Thursday, October 23, 2014

Putting Issues Aside

There is too much going on in the world for us to figure it all out. 'The Humans' by Matt Haig is a story of an alien taking the form of a maths professor to prevent other humans from discovering the profoundly important proof the unfortunate chap has figured out. The alien has no 'cultural base' and so observes and tries to figure out the meaning of some human interactions. He takes spitting and the middle finger as a friendly greeting for example - unaware of the fact that this was related to him being found naked in the middle of a highway.

From when we are little we learn one way of doing things. For the most part we take big people as superior individuals who have figured it all out, so we accept lots of things. Our elephant** also gets deeply trained in the ways of the tribe. Slowly. With patience and love. In this period as children learn, everyone celebrates their small steps forward. We pick up the explicit lessons, but we also pick up the stuff that doesn't get expressed. We form habits. Our elephants fall in love with sweets.

My elephant loves South African sweets. I am quite diligent in getting through the tantrum tunnel of sweets by most check out counters in the UK because I just have to get passed the Kit-Kats and Peppermint Areos. My elephant hasn't fallen in love with the UK sugars. If I go to a South African shop, all bets are off, and if I make it out with change I have depleted all my self-control reserves.

Now that is just sweets. When it comes to the important stuff - the big ticket items - you can't just walk out of the Saffa shop. Issues such as religion, politics, sex, and diet can define the groups you have become a part of. Challenging the issues isn't necessarily challenging the issues - it is challenging the relationships that someone has. It is challenging the whole set of rules. For someone to change their mind about a big ticket item, they often have to leave the world they know. To get them to change their mind, you have to convince them not only that you are right, but that it is worth it for them to agree.

The chances that we don't have any doubts about the way things are done or our beliefs is very small. We all have only a certain amount of intellectual and emotional energy. We are quite good at putting issues aside because they make our head spin or because it feels like we are getting into uncomfortable territory. The food debate is one of these areas. As a South African, meat is very much a part of my culture. It is not just 'tantrum tunnel' stuff. A meal doesn't feel like a meal without meat. At a boy's braai (barbeque) in South Africa - chicken is considered the salad, and the balance to the meal is provided by bread and beer, completing the three food groups. If you go visit someone for a meal, there is close to a 100% chance it will be meat based. You will be putting them out and expecting a special meal if they know otherwise.

People don't like feeling judged. For the most part, I get the sense that most people are less evangelical about their religions nowadays in liberal societies partly because they realise that it makes being friendly tough when the other person literally feels you are bad and are going to burn for eternity. In a way, this is why it is tough to emotionally engage with the meat debate. It isn't just you who will have to change your mind. Most people will disagree with you as an early adopter. Most people will feel you are judging them, even if you aren't, if they know that your dietary choices are for ethical reasons. This has nothing to do with whether the arguments are valid. Here is just one example of why this debate is important:

I will carry on in my attempt to figure it out for myself. Here are three books that have been recommended to me as I wade into the subject. My interest is happiness, and I do believe diet is a big part of that, but I also believe relationships are a big part of it - so figuring out the best overall approach to chipping away at one problem has to take everything into account.


'Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer deals very directly and persuasively with our emotional and cultural attachments to food, and what it means for eating meat. I thoroughly recommend it.' - Isabel Goodman

'Speaking as a person who is passionate about food, I can empathise with your reactions to ceasing being a meat eater. Have you read "Meat: a Benign Extravagance"? In it Simon Fairlie makes a good case for the need to change the way we feed livestock, as well as the manner in which they are kept, he puts forward a sensible argument for meat being acceptable. His scholarly analysis is impressive and the book should be read by anyone piling into the meat/vegetarianism debate'.
Kate Griffiths- Lambeth (@KateGL)

Stuart Torr (@muttface) recommended 'The Ethics of What We Eat' to me many years ago and it has just sat on my bookshelf.

*Rider: Rational-side. Explains and justifies behaviour and attempts to direct it. Trains the elephant.
**Elephant: Decision-making, action taking emotional and automatic side. Listens to Rider when it wants to.
Post a Comment