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Battery hens in Suffolk, England

I teach a class on the philosophy and politics of food. Taking off from the dictum "You are what you eat," the class examines how our relationship to food—mediated by politics, economics, ethics, and aesthetics—influences who we are as a species and as individuals. We examine what it means to cultivate and digest other living things and how that experience of conquest helps form ideas about identity and power.

Given that food is implicated in those relations of power regardless of what one eats, a primary aim of the class is to get students to think about why we tend to talk about food as an issue of individual choice. In an age in which politics and consumerism are often conflated with exhortations to "vote with your dollar," the class strives to develop a vocabulary for food politics that is not reducible to consumer choice.

Nevertheless, after having taught this class five times, I have come to realize that students will invariably settle down for a confessional discussion about their own personal food choices. Typically, that happens when we read about vegetarianism and animal welfare. More than any other issue, perhaps because of the moralistic tone of so much vegetarian writing, this is the one that students seem to feel requires them to explain themselves. And without fail, during this discussion, students ask if I am a vegetarian. (Maybe that is predictable, but for the record, in my 10 years of teaching, I don't remember any student ever asking me if I was a fascist, a feminist, or an environmentalist, although I have taught each of those issues more frequently than I teach vegetarianism.)

By some definitions, I am a vegetarian, and have been for some 20 years. My spouse is not, never has been. And it seems likely that when our first child is born—any day now—he will not be, either. I would prefer that my child be born into a world in which the default option is a diet free of the cruelty to both animals and workers endemic to feedlots, slaughterhouses, and fast-food outlets. I would also prefer a world filled with organic and sweatshop-free clothing, clean energy, and universal health care.

But that world does not exist. Today, if parents don't devote a significant amount of time and energy to finding and preparing vegetarian meals, children born in the United States will consume meat along with their fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals. In other words, to borrow from Cass Sunstein, for Americans the nudge is toward meat. This is not a slight, soft nudge: The relative affordability of animal protein, the USDA guidelines for school cafeterias, and the ubiquity of fast-food advertising surely explain why perhaps 90 percent of Americans regularly eat meat, despite what appears to be widespread anxiety about the ethical and environmental costs of producing it.

In this context, most people respond with disbelief when I avow that I do not see being a vegetarian as a political position. When I stopped eating meat, in the mid-1990s, I usually was asked if I did so for ethical, environmental, or health reasons. (That familiar trinity organizes Diet for a New America, John Robbins's 1987 manifesto that probably did more than any other book to shape current American approaches to vegetarianism.) But I haven't been confronted with that question in years. Instead, acquaintances and hosts now seem to assume that I am a vegetarian for "political" reasons. Whether that is because I am a political scientist who studies food, or because popular discourse has elevated animal welfare and environmental degradation from boutique hippie concerns to full-fledged, mainstream political issues, or because food writers like Michael Pollan consistently characterize consumer choice as political action, I cannot say.

Regardless of the reasons, large numbers of people now see vegetarianism as a political position.

But is vegetarianism political? Even though my abstinence from meat is motivated by a set of core principles about the treatment of animals, workers, and the environment, it does not necessarily follow that abstaining from meat constitutes a political position. Indeed, the decision not to eat meat does not necessarily enter the terrain of politics (often defined as the decisions over who gets what, when, and how), nor does it engage significantly with the question of power. I would hesitate to call abstaining from meat political until or unless that abstention is somehow connected to a struggle for power and resources. As yet another consumer choice, being a vegetarian seems hardly more political than, say, seeing an independent film or adopting a pet.

By my own standards, even as I reject the false choice posited by the Robbins trinity (which suggests that environmental concerns are not grounded in ethics), my vegetarianism is precisely an ethical position, defined generally as a determination of how to treat other living things, and more specifically—by Michel Foucault—as a way of fashioning myself in the world.

I abstain from eating meat because I find the operations of the meat industry indefensible, and being a vegetarian is the most direct route to washing my hands of the enterprise (to borrow a phrase from Thoreau). But I have no illusions that my decision will change anything about the American food system. So, though my assessment of the industrial trade in animal flesh is clearly animated by my political orientation—specifically, my concerns about human and animal welfare, access to vital resources, and the sustainability of industrial ranching—this does not elevate my consumer choice to a political act.

One can imagine a properly political vegetarianism—one that, for instance, pursues institutional protections of the various creatures so abused in the industrial meat complex; or one that seeks to criminalize the trade in animal flesh (as we have criminalized the trade in human flesh). Such pursuits, however, are exceedingly rare. Vegetarian literature, almost without fail, ends with appeals to enlightened consumers to stop eating meat.

Both Jacques Derrida, the focus of so much attention in recent years for his late, anguished reflections on human-animal relations, and Peter Singer, surely the most visible vegetarian theorist on the planet since his publication of Animal Liberation nearly 40 years ago, are comfortable comparing the meat industry to genocide, but neither offers anything like an institutional or regulatory response. Singer invokes a "moral obligation" to boycott the meat industry, while Derrida prescribes cultivating a "responsibility to otherness" on an individual level. Both reduce politics—indeed, the paramount instance of politics, genocide—to ethics.

Compare that with the position of Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights. In a section of the book titled "Vegetarianism Is Obligatory," Regan claims that the current situation "obviously" requires more than becoming a vegetarian. The task, he argues, is "to help to educate those who presently support the animal industry to the implications of their support; to help to forge the opinion that this industry ... violates the rights of farm animals; and to work to bring the force of law, if necessary, to bear on this industry to effect the necessary changes." But even here, why does Regan stipulate "if necessary"? If vegetarianism is obligatory, and if animals have rights, why is invoking "the force of law" such a radical idea, if consciousness-raising does not work?

If the industrial killing of animals is as bad as these writers say it is—"a crime of stupefying proportions," in the words of the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee—why does vegetarian literature rely almost exclusively on appeals to individual choice and invoke only tentatively political factors like power, law, and the state?

Given that thinkers and writers as committed, thoughtful, and divergent as Coetzee, Singer, and Derrida persist in reducing the killing of animals to a question of individual choice, I should probably forgive my students for doing the same. But that does not assuage my concern that this is the wrong vocabulary for understanding our relationship to meat. Nor does it help me understand how to respond when my students ask, as they surely will again next semester, when we read Singer and Derrida, whether (or why) I am a vegetarian. The very question—inquiring about the values that guide my consumer choices—seems biased against a political response, predicated as it is on the assumption that how or what we eat is primarily an issue of individual choice.

Imagine the alternative, rarely posed, question: "Why are most Americans not vegetarian?" One would have to be an ideologue of the highest order to hear that as a question about dietary choice. Surely that question invites a discussion of agricultural subsidies, USDA regulations, public-school financing, and corporate lobbying.

Today, I can imagine two responsible replies to my students, and each comes with its own tragic irony. The first answer is partly a protest against having my personal life dragged into the arena of classroom spectacle, but more fundamentally a refusal to engage in a discourse that so readily slides from a consideration of the political economy of meat into one of individual dietary choice. The irony of this answer—something on the order of "That's none of your business" or "Figure it out for yourself"—is that in order to resist having opposition to the slaughter of animals reduced to a solitary ethical position, I invoke a zone of privacy or an ideal of self-reliance that is literally immune to politics. In other words, in pursuit of a political vocabulary for vegetarianism, I refuse to participate in politics.

The second answer, the one I prefer (at least right now), betrays a deep cynicism about the very possibility of politics in this consumerist age. The answer reflects a resignation to the sense that what passes for politics today is really just the sum total of consumer choices, and to the fact that ethical reasoning is inadequate for confronting such institutionally entrenched cultural norms as the torture of animals or the squandering of fossil fuels.

It is this answer, however, that gestures toward the lesson of the class: that a vibrant food politics would focus less on what we choose to eat and more on how the production, distribution, and consumption of food affords us—as individuals, societies, and a species—both power and privilege over others.

Why am I a vegetarian? It doesn't matter.

Chad Lavin is an assistant professor of political science and in the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program Aspect, the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought, at Virginia Tech.