It was the first year of my undergraduate degree, the afternoon after the last exam, when I joined a friend at the pier at Southampton for a few beers and a steak. That was the last time I ate meat, more than a decade ago. What started as a challenge – to stay without meat for a week – became an unlikely lifestyle, given that meat was the main stable in my diet up to that day. My vegetarianism dates back to that week and although there was no moral aspect to how it started, this is no longer the case.
My views on eating or not eating meat have changed over the years. While initially it was purely a matter of preference and convenience – I was feeling physically better with the vegetarian diet – my vegetarianism a few years later acquired a moral dimension. The arguments, of course, are many, ranging from environmental sustainability to physiological discussions as to whether the human body is indeed well-equipped to eat and digest meat given our teeth, gut and metabolism. Arguments that your closest vegan has surely and annoyingly put to you already. While I often end up debating these issues, especially as Sunshine is, among others, a biological anthropologist with fairly strong opinions on the matter, none of the aforementioned arguments really resonate with me as driving forces underpinning my vegetarianism.
When I first thought about these issues, my intuition was to justify my vegetarianism through the view that one should not harm anyone, human or non-human. The raising of animals for human consumption, unnecessary as it is, as well as the killing of animals, entails absolutely preventable suffering. Not only to the animals, but also to current and future generations who are adversely impacted by the environmental costs and the depletion of natural resources necessary for the meat industry to function. That said, the animal suffering was enough of a reason for me to self-justify my vegetarianism. Underpinning this intuition was the belief that humans, exceptional as we are, should not be considered the centre of the universe. This view is at odds with speciesism or with perceptions of human exceptionalism. The fact that animals experience some if not most of the characteristics that we often associate with the human condition, suffices for me to classify animals as worthy of moral consideration. There are animals who go to designated places to die, who form familial and communal relations, who mourn the loss of their loved ones, who play with each other, who feel empathy, distress and positive emotions. While I am not jumping on the anthropomorphism bandwagon as I acknowledge the vast differences in consciousness between humans and animals, I cannot but conclude that this utterly unnecessary harm is morally dubious.
My son, who is now three, eats what we eat at home and what his grandparents cook for him. Which is to say that he mostly eats legumes, such as beans and lentils, and pasta given that I am the main cook in the house. Meat is only available at the grandparents. In the early years of our relationship, Sunshine used to buy some chicken breasts which she put in the oven topped with copious amounts of chili and olive oil but, eventually, her boredom over cooking overtook her desire for chicken and she delegated all cooking responsibilities to me. While Sunshine enjoys eating meat, Johnny spits it back to those who try to sneak it into his favourite dishes.
Johnny is quite eager to do what his daddy is doing. He recently started asking whether I like or not doing various things. “Do you like cycling, daddy?”, to which I answer positively, only to be get a “Why?”, his default come-back question these days. I explain that I like cycling because I like exercising and being out in the countryside and the mountains. Likewise, Johnny is asking whether I like lentils, beans, rice, potato, and, recently, meat. When he asked about the latter, I answered truthfully. “No, I don’t like meat.” “Why not?” he asked back. “Because I like all animals – dogs, pigs, cows, cats, chickens and parrots – and in order to eat them we must first kill them, which is something I do not want to do.”
Needless to say, this response generated a lot of heat from friends and family alike, mostly unwarranted and certainly unsolicited. The criticism was twofold: that it is too early to talk to him about abuse and death and that I should not be brainwashing him in this way. Well, I don’t think it’s brainwashing to be truthful to your child. Children, much like adults, should be afforded the dignity of honesty, obviously in a age-appropriate language that will not traumatise them. This is why I did not go into further details on what happens in the disgusting factories where chickens, cows and pigs are abused – literally – to death. Likewise, I did not talk to him about the desperate screams of separation and the terror of the impeding death that many animals exhibit and experience in the hands of their human torturers.
While I tell Johnny what I think and like, I never impose my choices upon him. I wouldn’t forbit him from eating meat if this is what he desires. But he deserves to have all the data available to make an informed decision. This is my job as a parent. While I acknowledge that what I say and do will influence him, I don’t think that it will match the societal brainwashing (and state sponsorship) of the meat industry.
What really gets on my nerves is that most people who have strong opposing opinions tend to base them on “facts” that were popular about half a century ago. These facts are themselves a product of the lobbying of the meat industry, like for instance that it is impossible or exceedingly difficult to get enough protein from plant-based sources, or that drinking cow’s milk intended to grow a tiny calf into a 200kg cow is absolutely essential for one’s health. Not surprisingly, most of the advice comes from people who themselves lead a sedentary lifestyle and eat far from healthy foods even by their own skewed standards.
These people, who often do most things in excess, like talking about moderation, citing the ancient Greek moto “everything in moderation.” This saying irritates me. Not all things should be consumed; neither in excess nor in moderation. If we know they are harmful and they can be avoided, there is no reason to encourage children to consume them. The same goes for opinions. Opinions worth holding should be defended to the maximum. And opinions deemed dangerous should be attacked and discredited with fierce argumentation. Moderation does not guarantee civility, it only maintains a relationship of subservience to the dominant perspective. We should not “consume” heroin in moderation, and neither should we consume highly processed meats that increase the risk of cancer; while obviously the level of harm and addictiveness varies, the principle remains the same. This is not to say that either should be criminalized; people should be respected as free agents able to make autonomous choices. But parents shouldn’t be expected to shove them down their children’s throats for moderation’s sake.
There are two takeaways from today’s entry. Firstly, that children should be treated with honesty and respect; values that go hand-in-hand and tend to reinforce each other. Secondly, that third parties should think twice before criticising others' parenting, provided of course that there is no suspicion of abuse, and when they do, rather than reciting banalities such as “everything in moderation” they should make an effort to have an intellectually stimulating discussion.
This is part of a series of entries titled Fatherhood Diaries where I record thoughts on life as a new dad. Click here for all the Fatherhood Diaries.