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Michael Fitzpatrick '12: The vegetarian delusion

Anyone who wandered through the Main Green this past week was granted a rare opportunity to see some profoundly horrifying images: a seal being brutally clubbed to death for its fur; an innocent piglet being castrated; a poor cat being pinned down on a dissecting table.

In a stunning juxtaposition of moral outrage and disgust-inducing tastelessness, the Brown Animal Rights Club, in conjunction with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, brought to our campus an exhibition of the Animal Liberation Project. In a nutshell, the ALP seeks to inform the public — in particular, the youth — about the injustices that human beings inflict upon animals.

Armed with an arsenal of hyper-sentimental quotes from human rights leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the group has launched a campaign against societal tolerance of speciesism — the belief that other species are inferior to our own. The campaign fashions itself as a revival of older liberation fronts, from abolition to feminism. But instead of boycotts, protest marches and petitions, the Animal Liberation Project proposes a decidedly unorthodox protest method: vegetarianism.

Vegetarianism? Are they trying to waste our time?

To clarify, I have nothing wrong with dietary vegetarianism. Nutritionally speaking, vegetables are far more valuable than animal flesh as sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Moral vegetarianism, on the other hand, is not only a failure as a form ofactivism; it's a failure as a lifestyle choice.

Let's focus on vegetarian activism for a moment. Vegetarian activism operates on the same principle as a boycott: activists refuse to purchase a product or use a service and urge others to do the same. To convince others to make that sacrifice, activists need to make a statement about their cause. Unfortunately, swearing off meat isn't a particularly powerful statement when other people do it for selfish reasons, like improving their diet or fulfilling their religious obligations.

Compare this with Mahatma Gandhi, a vegetarian who went on several hunger strikes to promote peaceful resistance to British rule in India. Vegetarianism was his lifestyle, but self-starvation was his protest method. It brought the attention he wanted. After all, apart from the occasional anorexic teenager, people generally don't starve themselves unless they want to make a point.

Furthermore, vegetarianism constricts the focus of the animal-welfare cause. If you refuse to eat meat, any reasonable person would assume that you protest the killing of animals for their flesh, or the harvesting of animal byproducts (e.g. eggs, milk and honey) for food. But in terms of cruelty, eating animals is relatively mild compared to other inhumane activities. Animals eat other animals — lions eat antelope, eagles eat rabbits, dolphins eat fish. Eating is a natural process.

Humans, on the other hand, are exclusively guilty of killing animals for reasons other than eating. Remember that seal clubber? He's going to leave the skinned seal carcass on the ice pack for some polar bear to eat. Eating meat has nothing to do with the fur industry, vivisection or animal abuse, because in those cases the animals do not end up on your plate.

To be an effective vegetarian activist, you need to loudly proclaim to everyone within earshot that a) you refuse to eat meat because it's cruel, and b) you also strongly disapprove of fur coats, experimentation and animal abuse. But would you believe me if I told you that you also had to grow your own food?

That's right: millions of rabbits, mice and other rodents die each year when wheat combines and other farm equipment harvest the crops. The problem is that machines do not pause to allow the vermin to escape. Only handpicked food is truly safe for animals, and that means finding a way to hire millions of farm workers to gather, process and package your dinner without forcing the farmers into bankruptcy.

But you could grow your own food, right? Subsistence gardening is extremely eco-friendly, and you can harvest on your own terms. You'll never have to kill another rabbit again, unless you find the little backstabbers munching on your vegetables. For those that remember Beatrix Potter's "The Tales of Peter Rabbit"… Well, you'll suddenly feel a strong sympathetic connection with nasty old Mr. McGregor as you chase the vermin away with a rake.

In terms of animal welfare, moral vegetarianism is an insufficient response to animal cruelty. It exists as a cheap alternative for people who are too apathetic to participate in a real protest against a real problem. Do something productive with your time: protest the seal clubbing, the experimentation and the abuse… and please pass me a steak knife.


Michael Fitzpatrick '12 thinks that "Roots and Shoots" should be renamed "The Guiltless Grill." He can be contacted at michael_fitzpatrick@brown.edu




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