Choices

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

“Man is what he eats” is a famous pun from the 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Being a defender of materialism, he wanted to emphasize the materiality of human identity, against the idealistic philosophical trend of his time. If eating equals being, however loose that might be intended, choosing what to eat defines to a certain extent what we are. In certain historical periods and places, choices about what to eat have been constrained to the point that the alternatives couldn’t have been but two: to eat anything you could find or die of starvation. But in the world of today, especially in what is called the “western world”, we face the opposite problem: we have an endless amount of things to eat among which to choose, and finding the criteria of choice has become an issue.

Last summer I read an article from Spiegel, about the many ways we construct our identities by means of eating: there are reasons based on health, ethical reasons, religious reasons, and many others. None of these reasons is apparently transparent enough as to give a guarantee that our choice will escape incoherence and inconsistency. One could be tempted to say that the only perfectly rational choice would be to weigh price and value and find each time a solution. But this proposal begs the question of what criteria we should consider to understand value. Again, is it how healthy a product is (its nutritional value)? Ethical considerations? Religion? Else?

In this letter I would like to defend the vegetarian and vegan choice (from now on, VVC) as a rationally plausible one, not strictly insofar as it is ethical, but insofar as it is a cultural phenomenon. To be more precise, I will consider vegetarians and vegans as people who choose what to be by choosing what to eat, namely to give up meat and derived products. The criterion of choice is based on emphasizing ethics, however sharable the ethical considerations might be.

Defending VVC against what, you might legitimately ask? Against the worry that individual choices to contrast vast-scale ethical problems, such as the capitalistic exploitation of animals, offer no solution to those problems at all. This critique is found among people, who are skeptical about the possibility of changing our systems of production without structural changes of the economy. Since individual choices have no influence other than slightly re-orient the market, those choices will always be taken in a capitalistic framework and are doomed to be either irrelevant or just to change the nature of the problem without solving it, say by destroying forests for the mass production of soy instead of directly killing animals.

My defense is simple and I have already exposed it. If you consider VVC as a strictly ethical choice, to be evaluated in terms of its practical consequences, the worry just proposed will be valid. But VVC is also a choice about what certain people want to be: they don’t want to be insensitive to animal sufferings, to waste and to ecological damages. They possibly don’t find any truly successful theoretical or practical solution, but they want to understand themselves as “caring for those matters”. And they find expression of their distress, hopes, value system, etc. in VVC.

This is also a way of putting ethics into practice, however less demanding it might be. It shouldn’t be a way to feel ethically superior, but it is a way to show some sort of “existential commitment”, which resembles a religion, and just like all religions it can sometimes fall into fanaticism. The difference with religion is however, that the foundation of VVC doesn’t come from unconditional faith in a divinity, but rather from theoretical and factual assumptions on reality and coherent and consistent deductions from those assumptions. How far reaching and comprehensive of reality those assumptions are, is certainly questionable. But ethics and rationality require us to get to action, even if sometimes we don’t have enough evidence for stating the perfect morality or perfect rationality of our actions. Likewise, not making a pondered decision, would be clearly more ethically and rationally controversial. There is no escape.

I really don’t see a way of believing that the phenomenon of VVC should be a priori labelled as an irrational trend for rich people, forgetting the “true enemy”. The “true enemy” remains, and VVC is most probably not a way to fight it successfully. But, as far as vegetarians and vegans are concerned, please, let them eat cake (vegan, if necessary).

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Tattoo

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

I am far from being a “tattoo victim”. I just have two little tattoos and I am going cautiously for the third, but that doesn’t hold me from being a great fan of tattoo art. I love tattoos of all styles and shapes, decorative, dramatic, profound, funny, classic, Japanese, mistaken… all of them!

Writing and drawing on our skin has yet become a mainstream practice, especially among young generations. Tattoos are usually known as a form of art, but can also play a role in religious practices and in cultures in general, especially with respect to rites of passage. They have been studied extensively by cultural anthropologists, who often consider tattoos important mediums for the “construction” of Men (and Women). As a matter of fact, it is a position often defended in anthropology that no human being is born a Man, but it is rather through cultural practices that the human being leaves her animal nature behind to become part of the human society.

But why are so many people driven to get their skin inked permanently in the spoiled, globalized and capitalistic societies of nowadays, where everything appears to serve the logic of profit, without any space left for artistic and cultural value? Are we really nothing more than roving zombies, selling the brands we are marked by, just to follow the last trend and buy again what is being sold by the skin of others?

No. At least, I don’t think that self-determination has been entirely replaced by capitalist determination. We still can see the traces of a cultural phenomenon, not based on strictly economic structures.

As some contemporary philosophers have noted, the Cartesian separation of body and mind has never completely abandoned the way westerners conceive of themselves as persons. The body is usually considered a dead vehicle, carrying around our living “thinking substance”. This enables us to think about our bodies as being plastic, modifiable, almost replaceable, like products on the market.

At the same time, I think that having a tattoo could be interpreted in the opposite way, as the attempt to reconnect body to soul. To make concrete something our elusive and forgetful mind could lose track of. To shape our bodies according to our minds, not for mere conformism, but in order to make our bodies look more similar to what is going on in our brains.

One of the dearest friends of mine showed me once the pair of wings she was carrying on her back, those with which her sister is flying up in the sky, now that she has passed away. The cousin of another friend had a black, straight segment tattooed on her forearm, which reminds her of one of the best holidays she has ever had. I have a Greek Ф (phi) on my wrist, which connects me to the realms of philosophy, nature (physis), and friendship (philia), among other things.

Getting oneself tattooed is part of the endeavor of building bridges between the physical and the psychological dimensions of ourselves. We are still trying to “construct ourselves” with tattoos, but not from scratch, nor to get rid of our “animal nature”. We try to resew the mind-body rip our frenetic societies have enlarged. We try to “pull ourselves together”, against the external pressure aimed at tearing us apart to make ourselves more efficient and productive in the marketplace.

Whatever we are, we are also made of our personal histories and stories, and tattoos offer a new possibility for our bodies to tell them. I think no one should worry about getting a tattoo, but rather of doing (or refrain from doing) something which doesn’t belong to one’s true inclinations. Also, not being excessively thoughtful often helps to make the right decision.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha