This new series uncovers what societal expectations our writers are working towards unlearning. In this instalment, Elisabetta Comin rethinks her philosophies surrounding meat consumption, citing Boon Joon-ho’s Okja as a eureka moment kickstarting her plant-based journey.
Preachy, uncompromising, extreme. For most of my life before university, I’d heard friends and family members casually refer to vegetarians and vegans with all kinds of criticism. Admittedly, most times I’d happily join the chorus without giving it too much thought. Fast forward to 2020, and I’m coming back home from my daily quarantine walk with a tote-bag full of fresh vegetables and meat-free products. But why did the idea of other people not eating meat irritate me so much in the past? And what’s changed? For me, it clearly wasn’t just about a diet so much as the set of values behind it. Therefore, unlearning this behaviour meant wrestling with some ideas which had always been a part of my life.
Studying philosophy in high school, I was presented with an unquestionable truth: in the hierarchy of beings man is superior to animals, and that’s just the way it is. Man is more rational, capable of controlling emotions and instincts, and therefore deserving of better moral treatment. As a 16-year-old philosophy enthusiast, I accepted this state of things without batting an eyelid. Looking at them as if they didn’t know water was wet, I went out of my way to prove to my vegetarian friends that they were simply being too emotional, simply not willing to come to terms with such a logical fact. After all, I thought, if in nature a lion kills a gazelle, then we should be allowed to have chicken nuggets twice a day without the vegan police breathing down our necks. In fact, I told them, as superior beings we should feel even more entitled to do so.
Over the years, however, supporting movements like feminism, anti-racism and environmentalism meant challenging my seemingly unshakable faith in humanity which I had previously so passionately defended. If man truly was this rational and morally superior creature, how could minorities still struggle with oppression? How come climate change had been allowed to become such a massive issue?
My eureka moment came when the pandemic abruptly put an end to my first year of university. After falling down a Netflix black hole, I came across a little gem of a movie: Okja. Tilda Swinton stars as the diabolic CEO of a meat company, who announces the creation of a kind of “super pig”. 26 specimens are sent to farmers around the world, and ten years later, the farmer who breeds the best pig will be crowned the winner of a competition. Okja follows the story of Mija, a Korean girl who grew up with the piglet assigned to her farmer grandfather. When the titular Okja gets taken away from her, Mija embarks on a journey to rescue her, ending up in a hellish slaughterhouse just in time to save the piglet’s life.
As silly as this may sound, Okja horrified me and nearly moved me to tears. A 12-year-old fictional character had just given me a lesson in humanity, which I had thought I knew so much about. She had fought for her non-human companion against a system incapable of seeing animals as anything other than things to profit out of, a system whose values I had unconsciously justified. Just a small insight into the reality of slaughterhouses was enough to make me feel like the smallest, vilest of all creatures, forcing me to question my positions.
But unlearning this didn’t come as easily as one eureka moment. It took some time, some reading and a lot of thinking. Looking into this topic made me realize that the consumption of meat also leaves behind a substantial footprint on Earth, being responsible for 18 % of all gas emissions - more than all public transportation combined! I started wondering whether our supposed superiority (which at that point I was more than a little disillusioned with) actually gave us permission to create such colossal damage to our environment and to our fellow creatures who inhabit it. Ultimately, my answer was no, which resulted in my decision to become vegetarian.
By all of this I do not mean to say that our intelligence and consciousness are comparable to that of a horse, or that our brain is no different from the cabbage my grandpa grows in his garden. Human beings are a separate species altogether. What I’m trying to say is that perhaps we should use precisely those abilities that make us exceptional as human beings (eg critical thinking, empathy, self-awareness) to be more mindful towards the animal world and to the people who choose to defend it, unlearning the ways in which we are taught to think about these issues. If you find yourself thinking like I did, but you support movements like feminism, anti-racism or LGBTQ+ rights, you’re on the right track: you’re already fighting against a system that chooses to profit at the expense of the ones that it considers inferior, lesser in rank and importance. And if you think animals have no place in this rhetoric, think again. Who knows, one day you might find yourself apologizing to your vegan friends.
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