One day I was watching television with three friends (all omnivores) when Anthony Bourdain appeared on the television.
I made it clear that I dislike the guy and my friends wanted to know why. One friend asked if it was because he “rips on vegans” or something like that. I explained that it’s more than that, that he has actually suggested that vegans should kill themselves because they don’t eat cheese, that he trivializes and straw-mans the vegan argument rather than meeting it head on, and that he uses emotionally-charged analogies to try to discredit them. They excused such behavior as, you know, just funny things to say for the camera. My friend listened to my explanation, laughed a little bit, and then said something to the effect of “Yeah, but he actually does have a pretty good argument against veganism.” My friend is a smart guy, so I was all ears. I wanted to know about the wisdom he thought Bourdain had to speak on the subject, because all I’d heard from him was childish anti-vegan invective.
The supposed “good argument” was that, if you’re vegan and you go to some third-world country and some poor person offers you some non-vegan dish that they worked hard for and are very proud to give you, that you would be a total asshole to refuse it. It is a little bit more nuanced than that, but that’s the gist of it (video here).
Okay, just leaving alone the question of what a vegan should do in that situation, this little conundrum is most certainly NOT a good argument for why someone shouldn’t be a vegan the other 364 days out of the year. If this argument “proves” anything at all, it makes no sense to generalize it beyond the hypothetical situation. If you would feel genuinely bad turning down the meal, then eat it.
But taking this situation seriously is probably giving Bourdain too much credit. What he’s really trying to do is paint vegans as spoiled, finicky eaters caught up in their self-indulgent, first world ways. Bourdain has shown time and again that he’s not really too concerned with the ethics of eating, so I understand most of what he says about vegans in a “culture war” kind of way. Vegans are the modern day hippie to him, just someone to knock around to the delight of his foodie fans. He trivializes, minimizes and straw-mans everything vegans say so that he doesn’t have to take what they say seriously. It’s what most people do.
But it’s not like Bourdain has NO point at all. Many vegans do espouse an understanding of veganism in which it’s exceptionless and globally applicable. Some vegans really are intransigent when it comes to exceptions to the rule. And it’s this intransigence that can actually be used as arguments against veganism. Some people just can’t imagine saying no to a poor, rural farmer’s gift of a meat-laden dish. So they view this as something that they think should be an exception to the rule (if their understanding of veganism is that you HAVE to always say no to such things). So then they might start to feel justified in rejecting veganism as they understand it. After all, if it doesn’t apply all the time, everywhere, then how can it be “natural” or “correct?” I’m not saying that this last piece of reasoning makes sense. I’m just saying it’s not hard to see why one could think along those lines.
Not only that, but I think that this “exceptionless” mentality can backfire psychologically. I think that some people really do convince themselves that eating X is totally immoral, so if they find themselves in a situation where they “have to” eat X, what do they do? Do they start thinking of themselves as immoral? Of course not. They change their view to allow for why they’re still a good person. It’s what people do. We’re incredibly good at it. Many vega*ans inculcate in themselves a disgust for meat (or anything non-vegan), and for some of them, it may prove to be their undoing.
I know three different people that actually abandoned vegetarianism after eating meat while abroad. Two of them had only been vegetarian for a year or so, but one had been vegetarian since birth. They got sick of being served meat constantly while in South America, despite trying their best to explain (in not-so-great Spanish) that they don’t eat meat. After the ensuing lack of nutrition, they just gave in and started eating meat. When they got back to the states, they had a different understanding about the ethics of eating meat, and they proceeded to become fully omnivorous. The idea that they had built up in their heads of meat being immoral was ultimately what led them to eating meat. Kind of ironic, no?
So I asked my friend “Okay, if you think that’s a good point, why not be vegan for the other 360-odd days a year that you’re not in those situations?” He didn’t have an answer to that, and I didn’t expect one. And this is part of my problem with Bourdain and anyone that thinks like him. They will take one little exception that they have to the idea of being vegan and then pretend like it’s a valid reason to reject the idea that they should do SOMETHING to address the ethical problems surrounding animals as food. If you can’t be (or are not willing to be) fully vegan 365 days a year, then why try at all?
Bourdain just tries to laugh off the whole concept of there being an ethical component to our food choices. He thinks he can just say that death is preferable to life without cheese, that vegans are like a Middle Eastern terrorist group, that veg*ans are culturally insensitive ingrates, and that the ethics that inform veganism are unique to the “western world” (despite the fact that this is demonstrably false, and, even if it were true, would be an ad populum fallacy).
I wish more vegans were willing to argue in this way, that more vegans didn’t think of eating meat as being inherently immoral. Then maybe the idea of having some exceptions would be more popular, and people would see through the crap that the likes of Bourdain peddle as “good reasons.”
If someone can commit to being vegan 360+ days a year, I certainly don’t want them to give up on that idea because of the other 5 that they wouldn’t be. But Bourdain would.
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