For a long time, a subculture of my friends planned unabashedly to sabotage me, to trick or otherwise coerce me whenever they had the chance. It didn’t matter if they knew each other or not – there was instant solidarity on the subject, and they felt no need to hide their intentions.
Ever since I stopped eating meat four years ago, they would do everything they could to show me the intrinsic foolishness of my ways. This includes my family. If we ordered out and they made the call, meat. If I reminded them in a restaurant, they would taunt me cheerfully and order the most egregiously anti-vegetarian thing they could find. When the food came, there would be that look, and then, “Does this gross you out? Hmm, hmm?”
No, I would say. I don’t care. It became clear I wasn’t the squeamish one in the situation.
I exaggerate only a little bit. When I told my mother about being a vegetarian, she cried, sure that I would become emaciated. There are the blank stares, the ostensibly politer “Oh, why?” and then the few people who simply accept it. But the reaction I most enjoy comes from the much larger group of people who are just plainly aggressive about it.
The threat, I think, is fairly obvious. There is the belief, mistaken in most cases but deeply powerful, that vegetarians are imperious people who deny themselves the obvious pleasures of an omnivorous diet simply to enjoy the status it gives them over other people. It festers strongly in Ann Arbor, this pseudo-progressive icon of the Midwest that goveg.com, a popular vegetarian advocacy site, lists as the 10th most vegetarian-friendly small city in the country. They must be talking about the restaurants, because they certainly aren’t about the people. To cast diet choice as some kind of politically correct movement of snobs and fools is simply misinformed, and it says more about the people who subscribe to that belief than the people they ridicule.
I admit I come from a distinct side of this. I acknowledge those ubiquitously cited surveys (though I’ve never been able to find them) that say a quarter of teenagers think vegetarianism is “hip.” The University – unshakable advocate that it is – reports on its housing website, “We respect the choices our customers make to healthfully meet their nutritional needs.” You would be forgiven if that strikes you as nominal, but whatever, it’s there.
On the other side, there are 1,055 people in the University’s chapter of the Facebook group “For Every Animal You Don’t Eat, I’m Going to Eat Three.” That’s a lot. Now I love this group – especially its contention that “Charleton Heston is a god” – but I fear most people who are in it take its tongue-in-cheek mission literally.
On the national level, where this is a favorite (if pointless) discourse, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece last summer that suggested that a vegan diet can kill children, citing an anecdotal story about an infant who purportedly died because of a vegan diet and the parents who were put on trial for it. Soon after, the paper ran a letter from a nutritionist who testified at the trial that the baby died because his parents didn’t feed him, not because of his diet. There was no correction.
Then, last week, in another New York Times story headlined “I Love You, But You Love Meat,” a writer began by reasonably exploring the role of diet choices in relationships and then proceeded to quote an author who compares vegans to Hezbollah. The comments on the message board brought out a lot of the same: “I could never date a vegetarian” was a popular response.
These beliefs are pervasive, and they are hilariously divisive. Exactly what is the continued anxiety here? I don’t have any illusions about the increasingly industrial organic food movement or the particular benefits of my diet; it is only what I make it. So then why – it always, always comes down to this for people – did I choose to make the switch? I honestly couldn’t tell you for certain. It’s true that the idea of slaughter houses makes me sick. It’s also true that I ate all varieties of meat uninterrupted for 18 years. One day I just didn’t; that became a week, a month, a year, and now here we are.
That’s it. No grand revelation. No speechifying from the guy who lived across the hall freshman year. I’ve got nothing for you.
Some vegetarians and vegans trumpet the movement with more force than I have here, but most sensible people who have changed diets don’t want to take away your beloved meat. They want to change your mind. It’s a choice, and it’s one I hope we can agree people have the right to make.
Jeffrey Bloomer was the Daily’s fall/winter managing editor in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.