Putting the Problem on the TableOne day Kitty, age 14, got up, banged on the table and announced: "Mom, Dad, I'm not eating meat anymore!" Dad chuckled. Mom exclaimed: "Unthinkable!" Two weeks passed. Dad stopped chuckling. Mom continued waving chicken under Kitty's nose ("Her favorite!") Two months went by. Dad said: "Young lady, the game is up!" Kitty retorted "Unthinkable!" Mom started planting disguised pieces of meat in vegetable dishes. Kitty threw out the lot. Dad ran to the doctor. Mom ran to the shrink. Dad blamed "the girl's friends". Mom blamed Dad. Dad blamed Mom. Both blamed Kitty. And so it goes to this very day, unless one of the sides has succumbed by now through the use of unreasonable force.
It's a familiar picture: the teenager wants to stop eating the corpses of dead animals, her parents don't understand what's wrong with the food, and it ends badly. Usually the conflict could have been avoided, for the most part, had both sides understood precisely what was going on. Informational pamphlets from Anonymous might help, but as long as parents don't even glance at them, the power to change things remains in the teenagers' hands: the time has come to understand parents!
First off, we must admit that on the ideological level this conflict is unavoidable. Boycotting meat (and other animal by-products) on moral grounds is a challenge to parents' dietary habits, thinking habits, their personal level of morality, and the moral concepts of their society. This is a weighty charge, provoking wild defense reactions when it hits close to home, and there is almost nothing closer than an offspring's plate. Still, had Kitty presented her position to passers-by at an educational booth, she might not have made her proclamations in such an aggressive manner. But even the most pleasant-faced attitude does not guarantee a resolution to the conflict, not at the booth -and not at home.
On Mom and Dad's HeadsThe ideological conflict is only part of the picture. It can submerge from view, leaving in its place only the parents' perceptions, according to which the new food boycott is merely an expression of capricious emotions and teenage rebellion; they might even suspect that it is a gesture of punishment or display of power against them. As ones who have always viewed the world from the moral blindness of speciesism (a world view that discriminates against nonhuman animals on the basis of their biological classification), they are incapable of realizing that the objection to consuming animal by-products is part of a meaningful world view. A young person's abstinence from eating one thing or another is almost automatically regarded as a mere craze, possibly the result of a passing fashion; for teenagers adopt different fashions in clothes, music, and speech - often without noticing how social conditioning shapes their private preferences. From the parents' point of view, these behaviors are all wrapped in the same package - teenage society, which is foreign to them.
Moreover, parents might regard abstaining from eating certain products as a typical case of testing the boundaries of our physical capability. This impression is not surprising, for their children's generation abuses its eardrums with music played at an explosive volume, snorts nicotine straight to the lungs, puts metal rings through every available body part, and even falls victim to anorexia and bulimia ("But not Our daughter, of course!"). "Vegetarianism" and "veganism" are seen as another form of declaring autonomy over the body by harming it. In fact, when the moral background is not sufficiently clear, it's not easy to tell the difference, at a glance, between this form of abstinence and anorexia nervosa.
And why, by the way, shouldn't parents suppose that it's all a personal vendetta against them? When it comes down to it, these are their values being criticized. When the fruit of your loins accuses you out of nowhere, as far as you can tell, with: "Dead animals! Dead animals!" it's hard to notice the dead animals; the accusation becomes the heart of the matter. For in the parents' world, "poultry" and "meat" are commonplace givens: products which sprout from supermarket shelves, whose natural habitat is the freezer, whose simple and immediate meaning is food, health, appetite, family coziness, holiday cheer, culture, tradition. They are nothing more than "consumer products": exactly as seen on TV. Even if a small crack were to open in this illusion, and through it one could see that the "product" is none other than a sensitive creature, who lived in suffering and was killed with violence - even then moral sensibility can continue to slumber: according to the moral view prevalent in our society, these animals - four-legged or winged - were "destined" to serve the human race; they're "part of the food chain", they are "prey by nature", and anyway - by their domesticated nature they are the inhabitants of barnyards and henhouses, where "they are granted life" and "their every need is taken care of"!
It's not Easy Eating DifferentSo what happened with Kitty? The crack that opened for her in the shroud of illusions surrounding consumer products became a wide transparent window: Kitty discovered the relation between the slaughterhouse and the freezer, she learned of the animals' torturous journey on the way to the slaughterhouse, and now she feels how the prevailing ideology, which up till now had wrapped her in a pleasant and calming protective layer, is starting to contract around her with stifling force. There's no doubt, these are weighty revelations, profound changes. Nevertheless Kitty remains standing with both feet in Mom'n'Dad's world. The only alternative that she can see to this world is… the very same world, without its widespread cruelty: the very same meals, without meat on the plate (or other animal by-products, if the newly-discovered window is indeed transparent).
It is precisely here that the problem lies. It's not only the parents' stubbornness that prevents them from respecting the deep moral basis of their daughter's decision, or even from noticing its very existence. The truth is that the applette simply didn't fall so far from the tree: Kitty's parents are impressed by the great similarity which remains between their world view and their daughter's, and they are hard pressed to understand what all the fuss is about. Admittedly, the element Kitty has chosen to remove from her meals is a central ingredient in modern Western food culture, and if it is simply banished - there really is not much left. The parents see their dearest ripping a huge vital chunk out of her world, because that is just what she shows them (that's how it is - the moral content she has forged into her meals is not apparent on the plate). They see her as if she were in danger, and the invitation to join in the new custom is even pictured as a danger to themselves; they are forced, from their perspective, to exercise parental muscle. Thus, when they try to sneak cooked chicken remains onto "the girl's" plate, it could be that this is done out of an honest concern for her health, and even a justified concern: "Before, she would eat everything, and now she doesn't eat at all!" except for some junk food that doesn't include animal by-products, and bananas. She really will end up in the hospital, "like the neighbors' daughter, the poor thing".
He who eats alone…As it turns out, Kitty should present her parents with a full, comprehensive alternative to their culinary world. But where can one find such an all-encompassing alternative? The exploitation of nonhuman animals is so deeply embedded in our culture that one can hardly even imagine a reality without it! Fortunately, small islands of alternative lifestyles are popping up around us, and the way to them can be found. Yet this way is blocked as long as "vegetarianism" is regarded as a passive condition of diminished culinary possibilities, and not an active condition of transition to another lifestyle, rich and full in its own right. It is not a case of switching over to "substitutes" - a term which conveys eternal longing for "the real thing". The world of plant-based products is chock-full of "real things" in their own right, and these must be discovered. Banishing the corpse from the plate is doomed to fail if nothing remains there except junk food and bananas; yet even "soy dogs" don't open a very promising chapter in adopting an alternative lifestyle, if they're not accompanied by the discovery of the soybean in its other forms, which have to do with the plant itself and not its capacity to imitate the "real thing". Of course, discoveries such as these will not happen on their own; in order to survive on an island of alternative culture, you need to contact the community already living there - through books, magazines, web sites, organizations, "nature" stores, and flesh-and-blood "vegetarians". The latter have a huge advantage: not only do they serve as living proof that you are not the only one who has chosen not to participate in the murderous consumer party all around, but you can also share information and products, and even - highly recommended - gather together for joint expeditions of cooking and tasting.
A Serious Attitude is Taken SeriouslyThus, parents facing a teenager who proclaims: "From this day forth - No more meat!" see this declaration as a childish act of rebellion (and never mind against what, exactly). The childish mouth is clamped tight on the familiar "Don't wanna!" from the days of "If you don't eat your porridge you won't grow!" Yet, had Kitty brought home food products Mom and Dad had never even heard of (and which she had bought with the last of her savings - the price of her declaration of culinary independence); had she prepared some unfamiliar dishes for the entire family; had she placed appropriate cookbooks and nutrition books in the kitchen; had she read serious literature (not two-and-a-half brochures from Anonymous) on ethics, dietary habits or industrial agriculture in the living room - had Kitty done all that - then her parents would have sensed that they are witnessing a mature act of taking responsibility, a situation they must deal with seriously - not as a passing adolescent craze, but as a genuine culture, which has entered their lives by way of their daughter. The abstinence from eating animal by-products would have become part of the picture, no more.
The success of the method offered here is obviously not guaranteed. Head-on ideological confrontations and personal power-struggles within the family could ruin any rational move. Yet the strategy of the dramatic announcement, locking of the jaws and wars around the dinner table is an almost certain recipe for failure. And even when parents don't object to their child's decision at all, the chances of maintaining monk-like eating habits over time are slim. Abstinence, when performed without any balancing actions, leaves you in the world of our society's dominant culinary habits, with a great deficiency before your eyes and within your body. Only an active, constant and patient quest for new gastronomic possibilities and a different food culture can establish a steady lifestyle over time, out of commitment to a higher level of morality, not only in theory - but in practice as well.
One day Kitty got up and brought a bag of groceries… and books… and marked her territory on the stove… and two months, or two years, later, Mom complains that there's no comparing the taste (yet still eats mainly soy, because of the calcium thing, and the cholesterol), and Dad insists that them vegans are going way too far (but won't touch unprocessed meat, because it reminds him of those pictures, from the slaughterhouse).