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.

Nightcap

  1. Was Cairo’s Grand Opera House a tool of cultural imperialism? Adam Mestyan, Aeon
  2. Back in the USA, from Japan Scott Sumner, TheMoneyIllusion
  3. Why we must rethink our outdated ideas about international trade Richard Baldwin, Chicago Booth Review
  4. The complicated legacy of colonial contact William Buckner, Quillette

On the Race Question 

As in, in regards to the US Census Race question. The one that asks whether you identify as white, black, Asian, or Native American. Heritage has just published a blog post on the issue. There’s lots of things I disagree with in the post. The author is correct that the current race classification system is relatively recent, but the race question itself isn’t. I disagree with the author that we should let anthropologists decide what races to include. Anthropologists should stick to what they’re good at: managing websites.

I do agree however with the general point that the current race question is really weird. I am very skeptical that race as a biological concept has any meaning. Race is, I think, more about culture. Someone in my book is a “Hispanic” not because their skin is a certain tone, but because they can make a good taco. In so far that race is about culture, do we really think that a “white” American from the south shares much in culture with their counterparts in New England? Likewise it’s unclear to me South Asians share much of a culture with their Central or West Asian cousins.

Given the chance I would replace the unidimensional race question with a battery asking about the crucial cultural elements that distinguish us. Who is your favorite football team? (war eagle!) What is the best burger chain? (In N Out) What is the best scifi series? Star Wars or Star Trek? (Trick question: Dune)

What do you all think? If you were in charge of the US census how would you modify the race question? Would you remove it altogether? #microblogging #IDontGetHashTags