Why Are Vegetarians, Pescatarians And Vegans Looked Down Upon?

This post was triggered by a discussion that broke loose on a Facebook page I’m following. Someone posted an article about 3D-printed meat substitutes, and as you can imagine, all hell broke loose in the comments.

There were basically two camps: those in favor, and those decidedly not. Now, whenever I enter a discussion on the internet – which I do far more often than would be good for my blood pressure – I try my best to stick to the arguments and refrain from logical fallacies or calling people names and such. I don’t want to make it personal, so we can keep a clear view on the facts that are on the table.

I always want to cut people some slack, trying to come from a place of understanding, and trying to use my knowledge of psychology to infer where people are coming from. But still, I find so many responses on the internet that can’t possibly make any sense if you think about it for longer than two seconds, that I don’t even know where to begin. Especially because when you start debunking these people’s arguments, you often quickly get the feeling that you’re not particularly getting through to them. They just seem to hold on to their views and opinions for dear life, closed off from any outside perspectives from the get-go.

One such argument I ran into was: “nonsense, a butcher should sell sell meat and not some soy crap, otherwise he wouldn’t be called a butcher but a soy grocer”. It takes only two seconds to realize that an argument based on the names that certain professions have doesn’t really add to the discussion about whether or not we should make more meat substitutes and eat less meat.

Another argument I read was: “yuck, I’m not gonna eat that plastic crap, can’t be healthy at all”. I get that the association with 3D-printers brings plastic to mind. But did you know there are also 3D-printers for concrete buildings? 3D-printing is only the technology. What actually comes out of it, is different in each situation. A quick look into the actual meat substitute the article described (or maybe two more seconds of thinking) tells us that – of course – the plant-based meat substitute is made to be healthier than normal meat, with all kinds of nutritious ingredients. High in protein, and virtually no cholesterol. In the meantime, high consumption of red meat and in particular processed meat has been shown to lead to increased rates of mortality and of course cardiovascular diseases.

Another argument then: “before you know it everything we eat will be made in a factory and we’ll all be eating tasteless uniformity”. There’s no reason to suppose that everything will look, feel and taste the same. The meat substitute industry is trying their best to replicate meat as accurately as possible, so given the direction we’re headed, there’s no reason to fear tasteless uniformity.

Secondly, I think the reason so many people dislike the idea of their food being made in a factory, is because we associate factories with different things than good food. We tend to associate factories with obvious fakes, chemical tastes, chemical smells, and the word ‘artificial’ has gained a decidedly pejorative ring to it. But what if I told you they’re currently able to replicate diamonds in labs that are structurally and molecularly identical to real diamonds? The method of production is different, but aside from that they’re the exact same thing. So why can’t the same go for meat substitutes?

Of course, technology isn’t quite there yet. I’ve tasted a lot of delicious meat substitutes, even a lot that came very, very close to resembling real meat, but I’ve never tasted a meat substitute that was indistinguishable for it. I believe that with enough investments in meat substitute production, we might be able to synthesize something in the future that’s identical to real meat in every sensory sense, but without the ecological pressure and animal abuse. Maybe one day we’ll be able to put it together molecule by molecule, making it the exact same thing too. If you can’t taste the difference in a restaurant, I don’t quite see why it matters where it came from when it comes to the experience of the person who eats it.

One problem with making meat in labs and factories I can understand, however, is that a lot of people will be losing their jobs if we manage to phase out the bio-industry. A lot of people. But at the same time, if we keep going at the rate we’re going at now, there soon won’t be a world for people to perform those jobs in anymore. We need to make a change, which I’m all for, but I will definitely be pleading for proper support for all the people whose industry will be slowly eroding away, so that they don’t fall into the black hole of unemployment.

But I don’t think that is the main concern of most people who are against the production and spread of meat substitutes. What we see here, I believe, is people experiencing cognitive dissonance because one of their core beliefs – i.e. ‘eating meat is normal and appropriate’ – is being challenged.

There’s a psychological phenomenon called the backfire effect (which is explained in more detail here), which causes people to cling more strongly to their own core beliefs, and engage in various cognitive biases and logical fallacies as a result, in a psychologically programmed attempt to shield their beliefs from being changed.

These are people that come from an environment where meat eating is part of the normal culture, and where being vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan is a deviation from that norm. Cognitive dissonance arises in these people when they see arguments and numbers that point to the fact that our current levels of meat consumption are unhealthy for ourselves and the planet, that don’t mesh with their own core belief of meat eating being normal and appropriate. And then, people will go to great lengths of finding some form of rationalization or justification to relieve the anxiety caused by that dissonance, even if that rationalization makes no sense when you stop to think about it.

Aside from that cognitive dissonance, nobody wants to be proven wrong, for the simple reason that we are still biologically programmed to view the world in terms of power and dominance. And if we turn out to be wrong, it’s like we have to take a step down and hand over that dominance to the person being right. That whole power play that’s subcutaneously governing so much of our behavior is mightily fascinating, and I promise to write about it another time, but for now it suffices to say that for a lot of people, not being wrong is more important than actually finding the truth of the matter. People would rather save face, which is an understandable and normal, regular human thing to do, but certainly not the best thing to do.

I could write on for ages about proper discussion etiquette, logical fallacies, cognitive biases, but I’ll save that for other posts. Now that we’ve laid bare some of the underpinnings of such strange responses to anything vegetarian or vegan, I’d like to add another side to the story, and that’s how a certain subset of vegetarians and mostly vegans kind of ruined it for themselves.

I’ve noticed that ‘vegan’ is a term that is used lovingly by those that are vegan or agree with vegans, and pejoratively by fervent meat eaters. Taking a stand for the environment and against animal abuse is considered as something bad, something that only applies to ‘tree-huggers’, mostly women, and something that affects their view of a person negatively. I’ve even read comments from people saying that they loved Joaquin Phoenix’ work on the movie Joker but that they were disappointed to find out that he’s been vegan for decades.

I’ve long wondered why it’s largely considered to be such a bad thing if you actively take a stand against the downsides of the bio-industry, but I think I’ve figured it out: the vegetarians and vegans that wanted to convert other people to eating less or no animal products were too militant. They basically automatically turned the people they wanted to join them into enemies, by treating them as the enemy.

Ask yourself: if someone aggressively calls you out for something you do, saying you’re doing it wrong and you should be ashamed of yourself, how likely are you to simply agree with that person and change your ways for them? Not very likely, I imagine. Of course, if someone confronts you in an aggressive manner, forcing you to change what you’re doing, you’re not going to consider them friendly. And if you don’t consider them friendly, you won’t be likely to listen to them and change your beliefs to theirs. No, on the contrary, chances are you might become militant too about your own beliefs.

I’ve noticed that the same thing is happening right now in the recent Black Lives Matter riots all around the world. The second you address the person you’re trying to convey your message to as the enemy, they’ll see you as the enemy too. And then, because from an evolutionary standpoint we still function like we live in clans, everything you do will be looked down upon and certainly not adopted.

It’s like people thinking twice when they’re told “you know, Hitler thought the same thing you do” (yes, I’m involving Hitler in this. Sue me.). You wouldn’t want to be associated with a guy like Hitler, right? Your first instinct might well be to stay as far away from anything Hitler liked as possible. And the same goes for militant vegetarians and vegans. If you treat the other as the enemy, you’ll make yourself their enemy too. And then you can just forfeit all hope of getting through to them.

It’s a human thing, and also something that can easily be explained from an evolutionary standpoint (I swear, most of human behavior is, really), to judge whole groups based on the actions of just a few loud members. It’s easy to think all vegetarians must be as militant as those you ran into, a thought also facilitated by the fact that those non-militant people aren’t all that visible.

In short, there are logical and understandable reasons why so many meat eaters tend to look down upon vegetarians, pescatarians and vegans alike. It’s a potent mixture of cognitive dissonance, confirmation biases, evolutionary programming, and the mistakes made by militant predecessors in the debate against meat. Unfortunately, people often lack the sense of nuance to automatically be able to distinguish between those militant people, and the vegetarians, pescatarians and vegans (or flexitarians like myself) who aren’t looking for war, but a fair and just discussion.

All we need to level out the playing field is a little more self-awareness when it comes to cognitive biases and logical fallacies, and a little less militancy. On both sides, I might add. This isn’t a war against each other, it’s a war between a leading principle in our western civilizations and the growing necessity to lower our meat consumption and production to aid in saving the planet. And the only way forward in that discussion, is understanding, honesty, and the strength to be open to new information and new arguments and to admit when you’re wrong. I know it’s tough, and it takes a while to truly get it into your system, but if I can learn to feel stronger when I acknowledge my mistakes than when I don’t, so can you.

(By the way, those delicious-looking burgers at the top of this post are vegan.)

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