A diet isn’t just a choice anymore, like whether to wear jeans instead of khakis. Your diet is a metonym for your way of life, firmly tied to identity. Like religious adherents, some are convinced they have the answer. Others couldn’t care less. And then there are people like me, honestly struggling with the dilemma of what to eat — whether it’s not OK to eat animal products or whether we should eat animal products.
What are some guidelines we can use to make our decision? And what cultural messages, and power dynamics, affect our diet? Who influences our decisions about what to eat?
There’s a rich history of using human-animal relationships to comment on social conditions. The American historian Donna Haraway’s definition of a cyborg as part-animal and part-machine helps to illuminate what it means to be human. “Perhaps, ironically,” she writes, “we can learn from our fusions with animals and machines how not to be Man, the embodiment of Western logos.” In other words, by exploring what is decidedly non-human, we can reach a better understanding of humanity as it exists outside of Western ideology.
Understanding animal oppression, Haraway might offer, could lead to a better understanding of human oppression. So let’s talk about British colonialism.
To contextualize the conversation about animal oppression, let’s discuss colonialism via Indian sociologist Ashis Nandy. For Nandy, the colonial project depended not only on political and economic gain but also on psychological colonization. In order to create a system where the colonizer is superior, colonialism must dictate what is “civilized” and what is “savage.” Lines are drawn and rules are made. The patriarchy plays a huge role here — masculinity is associated with the colonizers and femininity with the colonized. In their colonization of India, the British Empire used gender and age to colonize the minds of its subjects. Here’s Nandy from his book, The Intimate Enemy, with my emphasis added:
Mastery over men is not merely a by-product of a faulty political economy but also a world view which believes in the absolute superiority of the human over the non human and the subhuman, the masculine over the feminine, the adult over the child, the historical over the ahistorical and modern or progressive over the traditional or the savage.
Leela Gandhi, of Brown University, claims “equating beef with imperial virility” and vegetarianism with weakness and illness was an “ideological tactic,” one of many that were necessary to perpetuate imperialist ideology. In this sense, vegetarianism (and the ethical treatment of animals) became a way to fight back against prevalent social conditions, specifically the imperialist agenda.
In 1896, Henry Salt, an ethical vegetarian from England, argued that the “suffering of animals at the hand of man is the counterpart…of the suffering which man inflicts on man. The animals…are equally involved with ourselves in our social conditions. Salvation for man means salvation for animals, but while man suffers, the animals must also suffer.”
Mohandas Gandhi used Salt’s pacifist teachings to drive the anti-colonial movement, which included tactics such as vegetarianism. Leela Gandhi claims that, thanks to activists such as Salt and Mohandas Gandhi, “the reformulation of the human-animal community…provided a conduit for mutinous thought, attracting to itself the distinct but contiguous energies of socialism, anarchism, radical evolutionism-Darwinism, and so, anti-colonialism.” Mohandas Gandhi preached non-violence, practiced vegetarianism and suggested femininity was superior to masculinity. By promoting these values, he led the way for a psychological reform in India. Vegetarianism thus became a “quintessentially anti-colonial” political tool to unite diverse groups against systemic imperial forces.
But what is fascinating is how some mainstream vegetarian and animal rights movements have themselves become oppressive. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but mainstream vegetarianism and veganism have become yet another tool of colonialism.
Let me clarify: I don’t think being a vegetarian necessarily means one is oppressive. In fact, some forms of vegetarianism/veganism are very much anti-colonial, and some cultures practiced vegetarianism prior to the colonial moment. However, participating in the oppressive dialogue which envelopes the vegetarian community perpetuates a colonialist type of oppression. It’s not about eating meat, but rather about how oppression manifests itself through vegetarianism.
Here, vegetarianism becomes Western vegetarianism.
For starters, the reason we consume animals the way we do is because of colonialism. Colonialism (along with capitalism and imperialism) is a system that necessitates the mass production of animals to sustain large urban populations. The driving aspect of this system is profit. So, animals are bred in horrifying conditions, overfed hormones and antibiotics to ensure survival, and sold as quickly as possible. Nothing goes to waste because these factory farms do not want to lose any money.
However, factory farms aren’t the only ones to blame. The recent bourgeois demand for organic foods has created a market for expensive healthy food. This prevents people in underprivileged positions to afford a “wholesome” lifestyle. I live in Hyde Park, a neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago in the process of gentrification. A few weeks ago, a Whole Foods opened to the Hyde Park community, and this is one of many changes I’ve witnessed in less than a year. My rent is going up by 15 percent, small neighborhood businesses are succumbing to national conglomerates and people (of color) are being forced out of a neighborhood they’ve been part of for many years. Hyde Park now has luxuries while the surrounding neighborhoods are a food desert.
“The issue here is that the mainstream animal rights and vegan/vegetarian movements set arbitrary requirements for what it means to work towards eliminating oppression without bothering to take into account historical and cultural factors,” writes Mahealani Joy in an excellent essay in Everyday Feminism.
The ones with money and power get to decide what is ethically correct. Those without the privilege of either are shamed for not following suit. This attitude is on display when animal rights activists (and some vegetarians/vegans) seem to value the lives of animals more than the lives of marginalized people.
I always hear this ethical argument: “I don’t think animals should be living in these conditions, so I don’t eat meat or consume animal products.” Fair enough. But what about the conditions in which poor Bolivian quinoa farmers live? Shouldn’t we stop eating quinoa, too? Joy writes:
If you are really striving for balance in this world, you must react with the same outrage to incidents of violence and oppression against marginalized folks as you do to an animal being abused. If you only respond to harm done to animals and not the harm being done to people — especially marginalized folks — you are buying into white supremacy and colonization.
And PETA. Oh my God, PETA.
“PETA has run ads that are fatphobic, classist, compare the murder of sex workers to pig farming, compare eating meat to lynching, exotify women of color, and compare factory farming to the Nazi Holocaust,” says Joy. Of course, most of us don’t buy into these kinds of vulgar portrayals, but it’s a stark representation of how a seemingly innocent practice such as vegetarianism or the ethical treatment of animals can be used in repugnant ways.
We don’t need meat to survive — that’s obvious. But we do need meat to thrive. In his 2010 book Perfect Health Diet, Paul Jaminet discusses the importance of micronutrition. The premise is that we shouldn’t just focus on carbs, fats, proteins, etc. We should make sure our diet is filled with vitamins, minerals and other smaller substances that ensure a healthy lifestyle. One way to do this is by taking multivitamins. Another, more common way, is through supplemental foods, most of which come from animals: bone broth, eggs, oysters, kidney, liver, fish oil.
Furthermore, the idea that cattle (and other domesticated animals) are bad for the environment has also been skewed. In Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, Nicolette Hahn Niman claims that cattle are and have been an essential part of the agricultural process; they “build carbon-sequestering soils to mitigate climate change, enhance biodiversity, help prevent desertification, and provide invaluable nutrition.” Hanh Niman further dispels myths about beef affecting our bodies in negative ways and argues for small-scale sustainable farming that should include animals.
And still it seems as though believing in any diet requires a leap of faith. We are all obeying nature, distancing ourselves from our primitive past. We are not cavemen — our bodies have evolved, allowing us to process milk, and we should feed ourselves the way evolution deems best. Unlike cavemen, we should eat a balanced diet of all types of foods, including portions of meat. On the other hand, we have developed technologically, too: We no longer need to slaughter animals for our survival, and maybe we should refrain from doing so for ethical reasons.
It is not my intention to preach. I’m just seeking answers. One the one hand, eating meat is important to me physically, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually; on the other, the mistreatment and mass killing of animals disturbs me. How can I come to terms with such a contradiction, a dilemma I must acknowledge every time I eat?
S.G. Belknap, writing for The Point magazine, calls this a tragedy, and rightly so. But it should not be discouraging. Tragedy is what makes us human, what keeps us together.
The universe is slowly descending into chaos, and though we may try to establish order, everything we do contributes to entropy. We must accept that life is full of contradictions. The universe doesn’t care whether we eat meat or plants, whether we smile or cry, whether we live or die. Our identities and our lives are about more than how we eat. They’re about wrestling with the questions that life poses for us.
Stefano Cagnato is a writer from Guayaquil, Ecuador. As a digital humanist, he has discovered the power of computation. With the capacity to speed things up, he has learned how to slow down.