I started being vegetarian, ostensibly for environmental reasons.0 I’m not vegetarian any more. I avoid meat, like I avoid buying things with excess packaging or riding around in cars – that is, I still partake in it fairly often. I certainly don’t worry about gelatine or rennet. Seeing people count calories and carbs every day has made me never want to read the back of a label again. I’m sure it’s fine for some people, and the motivation makes all the difference — whether it’s ethics, religion, allergies, weight loss or other reasons. But even though it was based on ethics, I found my vegetarianism embodied the same values and practices that I associate with eating disorders: Purity. Discipline. Guilt. Bargaining: Drinking soy milk for a week will make up for noodles with fish stock. Counting: It’s been two months since that beef pho.
It’s been over ten years since my last confession. And maybe I could do with more discipline, more purity. Maybe I’ve revelled in chaos, dirt and sin a little too much since I stopped being Catholic. Perhaps it’s my attitude to anxiety that’s the problem, and I should appreciate being stopped in my tracks before a potentially important decision. I know sometimes I deserve to feel bad.
But I’ve also stopped believing that everything matters. Sure, the personal is political. That doesn’t make everything revolutionary. It definitely shouldn’t make it publicly accountable. (It’s a topic for another discussion, but I hate how radical politics can shrink your sovereignty1 to your physical skin. I need more space than that and I can’t negotiate bodily agency without that space, maybe not a room of my own but at least a minute to myself and a fistful of secrets.)
Sometimes, every little bit counts. Certainly, the body count. Maybe every styrofoam cup, every minute of a coal power station’s operation. Maybe not. For me this is the difference between the spiritual, the ethical, and the political. They often overlap but they’re not collapsible.
Spiritually, every instance matters. Every sin is on that scale, in your unbeating heart, hoping to float so the feather will be heavier. Maybe there’s atonement, redemption, forgiveness. But nothing is subtracted. The fall is constant and cumulative.2 Obviously this makes sense for meat-is-murder vegetarianism, but it’s compatible with any practice that includes dimensions of sacred and sinful – whether it’s using “womyn” and not “bitch”, or buying fair-trade and boycotting Coca-Cola.
Ethics is in the middle. Maybe you bargain with yourself. If you have a utilitarian approach, maybe you do some more maths. And your criteria will change. But things are still basically ethical or unethical.
In politics, majorities matter. Having a critical mass matters. And it’s possible for a difference to be negligible. We’re talking about seismic structural shifts. Entire societies and cultures. The mathematics is at its core — naively, people * power * desire + x = change, with x being some combination of creativity, timeliness, strategy, system-vulnerability-scouting-skill, etc. Everything you do contributes, perhaps, but it’s not cumulative. Things reverse. Or stand still. It doesn’t matter, politically, whether you’re a customer of Safeway, Starbucks or Microsoft as long as they’re turning a growing profit.
I used to think ethics and politics were more or less the same thing — politics as collectivised ethics. But collectivising something changes its nature entirely. And for a long time I had so many conversations trying to convince people that they were already political that I just kept broadening the term. Now I’m pretty sick of the proliferation and profanation of politics, seeping into every thought, practice and field. I’ve been rethinking a lot of my behaviours as ethically rather than politically motivated, and enjoying their spiritual value. When I want to eat meat, and don’t, I feel pained, pure, hungry, potent, and foolish. Heady with the moral high that’s always accentuated by a bit of masochism and denial. And that exquisite feeling, that tenderness, of not getting what I want.
1. Maybe by sovereignty I mean privacy.
2. Okay, that last bit was too specifically Christian, and where there’s reincarnation it’s a bit different, but I think the distinction holds that spiritually everything you do matters.