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I Used To Think Vegetarians Were A Bit Weird - Now I'm One Of Them

27/09/2016 16:53
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For the first 33 years of my life I was a meat-eater and damned bloody proud of it. I was the person who always ordered the mixed grill. My 'rare steak' request would be made that little bit louder than necessary. I remember feeling a clear sense of masculine pride on making the step from 'medium rare' at the age of 16. I would buy 'bacon bits' in the supermarket and pork scratchings in the pub. I once went four consecutive days only eating Bernard Matthews Turkey Drummers for dinner. Hog Roasts (with extra crackling) and Barbeques were calendar highlights.

As a meat fundamentalist, I viewed the cult of vegetarianism (and even worse, veganism) with something close to disdain. Close friends and family aside, I regarded its followers as either weird, fanatical, or (usually for no good reason), hypocritical. I was convinced they were endangering their health or were malnourished. I would shiver at the thought of meat replacement products and gag when tricked into tasting them. Tofu and quorn were the devil incarnate - it was no surprise when I learned of a beef substitute called 'seitan' (pronounced 'Satan').

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(Me during peak meat worship in 2011)

But at the age of 34, something very strange happened. Like the militant atheist turned born-again Christian, I swapped Bernard Matthews for Linda McCartney and became a vegetarian. The shouty steak order was replaced with a humble 'is it cooked in vegetable oil?' The bacon bits and hog roast turned into three bean chilli, quinoa and flaxseed. In the space of a few months I had become the malnourished/weirdo/fanatic/hypocrite (select as appropriate.)

So why the change? You're probably expecting an anecdote that involves me befriending a pig. Or of me getting lost in the mountains and guided to safety by a sheep. I'm afraid nothing that exciting happened. And as a Welshman I should say on record that I would never follow a sheep anywhere - people tend to get suspicious, and I've known them to walk off cliffs.

The truth is, I've always loved animals. I was brought up in a household where our pets were part of the family. Our first dog Seamus (a gigantic Newfoundland) was my best friend, as was Spot our black and white cat. And there came a point when I realised that a love of animals just wasn't consistent with the cruelty of meat production. How could I get angry with fox hunting while turning a blind eye to battery farming? What right did I have to decry the cruelty of the Yulin dog festival whilst chomping on a pig that had probably been treated as badly, if not worse?

Of course, I'd always known that killing and eating animals wasn't a very nice thing to do. It was just that this knowledge had been safely locked away in the dark recesses of my brain. When, occasionally it escaped, I'd put my fingers in my ears shouting "lah lah lah" until it went away. But in my 34th year, the avoidance techniques stopped working. Whether because of the people I associated with, the books I read or the suffocating presence of social media, I found myself continually confronted with meat production's brutal realities.

Through books such as The Food Revolution I learned of the horrendous conditions the vast majority of these wonderful farm animals live in. I read about intelligent pigs spending their lives in stinking, cramped misery and of distressed, usually social chickens crammed into barns - their beaks and claws clipped to stop them injuring others. I learned of cows skinned alive as production-line stunning failed; of Christmas turkeys overfed so that their weight crushed their limbs. And far from being the exception, I realised this sort of abuse was the norm.

Confronted with these brutal realities, some of my other barriers began to unravel. Thanks to The Vegetarian Society and The Happy Pear, I learned that a meat-free diet can be healthy and tasty. Any concerns I had of turning into a feeble weakling were batted away by plant-fuelled athletes such as Rich Roll and Matt Frazier.

It became clear that there were very few good reasons left to continue eating meat. Which, on reflection, I thought was a bit odd. I wondered why I hadn't come to this conclusion before and asked myself why I had gone out of my way to think the opposite.

Fortunately, psychologist Melanie Joy (PhD) has dedicated much of her life to answering these questions. In her TED talk and book ("Why we love dogs, eat pigs and wear cows") she revealed that the internal contradiction of loving animals and eating them is something the vast majority of Western society has to overcome. She highlights how it is achieved through implementing a number of measures. One of the most effective is physically hiding the contradiction from our day-to-day - as we do with slaughter houses tucked away and through 'mis-naming' of meat products (bacon not pig, beef not cow etc.). If we don't see it, then it's not happening! At a deeper level, we rationalise via 'the three Ns' - that meat-eating is normal, natural and necessary - making vegetarianism abnormal, unnatural and unhealthy. For good measure we create a series of myths that separate animals into edible and inedible. We de-individualise the edible animals, categorising them in groups to prevent the empathy and disgust that arises when we identify with them as sentient individuals (as we do our pets). We (incorrectly) tell ourselves that the animals we eat are stupid, ugly or dirty, and those we don't are intelligent, cute and clean. In summary, we create a 'schema' - a mental classification or ideology, which Melanie Joy refers to as 'carnism'.

After reading this book, I realised how closely I had subscribed to the ideology of carnism. I mocked vegetarians to reinforce my belief that my eating habits were normal, natural and necessary. I promoted my love of meat to drown out the internal noise declaring my animal-loving hypocrisy. But on witnessing the realities, the framework collapsed. And, weirdo or not, it's why I'll never eat meat again.

I'd love to hear other people's stories in the comments below...

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