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Us versus them: Like India, meat divides people even in the US

There is a need to delink vegetarianism from an intrinsic morality. Failing to do so could be dangerous, as the multiple bans in India show.

Last week, Mumbai woke up to some startling news: the sale of meat would be banned for four days in the city out of respect for Paryushan Parva, a Jain festival marked by fasting and abstinence. The announcement put Mumbai’s famously tortured relationship with animal protein squarely at the centre of public debate.

Political activists reacted to the news by declaring that they would take a fattened goat to the chief minister’s house as a protest. On Friday, the Times of India carried a photograph of opposition party workers selling chicken on the street in defiance of the ban. On social media, people vented about the increasing limits on personal liberties and the creeping majoritarianism that the ban seemed to reflect. Liberals linked the Mumbai ban with a larger pattern: a week earlier, an eight-day ban on the sale of meat was declared in Mira-Bhayander, an extended suburb in the north of Mumbai. In March this year, a beef ban was widened in Maharashtra, and in 2004 city slaughterhouses were ordered shut briefly in order to protect “religious sentiments”.

A marker of social class

Like in India, dietary habits also serve as a differentiator in the United States.

In the US, people are vegetarian for a variety of reasons, most often unrelated to religious or community affiliation. For many, being vegetarian stems from a commitment to the surrounding world, to caring about where your food comes from and its effect on the surrounding societies. Vegetarianism makes sense if you are considering the health effects of eating meat produced on factory farms, their destructive impact on the environment, and the potential to inculcate an ethic of non-violence in a violent world.

But vegetarianism, like all dietary restrictions, also functions as a symbolic act. It is not only about what you eat, but about what those restrictions mean in a larger context. Food choices in the US are not often framed explicitly in terms of community belonging, but as individual choice (often with deeply personal reasons – growing up in a meat-loving family with a history of obesity being a common one). As such, these choices become associated with specific politics, geographies and class positions.

Vegetarianism is more commonly found in the US where there is wealth, higher education and political liberalism – in places such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Berkeley, California. In these places, food restrictions have become a sign of status. Generally speaking, the more educated and wealthy you are, the longer your list of what you cannot eat. Being vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan, like being gluten or dairy free, is interpreted as a sign of taking care of yourself, of being a responsible and thoughtful citizen, of taking a moral stance toward the world and its future.

The problem is that when vegetarianism – and what you eat in general – is associated with morality, it serves to strengthen distinctions, marking class, education and other indicators of status.

Vegetarianism and morality

In Mumbai, and in India generally, what you eat is often shaped by your religion, ethnicity or caste (although there are also environmental vegetarians in India, as elsewhere). It is common for some vegetarians to not eat in a restaurant that also serves meat or not eat at a house where non-vegetarian food is cooked. In a national landscape moving towards a narrow definition of what it means to be Indian – specifically, Hindu and high caste, and specifically not Muslim – such distinctions have potentially serious consequences.

We can already see its effects in cities such as Mumbai, where the discourse of purity and pollution around what you eat is so powerful that certain groups are denied access to the housing market on account of their dietary choices. If you belong to the “non-vegetarian” groups – including anyone from Muslims to Christians to Maharashtrians to Dalits – it can be difficult to purchase or rent an apartment. Potential buyers are turned away, presumably, because smells from their kitchen might pollute a neighbour’s flat. With vegetarianism used as a distinguisher between “us” and “them”, Mumbai is becoming an increasingly hostile place for religious minorities.

In this context, choosing not to be vegetarian in India, like its opposite in the US, can actually be a political choice. Eating meat can be a principled refusal of the distinctions among castes, religions and ethnicities: a powerful statement that you will eat with anyone, whatever food they give you. It can be a sign of progressivism and solidarity, a refusal of the narrow politics of Hindu chauvinism.

Despite the good intentions behind the new consciousness around food, new lines of distinction have begun to appear in the American food landscape as well. Do you eat processed food or fresh vegetables? Do you shop at the big grocery chain or the local farmer’s market? Do you drink Coke or Kambucha? Do your kids eat Fruit Loops or chia seeds for breakfast? And what kind of person does that make you? Given the devastating effects of such distinctions in Mumbai, what do they foretell about their consequences elsewhere?

This is not to say that vegetarians should rethink their food choices. Rather it is a challenge to delink vegetarianism from an intrinsic morality and to recognise that distinctions (between “us” and “them”, “insider” and “outsider”, “friend” and “enemy”) are established through dietary restrictions everywhere. In the US, and much of the West, vegetarians see the refusal to eat meat as an inherently ethical and progressive choice. The current situation in Mumbai is a reminder that all political choices are context-specific. Being morally opposed to the killing of animals can contain a violence of its own.

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