[Image: Assorted kitchen knives on a magnetic strip.]
Since getting involved in animal rights activism last year, I’ve become familiar with all of the usual arguments people make for eating animal products. I’ve also become much more aware of the intersecting systems of oppression that make it oversimplified to say that “anyone can go vegan.” I’ve tried to tailor and fine-tune my arguments to reflect my awareness of human oppression while still not compromising my message that animals are people, not property.
But one kind of person that I still don’t know how to reach is a person who says that they eat animal flesh because they enjoy it, and considers palate pleasure alone to be sufficient justification. I’m speaking of people who have no financial or practical impediments to going vegan, and acknowledge that they don’t need to eat animals to be healthy. These people might express concern for animal welfare, but ultimately they see no problem with the act of killing an animal and eating their body simply for the pleasure of it.
And unfortunately, these people are the rule rather than the exception. If anything, they are on the rise thanks to “humane-washing” that convinces people that killing is OK as long as the animal lived a pleasant life and had a quick, painless death (even though that’s almost never the case, including in dairy and egg production). Farmers who claim they love their animals like family members, and then kill and eat them, further contribute to this fantasy world of humane slaughter.
But I’ve come to realize there’s much more to it than this. Fundamentally, our entire civilization is based on domination and killing. As Will Tuttle explored in The World Peace Diet, the advent of herding culture led to the domination not only of animals but of women, people of color, and LGBTQIA people. All oppression is interconnected.
Many would counter that humans have always been killers. This is true. But I don’t believe we have always glorified killing. Deliberate killing for survival was necessary at some point in human history, and may still be in some cultures. But I’m speaking of killing solely for pleasure. We have laws in place to dissuade us from killing other humans, but we indulge in murder fantasies through violent movies, video games, and other pastimes.
I am not suggesting that we ban or censor violent video games or imagery. What troubles me is that we have so much desire for them in the first place. I’ve changed dramatically in that regard myself over the last year. I’ve always had a specific aversion to gun violence, as a person being healthy in one moment and dead from a bullet in the next is utterly terrifying to me. So I never got into first-person shooters or action films, but I did still participate in more subtle forms of violent entertainment.
For many years I played the game Nethack, a single-player dungeon adventure. Although all the violence in this game is conveyed in text form, killing is an integral part of the game. (It is possible to play as a pacifist, but extremely difficult, and normally involves having several pets do the killing for you.) I’ve stopped playing Nethack*, and I’ve stopped watching TV shows that focus on murder and death, including cooking shows. I also stopped taking photos at my partner’s lasertag events. I just can’t get any pleasure out of deadly violence, even in simulated form.
I’m well aware that it is impossible to live without causing the death of sentient beings, which is why I never say “no animal had to die for my meals.” Even the most strictly observant Jain accidentally kills some insects and other small animals. But that just makes it more imperative for me to avoid killing that is within my control. I can’t just shrug off deliberate, unnecessary killing as an inevitable fact of human civilization.
I have to believe that we humans can evolve beyond this culture of killing. If I believed that large-scale murder and war would always be with us, I simply could not go on. We must break the cycle of violence.
* December 2015 update: When a new version of Nethack came out this month after a twelve-year hiatus, I couldn’t resist checking out the changes. Playing that game again is a guilty pleasure, literally.