for instance, abstaining from watching Celebrity Big Brother).

Perhaps most annoying of all the comments are the ones that rant about how they are ‘sick and tired of this holier-than-thou claptrap’, as if it’s so hard being a meat-eater, as if the whole world – the government, the food industry, restaurants, family, friends – aren’t on their side. Oh, it must be so hard for them to have all that choice on the menu, to be in the majority, to be catered for. It must be so hard when the one vegetarian in their circle chooses their dinner and they have to sit opposite a plate of roasted vegetables. How awful and offensive. And then the poor, persecuted meat-eater has to eat their dinner without being questioned about where they get their protein from. I honestly don’t know how they cope under such oppression! And the bullying continues, as after all this hardship, they have to endure reading an article (free from graphic pictures and full of comic references to ‘hummus wells’) in which someone discusses their ethical stance against animal cruelty! I mean, really, it’s surprising there are any meat-eaters left with all they have to cope with. They must feel so harrassed.  Maybe someone should set up a charity?

The injustice of factory farming is intolerable and incomprehensible. I cannot understand how anyone could defend such cruelty, nor can I fathom why these commentators are full of such spite towards people that are just trying to act kindly and compassionately. I guess what I'm really wondering is: Why the hate?

Something needs to change. Veganism needs to move into the 21st century. It needs to be normalised, mainstream, catered for. There needs to be a bridge between veggies and meat-eaters that overcomes all this rubbish about moral superiority, so that we can discuss this issue properly, and have an informed debate in which each side is respected and listened to. Surely most human beings want to end injustice, and create a kinder world for people and animals? That’s all us vegans are after. We don’t want to lecture you, we don’t want to make you feel bad, we don’t want to steal your favourite food - we want to usher in more compassion in the world and defend those who can’t defend themselves. Surely we can all agree that that’s something worth fighting for, and find a way to work together to achieve this?

Thank goodness, there was some light amongst those dark, Daily Mail worthy comments. In her article, Sali addresses the question of caring about multiple issues, arguing that it’s not an ‘either/or’ situation. She writes:
There doesn’t have to be a competitive element to compassion. We don’t have to pick sides. “Sorry, I’m afraid I can only care about one thing at a time, and today’s thing is sustainable recycling in Honduras. Now be a dear and pass me the stilton.”
One commenter agreed, beautifully expressing the idea that ‘The more love/compassion you give, the more you have and the more there is in the world! Love/compassion is not a finite resource. Caring is not a zero-sum game…'

Indeed it is not.

I don’t know what a ‘vegan revolution’ would look like, but I know it needs to happen. We need to break through the stereotypes, the ignorance, the barriers that stop us reaching out and spreading the idea that life is worth something. Life has value. And that every sentient creature, human and non-human, has the right to live the life they were designed for, and not be tortured, oppressed, or exploited.

How we live the life we have been given can change the lives of others, for the better or for the worst. Let’s work together, support and help each other to make veganism an approachable and fun way of life. This isn’t about being perfect; it’s just about caring that we’re not.

Something has to change.

As always, peace and love to you all. x

Sharing thoughts on peace, love, and vegan cupcakes!