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.
Throughout my life, I have loved eating meat, but my two best friends at Duke are vegetarians, and because of them I was persuaded to read Eating Animals by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Jonathan Safran Foer. While Foer mainly writes novels, his newest book is non-fiction, and discusses many topics that revolve around, well…eating animals.
One of the main takeaways from the book is that the vast majority (about 99%) of the meat we eat in America comes from factory farms, where animals face a shocking level of unnecessary suffering, a kind of suffering that is generally unseen at local, organic farms. After reading the book, I still eat meat, but only if it comes from humanely-raised sources.
While reading Eating Animals, I couldn’t help but think of behavioral economics (a topic which, admittedly, is often on my mind anyway), and how so many behavioral economic principles seem to apply to various patterns of people’s general thoughts, emotions, and actions regarding meat. While I do not have the empirical data to support my musings, I figured I would share them as “food for thought.”
Identifiable Victim Effect: The massive scale on which factory farms operate is precisely what makes it so difficult to sympathize with the animals within them.
- Animal Abuse: Many people would be horrified if they saw a dog being hit by its owner, yet are relatively unconcerned (or just don’t think about) that the piece of meat they are eating undoubtedly lived a life of incomparably greater pain.
- Hunting: Many find hunting immoral, yet animals that are hunted would generally have lived a much better life up until death than animals in factory farms (e.g., the Sarah Palin hunting controversy and Aaron Sorkin’s infamous letter criticizing her, even though he is not a vegetarian, and so presumably eats factory-farmed meat..
One Step Removed (see the “Coke vs. dollar” study): Many would find it immoral to treat a cow, pig, or chicken the way that the ones we eventually eat are, but aren’t fazed with it being done for us indirectly by others (or just don’t think about it either way).
Social Norms and “Us” vs. “Them” (see the CMU vs. UPitt cheating study): Many non-vegetarians see others eating meat indiscriminately and so think doing so is OK, and may not stop and think much about a vegetarian’s reasons for not eating meat (which may be reasons non-vegetarians would actually agree with, too) because vegetarians may automatically be categorized as a fringe group.
“Hot” vs. “Cold” States (see the “laptop” study): Our food decisions (and therefore, our thinking about food) often occur when we are already in the “hot” state of hunger. When we are not hungry at all (in a “cold” state), we are probably more receptive to the logical arguments against eating factory-farmed meat, and might agree to do so. But the hungrier we get, the more likely we are to do something we might think of as unethical. This is the same reason that people find it so easy to find the resolve to quit smoking just after a cigarette, but nearly impossible when cravings set back in.
Paradox of Choice: Limiting our food options (by cutting out factory-farmed food options) should help us better appreciate the options that remain for us.
Dating: I was told that many vegetarians will only date fellow vegetarians, and the majority of vegetarians are female (60-67%)…so the demand for potential vegetarian males is much greater than the supply. Thus, for males, it would be irrational not to be a vegetarian to allow yourself access to this wonderful market of potential dates.