"There's plenty of room for all God's creatures — right next to the mashed potatoes" - T-shirt slogan


I own this t-shirt, bought for me as a gift in the unremarkable town of Sault Saint Marie, near the Canadian border in Northern Michigan. It tickled me that someone would wear such a thing, but I was also delighted with the sentiment - as an ex-vegetarian I see the funny side. I admit that it occasionally amuses me to poke at the sensibilities of some of the vegan tendency by wearing it around Davis. To put this into perspective, Davis is one of those university towns tending toward the righteous liberal, and a good number of those are the militant vegans.

Now I am not opposed to veganism. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that. I have vegan friends, we have many discussions about food, and generally we agree more than we disagree. There does, however, exist a small proportion of vegans who (as with so many splinter groups) are more inclined to get in one's face about their beliefs. These are the individuals who have button-holed me in various places to criticise my omnivorean choice of diet, which does include meat and its products.

Beware the Jabberwok

I used to work in the Produce department of our local Food Co-op. I enjoyed my job. I loved talking about food, hearing about new ways to prepare veggies, share my own recipes. Most of all, I loved answering people's questions about new items, or vegetables that were unknown to them. Most of these were positive experiences, from people eager to learn and extend their foodscape. I say most, because there were a few that went awry, for example, this one:

Customer: (on seeing collard greens for the first time) How do you cook this?
Me: I start by heating a wok and frying an onion in bacon grease...
Cu: (interrupting) I'm vegan!
Me: Well, you could substitute any oil or fat...
Cu: You didn't even think about your answer, did you?
Me: Well actually, yes, I did. You asked me how I cooked collards.
Cu: You never thought to check whether I could eat animal fats!
Me: You're right, I apologise. Now, you can fry the onion in olive oil.
Cu: You just assume that everyone eats meat!
Me: Actually, I don't. But you did ask me how I cooked them, and that was my response.
Cu: I don't like onions, either.
Me: Well, there are many ways of cooking collards, this is just my favourite!
Cu: I'm not sure I want to hear any more.
Me: So you don't want advice on how to cook collards?
Cu: (walking away) @*%$!#

I was never going to win this one. I remember coming back home, and telling Christine the story. She responded with laughter, and words to the effect of "fry an {allium of your choice} in the {oil or fat of your choice}". Wise; you can see why I married her.

God Forbid That Everyone Think Like Me

The problem as I see it is this: each of us makes decisions based on culture, upbringing, taste and personal beliefs. These decisions may be political, religious, ethical, moral; and if they work for us individually, so much the better. The problem arises when some militancy or (for the want of a better word, zealotry, maybe) fundamentalism creeps into that personal worldview. Suddenly, those who do not agree become enemies - that's when the individual goes to war with the world, gets up on the high horse and decides that "I'm right, the rest of you are wrong".

The Christian decides that atheists, Moslems and Jews are plain wrong, and preaches hatred. The Liberal attacks the Conservative, and vice versa. Radio talk show hosts go on the rampage with their rabid spew, engendering offensive defensiveness from the other side as a matter of course. Liberals vent at "gun nuts", the NRA attacks anyone who dares to suggest that there is good reason to limit access to firearms. PETA goes for the jugular of Mankind, animal rights activists blow up laboratories, right-to-lifers blow up abortion clinics. Counter-attack, lie, abuse the media. Common human decency, reasonable discourse and the Devil's Advocate fall by the wayside.

I admit that I occasionally tweak the noses of vegans and their ilk, but to be honest, it's generally good-natured, they give as good as they get and we can generally part on friendly terms. At the end of the day, there's room for all of us. God forbid that the world is ever populated with people who think just like me; I'd move to Mars.


Postscript

Following my posting this, I have been enjoying an interesting and challenging conversation with Oolong on the subject. He reminds me that veganism is not merely a dietary choice, but an ethical philosophy that includes animals in the 'do no harm' manner of living. There are clear parallels with slavery, he points out, and I admit that I have long been swayed by that in my choices of food, but not so far as to give up animal products. I salve my conscience by taking animal products (as far as possible) that have been treated more humanely, and I'm honest enough to recognise that this is still a poor way to go about life.

The slogan on the shirt does go a little further than it appears, however. Reading between the lines, it's talking about hunting, and I do know of people who decline to eat meat that they have not killed themselves, citing the more "sporting" nature of it. This opens another can of worms, and I regret that I have no appetite for dealing with that just now.

Some of the most basic, profound and unresolved ethical questions of our time centre on questions of when it is right to accept or even celebrate differences, and when it is right to condemn those differences. Usually people come down in the latter camp when they view the differences in question, or their outcomes, as immoral.

My friend wertperch, elsewhere under this title, approaches this from the angle of dietary choices, which are often seen as purely personal decisions, and then he broadens the scope a little to look at religious differences and the strife they can cause. I see a similar dynamic at play in many other arenas too, and although I think it's sensible to be extremely wary of taking an adversarial view on moral questions, very few people would dispute that there are times when saying "I'm right, the rest of you are wrong" is justified - the only question is where we draw that line. See how many of the following you would agree are just wrong, and how many you think are valid ethical choices, part of the rich tapestry that makes up modern human society.

  1. Killing and eating humans, because they're tasty
  2. Killing and eating humans, because they're too ill to live already and otherwise you'll all starve to death
  3. Killing and eating humans with their explicit, well-documented consent
  4. Killing and eating pigs
  5. Waiting for pigs to die of natural causes, then eating them
  6. Waiting for humans to die of natural causes, then eating them
  7. Killing pigs just for a laugh, then setting them on fire
  8. Keeping humans as sex slaves
  9. Keeping pigs as sex slaves
  10. Keeping pigs for sex, but the pigs are totally into it
  11. Keeping cows for milk, killing them and eating them after long, comfortable and well-fed lives
  12. Keeping cows for milk, in tiny cages, pumping them full of hormones, feeding them on cheap processed feed, taking their offspring away from them at birth, then killing them in their prime
  13. Having gay sex
  14. Despising people who have gay sex
  15. Locking up people who have gay sex
  16. Despising people who want to lock up those who have gay sex
  17. Locking up people who are opposed to your regime, potentially violently so
  18. Violently opposing your country's regime, because it locks people up for their politics
  19. Violently opposing a regime in a country that has nothing to do with you, for political and ethical reasons
  20. Leaving the light on when you pop out of the house for an hour
  21. Running an enormous SUV that you never use for any journey you couldn't have walked on foot
  22. Setting fire to forests

I'm suspicious of easy answers here, and I know that people's moral intuitions often disagree on these sorts of things. It's vitally important in a multicultural society - in a multinational world, for that matter - to acknowledge that other people will reach different moral conclusions from you, and to some extent we surely need to respect those differences in morals.

The thing is that respecting someone's morals means respecting their condemnation of people who don't share them. If you think I'm wrong to condemn someone who would kill other people for fun, you're really not taking my moral stance very seriously. If I think someone is wrong to condemn people who have gay sex, that's because I do not respect their moral stance.

If someone's moral positions lead them to hurt those that I care about, then viewing them as 'the enemy' becomes quite reasonable - although perhaps not optimally helpful, from a diplomatic standpoint. From the point of view of someone who cares about the well-being of homosexuals, their persecutors are, in some sense, 'the enemy' - or at the very least, a problem. From the point of view of someone who cares about the well-being of animals, people who knowingly participate in their brutal exploitation are 'the enemy' in much the same sense.

Fighting injustice demands not acquiescing to the moral judgements of others, when we consider them wrong and harmful. I know that few people have much time for self-righteous vegans, and for my part I've long felt like I can do more for the vegan cause by not guilt-tripping people or insisting on my moral superiority... but then, nobody has much time for other people suggesting that what they're doing is morally wrong - the same goes for thieves, bullies and slavers. I tend to think that while it's always tiresome, it's only wrong to make someone feel guilty if they haven't actually done anything reprehensible.

I can well understand why someone would get sick of people getting on their high horse about things, but in my adult life, I have witnessed meat-eaters moaning about sanctimonious vegetarians at least as often as I have witnessed vegetarians actually being sanctimonious. That is to say, I regularly see people getting on a high horse about other people getting on a high horse. It's a pretty weird phenomenon, when you stop to think about it.

I want to be clear here. I'm not saying that meat-eaters are on a moral par with slave-owners, and I'm not saying that we should go to war in defence of animal rights - or gay rights, or even women's rights, for that matter. I'm not saying you're an awful person if you don't see any of those things as particularly important. I'm not even saying it's cool to make people feel like crap just because their personal choices are inflicting needless suffering on other sentient beings, human or otherwise, or contributing disproportionately to environmental crises that we are all collectively bringing on. My point is just that a great many different sorts of people are guilty of smug superiority, and while it's perfectly understandable to get sick of people standing up for what they believe in, if you take the time to think about what they're getting worked up about, you may well find that they have a point.

Or, on the other hand, maybe they are just wrong...

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