A while ago, I had a discussion with my OH about kids.
"If we ever have kids, how would you feel about raising them vegan?" I asked.
He thought about it. Then replied: "I wouldn't really feel comfortable pushing any ideology onto them."
"So they'd eat animal products? Isn't that an ideology?"
Pause. "No... It's just what we do."
I couldn't argue it. I was frustrated: in my mind I KNEW that both paths would effectively be pushing a belief system onto another human being, but a) I didn't have the words to make it sound legitimate and b) he's right. It IS our cultural norm.
The conversation percolated through my brain for the next few weeks. It got me thinking about why I actually ate animal products in the first place.
As a teenager, I'd made a half-hearted attempt at convincing my mum to cook me vegetarian food but otherwise, carried on regardless. I had always hated cream and didn't really like the taste of milk - I could tolerate skimmed, but that's it. I was squeamish about preparing meat when cooking, couldn't stand processed meats of any kind and didn't like seeing blood on my plate when I ate steak.
In essence I was trying to pretend, as far as I could, that what I was eating hadn't once been alive.
It was just before my 30th birthday when I watched Vegucated - by no means the first documentary of its kind that I'd seen - that it all clicked into place. I began transitioning to veganism and I didn't see it as a choice: I no longer felt able to knowingly contribute to an industry I was beginning to hate.
So why did I eat animal products for so much of my life? There are so many layers to the answer.
Firstly, I liked them. Chilli con carne, made with chunks of braising steak, was my favourite dinner, the one I would have picked as my "last meal".
But mainly, it comes down to the fact that it was normal. I had simply never asked myself why I ate animal products. I was given milk at primary school, learned about a 'healthy diet' throughout my school career, and had the message compounded through the curriculum I taught when I became a teacher. Where else are you going to get enough iron and calcium if not from red meat and milk?
Society - for various and, as I now understand it, mainly economic, reasons - quite literally brainwashed me into eating animal products and, worse, not even questioning it.
Until, that is, I couldn't hide from it any more.
A few weeks after I'd needed it, I found the word that I had been looking for:
"Carnism is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals." Before I had this word in my vocabulary, I was truly unable to argue that eating meat is a belief system, for, "If we don't name it, we can't talk about it, we can't question it."
As an increasingly unapologetic vegan, I am becoming used to being challenged for my beliefs. Don't get me wrong; it still gets my metaphorical hackles up. But, I understand that because I am not just doing 'what we do' I am in the minority and therefore in the firing line. I have had to confront, absorb and deflect other people's guilt manifesting as anger, frustration, apathy, humour or approval-seeking to name but a few of its guises. I am often faced with the question: "Why are you vegan?" and have begun to fire back with: "Why are you not vegan?" If I do, I'm invariably met with various forms of answers similar to the ones I gave myself, all of which align with the definition of carnism as an unquestioned social conditioning.
The older I get, the more clearly I see how little we are truly taught to question the status quo.
Is, "Because it's the way we've always done it," really a good enough reason to keep eating animal products without even questioning our motivations to do so?
Blog originally published on The View Changes.
Vegucated is available on Netflix. For more info visit the Get Vegucated website.
Joy, Melanie. Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Berkeley, CA: Conari, 2010.