July 27, 2007

Culture and Tradition Again

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan, veganism, violence at 7:16 pm by nevavegan

How many times have all of us working to help animals heard someone excuse inexcusable behavior because they feel that animal abuse is “part of their culture” or a family tradition?

I wrote about this before in Tradition Vs. Veganism, and again a couple days ago I touched on it by noting again that my family participated in cock fighting, a practice most people find abhorrent today.

Although culture and tradition provide comfort and identity to many people, they can also hold us back when we fail to ever question those traditions. Did my ancestors enjoy cock fights? Possibly, but remember this was also the era of public hangings. People would pack a picnic and go watch another human being die a slow agonizing death. This was a time when my great grandfather changed his name and purposefully covered up his origins because he thought his real name and his real ethnic identity would prevent him from running a successful business. Side shows flourished back then as people paid money to stare at and make fun of the disabled and ill. We’ve turned our backs on many of these old “traditions” so why not re-examine other traditions as well?

Most of us come from backgrounds where some traditions were beautiful and others were terrible. Though we rarely think of child abuse as “tradition” in many families it is taught, preserved, and passed down generation to generation the same as if it were a style of dress, or a way of praying. Likewise animal use and abuse can be a bad habit or a flawed belief as much as a tradition.

Would most of us go around kicking puppies simply because a family member had previously kicked puppies? Probably not. We would recognize that as a personal failing on that relative’s part. But we cling to things that are equally cruel because we attach an arbitrary meaning to them. Turkeys suffer terribly during their short lives, and are slaughtered under terrible conditions, yet we feel this is necessary so we can put the traditional turkey on the Thanksgiving Day table. We still go to the circus to watch enslaved elephants controlled through fear and pain perform for our amusement because “Dad used to take me as a kid.” What we need to recognize is that we have a lot more options and a lot more information than our ancestors had—we can still take our kids to a show, and there are lots of shows that don’t use animals; we can still eat a wonderful, delicious meal together without the turkey because we have so many other foods available now.

Another funny little note on Thanksgiving is that turkey and pumpkin are the two traditional foods that most people insist on for the holiday, citing that these were foods from the first Thanksgiving. There is some dispute about that story. But when we look at the other foods served, we see a lot of foods that would not have been present, like rolls and stuffing made with wheat flour, green bean casserole, many dishes containing sugar or cheese, and other ingredients that would not have been present at the first Thanksgiving. So the traditional foods are a little arbitrary.

So many times I’ve heard people lament the effect their traditional cooking has had on their health. A friend of mine from Jamaica said that she had gained a lot of weight and developed a pre-diabetic condition from eating her traditional “comfort foods” like meat pastries. Fearful she might lose her eyesight, she had to find ways to eat foods she had not been fed at home, like salads, for the sake of her health. But she found she could still honor her heritage with fruit, which had always been a part of her family meals, she just had to give up the breaded and fried items. She could also still enjoy traditional stews, but she decided to add veggies and leave out the fatty meat she used to enjoy. I can sympathize—my family apparently never ate a vegetable except one that was cooked in lard, so many of us had to learn new ways to look at food!

If we can give up traditional foods because our health demands it, we can also give up or adapt traditional foods because we want to be kinder to animals and the planet. After all it’s not just our own health that’s affected by what we eat. That was another reason my friend decided to change her diet. She remembered all the beautiful birds of her home in Jamaica and feared that climate change and pollution would drive them into extinction.

Another way we can view traditional cruelty and our decision to depart from it is by asking ourselves what our ancestors would have wanted. Veganism would have been an alien concept to most of them naturally, but all of them wanted a better and more peaceful life for us. In my family I’ve had an ancestor or more than one in every single US war, starting before we were even the US, with the American Revolution. My ancestor who fought in the revolution was a Quaker and thus must have had terrible reservations about going to war. But he wanted to fight that war with the hope that his children and their children could be free from war.

That’s not how it worked out sadly, but we keep in mind that our ancestors who fought wars, slaughtered animals, fought animals, or even stole for a living all wanted better for the future generations. They hardened their hearts hoping we would not have to. If we could talk to them today they probably wouldn’t totally get each and every decision we’ve made, but they would want us to live in peace and take care of the planet and each other. (We’ll forget for the moment that random ancestor who would hate you for not covering your hair in public, or the one that didn’t want you mixing with people of other religions, or the one that would say “You never been to prison? What you think you better’n’ me?” or the one who went on some murderous rampage before being shot down. We’ll just leave those disastrous chapters of family history shut for the time being.)

When we do cruel things just because our forbearers did, we are not really honoring their memories. Instead we are merely repeating their mistakes.



  1. bazu said,

    Oh, thank you for putting such eloquent words to one of my biggest pet peeves. Lots of things are traditions. Slavery. Foot binding. Jell-O salads. There’s no need to propogate all traditions, jeez!

  2. Gus M said,

    totally agree, ‘but its tradition’ argument just does not fly with me either and I hope at least 5% of the human pop. agrees so we can continue positive change! peace for ALL, for all time…

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