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Opinion The endless war between vegetarians and carnists

Vegan protesters gather outside of Antler restaurant in Toronto on March 31, 2018.

Chris Donovan/The Canadian Press

RM Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist based in Toronto.

For those of us who stopped eating animals years ago, the following pattern is familiar and familiarly disheartening.

A new restaurant or food trend or animal-based product arrives on the market. Food and/or fashion critics love it. Animal-rights activists protest. People shout at each other. Online the protesters are labelled “terrorists” and the trend enthusiasts “murderers.” Then everyone moves on to the next fashionable animal flesh to exploit and the next outraged assembly to attend.

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The only things that change are the product name and the prices of poster board, markers and throat lozenges. It’s all so exhausting.

I’ve been a vegetarian for three decades, and I’ve concluded that the cycle of outrage, defiant backlash, then fresh outrage is not working – and is certainly not changing minds or practices. Instead, can we finally have a mature dialogue about our obviously problematic relationship with animals, a conversation free of theatrics and posturing? We’re supposed to be the smartest creatures on two legs, after all.

Vegetarians and vegans, please stop food-shaming carnists (a vegetarian term for people who eat meat and use animal-sourced products). Food shaming does not work. In fact, it has the opposite effect – it makes the object of shaming feel picked upon and defiant, then likely to eat more of the shameful food.

I am fat. I’ve been fat since I was 10. If food shaming worked, given the amount I’ve had heaped on me, I’d be as thin as a blade of grass by now, invisible when turned sideways. Food shaming is a cheap shot and, like other forms of shaming (slut shaming, body shaming), is as morally bankrupt as the animal abuse that drives activists to protest in the first place.

Carnists, please stop trying to smooth over the blunt reality of using animals as fodder by employing comforting (and cozily deceptive) marketing gibberish such as “free range raised” or “ethically sourced” when describing what’s on your plates. When you cut off the chicken’s head to make it into a casserole, it does not thank you first for letting it run around the yard.

You are killing animals and eating them. Stop pretending you are on the ethical high ground. Unless that pig is charging at you with murderous intent and you are acting in self-defence, you’re slitting its throat in order to make bacon bits ice cream. Own what you do.

Every day, scientists learn more about animal sentience – indeed, the uncomfortable truths of animal sentience.

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As Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, notes in his 2013 op-ed curtly titled “After 2,500 Studies, It’s Time to Declare Animal Sentience Proven,” the 2012 Cambridge [University] Declaration on Consciousness declared conclusively that ”evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuro-anatomical, neuro-chemical, and neuro-physiological substrates [essentially, connecting blocks] of conscious states … Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

In other words, animals construct consciousness much the same way we do. It’s only a matter of degrees and methods of articulation that separates us from them. We humans just happen to be far better at drawing attention to our consciousnesses and their vagaries. Lots of attention. In terms of attention-getting, non-human animals are anonymous passengers on the bus, while humans are Kardashians.

But meat tastes so good, I can hear you thinking, and is a great source of protein. No argument here. I remember pepperoni – and I remember enjoying it.

Furthermore, I grew up in semi-rural New Brunswick, where, back then, all the local dads hunted and proudly displayed their gutted prizes on the hoods of their cars. I am certain I was fed deer and perhaps moose meat as a child. The meat smelled like the insole of an old boot that had been soaked in tar (and feathers). I might be an urbanite, but I know the rough truth about how meat gets to the table – and that’s why I will never eat it again.

So how do vegans and carnists move forward when the ethics of animal use are the unstoppable force and the pleasure derived from animals as food is the immovable object? Shouting at restaurant customers or taking grinning selfies with the critters you just shot are not helping.

Non-carnists must view meat eating as the addiction it is, one that runs parallel to our fossil fuel addiction. Without judgment, without shaming, we must act as resources to people who want to quit.

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Carnists must recognize that time and ethics are not on their side – and that the people opposed to the use of animals as products are acting not only out of compassion but reliable data.

Let us commit to a patient, generation-long conversation about animal use – a tough conversation that addresses both our society’s ingrained (and highly profitable) use of and dependence on animals as well as the undeniable empirical evidence that shows animals comprehend and really don’t like the idea of being eaten.

Stop calling vegans unhinged, irresponsible extremists, and we’ll stop hollering at you while you’re sucking on cow bones.

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