"My Friend Eats Fish and Says She's Vegan. Is She Really?"
No, she's not. Vegans don't eat other animals or animal products.
Posted Nov 19, 2019
You are who you eat, or are you? What's in a label?
Hal Herzog's thought-provoking essay called "The Vegetarian’s Dilemma: Do Fish Qualify as Meat?" about the psychology of vegetarianism caught my eye. I really enjoyed it, and it appeared just as I was responding to a question from Marnie, a 12-year old aspiring vegan, who asked (via email), "My friend eats fish and says she's vegan. Is she really? I'm confused." I've been thinking about questions like this for a while, and frankly, I'm often surprised about how some people refer to themselves or to others using their meal plans—who and what they eat—as a guide.
A "fish-eating vegetarian" is not a vegetarian
My answer to Marnie's question was simple: "No, they're not. They can call themselves pescatarians if they want to, but they sure aren't vegans or vegetarians." I explained that vegans don't eat other animals or their products and that vegetarians don't eat other animals but do consume some of their products. It seems pretty simple to me. So, the phrase "fish-eating vegetarians" is an oxymoron. When I talked to someone about this he jokingly said, "I'm vegetarian, but I eat a part of a cow at least five times a week." I didn't bother to have any further discussion because it seemed hopeless.
Fishes are meat, and there's no doubt about it
Hal also discusses how different people label other animals either as "meat" or "meatless." They use these categories to justify eating them. Fishes enter into the discussion, because some people don't think of them as meat, but of course, they are. Who else can they possibly be? They use this self-deceiving ploy to reduce cognitive dissonance. Regardless, solid science shows that fishes are sentient beings who experience deep and enduring pain. So, meat or meatless, they still suffer as they're turned into a meal. (See "A Tribute to Dr. Victoria Braithwaite and Sentient Fishes.") Ample research shows they're far more than just unfeeling "streams of protein."
The psychology of pescetarianism and other meal plans: Are you really who you eat?
Fish-eaters are not vegetarians or vegans, and I have no idea why they would call themselves as such. Neither are people who eat oysters. What really matters is that when one consumes other animals, they're making the choice to eat them and are part of the global food-making chain in which trillions of lives are taken for various types of meals. It's not that these so-called "food animals" were formerly sentient beings—indeed trillions were—but rather, that they were alive before they were turned into food. And, they deserve to live because each individual has inherent or intrinsic value. For many people, it's really a matter of who's for dinner, not what's for dinner. These animal beings had lives, and weren't some sort of lifeless matter like a rock or a couch.
I often wonder about the psychology behind using phrases such as "fish-eating vegetarian" or "cheese-eating vegan." For some people, it seems as if there's some sort of status associated with this sort of self-labeling, because at least they're trying to reduce the horrific, almost incalculable pain and suffering, experienced by countless "food animals" before and as they're killed. Concerning their food choices, I don't see why people don't simply call themselves who they truly are. They're not necessarily "bad people" because of their choices in who they eat.
Stay tuned for more research on the psychology of food choices and the words people use to describe themselves. I look forward to studies and discussions shedding more light on what a good friend of mine calls "self-serving self-deception." I don't necessarily agree with her, and she recognizes that perhaps these people really don't see fishes as meat and aren't really aware of what they're doing or allowing to be done to sentient and other animals. Perhaps future research will show that this is so for some or many of them, and that educating them will help them change their ways.
In their essay called "How proximal are pescatarians to vegetarians? An investigation of dietary identity, motivation, and attitudes toward animals," Daniel Rosenfeld and Janet Tomiyama write, "a considerable proportion of people (17% in Study 1) who self-identify as vegetarian are actually pescatarians—those who forgo all meats except fish." They also note that we need much more research on the "psychology of pescetarianism."
I agree that we need more research on the psychology of different food "isms," and while we're waiting for these data, I prefer that people who want to label themselves, do so accurately without qualifying their laxity. Are you really who you eat?
Rosenfeld, D. L., & Tomiyama, A. J. (2019). How proximal are pescatarians to vegetarians? An investigation of dietary identity, motivation, and attitudes toward animals. Journal of Health Psychology, April 10, 2019.