The Vegetarian Butcher: a paradox?
Vegetarisme, Monsanto, Vegetarische levensstijl, Bio-ethiek, Vrije keuze, Vegetarische slager -

The Vegetarian Butcher: a paradox?

maandag 14 oktober 2013 18:18

When I checked my Twitter account at a random moment some five or six months ago I had acquired  a new follower that went under the name of “The Vegetarian Butcher”. This surprised me because the words butcher and vegetarian hardly seem to match.  ( I have as of yet never heard of a tomato or a piece of carrot screaming in agony because it was being butchered and I usually just chop my vegetables up for making soup, without feeling the need to butcher them). As the months progressed the concept of a ”vegetarian butcher” has become progressively more acceptable and the market for products that taste and feel like real meat is booming.  To me a “vegetarian butcher” still intuitively sounds like a bad case of contradictio in terminis. But is there really a paradox?

Hip cat for a day.

Being a hip digital “cat”, i.c. following the funny, smart or tech savvy people on Twitter, turns one into an inevitable target for trendy business like types who want to market their products to early followers. I am not very much accustomed to being a target in this way since I don’t use twitter very often and, as I don’t wear purple leggings instead of normal man pants,  have no beard or necklace Gameboy, don’t play the guitorgan and frequently read novels by such stale idiomatically outdated English authors  as P.G. Wodehouse en Dickens, am not very hip, hippaye or even trash bohemian chic. I just happen to be vegetarian, which happens to be one of my most rationally underbuilt life decisions. Which in turn happens to be the thing which people react to in the most vehemently emotional ways possible. The irony is just devastating.

 In a perfect world, one would just become a vegetarian and that would be that. In the real world you have to cope constantly with the jokes (the infuriatingly lame: “an apple also has feelings, you know?” and “there’s meat in your ice cream, can I have it?”),  the detached philosophical hypotheticals (“would you eat meat if you were dying on a deserted island? Without any kind of fruit or vegetable available?”) and the accusations of being less than manly to the point of being a whiny stuck up little bitch or an effeminate wimp (You do drink beer, do you? And women? Do you like women?).

 I couldn’t have become a vegetarian if I hadn’t read extensively on the topic and hadn’t acquired an extensive knowledge of the historical particulars of the movement and a ready-made answer to most of the tough ethical questions. This was a necessary thing for me, since, as I have already mentioned, food is an issue that never fails to elicit heavy emotion, and my life would be an impossible hell if I couldn’t deal with everyone in an snappy and to the point matter.

 But now we have a vegetarian butcher and this implies that normal butchers will have to be compared with vegetarian ones. Surely this is hope giving? Normal butchers, peddlers of traditional cruelty can surely only come out of all this in a negative way, comparatively? We’ll see.

The brave vegetarian: from zero to target practice for business interests.

In the last twenty years, the vegetarian movement has transformed itself from a fringe anti-movement theoretically driven by the likes of utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer  to a larger and more positive network of people who don’t entirely shun the commercial methods of entrepreneurialism and are deeply involved with an entire industry that targets not only societal fringe groups with alternative lifestyles, but also a wider crowd. This transformation is a double sided process which has  its up- and downsides.

 The upsides of this process are fairly obvious:  a bigger reach for vegetarian products, more publicity for and diffusion of vegetarian thinking and the adaptation of large parts of the gastronomical infrastructure of most western countries to vegetarian needs.

 A downside,  or at least an issue to be critically questioned  is that vegetarianism becomes adept to people in the food and supply chain industry who don’t necessarily care about the goals of the movement, but are merely looking for the maximization of profit. Their game has always been “change or perish” and now they’re changing in a way they deem necessary. Because the consumer crowds that were into eating only vegetable and fruit foodstuffs expanded in the mid 2000’s, moving beyond the traditional schism of meat eater/vegetarian became a necessary thing for the maximization of profit in the food industry. Nowadays vegetarian product that are on the shelves in a big supermarket such as Delhaize are produced in the same plants that also process fish and other animal related food products. This is not an entirely good thing, since the industry seem destined to turn back to meat once vegetarianism loses its momentary edge of cool. But of course in a profit driven enterprise it can’t be another way.

  Also, the disadvantages of the large scale production of soy bacause of its entanglement with worldwide players as Monsanto, are each year becoming more well known to the public. There’s also the rather dirty type of cleaning operation called “greenwashing”. Growth and industrialization necessarily entail some bad things, it seems, and I can leave it to the tons of specialized articles about these issues to explain them in detail. We should always tread with caution when denouncing things  so I’m just stating the most obvious downsides here, and after all, we were going to talk about the notion of the “vegetarian butcher”.   

Emotion is the new rationality.

The label “vegetarian butcher” should be seen in the light of the aforementioned developments, i.e.  as the marketing of a product on a crowd that isn’t all that concerned about vegetarianism per se. From the industry’s point of view vegetarianism has largely become another expensive lifestyle to target, with its potentially large profits. But the crowds who have become accustomed to  eating food from a non-animal source don’t feel the same. They don’t abstain from meat because they want the economy to function (exceptions granted), they do it because it makes them feel good in some way.

 An argument that is often heard when talking about the vegetarian crowd is that it doesn’t know what it is doing, that it lacks theory and consistency and therefore will defeat itself.  It is true that large parts of the vegetarian crowd don’t even know the likes of peter Singer anymore and lots of them were convinced into abstaining from meat and fish consumption by such powerfully emotional narratives as “Eating animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Formerly, vegetarianism was a thing for rational people, as Singer showed. This also entailed that it was quite elitist, a thing for well-educated intellectuals. Now the much more powerful methods of narration and emotion have been unleashed as weapons in the ongoing battle against meat production and large scale animal suffering, and with great success.

 In philosophical jargon, the outcome of the question “is the current rise of the number of vegetarians a good evolution or not?” depends from whether you look at it from a deontological or a pragmatist/consequentialist standpoint. If we leave this traditional conceptual frame you could just put it this way: do we care about the means involved or just about reaching our goals and the consequences of using our means, whatever they might be? It is undoubtedly a good thing that people eat less meat, but we can’t be so certain that they will stay onto the ultimate goal, this being no meat consumption ever, if it’s just a passing lifestyle thing. So the means are entangled with the attainment of the goal, and a purely pragmatic point of view seems to be out of the question. Right? Well, maybe not.

Twerping, planking and being a vegetarian.

Let us remember we are looking at the consumer side of the question here, not at the industry side, which we (albeit briefly) tackled before. We were asking ourselves if we should see the new vegetarians‘ choices towards meat as a passing fad or not. The important questions to consider here are how people incorporate not eating meat into their life, how they form their identities and whether or not the outcomes of these formative processes are (semi-)permanent or not. For the greatest number of people the degree of permanency of formation processes seems to hinge on the sustainability of their decisions in the environment they were raised in and/or live in. There really is a relative lack of sociological research on the correlations of people’s philosophy about food with their other opinions, so this is a tough one.

 Generally we can assert that people tend to adopt the views of the people they see as their peers. This implies that if more attention is given to vegetarianism in expanding layers of the general population more people will become vegetarians. This is not always a rational choice, social psychology even predicts that for most people it will tend not to be a rational choice, but one driven by the emotional needs of the group one identifies with.

 Marketing people have always been good at exploiting emotions. The concept of the “Vegetarian Butcher” plays right into the emotional needs of a group of people that is in vegetarian purgatory. These people can be described as vegetarians with a wide circle of peers who are carnivores.

 Vegetarian pioneers in the radical fringes of society in the seventies and eighties paradoxically seemed to be finding much more peer corroboration of their beliefs than the disorganized group of non-meat consumers who only talk about their newly found convictions over social media and can only very occasionally vent some of their emotions to a real life friend.

 On paper, the concept of a vegetarian butcher seems like a good idea if you look at it in the way described above. It makes the difference between meat user and non-meat user smaller and thus generates more acceptance with people that don’t care for weak hearted herbivores. It gives the groups that have nothing in common something to talk about, a common lifestyle, reunited in difference. The vegetarian alters his semantics to correspond to the discourse of the meat eater, thus hoping for closure on some tricky emotionally charged issues. That is the theory. Alas reality is different.      

Hands of our sausage, veggie boy!

 My experience with almost all carnivores whom I talked to about this issue was that they don’t understand the concept of the “vegetarian butcher” at all, that they think it’s an absurdity and that they often get almost violent when you try to explain it to them.

 “I don’t get it”, one friend told me, “why would you want to eat something that resembles meat? You hate meat, no? And if you don’t hate it, why don’t you just eat meat?” She proceeded by crossing her arms and looking at me defiantly. She was obviously very much pissed off by my earlier claims that the vegetarian butcher makes some excellently tasting food.

 While some vegetarians would claim it to be the case that “they hate meat” I have found that this is a big misunderstanding for most of us. From an evolutionary point of view people are highly probable to like meat and there is no use in denying this. It is a fact. This is however not an argument pro consumption of meat. It is another version of the famous naturalistic fallacy that G.E. Moore first developed in 1903. People are also very probable to like eating a lot of sugar. They are also likely to form groups of people that look like them, thus promoting racism and mutual exclusion. Most of us choose to fight against the tendencies. Vegetarians pick up just one more battle axe, they choose to fight their prewired like for meat. I can’t help getting a bucket of saliva in my mouth every time I pass a roasted chicken in the street, but I choose not to act on it.

 The appeal to emotion is also the only consistent argument a carnivore has to offer in defense of his meat consumption: “I like meat, and I choose to eat it because it tastes good.” The tasting good part is seen as a rational proposition, because you kind of would have to be an idiot to want to eat things that taste bad. So what they’re really saying is: my tasting buds are more important than your abstract notions of the suffering of animals which I never will have to see for real anyway.

 The concept of a vegetarian butcher works on this argument, destroys it  and starts constituting a huge threat to the consistency of the carnivore’s only verbal defense besides cynicism and pure mockery. If meat and meat-substitute become quasi-identical the carnivore becomes nothing short of a morally objectionable idiot, because his only argument has been cut short at the roots. If the substitute products taste as good and don’t imply any suffering there’s not even an argument anymore. The choice of the carnivore has become wholly, not just partly irrational.

 So the carnivore tells the vegetarian he doesn’t understand and he gets all emotional because “they” are trying to take his dear meat away from him. The implied reasoning he throws at the feet of the vegetarian runs like this: “you chose to be a vegetarian, so you should suffer for it and never be fulfilled and leave us normal people undisturbed in our perennial peace.” We have progressed a long way from rational discussion indeed, and the carnivore understands this. It also extremely pisses him off.

 The irony of it all is that vegetarians are often accused of being pedantics, that are acting from an ivory tower. But in a world where meat is being progressively replaced by substitutes that taste as good as the real thing the accuser becomes the accused.

Paradox lifted.

The question in the opening paragraph of this little contribution was whether or not there was a paradox in the concept of the “vegetarian butcher”. We seem to have solved our little conundrum.

 The main problem of the conflicting terms of the concept have been identified as answering to the needs of an increasingly larger group of people who are in vegetarian purgatory, who have made the choice of being a vegetarian but can find not even a  small amount of support in their peer groups.

 The new paradox that this new product elicits is that it has quite a contradictory effect on people who still choose to consume meat. The theory is that it would give them general ground to talk to vegetarians and to find each other in a shared discourse, but this doesn’t happen. The appearance of realistic meat substitutes ultimately question the legitimacy of the choice to be a carnivore, thus enraging them. The “vegetarian butcher” seems to say to the meat eater: “we are like you, only better.” This would be, of course, unacceptable to almost everybody, and understandably so. It seems that in the future there will be only two choices left for the lover of the bloody stuff: becoming a vegetarian or killing them all (perhaps just socially killing them.). Let’s wait and see which choice it will be.

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