Confessions of a Guilty Carnivore

Over at Salon, David Sirota has a good post on how vegetarians should talk to meat-eaters.  Full disclosure: I’m not a vegetarian.  I was a vegetarian for Lent, for the most part, having meat only once a day on Sundays and having fish occasionally simply because I needed to do something, while I was learning how to do this new thing I’d never done before.  While I’m not strictly vegetarian now that Lent is over, I have significantly cut back on the amount of meat I eat, sometimes going for a few days without eating any.  I’m working at it, practicing it, one day maybe I’ll get there.

It’s been a challenge.  I actually don’t tend to like a lot of vegetables unless they’re prepared just so.  I cannot stand raw or only slightly cooked onions, no matter how small.  They need to be sauteed forever or stewed to mushy oblivion before I can eat them without retching.  Same goes for peppers.  I don’t particularly like cucumbers, eggplant, or squash, and have only recently developed a fondness for tomatoes — but they have to be good tomatoes.  This makes restaurant vegetarianism very difficult, as the chances that a vegetarian option will contain something that my tastebuds literally cannot stand either on the basis of taste or texture is very high.  It has its positive points, too — having to plan my next few meals well in advance and take time to prepare food myself cuts my food budget considerably, and builds a level of intentionality into my consumption that helps me take care of myself better than if I was just inhaling hot pockets.

But to go back to my point, I think David Sirota misses something very important about the psychological state of a meat-eater.  He describes the aggression that sometimes arises in conversation with meat-eaters quite well.  I know he does a good job, because I have been that carnivore before.

There was a time when even being around vegetarians got me a bit aggressive, a bit willing to spar over it, a bit more willing to even flaunt my meat-eating and dare them to say something.  While I wouldn’t say I was ever as gung-ho about it as the carnivores Sirota describes, that’s still how I felt.

Why was I this way?  Quite simply, because I judged myself for eating meat.  I knew I was doing it for no reason other than personal gratification, to the detriment of the world, and I projected all my self-judgment on them.  My aggression wasn’t really aggression — it was defensiveness.  It was classic projection.

I’d guess 75% of vegetarians aren’t judgmental about it at all.  But a lot of times, meat-eaters, especially ones that seem like their politics would line up with a meat-free lifestyle, are consciously or unconsciously struggling with their own selves on the matter, and foist that hard internal struggle onto others.
I perceive in Sirota’s comments something of the moral crusaderism that can actually make it hard for a meat-eater to get through it, come clean, and make the switch.  This isn’t to say his type isn’t needed — I probably would have never gotten to the point of questioning my meat intake if it wasn’t for moral crusaders pointing out the obvious, that eating meat is harmful to me, my friends, the moral status of animals, and living people across the world I’ll never know.  But it helps to keep in mind that the defensiveness of meat-eaters often comes more from agreeing with the vegetarian’s position, but lacking the courage, self-control, or self-awareness to acknowledge or adopt it.
If vegetarians crusaders are going to do the good work of convincing the world to stop eating meat, they should at least consider their audience, as Sirota says.  And, occasionally, that might call for a degree of empathy with the moral conundrum a meat-eater is placed in, which directly pits their own ego-driven desires against a higher good they perceive and agree with, even if they can’t admit it to themselves. Just some thoughts, from someone who has been working to become less carnivorous, who isn’t perfect, but is trying to do better.