Indigenous Peoples, Animal Rights, and Why Vegetarians Offend Me.

As the title says, vegetarians offend me.  So do fundamentalists. Not all of them, but a lot. I live with it.  That’s called “acceptance.”  I’m a white Christian woman whose path includes elements of Catholicism, charismatic evangelicalism, paganism and Native American spirituality.  I’m positive that someone will be offended by this post.  Let’s have a party.

When I was a kid, I had trouble eating vegetables because it occurred to me that someone had basically stolen them from a plant, or possibly even killed a plant for them. I imagined myself as a plant, stuck in the ground with no defense while people came along and plucked out my hair or broke off my fingers for food. I had no proof that plants felt pain, but the idea was horrifying.  Eventually, I developed a similar guilt complex about eating meat, because I realized where it came from. So, basically, the only food I ever wanted was cereal, bread, pasta or a dairy product, because I couldn’t see a way that anything had suffered or died to produce those. Then I learned that grains come from plants…

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My family was poor, and there wasn’t any room for guilt motivated refusal to eat, so I never talked about this, but I will say now that when eating requires dissociation and cognitive dissonance, a child’s life is unpleasant.  Moral confusion and guilt over eating food caused me more pain and long-term food related neurosis than I can describe in one post. This is one of the main reasons I reject any type of emotional argument for vegetarianism.

I’ve always felt a deeply spiritual awe and respect for trees. I love to look at the m and can spend hours caught up in a pattern of tree branches or the way light plays through leaves. I like to touch them and feel the different textures of their trunks, branches, and leaves. I love a tree with low hanging branches because I can reach more of it. I have been known to put my face up against a tree branch.

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I enjoy the energy of trees. I talk to trees.  If I find a stump, I’m a little sad, but I also want to touch its rings. I think of all the things that trees have seen, felt and experienced which I will never know. I’m not sure they’re conscious. I have no evidence that they are, but I have always felt there was more to them than meets the eye. You can put this down to overactive imagination, emotionalism or projecting human experience on to an inanimate object. Lots of people do. I’ll put it this way:

I have no evidence that God is who I believe him to be, but I believe. Somehow, most of my friends will accept that, even if they don’t agree. Conversely, if I talk about having a connection to trees or emotions about them, people aren’t comfortable and I am labeled a “tree hugging kook.”

In third grade social studies, I learned where paper came from, and then about the lumber industry. Needless to say, I was horrified. I hated florist shops because I pictured hundreds of thousands of flowers dying for no reason. (I still hate florist shops.) There is no evidence that plants feel physical pain, so most people I knew were just fine killing them for food, decorations, housing, etc. I wasn’t, because I wondered if the spirit of the plant felt pain. No one else I knew thought plants had spirits, either. I wondered if the earth felt pain, and that was “just silly.”  But I’m a writer.  I kinda need paper.  I need wood.  Humans don’t do so well without wood.  How could I reconcile any of this?

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Around fifth grade, I started to read seriously about Indigenous Peoples and their spiritual practices. The underlying tenets in most of them were that:

Everything is connected
Everything has a spirit
There are ways to eat, clothe yourself, hunt, build shelter, and utilize nature without stealing or causing pain.
What you take from the earth, replenish.
Celebrate all life.

I’m not physically able to hunt or gather my own food, so I still had to reconcile all of that with practical choices.  What I learned was that I can be aware that living things are providing my sustenance.  We all do what we can and follow our consciences.  It comes down to a mindset of gratitude and spiritual centeredness.

In my teens, I took an extensive, college level course in Native American Studies at the University of New Hampshire.  My instructor was a woman with mixed tribal and European heritage.  I’ve continued those studies throughout my life and developed relationships with people from many different tribal backgrounds.

I have no doubt that my exposure to Native American culture and other tribal spirituality is the reason that I’m still a functional human being capable of empathy and compassion. Without it, I would’ve been so deeply enmeshed in dissociative coping mechanisms that my soul would be completely fragmented. I don’t see any conflict between these belief systems and the teachings of Christ, but I have to be careful which Christians I say that to.  I have to be careful which social progressives I talk about religion with as well.

In the late 80s and early 90s, it was totally cool with social progressives for a young, white woman from a Catholic background to be interested in Native American spirituality, to have totem animals, to wear native jewelry, to also be interested in Ireland’s pagan roots, and still read a Bible. Not so much anymore.  Because I have pale skin, blue eyes, and the wrong genetic heritage.  My people are the oppressors, so I must be ignorant.

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Nowadays, my life is like walking in a mine field. Spirituality and religion have become politicized to the extent that anywhere I go I’m likely to meet someone who’s offended by the fact that I find meaning in multiple religious traditions but I am still a Christian. Apparently the only people allowed to have that freedom are the ones who “aren’t into organized religion.”  I am offended by their offendedness.

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I’m aware that cultural appropriation is a problem. I am offended by the pop culture appropriation of “spirit animals.”  That doesn’t mean I assume everyone who calls a pop culture figure their “spirit animal” is a horrible human being or that pop culture is bad or that white people are all ignorant.

Returning to vegetarianism:  I have no problem with anyone who wants to be a vegetarian. I am offended by vegetarians who think they’re better than me.   I’m tired of the snobbery and the war on anyone who eats meat. I am offended by the self-righteous insistence that there just CANNOT BE an ethical, moral, or humane way to eat meat. Even for people (like me) who require meat as a source of protein because our bodies reject EVERY vegetarian-approved one.  I’m offended by the constant rhetoric about empathy and compassion and how meat-eaters are evil because we create hierarchies where some beings are worthy of being protected but others are not. What about the rodents, insects, and other animal life who die every year while humans harvest plant crops? Those aren’t cute enough for you to care? If you eat plants, you’ve most likely created a moral hierarchy in which plants are less important than animals, because you don’t have any evidence that plants feel pain. Plants are just “things” you can rip from the earth or yank parts off of and consume.  But what if you’re wrong?  I’m not sure you are.  As I said, I have no evidence, and I’m not suggesting that anybody should make decisions based on nothing but feelings.  The guilt I experienced as a child was as much about lack of evidence as anything else.  I always prefer evidence-based arguments.  I do have evidence that guilt-motivated food choices are not emotionally healthy.  I’m an omnivore because I simply don’t believe animals are any more important than plants. I think all living things should be treated with respect.   I might be wrong. Real respect for diversity means always being willing to consider the possibility that you are wrong.

I think many, many “animal rights” people are ignorant assholes. The world is still moving. I guess I will have to get over myself and learn how to live with people who offend my sense social of justice.

At what point did we develop this kind of fundamentalist liberalism where we talk about acceptance but only extend welcome and keep our minds open to people who use the right words, follow the right moral code, and stick to our own groups while celebrating the diversity of others?

Edit: In light of comments I’ve received, I feel the need to clarify:

This post is in no way an indictment of vegetarian diets. I don’t care what anyone eats.  I care if they are a jerk to me about my food choices.  If being a vegetarian makes you happy, great.  Don’t lecture me about why I should be one too.

I am aware that plenty of vegans are nice people.  There is still an internet full of assholes who scream and yell at anyone who eats meat.

This isn’t an attempt to argue that meat-eating or the meat industry are good for the environment.

My only point here is that there is no moral high ground separating vegetarianism and consumption of meat.  There is no moral high ground separating Christianity and paganism or social justice or anything else unless you construct a dichotomy and look down on people who don’t agree with your viewpoint. Everyone has the right and responsibility to make choices in accordance with their conscience.  Not YOUR conscience.