Column: Vegetarianism as protest is ineffective, impractical

In the summer of 2005, I stopped eating meat.

A friend at the time sent me a link to some grainy video on a PETA website, clearly taken with a shaky camcorder by someone on the "inside." Grave background music set the tone for images of cages stuffed with wildly flailing chickens. A cow was having its testicles chopped off "WITHOUT ANESTHETICS," as the video's description pointed out in all caps. Pigs were being whipped relentlessly by a factory farmer.

Being 14 at the time, such dramatics immediately cued the tiny violins, and after a tender session of crying and yelling at the computer screen, I looked more into the issue. Shortly thereafter, I became a vegetarian.

My only concerns at the time mainly stemmed from my desire to appease my mother, whose constant reminders that I was a “growing boy” might have signaled disapproval for my low-protein diet. After working things out on the parental side, I found a consistent pattern of buying fake meats, cooking for myself and learning to adapt to restaurant menus. And it worked. It worked through high school and my world travels along the way. It worked through my freshman year of college and all of its dining hall woes. But this year, it came to a screeching halt with a plate of ribs.

What facilitated my switchover was the constant inconvenience of dealing with a vegetarian diet when all I wanted was a non-vegetarian diet. But the ideas behind my departure from vegetarianism lingered for an entire year before that plate of ribs.

First was the culture I was depriving myself of, in preference of my animal rights views. After spending time in Australia, I knew I had missed out aspects of culture quite different than my standardized, grocery-store routine back home in the states. Although Australia is quite western in many senses, I was still imposing morals and ways of life defined by my life at home that are, in many ways, exclusively “American.” Had I gone to Thailand, Burma, Germany or Turkey, the cultural differences would be highlighted even greater, if I insisted upon the veggie plate at every restaurant. Although I don’t think cultural or moral relativism is in itself a valid argument against vegetarianism, I do think it stimulates the idea that to fully access the routines and customs of other cultures, one has to completely detach from the comfortable lifestyles in which they live.

Second is my idea that vegetarianism in its popular form does not actively help anyone or any animals other than the self-proclaimed vegetarian. If anything, popular vegetarianism is merely a means of professing health standards and shunning any possible association with the industry of factory farms. Dairy and egg consumption is no less stressful to the environment or the animals than meat consumption, other than that it merely delays the time before the animal is killed. Plus, if you’re worried about the health, you’re still consuming high-hormone, high-fat foods by consuming dairy and eggs. Alternatively, being a vegan is the most consistent lifestyle, if you want to do all you can do for your body and animals (although I still would not advocate veganism).

Now that I’ve started eating meat, my two goals have been to step away from comfortable foods and to advocate for the reduction of factory farming. It might sound silly, but we cannot save the 10 billion animals in factory farms by not eating them, as we merely do not have room for an exclusively grass-fed animal market. We must question the sourcing of our food at every moment, while not holding positions with potential double standards, either concerning morals or health.

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