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Guilt Trip: Some meat eaters try to convince vegetarians that whatever ethics or morals they have around meat are negated by, say, the wearing of leather shoes. It's neither logical nor classy, but it still can throw new veggies for a loop.

Are You Vegetarian Enough?

And other ethical head games carnivores love to play with meatless eaters

By Elisa Camahort

People have a tendency to categorize. We put things into neat packages, the better to understand them. Every time I talk to someone about vegetarianism they say with a nod, "You're an ethical vegetarian." Ethical as opposed to a "religious" or "health-conscious" vegetarian. (I will leave aside for another column how interesting it is that people separate "religion" from "ethics" so easily!)

I've honed my explanation over the years. The more complicated your answer, the more people want to find the exception, the area where you fail, the way they can topple your convictions.

I used to say: how you spend your money every day is your economic vote. I don't want to contribute my vote to industries that participate in practices that I find objectionable. I find the suffering and death of sentient creatures objectionable, and it applies to any creature that feels pain analogous to what I feel.

But what if someone else pays? Then it's not your economic vote; it's theirs. Or what if there's no suffering, if the animals were plucked from their natural habitat and then sedated, so that they never felt a moment's pain or anxiety? Or how do you justify industries that may cause suffering, as long as there's no death--like the dairy and egg industries? Aren't you just a mass of inconsistencies?

I don't think those are necessarily good points, but they are good motivators to hone my ethos. So, while the economic vote is something I believe--and explains why I won't buy my Carnivorous Significant Other meat products--it's not concrete enough. And while the pain and suffering criteria is valid, it doesn't go far enough.

Now I say: I don't want to be responsible for the death of other creatures.

Doesn't matter who pays.

Doesn't matter if they suffer.

Doesn't matter if it's a gift from or for someone.

Doesn't matter if it's just a byproduct of an animal that would have been dead anyway.

And I freely admit that my use of dairy and egg products, much as I try to buy organic, cage-free versions, is not ideal. I avoid wool for the exact reasons I should be avoiding dairy and eggs. I can only admit my lack of perfection and hope that the next time I try veganism, I succeed.

"Ethical" vegetarians can also raise an issue that might resonate with more people: what about humans? Would it motivate you to be a vegetarian if you knew it would help humans? Most of the vegetarian "bibles" out there, from Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet to Robbins' Diet for a New America do not focus solely on cuddly animal victims. They talk about world hunger; they talk about environmental degradation; they talk about cancer and heart disease. They expose the very real costs to the human race for our meat-centric diets. Some of that might drive you from a personal health perspective, but certainly some of that might motivate you for ethical reasons to take better care of the entire world and the people living on it.

This has been percolating in my brain since I read a recent New York Times editorial that talked about the slaughterhouse environment being deadly ... for the workers. They are usually underpaid immigrants; they aren't working lawful shift lengths or given proper breaks; they are driven to work fast with complicated, dangerous machines; they suffer a high accident rate. In other words, if eating meat doesn't kill them, producing it just might.

Sure, people choose to be there in the slaughterhouse, unlike the animals. Probably in the same way people choose to be homeless, choose to be addicted, choose to be locked into a Wal-Mart at night, or choose to leave their poverty-stricken country with some oppressive regime in power.

Sure, people make their living running these cruel, oppressive animal factories. Then again, people make their living dealing smack, stealing cars, defrauding small investors. Doesn't make it right.

It certainly would be easier to say I'm a religious or health-conscious vegetarian. We yearn for black and white, right and wrong, compartmentalized and categorized choices--and reality just isn't so easy. But ignoring the reality, for both animals and the human race, seems a lot harder.

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From the February 23-March 2, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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