Tuesday, April 20, 2010

a rose by any other name

There are a great many things I like about living in the city.  One of those things is the diversity of both population and cuisine.  Because there are so many different cultures represented even in my small corner of Philadelphia, making a simple statement like "I'm a vegetarian," is commonplace enough that the server smiles and skips the meat specials and no one thinks to ask what you DO eat.  I think it is something of a blessing (though I commonly find it a curse) that I have been unable to find suitable work in the city because it allows me to see how fortunate I am to make my home here.  When I travel outside of the city lines, I find myself in a land where the word Vegetarian may as well be part of another language and the concept of not eating ANY kind of animal is beyond some people's weak grasp.

I shared previously about the new hire who didn't realize poultry was considered "off limits" to vegetarians.  Today, another new hire seemed equally surprised that seafood didn't make the cut.  It was then that I decided to start calling all meats by their animal names, hoping to bring clarity to what is apparently a fuzzy gray area (not unlike the cat).

To my surprise, I think I actually managed to offend a colleague in doing so!  I was explaining what happened in class and she reacted with quite a bit more animation than I had expected and I flashed back to an article that I read in the latest VegNews (it just jumped right in with my groceries the other day...).   Colleen Patrick-Goudreau contributed this article about how uncomfortable people get with the reality of what they are eating if you bring it to their attention - although it made sense to me, I didn't think it would actually elicit the response I got from my new drinking buddy colleague today.

I tried to find it in a linkable format, but failing to do so, I will just type it in for your reading pleasure, thought-provocation, and pondering:

In our everyday use of language, we choose words that ease our discomfort and inure us to that which might be ugly, dirty, violent, or just discomforting.  We speak of "friendly fire" and "collateral damage" to refer to victims of war.  Dumps are now "transfer stations," and "used cars" are "previously owned vehicles."  Similarly, we tend to sugarcoat what we eat with language that conceals what we're actually putting in our mouths.  The euphemisms we use to refer to meat, dairy, and eggs contribute to our disconnection with the source of these products: the animals themselves.

For example, the word "meat" is preferred over "flesh" or even "animal," and it's generally discouraged to refer to the pigs, cows, and deer offered up for our gustatory pleasure.  Instead, we order pork, beef, and venison.  When an animal lays dead on the side of the road, we call it a carcass, but when an animal lays dead on our plate, we call it dinner.

Many of the words we use to refer to animals' body parts are equally innocuous, such as bacon, ribs, steak, hamburger, meatball, ham, pepperoni, roast, ground beef, sirloin, and chuck.  We don't say "prime cuts of pig" or "thin slices of calves."  As the result of successful desensitization, we seem to be able to refer to specific body parts without squeamishness, such as leg, breast, rib, wings, rump, loin, and flank, though we arbitrarily draw the line at tongues, feet, heads, intestines, and stomachs.

Of course, words from other languages make animal parts seem even more edible: caviar, foie gras, pate - menu items that many people might not order if they were in English.  "Escargot" certainly sounds more appetizing than "snails."

Strangely, we can order without compunction "chicken," "turkey," "duck," and "goose," but the slightest alteration makes people squirm.  Try asking someone if they eat "chickens," "ducks," and "geese," and it's as if they're recognizing the animals for the first time.  People have no problem eating "chicken," but they'll writhe when you ask them if they eat "chickens."

Using euphemisms to refer to the anonymous victims of our appetites not only belittles and commodifies animals, minimizes their suffering, and legitimizes and conceals our institutionalized use and abuse of them, it also desensitizes us to our own truth, our own values, and our own compassion.  That's a pretty high price to pay for a few old habits that can easily be replaced with just a little effort.

One of the joys of becoming vegetarian is that there is no need to euphemize, assuage, pretend, or romanticize.  You can look at the truth squarely in the face and, well, call a carrot a carrot.

It's true - as the vegan lifestyle becomes more visible and as those who abstain from at least meat-eating raise our voices, the consumer-driven marketplace responds and supplies what we demand.  If you live anywhere even remotely diverse or metropolitan, it takes so little effort to live ethically and compassionately that it's embarrassing to think others might believe we're making a sacrifice.  People wonder constantly what I eat, but I have to follow Dynise on this one - I have a long list of things I still want to try - I am at no loss for tasty and varying food choices.

Let's look at things through a new lens:






Just some food for thought...

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