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A Choice Isn’t a Privilege: The Ability to Choose Is

February 11, 2010
Fruit stall in a market in Barcelona, Spain.

Image via Wikipedia

I have witnessed many an online conversation about the politics of food devolve into a debate over whether or not being vegan or vegetarian (veg*n) is a privilege (though this did not happen with Colleen’s excellent post last month about Feminism & Food). These arguments result from an error in categorization: being veg*n is not in and of itself a privilege. For most citizens of western countries who are veg*ns, however, it is a choice enabled by privilege. (An exception to this would be the children of Seventh-day Adventists.) By privilege, I don’t mean having an income that allows you to eat fancy hand-molded lumps of vegisoy goo every day: I mean the simple ability to choose what you eat. That ability depends on your not being confined to an institution that tells you what to eat. It depends on your being able to afford food instead of relying on soup kitchens or food banks. It depends on your being able to access a grocery store that has a variety of foods. It depends on your not having food allergies, sensitivities, or other conditions that make a veg*n diet untenable. But if you have all those privileges, eating meat does not make you any less privileged than someone who chooses veg*nism.

This distinction becomes particularly apparent when you consider the status of veg*nism in China.


Fruit stall in Longhu, a village near Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China

When I lived and traveled in some of the poorer inland areas of the PRC, especially in the villages, I was often met with disbelief when I ordered meatless dishes. As a white woman, I was assumed to be a wealthy foreigner (and wealthy I certainly was by the standards there); and, in those villages, meat was associated with luxury because of its expense. Any veg*ns were not veg*n by choice. In Shanghai and Beijing, centers of commerce and power by contrast, there are excellent vegetarian restaurants. For the wealthier citizens of those cities, which is not to say all the cities’ residents, the association between meat and wealth has disappeared; they have the economic security to choose. The ability to choose, not the choice made, is the privilege.

This distinction matters because to forget it often means erasing people who do not have a choice. Another context in which I have seen a similar dynamic is in conversations between mothers and the childfree. Some mothers (not all) will accuse the childfree of being privileged; some of the childfree will turn around and say that being a mother is a privilege. Either argument erases people who do not have a choice. Tell women with disabilities who were sterilized against their will that not having children is a privilege. Tell women who were pressured into carrying a pregnancy to term or who live in nations where abortion is illegal that having children is one.

Furthermore, if we forget that it is the ability to choose, and not the particular choice made, which is the privilege then we allow ourselves to believe that by making certain personal choices we can opt-out of privilege. No choice can do that, however: choosing to eat meat or choosing to wear ragged clothes when you can afford nicer ones or even choosing to live in a tent in a park when you can afford an apartment does nothing to change the essentially unjust situation which allows those things to be a choice for you and not for others.Veg*ns are not the only ones who need to work to ensure access to healthy food for all. The only way any of us can get rid of our privilege is by making sure everyone has the same choices we do.

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One Comment
  1. reader permalink
    February 14, 2010 10:33 pm

    This is so wonderfully thought through! It articulates exactly what I haven’t been able to- and I really appreciate how you laid it out.

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