The Answers I Don’t Have: Why This Meat-eater Embraced Veganism
Written by John Williams (UK)
Veganism: the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals.
Vegan: a militant, self-righteous, and ultimately annoying individual who prescribes to those values.
I can guess what some of you may be thinking. Why, oh why, do we need to hear from yet another outspoken vegan? We get it – you don’t eat stuff that comes from animals and you’re incapable of shutting up about it. But I urge you to put aside your hesitancy and hear me out.
I was also reluctant to listen to vegans. The first one I knew ticked off all the clichés; a free-spirited artsy type. But this is just the point. We like to bash vegans themselves, and their preachy, self-righteous ways, but we often don’t often listen to what they are saying. If we did, maybe we would focus less on poking fun at vegans, and instead turn to the issues that veganism concerns – animal welfare perhaps, or climate change.
Here, in two parts, I have attempted to explain why this meat-loving, fishing-obsessed, and downright uncool individual decided to change his ways and pledge allegiance to the vegan cult. I hope it makes interesting reading, maybe even prompts a few questions, of which veganism alone might provide the answer.
Part 1 – Listening to my conscience
I’m not one to take the moral high ground.
I reject the idea of morality as something beyond the human experience. I sincerely doubt that there is one ‘true’ moral code, be it from a supreme deity or some other source. I think that morality was created by us, human beings. We roughly agree where the boundaries are and use these man-made ethics to govern our lives. I, therefore, try to refrain from expressing self-righteous condemnation of others – there isn’t an objective right or wrong.
This isn’t to downplay the importance of morality. We each have our own moral compass, the basis of our conscience, and we judge every action through that lens. It’s a pretentious term perhaps, but ‘moral compass’ serves as a concise name for means of telling right from wrong. You have the option to ignore these intuitions and engage in actions that just don’t sit right, but that doesn’t mean your moral compass won’t be there. This is where I turn to veganism.
I hadn’t heard of the concept until I was 18. I knew what a vegetarian was, and I could point to friends and family who had given it a go for a while, but as for a vegan, I didn’t know they existed beyond ‘gap-years’ in Thailand. The whole idea was painted as some hippy, one-with-nature, earthy crap, something you might spout to impress white girls with dreadlocks sat around a campfire.
I was, as pointed out by relatives of mine, one of the least likely vegans on the planet. Beyond eating steak so raw that a good vet could save it (a joke I really thought was funny at the time), I was perhaps the finest omelette chef in all of Norfolk. I was also a devout fisherman, where my disgorging (un-hooking) techniques earned me nicknames of ‘Jack the surgeon’ on a good day, ‘Jack the butcher’ on a bad one. An animal lover, I was not.
That said, my lack of interest was mainly due to not understanding the position. Why wouldn’t you just be a vegetarian? If you were something of an animal lover, I could see why you wouldn’t want to eat them out of squeamishness. But what’s wrong with eggs and milk? You’re not killing the animal, you’re just, you know, letting it do its thing, and it would happen anyway without human interference (oh so I thought). I figured that the animals we farm wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for us. A short life with a ‘humane’ death was better than no life at all.
But then I did some research. I stopped making fun of vegans and actually listened to what they were saying.
What I discovered was concerning, to say the least. Slaughter regulations don’t focus on helping animals; they exist to satisfy the public conscience so that companies don’t lose profit. The notion of a ‘humane’ slaughterhouse is bullshit, absolute bullshit, and it’s shameful that us consumers swallow this blatant lie. Dairy cows and poultry chickens don’t end up in a retirement home once they stop producing milk and eggs; they get to join their male counterparts at the slaughterhouse, but only after years of slavery to their reproductive systems. The most striking realisation, however, was the fact this is all so pointless. We don’t have to kill these animals, these sentient beings who want to live, and yet we do it anyway. The Smiths had it right back in the mid-eighties:
“It’s death for no reason, and death for no reason is murder.”
As well as the suffering of animals, I learnt of other harms that should concern us too. At the time of writing, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the transport put together, as well as being a leading cause of deforestation, freshwater consumption and the use of antibiotics, leading to an increase in drug-resistant bacteria. The wastefulness of it all defies logic. Most of the grain grown in the US is consumed by livestock, alongside the majority of soy, a protein-rich alternative to meat.
We face a scenario beyond satire. Humans grow vast quantities of food, give it to other beings, kill them, and then suffer from self-inflicted illnesses, all while ruining the only planet we call home.
These realisations began years of denial, with sporadic self-loathing thrown in for good measure. I knew that my actions were harmful and that I had the power to stop doing them, but meat tastes so damn good, and I didn’t want the hassle of facing the stereotypes I’d helped to perpetuate. The final few months were the most difficult. Everywhere I looked there were signs telling me to stop. Videos on social media, reports on climate change, even a newspaper I found on the tube. Haunting images of chicks dropped into a grinder, baby cows stolen from their mothers. Meat started to taste like flesh and blood, the body of a once-living creature.
Finally, I came to the crossroads, the inevitable point where I would listen to my moral compass. I had to face some questions.
Is it right to ignore your conscience because it is socially convenient? Is it right to justify a harmful act because it gives you pleasure? Is it right to refrain from doing the right thing because not many will join you? Is it right to dismiss people as annoying and preachy rather than listen to what they’re saying?
More questions were closer to home, concerning my own interests and goals. How can one claim to care about the planet, yet ignore the leading source of environmental destruction in their daily lives? How can one preach justice and compassion, yet finance the needless slaughter of innocent beings? I could not find the answers to justify my ways and finally did what I had been putting off for years. I became a vegan.
Veganism isn’t the answer for all. There are some in this world who do not have the option to give up animal products overnight. But plenty of us do. If you’re reading this, it’s likely you do have the power to reject animal exploitation. Believe me when I say that you will not regret it.
Most people don’t agree. I like to think this is because they are unaware of the harm caused, or maybe even hold the same view of pretentious vegans that I once had. Perceptions can change, and many have been won over with facts, figures and a few good arguments. I would like to think that non-vegans haven’t asked themselves the same questions I did, and then found the answers I couldn’t.
Once I have found those answers and can be at ease with my moral compass, I will eat all the meat I want.
Part 2 – Caring about animals, but only when it’s fashionable
The Yulin dog meat festival. Cecil the lion. Orcas at SeaWorld. What do they all have in common?
Obviously, they all concern animals, and the apparent mistreatment of them, but perhaps more noticeably they have all prompted a major outcry on social media. Outcry myself and many others participated in.
I liked a few pictures, shared a couple of posts, and joined many in widespread condemnation of despicable animal cruelty. However, while I was genuinely moved by the stories, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t some social element to my concern. I had never been much of an animal lover (‘Jack the butcher’) but this public backlash stirred me up, particularly when I saw my peers concerned too. I was caught up in the wave of animal activism. I didn’t seek it out myself.
If a post on social media happens to receive attention through likes/favourites/re-tweets early on, it is likely to continue getting a large degree of attention down the line, as people follow their peers. This occurs most noticeably when the post concerns something we should be caring about, something it looks good to show concern for. Social media is a public forum, and it’s understandable that you would want to portray yourself in a positive light. With respect to this form of activism (or ‘slacktivism’, if viewed through a cynical lens), this only really concerns news stories that are widely circulated, the tear-jerker of the moment. An equally severe degree of cruelty or suffering can slip under the radar completely if it’s not the flavour of the month. Never is this dichotomy more starkly demonstrated than by fashionable concern for animals.
Recall the widespread backlash against the Yulin dog meat festival. I recoiled at the thought of eating a creature that resembled Timmy, my beloved pet canine and a part of the family. I did not stop however to consider that if Timmy happened to be a pig or a chicken, two other animals that show affection towards their human owners, I maybe wouldn’t have felt so comfortable tucking into a bacon sarnie. Some argue that the problem with Yulin isn’t dog meat per se, but the treatment of the animals involved. I invite those same people to look at farming practises here in the West, such as castrating piglets without anaesthetic, before they take to Facebook to display their sense of moral superiority. Simply put, you didn’t have to be an expert on animal agriculture to spot the hypocrisy being splayed across Western social media.
As for Cecil the lion, it is worth remembering that, whether or not you agree with travelling halfway around the world to shoot a much-beloved creature (I don’t), game-hunting does more for lion conservation than retweeting hashtags. These stories can trigger a huge emotional response, but posts about this form of hunting contributing to the extinction of lions were just factually inaccurate. A large chunk of this concern was therefore unwarranted – Cecil’s death did not spell doom for the species. The other category these tweets fall into – the “it’s so sick/disgusting/mean/gross/icky to kill an animal for pleasure” – are so easily rebutted that it is almost not worth stating the point. I really don’t like hunting (my deep sense of shame after shooting a pigeon when I was 16 is testament to that) but if we are going to be crusaders for animals, I think we should focus on the billions of beings we kill for taste pleasure, rather than the killing of comparatively few animals in hunting. In other words, if we actually care about animal rights, and not just about giving off the impression that we do, we need to learn to pick our battles.
In the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which details the lives of killer whales kept at SeaWorld, there is a scene in which a mother and her calf are separated. The mother orca screeches in grief as her infant is taken out of the pool, never to see her again. Former whale trainer John Hargrove remarks, “How can anyone look at that and think that that’s morally acceptable? It’s not. It is not okay.” The scene is truly heart-breaking, and the subsequent hit to the reputation of SeaWorld is testament to that. It is worth remembering, however, that dairy cows endure the same agony time and again, as their young are taken from them so that we humans can consume the mother’s milk instead. These animals feel the same grief, the same pain, the same fear and desperation, but it’s convenient not to think about that. Dairy cows aren’t as fashionable as killer whales, and therefore we care about them less. The comparative silence on social media with regards to this injustice is demonstrative.
Social media doesn’t create societal attitudes as such but rather reflects them. If the community at large considers one cause to be worthier of attention than another, social media traffic will reflect that consensus. In the same way that I was more shocked by terrorism in London than Beirut, I was more angered by cruelty towards animals I had affection for than those that I didn’t. It’s perfectly understandable that I would care more for something that hits closer to home. However, there is a crucial distinction. I didn’t bring about the terror attacks in either place. I actively financed the holocaust of animals for my dietary choices.
Many will agree that we don’t need to eat dogs, hunt lions, and imprison orcas in the equivalent of a bathtub. Fewer will accept that we don’t need to harvest billions of innocent beings because we like them on our plate. I saw no need to kill a lion for pleasure. I see no need to slaughter a farmyard animal for the same reason.
I would like to think I’m less of a hypocrite than before.