Personal Is Political

Diet & Speciesism

Years ago (I think I was eleven), I decided to vocalize to my family that I didn’t enjoy pizza. In disbelief, and an utterly childish display of hostility, my father in particular tried to make me jealous that everyone else was eating pizza but me, whenever it was ordered in, for the years after this event that I was still around to be subjected to this. Being a young adult at the time, with very meagre intellectual resources and an undernourished mind (I received no encouragement of any sort from my family or peers, and only sporadic encouragement from teachers), I didn’t know how to respond to this behaviour. I didn’t know how to say that I just had so many reasons not to like pizza that it’s not a simple matter of arbitrarily being rebellious; or that it really makes me even more uncomfortable with my family’s choices when they deliberately order it for dinner and try to smother me with how much they are enjoying it. They could, after all, just as easily enjoy it quietly like we always had, or enjoy it in my absence. It’s not rocket surgery.

Before long, I also determined that I don’t like thick slabs of meat, especially beef. That I wasn’t in love with pork, and actually found it quite exhausting and emotional to eat, for a number of reasons that relate to why I don’t like pizza. A few years later, my father began exerting control over what I can and cannot put in my body, such as by strictly limiting whether or not I could consume certain things in our household, or when and how much I am allowed to consume others. Additionally, because I was working, further control was exerted over my money and food consumption, when I was held to a frequent obligation to buy the very things I wasn’t allowed to eat, under the guise of “contributing to the household.” My breaking point came when he took half the food off of my plate, and put it on his own, when he already had twice as much. I started planning to leave, because I knew if I wouldn’t, I would starve to death.

Little did I know I was already starving to death from a barely sustainable (slow) metabolism, but I became homeless and suddenly couldn’t afford to be even slightly picky. I pan-handled a lot for money to feed myself with because I found what I could access so revolting and couldn’t get a job. And when I found an apartment to escape homelessness, I had to eat from food banks and $22.00 emergency nutritional supplement cheques. Then I wound up being hospitalized, where up to half my plate was a thick chunk of steamed, previously frozen meat. And after that, I was homeless again in a matter of two weeks. Until I found an illegal basement suite to move into (and constantly live in fear of burning to death while trapped in a house fire), I survived entirely off of ramen noodles and canned beans, because I simply couldn’t afford anything else. But as soon as I could, I converted to lacto-ovo-vegetarianism.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I came across a concept known as speciesism, that helped me understand a deeper meaning behind my distaste for things that had been shovelled onto my plate next to reheated canned vegetables for my entire childhood and the most difficult periods of my adult life. One of my first argumentative essay presentations wound up being, by no measure of coincidence, about the horrific practices associated with animal testing, and why it needs to stop. And unlike a lot of teenagers who wrote on the subject at the time, I meant it to the point of trying to make a commitment to it. I started looking for things that were labelled with anti-animal-testing information whenever I bought cosmetics or personal hygiene products, and frequently took up the effort to spread the word to people who disputed the validity of anti-animal-testing and anti-animal-cruelty discourse.

—-

Because I’m an emotional, intellectual, and political person, I really appreciate whenever I encounter information on a specific phenomenon or political ideology that speaks to my personal experience. It just seems so superficial that my dislike of pizza had to do with a general dislike of tomatoes, grease, and cold cuts (and years later, lactose intolerance). It just seems so pathetic, however meaningful an experience, that my distaste for everything pork goes back to how my teeth are crooked and don’t meet up in the back of my jaws when I chew, and so it’s just generally very tiring to chew for a very long time. It seems so empty and baseless to claim an arbitrary avoidance of mammalian meat because of gristle and cartilage and grease.

And then out of nowhere, in the middle of a philosophy class, there was the new-to-me concept of speciesism. This concept describes a phenomenon of treating non-human animals differently than humans, and with callous disregard for either their avoidance of pain, their pursuit of pleasure, or both. It’s a political view of non-human animals that asserts that people have nothing in common with animals because they lack intelligence, don’t have opposable thumbs, can’t think critically or create art, and therefore just aren’t capable of the entire range of suffering that humans experience (all fallacious claims). Speciesism is an argument that it’s morally acceptable to subject animals to unnecessary pain, isolation, and stress, to prevent actual or anticipated human suffering.

Politically, speciesism operates on the same principle as racism and sexism–the selective treatment of people based upon phenotypic differences. Practically speaking, speciesism is applied every time an animal is used to test the safety of drugs and cosmetics, to test a scientific hypothesis about psychology or psychiatry (in theory or in method) for analogous behavioural study, to feed someone of the human species, and to keep a person company in private or be put in a public exhibit for the amusement and delight of people. Speciesism is the justification for hunting, poaching, factory farming, and unnecessary killing of non-human specimens to take minute tissue samples for analysis. It is also the reason why generally unpopular concerns about the impact of human expansion (such as oil-drilling and forestry) on various vulnerable, endangered, or extirpated  species of animals are pushed aside in favour of more immediately inexpensive socioeconomic solutions for people.

What I’m really getting at here is, speciesism is morally indefensible. The radical answer to speciesism is veganism. And veganism isn’t just some hipster’s idea about a diet excluding animal protein that You Probably Haven’t Heard About Yet. It’s a total rejection of speciesism, informed my political consciousness of everything that happens to animals because of people who just don’t give a rat’s ass about their impact on the globe outside their own kitchen. It’s a refusal to buy things such as shoes and drums if they are made from real animal skins (even if they are second-hand), and an avoidance of All Things Groceries that are either obvious animal protein or which contain it (such as dairy-free cheese that contains casein–a digestive enzyme that is extracted during the slaughter of young cattle, which is then used to give dairy and some non-dairy cheeses its consistency). It takes dedication, and it’s hard, even in a city like Seattle or Vancouver, where one can find restaurants and grocery stores that specialize in offering a more diverse range of choices (including vegan options).

Because it’s hard, a lot of people aren’t committed to it or even make up reasons for not trying at all. Someone I used to know would actually consistently argue with committed vegans that there is no vegan substitute for eggs, so you can’t make vegan naan because you need the eggs to get the dough to stretch. He was repeatedly answered with “Sure you can make vegan naan; just try googling it some time” or “You can use chickpea flour, flax seed flour, and guar gum or xantham gum to make a vegan substitute for eggs, and that’s even gluten-free, too.”  But he wanted to believe that there was no reason to bother trying, or that trying took so much effort that it wasn’t worth it, or that it would require trips to hunt down such obscure and expensive materials that he would exhaust himself trying and just get too frustrated, and go eat a Big Mac when his blood sugar was too low to make it home. Or something.

And someone else I used to know has recently declared that they are “mostly vegan.” But it’s like pregnancy. You can try, but you either are or you aren’t. There is no “mostly vegan.” And I admire people who try to adopt a vegan lifestyle. I show this myself by frequently cooking vegan meals for myself, and encouraging my friends and flatmates to try doing so once in a while, too. But I don’t claim to be vegan. Or mostly vegan. In fact, I’m pescetarian. And that means that I occasionally add cage-free eggs or wild fish to my vegan dishes. These days, I’m even eating less fish and less eggs. I also still have major financial slips that leave me with little choice but to occasionally include chicken, pork, or beef in my diet for a day or two. I’m trying not to give myself a hard time about it.

Speaking of which, I wish more people would stop giving vegans a hard time about a political identity they just fail to understand (some of those people are my friends). That’s why I wrote this entry. I hope that by putting it out there, at least one new person is armed with an under-represented set of knowledge about veganism, with which to dismantle other people’s ignorance.

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