Your plate tells a story of class warfare

By Daniel Isler

When you chew some delicious food, and you come across something unchewable (this is not a real word), would you simply spit it on the table?  Of course not. But in large parts of the world, including China, spitting bones and other undesired food straight onto the table is quite the norm. Why is it that table manners are so different from culture to culture, and what does it have to do with class warfare and veganism?


In 1939, Norbert Elias, a German sociologist, published a book under the name: “Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation” (on the process of civilization). In the book, Elias assumes that the characteristics of the modern human, such as self-control, organized behavior and the ability to plan on a long-term basis – are born out of an historical process. He gives it a socio-genetic explanation: the change in the structure of social relations, brings about a change in the structure of people’s personality. He sets out to find what civilization is, and under which definitions an individual is “civilized”. He does so by following the history of proper manners, as it is reflected through several books of table manners across centuries.

Elias shows an escalation in manners, when the higher classes of society keep deeming certain behaviors as not polite. When the lower classes would catch up and start behaving accordingly, the higher class would change the rules, in order to be kept separated from the poor. A good example is the spittoon. In the middle ages it was forbidden to spit on the dining table itself or into the hand washing bowl. Later the order was to step on the spit immediately after spitting it, in order to not disgust others. Later, this behavior also became impolite. Then the “spittoon” was born, a bowl specifically made for spitting. Initially it was considered a cultural status symbol of social stature. Then it became an intimate and discreet accessory – and eventually disappeared from the world. Ultimately, spitting is not legitimate at all. This is the Elias’ process of civilization, and it derives from the need of the higher class to constantly differentiate itself from the lower one.


Now let me try to communicate an idea here regarding this process and veganism, don’t eat me alive (that was a pun). In the last few years, the debate over eating meat and animal related products is heating up. What if I told you that, veganism is a form of cultural exclusivity, much like the escalating table manners? Let’s see. Three decades ago, the debate was over the quality of the meat: do you eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger made out of leftovers, or do you buy a fresh streak at the market? Later, vegetarianism arrived, bringing with it the notion of avoiding meat altogether. When that became a hot trend, the even more aware people already started becoming vegan. And this can go on and on: foraging is a good example.

Do you see where I am heading here? I think veganism is an eating habit of privileged first world educated people, the kind of people that probably have a vegan-bio-freedom supermarket in their neighborhood. Poorer people have fewer choices, and their dependency on animal products is real. I also think this is indeed a practice of exclusion, when vegan people can “look down” on people that “still” eat meat. If there is indeed a “process of civilization”, veganism is a good example of it.

And ending with clarification: some of my best friends, as we say, are vegans. I think this is a noble cause, and I respect it. Moreover, the use of a spittoon never brought about the killing of billions of animals in horrible conditions. Eating meat in a capitalist world did.

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