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Is raising a child vegan a form of indoctrination?

July 23, 2015

“I don’t deserve it. I haven’t earned it. You don’t earn other people’s wife’s fur coats!”

So said an irate Whoopi Goldberg in the film Sister Act. She had received the fur coat as a gift from her married lover, only to discover that it had been pinched from his wife’s closet and hastily re-gifted. Whereupon her friend and colleague, who bore witness to this unpleasant discovery, suggested that she keep the coat, being the more deserving party.

The reason this quote stands out in my memory from a film I watched some time ago is, I think, because it sheds an amusing light on our concept of entitlement. The idea that something that no one would reasonably want could somehow become, not merely desirable, but actually deserved, stuck with me. Since then, I have encountered many circumstances in everyday life where entitlements we hold dear have been defended before anyone has paused to think about whether or not these entitlements are things that we actually want, as individuals or as a society. It is rare for someone to do-a-Whoopi, and point out that there’s no point claiming the right to something if it’s worth nothing. This quote springs to mind whenever the Smoker’s Lobby start gallantly fighting for our collective right to die a slow and painful death.

It also springs to mind in response to claims from the-other-side that it’s cruel not to let your children eat meat, if you are a vegan or vegetarian parent. I have already written about this, but in list-form rather than in great detail. I have reason to return to it now on a less pragmatic and more theoretical basis, as it was suggested to me from the-other-side that, because veganism is a political persuasion, raising children vegan is akin to religious indoctrination.

This highlights a misunderstanding of the reason for (my) veganism, as well as a lack of understanding for the distinction between religious feeling and political feeling. First of all, veganism is closer to science than religion, in the sense that the theory is built off empirical observations. We don’t know that God created the universe. We do know that animals are slaughtered in pain and squalor after a life of incarceration.

You may not especially agree with the obvious disapproval written into the sentence, but the facts of the matter are the same however carefully or clinically you decide to put them. The moral rhetoric is more political than religious. Progressive politics is, in part, about attempting to change policy in order to defend the rights of groups which might otherwise be ignored. Compare this to a faith system or religion, which is a personal relationship with a doctrine – an act of submission and obedience in origin, even if it may take more evangelical forms.

Every parent without exception raises their child in line with their own politics and ethics. This is inevitable, thanks to our ability to imprint our beliefs on children without necessarily intending to, projecting our values onto them with subtle indications of approval or disapproval regarding their choices. Moreover, it is also desirable to parent this way. It is generally agreed that children require structure, consistency and guidance, including strong moral guidance. We use carrot-and-stick techniques to teach them about sharing, honesty and fair play.

These sound like universal qualities, and certainly can manifest in universal ways, such teaching not to steal. However, there are more complex and subjective elements to these qualities. Some parents may be more fond of honesty, some with white lies. There is no need for these to be specifically taught, rather, a display of cruel honesty will be punished unintentionally by one parent more than other, depending on their individual sensitivity. There is no way to remove this from one’s parenting style and no point attempting to make parenthood uniform, as it would be an exercise in futility. Without intending to shape a child’s opinions, one naturally does, and may despite one’s best effort bestow one’s child with surprisingly strong convictions that happen to align with those of their parents.

So, we should probably question the idea that anyone should shrink away from expressing their opinions to children. It may be that attempting not to do so has the opposite effect than intended; it gives the impression that what is implied represents the truth. Far better, I should think, to present one’s opinion on the matter as plainly as possible, as early as possible, so children understand your position and are able to calculate that it is a position, based on a set of facts, not in itself a fact. Not only is this good for development, it may help reduce their feeling later in later life that they have had opinions forced upon them.

All that being the case, if one raises one’s child vegan and explains the reasoning to them, the act could not be more different to religious indoctrination. Though, since the comparison has been drawn, it is only fair to point out that dietary restrictions in response to Orthodox Judaism specifically receive less audible contention than raising children vegetarian. This may be because, here at least, Judaism may well feature less than vegetarianism in the life of your average gentile. Or, it could be that, despite the comparison, people are less willing to criticise the cultural behaviours of a religious group, as this tends to lead to accusations of intolerance

It may also be that, from a gentile perspective, Jewish dietary requirements are sufficiently distant from their own culture that they need not criticise it; after all, no one expects them to adopt Jewish food laws, so why should any gentile care? Ethical vegetarianism, on the other hand, incorporates the view that all meat-eaters regardless of their cultural persuasion should become vegetarian,. This makes meat-eaters far more uncomfortable than anything that happens inside any religion of which they are not a member. This makes meat-eaters far more likely to attack vegetarianism, as they perceive their attack to be a form of self-defence against the introduction of a new way which they do not wish to embrace.

And here we get to the heart of the matter, the real reason why the comparison exists It is a standard discrediting tactic used by canny politicians everywhere; when you fear that a new idea may threaten something that you value, compare it to something which has had far worse consequences worldwide. This is how we get people asserting that feminism is akin to fascism with the term “feminazi”. How interesting that concerns about intolerance do not stretch as far as people who make moral or political choices, only people who make religious or cultural ones. It is as though what is culturally ingrained is automatically protected because it is ingrained, and whatever is chosen is slammed because its existence implies that others can, and should, be making the same choices.

It is one thing to say that one personally does not want to “convert” to veganism. It is another thing to suggest that a person whose culture does include vegetarianism, because of the ethical choice of their parents, is somehow being forced to pervert the natural order. This is a projection. Because the individual does not like the idea of a world without meat, they assume that all children desire – or in some bizarre way, somehow emotionally need – meat. But across the board, what you don’t know, you cannot miss. People from countries where there is no pizza do not crave pizza, and to claim the absence of pizza is in some way abusive to these children is every bit as absurd as it sounds. Look out for the next charity ad inciting us all to “Give just £3, and give a child the pizza they deserve.”

The fact that here, in our culture, pizza and meat are commonly eaten, makes little difference to this. To argue otherwise is to imply that any diet that is against the common culture is unacceptable. Not only would this indirectly criticise the dietary requirements or tendencies of certain religions and minority cultures, it also suggests that alignment to the more arbitrary choices of the dominant culture is not only always desirable, but actually morally right. What does this teach children – that whatever already exists is “right” and whatever is new is “wrong”? This is how intolerance gets started; it is propaganda for the Old Way. How much of a kindness it is to raise a child under this propaganda? It all seems like the very indoctrination the-other-side is curiously keen to stamp out.

This is more evident when you consider the opposite perspective. They aren’t hugely common, but there are children who choose to stop eating meat by the age of six, despite being raised by meat-eating parents. They understand the concept of eating animals better than their desensitised parents, so they refuse to do so. This is usually treated as though it is some kind of nuisance, and often forcefully discouraged. I don’t hear meat-eaters frequently defending a child’s right to choose not to eat meat, against their parent’s wishes; more likely, a meat-eating adult will take the view that children should eat what they’re given. In other words, freedom from being forced to align with your parents’ wishes is only good when it is convenient to the dominant culture.

Meat is not a right. A right is something which must serve you well. It is your right to freedom of speech, to a fair trial, to not be harmed, etc. because these are integral to a peaceful society. Funnily enough, routine slaughter is not integral to a peaceful society. Rights also have to be positive for the person who possesses them, otherwise they are not rights but responsibilities. I wonder how positive eating meat is, when it encourages absence of thought, and discourages the freedom to make an informed choice on how one eats. You don’t earn other people’s wives’ fur coats; you don’t have the right to indoctrination into a culture’s shitty perception of how the world is supposed to work.

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From → Animal Rights

One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on iliketowritewhatithink and commented:
    Thank you, Adrian, I could not have said this better myself.

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