Opinion

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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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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