Following my recent column about vegetarianism, I received a wave of hate mail from meat eaters. This came as no surprise -- as food has finally become a political issue in America (as it should), some carnivores have become increasingly aggressive toward anyone or any fact that even vaguely prompts them to critically consider their culinary habit. Although the stereotype imagines vegetarians sententiously screaming at any meat eater they see at the lunch counter or dinner table, I've found quite the opposite to be true. In my personal life, I go out of my way to avoid talking about my vegetarianism while I'm eating with friends, family or work colleagues, but nonetheless regularly find myself being interrogated by carnivores when they happen to notice that I'm not wolfing down a plate of meat.
Having been a vegetarian for more than a decade now, and having been raised in a family of proud meat eaters, I'm going to use this space to publish a brief primer for both vegetarians and those who are considering vegetarianism -- a primer on what kind of blowback you should expect to face when you are forced to publicly explain your personal dietary decision, and what succinct, fact-based responses are most appropriate when confronting the tired cliches that will be thrown at you from enraged carnivores.
Carefully Consider Your Public Explanation Before Speaking
To those thinking about becoming vegetarians and those who have recently become vegetarians, you should spend some time figuring out what your public rationale will be when asked -- and you should consider that question separate from what your actual rationale is. Why? Because regardless of why you really decided to become a vegetarian, how you publicly explain your choice will almost guarantee the kind of reaction you will get.
Today, there are three levels of explanation that generally generate three distinct reactions from carnivores on a sliding continuum that runs from completely accepting all the way to belligerently hostile.
The first -- and safest -- public explanation is personal health. With science telling us that meat eating is linked to heart disease, cancer, obesity, E.coli poisoning, Salmonella poisoning, Mad Cow disease and other such ailments, this rationale is the one that's most easily accepted by angry carnivores because it doesn't imply judgment. It allows meat eaters to rationalize their flesh consuming fetish by telling themselves that what may not be healthy for you is perfectly healthy for them. It probably isn't, of course, especially if the meat eater you are talking to is an average American consuming the typical (and unfathomably huge) 194 pounds of flesh a year. But that's beside the point.
The second public explanation you can offer is environmentalism. Again, the science is clear and overwhelming.
Meat protein takes an obscene amount of energy to produce compared with vegetable protein. As Cornell University reports, "Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein." Meanwhile, meat production generates huge amounts of toxic waste (Google "hog farm" and "lagoon" for a taste). This is why the United Nations has called the meat industry -- and therefore, meat eating -- "one of the ... most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."
However, with the environmental rationale, you are likely to get at least some vitriol from carnivores because it does imply a level of judgment. When you say you are a vegetarian because you want to do right by the planet, it implies that the person across the table who is happily shoving that bloody steak down his throat doesn't really care about the environment.
The third public explanation you can use (and the one I use because I feel so strongly about it) is morality -- but beware: This is almost guaranteed to get you screamed at because it's seen as a direct judgment of the meat eaters' personal value system.
So, when you are inevitably asked about your vegetarianism, any hint that you don't want to eat meat because you don't want an animal to have to die for your palate will likely get you either condescendingly ridiculed as a tree-hugging hippie or viciously attacked as an arrogant, conceited holier-than-thou freak.
Typically, this will involve all sorts of laughably labyrinthine arguments from carnivores. They'll insist that because you sometimes swat mosquitos, you're a self-delusional hypocrite, and that because they have enough guts to buy nice vacuum-sealed packets of bloodless, viscera-free pre-killed beef at the supermarket, they are the truly moral, consistent and courageously honest heroes of the food world. Some will further insist that they only eat "humane" meat, and that they are therefore actually making a more "humane" decision than many vegetarians who ever dare to eat non-organic vegetables. Based on consumer statistics, though, this is, in almost all cases, a total lie -- only a tiny sliver of meat eaters eat "humane" meat. And regardless, the "humane" meat argument doesn't really address your central rationale because, of course, a grass-fed cow, free-range chicken and wild-caught fish all have to be slaughtered for someone to enjoy a meal out of them.
Quick Answers to Typical Attacks On Vegetarians
As I said, in reaction to my recent column about raising my son in a vegetarian family, I received a flood of predictable hate mail, calling me everything from a weak unmanly eunuch to a child abuser to Adolf Hitler (no joke -- we'll get to that in a second). The following is an amalgam of these carnivore-defending banalities, and some easy retorts vegetarians can use to answer them.
Carnivore Justification: Because humans have incisors and stomachs that can digest meat, we must eat meat -- and to raise a child in a vegetarian household is akin to child abuse.
Vegetarian Response: The human body can eat and digest lots of things. It can, for example, chew up and digest other humans. It can also eat animals while those animals are still alive. In most cases, we refrain from doing these things. Why? Because "civilization" means recognizing that just because we can do something doesn't mean we must do something.
Carnivore Justification: Humans have been eating meat for thousands of years, so we simply must continue the tradition.
Vegetarian Response: While this is technically true, we haven't been eating the American average of 194 pounds of meat every year for thousands of years. We've been eating significantly less. Additionally, humans have done lots of things for most of human history that we now choose not to do. A few examples: for most of human history we've embraced the institution of slavery, treated women like property, engaged in mass genocide and permitted all forms of monstrous public torture/execution. While this kind of thing still happens in a few shadowy corners of the globe, for the most part, civilization has largely deemed it no longer acceptable. In other words, just because we've done something in the past, doesn't mean we should continue doing it without question.
Carnivore Justification: Being a meat eater makes humans stronger and men more manly -- and being a vegetarian physically weakens people and makes men into wimps. Therefore, we must eat meat.
Vegetarian Response: Of course, the average meat-obsessed American fatty is obviously more manly than and could clearly beat up (among others) NFL running back Ricky Williams, clean-up slugger Prince Fielder, MMA fighter Mac Danzig, and, of course, that classic embodiment of wimpiness, Mike Tyson.
Carnivore Justification: Vegetarianism is exclusively a "rich person issue" or a "white person issue" of a "First World problem" but just not that important if you purport to care about poor people.
Vegetarian Response: Tell that to the global poor, who are disproportionately not rich and not white, and who will be disproportionately harmed by global climate change. That environmental disaster, of course, is intensified by the carbon-emissions-intensive meat industry. Additionally, as Cornell University has reported, "If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million." In light of persistent starvation crises, it's more than a little silly for carnivores to pretend vegetarianism is a form of limousine elitism.
Carnivore Justification: Animals are just glorified crops -- killing them is as humane as cutting down an ear of corn.
Vegetarian Response: There's no real right or wrong answer here, because the notion of "humane" is inherently subjective. However, it's more than a little bit telling that few, if any, Americans use this rationale as a justification for eating their pet dog, which is not nearly as smart, cognizant as, say, a pig. Indeed, the idea that animals with a brain and central nervous system are on the same intelligence and self-awareness plane as a plant is not only belied by science, but is so non-sensical as to be humiliating for the person making the argument.
Carnivore Justification: Hitler was supposedly a vegetarian, so that must mean vegetarianism is a form of Nazism (yes, I really did get emails making this argument).
Vegetarian Response: First of all, it's not really clear that Hitler was actually a vegetarian. But even if he was, Hitler also wore boots. And went to the bathroom. And had a mustache. So unless you are willing to say that anyone who wears boots, goes to the bathroom or sports a mustache is a genocidal Nazi, this line of argument is silly.
Carnivore Justification: Some people, such Eskimos who fish or Mongolians who hunt, are forced by geographic circumstance to eat meat in order to subsist. Therefore, making moral judgments about all meat eating is a form of ethnocentric relativism.
Vegetarian Response: By this logic, because the plane crash survivors in "Alive" had to embrace cannibalism in order to survive, we shouldn't be offended by anyone becoming cannibals in the future.
Carnivore Justification: It's better for the environment to eat a locally-raised, grass-fed steak than it is to eat beans flown in from halfway across the world.
Vegetarian Response: This is what magicians refer to as "misdirection" or linguists call a "non-sequitur" -- it's an attention-grabbing talking point that seems wholly impervious to challenge, but that's really an unrelated distraction. After all, you would also be right to say that it's better for the environment to eat a locally-raised beans in your garden than it is to eat a steak flown in from halfway across the globe. The fact remains that when comparing apples to apples (or apples to hulking sides of beef, as it were), locally grown beans are inherently less expensive, less energy intensive and less carbon emitting to produce than any form of locally grown meat.
Carnivore Justification: Humans must eat meat to get enough protein to be healthy.
Vegetarian Response: Arguably, those with extremely severe cases of iron deficiency anemia and some other very rare conditions might be able to stake a tiny claim to this argument, but almost everyone else cannot. There is no definitive scientific evidence that shows humans need to eat meat to survive. This is especially true in developed nations like the United States, where plant protein is widely available, and often more affordable than meat protein.
UPDATE: A number of commenters have said what commenter Jeffrey P. Harrison said: "I am a carnivore [and] it's none of your damned business." This is usually where the conversation with angry, over-aggressive carnivores ends up -- with the carnivore going libertarian, refusing to discuss the substance and science of food decisions, other than to declare it an entirely "personal choice." The problem, of course, is that these decisions are everyone's business when they threaten our collective air, water and ecosystem, as meat eating disproportionately does (as shown above). Indeed, trite "live and let live" platitudes sound great in theory, but they aren't applicable in the case of food -- and specifically when meat eaters' culinary obsessions are unduly threatening the planet's future.