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Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Privilege of Principles

The other day I had a random argument on Twitter. I don't do that often; I sometimes see things that annoy me but usually restrain myself from lashing out. But this one's stuck with me for a while, so I wanted to do a post about it and flesh out my feelings.

It started with Robert Khoo, from Penny Arcade, and the following tweet:

"Bought a homeless man a hot sandwich today. He looked @ it & said, "wait, whoa... Is there meat in this?" I wanted to punch him in the face."

So, Khoo did a good thing. He bought food for a homeless man. Awesome! But the guy had dietary restrictions he was concerned about, and so Khoo "wanted to punch him in the face."

Leaving aside the hyperbolic violent over-reaction for a minute (but I will get back to that), it seems like Khoo expects gratitude for his actions (not unreasonable), but also expects the man to consume whatever is given to him, gratefully.

This makes me angry, both for what it says about his attitude towards the homeless and for what it says about his attitude towards vegetarians, vegans or others who don't consume meat for whatever reason (and I, like Khoo appeared to, initially assumed that the man had moral objections to meat - it's entirely possible that he had medical or other reasons).

First, the question of being homeless, destitute, or just down on your luck meaning you have to accept anything given to you and like it: that's patronizing bullshit. But not only is it that, it's a harmful attitude for society as a whole to have, and it's the reason we have such punishing laws being pushed for welfare recipients in certain states; things like mandatory drug tests while you're on any form of state assistance. The entire idea seems to be that anyone needing society's help thus loses their dignity as a person, their options to be empowered and have self-determination - even to the point of losing *moral choice*.

Let's assume for a minute that the man's objection to meat was a moral one, rather than medical (with, again, the caveat that the only information we have about this man is Khoo's tweet, a single opinion in a medium not meant for nuance or detail). Because he is poor, Khoo seems to imply, he loses his right to make that choice. As I said in my (admittedly hyperbolic and angry) retort to Khoo, "If you were starving, would you punch a baby and take his sandwich?" At what point do moral values become an unacceptable luxury for the poor, in the mainstream view?

But of course it's telling that it's *this* moral value, and that's the second part of Khoo's implied argument: vegetarianism (of whatever variety) is sort of a silly principle to hold. Presumably Khoo wouldn't think twice if the man had rejected a sandwich that was stolen (in fact, in even more privileged poor-patronizing, that would probably be regarded as even *more* noble than someone else rejecting that sandwich) or, to veer off into thought-experiment land, some sort of sandwich that supported terrorism or abortion or for which a small child had to be tortured in the Omelas deli. But the man rejected it because (presumably) he doesn't believe in eating meat. And Khoo and others think that's a stupid principle to hold - they roll their eyes and scoff at vegetarians - possibly inwardly or with patronizing humor when it's friends of theirs, and angrily and violently when it's someone who (in their mind) doesn't have that luxury*. Why does not eating meat elicit that response? I'm not sure, but I'd be curious whether Khoo's reaction would have changed if the man had said, "Oh, does this have beef in it? For religious reasons I can't eat that." Perhaps he would have been similarly angry, but I suspect he would have had a more measured reaction, because religious beliefs validate vegetarianism in a way that just believing in animal rights or ecology does not.

Again, I am not entirely sure why not eating meat is scoffed at so widely. I suspect it has something in common with why people love to hate hippies (which is sort of ridiculous; how many people have even met a real hippie? But then again, that always makes it easier to hate.) I think the answer hides partially in this quote from Jane Austen that I just discovered today:
..when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong, they feel injured by the expectation of anything better from them.

I've noticed that a lot of the hate against vegetarians and vegetarianism feels very similar to homophobia, and the sort of way-out-of-proportion reactions that hating gays provokes. See Khoo's over-the-top violent response in his initial tweet about "punch[ing] him in the face". There's also the meat eaters who are way too into it, ("I'm a meatatarian! I can't eat a meal without meat! Let's get the all-meat pizza, no lame veggies here!"), which is reminiscent to me of the "doth protest too much" manly heterosexual types. As many people are confronted by feelings that they don't want to consider or deal with when they see homosexuality, I think people are confronted by the lurking moral problems inherent in being a meat-eater when they encounter vegetarians. Although most vegetarians are not (especially at first meeting) proselytizing, people seem to treat them as though they are - they are confronted by the fact that people are living without the moral compromises required of meat eaters, and "feel injured by the expectation of anything better from them."

But again, this is only a guess. I am really curious why practical moral stances about ecology, meat-eating, politics, or other topics garner such virulent reactions.

For the record, I am a meat-eater, although I have read Peter Singer, seen movies about factory farming, and think there are really troublesome moral aspects to causing suffering among living creatures.

* Obviously I am putting words into Khoo's mouth here, and using him as a strawman. I don't know his actual opinion on or reactions to vegetarianism. Sorry.


Amanda B said...

Beautifully written. :)

ADD Crafting said...

Good points! It seems people never think to ask before buying food for a homeless person. It's not like people don't have weird food allergies regardless of financial status! And everyone should have the right to refuse food. Heck, maybe the guy just hates the taste of meat! Either way, we should be respectful to everyone about food choices.

I never had much problems with vegans and vegetarians. I knew one person who ended up being a real proselytizing vegetarian, though. I didn't mind the initial speech, but it turned into a lecture with every meal that included meat. (But getting her to eat vegetables was like pulling teeth...) Knowing someone like that gives a real perspective on what constitutes a "bad" vegetarian.

Martin Jennings-Teats said...

Sometimes I feel guilty telling people I'm a vegetarian. Because I'm telling them I think it's wrong to eat meat, and at the time such topics come up they are probably about to eat a burger or something. Should I have to qualify my statement of vegetarianism with "but I think it's a personal choice and I'm not saying you should feel bad or anything can we still be friends please?"

Spot on analysis of why that post was so hurtful.

Karla Z. said...

Well put. I'm not a real vegetarian, but I come kinda close - and, like Martin, I feel like I need to apologize for even that sometimes. It's an odd glob of societal feelings.

Johnnemann said...

It was pointed out to me that I should make clear when I draw parallels between homophobia and dislike of vegetarians, that LGBT people face actual physical danger because of their sexuality, and vegetarians, mostly, do not share the same danger at all.