Like my labmate, Matt, I’m pretty open in the first “getting to know you” conversations. I’ll freely offer up information about my career, hobbies, reality TV preferences, even my sexuality (for the record, my answer to all four questions is “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?”). But there is one topic I avoid discussing for as long as I can get away with—I don’t drink.
After the big reveal, the inquest begins. No, I don’t drink at all. I do not enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, or a snifter of port at Christmas. I’ve never been drunk. I don’t know if I like the taste of alcohol. I’m not a recovering alcoholic, and alcoholism doesn’t run in the family. I don’t use any drug for recreation. It doesn’t have anything to do with health, and it’s certainly not a moral objection. Whatever you do, please don’t call me “straight edge” (a crypto-religious and painfully uncool musical subculture whose puritanical sanctimony represents no minor threat to my patience).
My inquisitors want a satisfying answer to the question ‘why’, but alas, none exists. Mine is less a deliberate choice than it is a preference (if it helps, think of me as gay, but for not drinking). In terms of overall utility, it’s not at all clear this preference leaves me better off. It makes me an awkward installment on dates, at parties, at pretty much every social gathering. It also raises the threshold of tolerability for such events considerably. It was a particularly absurd and socially suicidal eccentricity in college. I’ll admit, though, to having developed a sort of taste for the look of consternation on collegiate faces when boys discovered that their red plastic cups were useless against me.
But it’s not just would-be suitors who have expressed deep concern and alarm over my recalcitrant sobriety. Lurking beneath the curiosity of strangers is an unmistakable defensiveness. I am careful not to flaunt my club soda, but the very act of abstaining is seen as an indictment. This is because most of the reasons to be a teetotaler—like most of the reasons to be a vegan or vegetarian—are rooted in some form of moral concern. Drunkenness is not exactly associated with responsible decision-making. Meat consumption contributes towards such minor piffling matters as animal suffering, environmental destruction, and global injustice. Even health-based reasons carry with them a sort of moral weight, for the body is a temple, and self-control a virtue. The devil is in the sizzle of every delicious steak and the buzz of every flavorless PBR.
What makes the moral minority irritating is not that they hold exotic moral beliefs. Quite the opposite: most everyone feels the force of the arguments against eating meat or drinking alcohol. If our conscience were not pricked even a little, we would not feel implicitly judged. This explains why only certain idiosyncrasies provoke the inquisition. No one gives me a hard time about not drinking coffee, because (Mormonism aside) there is no commonly understood moral position against indulging a caffeine habit.
Everybody enjoys a good irony, and in my case that takes the form of having subjected many vegetarians to my own tedious ruminations over the years (while I could easily do without bacon, it is difficult to imagine a lifetime without cheese). But take heart! This windbaggery is actually a form of soul-searching. Whether flesh-eater or liquor-imbiber, it comes from the same vulnerable place: the desire to be—or at least be seen as—a good person.
~by Nina Strohminger~
When I meet someone new, I’m pretty open in the first “getting to know you” conversations. I’ll freely offer up information about my career, hobbies, reality TV preferences, and even my sexuality. But there is one topic I avoid discussing for as long as I can get away with — I’m vegan.
It might happen when I turn down a bite of birthday cake for the third time or have trouble mustering interest in going to a restaurant whose sole vegan option is a deflated pile of aging lettuce, but eventually, it comes out. If I’m lucky, reactions are something like, “You’re missing out on so much!” or, “Good for you, but I could never give up bacon.” Other times, though, their face darkens and the inquisition begins: Why are you doing that? Aren’t you worried about getting enough protein? If I paid you twenty dollars, would you eat this burger? It’s not like you’re making a difference, you know that, right? It’s as if the words “vegan” and “vegetarian” are triggers that open up a store of pent-up opinions about food politics and morality.
This reaction of general negativity is not just in my head, either—a paper by Julia A. Minson and Benoît Monin sheds some light on why people might have curiously strong reactions to vegetarians. Their paper, “Do-Gooder Derogation: Disparaging Morally Motivated Minorities to Defuse Anticipated Reproach,” investigates how and why people who eat meat act negatively towards those that don’t. They conducted several experiments asking meat-eaters about their feelings about 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 right now doctor’s orders say no,” 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. I think we’ve all got the right to eat (or not eat) whatever we so choose. 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.
~Comic and post by M.R. Trower~
Minson, Julia A., and Benoît Monin. “Do-gooder derogation disparaging morally motivated minorities to defuse anticipated reproach.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 3.2 (2012): 200-207.