“Who Are You?” asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.
When I identify as a vegetarian, I occasionally face questions such as “What do you eat?” or “How can you give up bacon?” Those questions and related experiences reflect the dominance of meat within contemporary American culture, at least among some. In some parts of Asia, those who identify as vegetarians typically do not hear such questions because vegetarian cuisine is much more common and has been for a long time.
Yet, even in those regions with a long history of vegetarian cuisine, what a person means when they identify as a vegetarian varies, as the label cloaks significant diversity. Some vegetarians consider seafood to be acceptable (and they have a separate subgroup, pescatarians). Some vegetarians do not want to eat anything, such as fish sauce or animal-derived gelatin, that has required the death of a sentient creature to produce. Others refrain from eating meat but are more lenient on other animal-derived foods. Some refrain from consuming meat simply because they do not like meat; for others it is a sacrifice that they take on out of an ethical question of violence or an environmental concern about the allocation of resources to meat production. For some, being vegetarian correlates with their identification as an “animal lover,” while others consider vegetarianism to be a requirement to remain pure from a pollution that they associate with meat consumption.
So, my identification does not delineate clearly what I choose to eat and avoid or the reasons behind it. What I am willing to eat has certainly shifted over time, even while identifying as a vegetarian. The identification also provides a weak basis for uniting a group. Beyond having many different reasons for and understandings of vegetarian practices, those who identify as vegetarians hold other interests and socio-economic and political commitments that are not consistent among vegetarians (despite stereotypes of liberal political ideologies).
So, why do I employ this label that provides limited clarity? Because food is an important component of our social interactions, I often identify as vegetarian when I receive an invitation to eat with others. But the practical interest in having something that I consider to be acceptable to eat is only part of my strategic identification. While distinguishing myself from others may be another motivation, I also want to make vegetarian choices more widely accepted and less isolating in this society in order to make the choice easier for myself and others to make. In a sense, I want to promote pride in being vegetarian and acceptance and accommodation from others for vegetarians.
When analyzing the dynamics of identification, it is intriguing to me what labels do and do not tell us. Having used several hundred words to discuss my identification as a vegetarian, how much do you really know about who I am, or even what I eat and why? So, even in this post answering ‘Who are you?” the identifying label serves my purposes to accomplish something beyond identifying myself.
Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA [public domain]