When one takes on dietary disciplines, one quickly realizes how much eating food is a social activity. I have come to enjoy shopping and cooking for myself, comfortable in the belief that it was making sense for me, mainly for the reasons of good health and optimising vitality but also, with that, came the additional benefits of an increased sense of morality and the feeling that, in some small way, I was helping the world and becoming a better person as a result. Maybe it’s because I am a ‘newbie’ to the health food revolution or maybe because I am actually the stereotypical dumb blondie but I quickly found out that society is full of people who feel threatened by, and indeed, are ready and eager to challenge the foundation of my choices… So why is this?
Surely adopting a healthy & nutritious diet is a universally agreed upon, beneficial, and indeed recommended, thing to do. And yet, in a social context, I have found that the issues quickly become a lot more complicated and difficult to discuss. It’s as if the words “vegetarian” and, even more so “vegan”, are triggers that can open up a store of pent-up opinions about food politics and morality. In fact, when reading articles or blogs in an attempt to educate myself further on the merits of what I’m doing, I was shocked at how deep the divide is between the extremes on both sides. I read that if you put in ‘Vegans’ + Space into Google the top hit wil be ‘…are annoying!’ From what I understand there is a secret war going on between Blog Bombing Anti-Vegan Meat lovers and militant activist Vegan extremists! As a result my idylic utopian bubble has been burst to some degree but when I think about it, I shouldn’t have been suprised really, as this kind of agressively opposed dialogue is commonplace in the world of politics, religion and ecology.
“Vegans are like the Jehovah’s witnesses of the diet world”
“Anti-vegans are just as annoying as overly opinionated vegans”
Being a non-confrontational soul, this is a debate I would prefer not to be drawn into so I have had to think about and re-analise my social strategies to some degree. I have never been one to try to impose my views on others and I believe people should be free to eat (or not eat) whatever they choose without feeling under pressure to justify their choices. In my limited experience so far, I have found the word ‘Vegan’ in particular, usually steers the conversation in an uncomfortable direction, as an attempt to explain the many benefits of such an ‘extreme’diet can easily make you sound self righteous or like some kind of activist trying to impose your morality on others…Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy conversing and learning from those on a similar path to mine, and to those omnivores who are genuinely interested and supportive, but at the same time I have been curious as to why alot of people who eat meat act negatively towards those that don’t. Its seems that this percieved reaction of general negativity is not just my imagination, as I discovered in a scientific paper by Julia A. Minson and Benoît Monin which sheds some light on why people might have curiously strong reactions to Vegetarians and therefore naturally, even more so, to Vegans. Their paper, “Do-Gooder Derogation: Disparaging Morally Motivated Minorities to Defuse Anticipated Reproach,” investigates how and why people 1 who eat meat act negatively towards those that don’t. They conducted several experiments asking meat-eaters about their feelings towards vegetarians and their morality. The authors asked meat-eaters to generate a few words they associated with vegetarians. Unsurprisingly, 47% of participants came up with at least one negative word (like “malnourished” or “self-righteous”). When asked, participants also felt that most vegetarians would view themselves to be more moral than the average meat-eater. The most interesting part of Minson and Monin’s findings, though, was that the more morally superior participants judged vegetarians to be, the more negative words they attributed towards them. For this reason we might be more accepting of the vegetarian that sighs, “I’d love to eat meat, but with my condition the doctor says I shouldn’t,” than the one in a PETA shirt.
The researchers attributed this effect to what is called “Do-Gooder Derogation,” or our tendency to put down others if we feel they are morally-motivated. When someone’s behavior is overtly moral, we often feel annoyed and resentful, rather than impressed or inspired. Minson and Monin see this as a result of “a knee-jerk defensive reaction to the threat of being morally judged and found wanting.” In other words, when we see someone riding on their moral high horse, we assume that they’re accusing us of being immoral by comparison. No one wants to think of themselves as a bad person, so we naturally respond defensively with resentment and derogation. While I can’t speak for all vegetarians and vegans, let me assure you that there’s no moral judgment on my part. Everybody should be free to choose whether they do or don’t do something without the “Do-Gooder Derogation”. So let’s make a deal: I’ll eat my veggie burger, you eat your steak, and we’ll both struggle valiantly not to heckle the yuppie charging his Tesla 😉