Sunday, 1 April 2012

Some thoughts on meat, vegetarianism, and masculinity

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. Since I’ve started a new job I don’t seem to have had the time to write the kind of in-depth posts that I like to write. One that I’ve been meaning to write is on the question of why more people aren’t vegetarian/vegan, which for me is an interesting question as (1) the ethical case for it appears to be clear cut and (2) adopting such a diet is perfectly healthful and therefore not self-sacrificial (that is, it’s not a case of giving up one’s good health to uphold an ethical principle). The answer to this question is too complex to write about now, but I believe the principal reasons to be the tendency for people to hold attitudes and to behave in ways that are culturally normative and the remarkable hiddenness of meat/dairy production which causes many to be entirely oblivious to the reality of the origin of their food or to be so psychologically distant from this reality that they can maintain a pretense of moral inculpability.  

However, as I was recently called “gay” for going to a vegan restaurant, I thought I’d touch briefly upon the view held by some men that being vegetarian or vegan is not manly (the sense in which I interpreted the use of the word “gay”, as opposed to meaning homosexual), which could in part explain the fact that vegetarianism is less common among men than women. For those who place great significance on notions of masculinity or manliness, or are keen to be seen to embody these qualities, being vegetarian/vegan is considered undesirable. But, is being vegetarian/vegan actually ‘not manly’ or less manly than following an omnivorous diet and is the notion of masculinity so significant that it should influence our attitudes and behaviours? The answer to both questions is no.

According to a basic dictionary definition, being masculine is to “have qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness”. Clearly, there is nothing at all about the dietary behaviour of the modern meat-eating consumer that could be considered a display of these qualities. Perhaps if the average meat-eater was going into hand-to-hand combat with grizzly bears in order to secure meat to eat they could be considered to exemplify strength and boldness. However, merely picking up a bag of minced beef from a supermarket shelf or eating a chicken curry at a restaurant does nothing to display these qualities. To make matters worse for the supposedly manly meat-eater, the meat they eat is from animals who would be unable to defend themselves even under favourable conditions, but who have in fact been systematically bred and killed by others in conditions that offer no possibility of resistance whatsoever.

So, while some men might like to imagine that there is something ‘manly’ about eating a steak or a ‘fry-up’, they are doing nothing more than indulging in a socioculturally derived and transmitted fiction. I’d go further to assert that anyone who endows any foodstuff with gender properties is doing precisely the same. Sadly, in modern western society such properties are attached to all sorts of food and drink: red meat is masculine while salad is feminine, beer is manly while wine is feminine, and so on. Even the presence or absence of sugar in a fizzy drink can alter its gender status (i.e. regular vs ‘diet’ drinks)! This is all absurd. These properties are socioculturally assigned rather than being objectively existing properties of the objects themselves. Importantly, vegetarian foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and pulses, which would exist even in the absence of human existence and thus the existence of human notions of masculinity and femininity can not possibly possess these properties. There just is no objectively existing gender status of a vegetarian or omnivorous diet. Perhaps there is a subjectively existing, culturally normative one in modern Western society, but there is no reason to be bound by this other than that it is socially convenient to do so.

Where ‘boldness’ is concerned, there is certainly something bold about becoming vegetarian or vegan. It is to openly reject a significant aspect of modern society and place oneself into a minority position. As those with a basic familiarity with human psychology will know, such non-conformity comes at a cost and therefore requires boldness, integrity, and psychological strength. Conformity, however, is the easy thing to do – most people follow the crowd because it is more convenient to do so than it is to stand apart from them. So, while the vegetarian/vegan adopts a minority position and is ready to confront the social difficulties that this might entail the meat-eater merely does what is culturally normative.

On balance then, being vegetarian actually seems to better represent a basic definition of masculinity than does being a meat-eater. Of course, this has no bearing on the merits of such a diet. The case for vegetarianism rests principally upon profound moral considerations (and indeed arguments relating to health and the physical environment) and not upon the entirely trivial matter of whether it is or is not masculine. The latter should not be an important consideration; it should not influence our attitudes, values, or behaviours in any area of life. Sadly it does and this can often have negative implications. In the case of dietary behaviour, there are implications other than it causing many men to be closed-minded to vegetarianism. For example, archetypal masculine foods such as red meat (e.g. Sobal, 2006), which wannabe ‘macho men’ will be drawn towards have been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Weight-loss and health-consciousness have even come to be seen as effeminate endeavours, which can deter the self-styled ‘real men’ and those who wouldn’t want to appear ‘unmanly’ from taking positive action for their own health. There are many more examples beyond dietary behaviour. One that immediately springs to mind is the much higher rate of suicide in men (17 per 100,000 compared to 5.3 per 100,000 for women in the UK in 2010), which is likely to be explained at least in part by the expectation that men should ‘put a brave face’ on their troubles rather than expressing them openly, which denies them the vital social support that women can benefit from. And of course there are the many ways in which masculinity can manifest in violence, confrontation, domination, etc.

In short, to those who believe that eating meat is ‘manly’ and being vegetarian is not, I’d say three things: First, vegetarianism actually seems to better reflect the characteristic qualities of masculinity (e.g. boldness). Second, the idea that foodstuffs and their consumption can have a gender status is a sociocultural fiction. Third, being influenced by this kind of fiction is not only weak but can be damaging to yourself and to others.

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