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Is My Vegetarianism Offending You?

I have to vent about something today.

I come from a family of meat eaters, and I think 90% of the meals I had growing up had some sort of meat in them.  Fittingly, I actually can’t believe or explain how I’m vegetarian.  Apparently, a lot of other people can’t either.  A couple of years ago, a Black teenager from Roxbury who was interning at my job asked me why I wasn’t eating the chicken wings at the lunch that was provided.  I told him because I didn’t eat meat.  He response: Seriously?  You’re the first Black man I’ve ever met who doesn’t eat meat.

Funny indeed.  I wish it could always be so amusing.  As a result, I don’t initiate conversations with people over my vegetarianism.  If anything, I tend to talk more broadly about healthy eating.  But strangely enough…people are always engaging me in the conversation.  And in too many instances, they do so in a fairly hostile way, acting like I am under interrogation for not eating meat.    I try to take it in stride, and use each instance as “a teachable moment” as our President likes to say.  And I enjoy having reasoned, calm and engaging conversations with many people I come across on the topic.  But it does get admittedly hard when it feels like an attack instead of constructive or inquisitive.

I realize that some (many?) vegetarians may come off as equally attacking and abrasive.  Of course, I do think there is a difference since many feel that eating animals is an act of killing, akin to murdering a human.  And I don’t know many people that would not feel indignant (and hence, somewhat abrasive) about humans being slaughtered. But, regardless, I’m not that type of vegetarian.  Really I’m not.  And there are many others like me.   To be clear, my main reasons are health, the efficiency of food production, and the environment, with animal welfare sprinkled in well down the list.

That’s great, but it doesn’t seem to stop the line of questioning in an attempt to bust my alibi as a non-meat eater.  It runs the gamut too.  Some try to poke holes in my practice (You eat fish?  No.  Eggs?  Sure.  Aha!).  Others try to poke holes in my rationale (You have to eat more vegetables to get as full as eating a piece of meat, so therefore you are consuming more resources…uh, not true).  And others call into question my motives (you’re only doing this because of some girl aren’t you?).

But nothing gets me more riled up than people trying to say that I’m “elitist” due to my choice not to eat meat.  The usual argument states that vegetarianism is more expensive than eating meat, so therefore, I am engaging in a luxurious choice.  Say…what?  Let’s put aside the fact that eating healthier now has been shown to be a net savings in the long run given higher future medical costs for eating hormone induced meat (and yes, I am making an “elitist” distinction between that and naturally grown meat…like grass fed).  And let’s also ignore the fact that most poor people around the globe have mostly fruit and vegetable based diets.  The fact is that eating vegetables is just NOT more expensive than eating meat.  My bank account can attest.  As can the fact that I split bills with people all the time and am essentially subsidizing (without comment nor judgment) their meat eating since my dish costs 75% of theirs.  There are expensive vegetarian choices, like quinoa for instance, and expensive vegetarian restaurants, like Pure Food and Wine (a “raw” restaurant to be exact), but they don’t even come close to approaching the cost of a filet mignon at Peter Lugers.  I just don’t get it…

And once I’ve sufficiently defended myself and explained my rationale, some people nod.  And we move on to another topic.  Or they ask some truly inquisitive questions and we finally engage in a reasonable conversation.  But again, too many others regress to the worst “attack” of all.  “You know this is all symbolic, you’re not going to change anything or accomplish your goals doing this.”  Full circle from elitist to defeatist.  Siiiiigh….

I’m at a loss as to what is it about vegetarians, and specifically, my vegetarianism, that deserves this reaction?  I’m not hurting anyone, I’m not throwing animal blood on anyone.  I’m not infringing on anyone’s ability to live the life the way they choose.  I’m just quietly going about my business trying to put my money where my mouth is (literally) and practice the best life I can.

Any vegetarians or non-vegetarians want to weigh in here?



2 thoughts on “Is My Vegetarianism Offending You?

  1. It’s hard for to speak about other people’s aggressiveness in questioning vegetarians but I suspect that to the extent you are accurately perceiving aggression (and you may on occassion be mistakenly perceiving it, based on your own feelings about meat, meat eaters, your diet, etc. but really, there’s no way for me to know this), the aggression is coming from meat eaters feeling that they are being criticized for their choices. I think it is fair to say that there is a large group of outspoken, very judgmental vegetarians who are extremely aggressive. Perhaps they feel this way because they feel meat eaters are engaging in a form of murder, and there is a debate to be had whether it is at all fair to consider meat-eating murder when humans evolved to eat meat (along with other things to be sure) and have been doing so for their entire existence. People get defensive when they are called or implied to be murderers. However, if this is the reason for a meateater’s sensitivity to the issue, it is certainly hypocritical for that meat eater to get aggressive with a vegetarian over the vegetarian’s personal choices. And there are surely lots of aggressive meateaters who behave this way to vegetarians simply because they are simply reactionary.

    Personally, I have taken a probing line of questioning with many vegetarians, and it is based in my respectful desire to understand their reasons for not eating meat. My goal in doing so is largely tied to my own questioning about whether I should be following my body’s instincts telling me I should be eating meat, what the factors are in making such a decision, what information the person has to suppor their views, etc. I try to take a neutral tone and to stop if the other person seems uncomfortable. But perhaps it’s just not polite to engage in even this type of questioning baout someone’s dietary choices if they aren’t bothering you about yours. But as with most topics, I think the relationship between the conversants, the situation and other factors determine whether the conversation is appropriate.

    Finally, just to touch on the topic of meateating itself (since you did), I think one has to be precise in discussing all the issues associated with diet. There are lots of possibly valid arguments to be made and there are just specious ones. You have cited only the specious ones made by meateaters, and it is fair to say that people who are both aggressive in questioning someone else’s diet choices AND make stupid arguments are certainly worth dismissing. More interesting are the ones who approach the issue with respect and who have arguments that aren’t so easily dismissed.

    Based on my reading, the problem is factory-farmed meat (which, to be fair, is most of the meat in this country), refined sugars and grains, and processed vegetable oils. A vegetarian diet that excludes these things is surely healthy that a meat eating diet that doesn’t, but I believe that a diet that includes pastured animal protein and fats is probably healthy than a vegetarian diet that includes all that junk, and probably healthier (although the measure of what’s “healthy” would have to be defined) than even a vegetarian diet that doesn’t include the junk. I also think that the types of food tolerated best will vary by individual, even if some generalizations can fairly be made.

    Posted by Anonymous | February 2, 2012, 4:02 pm
  2. I agree that there are a lot of vegetarians that engage in aggressive and judgmental behavior. That is indisputable. But I don’t think that’s me. I seldom open my mouth unless specifically asked why I’m vegetarian, I provide my reasoning, and that’s that. Perhaps others are preemptively attacking to avoid being attacked (even though I have no intention of doing so). Is this the legacy of George W. Bush on the debate over vegetarianism?

    And I also fully agree that having reasoned discussions on the topic can be beneficial to all involved. I have only cited the specious “arguments” here because those are the ones that tend to be more popular when people are in a more dismissive mode. But, certainly, I have had several conversations where people have made many more reasoned “arguments” which results in a healthy, yet respectful debate where I have learned something from others as I hope they have learned something from me.

    I’m not necessarily asking to be completely left alone, that is unless someone is being intolerant. Instead I’d much prefer to just be respected as I hopefully respect others as well…

    Posted by chico | February 3, 2012, 12:21 am

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