The Answers I Don’t Have: A Perennial Meat-eater’s Journey to Veganism
Written by John (UK), Photography by Jana Szszzepaniak (UK, Instragram: @cookingthemoon)
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 probably guess what some of you are 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 initial hesitancy and just hear me out.
I was also reluctant to listen to vegans. The first one I knew ticked off all the clichés; a hippy, free-spirited, artsy type. But this is just the point. We all like to bash the vegans themselves, and their preachy, self-righteous ways, be we often don’t actually 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; global warming perhaps, or world hunger.
Here, in two parts, I have attempted to convey my mindsight, and 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, and maybe even prompts a few questions, of which veganism alone might contain the answer.
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 a supreme deity has issued commands from the heavens that we, its loyal subjects, must obey or face punishment. Morality was created by us, human beings; we roughly agree where the boundaries are and use our man-made ethics to govern our lives. I don’t believe in an infallible code of ethics and therefore try to refrain from expressing moral condemnation of others.
That said, we do each have our own moral compass, the basis of our conscience, and we judge every action through that lens. It’s a rather fancy and pretentious term perhaps, but also a concise name for our means of differentiating right from wrong. You have the option to ignore these feelings, 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 could point to friends and family who’d given it a go for a while, but as for a vegan, I didn’t know they existed beyond gap-yars in Thailand. The whole idea was painted as some hippy, one-with-nature, earthy crap, something you might spout to impress girls a la Inbetweeners 2.
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, 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 fuelled by 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, 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. I figured that these animals wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for us, so a short life with a humane death was better than no life at all.
But then I did some research. I stopped cracking jokes about vegans feeding off attention and actually listened to what they were saying.
What I discovered was concerning to say the least. The regulations in place for killing animals do not focus on limiting suffering, but rather on satisfying the public conscience, so that companies don’t lose profit. The notion of a compassionate slaughter-house is just bullshit, and flies in the face of any meat-eater getting self-righteous about halal. Cows and chickens don’t end up in a retirement home once their days of producing milk and eggs are over; they are slaughtered and turned into food, thereby joining their peers who at least didn’t have to endure years of slavery to their reproductive systems. Beyond the suffering of animals, I learnt of harm that, from an anthropocentric viewpoint, should concern us more. Animal agriculture contributes up to 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 13% for transport) and is a leading cause of deforestation. The wastefulness of it all defies logic; the majority of US grain is consumed by livestock (enough to feed its entire population twice over) alongside 60% of soy, a protein rich alternative to meat.
We face a scenario beyond satire. Humans grow vast quantities of food, give it to other animals, kill them, and then suffer from self-inflicted illnesses like heart disease and stomach cancer, all while ruining the only planet they call home. This is all of course understood from a Eurocentric viewpoint; while the first world eat themselves into an early grave, many in the third world starve, and then also have to endure the worst effects of climate change.
These realisations began two years of denial, with sporadic self-loathing thrown in for good measure. I knew that my actions were harmful, and that I had the choice 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, calves taken from their mothers. Meat started to taste like tissue, 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’s socially convenient? Is it right to justify a harmful act on the basis that 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 profess to care about the environment, yet support a massive source of pollution? How can one preach justice and compassion, yet finance the slaughter of innocent beings? I personally didn’t find the answers to justify my ways and finally did what I’d been putting off for years.
Veganism isn’t the answer for all; there are many who just don’t have the choice to give up animal products. But plenty of us do. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you do have that choice, and are in the position to buy almond milk instead of dairy, beans and lentils to replace minced beef.
The majority don’t agree. I like to think that this is because people 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 can hopefully be won over with facts, figures and a few good arguments. I’d like to think that these people haven’t asked themselves the same questions I did, and then come to the conclusions that I couldn’t.
Once I’ve found those answers, and be at ease with my moral compass, I’ll eat all the meat I want.
Social media hypocrisy and fashionable caring about animals
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 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 before (‘Jack the butcher’) but this public backlash stirred me up, particularly when I saw my peers concerned too. I was caught in the wave of animal rights activism; I didn’t seek it out myself.
We’ll call this the sheep effect. If a post on social media happens to receive attention in the form of likes/favourites/re-tweets early on, it is more 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. The sheep effect with respect to this form of activism (or ‘slacktivism’, if viewed through a cynical lens) 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 caring about animals.
Take a look at 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 who is very much a part of the family. I did not however stop 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. Others argued that the issue wasn’t eating dog meat per se, but the treatment of the animals involved. I invite those same people to look at some of the farming practises here in the West, such as the poultry industry grinding up male chicks alive, 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 conservation than anybody retweeting hashtags. These stories can trigger a huge emotional response, particularly when taken out of context, but posts about this form of hunting contributing to the extinction of lions were just factually inaccurate, and required a mere ten seconds of research into the matter to put these fears at rest. Therefore a large chunk of this concern was unwarranted – Cecil’s death did not spell doom for the species. The other category the tweets fall into – the “it’s so sick/disgusting/mean/gross/icky to hunt an animal like that” – are so easily rebutted that it’s 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 you’re going to be a crusader for animal rights, I think one should, rather than concern themselves with a disagreeable act that often boosts conservation efforts, focus one’s efforts towards stopping the pitiless slaughter in abattoirs worldwide. In other words, if you actually care about animal welfare, and not just about giving off the impression that you do, put down the IPad and learn to pick your battles.
In the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which details the lives of killer whales kept in captivity at SeaWorld, there is a scene a mother and her calf are separated. The mother orca screeches in grief as her infant is taken out 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, but it’s worth remembering that dairy cows endure the same agony time and time 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 more worthy of attention than another, social media traffic will reflect that consensus. In the same way that I was more saddened by terrorism in Paris 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’s closer to the heart. However there is a crucial distinction. I didn’t bring about the terror attacks in either place; I actively financed the mistreatment of animals in farms and slaughterhouses.
Many will agree that we don’t need to eat dogs, hunt lions, and imprison orcas in the equivalent of a bath-tub. Fewer will accept that we don’t need to harvest billions of innocent beings because we like them as a part of our diet. I saw no need to kill a lion for pleasure; I see no need to slaughter a farmyard animal for the same reason.
I’d like to think I’m less of a hypocrite than I was before.