I can’t count the times that upon telling someone I am vegetarian, he or she responded by pointing out an inconsistency in my lifestyle or trying to find a flaw in an argument I never made.
In this quote from his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer describes an experience many vegetarians can relate to. The label comes with a whole lot of baggage—and, as with most group identities, a lot of assumptions.
I’ve got some other unusual traits, but they didn’t prepare me for the social experience of being a vegetarian. I’m old enough now that I don’t end up in conversations about high school very often, but throughout college, I made a conscious effort to hide the fact that I’d been home schooled until I’d known someone long enough that they wouldn’t write me off as a friendless dweeb or religious extremist because of it. Even then, I felt the admission required a lengthy clarifying conversation. I don’t deliberately hide my bisexuality, but since I’m engaged to the man I’ve been dating for over seven years, it doesn’t come up very often.
My best preparation for being a vegetarian was being an atheist. Admitting to either one is often perceived as an attack on the person you’re talking to, in a way that isn’t true of bisexuality or home schooling. To many theists and omnivores, atheism and vegetarian are simply upsetting, and some react defensively—which, in practice, often means offensively. By the time I quit eating meat, I was already used to being called arrogant for being an atheist, so being called self-righteous for being a vegetarian was at least less of a shock (if no less nonsensical and confusing).
The scarcity of vegetarians allows for stereotypes of them to be proliferated.
I think the central problem is that it’s easy to make assumptions about a group when you don’t know very many (or any) of its members. Something atheists and vegetarians have in common, besides a shared feeling of beleagueredness, is that there are not very many of either in this country: recent polling puts the numbers at about 3.2% for vegetarians and 2.4% for atheists. Americans can know there are multiple ways to be Christian because they know a whole lot of Christians who are observably different from each other. Hearing Pat Robertson say something obnoxious doesn’t necessarily influence your impression of Christians in general because you have plenty of examples of Christians being non-obnoxious in your everyday life. But when you’ve never met an atheist, you might guess they’re generally cranky and condescending and a little sexist because you read some of Richard Dawkins’s tweets once. Similarly, the scarcity of vegetarians allows the stereotypes about them to proliferate.
So I want to use this week’s special series to clarify some myths and give you a peek into the diverse world of people who, for whatever reason(s), abstain from eating some or all animal products. If my contributors and I have done our jobs right, you should wake up on Friday with a clearer understanding of two main ideas:
1. There are many veg*nisms.
I’m using the asterisk to indicate that both veg[etaria]ns and veg[a]ns are being discussed here, as well as everything in between. Some people don’t eat beef or pork. Some also omit poultry. If they stop there, they might call themselves pescetarians; or they might cut out seafood as well. Others also abstain from dairy and eggs—this is usually considered veganism. But believe it or not, there is a lively debate within the vegan community about whether honey is vegan. And this doesn’t even get into the people who eat dairy and fish but not eggs, or those who eat clams but not honey, or those who do eat honey but don’t wear leather, or those who sometimes eat meat on special occasions, or the innumerable other dietary practices and lifestyles people have adopted that somehow relate to beliefs about animals. Which brings me to…
2. There are many reasons why someone might be veg*n.
The diversity of veg*nisms is partly due to the fact that there are a lot of different stories behind why people do or don’t eat certain things. Some people are trying to eat healthier, in which case you might see them eat lean poultry but not red meat. Others are motivated by environmental concerns, which could mean they eat certain animal products they perceive as sustainably farmed. One of the most well-known but poorly-understood reasons for veg*nism is animal welfare, which can be interpreted and practiced in many different ways. And as the posts in this series illustrate, there is often more than one belief at play. Food is something we necessarily interact with every single day of our lives, so it is no surprise that it figures prominently in the teachings of many different religions and worldviews. And with growing concerns about where our food comes from, what’s in it, how it’s produced, and what it does to our bodies, science is playing a bigger role in the way we eat.
So please enjoy this week’s sampling of the diverse veggie world with an open mind. You’ll hear from a historian studying a Christian “mystic vegetarian” who lived hundreds of years ago, a Jain whose religious beliefs about nonviolence guide his continually evolving diet, and a cognitive scientist who thinks atheists have no excuse not to be vegan. I obviously hope you learn something from it—and by “something” I mean “the two things I just said are the take-home messages”—but I also hope it inspires you to eat more consciously, no matter who or what is on your plate.
Chelsea Link is an Editor at Large for Cosmologics and an alumna of Harvard College, where she studied History and Science.
Image from Flickr via ants of the sky.