Shame! At the Dinner Table

Treehugger ran a feature last month on what they called ‘cheatatarianism,’ the phenomenon of claiming to be vegetarian at home and then eating animal products outside the home. The article sent my brain spinning off in some different directions. The idea of lying about your diet at home seems odd, to me, but given how pompous people can be about their diets, and how determined people can be to shame each other, I can see how some folks might find it easier to lie at home to keep the peace.

I don’t want to get into a debate about which diet is ‘better’ because that’s old, tired ground. I think that everyone needs to eat food that tastes good, that makes them feel good, that makes them feel happy, and that people should have access to food that meets that goal. For me, a major concern with the food system is lack of access. I’m not interested in policing what people do/don’t eat, and as an ex-vegan, you won’t catch me sanctimoniously lecturing about the ‘benefits’ of one diet or another. I’m interested in food access and making food choices available to everyone, to support people eating food they like.

And while shaming is a common tactic in a lot of movements, I think it’s especially common in the environmental movement in general and the food movement in particular. People are constantly and consistently shamed for not eating the ‘right’ things, often by people who don’t really think about the complexities involved with food and eating. There are significant barriers to accessing vegetarian food, organic food, locally produced food and those barriers don’t go away by shaming people. They go away by changing the food system.

For some people who are considering veganism or vegetarianism, they want to move in small steps, and cutting out animal products at home is easier for them. People who think the diet has benefits, and aren’t avoiding animal products simply because they don’t like them or because they believe they are ethically/morally wrong, might not be willing to go whole hog in one go, but do want to cut down on the consumption of animal products on the argument that eating less of these products is better than continuing with their previous dietary habits. Using animal products as a treat, rather than a regular occurrence, may help them stick to their desire to eat less animal products by allowing them to eat some. There’s a phenomenon that happens where humans pledge to do things, slip up, and then just give up, and building in some room for error helps people keep their initial pledges.

Many of the environmental arguments are based on the idea that reducing use of animal products will be a more efficient use of resources, which is both true and false, because the issue is complicated, but no matter how you slice it, less demand for animal products would cut down on things like CAFOs. Heck, Treehugger itself even has a ‘weekday vegetarian’ feature, providing recipes people can prepare at home with the goal of cutting down their consumption of animal products, not necessarily stopping it entirely. It seems like rather than shaming people for being partially vegetarian, so to speak, we should be supporting people who are making modifications to their diet within their comfort zones?

Dietary choices are personal, and they are complicated. Things easy for one person might be hard for another. Deriding people for the way they choose to eat is not really the best way to convince them to change their habits or to support them in the process of trying to make dietary changes. People who genuinely believe that vegetarian and vegan diets are better for everyone, not just for them, might want to consider ways of making those diets more accessible and friendly to a variety of people, and definitely shouldn’t be slagging on people who have trouble sticking to a vegan or vegetarian diet.

How often do I hear (and did I say, in my militant days) ‘saying ‘meat just tastes too good’ is no excuse,’ for example? This positions such diets as a matter of willpower; if you just try harder to be a better person, you can be vegan or vegetarian! While this neatly ignores the many entangled social and class issues (cost and availability of food vary depending on where you live and who you are), it also neatly cuts out people who may, actually, legitimately, need to eat meat. People with disabilities or chronic illnesses who have trouble getting themselves to eat, for example; I myself have been having extreme difficulty feeding myself lately, and when I get hungry for something, I eat it, period, no matter what it is, because I am not eating enough and I’ll take any source of calories my body can tolerate. This week, that might be hummus and pita bread. Next week, it might be salami sandwiches. To tell me I just need to ‘try harder’ ignores the fact that I could actually starve myself to death by eating a restrictive diet. I can’t force myself to eat food my body is rejecting.

Being lectured and provided with ‘helpful suggestions’ doesn’t really help people who may be balancing food allergies, fatigue, appetite problems, and other disability issues. Being told you just need to try harder is a constant refrain leveled against people with disabilities, and it is so very not helpful. Two people with the same disabilities may eat completely different diets, but it’s not because one is better than the other or is trying harder. Being told to ‘try harder’ doesn’t help when you have no local store with fresh produce, when you are allergic to soy and nuts and have trouble finding proteins, when you are trying to feed young children with particular eating habits, when you are working several jobs and you don’t really have time to research new recipes and cooking techniques.

One problem I see over and over again in discussions about food politics is the overlaying of personal experiences onto everyone else. ‘I can do it and you can too’ presupposes that everyone is identical, that everyone has the same access and the same abilities, and that’s simply not how it works. Shaming people for not being like you is not a very effective way to bring them round to your way of thinking.