In this post at Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte explains how she inadvertently affronts people with her vegetarianism: “In my day-to-day life, I try to affect a posture of apologetic humility about vegetarianism, and that gets me by very well in Austin, where vegetarianism is pretty common. But once I get out of this city, the weirdness erupts, and yeah, you get a lot of people laying a guilt trip on you for quietly eating the food you like.” She admits the sanctimony of some vegetarians, who politicize and proselytize on behalf of their pet cause and make the dining experience an excruciating exercise in guilt and recrimination rather than what we ideally want it to be – a time where people come together and share ideas along with more fundamental nourishments.
Because some vegetarians spiritualize their dietary choices, they are in danger of making the dining table into a church and food items into articles of faith. Enough non-vegetarians have been scarred by these quasi-religious battles, perhaps, that they tread warily into future meals with zealous believers. Marcotte writes, “My habits are taken as a de facto criticism of anyone who doesn’t share them…. You can’t really outright say that people are entirely crazy to say this. Simply by having my reasons not to eat meat, I am, in a way, passively judging people who don’t agree with my reasons.”
This seems unduly careful: I don’t think you can hold yourself responsible for “passively judging” people by believing, thinking, and doing things yourself. There’s no need to assume responsibility for what other people may think in their ignorance or insecurity, especially when there’s no reason for them not to mind their business. But I agree that it’s hard not to feel as though one is “passively judging”, and sensitivity to this, out of well-intentioned politeness, exerts pressure to conform. This may be the most fundamental mechanism of conformity, if not a mere restatement of what the word means: to not give affront through the sheer fact of being different.
However, Ezra Klein’s attitude seems to swing too far in the other direction: “I’m not judging you. If you think I am, you probably just feel bad about eating meat, and should better reconcile yourself to your culinary choices.” One can feel judged even if one isn’t exorcized personally over the fate of institutionally processed animals. The problem comes when those “passive judgments” Marcotte mentions begin to become active inconveniences for the people you are with when your dietary restrictions begin to dictate the course of every meal you “share”.
A shared meal, if it is truly to be shared, can be a zero-sum game when it comes to this. It’s not necessarily the vegetarian’s fault, but with restaurants and families not always supplying adequate non-meat options, the vegetarian’s preferences can end up hijacking the entire meal, which unfortunately (and unintentionally) calls attention to how the vegetarian feels the moral necessity of putting his beliefs above the collective goal of enjoying food together. This makes the vegetarian seem selfish and often comes across as a passive-aggressive play for attention even when it is certainly not meant to be – “What, he can’t make do with what is good enough for everyone else?” – and it puts the spotlight on the presumptive moral superiority the vegetarian feels, and this inevitably alienates everyone else, putting them on the defensive, leading to obtuse and condescending questions about the vegetarian’s dietary practices: “Well, what do you do when you want to have ice cream?” “Is fish considered meat?” “That doesn’t include chicken, though, right?” “Don’t all those salads get boring?” (One way to avoid this: segregation, eating only with other vegetarians.)
Parents are especially put on the defensive by vegetarianism because it seems a pretty direct repudiation of their attempts to nourish their children correctly. When a child goes vegan, it can often seem like a middle finger to the parents and their ineffective and implicitly immoral ways of nurturing. (I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an overidentification of an animal’s vulnerability involved with Western vegetarianism. But that is another story.)
Eating is the most basic kind of consumption, and thus perhaps it is the most constitutive of our notions of self in a consumer society. But meals are not just another arena for the individual to make “unfettered” consumer choices, even though the allure of that hegemonic ideology makes it seem as though it governs and explains all choices in American society. Meals are a virtually primordial way of expressing identity and structuring the world – a cultural experience where social boundaries are delineated. So when a man chooses to be a vegetarian, it says a great deal beyond a taste preference for tofu, the same way a preference for Brahms over the Beatles is not some random preference.
Because social order is reiterated in eating rituals, vegetarians are political radicals, implicitly calling for revolution whether they want to be seen that way or not. They reject existing boundaries between what is acceptable and unacceptable, what is and isn’t food. Meals are where we make the case for which needs are “natural” and which ones aren’t; meals make ideology material in a way that’s so straightforward that no one can ignore it – that’s possibly why these vegetarian-baiting incidents erupt. Vegetarianism thus seems to add momentum to the trend that will eventually have us all eating alone, in our cars, or at our desks, avoiding confrontation, minimizing the meal’s anthropological significance, and turning ourselves into engines craving fuel.