Above The Law is Not Above Uninformed Invective: What's Their Issue With Vegans?

by Sherry F. Colb

Here is an open letter to the author of a recent essay on Above The Law:

Dear Mr. Mystal:

I had occasion last week to read your Above The Law essay, “Columbia Law Vegans Are Probably Discriminated Against, And I Assume Delicious.” It was quite disappointing, and I feel inspired to explain why.

Let me start by referencing the caption for the photograph at the beginning of the essay. It features a group of vegetables like corn and zucchini, and the caption reads “Would you kill me if I was able to look sad?” This is the only reference—and a rather oblique one, at that—to what might be motivating vegans to take upon ourselves “self-imposed ‘dietary restrictions.’” The caption suggests that vegans avoid animal products because animals “look sad” when they’re being slaughtered. Beyond this caption, if one were learning about vegans for the first time from your essay, one could be forgiven for concluding that we have no reason at all to refrain from eating and otherwise using animals. Below, I elaborate more on the caption. But I want to turn now to the issue of race.

Though you do not say so explicitly, you imply that the underlying motivation of vegans is the desire to play the role of an oppressed minority. You say that “[d]ietary discrimination is the new black… for white people, I guess.” If you were right, then it would follow that vegans (the people with a “dietary restriction” whom you target in your essay) must be white people.

It is true that there are many more white vegans than African American vegans. But this hardly proves that veganism has anything to do with pretending to be black. What it does suggest is that we vegans as a group need to work harder to recruit people of color. Notwithstanding that need, veganism is not a white club. There are many vegan people of color, including many African American vegans (including some of my excellent former students). Presumably, no one among them is doing it to pretend to be oppressed. One famous African American vegan with whom you may be familiar is U.S. Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey.

This is what Senator Booker said about why he became vegan: “When you find yourself trying to avoid the truth about something because it’s inconvenient, because you know it doesn’t align with your values and your moral compass…I wasn’t living my truth.” And in 2015, Senator Booker complained that there were no vegan options at a cocktail party that he attended at the White House. He complained, just like the Columbia Law School students whom you mock.

Perhaps, in attributing bad motives to vegans generally, you are reacting to the specifics about the Columbia Law School students who complained. They apparently took issue with both the absence of vegan options and the belittling comments leveled at students who requested vegan food. You don’t like the notion that what happened to vegan students was called "discrimination." Was it discrimination? And if it was, does that mean that what vegans suffer is comparable to what African Americans suffer?

The answer to the first question—whether it is discrimination—is maybe. Serving everyone meat and cheese does not literally discriminate against vegans, because it treats everyone alike. But as you know, facially neutral conduct—conduct that treats everyone exactly the same way—can sometimes qualify as discriminatory if it has a disparate impact on the members of a group. Serving everyone meat and cheese plainly has a disparate impact on vegans, so it may qualify as discrimination, depending on one’s definition of discrimination. So you are wrong to say, in all-caps, that “You’re not DISCRIMINATING against vegans by finding their dietary needs annoying, laughable, or quarrelsome. You’re not DISCRIMINATING against vegans by OFFERING THEM A SLIM JIM.”

I would ask whether you would have a similarly hostile reaction if a Muslim felt discriminated against by an event at which only pork was on the menu. Interestingly, you say at the beginning of your piece that choosing “to NOT EAT something because of your God or your morality is the OG of #FirstWorldProblems.” That is an astonishingly ignorant assertion. To give just one example, the Nuremberg laws included food-based discrimination against Jews (also technically applying equally to everyone). I assume you would agree that the Jewish ghettos in occupied Poland did not qualify as “First World.” Yet the people who lived there did try to keep Kosher, not eating something because of their God and their morality. To say this, of course, is to refute your claims about people who choose to abstain from certain foods for moral reasons. It is not to compare the situation of vegans at Columbia Law School to Jews in occupied Poland. So please do not claim that I made that comparison.

But you are right if you are simply saying, albeit in hyperbolic terms, that vegans are not a persecuted group and that discrimination against vegans is not like racial discrimination. No one sane would claim that it is. Our identities before we became vegan, whatever our race, religion, or national origin, remain intact and make us either privileged or oppressed to basically the same degree after we became vegan. The relevant persecuted individuals in the vegan narrative are nonhuman animals, especially those who are bred into existence only to be subjected to tremendous pain and a terrifying and cruel slaughter, all to supply unnecessary food products whose creation contributes to environmental degradation and world hunger.

The reason that ethical vegans stay away from animal products is a commitment to stop contributing to the terror, pain, and death to which animals are subjected to meet consumer demand. And animals raised for food are about as un”privileged” as one can get.

Either you or an editor at ATL suggests mockingly in the caption referenced earlier that vegans do not wish to kill animals because animals are “able to look sad.” Are you (or your colleague) suggesting that animals are just robots that look like they have experiences but actually feel nothing? René Descartes thought this too, but it has not been a respectable view for quite some time. And if animals are more than just able to look like they have feelings, if they in fact experience emotions such as fear and sensations such as pain, which any competent ethologist will acknowledge they do, then that raises a question for you. You can eat healthfully and abundantly without causing animals to suffer and die, so why don’t you? I am sure you have a sarcastic retort at the ready about how you love cheeseburgers and consider self-deprivation stupid. But instead of reacting with vitriol, really think about the question.

Contrary to your image of what it is like to be vegan, the reality is that eating as I do now is not deprivation. My meals are more varied, flavorful, healthful, and delicious since I became a vegan eleven years ago. We vegans have not, as you claim, “decide[d] to starve to death” when we eschew animal products at a gathering. What we do eat, since you express bafflement about “whatever the hell you eat” includes sweet and juicy fruits, tasty vegetables, grains, legumes (lentils, beans, etc.), mushrooms, and nuts and seeds, including the many foods that build on these basic elements, like rice and beans with onions, split pea soup, pizza with aged cashew-milk-based cheese, cereal, almond milk, soy milk, bread, peanut butter and jelly, lasagna with almond-based ricotta, tomato sauce and basil, pasta with pesto cream sauce, mushroom-onion-and-walnut-based paté, spinach and artichoke dip with cashew cream, falafel and sesame tahini, hummus, garlic bread with olive oil, coconut-based Oreo ice-cream (now made by Breyer’s), and lemon bundt cake, to name just a few items. In any event, it seems odd that you would express so much anger and contempt for people who are trying to take themselves out of the suffering and death business through their consumption choices.

You predict that if you locked 50 vegetarians in an igloo for the winter, one half would eat the other half by the spring. You say this proves that “[d]ietary restrictions are a social construct.” If you are right, then by your example, you are declaring that rules against murder and cannibalism are socially constructed and thus have no foundation in justice. The implications are not limited to veganism. Your illustration suggests that there are no moral obligations at all; morality is just social convention. If you really believed that, you would have no grounds for condemning racism. Yet you assert that “there is real DISCRIMINATION AND BIGOTRY out there in this world,” implying that real DISCRIMINATION AND BIGOTRY is not just at odds with social convention but truly wrong. So the fact that vegetarians would eat other vegetarians under conditions of starvation turns out not to mean, even for you, that rules about how to behave have no true basis in justice. It shows instead that in an emergency, people--including vegans--do things that they would regard as wrong (like murder and cannibalism or animal torture and slaughter) under ordinary circumstances. So why are you so angry at vegans?

As just one example of your anger, I note your reaction when you read the Environmental Law Society’s statements taking seriously the allegation that some students at Columbia Law School treated others with derision for their dietary choices. “My visceral reaction,” you say “is to want to strike a vegan with a bat made out of ham.” Wow. That actually does sound like bigotry.

You say at one point that environmentalists who avoid animal products have a more convincing argument than the people you call “holier-than-thou vegetarians.” But why assume that vegans fall into separate camps (even if some vegans are “holier than thou”)? Vegans who avoid animal products because we believe animals are entitled to live their lives free of our violence also care about the impact of water pollution, air pollution, and climate change caused by animal agriculture on our planet. There are many reasons to be vegan, and vegans do not have to choose among them.

Finally, you assume that vegans are indifferent to the plight of the homeless, and you instruct us to save our food-related outrage for homelessness. But why can’t people be concerned about both homeless humans and tortured and slaughtered nonhumans? A wonderful charity, called “A Well-Fed World,” feeds vegan food to the hungry (food which is—despite your accusations of privilege—cheaper to supply than meat) and rescues animals in need. To turn your argument about vegans and the homeless around, what fraction of non-vegans are going out of their way to help those with no place to live? The upshot of your statements seems to be that so long as people are willing to eat anything, no matter how much suffering and death went into its creation, those people need not bother themselves with feeding the homeless. But vegans ought to be ashamed of ourselves for seeking to have our ethical stance respected by our schools and our colleagues.

I know that the ATL style is typically very snarky. Perhaps your essay was at least in part just a reflection of that rather than your true feelings about vegans. Regardless of what might have been behind the prose, I hope that I have given you a sense of why your essay about vegans came across as very insulting to a group of people who have done nothing to earn your contempt.