How I Finally Quit Carnivory
Not long before I quit eating meat, the experience of doing so had started to become peculiar and disturbing through the budding of an unavoidable intuition.
I was sitting on the floor of my apartment with a friend tearing the meat off a chicken wing, my fingers greasy, my brain lit up with the tenderness and umami of the meal. As I was chewing and examining the bone for suitable spots to bite into, an alarming feeling crept through my own bones.
I am a cannibal.
Slightly alarmed, I continued eating… but it was with far less enthusiasm that I indulged in the next wing.
If I were to share this thought with just anyone, they might dismiss it as an unusual (maybe quite creepy) lapse in my perception of reality, but the thought felt weighty, and significant, and it would sneak up every time I ate meat after this first experience. I felt I needed to keep it to myself– I couldn’t fully understand it yet, and sharing it might corrupt its message. I had a suspicion it might be profound.
As months went by an inevitable whisper– cannibal– would arise whenever I indulged in meat. In hindsight I regard this pervasive feeling to be an important insight that I did not yet have the strength or perspective to process.
In this time, when I was still eating meat, I could distance myself from the life story of what I was eating. I had read, heard, seen glimpses of what was really happening behind the scenes, what factory farming really looked like. Yet I was eating out a lot, my friends all loved meat, and, sure, it tasted good. In a restaurant, my direct experience was not offensive or hideous; scenes of squalor and torture rested inert in some hidden compartment in my mind.
I put off addressing my intuition because it was easy– it was made easy by my surroundings, made easy for everyone else, too. Meat is ubiquitous—nearly every restaurant, and every large fast-food chain, serves pounds and pounds of meat every week. We are entrenched in a meat-obsessed world; as children raised on factory-farmed meats we develop an insatiable taste for it, even as the methods of acquiring it become vaster, more brutal, and more secretive. A friend once said she didn’t think a meal was truly a meal without meat involved. Our society consumes meat the same way it breathes: unconsciously, habitually. To compound all of that, we have the gift of denial — we keep ourselves disconnected even when we encounter gut-wrenching insider footage because we’d rather stay ignorant– our system not only allows us to, but encourages us to. The truth feels scary, and so we contract; we hide. In my self-made and culture-made bubble, the truth found a seemingly strange way to channel through me.
It no longer seemed so strange when I returned to the concept of personhood.
I first learned about personhood at what became a somewhat tense Christmas dinner years before my “cannibal experience”. My cousin, newly vegan, passionately admonished factory farming, likening it to genocide, and eloquently delivered a lesson on personhood. The core idea was simple, obvious: all sentient beings share a basic right, the right not to be treated as property. The term personhood denotes the quality of being a person, a condition that dictates whether an individual can be granted rights, protections, and privileges. In essence, its bestowal means that a thing becomes a being. I sat in silence, listening, and felt an energy shift in the room; if a pig at a factory farm was no longer considered a thing, if it was the same, ultimately, as a person, the picture of reality became very stark. It was uncomfortable, and transformative. My cousin’s passionate monologue was met with resistance— “are you accusing us of genocide?”— but the fear seemed to spawn out of a forced recognition of our complicity in violating rights on a gargantuan scale. We were being told, in no uncertain terms, to redefine the perceptions we take for granted—in response to this provocation emerged an air of defensive hostility. The message to my cousin that night was “how dare you not let us eat our chicken in peace”. I couldn’t wholeheartedly join in; my own true recognition of the abhorrent reality was dormant, but brewing. It was only with my “cannibal experience” years later that I recognized the inevitability of its boiling-over.
I return now to those two formative memories— the first time that creeping sense of cannibalism overtook me, and, years earlier, my cousin’s lesson on personhood that seemed to fall on deaf, or rather disconnected, ears. I now see a profound connection between those two events.
That visceral feeling— the wordless “I am a cannibal”— was an embodiment of a deep realization, a deep recognition, that this meal I was consuming was truly dead flesh, the murdered flesh of a tortured being, a being like me— and if not exactly like me, enough like me, no doubt. I was unconsciously shifting into a perception of personhood, and therefore being shown the disturbing reality in full force. Our Christmas discussion felt intellectual, theoretical; my cannibal experience was somatic, visceral. How could it be the same as eating a person? my thinking mind told my reeling stomach. That’s ridiculous. But so it was… there was no shaking the intuition.
That experience generated from the very core of my being, from the deep knowledge that other living beings were the same, as worthy and valuable, as me. My body and soul were right to feel uneasy eating factory-farmed meat, I understand now. I had reached a breaking point, an entry point, a point of deep connection and understanding. I finally listened. And I haven’t felt like a cannibal since.
What drove you to become vegetarian, or vegan? If you eat meat, have you ever had an experience or thought that nagged at you, that you pushed away or dismissed?
Izzi Cohen is an anthropologist, writer, illustrator, and musician. She is perpetually on a journey of self-and-other-discovery and is practicing to become a mindfulness meditation teacher. She enjoys contemplating the human experience in any way possible. You can follow her work at https://www.instagram.com/izzi_wolf