I’m a vegetarian, and have been since 2006. I was a vegan for two years, until it became too difficult to maintain (I travel for work frequently — not every place has adequate substitutions for dairy products). It is a conscious decision for most people to choose to not eat meat (or dairy, or eggs), as it was with me. This of course isn’t the case for everyone: You could have been raised in a vegetarian home, for example, or, some people grow up with religious guidelines determining what is and what is not appropriate to eat.
A frequent question I hear is, “Why are you a vegetarian?” The answer isn’t that simple for a lot of vegetarians or vegans to answer. Some people have mixed emotions about animal welfare; others don’t like the taste or texture of meat — and that doesn’t even touch on the complex rules surrounding religious reasons to exclude animal products from your diet. Something about the way people ask why leads me to believe that most Americans assume that if you’re a vegetarian, you must be some sort of extremist, or at the very least, an oddball for choosing consciously to omit such an important ingredient in a typical American diet. Of course this isn’t the case with everyone, but it seems to be a common assumption, so I thought I’d address a few of these points.
For me, it was a choice. But it wasn’t a choice based on one principal reason. I studied abroad in Japan, and became very used to a diet that didn’t use much meat. Seafood was fresh and readily available, but I ate it very intermittently, and I discovered that I enjoyed tofu dishes a lot more anyway. The ban on imported beef had only recently been lifted and I found myself uninterested in trying to use that in my dishes, not only for the high cost, but also because I hadn’t really eaten meat in awhile and I was avoiding becoming ill from ingesting animal fats (trust me, if you haven’t eaten ANY type of food for awhile, then start up again, your digestive tract rebels). When I came back to the US, I just chose not to pick up eating meat again. Of course, as an animal lover, part of me didn’t want to eat meat because I didn’t approve of how the meat industry worked, but that was really only a small part of why I kept on going with vegetarianism. Simply put, I led a fine life without meat, and had no desire to include it in my diet again.
When telling people I was a vegetarian, a lot of people were curious. I didn’t mind answering questions, because in America, being a vegetarian isn’t as common as being an omnivore. I understood that. But what I didn’t understand was why, after answering questions in what I thought to be a succinct and polite manner, some people began to get hostile towards me. I never said I was affiliated with PETA (an organization I will never align myself with — if you can treat women like shit, but market yourself as animal rights activists, you have some serious issues), nor did I say people who ate meat offended me in any way. I never tried to sell my lifestyle or imply that I was a better person because of my choices. It’s just who I am. But a lot of people saw me as a threat, and grilled me with questions about the contents of a vegetarian diet — Where did I get my protein? Aren’t vegetarians weak and sickly because animal protein is superior to plant protein? Do I realize helpless animals are killed by the plows and combines that give me my precious plants? What if plants felt pain, would I just gulp down air or something? Those videos are so old, you know people don’t treat animals like that anymore, don’t you? The list goes on and on. Basically, there’s some sort of miscommunication with our media or our perception of vegetarians that makes omnivores feel guarded about their choices, as if what they’re doing is somehow construed as “inhumane” or “cruel”. So they attack vegetarians even if we don’t have issues with people who eat meat. Allow me to elaborate on this. It is possible to support the meat industry, and still not eat meat yourself.
To start, my biggest problem was that although I was educated on a vegetarian diet (I know more about what I put in my body than a lot of non-vegetarians do — I took issue with people asking how I got protein, and if I knew how many calories I was eating when they probably didn’t know themselves!) I didn’t know how to explain animal rights. I didn’t want to support an industry that deliberately harmed animals, or at least didn’t care if they did harm animals, and yet I know the line has to be drawn somewhere — somehow, something is always going to suffer, because that’s just part of being a living creature. This didn’t fly with a lot of vegetarians, nor did it fly with a lot of omnivores. I just didn’t care if some other people ate meat, because that was their choice, and I had made mine. But there was something else to it…
Dr. Temple Grandin’s Animals Are Not Things explains very well what sort of meager thoughts I had on that issue, and was unable to fully form at that time. She says it so much better than I could have — maybe because I haven’t studied much neuroscience 🙂 I agree with her wholeheartedly. Essentially, she argues that the more complex brain an organism has, the more it deserves certain protections to its welfare and well-being. For example, a fish may feel afraid, because fear is a primitive reaction that helped propagate a species. But the further you climb up the phylogenetic tree, the more complex an organism becomes, and it begins to experience pain. You would need to take different measures to ensure a species doesn’t suffer, depending on how complex their brains and nervous systems are. For example: An animal doesn’t have the concept of being property itself, though it possesses an ability to be cognizant of its own property; i.e., a dog is protective of its family, its bone, or its yard. So it would need to have certain legal protection to ensure that it is happy and thrives. A chimp on the other hand, possesses all these cognitive properties and more: It has a complex social life, networking with other chimps and taking on certain roles depending on where it fits into its group. It would need different legal protection to ensure its happiness and well-being. The fact that animals have these abilities separates them from other “things”, such as inanimate objects or plants. In that sense, they shouldn’t be treated harmfully to become someone’s dinner. But they are also able to nourish many people and other animals, and to lose them altogether in the food chain would be ridiculous, so to say that they should never be used as a food source isn’t an option either. Of course, our society also tries to ensure that species aren’t eaten into extinction. In other words: As long as an organism receives protection to guarantee its welfare according to its nervous system’s complexity and ability to process emotions such as fear or pain, animals used as people’s property doesn’t violate their right to a high standard of welfare.
Respecting people and animals alike is important, and so is taking care of yourself in a way you’re comfortable with. If you choose to eat meat or animal products, try to choose companies that treat animals better. If you feel compelled to omit such things from your diet, be respectful of those who choose not to.