I’m not a vegetarian. My wife is.

If you order a bloody steak, she won’t make a peep. If you have a dinner party and serve only meat, she won’t complain as she tries to make her parsley garnish last until we get home to the fridge.

In other words, she doesn’t have an opinion on what you eat. She doesn’t tell you that you should be a vegetarian. She doesn’t say that it’s better, or that it’s right. When pressed, which for some reason she often is, she may say that it’s right for her.

Recently, I mentioned this vegetarianism to some people at work, and found myself, once again, dealing with those who are annoyed by vegetarians. They were annoyed with a vegetarian they had never met, simply for choosing a different set of foods to eat from.

I don’t get it.

Why do people get so bothered by what someone else eats? Do they assume that her decision is a way to condemn them? Usually, these people complain that they don’t want vegetarians telling them what to eat. But I know a LOT of vegetarians, and they mostly just quietly eat their meals, hoping that no one pushes a hamburger on them or demands that they explain themselves.

The pushy people are the omnivores. They’re the ones who want to say how unnatural vegetarianism is, or how it’s no better or more honorable.

And then, in my conversation at the office, when I mentioned that every once in a while my wife will eat a marshmallow, even though it has gelatin in it, the response was that she’s hypocrite. Not that she sticks by her morals 99% of the time, only allowing herself the occasional little treat, but that she’s more or less a liar for pretending to be a vegetarian.

And then come all the stories of people who are vegetarians but wear, or sit on, leather. Sometimes I allow my eyes to roll. Sometimes I don’t.

My take on it is pretty simple. Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you. I know that I have morals which I don’t follow to their logical conclusions. I believe in honesty, but not all the time. I believe in the law, but I still sometimes break even the ones I agree with. And there are a lot more.

And the “natural” argument is a joke. People only care about what’s natural when they want to say that someone else is wrong. Everything humans do is natural, because we evolved to have a brain that second guesses our older instincts.

Stone-age humans ate meat when they could find it. Definitely. But the average American eats many times what stone-age humans ate. Is that natural? (And before the stone age, developing humanoids ate even less.)

But who cares, anyway? We’re not early humans and we can learn to do things that they didn’t do. Cannibalism is an ancient and widespread human (and pre-human) habit. Is that natural? Does that matter?

And the leather thing. I guess that some people find that actually chewing and swallowing an animal feels more wrong than wearing its skin. I can understand that. We all draw lines somewhere. Many people who eat meat wouldn’t be willing to cut a chicken’s throat to avoid eating veggie pasta for dinner. Are they hypocrites? I don’t think so.

Now that I think about it, and I’m on a roll, I get some of this same stuff for being environmentally conscious. I drive a hybrid car, when I drive. A certain kind of person can’t help pointing out that I’m not perfect. For example, I use electricity, or I take a plane to visit my mom.

Of course, my usual response is, “No, I’m not perfect, I’m just better than you.” That’s because I’m not as sweet as my wife. I mean, go to hell. Anyway, I DO push environmentalism on my friends, so I deserve it more than my wife does.

I guess that the parallel here is that people don’t like it when other people seem to be making moral decisions that they themselves don’t make. Good or bad.

And it’s so wearying, because each new meat-eater or SUV driver thinks that the argument they’re making is novel and persuasive. But, guys, we’ve heard it all before. We have the same information you do (or more) and we make a different decision.

So. This discussion reminded me of something I posted to “Why, Oh Why” a couple of years ago (link to Why, Oh Why is on the right side of the main weeklyrob page). As I said at the time, this isn’t a call to action, but just some interesting thoughts:

If the whole world were vegetarian, here are some things that I think we would no longer have on earth, or we would never have had in the first place:

1. The Flu. A deadly disease that kills millions and, even when it doesn’t kill, costs the world billions in lost productivity and medical care. If humans stopped handling domestic birds and pigs, influenza would cease to be a concern. (There would still be a human form of the flu, I think, but it does little to no damage.)

2. SARS. Same as above.

3. AIDS. Ok, we’d still have AIDS if everyone BECAME vegetarian today. But scientists seem to believe that the first human cases were due to the consumption of animals. So maybe if we all became vegetarians today, we’d avoid the next big plague that’s waiting.

4. Ebola. Same as AIDS.

5. Widespread Hunger. This is arguable, of course, but it’s much cheaper to grow vegetables than it is to grow animals, and it uses much less land. It’s also easier to transport seeds than animals to places in need.

5. Sadness. Just kidding.

6. The destruction of the rain forests. Rain forests are mainly destroyed because of the need for grazing land for cattle.

Ok, we’d need to do something about the vitamins that would be missing from a pure vegetarian diet. Other than that, though, the list is mainly positive. I can probably think of more.

8 Responses to Veggies

  1. JB February 16, 2007 at 10:25 am #

    I’m not surprised at the reaction to a vegetarian. It’s kind of like being a muslim, I think. Most vegetarians are live-and-let-live, I’d imagine, but there’s a subset who DO sneer at people for eating meat, and who DO take every opportunity to tell you why their way is better.

    And then there’s a large part of the mainstream who is just going to freak out on anybody who does something different, just because it’s different. Because obviously if you’re not doing what everybody else does you must think the mainstream is bad. And that’s threatening to them. “So you’re too good to eat my food?” That sort of crap.

    That sort of person also projects their own impulses onto others– because they themselves are pushy about their beliefs, they expect that everyone else is too. So the vegetarians are obviously scoffing and sneering disdainfully every time an omnivore takes a bit of hamburger.

    I do think there’s a certain credibility to the natural-ness or whatever of being an omnivore. But maybe it’s a cultural thing, in that we’re trained from birth to think omnivorously.

    Vegetarianism is often couched in terms of sacrifice. You put it that way in your post– “allowing herself the occasional little treat.” I could take that to mean that if she ate what tasted good, she’d eat meat, and as you mention later it’s a moral thing. Is it? People go veg for different reasons– they don’t *like* meat (my friend Shane doesn’t like the taste of red meat, but he eats chicken) or they’re allergic or have some other issue, or they just feel better not eating meat, or yeah, they have a moral issue with eating meat.

    Does this sound argumentative? I’m not trying to be. Just exploring the issue.

  2. Kevin February 16, 2007 at 10:41 am #

    Several points:

    1) Your wife is a lovely person, and while I’ve asked her about her vegetarianism on several occasions, it is out of genuine curiosity, much as I ask you about your environmentalism. I have no desire to say “gotcha”, I just want to understand your decisions better. I incorporate the opinions of people I respect into my own.

    2) Yes, people get annoyed with vegetarians because they assume that their decision is a condemnation of them. Activist groups like PETA love to put up their billboards comparing raising chickens to slaughtering Jews, and so now we all tense up when we hear “vegetarian” assuming we’re about to get harangued on our immoral eating habits. What’s your reaction when you meet someone and they start talking about how their life is so much better now that they’ve let Jesus into their heart? Do you tense up, think, how am I going to put a quick stop to this? If it were just about how happy they are, it would be fine, but you generally know that they’re about to start in on you. There’s a certain type of person that just loves to proselytize, and Christians and vegetarians seem to attract them. Your wife isn’t one of those people, but the defenses still go up.

    3) The charge of “hypocracy” is something I got past when I was about 22. I realized, hey, I’m a hypocrite. I think there’s a point in life where you become self-aware enough to know that it’s not possible to completely live up to your ideals, but that doesn’t mean that you have to give up your ideals. You make choices. Once you understand that about yourself, you begin to realize the same about others. Now, I understand it’s fun to yell “hypocrite” at someone who spends a lot of their time lecturing others about how to live (like Al Gore on the environment, or Jimmy Swaggart on “immoral dalliances”), but even that gets old, because the advice they give us is usually good, regardless of whether they heed it themselves. Saying “hypocrite” is just an excuse for why we should forgive our own faults.

    4) We’ve heard all the arguments on global warming, too. Sorry it wears on you when we try to discuss things, but if you can push environmentalism, why can’t we push alternatives without it being wearing? Are you really just that much smarter than me? Probably so, but it’s impolite to brag.

    5) Something else we wouldn’t have if we never started eating meat: Brains big enough to make this blog post.

    I admire your wife’s convictions regarding the eating of meat. I admire your convictions regarding protecting and improving the environment. I don’t place the same values that the two of you do on the objectives that you’re trying to acheive, but I can easily understand your values; they’re not foreign to me, just different. You’ve both picked areas you think where you can live your life in a way that’s congruent with your values, and you’re making difficult choices to align your life with your values. Good on ya, mate.

    And anyone who says you’re a hypocrite is right, but remarkably immature for thinking it’s important.

  3. BruceS February 16, 2007 at 12:12 pm #

    Great rant! I laughed out loud a few times, and mainly enjoyed the rest.
    I’ve known vegetarians, but don’t recall being “recruited” by them. In at least one case, I only knew when we arranged a group lunch out, and she said she’d prefer somewhere that had good veggie food. We complied, and all enjoyed our meals.
    Of course, you rabid environmentalists are a different case. Many of your preferred technologies (solar electric, electric cars, other such rot) are environmentally obscene, and only look good from a fuzzy distance. You should be ashamed to ever fly in an airplane, or drive anywhere but in an emergency.
    Seriously, though, I try to follow a similar approach to yours—live and let live. Sometimes I’ll argue about the advisability of one thing or another, but I mainly let others make their own decisions, when they don’t expect me to pay for them.
    You missed one more angle. Many drinkers have a similar attitude to teetotalers. They get offended and upset when someone says they don’t drink, and even attempt to pressure the poor soul into “just one little drink” to be social. I think it’s like JB says—they’re afraid the abstainer thinks he’s better, and that he may be right.
    I think there is a significant difference between someone practicing trivial hypocrisy (like your wife eating marshmallows) and one living the life of gross hypocrisy. If Jimmy Swaggart had just one incident of adultery, I might be persuaded that he’s essentially moral, and his messages worthwhile. Since he lived a life of hypocritical lust and immorality until caught and exposed, I completely discount him. The same goes for Drugs Limbaugh, the wastrel “environmentalist” preacher Striesand, and any other whose whole lifestyle is a refutation of their message. So let your wife have her occasional treat (maybe the guilt is part of the pleasure), and I’ll keep exploting animals, and neither of us need condemn the other. I’ll also continue to drive my old four-banger, and not lecture you too much on why that’s better for the Earth than your hybrid.

  4. Phil February 16, 2007 at 12:35 pm #

    Here’s another angle. We’re taught to eat what’s placed before us.

    I’m embarrassed when my kids won’t eat something when we have dinner at a friend’s house, and likewise I’m annoyed when I know a kid’s coming over who will only eat mac and cheese.

    It’s a cultural thing that runs deep. Sharing food is a way of establishing trust. Unfortunately, vegetarianism cuts close enough to this to confuse the issue for some of us.

  5. weeklyrob February 16, 2007 at 12:50 pm #

    Holy cow. A lot to say. Should I create a whole new post, or just write an obscenely long comment. Here goes option B:


    Most people I hang out with (maybe all of them) would NEVER assume that any random Muslim they meet is scary or hates them.

    But they’re cool with assuming that a vegetarian is going to be someone who takes every opportunity to tell them why their way is better? Why is that acceptable? (I’m not saying that you said it was acceptable. I’m saying that if you’re right, then people who are otherwise tolerant and averse to making generalizations seem to think it’s acceptable. Of course, you’re probably right. And like the Muslims, I bet most people have never met a stranger who harangues them for eating meat.)

    By my definition of a vegetarian, Shane isn’t one. I mean, if I don’t eat poultry, but I do eat steak and pork, am I a vegetarian? Not that I’d argue with him if that’s how he wants to characterize himself, but it’s not what I’m talking about.

    I think that most vegetarians probably include some moral element in the equation. My wife doesn’t like red meat, but she likes lots of stuff that has some animal in it. Whether that’s marshmallows or vegetable soup made with a splash of chicken broth. There is some sacrifice in it, but only in the sense that she has to give up something (those foods) in order to have something she wants more (a lack of being upset that she’s eating an animal). Everyone sacrifices a lot of the time.


    1) Asking is different from the kind of thing I’m talking about. I’m sure that you’ve never made her feel uncomfortable.

    2) As it happens, the conversation that prompted this post was one between me (not a vegetarian) and others. I simply mentioned that she’s a vegetarian, so is especially concerned about her diet while pregnant. No one in the room thought for a second that I was about to say that her life is better as a vegetarian.

    Maybe it happens that way sometimes, but what I’m trying to tell you is that the omnivores are on the OFFENSIVE. I see it over and over, and I don’t think it’s because they’re really worried that my wife is going to have a go at them. As I said in the post, I don’t ever see vegetarians attacking omnivores (in real life, I mean. At dinner, or a party, as opposed to some activist on TV). I only see it the other way.

    4) I obviously wasn’t clear at all if you understood me to say that I want to be able to push environmentalism and anyone who doesn’t like it should shut up. Seriously, how could you think that?

    The wearying argument is, as I said, that I’m not perfect because I use electricity or take a plane. As if those actions somehow invalidate the fact that I recycle, or don’t pollute, or try to take MARTA. I sometimes get wearying comments like, oh, so why don’t you ride your bike everywhere? Why do you use A.C.? Why do you sometimes use plastic forks?

    And, just for the record, my environmentalism, such as it is, has never had anything to do with global warming.

    5) This article seems to be about evolution and says that meat “could have” played a part in increased brain size. My point is, so what if it did? What does that have to do with the choices we make today?

    It’s too late to prevent AIDS, but not to prevent the next big horror. I’m not arguing that humans should never have eaten meat in our entire evolutionary history.

    And lastly, I think that you’d basically agree with my choices on environmentalism, because I’m not very extreme.

    Bruce: I ALMOST mentioned drinking! For a year or two, when I was younger, I literally never had a sip. Just to see what that was like. People DID get annoyed.

    and Phil:

    That’s an interesting idea, and probably plays a role. It’s sort of along JB’s “Too good to eat my food” thing.

    Too long, I know.

  6. Kevin February 16, 2007 at 1:48 pm #

    Omnivores Attack!

    I like it. You’re right. In your situation, there was no reason for them to have their hackles up. Therefore I present my modified theory of why omnivores attack. You won’t get this because you’d never tolerate the opening premise.

    So, you’re out at a party, and you strike up a conversation with a chick, and before you’re three sentences into your opening she’s already told you how she’s a vegan Russian lit major with a minor in queer theory as applied to urban development. You’re completely outgunned as she eviscerates you for your colonialistic tendencies and the patriarchal system you’ve used for centuries to subjugate women and people of color. You stumble away, have a drink, and think about all the clever things you should have said.

    The very next morning, you’re talking with this guy in the lunchroom, and he mentions his wife is a vegetarian…

    I don’t know. Either that or you just hang around with opinionated jerks.


  7. weeklyrob February 16, 2007 at 1:53 pm #

    Heh heh.

    And, amazingly, one of the women in the conversation was a Russian Lit Major! Seriously!

    Or, maybe she was just a Russian Language major. I don’t know.

    Funny, huh?

  8. Cathy February 16, 2007 at 10:22 pm #

    Maybe this point is already covered previously, because it’s about whether someone has higher morals than you.

    Perhaps the reason some omnivores get defensive about eating meat is that they actually do have mixed feelings about it. How can I love my dog yet eat another four legged animal. Is it kind of sick to take a chicken, cut it up, dip the muscles in what could be its own eggs and fry it in something that’s made from what another animal uses to nourish its babies. I mean, it can go on and on. I think the omnivore argument is difficult in this day and age of compassion and supermarkets – try telling a 4 year old where her food came from. Oh yeah, a good one is when pregnant Mommy ate a pregnant female blue crab that was moving when we brought it home from the store.

    Anyways, imagine meeting someone who says they have never lied in their life and never will. You have never caught them in a lie, but once that premise has been set up, wouldn’t it be thrilling to catch that person lying? That explains a little of the attack mentality. On the morality and guilt, while we can argue about whether lying is good or bad or if it’s all shades of gray, someone out there has drawn their line very clearly. I think it’s the same reason why some vegetarians go further and further till they’re vegan. It’s morally purer and less of a nagging philosophical dilemma on your mind.

    However, here’s where this moral purity takes you. Though I was not a witness to this discussion, my first week at Berkeley was met with the most wonderful of stories. At a vegan meeting, a heated debate raged over whether vegans can, ahem, swallow instead of spit. The moral line was draw over whether consent by the “food” donor justifies its consumption. To its logical conclusion, perhaps we can only be guilt free if we just stopped eating.

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