One of the largest obstacles to mainstream veganism and widespread acceptance of animal rights lies in the cultural significance of food. Cooking and eating occupy a central position within all societies and forms an integral part of cultural tradition and communal living.
We form strong emotional ties to our food and the power of tradition means that it is inherently difficult to question our eating habits. Taking meat and animal products off the menu requires going against thousands of years of habit, tradition and entrenched modes of thinking.
The consumption of food is far more than a simple biological act – it is an emotionally charged, ritualistic activity that helps foster social ties and social identity. Animal flesh has been such a staple component of our meals for so long that it is especially hard to remove it from our diet. In Western cuisine in particular, meat is the central piece of the dish.
This excellent summary of the role of food in society touches upon quite a few key points relevant to the animal question.
By rejecting the cultural norm of animal consumption, one automatically becomes a social outsider. As social creatures we tend to mistrust nonconformity and so advocating any minority view is automatically made more difficult. Religious and secular holidays further imbue our identity with the food we eat. We end up becoming so tied to our traditions that questioning them in any way is automatically frowned upon, as though an objection to the pain and suffering of the animal is an objection to the very practice of the tradition itself. The sobering reality is that Christmas, Thanksgiving and holiday barbecues are not about turkeys, pigs or whatever unfortunate animal ends up as the centrepiece – they are about the gathering of family and friends and celebration. Our fondness for ritual and ceremony hinders our ability to question our ethics.
Biologically, our food preferences originate in childhood (beginning in utero) and normally remain fairly static throughout our lives. Studies have shown that children show no immediate desire to eat meat and that parents have to gradually introduce meat into their diet. This strongly suggests that eating meat is very much learned and not an innate, biological behaviour. We raise our children with whatever culinary traditions our particular geographical area dictates and before we know it, almost all of us are raised to consume flesh and to not question where it comes from. Its acceptability is then so strongly embedded into our minds by its ubiquity in ceremony and social occasions, that to question it becomes less likely.
Psychologically, it could be argued that our subjugation and consumption of animals is our way of placing ourselves at the top of the hierarchy of the natural world. Our insecurity over existential questions – chiefly our place within nature – reinforces our need to dominate animals. There is no greater symbolic way to dominate than to kill and consume the very flesh of other beings.
Ultimately, eating is an intensely personal experience. This makes discussing it an incredibly sensitive topic – one people are quick to get defensive about – especially if they are directly or indirectly being accused of committing a moral crime. The real question is how to overcome these obstacles and to succeed in persuading people to make different food choices – to see animal products for what they are, to let go of them and to not only tolerate but embrace vegan replacements. This will be an issue to explore further in a future post.