"What will one chicken cutlet matter?"
"What difference can one vegetarian possibly make?"
"What difference can one vegetarian possibly make?"
These are often posed as rhetorical questions. Seemingly, the answer is so obvious that the scornful questions are enough to make the point, with no need for further reasoning. After all, refraining from eating one chicken cutlet will not save a single chicken. Nor would one vegetarian make any measurable difference. And why? Because the influence of a few consumer actions is insignificant; in a world of mass production and multiple middlemen between consumers and producers, minor changes in consumer habits fade out among other economic fluctuations. This is the argument at hand, and it appears to be one of the least spurious used by consumers of animal products. It does not deny the reality of farming, nor does it make up arbitrary moral principles – familiar faults evident among most of the common critiques of vegetarianism. The question “What difference does it make?” is based on the implicit recognition that the production of animal products harms animals and is therefore wrong. Therefore, it is possible to rephrase the argument in a more reasoned and committing manner:
"Had I been convinced that I would save animals by becoming a vegetarian, I would do so."
Critical MassThe ultimate answer to "What difference does it make?" is the undeniable connection between consumption and production: no consumption means no production. If there were no meat-eaters, no chicken would have to suffer in broiler sheds. The counter argument, however, is more subtle:
“If the common consumption of meat stopped, then indeed no chickens would be harmed. But if I don't buy a chicken cutlet today, someone else will buy it; the buyer for the supermarket will not order any less from the poultry plant, and the plant will not buy any less chickens from the poultry farms.”
These claims might be true if individual consumer choices were made in an empty vacuum. But individual choices are made within a wider context, as can be illustrated by the analogy to political elections: if you ever voted, surely you didn’t do so on the assumption that your ballot would be the one to determine the vote. And yet, most of us do bother to vote; we know that if 50,000 votes make up a mandate, none of those votes is singly the decisive one, but each one of those 50,000 votes is just as necessary in the forming of the mandate. In other words, the votes are not isolated, but accumulative.
A consumers' boycott works on a similar principle, except that we have no way of determining precisely how many "votes" are needed to win over a “mandate.” Individual consumer actions and boycotting accumulate into hundreds, thousands or millions of other such actions. A decline by a certain degree in the number of dead chickens bought in the nearby supermarket creates the critical mass (the "mandate") that causes a reduction in the quantity of meat purchased by the market; a reduction in the quantity of meat purchased from the slaughterhouse leads to a reduction in the number of chickens that the slaughterhouse buys from broiler farms, and results in a reduction in the number of chicks "produced" by hatcheries in the first place. No vegetarian can tell if she’s going to be the one "decisive vote" in reducing the number of animals born into a life of suffering. But in consumerism, as in an election, the goal is not to be the individual decisive vote, but to be a part of a critical mass of many accumulative – and influential – partakers. The hundreds of thousands of vegetarians in Israel necessarily accumulate into such a critical mass.
Social Echo: Spreading the WordThe mathematics of "accumulative voices" is also misleading. A vegetarian lifestyle does not take place in a mathematical field but in a social one, and unlike the elections, it is not held secretively. Nutritional habits are visible and create an influential social echo. Many children are attracted to vegetarianism, but in a carnivorous society may have not met a vegetarian in their lifetime, and are afraid to be "the only vegetarian in the world"; likewise, adults attracted to vegetarianism fear social isolation. Thus the very reality of being a vegetarian helps spread the idea of vegetarianism and facilitates those hesitant about vegetarianism. The influence exists even if you do not attempt to influence others or if you are not even aware of it: the rumor of your vegetarianism is spread by word of mouth. A young niece realizes that vegetarianism is an actual option, and an adult friend is relieved knowing that he won't have to be alone at dinner with friends.
Social Echo: Vegetarian CultureWhen it is well-known that there’s a vegetarian in the family or in a circle of friends, accommodations are set for common events to prepare a vegetarian dish instead of an animal-based one (indeed, young, beginner vegetarians often complain about family or friends having meat-based meals in defiance; but in perspective of many years of vegetarianism, such cases are negligible). When an animal-based dish is replaced by a vegetarian dish “for the vegetarian,” often other diners choose it instead of the animal-based dish. And when consumption on a larger scale is considered, vegetarians create a critical mass which not only has a negative effect on the production of animal products, but also a positive effect on the production of vegetarian products. As the market for vegetarian products grows, more of them are produced, creating a world of new and original products. Thus a new vegetarian culture has formed in the last several decades, and many products have been introduced as new additions to the menu or as a satisfying substitute for animal products even for the non-vegetarian population. Many non-vegetarians consume processed soy products instead of meat and dairy products today. Although such people may still consume meat and dairy, they contribute to the considerable portion of society which is consuming “substitutes,” resulting in economic repercussions for animal industries.
An Expression of WeaknessNot every person may find it easy to accept the idea of critical mass:
“I don’t participate in the elections either because it has no influence, so why should I be a vegetarian?”
At times this is no more than an indifferent or lazy excuse to cast off responsibility – and so may be hard to respond to (such an attitude also produces excuses such as “the chicken is already dead anyway,” revealing a lack of understanding and lack of interest in the ongoing dynamics of consumption and production). But at times, one’s argument against vegetarianism is not an evasion attempt, but an authentic expression of feeling alienated from and weak and helpless against the seemingly all-powerful might of gigantic industries and the forces of the market. Taking the same path as many unknown others, anonymous vegetarians do not relieve these feelings of alienation, precisely because they are unknown and anonymous. In such a case, the plausible critical mass argument and social echo argument struggle against a deep emotion of alienation – and reason tends to lose the battle against the negative emotion. However, there is an effective way to address these emotions: meeting with a real live group of vegetarians may do wonders in warding off feelings that the individual has no way of having an influence. This phenomenon is familiar, for example, amongst new participants in Anonymous events, who suddenly discover the feeling that they have the power to make a difference
A Matter of FeelingAs a final point, the aforementioned arguments may still leave some doubt about whether the rare consumption of animal products at home has an influence on production:
“True, everyday consumption is influential, but an occasional bite of meat here and there is really insignificant.”
This can be rebutted by pointing out that rare activities are also accumulative, and that if there is no way of determining when an action is influential, doubt itself is a good reason to persist in a full boycott. A mental aspect also enters the picture here: nutrition is a matter of habit. Conflicts regarding habits and their alteration are tiresome operations, but once accustomed to a certain diet, it is easy to stick to it. That is, it is easier to define yourself as a full-time vegetarian than see yourself as a “conscientious carnivore,” who has doubts before every meal about whether choosing to consume a chicken’s leg will have an influence this time or not. If the option to eat chickens "like everybody else" exists in your world consistently, it is hard to ignore. It is also hard not to be led astray by excuses that dull the fact that the “drumstick” is actually a part of the body of a chicken, who has lived in agony and died violently. Purist vegetarianism is called for in order to construct a clear identity and an honest approach, which solves the doubts and allows you to see the “product” for what it really is.
Originally published in "Animal Rights this Week", Anonymous for Animal Rights' Weekly Online Magazine for Animal Rights