The Omnivore’s Guilt (The good kind!)

Posted on August 26, 2010


Now I know there have been a million and one spinoffs of the title The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but trust me, I’m only adding to the growing canon to catch your attention. (And it worked, didn’t it?) I’m not a Pollan fangirl.  No, how can I be?  The conclusions Pollan draws are out of line with my own philosophy on animal and animal product consumption.  I’m a vegan.  I have issues with the current farm system and also with the consumption of animals more broadly in the United States. But that is not the focus of this article.

Instead, I am going to discuss the value and connotations of guilt.  Over break, I met up with an old friend of mine from dance who attends university in my home state. She is interested in sustainable food but is not a vegan.  We decided to make dinner together for some of her friends from college so I could meet them and we’d get a chance to catch up.  She initially thought it’d be a good idea to make a vegan dinner, in the name of sustainability and all.  But then she suddenly had a change of heart, and decided to serve some cheese with the meal.  When I asked her why she made this choice, she replied that she didn’t want anyone to launch into a conversation about veganism, and then feel guilty.  It wasn’t that she wanted the conversation to be on topics other than food or ethics, but quite literally that she thought guilt was a purely negative emotion. I shut up about it at the time, but now that I have had time to process the incident, it brings me to some broader questions about the associations our society has with guilt.

Face it: we don’t like being uncomfortable, and for that reason we don’t like making others uncomfortable.   It’s not a phenomenon unique to my hometown.  Several of my peers at school have told me that they shouldn’t have to feel guilty for eating a piece of steak, while they were either explaining to me why they did not want to know anything about factory farming or why the power of individual choice outweighs the environmental and societal benefits of not eating animals.  After all, almost everyone engages in meat consumption, so no one should really feel guilty about it.  Yet why should it necessarily follow that a normative activity be harmless?  Surely, we can all think of behaviors that have devastating consequences yet continue to be practiced en masse?  Smoking is one example, driving is another, and animal consumption is just one more.

Why can we not think of guilt as an empowering, rather than debilitating and overwhelming, force?  As one frivolous example, every week at the farmer’s market, I used to use the plastic bags that were at each stand.  Then I saw my friend bring his own bags and reuse them.  So I started reusing bags as well.  But one week I forgot my bags, and had to procure new plastic bags. I felt guilty, watching my friend pull out his old bags and not having any of my own.  Thus, the next week I brought my own bags, to avoid having that feeling of guilt again.  Clearly, the guilt in this case effected a positive behavior change, and made me more accountable for my  resource use.

While we would like to think that we engage in all of our commitments and forms of activism regardless of others’ influence, the truth is that our communities can be powerful checks on our ethics.  One of the first things I did while transitioning to veganism was to tell all my friends.  So for me, as a point of pride, and as a means of avoiding shame and guilt, I will not go back to animal consumption.  For me, this is a strategy that works.  No, I do not crave any of these foods , but knowing that there are watchful eyes among my groups of friends gives me a powerful, favorable sense of accountability.

Positive reinforcement is certainly a fun way to encourage socially responsible actions.  Who doesn’t like to be rewarded for doing good?  But time and time again, both experimentally and anecdotally, we tend to see that negative peer pressure is just as effective, if not more so.  So that feeling we experience when we take a tray at the dining hall, or take an extra long shower, or fill up at the gas tank, or yes, eat a piece of steak?  Think of that feeling as a guide, rather than a pest.  It’s called guilt, and we all have it.  It’s only how we respond to it that counts.

Posted in: Vegan