February 04, 2011
The hostile response that vegetarians and vegans experience
I recently had lunch with a group of people including one young woman who was a vegan. She said that she often received negative, even hostile, receptions from people she worked with or others in social settings when they found out she was a vegan, even though she was not a proselytizer about it and even if she mentioned it only in passing during casual conversation and it was relevant to the conversation.
I had noticed this before. For some reason, some omnivores seem to view vegetarians and vegans as a threat to their own values and often try to convince them that meat eating is better for them. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian who lived a very long and healthy life, amusingly described this odd response (quoted in Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson (1961), p. 171):
When a man of normal habits is ill, everyone hastens to assure him that he is going to recover. When a vegetarian is ill (which fortunately very seldom happens), everyone assures him that he is going to die, and that they told him so, and that it serves him right. They implore him to take at least a little gravy, so as to give himself a chance of lasting out the night. They tell him awful stories of cases just like his own which ended fatally after indescribable torments; and when he tremblingly inquires whether the victims were not hardened meat-eaters, they tell him he must not talk, as it is not good for him.
Some people tell vegans that human beings have evolved as omnivores and thus eating meat is 'natural', and that vegans and vegetarians are therefore going against nature. Others argue that a healthy diet requires some meat products, and that a vegan diet runs the risk of not providing some essential nutrients. Yet others argue that plants also have feelings and that eating them is as bad as eating meat. Yet others try to find contradictions in the vegan lifestyle, by arguing that if they are to be consistent, they should not wear leather products or use insect sprays or antibiotics, since these also harm living things.
All these arguments are unconvincing.
It is true that humans have evolved as omnivores in that our bodies are capable of extracting nutrients from animal products, but that does not mean that being an omnivore is the preferred state. Just because something occurs in nature does not automatically make it desirable. Our evolutionary history has resulted in many features (the ability to use violence to satisfy our needs, for example) that we try to suppress in the name of civilized behavior.
It is true that being a vegan requires closer attention to what one eats to make sure that all the required nutrients (such as iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids) are in one's diet but these can be easily dealt with by taking supplements if one does not want to go through the bother of carefully balancing one's meals. While some studies indicate that there can be negative health risks of a vegan diet, the consensus is that a vegetarian diet is superior to a meat-based diet for overall health.
The idea that plants are also living things that may have feelings and that vegans are hypocritical for eating them and not meat is really quite silly. The key issue is whether we are causing unnecessary suffering in other living things by using them for our purposes. Suffering requires a minimal central nervous system. Where one draws the line on what life forms can suffer is not easy but plants (and even bacteria and jellyfish) seem to not have the kind of system we think is necessary to experience suffering.
The idea that unless one is 100% consistent in one's actions, then one should not be a vegan at all is not tenable. If the ethical goal is to minimize suffering, then the fact that a vegan wears leather shoes or kills bugs does not take away from the fact that they cause less suffering than someone who eats meat.
The arguments that vegans encounter have little merit. But what interests me is why they face this kind of gratuitous hostility at all. If people want to be vegans, why not simply let them be? After all, they are not harming anyone else. Why does it bother some meat eaters to discover a vegan in their midst?
I think that it is because we all realize deep down that when it comes to ethical behavior, the vegans (and vegetarians) clearly occupy the ethical high ground. It is more ethical to be a vegan than it is to be a vegetarian, which in turn is more ethical than it is to be an omnivore. Some of us accept this even if we do not convert to veganism.
For example, I am an omnivore. I know that I should be a vegan, or at least a vegetarian, and that it is only weakness and laziness that prevents me from overcoming my life-long addiction to a diet that includes meat. My efforts to minimize suffering are limited to merely reducing my level of meat consumption and opposing factory farming practices. I freely concede that vegans and vegetarians are doing a lot more. But others seem not to be able to accept this and feel the need to claim that they are morally equal (or even superior) to vegans and thus attack them, using the weak arguments above. I think they realize deep down that the vegans are right and it makes them feel uncomfortable to feel ethically inferior.
In some ways this is similar to why saying one is an atheist also seems to arouse antagonistic responses in some people. It could well be that deep down these people realize that atheists are right and that there is no god but cannot come to terms with it. They cannot accept, even to themselves, that there really is no reason to believe in god and that they believe in god purely for emotional reasons or out of habit or because society, at least in the US, expects one to. The presence of atheists makes them uncomfortable because it brings them face to face with a reality that they wish to suppress and so they too concoct weak arguments to justify their belief.