Meat-y Twitter Spat: Choice, Vegetarianism and Caste in India

A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of submission week (when am I not?). Obviously, an otherwise mundane tweet piqued my supremely scattered mind’s ever-shifting interest. The series of tweets argued that unless one had actually tasted meat, she was not a vegetarian by choice but a vegetarian by caste. It seemed a silly proposition to me. It seemed as silly as claiming that unless one has lived off meat for a year, she is a meat eater by caste, not by choice. Urban Indian Vegetarians (towards whom the tweets were directed) do not live in an either-or world; their individual judgments, howsoever influenced by the household they were born in, do not flicker between ‘my caste dictates I must not eat meat’ and ‘my taste buds like/dislike meat’. Between the orthodox social and the over simplified gustatory lies an ocean of personal judgments.

In response to my tweets, I was told I was missing the context, that upper caste Hindus were vegetarians because of a puranical belief in the impurity of meat. Sure, I said. If I look down upon a meat eater from some ill-founded moral high ground, I am nothing but a bigot who deserves to be called out. If, however, I chose to stick to my greens without ever experiencing the delight that is a chicken butter masala but have no qualms with you eating pork, what seems to be the problem?

Like a number of judgments we make (moral or otherwise), food preferences are also influenced by the environment we grow up in. But does mean that a child’s food preferences are motivated by the same reasons as her ancestors? People from coastal areas prefer seafood. While their ancestors might have preferred a healthy diet of fish over okra for any number of reasons (Religion? Caste? Sheer affordability?), could the children, as individuals capable of making free-standing judgments exposed to very different environments, take a liking for fish for completely different reasons, unaware and independent of their ancestors’?

Can contextualizing discount generalisations? We have consensus on contextualizing not working out well for Trump and his feelings for Mexicans how much ever the Mexican drug lords might have contributed to the law and order situation in America. Mexicans do not become rapists because of their identity. Muslims do not turn into terrorists because of their identity. The logic of it seems pretty clear. Can we then derive a principle from this consensus? Context does not justify identity based generalisations. Casteism is a very real problem in India. But no matter what the context, you are wrong if you think you have the qualification to approve of someone’s personal choices. Calls for contextualization seem like an attempt to sweep social-identity-based generalisations under the rug – the very thing that brought about casteism in the first place.

Identity based stratification is a very real problem across the world. The trick is not to demonize the identity but call out the dehumanizing ideology that is functioning in that group. My Jewish friends can choose to go Kosher for any number of reasons, as long as they don’t demonize the rest of us. My white friends are not racists if they are attracted towards other white people. And my gay friend need not sleep with a person of the opposite gender to prove that his choice of life partner is not influenced by his lesbian moms. Choice, by definition, means having an alternative option. Not exercising all the alternatives is a prerogative and it does not take away from the legitimacy of your choice.

But this forms only a minuscule percentage of the replies I got to my tweets. Most just called me an Upper Caste {insert abuse}. I soon realized this was not a debate on what prompts vegetarianism in India. This was a statement. And I, by virtue of my social identity, was not eligible to comment on it. Makes me wonder – the politics of identity is like an hourglass. One side will always lose as long as you continue to use something as tricky as sand as a parameter. I will turn more academic in my series on Arendt where I evaluate her take on identity (because I was also told that Arendt would want us to contextualize and I humbly disagree). I will discuss Arendt on collective identity, her idea of what it meant to separate ‘the political’ from ‘the social’, and finally, identity politics.

P.S: Stepping out of your echo chamber is really bad for your twitter notification bar. Excellent for the follower count though.

Role of a Citizen in Hegemonic Authoritarianism

I want to begin a n-part series on Hannah Arendt. Why Arendt? Because I wrote a paper on her last semester and have been obsessed ever since. I will pick up one theme (or a sentence and sometimes just a phrase) from her work and try to either describe it in contemporary political terms or evaluate it against legal theories, political and moral. All this, I will do under the presumption that there are some political ideals like democracy, constitutionalism, liberalism that exist within the domain of possibility for polities irrespective of their legal culture. What I will also presume is that all political ideals function on a spectrum and it is difficult to accurately pin point exactly when something has turned from being tolerable to just plain rotten.

 

At various points in history, societies become obsessed over a political concept. Every once in a while, societies experience an onslaught of violations. Violations of their personal, maybe innate, sense of justice. I am not going to argue on the nature of this sense of justice. Instead, I will point towards our basest moral instincts. If you agree that there is such a thing as conscience that can not only exist but also develop outside of the legal system, you will see that it relates to how we think about what is wrong and what it right. Ergo, justice.

The violation of justice shakes things up enough for us to evaluate and figure out which political ideal, if protected, could have saved us. Against the Nazi regime it was the Rule of Law, for feminists it is Equality, against the Nanny State, it is liberty, and so on. In a bid to make amends, we compensate by institutionalizing it, giving it a place of honor in public discourse, and protesting all violations, big or small.  Every once in a while, the political concept finds a life of its own – growing differently in different parts of the world, becoming an essentially contested concept. After a point of time, the omnipresence of the principle starts to define the terms of the debate in matters unconnected with it.

Today, it is Authoritarianism. Not one where the ruler does not even wish to keep up the pretense of legality and justice but the kind which creeps up when no one is looking. Hannah Arendt was worried about the latter. She worried not just about the big bureaucratic state with its mechanical application of law and antipathy towards political moral ideals, but also about the citizen under such a regime who observed and obeyed and said not a word because the violations were too minor and too remote to care about.

The citizen who refuses to think is the power source of authoritarian regimes. One can ask if Arendt expects her model citizens to practice constant vigilance, continuously evaluating the judgements of their sovereign for potential violations of some sense of justice. After all, her theory of power is based on a conception of power working through communication and co-operation as opposed to the traditional understanding of power emanating from coercion and commands. ‘Power corresponds to the human not just to act, but to act in concert’, said Arendt. She challenges the notion of power having a mandatory connection with sovereignty.

We must take note of the existing political background to her writings. She, along with half the world, stood against the Soviet Union. Communism was not just a bad word, it was inherently evil. So strong was her position against Marx’s writings that she blamed ‘the social’ for the destruction of the political realm. The political realm was the place for public discourse. Deliberation helped in protecting freedom whereas the urge for leveling down of human life resulted in the destruction of democratic practices. However, what was most egregious was the tendency of communism to regularly violate the autonomy of the individuals.

The ‘social’ was not just a command of a sovereign, it was implicit in hegemonic structures through which obedience was guaranteed. Why is this relevant today? It is relevant for its implications on how we judge regimes. Are we to be satisfied with just a form of legality or do we want to prevent violations to whatever principle it is that we have chosen to hold dear, albeit for the century? If we choose the latter, then Arendt’s expectations from a model citizen do not seem too demanding. We must constantly sit in judgment, not just of the laws that govern us (plenty of people do that already) but of the tools of reasoning we use in our political discourse. It is our justifications and not just our positions in a political debate that catalyzes hegemonic authoritarianism.