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.

The Paleo Diet and the Vegetarians

I have been defending the “Paleo diet,” named after the book of the same name by Loren Cordain. Unlike many of its critics, I have actually read the book. I like the fact that it rests on an overall defensible viewpoint based on evolutionary theory while its specific claims are explicitly and painstakingly related to modern research.

The Paleo diet or v “caveman’s diet” simply says that our genetic apparatus cannot have changed much since the spread of agriculture, 7,000, 8,000 or 9,000 years ago (more like 6,000 for people of European ancestry). Therefore, the author argues, we should limit our food intake to what our pre-agriculture ancestors ate: Vegetables, fruits, nuts, and especially fish and meat. Thus, it excludes cereals, beans, dairy products and sugar, among other staples. That’s the general argument. As I have said, there are also specific arguments pertaining to different classes of food that are linked to contemporary scientific research.

I have been observing the Paleo diet, with some systematic cheating, for a little less than a year. The cheating involves two items: wine and coffee. Cavemen obviously had the solace of neither (but they had the thrill of trying to escape giant cave bears). Basically, I would rather be unhealthy than give up either drug. My adherence to the Paleo diet is not a “faith.” It’s completely rational, as the accommodation I make at this stage in my mind with the information available to me. I could turn on a dime on this.

Two things have happened since I started the Paleo diet: First, I have had Diabetes Type II for twenty years. Less than three months after I started, my basic blood sugar number became almost normal. (That’s the same number I have been monitoring for fifteen yeas.) It became completely normal another three months later and has stayed there.* Second, I have lost a little weight without even trying. I keep losing. It’s very little but it’s consistent. (I use to gain a little weight consistently.) There is no mystery about why I lose weight: I seldom feel hungry and when a I do, I am able to cut hunger with ten almonds.

Of course, the coincidence in time of this positive health development with the diet may just be that, a coincidence. This is how I am thinking about it: For twenty years, there are no good news; I go on a specific diet that promises specific improvements; shortly thereafter, I get specific good news pertaining to the improvement the diet promises.

Of course, it’s possible that in addition to positive health outcomes, the Paleo diet is destroying my heart, or my kidneys. As to the first, my Stanford Medical school cardiologist is not concerned. My other doctor, the internist who hates fads has not said anything about danger to my kidneys.

The Paleo diet has not made me more handsome, nor smarter, nor yet kinder, I must admit.

My testimony just remains this, a personal testimony; it’s a truthful one. The critique below is more than a personal testimony though if you believe that the nature of its warriors tells you something about the validity of a particular war.

Of course, the Paleo diet has triggered the anger of vegetarians and “sustainable” agriculture advocates, and well it should have. Sustainable Ag people simply don’t have a leg to stand on. Veggies are apparently tired of simply arguing that theirs is an ethically superior stance. (I believe it is.) There is an article in the June 3 2013 issue of Scientific American that just came to my attention. I surmise, it’s an expression of this anger. It treats the Paleo diet as just another unscientific fad. In the middle of the article, the author uses the following words with respect to our ancestors: “[they] evolved a mutation.” Cut, stop press! Mutations don’t “evolve,” they just happen; they happen all the time. The verb matters, it suggests that a particular mutation appeared in response to something. Mutations are not (adaptive) responses to anything; they are the material on which evolution plays. Natural selection simply retains spontaneous mutations.

End of story; end of reading. The author just demonstrated that he lacks a basic understanding of evolutionary theory, the main material of the view he is criticizing. How about the editors of Scientific Americans, what were they thinking when they allowed this monstrosity? Is there a reason for the laxness? Is there an agenda or is it just an expression of ordinary slothfulness?

This big mistake in a big publication dedicated to the spread of science does not make the Paleo diet right of course. I will await with interest a critique by someone who know what he is talking about.

* I am still taking the full complement of diabetic drugs. It’s a precaution and my doctor, a skeptic, does not seem to know how to phase them out without risk.

Organic Food and Red Herrings

I use my editor’s privilege to respond here to Ryan MH’s argument in the piece entitled: “The Cost of Organic Food: An Exchange.” I do this for the sake of clarity alone. Ryan has unfettered access to this blog.

Let me begin by stating that I congratulate myself for having elicited a serviceable and seemingly complete definition of “organic” from Ryan. This is the first time someone give me a definition, in my whole life!

Ryan MH is all over the place  to such an extent that I felt like crying in my turn as I read. So, let me specify what I am interested in.

The issue of the high cost of organic food only matters to me because I believe that it is not different from a health standpoint from non-organic food grown in this country. I think it has no merits for the consumer except in his head.

I am focusing on the portion of the organic definition that had to do with the genetic modification of organisms by methods others than the traditional methods of artificial, guided, purposeful selection and hybridization by sex methods and such. This means pretty much methods that existed before World War Two.

Ryan said in my presence that  foods modified by new methods (“genetically modified” except that these terms have no meaning.), that such food have adverse effects on human health.

If Ryan MH did not say this or something identical, for practical purposes, I have no discussion with him. I must have misunderstood him and I apologize for wasting his time and yours. Continue reading