I used to look on 'converted' vegetarians with contempt, but I've come to realise there is no case to be made for eating meat
I grew up in financially straitened circumstances and meat, which was expensive, was a rare thing at mealtimes. We ate meat about once a month, if that. Also, growing up in a culture where meat dishes were the centrepiece of private and public entertaining birthdays, weddings, Sunday lunches, guests for dinner meat had the glitter of glamour, of showing off, of ceremony about it. Which perhaps goes on to explain somewhat my fascination with and weakness for it.
Different cultural contexts account for some of the fascination too: in India, where I grew up, eating meat is nowhere near as regular, as prevalent and as common as it is in primarily carnivorous first-world countries. India introduced Britain to vegetarianism see Tristram Stuart's excellent first book on this and it is possible, indeed all too easy, to be a vegetarian in India and eat extraordinarily good, varied food every day, with very few "repeats".
But I race ahead. Meat-fetishiser that I was, I used to find willed vegetarianism inexplicable. It was one thing to be a vegetarian because of religious and caste reasons something I was familiar with because of my Indian upbringing but to choose to be a vegetarian when you could eat meat for every meal every day? That seemed madness to me. It was as if you had chosen to live only half of your life, a cussed and downright wrong self-inflicted deprivation. While I felt pity for "cultural" or religious vegetarians, I looked on "converted" vegetarians with contempt. Stupid dimwits, I laughed. Holier-than-thou, preachy, smug, sanctimonious the arsenal wasn't exactly thin.
The change of mind occurred slowly. As with most of my knowledge of the world, it came by way of books. I think JM Coetzee's work came before Peter Singer's. Reading The Lives of Animals ignited something in me. I searched out Singer's books: Practical Ethics and a 2002 edition of Animal Liberation. Because they mounted logically consistent arguments and because they were morally sound, rigorously and convincingly argued, and eschewed the cheap, Disneyfied sentimentality that mars so much of pro-vegetarian arguments oh, let's not eat that fluffy baa lamb, its mother will be so unhappy to see cute Fleecykins eaten it got me thinking instead of reacting with the knee-jerk resistance I had (and still have) to the sentimental "arguments".
It slowly dawned on me that there were no rational, intellectual or moral arguments to be made for carnivorousness. The meat-eaters had always already lost. This is not the place to rehearse all those arguments in any case, they've been done far better than my potted precis could give an idea of by the writers I've named. But I need to mention one point.
Far more convincing for me than all kinds of shocking exposÚs of the meat industry and the way a piece of steak makes it way on to our plates and, let's face it, they are bone-rattlingly shocking was the unimpeachable moral argument against speciesism: because we are the most powerful animals in the animal kingdom, because all animals are at our mercy and we can choose to do whatever we want with them, it is our moral duty not to decimate, factory farm and eat them. It is an argument of such majesty and generosity that its force is almost emotional.
And yet all of this is kinked by the fact that changing my mind hasn't led to changing my habits. To understand intellectually is one thing, to put it into practice quite another, a whole untraversable territory away. I still haven't been able to stop eating meat. In any restaurant, my eyes alight first, as if by an atavistic pull, on the meat dishes on the menu. In any dinner party I throw, I think of the non-vegetarian dish as central. I view this as a combination of weakness, greed and moral failure. Someone please help. (Guardian, 12.24.2009, Neel Mukherjee) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2009/dec/24/goodbye-noughties-vegetarianism-meat