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Eating Animals: Being Vegetarian, Meat Guilt & the Winterson Rabbit

Originally written in June 2014

Being Vegetarian

A cannibal walks into a bar. He orders a mushroom risotto.

The barman frowns. 'You vegetarian?' he asks.

The cannibal nods.

'Huh,' says the barman. 'Do you still eat fishermen?'

If I was to ever try stand-up comedy, this would be my opening line. I doubt many people would find it funny, but it might amuse the few vegetarians in the crowd, particularly the ones that don't eat fish (hah). Along with 'do you miss bacon?' or 'I couldn't do that me', the 'do you still eat fish?' line ranks high up there in the list of most common reactions to a declaration of vegetarianism. A list which variously includes, 'do you still eat chicken?' and 'you know Hitler was a vegetarian', etc and so on.

I've been vegetarian for nearly three years now. For me it happened quite gradually: my partner went veggie and we started eating a lot more vegetarian meals. Then I went pescatarian (fish but not meat: or should I say water-dwellers, not land-dwellers - because what is really the difference?), then a few months later made the gentle slip into no dead animals please. Since then I have never intentionally eaten meat, although there have been a few unintentional slip-ups. The choice to become veggie has had quite a profound effect on me: I have become much more conscious of food in general, much more careful about what I put into my body (hello), and it has prompted me to think long and hard and very seriously about my feelings towards animals, the natural world and the human place within that world. These thoughts are still very much in progress, but one thought shines brightest at present: vegetarianism is, for me, the closest thing I have to a belief. It has, I think, become more important to me than my atheism.

Vegetarianism is much more accepted these days, but is still treated as an oddity. It provokes long and often quite complicated dinner-time conversations, and is met with a variety of reactions from meat-eaters: many get defensive, some begin to act guilty, others will dismiss it with a chuckle or a frown, as if its a hippy-phase I'm going through and given time I will give it all up and return to the consumption of warmed-up corpses. People worry that I'm not getting enough protein or iron, or that I've sacrificed one of life's great pleasures for the sake of dumb creatures who neither care nor understand. Or that what I'm doing is wholly unnatural: that human beings are omnivores and have evolved to eat meat, that it is our God-given right, we've always done it and who am I to judge what is obviously so normal and correct and pass me that sausage and leave me alone.

I don't judge meat-eaters. Eating meat is a deeply, deeply ingrained social and cultural norm that will never go away and is only set to grow and grow. We put dead animals into the mouths of our children before their minds or voices are formed so it becomes as natural as walking, talking and breathing and becomes a hard thing to break. But this firmly entrenched belief, along with the explosion of globalisation, has led meat to some profoundly dark and disturbing places. I bit the proverbial bullet recently and faced these darknesses head on by reading Jonathan Safron Foer's excellent book Eating Animals. This non-fiction account of Foer's exploration of factory farming in America is one of the most disturbing and horrifying things I've ever had to put into my headspace and brought me to tears multiple times. It is not an easy book, nor a pleasant book, but it is honest, true, profound and, potentially, life-changing. One moment you are reading a detailed process of how a billion pigs are killed, or mis-killed, and the next moment Foer is reflecting upon the cultural attitude to the Thanksgiving turkey. I would urge everyone who wants to take their meat seriously to read that book. He does not argue that everyone should become vegetarian, but is passionate that we all should be far more aware of where meat comes from and how it was killed. Because, reshaped and neatly packaged, perfectly cooked and delicately flavoured, it is very easy for a 2014 human being to snip out the mental image of a living creature when faced with a cut of meat. And yet we know its a dead animal. We all know. We know it has been killed, probably quite horribly, just for our pleasure. Of course we do. It's just that most of us choose to utterly ignore that particular discomfort, and we've trained ourselves very well to do just that.

Meat Guilt

This week the author Jeanette Winterson trapped, killed, skinned, cooked and ate a rabbit. In the midst of these acts (just after the skinning) she took a picture of said rabbit and put it on the internet. You know when people go to the savannah and shoot an elephant and then tear its tusks off and pose next to it for a photo, rifles aloft? It was a bit like that, but more upper middle-class Britain. It prompted something of a furore, one of those twitter storm things, and a miasma of angry and supportive comments on a variety of newspaper websites and so on. A huge majority of these comments were from meat eaters, and many took the opportunity to discuss their favourite rabbit recipes.

This always happens when there is any kind of news article about rabbits. It is, apparently, hilarious. Of course, you don't see it on articles about dogs and cats - but those are just about the only mammals that get away with it. Not so long ago there was a small news story about the fact that beavers have been spotted returning to British waters and lo and behold:

What is this? For me, it is over-compensation. Just like the defensive reactions of meat-eaters towards vegetarians, this quick leap into a shared and bullish humour is a coping mechanism to deal with the sub-conscious discomfort attached to the eating of a dead animal. It is a banding together of the meat-eaters, a smirking camaraderie against the bleeding-heart liberals who subsist on lettuce and tofu. It is a frantic re-confirmation that meat is ok to eat, that it's ok that our care and enjoyment of living animals only extends as far as our tastebuds. It is the manifestation of what I like to call "Meat Guilt".

On a deep level, human beings have a hard-wired attitude towards the natural world: that we are beyond it, above it, superior to it and, at every available opportunity, we should master it and control it. And yet our breathing, shitting, faulty bodies, our impulses and urges, and the looming threat of tidal waves and earthquakes makes mastery of nature an impossibility. Eating animals makes us feel better in that respect. We can stop life for pleasure, as often and as tastily as we want. But what if there was a human-eating alien race that came along and plonked itself atop of the food chain? How would our attitudes change then?

Jeanette's Rabbit

Jeanette's rabbit killing was a justified act of vengeance. The rabbit in question had apparently eaten her parsley. No matter that she could've done without parsley for a bit, or that the rabbit's actions had been wholly innocent, or that the rabbit had no opportunity to defend its criminal behaviour: that rabbit was a pest and needed to be punished. Specifically, by a journey through Winterson's digestive tracts. Also, she fed the entrails to her cat who, apparently, was not a pest. Some we love, some we kill, some we eat.

Jeanette's rabbit was killed humanely, whatever that means. Of course, we don't have the testament of the rabbit itself who may have felt a tad aggrieved when it found itself snared, whose stress levels will have sky-rocketed when it found itself suddenly unable to move. And who knows what went through its head as the knife went through its neck: pleasure? relief? honour to be imminently feeding one of Britain's leading novelists? thankful for the humane death? Who knows.

Jeanette's rabbit was not factory farmed. She offered this in her own defence: don't you realise where most of your meat comes from? This, according to Jeanette, was much more natural, much more humane, much more correct. But there was nothing humane about the needlessly gory picture, or the comment that the rabbit's head would make a good glove-puppet. That image of conquest was posted with every intention to provoke and spark debate, to stir up publicity and to rile tweeters, but it also happened to be completely distasteful (ironically) and pointedly offensive. As I stated before, vegetarianism is a belief system for me: Jeanette's brazen and gratuitous display lacked any respect for those like myself who have chosen this way of life for ethical reasons, as well as utter disrespect for the rabbit itself. It becomes overwhelmingly clear in Foer's Eating Animals that disrespect for animal life is one of the main catalysts that allows the existence of factory farms; the same disrespect that fuels the turning of blind eyes to the cruel and sadistic acts that go on inside them. At least factory farms try to keep imagery of their carcasses behind closed doors.

Jeanette's rabbit was an affront to my vegetarianism and by proudly displaying it splayed across her chopping board, in a faux-pastoral self-sustainability tableau of smugness, she has actually and purposefully offended me and my beliefs. I have no real quarrel with her choice to eat meat, I just wish she had no problem with my choice not to eat it.

I remember the specific moment I decided to stop eating meat. I was in my kitchen, frying up a slice of shop-bought chicken, while my rabbit George was watching me, awaiting his own food. I looked at the chicken flesh, I looked at George. I had one clear, obvious thought that I couldn't square off, that I couldn't shake: what is the difference? What is the actual difference?

Nowadays I look at George and I look at myself and think exactly the same thing:

Note: this post was originally written in June 2014 and seemingly had quite the effect on quite a few of my friends - many of whom have now become vegetarian as a direct result. Its quite a curious feeling as I certainly didn't intend to 'convert' anyone. I think I wrote this with real honesty and maybe that comes across in a more profound way than preaching ever can.

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