Wednesday Aug 17, 2022

culture v. ethics

Culture seems extraordinarily malleable, to me. It changes. I don’t think it can do anything but change. The exposure of two cultures to one another impacts both of them, and some bits rub off on each. Trying to prevent this is analogous to trying to stop a human being from learning. I don’t think it matters whether the culture is a place of employment, a religious sect, or a nation.

There’s a culture in the U.S. that promotes sharing meat as a sign of friendship. Fast food with friends, a baked ham at Christmas, a turkey at thanksgiving. Many people say these cultures are too dear to our identity to allow them to change. But there’s no longer venison on the table, the turkey is far from wild and hunted the day before, the ham did not require the head of the household to slaughter one of his/her best pigs. There may be meat, but it’s not like the food that was used when the traditions began. Convenience has replaced a hard-scrabble existence, to an extent. One result is that we consume far more meat.

The effects back at the real farm are rather gruesome. Factory farming is not the same as small non-mechanized farms. You can read about the effects in many places, they’re not difficult for the curious to find. It’s difficult to hide what happens to 65 billion animals.

Culture changed to worsen the problems of animal agriculture. Culture can change to fix those problems, as well.

Vegans have been been enjoying Thanksgiving, Christmas, and any other feast in our culture for a long time. We don’t all live in a yurt compounds, sharing tips on dreadlock maintenance and recipes for home-made patchouli cologne. Vegan events tend to look remarkably like non-vegan events, corpses and animal bodily fluids aside.

But there’s always resistance, someone always makes the argument that some aspect of the culture (any culture) doesn’t work with being vegan. I’ve heard it for French, Russian, Italian, soul food, Jamaican, Vietnamese, Thai, Afghan, traditional American holiday, camping, road tripping, military service, any part of the country with bbq, and probably a dozen more cultures. Emphatically, in each case. Almost never by professional chefs, by the way. There’s no way to be vegan. Nope. Not at all. Sometimes it continues straight through the 2nd helping, other times it sharply ends after about 30 seconds of discussion over a menu.

Here’s the deal: every culture has non-vegan traditions. Even vegetarian. No culture is unique in that, and no arguments are new or suddenly convincing. The arguments sound repetitive and predictable, after watching them be made enough times. Culture is not nearly as fragile as commonly thought, trust me. People around the world have been calling themselves vegan for 6 decades. Our basic habits are as old as western civilization, with the ethics discussed by no less than Socrates. Vegetarians were at first said to follow “the Socratic method”.

Sometimes there’s a poignant clash, like over the running of the bulls in Spain. I’m partly tempted to say that’s another culture beyond my authority, and I’m not qualified to make some of the more detailed arguments firsthand. So? Democracy and human rights are also most frequently resisted by an appeal to local tradition – where is the validity of the argument? Insisting upon animal rights is not moral condemnation of a culture any more than insisting upon 1st[1] amendment rights is moral condemnation of a courtroom.

Also, food is generally the product of chemical reactions that don’t care whether the materials came from an animal or vegetable (or fungus). Amino acids (protein), starches, fats – the components of those reactions? Animals didn’t invent them. Animals can’t even make all of them, so we’re crippled compared to the plants and fungi.

[1] or 5th… [edit.]


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