The Vegetarianism Conundrum

So what I am suggesting is that if you love children’s literature, you cannot kill animals just because they taste good on a bun. There’s more than a bit of hypocrisy involved in urging children to empathize with pandas and polar bears and bunnies and ducks in books and at a distance and then feeding them hamburgers and sliced deli meats.

Jennifer Armstrong’s “Eating Reading Animals” in the latest Horn Book will make many sit up and take notice.  She makes a good case for vegetarianism on moral and ethical grounds.  The same ones that make me an almost-vegetarian (in that I rarely eat meat of any kind).

But.

What about cultural differences?  While there are cultures where vegetarianism is and has long been a part of things, there are others where it is not.  And I guess I’m uncomfortable with those of us who always not only have enough to eat, but the luxury of choosing what we want to eat advocating a way of eating to those who do not.  Even as moral and ethical a one as this. One moral and ethical way against another one.

My discomfort comes back to my time in Sierra Leone where most people did not have enough to eat and any sort of meat was considered a great treat.  We Peace Corps were treated as honored guests often in small villages and served meat, we knew not of what animal, but we always politely did our best to eat it.  A few years ago I was at a very simple village home in Peru where guinea pig was served and I took the tiniest imaginable bit so as not to offend the gracious host.

Perhaps I will reach a point where I’m clear in my moral and ethical stance on the eating of animals. So that it will override this other way of being that I’ve been considering most of my adult life. Do we, should we, be telling those without our means, our food, our way of life how to be?  I suspect Jennifer, who is firm and forthright in her beliefs, would have no question. I, on the other hand, am still conflicted.  Both are moral ways of being for me and for now the one that tells me not to impose my way of being on those who have a different one takes precedent.

But I’m not happy with it and would love to know what others think and how indeed vegetarians do function in places like Sierra Leone.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Vegetarianism Conundrum

  1. Jennifer Armstrong

    Monica, I am not claiming that all people should refrain from eating meat. Depending on circumstances, eating meat might be necessary for survival. But I am suggesting that those of us who have the luxury of discussing children’s literature rather than scraping at the soil for a living have the opportunity to choose where others do not. I am not advocating this as a choice for all people: this is an argument specific to the field of children’s literature, not a blanket polemic.

    Furthermore, I think that all cultures understand food taboos. I doubt that someone who keeps Kosher would take even the tiniest bit of pork in order not to offend a host; who knows, the effort to explain a food taboo might even lead to some deeper cultural exchange. Believe me, I have had my share of social awkwardness over this issue, but I feel that my principles only count if I hold onto them when it’s hard, or awkward, or potentially offensive.

  2. Jennifer, I admire you greatly for your stance; certainly I’m more and more uncomfortable with eating animals myself for all the reasons you give in the article. But when I consider giving up meat completely I cannot help but think about the experiences I describe which are not about cultural food taboos, but about different world views and ways of being.

  3. I LOVED this article. Thanks for the link.

    My husband and I struck a deal a few years ago – he gave up Diet Coke and I gave up my tiny amount of meat (only ever ate it at restaurants). We were both allowed to “cheat” for special occasions – road trips, my father’s Italian meatballs, etc.

    Three years down the road and my husband is CONSTANTLY declaring a drive to Red Hook a “road trip” for the purposes of Diet Coke drinking. Meanwhile, I haven’t been able to stomach the idea of eating meat again – once I truly made the moral switch in my head, it suddenly seemed horrifying.

    And I can understand what you are saying, but I agree with Jennifer. One can embrace the world view of the place where we are now, one where we have plenty of nutritional options without eating meat, while still allowing that there are places where such a luxurious choice is not possible. Indeed, beyond the ethical question of whether to eat cute and cuddly animals, the ethical question of the insane environmental damage American animal consumption causes mandates that Americans start making this choice as soon as possible, in my opinion.

  4. I suspect, Briar, that I might feel this way too if not for my two years in Sierra Leone.

  5. One could argue that viewing animals solely as “cute and cuddly” does them a great disservice, too. I live in a ranching community — a place where people’s livelihoods are much more tied to actual animals than most urban people could ever imagine. It is a place, also, where until very recently it would have been very difficult to subsist without eating animals — deer, elk, moose, and, in the distant past, bison. Not much grows in the high desert, and the native people in this place depended on meat even more than the ranchers do now.

    I would have read this piece very differently five or ten years ago, when I lived in cities, but I find that, like Monica, it’s hard not to bring my own experiences to my reading.

  6. Thank you for this fascinating discussion.

    I keep kosher. Sadly, kashrut isn’t always synonymous with eating morally — look at Postville and the way the Rubashkins’ plant treated animals and workers. I’m involved in a kosher, ethical meat co-op and have followed with interest the attempts by Conservative and Modern Orthodox activists to certify kosher meat as ETHICAL as well as “kosher” according to the letter of halakhah (jewish law). Ethical kashrut should involve respect for humans and animals. I don’t eat much meat — I joke that i’m in a mixed marriage because i married a Reform Jew from Wisconsin who lives for bratwurst — but when I do, I need to know its origins and trust the source. My standards of kashrut wouldn’t be acceptable to some other Jews, and my standards of what’s ethical wouldn’t meet those of vegetarians or vegans. We all have our line in the sand.

    The one time as an adult I willfully broke my own standards of kashrut was when I was writing for a travel guide in rural Greece, on a remote island in the late 80s. A family I met at the harbor could not believe I was alone and insisted I come home with them for dinner. They were fishermen. They caught a fresh squid and smashed it against the side of their fishing boat. I was caught myself! I thought about trying to explain not just kashrut, but what a JEW was…and then decided that their philosophy of philoxenia, kindness to strangers, was more important than kashrut. Just then, at that time and place, just for me. And at their table I looked at that calamari, inwardly shuddering — I’d never had ANY sort of unkosher seafood before — and put that ringy thing in my mouth, and HOLY MOLY IT WAS THE MOST DELICIOUS THING I HAD EVER TASTED. I haven’t had shellfish (or any fish without scales/fins, per the laws of kashrut) since then, but I also a) think I probably had the most amazing freshest calamari any human has ever had and nothing else would be as good anyway ;) and b) don’t regret the choice I made. I think it’s really hard to generalize about moral rightness — we’re often weighing different goods. (And for many people kashrut is NOT about morality at all — it’s about following God’s literal word. Comparing kashrut with vegetarianism is specious according to the ultra-Orthodox, because kashrut is about obedience, not moral choice. Most folks who keep kosher would indeed have made a different choice from mine.) Sorry I rambled on here — I will definitely pick up a copy of Jennifer’s book; I think we SHOULD think hard about what we eat wherever we fall on the food/foodie spectrum.

  7. Someone sent me this interesting take on the issue: “Why Vegetarians are Eating Meat.”

  8. As I continue to mull this over I think what makes me so uncomfortable is the suggestion that those who may not have enough to eat are not also at the same time loving children’s literature. That is, I don’t see this as an us (wealthy and comfortable) versus them (poor and starving) situation. We are all us and so we can and do all appreciate stories for children that use animals to communicate ethics, values, and morality (and in fact I can think of many Sierra Leonean folktales that do just that) even while our personal and cultural circumstances profoundly differ.

  9. Most of my family eats meat – my mom, my dad, my sister and her family (except for that one niece of mine) – and I would never express any kind of disapproval or condemnation to them or to any meat-eater about their dietary choices, which are both personal and cultural – or even discuss the issue unless I was invited to do so. And my vegan daughter ate eggs and even meat while living in China in order not to offend her hosts.
    What I would like to see more of, especially in the US, is a willingness to examine one’s own food choices and morality, especially in the light of our vile meat industry. Most people don’t want to think about it – period – and they don’t want their kids to think about it, either.

  10. Jennifer Armstrong

    Monica, this essay is and always was about and for the subculture of children’s book people, those of us who are professionally involved in the creation and sharing of children’s books — not about the average Jane on the street who happens to like reading to her kids. In other words, people who have chosen to associate themselves in a significant way with children’s literature and the children’s book industry; this population of professionals does not very often include people who don’t have enough to eat. Most people who subscribe to the Horn Book, I suspect, fall into this category of children’s book people. The essay was intended to offer this audience a point of view they might not have considered.

  11. Jennifer, I appreciate what you’ve done in getting us all to consider this point of view. However, I just can’t agree with it. That is, I don’t see readers of the Horn Book and those of us involved in the creation and appreciation of children’s books as so separate from the broader world of people who appreciate and do story art. To me art can be in books, in an oral presentation, in music, theater, and more. Furthermore I see animal stories as universal, not as something particular to children’s books. (Sierra Leone, for example, has a strong folkloric tradition of animal stories, Rabbit and Spider being tricksters). Equally universal to me is the question of eating meat. And so I can’t see how we in this industry have any more obligation to consider the question than anyone else who tells stories with animals in them. Or anyone, for that matter.

  12. Joanne Fritz

    Jennifer,
    I eat a lot less meat than I used to, but have not reached the point of giving it up entirely. Your article was fascinating and well-argued, except for one point you’ve overlooked: in the animal world itself, many animals eat other animals. So when you say: “Be kind to animals. Protect the defenseless. Don’t take advantage of, trick, or do violence to those who are weaker than you or who lack opposable thumbs and powerful frontal lobes, ” you’re forgetting that carnivores like lions or sharks or polar bears do that on a daily basis. Your conclusion restates this flaw: “But look at the animals looking back at you from the pages of the books we love, and ask yourself if you can follow the standards they uphold.” The standards they uphold? Even the adorable penguin, the subject of numerous children’s books, eats fish, squid and crustaceans. It’s the circle of life.

  13. Pingback: Eating Reading Animals: a way overdue response

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