Thursday, July 24, 2014

Veganism, Year Six: The Familiar and the Unfamiliar

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

On July 24, 2008, I posted "Meat, Dairy, Psychology, Law, Economics," here on Dorf on Law, in which I described how I had decided to become an ethical vegan, after several years of having been a vegetarian.  Every year since then, on or near the 24th of July, I have posted various thoughts that have been inspired by the anniversary of having made the decision to become a vegan.  Those posts are available here: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 (part I and part II).  Very occasionally, I will also write a vegan-related post at some other time of year.

In these posts, I tend not to adopt the academic style of my other writing, which would in this case involve discussing the deep moral questions raised by veganism.  I have done so, in part, because my co-bloggers cover that territory so very, very well.  For example, any readers who did not happen to read Professor Colb's post yesterday, in which she capped off our Hobby Lobby post mortem series, should do so immediately.  There, Professor Colb discusses the moral implications of being complicit in someone else's decision, comparing the moral claim asserted by the plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby -- that they will have participated in an abortion if they provide the health care coverage that allows one of their employees to buy a morning-after pill that might prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the employee's uterine wall -- to the question of whether a vegan "participates" in animal cruelty by giving money to a non-vegan who might buy cruelty-infused foods.

Professor Colb's blog post is a tour de force of nuanced inquiry into subtle and important questions. That it ends by further strengthening the points that Professor Dorf and I have been making about the heavy (and perhaps ultimately unbearable) pressure that Hobby Lobby will put on the "sincerity" inquiry in future claims of religious burdens, is even better. Add in Professor Colb's book Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, as well as a new book addressing questions regarding abortion and animal rights, which Professors Colb and Dorf have recently written (to be published, most likely, next year), and it is fair to say that the Dorf on Law team has (at the very least) the academic/philosophical side of veganism completely covered.

With no need to add to that academic side of the argument, I have typically used my "veganniversary" posts to discuss questions about veganism from a more personal perspective.  My experience has been that even the most morally thoughtful non-vegans find (as I did) that there is a strange disconnect between the mental process of finally figuring out that the moral case for veganism is compelling and the ability to make the personal decision to become a vegan.  I have had both students and colleagues say things like this: "I completely respect anyone who can become a vegan.  I wish I could, because I know that I shouldn't do what I'm doing.  But I just can't take the leap."  My approach, therefore, has been to write posts addressing the questions of what it means to live life as a vegan, in terms of how it affects one's daily choices, interactions with non-vegan loved ones (as well as strangers), and so on.

This year, the "lived experience" question that has begun to fascinate me is how non-vegans conceive of the different diets involved in typical non-vegan eating versus vegan eating.  In particular, I have come to realize that there is really a two-part claim that goes into rejecting veganism -- coming both from those who, like my colleagues and students noted above, "get it" on the moral questions, as well as from the many more people who think that "man has dominion over all animals," incorrectly thinking that mindlessly reciting such a phrase (as Stephen Colbert's nit-witted conservative alter ego does) somehow excuses animal cruelty.

The two parts boil down to "defending the familiar" and "rejecting the unfamiliar."  As I will explain, I find both parts unconvincing, but I find the latter claim especially bizarre.  By "defending the familiar," I am referring to people's statements that they simply enjoy the cruelty-based diet that they have come to regard as normal.  For example, my last gasp was, "I just couldn't live without pizza."  People similarly object that virtually every family gathering for holidays involves dead and/or tortured animals (Thanksgiving turkey and giblets, for one disgusting example).  The familiar is familiar, and thinking about never eating those favorite dishes again -- no matter how fully one has accepted the moral logic of veganism -- can be daunting.

My reaction to such claims has always been that, yes, one will no longer eat those familiar things, but that what made those things seem delicious is generally not the animal-based part of the meal.  How could that be?  Consider what is possibly the easiest case: eating hot dogs while watching a baseball game.  Even the most insistent meat-eaters joke about hot dogs not really having any meat in them, or only having animal parts that people consider disgusting.  (Homer Simpson once commented on the "pigs' snouts and chickens' rectums" that go into his hot dogs.)  When any "tube steak" is actually tasty, it is not because of the meat, but because of the various spices that go into brats, italian sausages, and so on.  This is easily demonstrated by tasting any of the vegan alternatives to these standard items.

In response to "But I like my familiar stuff," in other words, we can note that a surprisingly large number of people's favorites taste good because they are "non-animal item delivery devices."  Even those that arguably are not, such as steaks or sushi, are still generally treated with heavy dousings of salt and other spices.  It is true that some things might never be quite the same (although advances in vegan foods might soon change that), but if one is really thinking about rejecting a moral choice because it is "just too hard," then it is at least important to know that it is a lot less difficult than one might imagine.

This past year, however, I have become more interested in the "rejecting the unfamiliar" half of the non-vegans' lament.  Last Fall, writing a Dorf on Law post on a different subject, I noted that the ESPN sports talk show "Mike & Mike In the Morning" had bizarrely gone on an anti-vegan rampage, with the second Mike (Golic) ranting and raving about how terrible vegan food is.  The first Mike (Greenberg) egged him on (pun intended), threatening to force Golic (via a "gentleman's bet") to eat nothing but vegan food for a full week.  Greenberg then spent time on the show, over several days, playing straight man to Golic's ranting, at one point reading the ingredients to a vegan dish, allowing Golic to make sarcastic comments after each item.  The level of humor was so ridiculously low that when Greenberg named the first item, "water," Golic bellowed, "YUMMMM!!" and rolled his eyes.  I changed the channel and have never turned back.

OK, so it is easy to make fun of sports talk shows and the intellectual Lilliputians who populate them.  And it is not worth thinking for more than a second about what an item-by-item list of non-vegan ingredients would entail.  What I found fascinating, however, was that it was not enough merely for Golic to say, "But I like what I usually eat," but that it was also essential to say, "And what you freaks eat tastes TERRIBLE."

This, I think, more clearly than anything else exposes the unthinking, clenched-fist emotion of the anti-vegan reaction.  This is an assertion as fact of something that is not only false, but about which the person has no knowledge.  "Vegan food tastes terrible" -- or is not filling, or is lacking in nutrients, or any other demonstrably false assertion -- is an essential part of the rationalizing that allows some people to sleep at night.

Of course, people like Golic will never come around.  For those who might, however, the "rejecting the unfamiliar" half of the discussion is even easier to deal with than the "defending the familiar" half.  "You'll never eat another steak, but you'll probably not miss it as much as you think you will, and it's worth it in any case," is a harder sell than "What you will eat is great."  (That is not to say that it is impossible to produce tasteless vegan foods.  But honestly, the non-vegan foods that people eat are often pretty awful.  Arby's, anyone?)

If one wants to eat delicious, filling, and nutritious foods, one can do so as a vegan.  One can even be a "junk food vegan," but speaking from personal experience, I do not recommend it.  The point, however, is that half of the "can't make the leap" visceral rejection of veganism is based on nothing more than fear of the unknown.  The more common it becomes for people to learn that vegan food tastes good, the less resistance people might have to making that leap.