A few days ago, I wrote about Michael Pollan’s first substantive mention of vegetarianism in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. His attitude toward vegetarianism was not a respectful one. His dismissiveness persists as he sets up for his debate with Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. He writes,
Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, the fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the cultural mainstream. I’m not completely sure why this should be happening now, given that humans have been eating animals for tens of thousands of years without too much ethical heartburn. (305)
In the most literal interpretation, there isn’t anything negative in the statement “I’m not completely sure why this should be happening,” but such a comment has certain overtones in popular use. The suggestion seems to be that it doesn’t make sense that vegetarianism is starting to take hold these days because eating meat is something we’ve always believed is okay. But social movements are so often based on the rejection of culturally ingrained ideas, and in any such instance there’s a time when a defender of the status quo might make a statement like the one Pollan makes here.
But it could also be that the cultural norms and rituals that used to allow people to eat meat without agonizing about it have broken down for other reasons. Perhaps as the sway of tradition in our eating decisions weakens, habits we once took for granted are thrown up in the air, where they’re more easily buffeted by the force of a strong idea or the breeze of fashion. (306)
Yeah, perhaps vegetarianism is all about fitting in.
Pollan goes on to introduce Peter Singer’s vegetarian treatise,
Animal Liberation, comprised of equal parts philosophical argument and journalistic description, is one of those rare books that demands you either defend the way you live or change it. Because Singer is so skilled in argument, for many readers it is easier to change. (307)
To say that Singer is “so skilled in argument” is something of a backhanded compliment. The insinuation is that his book isn’t effective because it presents good ideas but because Singer is clever. He doesn’t convince readers to change by presenting good ideas but by tricking them into changing.