Eileen Wagner

Why I'm Not a Vegetarian

I am an omnivore by choice. I feel that I shouldn’t discriminate against particular foods a priori. I should try them and then decide for myself. That, of course, doesn’t mean I don’t have a preference. I love goat’s cheese, I really, really, really hate raisins, and I could eat Nutella for the rest of my life. And there is no unique explanation for why I like the foods I like – sometimes their taste, texture, or smell is divine, other times I like the eating rituals, and now and then I go for something sentimental, e.g. those dubious fish-shaped chocolate cakes I used to pick up on the way home from school. What’s more, my taste preference is not uniquely determined by my taste buds: there may be genetic predispositions involved, but what I ate in my early childhood certainly influenced me as well.

Political, environmental, and animal rights issues inform our choices as ethical consumers. Thanks to the insistent education of my friends, I began to eat less meat, in fact so little that extensionally, you might call me a vegetarian. And to promote social change, as they say, you should advocate your vegetarianism. So when asked about dietary requirements, we should always stand up to our carni-normative society.

But I do not self-identify as a vegetarian. To be clear: I am not a strict vegetarian. Occasionally, I get drawn to sushi and schawarmas. But many vegetarians are not strict with themselves; as I pointed out, the point of calling yourself a vegetarian is not always to make sure you get served what you want (anyone who has tasted a spinach and filo pie will agree). It is to act against our irresponsible eating behaviour. So why don’t I join in on the cause?

Short answer: calling yourself a vegetarian means you accept the distinction between carnivores and vegetarians, and everything that is attached to that distinction.

Long answer: there are good reasons to refuse the vegetarian label.

First, it’s unwise, as the label comes with bad associations. To meat eaters, you are too quickly dismissed as an animal-loving hippie. Moreover, it often comes across as a provocation. How often has your dietary requirements sparked a dinner conversation on the ethics of killing animals? Even if you are not a moralising person, your label alone with make people feel uncomfortable.

Second, people sometimes fail to realise that vegetarianism is a complex phenomenon. Sure, there are many animal-loving people out there (and there’s nothing wrong with that: Nietzsche once said that a society’s attitude towards animals is the most telltale reflection of its morality). But there are other reasons as well: taste (“kale is delicious”), health (“you can live on coconuts“), environmental (“the meat industry is a massive waste of water”), political (“we must boycott fast food monopolies”), even social (“vegetarians are cool people”). So the reasons for being a vegetarian are plentiful, and the label is inevitably simplifying matters.

More importantly, there are more ways to categorise food. There’s sweet and savoury, fast and slow, things containing goat’s cheese, local produce, organic, genetically modified, things born out of happy chickens… Some categories may have an ethical dimension, others are purely aesthetic. It seems that the categorisation of “with meat” vs. “without meat” is just too narrow-minded. We need to allow for food pluralism.

So what I’m saying is this: creating a vegetarian subculture will not help fight against the carni-normative attitude. It’s better to be a pragmatist and refuse the label. Instead, we will speak out about our food preferences, and our reasons for them. This is the most consistent way to promote social change.

My next post will be on a completely unrelated topic: why are so many lesbians vegetarians?

This post was born out of the marriage equality debate earlier this year. Here’s a link to the > campaign, and here’s a very good analysis of the “gay by choice” dialectic. And yes, I am aware that carnivores also eat vegetables, so my analogy isn’t perfect. But hopefully it was entertaining.

Update: Based on the feedback I heard from my handful of readers, the message of this blog post was lost. I apologise. Please read it again and see how far you can take the food and sex analogy!