The other day I got into one of those futile exchanges with a meat-eater who thought he’d have a little sport playing verbal games with the vegetarians in our online chat room. At one point during our banter I mentioned something about why I became a vegetarian and how old I was at the time.
The meat-eater then asked a question that I think is quite good: Why do vegetarians have this urge to go into the history of why and when they became vegetarian?
I think it’s an excellent question because it helps to explain an importance difference — other than the obvious one — between most meat-eaters and most vegetarians.
For me the need to talk about my “conversion” to vegetarianism is rooted in the fact that it was made as a matter of conscious choice. At age 12 I decided that I would never eat fish again, and I haven’t. The simple explanation: I grew up near the ocean, spent hours swimming every day during the summers, and somehow got to thinking that fish were something special — and maybe not all that different from me, a 12 year old humanoid fish. So I stopped eating fish. It was a decision, a conscious act of conscience.
Years went by. I still ate meat but did not eat fish. Then one day, when I was much older, my close buddy, a dog named Nutka, died from kidney disease. I was heartbroken. People refused to come around me for weeks because I would just suddenly burst into tears thinking about him, sad that a creature I had gotten to know so well and who had been with me through some of the most turbulent and exciting times in my life had passed away.
Long before he died I became convinced that Nutka had a soul. In fact, I knew he had a soul, as much as any human I had known. Now that he was gone I had to ask myself: what made Nutka any different from other animals on this planet? Other than the fact that I had the pleasure of his special company for so many years, nothing was different. From that I concluded that if Nutka had a soul, so did other animals. And if it was absurd to think that I could eat my own dog — who was really no different from me — then it was absurd to eat animals who shared those same qualities. I then made the conscious decision that I would not eat animals of any kind. And I haven’t for the past 20 years.
Most vegetarians tell a similar story. It is a story of insight followed by conscious decision. This contrasts sharply with most meat-eaters. Most of them eat meat because they grew up eating meat. They have never thought about it, never challenged it, never really made a conscious choice to eat meat. If anything, all most meat-eaters can do is defend their guilt and up-bringing, defensively protect tradition and convention.
Vegetarianism is a conscious act. Meat-eating is adherence to convention.
The first requires thought and feeling. The second requires. . .habit and thoughtlessness.
Scientists believe that the Eurasian Neanderthal ate the equivalent of 16 “Quarter Pounders,” including human flesh, every day. I’d like to think that we humans have made some progress since those days. But progress does not happen by simply repeating the mistakes of those who came before us. Progress happens by choice and by challenging the status quo.
Perhaps most vegetarians don’t think of their choice of diet in these terms, but it is a real act of rebellion. As such, it takes both courage and conviction. Eating meat requires neither.