The Earth Is Big, and That’s Okay

I know that not everyone on Earth has the option of being vegan, or even vegetarian, which is why one of my maxims (which I’m still working on) is as follows: “veganism is not, and needn’t be, globally applicable to be the right choice for the majority of people. Worldwide abolition of animal use is not realistic and for many people in developing countries, animal use is the difference between subsistence and extreme hunger and poverty, sometimes the difference between life and death.”

One reason that I felt the need to be so explicit about this point is that when veg*ans don’t keep this in mind, it can lead to some weird logic, as displayed in this post, titled “Confessions of a Vegan Meat-Eater.” Not understanding this simple fact can also lead non-vegans to reject veganism for specious reasons.

Now, to be fair, it seems like Knigel (the author of “Confessions of a Vegan Meat-Eater”) learned a lot through his travels and I agree with nearly all of the sentiments he expresses toward the end of the essay (I just don’t agree with his reasons for eating meat again). I just wish that there hadn’t been a need for him to go halfway around the world to come to these conclusions. Much in the same way that, as he points out, not everyone has the opportunity to be veg*an, not everyone has the opportunity to go live in other parts of the world. Which is why I think vegans need to start talking more about the non-global nature of veganism. Most vegans will admit to it if pressed, but they don’t talk about it up front, which is a shame, because they could have saved Knigel from having what sounds like a near-psychotic break while throttling a half-dead chicken in a sink.

So, since Knigel is much more aware of this fact now, I’ll try to limit myself to commenting only on those things where I disagree with his conclusion, the logic that brought him to it, or where I feel the “typical vegan way” of framing issues was at fault for his confusion. I also hope he can take what I’m saying as constructive criticism (and this makes me think that he can).

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Nigel discovered while living in Cuba that, due to the shortage of food there, being vegetarian is really not a possibility for most people. Yet he had been thinking and arguing (arguing a LOT, from the sound of it) that eating meat is immoral. This discrepancy caused him some mental anguish. He says “instead of accepting meat consumption as moral, my discordance between belief and behavior left me in cognitive dissonance.” There would have been no discordance or dissonance if Nigel had not been thinking in such starkly black and white terms where eating animals is either moral or immoral, a way of thinking promoted by so many vegans: eating meat is immoral and veganism is the moral baseline. Learn it. Know it.

This is where the idea of eating (and killing) animals being unequivocally wrong failed him, and no doubt caused him a bunch of unnecessary psychic pain. He even refers to the killing of animals as murder, a word that most non-vegans reserve for the intentional killing of a human. One shouldn’t have to reconcile himself to the idea that he’s a murderer.

In true Bourdainian fashion, Nigel seems to base a lot of his reason for currently eating meat on the fact that, in certain places in the world, some people don’t have the option of being veg*an. And that it’s rude to insist on eating veg*an when you’re among such people. About his time in Korea, he says “I am uncomfortable telling a grandmother that I cannot eat what she has made for me.” If that’s the way you feel, and you feel that not upsetting your host trumps your ethics in that situation, then go ahead and eat the damn meat and then go back to your veg*an ways when you can. No big whoop. I recently wrote about why all of this is not a valid reason to reject veganism, so I’m not going to belabor the point again.

One question that I’d like to ask, though, is whether it’s being a good host to expect one of your house guests to choose between being a “good guest” and sticking to their ethics. Personally, as a host, I would try hard to avoid putting someone in that situation. But maybe that’s just my peculiarly Western way of thinking.

Anyway… I want to touch on a few other ideas he brings up that I feel relate to this way of thinking. Knigel refers to “the… ethnocentric arrogance that [he] felt in Cuba.” There seems to be this idea that ethnocentrism is a phenomenon that only afflicts privileged Westerners, as if it’s not possible that Cubans and Koreans have their own form of ethnocentric arrogance. He sees how his “philosophy would have been much more shallow if [he] had not experimented with different lifestyles,” but apparently he doesn’t make the connection that maybe these people he met abroad might be willing to consider veg*anism if they lived somewhere that would make it easy for them. I think there is a tendency among Western liberals to romanticize people of non-Western or economically depressed countries, as if their outlook on life is so much more “real.” To me, operating on this assumption is almost as bad as being ethnocentric and not realizing it. It’s almost like this weird anti-ethnocentric attitude where you embrace things BECAUSE they’re not what you know. And if they happen to serve as great reasons to do what you want to do anyway, well then that’s just great!

Sometimes people like to trot out this trope along the lines of “that’s such a Western way of understanding things,” with the implication being that it’s wrong simply because it’s uniquely Western. But here’s the thing: if one lives in a Western, modernized country, and their audience mostly lives in Western, modernized countries, there is nothing wrong with framing ethical discussions or arguments to their world as they experience it. In the same way it’s not fair to tell the poor, under-nourished Cuban that he is immoral for eating a chicken, it’s asinine to say that someone in a Western, modernized country can excuse their behavior because of the situation that the Cuban is in. I think as long as we, as vegan advocates (or whatever I am), make an effort to acknowledge that the ethics of eating animals is dependent on our access to vegan food, we can, in good faith, advocate for a vegan (or veganish, or vegetarian etc.) diet for people who we know have the ability to pull it off.

One thing that I have to call Nigel out on is his statement that he has (not had, mind you) “the sickest loathing for the blissfully ignorant meat-eaters who leave the dirty work to others.” It seems he’s still not over the need to feel morally superior to people that eat differently than him, even though he denounces “holier-than-thou attitudes” that “divide potential allied groups.” I think people should be aware of where their food comes from, but goat blood that runs down your hands is not really very different from cow’s blood that drips onto your hands from a cellophane wrapper as far as I’m concerned. It’s still blood. And if you live in a country where you could easily be veg*an, it’s blood needlessly spilled.

So it sounds like he still has some thinking to do about these things. And it sounds like he’s totally open to that. As I’ve stated previously, all I really need to hear from someone to consider someone an ally is that they actually care about issues of animal use, and that they’re open to the possibility of making some sort of change in their behavior. Knigel clearly fits this definition, so I wish him the best of luck in figuring out what he feels he needs to do. He’s correct in that each of us “must responsibly design our own moral compasses.” I just hope he takes his own admonition to heart and starts by giving the most weight to HIS current life situation, not the life situation of someone in a distant, impoverished land.

And I hope that the vegan community can learn something from his story as well. Framing the vegan argument as one of “ethical vegans” vs. the immoral horde is just a bad idea. Since Nigel cut his teeth on the way of thinking where everything either has to be moral or immoral, his life experience meeting good people doing the best they can forced him to conclude that eating meat isn’t immoral. It was just easier than thinking of his new friends as murderers. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

If we, as vegans, continue to argue that one should avoid eating animal products because failure to do so is immoral (and use guilt manipulation to try to achieve this end), we should expect to continue to hear stories about people giving up on veganism when they find a way to understand the issue in a more nuanced way and find a non-vegan way to alleviate guilt. And they will. It’s just a matter of time for most of them.

– – thanks for reading – –


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4 Responses to The Earth Is Big, and That’s Okay

  1. Thanks a lot for such a long and thorough response. You have mentioned many of the problems that I personally saw in my article; however, I do think that you assumed a bit too much of my thinking. One thing, I would not compare strong cognitive dissonance with a near-psychotic break. I did enjoy reading your thoughtful response. To be honest, my article is still in its draft stages and I am continuing to edit it. I’ll use some of your thoughts to tighten it up and make things more clear. Anything that doesn’t fit will likely end up in another post.

    Again, I appreciate your comments and I’ll take a look around at some of your previous entries when I’ve got more time.


  2. Sorry if I assumed too much by saying “near-psychotic break.” That was probably a bit much. But anyone that bothers to read this will probably also read the comments, so hopefully the “truth” should be known to them.

    But it just seemed to me that you did what you did to the chicken under emotional duress. When you followed that by saying that you had to rethink your whole understanding of moral vs. immoral, I just got the sense that it must have been a rather traumatic experience for you. I honestly feel bad for you if that’s the case, because veganism can exist without such strong feelings of moral vs.immoral.

    I would urge you NOT to update you current post. I think you should consider all of the responses you’re getting to your post and then synthesize them into a “Confessions of a Vegan Meat-Eater: Part Two” post. I think it’s important to show people that one can change their mind based on new info and new arguments. One theme that runs through your post is the gaining of new understanding. I think you should go with it and have the existing post stand as evidence of that continuing journey.

    Good luck.


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