Ever notice that you can be having a great conversation with someone and all of a sudden find out they are a Republican (or Democrat, whichever you’re not) and pull back? After all, when someone doesn’t share the political ideology you do, it can be difficult to maintain a civil conversation about controversial issues.
That’s also true of many people finding out someone is an atheist. It’s a generally accepted norm in our society to be at least nominally religious, so when an individual chooses a label (“atheist”) that indicates that have no belief in any of the same things you do, regarding religion, it can be a little off-putting.
Republican. Democrat. Atheist. Christian. Pro-choice. Anti-hate. Vegetarian. Lawyer. Writer. Increasingly, the labels we choose for ourselves are becoming not just indicative of our ideological beliefs (or lack their of, perhaps) but also indicative of who we are. How much does our decision not to eat animals (as many people’s least favorite label, vegans) matter to our self-identification?
I was watching Eat Pray Love recently and there was a scene in the film where Julia Roberts’ character Liz is in Italy with friends. They are discussing people’s “words” and when asked what her word is, she says it’s probably “writer.” Of course, being the progressive, life-enjoying European culture they are, one man says to her, “That’s what you do, it’s not what you are,” which she then ponders throughout the rest of the film.
Perhaps our professions are “what we do” not “who we are”, but maybe, for some, they are. For example, if someone asked “who I was” or what my word was, I would never, ever think to say “lawyer.” It’s simply not. I’m a lawyer during the day, and then, when I leave the office, I’m not. But I might say “writer”. To me, being a writer implies everything – not JUST that I sit down occasionally with a pen and paper and write. It implies wondering constantly about the world, looking for ways to make my mark on it with the written word, examining closely everything I do. “Writer” might not be who Liz in the movie was, but “writer” could definitely be who I am.
Oddly, I never say “I’m a vegan” and I find it strange for some reason when people do. I choose instead to say, “I’m vegan”, as though yes, I am vegan, but that’s just one part of me. It’s a big part, no doubt, but saying “I’m a vegan” for some reason implies that’s all I am, there’s no room for anything else. This is, admittedly, some strange issue I’ve made up in my own head but it’s fascinating how the grammatical choices we make in defining ourselves can have such an impact.
Similarly, when we adopt the label “vegan” or “vegetarian”, how much does it become part of us? For many, the answer is it becomes the entire part of us. Vegetarianism or veganism implies a lifestyle choice, not a dietary choice, to exclude the suffering of other beings from our lives and do as much as we can to alleviate that same suffering. It implies that we handle everything and everyone, including our fellow-man, with compassion and empathy. It implies that we have been able to examine something as basic as the food we eat on a deeper level and determine that other living creatures should not die for our plates, and therefore, it’s likely we examine many other “norms” deeper.
It’s interesting, to me, how much of a political conversation has been born of out the “vegan” label. As I mentioned in my last editor’s blog, the word has become almost polarizing, instantly branding you as that person. There’s even been a book written called Food Politics, so what goes on our plates can’t be that far from becoming one of the major issues in the political sphere, even more so than it already is.