Being a Vegetarian in America
Americans live in a culture that has a serious love affair with meat. How else do you explain something like this?:
To be clear, that’s a bacon and cheese sandwich where the buns have been replaced with pieces of fried chicken. And I don’t have a problem with this. People are perfectly entitled to eat whatever they want. Hell, I’ve been known to down an entire Domino’s pizza by myself at 11:30 on a Tuesday night. I don’t have a problem with what other people are eating. The thing is, a lot of people seem to have a problem with what I’m not eating.
There’s a sort of mythos around the idea of “The American Dream” that seems inextricably linked to eating meat. What’s more American than a family barbeque in the backyard, standing over the grill commenting on the quality of the meat? Brands like McDonald’s and Burger King have managed to link their names to American culture in a way that makes it feel like they’ve always been there. Even if you’re the poorest of the poor in America, you can buy a full meal for your entire family, usually consisting of a burger and fries. For many, many people, part of being an American is eating meat on a regular basis. And, again, that’s fine.
But the thing is I’ve chosen to opt out of that part of the culture. And that makes some people very angry. In fact, it’s made enough people angry and/or defensive that whenever I broach the subject of my vegetarianism with a new person, I have to launch a preemptive strike in which I downplay my life choices so I’m not accosted. A little bit of self-deprecation usually helps things along, too. Often it goes something like this: “Oh, no thank you, I’m a vegetarian. Yup, yup, have been my whole life. I know, crazy. I’m sure if I had ever eaten meat, I wouldn’t have the self control not to eat bacon.” I follow this up with a little laugh as if to say “I know, I’m a nut!” More often than not, this puts people at ease and I can eat my veggie burger in peace.
I never feel good about these encounters. It makes me feel like a fraud, for one thing. I genuinely believe in abstaining from eating meat, for many reasons. But I’m very often not afforded the same respect from carnivores that I give to them. I think that many of them feel like it’s a personal attack, as if my not eating meat means I’m looking down on them for doing so. Which, to clarify, is never the case. To reiterate, I don’t care what you eat. I hold the same views on vegetarianism that I do on religion: if that’s how you feel, awesome! Just don’t proselytize, because no one wants to feel bad about their belief system. Or their diet.
So for now, being a vegetarian in America is not viewed as a badge of honor, save for various enclaves (Williamsburg, Brooklyn; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, etc.). If you announce this part of yourself to anyone, you’re going to be met with a certain level of hostility and at the very least mild discomfort. And that’s really too bad, because the vegetarian diet has a lot to offer. I understand that a lot of the hostility is due at least in part to the misguided militantism of some vegetarians who take a very judgmental and counterproductive approach to convincing people. Shouting “meat is murder” is going to get us nowhere. Shouting in America only leads to more shouting. People can eat what they want. And if they have the thoughtfulness to ask us why we’re vegetarians, our response should be candid and friendly without poisoning our rhetoric with judgemental self-righteousness. Seriously, no one wants to hear that.
But again, this should go both ways. If you eat meat, fine. Please enjoy it, I have no reason to take that away from you. But understand that my not partaking in your porterhouse is not reflective upon you. For the third time, I Don’t Care. Just show me the same respect and stop belittling my life choices. I want the same thing you do: to eat in peace.