Here’s my whole problem with meat: it’s fucking delicious.
When my sister was eleven she saw a PETA video and decided she was done. “I don’t like meat anyway,” she said, and that was that, no contest, forever amen. She’s still vegetarian some dozen years later and has never complained about the challenge, nor tried to convert anyone.
I was the opposite on all counts. I am the opposite, still.
I am well-informed about the role and treatment of animals in Western society. I took classes, wrote a thesis, own a small but solid library on it. I have seen enough slaughterhouse footage that I could butcher a cow, though I wouldn’t be very good at it. I know which brands are cage-free in theory only and, locally, which ones actually have chickens on soil, and why even that doesn’t make it okay to use an animal for something its body makes. I will explain why while I eat some scrambled eggs. If it is a certain day of the week, the eggs might be covered in sausage gravy. If nobody is looking I might even eat bacon, though I won’t order it myself, so it’s probably your bacon I’m eating.
I am a vegetarian, for the most part. I’m just really horrible at it.
When people ask I am vague in answering. Once, in an attempt to help along the discussion, someone suggested that I was a flexitarian. This person did not say the word in a judgey voice; there were no air quotes. They were trying to help, for real.
“Fuck you,” I said.
I did not know this person very well. We were both new to our jobs, learning what was expected of us and how far we could take a joke. “Fuck you” was not an appropriate thing to say in this context. But there it was, all fat and prickly.
“Ha ha,” I added. It sort of helped. “I don’t love the labels.”
“I get it,” said my coworker, “labels.” And I was not fired, so it worked out okay.
It is true that I don’t like all the categories vegetarians make up for themselves. Someone once described themselves to me as a “pesce-pollo-vegetarian” and the only way I felt could express the extent of my distaste was by pretending to barf on their shoes. Do we really need to make up words like that? Really? If you’re a wedgetarian you only eat things that come in wedges. If you’re an ovo-lacto-vegetarian you just said two of the most unappetizing words in the english language as a description of your food.
Another part of the distaste is an overarching personal dislike of categories in general, and fad categories specifically (freegan is one for the ages, guys, right along side metrosexual). If I join a cult it’s going to do something besides eat things. Or things in addition to eating things.
But what I truly, viscerally hate about flexitarianism is the implication that I might be so okay with the way I eat that I’d go and pick out a name for it. If I was really actually okay with what I choose to eat I would just eat things, and be done with it, and stop worrying about what it’s called or shouldn’t be called and whether or not it’s actually a real thing. But I am not okay with my diet.
As much as I hate to identify myself by what I choose to eat, a lot of my internal debate is about identity. I am an animal too, after all. Shouldn’t I get some sympathy for that?
Fast fact: when I was in first grade I was sent to sit in the hallway because my barking was disrupting the class. I was also crawling on the floor and, to my classmates’ delight, sniffing a few butts. Dog was my favorite game, though I was happy to play any large carnivore. If water was available the game was sea lion. I wore holes in the knees of all my sweatpants.
(I only wore sweatpants. Between this and the barking you can pretty accurately reconstruct my social life for the next ten years. Addendum: I have a photograph of myself at age eleven on horseback wearing a Star Trek: Voyager t-shirt.)
All this is to say that as a kid I identified more strongly with animals than with people. I loved animals. Intensely, categorically. I loved looking at them and thinking about them. I still do. I love them and their weird, amazing brains. I’ll still take a walk with my dog over a call with a friend under pretty much any circumstances. It’s easier, and you rarely need to worry about what they think of you.
I have a great deal of respect for animals as individuals. This does not apply solely to the animals that give a fuck about people. I think animals have actual thoughts and emotions, even the relatively stupid-seeming ones. Different than my thoughts and emotions, yes, and on a different scale probably, but still thoughtful and emotional. I really feel like I should stop putting these thinking, feeling individuals into my mouth, but I appear to suffer some disconnect between “I really feel” and “I would like to order.”
It’s not that I haven’t tried. But there’s this ethical hole beneath the pragmatic, try-not-to-eat-meat-because-I-like-animals surface that sucks me rapidly down, down, down towards paralysis. If I don’t eat meat I shouldn’t eat cheese or eggs, because the lives of dairy cows and laying hens are a longer, potentially greater misery than animals raised and killed for meat. That makes sense. And what about fish? Clearly alive, probably not numb to their existence. But they’re so foreign. How do they fit in my shared-experience paradigm? Do I care about fish? Can I make myself care about fish? What about insects? Can I kill a spider? If I can’t kill a spider I might give up on this whole deal, because fuck spiders. Way too many appendages. And what about the insects crushed by the combines harvesting my vegetables? What about the rabbits shot by the guy who sells me potatoes at the farmer’s market? Don’t non-leather shoes look tacky? Do my cats have to be vegan? How do you decide when to stop caring? How do you keep caring? How do you care at all, when you’re obviously helpless and useless and a bad person?
I’m not saying you should make your diet be like my diet. I’m clearly too much of a disaster to serve as any sort of example. I’m a hypocrite who hates hypocrites; I am the worst.
It’s not even a conversation, at heart, a about eating meat. That’s just the easy conflict, the obvious one.
Partially it’s a practice in public humiliation. I can be an asshole, especially in my own head. I forget that I don’t actually have anything figured out, and as such I am not in a great position to judge what others decide to do. I don’t even believe strongly enough in my own choices to, you know, just not eat meat already. According to a lot of sources, it’s not really that hard.
Maybe it’s because I’m a cerebral monkey, myself, that I think that the debate, the honesty, is the important part. I may be making irrational choices, but at least I will keep looking at them, holding them in my hands and squinting and trying to make them make sense. I am, after all, an animal myself. And this is what my kind of animal does.