Recently my adult English class were studying the topic of ‘nature’ which had a section on ‘animals’. One of the opinions on the page was something along the lines of ‘the world would be a healthier and happier place if everyone went vegetarian and it would be good for the environment too’. After giving time for students to discuss this and other ideas, I asked if they agreed with it and was answered by a chorus of heartfelt ‘no!’s. Why not, I wanted to hear, and the students vehemently insisted that eating meat was essential to survival and health. You have to eat meat they said, using the strongest form for expressing obligation available to them. Since I’ve mentioned that I’m a vegan before, my students were arguing against the evidence standing in front of them, and perhaps I should have demanded an explanation as to how I had somehow survived for the past 16 years during which I haven’t eaten meat, but I focussed on dismissing The Protein Myth, which has folks believing that essential amino acids are missing from vegetable foods, or that the amino acids in such foods are not the same as the ones we need to make proteins in our bodies. I wanted to squash the bad science quickly and move the class on to ethical arguments. I was unprepared for this wall of resistance and strength of conviction in the necessity of meat.
I don’t know why I was so surprised, since I had been reading Carol Adams’ book ‘The Sexual Politics of Meat’, which addresses the mysterious difficulties of vegetarians to be heard over the dominance of ‘the texts of meat’. Since these are written into white culture we are heard as aggressive in our very refusal to partake. Plutarch is quoted suggesting vegetarians flip the question everyone asks us and invite the interlocutor to explain why they feel it’s alright to eat the dead flesh of animals, but this level of provocation usually backfires. One of the uses of spurious scientific arguments against vegetarianism is obviously to deflect the possibility of an ethical discussion; likewise the hypotheticals wise guys and gals love to bombard us with relating to desert islands and other unlikely situations. ‘What would you do if I put a gun to a cow’s head and threatened to pull the trigger if you refused to eat a burger?’ wondered a classmate of mine recently, surely begging the question ‘but… why would you do that?’
Anyway, while the terminology seemed a bit out of date to me, much of the analysis was valuable. The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, but Adams seeks to illuminate how deep the parallels run between the status and optics of women and of animals in white Euro-USian culture and society. I was actually most moved by the opening section in which she points out that women everywhere go without food, especially meat, to ensure that men eat well and eat meat. The discussion of rape though, made neither logical nor intuitive sense to me, and I lost the thread of the argument at times.
A key topic that does resonate for me is the development of meat consumption. Adams identifies four historical stages, the first being vegetarianism, followed by hunting, followed by subsistence farming, followed by industrialised agri-business. The Euro-USian world is obviously in ‘the fourth stage’, which is mostly pretty horrific. Adams considers meat-eating on the scale of this cultural group to be enmeshed with white supremacy and to some extent imposed with colonisation around the world. Listening to Radio 4’s Farming Today I regularly hear reports on British farmers seeking expanding markets in ‘BRIC’ countries where animalised and feminised protein (meat, dairy products and eggs in Adams’ terminology) are being consumed in increasing quantities. The analysis on the radio never gets beyond ‘they want it because they can afford it now’, continually reinforcing the food hierarchy with meat at the top. Little attention is paid to the health or environmental implications, or the farmers’ intention to create demand. Compassion for ‘livestock’ is obviously unmentionable.
While I appreciate Adams’ reflections on meat-eating as white supremacy, and agree with her critique of Pat Parker’s poem ‘To my Vegetarian Friend’, I feel the aspect of intersections between culture and racism and meat industries is underdeveloped. Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of many books that confronts me with the fact that Black slaves in the US were treated far worse even than animals raised for food who, as Adams points out, receive ‘the trappings of care’ from humans, I am reminded that white veg*ans like myself are regularly guilty of reinflicting, reinscribing or callously ignoring white supremacy and other aspects of kyriarchy. This week I read about vegans of colour protesting the antics of Thug Kitchen. The Sistah Vegan Project and other thoughtful, intersectional work should be required reading for vegan activists!
Still, Adams started the ball rolling taking veggies to task for misogyny, not that it’s over. Tweeting as my local Green Party branch on the topic of raising the number of women in parliament, I received a response from a white man: “why not focus on helping animals instead? #govegan” presumably, only male animals. Adams makes an intriguing connection between the fragmentation of animal bodies and of texts, specifically, the silencing of women’s texts and especially as ‘bearers of the vegetarian word’. It is important that Frankenstein, much analysed and admired, has been ignored as a vegetarian text, and also that so many attempts have been made to attribute it to Shelley’s husband, since it’s inconceivable that a woman can have written something so brilliant. I really enjoyed the literature analysis, and I will add veg*anism to the lenses I try to look through in my reading, as it seems to be all too rarely applied.
One of the questions addressed by Adams’ analysis is that of why women, and specifically some feminists, have been drawn to vegetarianism. Aside from the clear association of meat and masculinity, to what extent have women embraced plant based diets as a form of protest against patriarchal violence? Because feminism and vegetarianism both tend to be ridiculed and excluded from mainstream discourse, there is a need for loving excavation of vegetarian reflections in woman oriented texts, such as the work of Alice Walker.
She mentions an (Victorian?) article about teenage girls who refuse to eat meat, which treats the behaviour as an eating disorder (but, happily, recommends kindness and healthy alternatives, not coercion). This apparently common experience of the body rejecting meat, of meat becoming ineffably wrong was my own at the age of fourteen. Disgust is a strange emotion, and I still cannot say whether mine has its roots in my conscience. I can only say that as I have removed animal products from my diet, I have ceased to see them as food, and increasingly I can’t imagine how I ever ate them. I was led to vegetarianism by disgust, and ethical conviction followed; perhaps then, I act, and afterwards find my action good! Going vegan though, I was led by concern for hungry people and warming planet, and compassion for other animals, and disgust came after. It is not possible for me to separate them – when asked why I am vegan, I say ‘all the reasons’, so I knot that this journey out of eating animals is very personal and full of obstacles. I have to thank countless people for clearing my way, including Adams, but I also have to acknowledge many privileges that have enabled me, such as money, time, whiteness, education, and living in a place with an active and creative vegan community where veganism has some recognition.
I am publishing this review in celebration of the start of World Vegan Month and the 70th birthday of the Vegan Society! I invite all my readers to get involved in some delicious way – you definitely don’t have to be vegan to <3 vegan ice cream, for example ; )
I am because you are: a bookworm trying to decolonise my mind