I have been involved in many activist spaces where I can openly challenge mainstream ways of thinking and let my perspectives fly free. My friends and I have openly debated the abolishment of prisons, free public universities, and UBI tax policy. But there is one topic I still feel uncomfortable sharing my views on: my diet.
Veganism has gained a reputation of being inaccessible and obnoxious. The diet is often associated with wealthy, white, skinny women on the cover of magazines declaring their glowing radiance and moral superiority. So I stay quiet. I am afraid of offending anyone and I am afraid of being tossed into the group of irritating vegans.
But I believe I cannot be an activist while still consuming animal products.
As a kid I always came home from school and happily munched on chicken nuggets and mini corn dogs. Meat-eating was normal, the default. But one day I watched in disgust as blood oozed from the burger down my fingers and I started to wonder about the animal behind the meat. The further I dug into this ideology, the more I realized how frightening it really is. Like any dominant ideology in society, meat-eating, or “carnism” as coined by researcher Dr. Melanie Joy, is seen as a given rather than a choice. But for many of us, it is a choice. And everyday we are choosing to eat animals, so many animals in fact that it adds up to about 1.2 billion slaughtered every week.
It takes little contemplation to realize that meat production requires violence. Animals have their throats slit while fully conscious, chickens necks are pulled across blades, and baby cows are dragged away from their mothers on dairy farms. Videos of industrial animal agriculture are so disturbing that they are often prefaced with content warnings and I find myself closing my eyes from the horror. But like any participants in violent ideologies, we are encouraged to not see.
Today in the United States, 98 percent of meat is produced in factory farms and through laws and regulations these institutions are nearly impossible to view from the inside. Slaughter houses are closed to visitors. Blood is carefully removed from packaged chicken cutlets. And all the guts and gore are kept out of sight.
“We live under the pervasive mythology that “meat-eating is natural” which tells us: humans have always eaten meat, humans are meant to eat meat, thus we must always eat meat.”
Blind from such horrors we go on sprinkling bacon-bits over salad without a second thought. Yet today in the United States where fortified calcium almond milk, impossible burgers, and vegan protein powder line supermarket aisles, many of us do not need meat in order to be healthy, happy, social creatures. Even with access to plant-based nutrition and with knowledge of slaughterhouse violence, we continue to ask for extra-carnitas in our Chipotle burritos. That is because we live under the pervasive mythology that “meat-eating is natural” which tells us: humans have always eaten meat, humans are meant to eat meat, thus we must always eat meat.
The language of “natural and necessary” to justify violence is not unfamiliar to us humans. This same rhetoric has been used to justify heterosexual supremacy, male dominance, and the subjugation of peoples across the globe. Reducing a life to a unit of production is a key doctrine of every violent ideology. And that is exactly what we do to the lives of pigs, chickens, and cows every day. That connection is too powerful for me to ignore.
For me, seeking truth and justice involves unveiling systems and structures of violence. In an interview Angela Davis, a civil rights leader and self-identified vegan says, “we assume we are radical activists but we don’t know how to reflect on the food that we put into our own bodies. We don’t realize the extent to which we are implicated in the process of capitalism by participating uncritically in the food politics offered to us by the great corporations.” Davis reminds us while we continually fight to develop compassionate relationships all human beings we also must develop compassionate relationships “with all the other creatures with which we share this planet.”
We can still be cognizant of this pervasive ideology of “carnism” while simultaneously recognizing that the ability to cut out animal products completely is not an option for many people. Because government subsidizes the meat industry with $38 billion per year, meat is often the cheapest and most accessible food. As a college-student there are times that I cannot afford to say no to free food that is mixed with meat and cheese. And I am not even saying we necessarily need to. Wither one decides to convert to veganism or not, we all must constantly work to identify the dominant violent ideologies under which we live and participate in. We are not passive consumers, but critical thinkers whose choices matter.
Talking about the systems of power and violence we are implicated in is scary. Making changes to our lives is hard. But when I remember that I am grounded in my values of compassion, justice, and empathy speaking out begins to seem possible.