Recent research has confirmed what some have long suspected: the percentage of Americans who are truly vegetarian has not changed significantly in the past 30 years.(1) And the percentages are unlikely to change very much unless those who believe that the deprivation and suffering caused by human carnivorism is intolerable, learn something from those who came to the conclusion that slavery was intolerable. As long as people did not want to appear "judgmental" in regard to those who upheld slavery, there was no chance of abolition.
As slavery became more widespread and its atrocities multiplied, growing numbers of people became disturbed by its abuses and distanced themselves from participation in it. But they could not distance themselves from the people with whom they worked, worshipped, and lived. So in its earliest stages the issue of slavery was treated as one of personal choice. This allowed people to live comfortably and without dissent among neighbors and family who supported the status quo. It also allowed them to be viewed as Good Christians who subscribed to the biblical directive "judge not, lest ye be judged." This was a position as politically correct and self-serving in its own day as is the espousal of ethical relativism and value-free judgments in our own time. It was also a position that ignored another passage of scripture which directed the believer to "judge with a righteous judgment."
But a growing number of people began to understand that because the abuses of slavery were upheld by custom, law, and religion, the buying and selling of other human beings reflected a societal standard as well as an individual choice. And they understood that as members of a society which validated and perpetuated its cruelties, they shared the moral responsibility for its offenses. Only when this happened did abolition become a possibility.
And it is only when those who understand that killing other beings in order to satisfy an appetite for their flesh is much more than a personal choice, that human carnivorism will become an anomaly. Only when the cruelty and immorality of breeding animals for the slaughterhouse is recognized as an evil sanctioned by society and upheld by its laws, will vegetarianism reach the next stage of its evolution in Western civilization.
In Western civilization? Yes. We can set an example for others but our own culture, with its values and traditions, is the only one we can hope to change. People of other cultures will have to find the basis for change within their own belief systems. Should this discourage us from working for the abolition of human carnivorism? Of course not. Although slavery was ended in England almost 200 years ago by legislation and in the United States by civil war, there are still, literally, tens of thousands of people who are being sold into slavery in our own day. And although other countries and other cultures continue to traffic in the buying and selling of human beings, that does not stop us from continuing to outlaw it in our own country.
For those who are aware of the ways in which the buying and selling, the killing and the consumption of animal beings permeates every aspect of our society, the odds against its abolition can seem overwhelming. And were it not for the example of the end of slavery in Western culture, an end to human carnivorism would seem a Utopian dream. But we do have the example of slavery to show us that no matter how deep its roots, nor how great its antiquity, a spiritually evolving human race is able to overcome its failings.
Because slavery and carnivorism can be traced back to the beginning of historical times, both have been accepted as enduring components of human society. Millennia of women and men were carefully taught to rationalize or ignore the cruelties and deprivations endured by enslaved human beings and to claim divine sanction for brutalities that were devised by men. And just as biblical support was claimed for slavery, the Bible has also been used to validate the eating of other creatures, although the scripture clearly states that men and women were created to be herbivorous.(2)
In times past, people were content to claim that God supported their carnivorism. But in an increasingly secularized society, various pseudo-scientific explanations have been developed to account for the brutality that demands a diet of dead animals for its sustenance. Scientism--or junk-science--has manufactured various theories to explain the continuing brutality that insists on killing and eating other creatures.
For the secularist, the claim that God said it's all right to eat other creatures has no creditability. So anthropology and physiology have provided rationalizations to fill the void left by those who believe that God-is-dead or never was. These alternative excuses allow contemporary humans to blame pre-historic ancestors for their modern-day food choices.
Anthropologists offer the theory of enculturation and physiologists vaguely speak of "adaptation" and assure you that it is your genes that make you want to kill and eat other creatures.
Among family and friends, most vegetarians have been subjected to these ongoing religious and secular arguments, offered as proof that carnivorism is okay/normal. Of course, the adversarial answer to that position is that it's not okay/normal to eat your fellow creatures. Ultimately, these arguments lead either to a rift in relationships or an agreement not to discuss the subject again. Every vegetarian knows how painful either decision is and no suggestions will be offered here, about the way it should be resolved.
However, at the level of infrequent encounters with neighborhood, church or social groups, there are guidelines that should be observed. When those who refuse to eat the chicken kiev at the annual luncheon are challenged about their refusal, they have automatically become spokesperson against animal suffering. And when asked "why" they don't partake, the answer is usually a variation on the theme of a nonviolent diet. But if the dialogue continues, and they are asked if they think it's wrong to eat meat, many will begin to equivocate. And generally speaking, it is those who consider themselves well-educated and intellectually aware, who do this.
Above all other considerations, they do not want to be thought of as ignorant and judgmental. Value-free is the way to be if you aspire to be considered a highly developed, rational being by those who have decided the criteria for that designation. For some people, this is even more important than the fate of the animals for whom they may truly be concerned.
The mind-set of this kind of person prevails even at the media level. Unfortunately, this writer has been privy to what went on at a meeting between a journalist and the spokesman for a vegetarian group. When asked whether or not eating meat was wrong the spokesman, who is a medical professional, said "no," he couldn't make such a statement. It might be wrong for him, personally, but he certainly would not make that judgment for others. Having established himself as an intelligent, value-free observer of the human scene, he went on to volunteer the information that we must also consider the fact that there are people who struggle with a physical or psychological addiction to eating flesh. Of course, this value-free standard also absolves a Hannibal Lector of responsibility for his food choices.
In order for vegetarianism to become a societal standard, those who refuse to eat other creatures need to resist the intellectual, religious and social pressures that try to make it simply a matter of individual choice. Although carnivorism has overwhelming majority approval at this time, that does not make it a moral or ethical choice. And in a society in which optimum nourishment can easily be had without the slaughter or cruel confinement of other creatures, those who understand the brutality of human carnivorism have an obligation to speak their truth when they are asked "Do you think meat-eating is wrong.?"
(1) Donna Maurer, Ph.d "Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment."For more information: www.veganoutreach.org
(2) Genesis 1:29. For further discussion see "The Biblical Basis of Vegetarianism" at this website.
Copyright 2003 J. R. Hyland