Know thy conversion narrative

An interesting piece on Salon caught my eye today written by Jowita Bydlowska, a former vegetarian who was tricked into eating meat by her date and then started eating meat again. Bydlowska explains (or defends) her choice by looking back on the reasons she was a vegetarian in the first place and finding them to be superficial if not physically and emotionally unhealthy. Her story is about gender as much as it is about food ethics; she described the pressure to be “thin and liked” as part of the reason she was a vegetarian and there is definitely a gender dynamic to her comparison of her “beautiful elfin vegan” boyfriend to the cocky “older man” who tricked her into eating foie gras – one of the most politically incorrect foods out there. This narrative will undoubtedly be thrown around in the larger debates about ethical eating and feminism – as “proof” or “evidence” of one thing or another. Conversation narratives always are.

That’s what Bydlowska’s piece is: a conversion narrative. This is something I couldn’t help but notice after writing a dissertation on conversion narratives and their role in political debate. We usually talk about conversion in a religious context, but conversion theory can be applied to other types of changes. Generally, conversion refers to a change in which a person discards and old-world view, identity, or belief system for a new one. The adoption of a new world-view often occurs in tandem with behavioral changes, or inspires them. Vegetarianism fits perfectly into this model.

What I find really interesting about conversion is are the conventions of the conversion narrative. When someone converts and tells their conversion story it will follow a prescribed narrative. Within that narrative are certain conventions you will find in every conversion story, like the “aha moment” or “awakening” or moment when everything suddenly became clear. Bydlowska describes two of these moments – one that made become a vegetarian (seeing a PETA documentary on pig slaughtering) and one that made her stop being a vegetarian (tasting foie gras).

In The Philosophy of the Present (1932), George Mead argues that “one can only interpret the past through the eyes of the present,” meaning that we each continually reconstruct our own pasts in order to make them harmonize with our present perspective. As a result, autobiographies are fundamentally limited and pretty incapable of presenting a pure “truth.” Mead argues that the factual “truth” of the past is always unattainable since everyone, including historians, cannot record the past without first interpreting and thus distorting it. This limitation and distortion is amplified in the case of conversion narratives.

Georges Gusdorf, writing in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (1980), reminds us that retelling one’s story is not an “objective and disinterested pursuit” but rather “a work of personal justification.” The conversion narrative is meant to assign meaning and purpose to one’s life story, and is therefore subject to adaptations and mutations that draw meaning and purpose to the surface. This is particularly true of cases like Bydlowska’s that are connected to a political movement or goal.

So how does one rewrite their own past to make it harmonize with a new, radically different, understanding? Well, sociologists David Snow and Richard Machalek argue that when conversion becomes the dominant feature of one’s consciousness it redefines, restructures, and reconstitutes a person’s understanding of his or her own history. As a result, the past is actually “dismantled” and rebuilt, and “the convert’s former understanding of self, past events, and others is now regarded as a misunderstanding.”  In some cases, this “biographical reconstruction” may even require fabrications, denials, or exaggerations in order to align one’s past experience with one’s present world-view or belief system. So basically, conversion narratives are inherently problematic at their core.

Since they exist as a way for converts to rewrite their own pasts, they cannot be considered trustworthy sources of information. Did Bydlowska really stay a vegetarian for 13 years because she wanted to be “thin and liked?” Did being a vegetarian really feel like a “corset?” There is no way to know how she felt at that time because her perception of that period has been rewritten to justify her decision to start eating meat.

Now, to take a step back, I am not trying to make any arguments about ethical eating myself. For full disclosure, I eat meat and I don’t really care what Bydlowska eats or doesn’t eat. So why am I talking about this? Well, I think it’s important to recognize a conversion narrative when you see one, and to know why conversion narratives like this are so problematic when they are used to support or discredit political movements.

When a conversion narrative supports your world-view, it’s easy to hold it up as a “testament,” a first-hand account of why you’re right and they’re wrong. When it rejects your world-view, the first order of business is to discredit the convert’s personal agency, usually by saying that he or she has been brainwashed or taken advantage of by the opposition. (Or in the case of Bydlowska, by the patriarchy.)  In either case, whether you’re lauding it or tearing it apart, a conversion narrative is a powerful political tool and we are all tempted to use and abuse them to suit our own ends. But this, sadly, is not a good idea.

Not only is the narrative itself unreliable because of the bias of the convert, we are likewise unable to interpret the narrative without seeing it through the lens of our own world-view and political bias. When you’re talking about using a conversion narrative as a political tool, what you’re really doing is holding up a mirror to a mirror to another mirror – and we each end up seeing a distorted reflection of our own beliefs rather than any real “truth” about the issue.

Conversion narratives are a big ol’ platform to fight and nitpick over, but they really don’t have any value to contribute to the debate. All they do is tell the story of one person’s personal journey from the perspective of their newfound world-view. Bydlowska’s personal story really has no bearing on the ethical eating debate, so let’s resist the temptation to try to find meaning in it or tear the woman down. And next time you spot a conversion narrative being touted as “evidence” or “proof” of a political stance, at least you’ll be aware that like most political rhetoric, it’s just a PR game of smoke and mirrors.

***My arguments are based on research from my Masters dissertation (2008) on the conversion narratives of Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe of Roe v Wade) who converted to pro-Choice feminism and then converted to pro-Life Christianity a few years later. I could keep blogging about it, McCorvey, and conversion theory – or even send you my dissertation – if you’re interested.  Just let me know.

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