Saturday, 23 April 2011

Azrayel's Journey to Veganism - Part One

I used to love meat. Dead animal on my plate? Nothing better. I even referred to myself as a carnivore because I really disliked vegetables. They were an annoyance, a chore. A box I had to tick. Roasts, steak, burgers, fish 'n' chips. That was where my heart lied. A meal wasn't complete without some tasty, tasty flesh.

I didn't really think about my food, at least not for a long time. Meat was food, meat came from animals, animals were food. That's just how it was. It was so common, so unremarkable, so obviously natural that I did not question it. I felt no guilt, no doubt. By the time I was in a position to really consider my actions and establish my own preferences, I was so firmly conditioned to view animals as food that the very concept of not eating animals was just bizzare and incomprehensible.

As I hit my teenage years, I started to encounter people who didn't eat animals. Every so often, I'd meet a vegetarian at school or on an internet message board. The fact that I was 'normal' and they had a special name, 'vegetarian', never struck me as odd. Surely my behaviour deserved a name just as much as theirs did? No, of course not. That's the point of carnism - you just don't see your behaviour as a choice, as something interesting, as something that needs a name. Your behaviour is normal, obvious, the default. Names are reserved for other people, people who make strange choices to defy the status quo. People that need to be singled out.

I couldn't understand vegetarians. I found them weird, a bit alien. Either they didn't like meat, which to me was a little like not enjoying sunshine or breathing, or they felt eating meat was wrong. My response to having my normal, socially encouraged behaviour challenged was to become defensive. What could be wrong about eating meat - lions eat antelope, don't they? What could be wrong about eating meat - humans were omnivores, weren't we? What could be wrong about eating meat - we needed it to be healthy, didn't we? Vegetarians were sentimental romantics who were out of touch with reality. Didn't they want to see lambs in the fields? Didn't they get bored of their limited diet, comprised (I assumed) of limp, overboiled vegetables?

I was an intelligent teenager, capable of considering my actions. I was prone to being temperamental and inclined to be defensive, but I wasn't so stubborn that my views were immune to change. My political feelings snaked all over the place, as did my artistic tastes. This was one thing, however, that I wasn't going to budge on. I didn't view eating animals as a choice, not really. It didn't need scrutiny, it didn't need justification. I did start to develop views about other aspects of our use of animals. That animals should be harmed unnecessarily, for selfish reasons was a horrible thought. I thought I loved animals and while that clearly didn't mean we needed to be sentimental about using them if we didn't have a choice, I did think we should be compassionate and prudent in our interactions with them.

At 17 or 18, I started to encounter the really dark side of animal use. Battery farms, puppy mills, dog fighting, whaling. I still kidded myself that my use of animals was acceptable, that eating them was essential for my wellbeing, but I was slowly realising just how prevalent animal abuse was in human society.

For my 21st birthday, my friends got me a fish tank. A tiny one, only 14 litres. Immediately, I jumped onto forums and started doing some research into what fish I could keep and how to keep them. I wanted a goldfish and started asking around. After all, goldfish are only teeny and given that most people keep them in bowls I felt that my palatial 14 litre tank would be perfect for them. I was met with a resounding "NO". Goldfish, it was explained to me, get big and produce a lot of waste. 14 litres wasn't just inadequate, it was cruel. This was something totally new to me and took me by surprise. Goldfish, those cute little critters that were kept in bowls and won at fairs the world over were actually massively missunderstood and a clear case where 'popular wisdom' was actually contributing to wide spread animal abuse. So, I didn't get a goldfish. I looked into other options. Having had it revealed that I actually knew far less than I thought I did about fishkeeping, I researched hard. I joined numerous fishkeeping forums and became an advocate of compassionate fish care. Suddenly, I was the one telling new fishkeepers what they could keep and how to keep them. My friends thought I was obsessed. A lot of people said to me - but they're just fish! - and I replied viciously, telling them that they may be fish but they were lives and they could suffer and letting this happen through arrogance, ignorance and misconceptions was not and never would be OK. Being a member of the fishkeeping community showed me that people can have good intentions but still cause unjustifiable harm. I didn't know it yet, but this understanding would open my eyes to the extent to which I did this in my own life.

Around the same time, a close friend of mine became a vegetarian. I made a few jibes in his direction but I respected him and felt that he wouldn't have made this decision lightly. My defensive wall started to crumble.

Back on my fishkeeping quest, I discovered a link to Earthlings on a forum. I watched the trailer and found myself in a mess of revulsion and guilt. I knew that abattoirs and factory farms were unpleasant places but actually seeing footage from them affected me deeply. I knew there were sources of what is often referred to as 'happy meat' - animals raised in 'compassionate' conditions and killed with 'kindness' - but as a student, I didn't have the money to source this more expensive commodity. I ummed and ahhed. I reasoned that I didn't need to give up meat, that I still believed that eating animals as acceptable, but I knew I didn't want to be involved in the kind of scenes I had seen. After some weeks of thinking, I decided to cut down on the amount of meat I ate. Quorn and other meat substitutes became a regular on the grocery list and eventually, we stopped buying animal meat at all.

I looked at Avalanchian with wonder as I realised that I had become a vegetarian.

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