Many people will have a vegan Christmas lunch this year, and how you feel about this probably depends at least in part on your own dietary position on a continuum that stretches from “full vegan” to “hold the green stuff and just shove animal flesh into my face”.
I’m not a vegan, something it feels necessary to point out straight away, lest this be read as just a defence of what I like or choose to eat. (Were this a defence of my diet, it would be 800 words on the wonder of peanut butter.)
But even as a non-vegan, it’s hard not to notice that vegans still cop attitude from the rest of us. Veganism might be more widespread and accepted than it once was, but it’s surprising how much emotion it still seems to stir in those who like a bit of cow, chicken or fish on their plate.
Even in a woke age, where the sensitivities of every identity and belief system imaginable are to be shown tolerance and respect, vegans are on the receiving end of a fair serve of mockery. To make fun of vegans is practically the default response; a kind of sport. I’ve heard people who are seemingly progressive in every other way have no qualms in saying vegans are joyless, sanctimonious, preachy, misguided and hypocritical.
And research backs up the prevalence of such views. A 2015 study found vegans were viewed more negatively than atheists and immigrants and only slightly more tolerated than drug addicts. It concluded: “Unlike other forms of bias (e.g. racism, sexism), negativity towards vegetarians and vegans is not widely considered a societal problem; rather [it] is commonplace and largely accepted.”
So why the antipathy?
One reason for making clear I’m not a vegan is because I think it’s well past time – and what better time than Christmas to say so, peace and goodwill to all etc – that more of us who eat meat admit that the problem isn’t really with vegans but with us.
Yes, there are annoying vegans. But so what? That’s no more telling than saying there are annoying Virgos, or annoying cat owners, or annoying meat eaters. That’s not really what this is about.
Truth is, when someone, even by their presence, makes you think about something you’d rather not – something disturbing or inconvenient – the reflex is to try and find ways to discredit them. Dismiss vegans as smug or shrill and it’s that much easier to keep gnawing on a pig’s rib.
Not that we call it pig, of course, just as we don’t call it cow. We eat pork, ham, bacon (all from the same “wonderful, magical animal” as a disbelieving Homer Simpson once said) and beef. That small act of renaming is in itself a sign that we’ve long wished to be shielded from what we’re actually doing.
The vegan, just by turning up, calls the bluff, and we hate them for it. They make manifest the cognitive dissonance that allows the carnivore to love animals in the abstract even as they eat them with relish (sometimes literally with relish). They touch off a defensiveness that sits just below the meat eater’s skin.
I’m not making an argument here for meat eaters to go vegan. That’s for others to do. But I am saying meat eaters should be honest enough to admit that behind our mocking of vegans is a defensiveness that’s all our own.
And we’re defensive not just because we like the taste of chicken parmigiana. It’s deeper than that, which is why it stirs strong emotions. The rise of veganism seems like a threat not just to what we like to eat, but to lifestyle and tradition, to the way things have always been.
Talk of a tofu future can feel like a rebuke to the roasts your nanna made (and therefore to nanna herself), to the ham sandwich in cling wrap at the bottom of your school bag, to the turkey at Christmas that stretches down through the years until it disappears like a mirage into childhood.
But time marches on and things change, whether we want them to or not. We like to think we live in the most enlightened times ever, and condescendingly see those who came before us as less humane and empathetic. But time will show us up, just as it does every age. What we don’t know yet is how it will show us up.
But surely it isn’t that hard to imagine people of the future looking back at us and wondering: how did they ever think it was OK to eat animals? How did they ignore the huge cost to the environment of all those hamburgers? How did they learn about the sentience of their fellow creatures and yet continue the slaughter?
Which raises a more disturbing thought. Maybe behind the mockery and hatred of vegans lies a much deeper fear. The fear that they are on the right side of history.