Is a ban on killing an impossible thing to ask for?

Imposing restrictions on unwilling populations is not the best way to change things.

 |  6-minute read |   12-09-2015
  • ---
    Total Shares

Talking about banning killing somehow makes us defensive. In the context of human killing, it gets inevitably into issues of capital punishment and discussions about how unrealistic it is for one country to set such standards when others, with hostile intents and histories, simply don't.

And in the context of killing animals, birds, and fish such a question often provokes defensiveness of an even sharper nature given how widespread and natural our consumption of the same appears to be. Inevitably, someone will snap back with the retort that plants have feelings too.

Despite the imminent touchiness of these conversations, we have to acknowledge that the recent uproar over the supposed meat ban in Mumbai has all the makings of a manufactured distraction from the real question we ought to be asking here: How much of killing are we willing to tolerate as a society?

Naturally, addressing that question becomes ever more difficult when the issue is framed not as a life-and-death issue that every citizen must think carefully about, but more tangentially and sometimes counterproductively as a question of freedom and rights.

The media reports of the meat ban, after all, paint an ominous picture. One imagines armies of marching paramilitary forces inspecting kitchens and dining rooms and locking up half (or even more than half) the people in town for simply going on with their lives. Strung together with reports of various other bans, which might or might not be equally exaggerated, one imagines a totalitarian eclipse unfolding slowly in India, though India as we know is a place where even legitimately banned activities like crime and abuse of women don't get stopped anyway, let alone extreme bans such as those about meat.

Also read: Why Mumbai's meat ban got everyone's goat

If it is true that this "meat ban" was not even something new, then what is the reason for a new issue being made out of an old practice that was never really intrusive into what people did at home in the first place, a mere temporary restriction on public butchery along the lines of restrictions on alcohol sale during certain holidays and festivals?

Rather than dismiss concerns about the issue outright, I think it is important to recognise that bans - real, partial, or even just symbolic - hurt feelings and make fellow citizens feel disempowered, and indeed even oppressed. And as much as I believe that the degree of dependence of today's human culture on animal violence is unsurpassed in history and in need of rapid change for environmental and ethical reasons, I also believe that imposing restrictions on unwilling populations is not the best way to change things.

I propose therefore a different way to think of the question of violence and food, a way in which vegetarians and non-vegetarians don't have to feel at odds with each other.

Let us recognise though that there is a fundamental difference of perception and definition in vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism. What is natural food for some is an act of killing for the other. We can choose to just get along and live side by side, but given the environmental realities this world is facing, the issue does have to be confronted, sooner or later.

Vegetarians, who might be doing the environmentally sound thing by their actions, will not however win friends by repeating the tired and judgemental old arguments about purity, religion, and pop psychology stuff about meat eating and character.

Non-vegetarians, who are the people at the wrong end of such guilt and shame tactics (though I wouldn't go so far as to call it "terror" as someone else did recently), can use the "food choice as freedom" argument only so far before other ethical questions arise.

So, rather than leave it as an eternal conflict between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, perhaps we should start trying to view it as a common, global struggle to reduce the violence we impose as a species on this living planet.

Also read: Relax. Meat eaters won't kill or burn down your temples and mosques

For that to happen, vegetarians and non-vegetarians must both recognise some realities. Vegetarians do not escape fully from the karma, so to speak, of animal violence in a planet where violence has become a way of life. It is not just the collateral damages of agriculture that are involved but the larger fact that this society as a whole incurs the debt of animal slaughter on all its members, especially its members who consume a lot of just about anything from it; food, services, resources, even entertainment. Vegetarians, in my view, are at least indirectly indebted to the animals consumed by the non-vegetarians who labour on the field, bring them their rice and vegetables, and also to the animals that may not be killed but are certainly used for their benefit routinely, sometimes callously. On the other hand, non-vegetarians, especially those in the global middle and elite classes who have the privilege to choose what they can eat, also have an important obligation to themselves and to others. Their choices, and their insistence on their choices, indirectly contribute to a little more environmental burden not only for themselves, but for everyone else too, not unlike second-hand smoke. Their insistence, especially when expressed as a blind and generalised characterisation of vegetarianism and animal compassion as mere "misogyny," also contributes to a devastating stasis in the cultural consensus on what constitutes "acceptable" killing in a time and place on earth.

One way forward is to stop thinking of meat as an all or nothing issue, and prepare for a slow and gradual transformation of our thoughts and habits and dependencies over two or three generations. One concern today is that many parents are incredibly forceful in pushing little children who tend to react with aversion when they learn what it is they are eating into following our mental examples about what constitutes "acceptable" killing, all in the name of nutrition, culture or aspiration. Maybe now is a good time for us to make a commitment to a generational change in diet and dietary thinking, as a planet, as a species, regardless of religion and what we think our ancestors might have done or not done. We can decide to move, as a society, towards investing in lab-grown alternatives, just as we are thinking about solar energy and other alternatives in other spheres.

For that to happen though, we really must extract our present thoughts on meat from the twisted cultural politics they have been caught up in. Our animal cousins after all, have no names for their identities or their politics, and speak to us only in their voices and faces, which we have ignored or belittled for far too long just to keep ourselves smug within our own.

Can we therefore not make this one thing a goal for a lifetime? Can we not picture the rest of our lives from now leading up to a moment in the future when things change so much in the world that our grandchildren will even wonder that there was a time in history when cow meat meant a cow really had to be killed?

All we need to do, ultimately, is get the world to ban just one thing. #KillBan.

Also read: Is Modi's development plan only about imposing bans?

Writer

Vamsee Juluri Vamsee Juluri @vamseejuluri

The writer is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of Rearming Hinduism.

Like DailyO Facebook page to know what's trending.