Sunday, November 21, 2010

Angry and Self-Righteous?

Try googling “self-righteous” or “angry” in combination with “meat eaters” or “carnivores.” Then try the same thing with “vegetarians” or “vegans,” and compare. The numbers I just got totaled 2,912 on the meat eaters/carnivores side of the ledger, 40,280 on the vegetarian/vegan side. What is happening here?

One can surely find angry or self-righteous people of all sorts. Yet the vegetarians and vegans I’ve met tend to be, if anything, more gentle and unassuming than most.* That’s particularly striking, I think, given how much there is for them to be angry about—and, to be sure, you can find many vegans who express anger and frustration over the system of institutionalized cruelty that is at the heart of today’s factory farming. What you hardly ever find are vegans or vegetarians making angry attacks on the people who eat factory farmed meat and dairy products.

The vast majority of meat eaters are just as reasonable in the other direction. But a surprisingly large minority get very angry and self-righteous accusing vegans and vegetarians of being angry and self-righteous. If you haven’t run into this sort of thing, you can get a good sense of what I’m referring to by checking out or People for the Eating of Tasty Animals. One gentle vegan was brave enough on the latter forum recently to put forward a long and carefully considered argument as to the environmental damage done by the system through which North Americans obtain meat and dairy products. The contributor was anything but angry or self-righteous, ending with the thought that “we ought to be respectful of each other. Everyone's views are important.” The responses he received? Here is one of the more polite: “I've heard these arguments ad nauseam from self-righteous vegans such as yourself. While it may be true that it takes more energy and resources to raise the livestock that you so detest, it will continue to be done because the human race is omnivorous.”

This sort of approach to argument is nothing new, of course. Angry and self-righteous defenders of male privilege fought for two hundred years in this way against equality for women—angrily, unreasonably, and self-righteously accusing bluestockings and feminists of being angry, unreasonable, and self-righteous, while putting forward little by way of actual argument (other than the claim that male superiority came naturally to them, and thus would continue). Defenders of slavery angrily accused anti-slavery campaigners of being angry and self-righteous do-gooders, and insisted that the system would never change, since it was in accord with the natural order.

The habit of accusing others of the unpleasant emotions one exhibits oneself is of course an enormously widespread psychological phenomenon—and it’s particularly common with hot button issues where change is perceived as a threat. Interestingly, though, angry bloggers are not the only ones who sometimes substitute ad hominem attacks for reasoned argument when it comes to attacking vegans and vegetarians. Even Michael Pollan, who many would regard as a fellow traveler of the veggie crowd, ends his discussion in The Omnivore's Dilemma of the pros and cons of vegetarianism by resorting to unsupported assertion as to the psychological makeup of those who have decided not to eat meat:
I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.

The diction and syntax here is far more sophisticated than is that of the angry meat eater on the Tasty Animals forum (and condescension rather than anger seems here to be the dominant feeling), but Pollan’s “argument” is in essence identical. The way it has always been in the past is “reality,” and we shouldn’t mess with that; indeed, it would be presumptuous of us to do so, hubristic. Here again is the same old “argument” that was used in the rear guard struggles against slavery, against equal rights for women, against giving the vote to the poor—the list goes on a long way. Happily, Pollan does in fact want to change the reality of today’s factory farming, and to change the reality of the unhealthy levels at which North Americans consume meat and dairy products. He chooses to eat very little meat himself, and advises others to do the same. Why would he have felt the need along the way to suggest that hubris is inherent in the approach of those who choose to eat no meat at all? I'm sure I don't know--and no doubt it is best not to speculate on that score. But it's good to see that Pollan has recently adopted a less condescending attitude: in one 2010 interview he went so far as to say that he now has "enormous respect for vegetarians." Perhaps it will take a little longer for the "Vegetarians Are Evil" group to reach the same point.

*I will note one recent case in point. This past week I joined Prof. Janelle Schwartz’s very interesting “Literature and the Environment” class at Loyola University in New Orleans, where Animals has been one of the assigned texts this term. One of the students identified himself as vegan; in doing so, though, he emphasized that he regarded this as a matter of personal choice. He felt going vegan was an appropriate response to today’s factory farming and, more generally, to the current state of the world’s environment, and he was happy to make a case for going vegan—but to do so gently and respectfully. He never suggested that the road he had taken was the only appropriate response to the current set of environmental conditions—indeed, he suggested that at other moments in world history he might not advocate or adopt veganism himself. In my experience the vast majority of vegans are just as thoughtful and as respectful of others as was this student.