I’d mentioned in the last post that there were three major reasons that I chose a vegetarian diet many years ago. In addition to well-being, my decision to avoid meat, poultry, and fish was spurred on by moral and ecological concerns. It can be difficult to talk about matters of ethics; we’re generally cautioned against discussing politics and religion (and, I would argue, moral values) in “polite” conversation; these are selectively “dangerous” themes. Without commitment to an open mind and underlying human solidarity, these topics can be as divisive as they can be unifying.
So saying, it wouldn’t be honest of me to claim that my dietary choices had nothing at all to do with moral/ethical concerns. I believe that our eating habits are hugely impacted by habituation. Forms of entertainment are similar in that we enjoy what we’re accustomed to, what we’ve been raised to accept, what we’ve seen others doing. Gladiatorial games are a prime example; society, at one time, demanded diversion in the form of terrible brutality. What led the public mind to change remains unclear. How can we pin-point the exact moment that a critical mass of objection was reached, and who was the first instrument? This slow phenomenon influences food trends as well. Twenty to thirty years ago in urban centres of Ontario, tofu was one of those odd “Granola Eater” eccentricities, and concepts like macrobiotic diets, vegetarianism, and local sourcing were enough to cause eyes to roll. “Not eating your meat” was tantamount to an attack on family harmony. Now, vegan raw-foods cuisine has caused restaurants to appear and prosper, vegetarian-friendly options abound in almost all markets, and not having a vegetarian option on a menu is a little gauche. How did we go from an inability to conceive of a meal without meat to commercial interests recognizing the vegetarian and vegan populations as large and influential enough to inspire product-development and branding?
I was raised in a family populated mostly by eastern-European immigrants, one generation removed. Though I’ve never visited ancestral villages, I am under the strong impression that vegetables fail to grow there. Cows and chickens? Absolutely. Dairy and eggs as a result? Definitely. Vegetables and fruit? No, though occasionally a bit of kasha may emerge. Fifteen years later, and my one aunt will still ask, looking utterly confounded, “so, you eat fish, no?” There is no doubt that my formative years were spent at tables laden with food pyramids skewed by poultry and beef, and until my early teens, I had no reason to question it. My feelings must later have undergone a process similar to the one experienced by communities at large, though the cause is a mystery, even to me. What I do recall is a feeling of sudden discomfort. Looking at a chicken thigh on my plate, I was suddenly no longer able to detach (pun not entirely intended) the knowledge of it as a body-part – once a part of a living creature capable of pain, hunger, loneliness, and vitality – from the reality that it was now dead flesh on my plate. I couldn’t any longer see this as “meat” and enjoy it for taste and texture, ignoring the process by which it reached my table. What had happened, essentially, is that I had “de-habituated.” If most of us had to kill and dress our own dinners, I am convinced that the vegetarian population would explode. So many are able to eat meat because of the dissociation between the living animal and the meat product – we don’t think of vacuum-sealed ribs as cows or pigs. What we cook and serve are products, and we’re accustomed to enjoying them, our families enjoy them – there are no negative connotations surrounding the summer barbecue. I contend, though, that the more knowledge communicated about the processes employed by abattoirs, the less we would be able to ignore the connection between the animal and the meal.
This is what happened to me – I ceased to be able to see what was on my plate as an object – the habituation that allowed me to ignore associations failed me. It wasn’t a matter of choice – it was an inability to turn a blind eye. All of this is tied to moral considerations by a key personal conviction – that it is wrong to kill and to harm. This was the moral component of my dietary change, and it was profoundly personal, tied to my own ideals. This is why I find it ineffective, at best, to try for forceful changes of opinions in others.
With respect for choices that sustain,