Ahsan: The Meat of the Argument

People’s defensiveness about eating meat is revealing.

by Sajid Ahsan | 4/18/19 2:15am

There’s no shortage of pop psychological drivel that claims that one can tell a lot about people by what they eat. But in my experience, the more interesting question is how people react to what others eat. I have been Muslim my entire life, and I’ve rarely, if ever, experienced skepticism or pushback when I’ve declined to eat pork and bacon. What I chose to eat or not eat was my business, between me and my beliefs.

I noticed a peculiar thing, however, when my reason for abstaining changed. I started not to eat meat because I became a vegetarian. And I would, on occasion, be met with people who wanted to debate the merits of vegetarianism or point out what they saw as other flaws in my reasoning. I found this odd; my diet was suddenly no longer my business but grounds for an argument that seemed to have little to do with me at all. Some of my friends and colleagues seemed to react as if they were being judged by an internet stereotype of a moralizing PETA crusader, a sort of person I’ve never met in the real world.

Another strange tendency I’ve noticed is an eagerness to find some evidence of hypocrisy in my vegetarian friends, as if that somehow renders their argument for decreasing meat consumption moot. An occasional meat allowance or a flexible commitment is treated as evidence that the lifestyle is untenable and hypocritical, proof that the smarter, more consistent option is to simply not try at all. This also takes the form of a sort of whataboutism, often pointing to the resource destruction caused by certain kinds of plant agriculture like almond cultivation or the abuse of migrant farm workers by large fruit farming corporations. While these are critically important concerns, I find it difficult to take these arguments seriously when they come from people who are otherwise perfectly happy to eat beef, almonds and fruit. 

The reality is that any decrease in animal consumption is on the whole beneficial for the planet. As of 2018, the animal agriculture industry accounts for 14.5 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. It seems increasingly likely that any sustainable future will include, among other changes, a significant scaling back of the animal agriculture industry. To the extent that personal consumer choices can have any real impact, reducing one’s consumption of animal products is a positive step, even with the occasional lapse. After all, the point is not about being satisfied with one’s own moral consistency but about reducing harm where possible. 

There is something about the instinctive defensiveness shown by some towards the idea of not eating meat for ethical or environmental reasons that suggests some underlying issues or concerns not brought to the surface. I know that this can be the case because it was my experience for years before I became a vegetarian. Although never outright hostile to vegetarianism, I found myself deeply invested in finding evidence that proved that there was no real difference between eating or not eating meat. I somehow felt that if vegetarians were inconsistent or hypocritical in some way, that fact would absolve me of any responsibility I might otherwise feel to examine what I consumed and why. 

It wasn’t until I had to consider the ethics of animal consumption for a Dartmouth philosophy class that I realized how I’d started with a predetermined conclusion then tried to justify it in order to exculpate myself.

My intention here is not to proselytize for vegetarianism. It’s simply to suggest that for others like me, the intrinsic discomfort felt at the thought of vegetarianism might stem more from underlying concerns about eating animals than from some urge to play devil’s advocate.