|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
32nd World Vegetarian Congress 1996
Diet and Identity
To understand the roots of this apparent human irrationality and the relative lack of impact of the vegetarian/vegan movement, we need to look at the role that food plays in our lives and our psyche.
Although acceptance or rejection of animal foods has always ultimately depended on ethical considerations, the food that we eat has traditionally been regarded as purely physical nourishment without much thought being given to the mental and spiritual aspects of the substances that we incorporate into our bodies. Yet since the foods that we eat make up the very substance of what we are, they must equally determine the nature of our feelings and behaviour and thus play an important role in shaping our attitudes, thoughts, aims and desires and the very nature of our identity.
If food were regarded merely as nutritional fuel to sustain our bodies, we would probably tend to choose only the purest and healthiest ingredients, but the products that we consume are inextricably linked with our personality and belief systems. Eating, like sex, is an act of bonding with one another and our environment. In 1994, the British meat industry ran a television advertising campaign called "The Recipe for Love" to reassure those already addicted and potential new consumers about the so-called joys of eating meat and, in their own words, "to enable them to carry on eating meat with a clear conscience," using carefully doctored words and bogus nutritional information, humourously presented and accompanied by the Nat King Cole song "Let There Be Love," as part of their idea of a balanced diet.
Meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike must be aware that acceptance or rejection of any particular foodstuff is determined more by our omnivorous, vegetarian or vegan ideology or identity than by any fundamental disagreement about its health-giving or disease-producing properties, since all too often people consume foods which they readily admit to be bad for their health.
The greatest obstacle to dietary change stems from such irrational fears as losing one's identity as an unrepentant predator. Our taste buds are not the only judges of the suitability or otherwise of foods: depending on who we are, or think we are, the same food that vegetarians and vegans may reject as tasteless and disgusting may be considered a great delicacy by the average meat eater.
The consumption of meat - despite BSE and other dread diseases - represents not just an acquired taste but a shared ideology and behaviour. People eat animals to conform with socially accepted predatory habits in order to reaffirm or seal a common bond with other meat eaters, with whom they feel they must coexist and interrelate.
Henry Salt wondered how there could be any real or full recognition of kinship so long as people continued to cheat or eat their fellow beings, but kinship can have many different meanings for meat eaters. They may establish non-aggression pacts with certain companion animals or endangered fellow carnivores, although rarely with plant-eating animals, but by the very nature of their diet they cannot appreciate the sentient beings whom they eat as independent life forms with the right to lead their own lives and pursue their own interests.
If, on the other hand, we maintain an ethic of respect towards other animals, our relationship with them becomes increasingly non-specist, whereas meat eaters see all those animals traditionally regarded as food as non-individual entities whose very existence is determined by the rapacious and insatiable tastes of the meat eater and the profit and gratification derived from their exploitation, without regard to the legitimate interests of animals and their welfare.
Depending on one's ethical approach, so-called food animals will be regarded either as mere food items with a material and monetary value or as unjustly exploited slaves whose liberation from human oppression is long overdue. Hunters see the animals they trap or shoot as trophies to be shown off with pride, while a non-predatory person may regard such behaviour as nothing short of murder. The unconsenting victim of the vivisector will be regarded either as an easily replaceable research tool or as the manipulated and tortured victim of scientific fraud.
Wild animals, viewed by some as sources of income and objects of curiosity and display, are regarded by caring and compassionate people as the helpless and innocent victims of human ignorance and arrogance. The oceans have become vast open-air slaughterhouses, paradoxically regarded as both sewers and sources of food - tacitly proving that some humans are incapable of distinguishing food from garbage.
Bullfighting, traditionally considered by some as a display of bravery and art, is in reality a gruesome and bloody ritual in which fellow sentient beings are not merely deprived of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of their own evolutionary interests, but are systematically and sadistically tortured for profit and perverted pleasure, at the cost of enormous pain and suffering for the victim and loss of human dignity for perpetrator and spectators alike.
Thus the powerful influence that diet has on people's lives often hampers any potential action to free themselves from the stranglehold of superstition and the ignorance, dogma and irrational traditions that ensnare us in the destructive and violent world in which we live.