Staff writer George Watts argues why we shouldn’t be so binary between meat eaters and non-meat eaters, saying that to do so risks failing to see the larger issue of climate change

“I’m a vegetarian. Except for fish. And the occasional steak, I love steak!”

Penny’s revelation of her conditional vegetarianism on The Big Bang Theoryleads to raucous laughter from the audience. Eating meat and being vegetarian are contradictory, therefore she is laughable. She is ‘flexitarian’. These are people that eat meat when they want to, and don’t eat meat when they don’t want to. They are viewed as principally weak by the meat-loving joke-makers. To them, it is ‘go hard or go home’ when it comes to vegetarianism.

On the opposite end of the dietary spectrum, we have the vegans. They consume no animal products, often extending to abstinence from leather. They may be environmentally-motivated, or disagree with the ethics of meat production. They are incessantly mocked. In the Tumblr generation, they are regarded as ‘snowflakes’, liberal hippies who are unlikely to conform to heterosexual norms or even their natural hair colour. The meat-lovers joke about them too.

If you are flexitarian, your weakness is ridiculed; if you are vegan, your radicalism is derided. The basis for this mockery is convoluted. You are mocked for doing too little, and mocked for doing too much. The mockers are acknowledging that there is something to do something about. That something, urgently, is climate change. It is the meat-mauling mockers who most greatly contributing to emissions through their mindless consumption, yet they take the comedic moral high ground. This doesn’t just harm vegans and flexitarians, it harms the entire global effort of curbing climate change. Our attitude towards forms of meat consumption reduction needs to fundamentally change.

But why do we so enjoy mocking these people? I believe it is a gendered issue. Consuming massive amounts of meat, hunting, and being able to walk through a slaughterhouse without one’s stomach turning could be considered ‘masculine’ characteristics. To eat an entire turkey is to prove one’s manliness and strength. By refusing to eat meat, my ‘manliness’ has been challenged. “Don’t be such a girl” and “Man up, it’s just meat” are phrases that have been repeatedly used towards me in my attempt to reduce my meat consumption. Refusing to eat meat breaks the status quo of masculinity – but is also something that we all undoubtedly have to do. People often mock vegans and flexitarians perhaps because they know they should be doing the same, but othering them into a ludicrous stereotype that they could never be nor wish to be provides a level of comfort in their awareness of killing the planet. Even when mocking these absurd, extreme, unmanly people there is still an element of acceptance that what they are doing is important.

We know climate change is an urgent issue. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report finding that if temperatures are not contained to below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels within a dozen years, the threat of flooding, droughts and other natural disasters will exponentially increase. Individual and systemic action are both required to combat this. Meat consumption is one of the biggest contributors to global emissions, and cutting meat from as little as a quarter of your meals can make a legitimate impact. In 2014 Scarborough et. al published a report in Climatic Change detailing the different CO2 emissions of differing level of meat eaters. By simply reducing from heavy to low consumption, our emissions can reduce by a third. Therefore, reducing our consumption clearly does benefit the environment.

That much is obvious, but why does this make mocking vegans harmful?

Firstly, mocking vegans and caricaturing them into an alternative, radical hipster stereotype delegitimises their actions. Rather than being viewed as individuals doing their bit to help the planet, they are portrayed as overly sympathetic tree-huggers. An undesirable identity becomes attached to a good action. “I’m not a hippy, so I can’t be vegan” is one such assumption, and veganism is linked to other so-called “undesirable” identities, like socialism and homosexuality. This undesirability leads to an othering of the vegan life. It makes veganism unrealistic and overly demanding, or even a personality trait. This prevents people from erasing meat from their diet, through fear of being labelled with these alien identities. They confuse dutiful acts to save the planet with a set of pre-supposed interests. The false understanding of the expected vegan lifestyle stops individuals from trialling veganism. This prevents the realistic lowering of emissions, which has a direct effect on the battle against climate change.

The other major reason the ridiculing of veganism is harmful is the false binary created between the vegan and the meat-eater. If someone who identifies as vegan consumes meat once, or accidentally eats cheese, they are mocked for betraying their identity. In the eyes of the mocking meat-eater, you are a vegan only if you are so strictly. Otherwise, you are one of them. This absolute opposition between meat consumer and non-consumer is petty and fails to recognise the core environmental principle behind the movement: meat consumption needs to reduce.

The ridiculing of minor, rare violations of ‘the vegan law’ forgets that the most important thing is to reduce our consumption. Any reduction is valuable, whether or not it is done so strictly. It is important that you do not need to be vegan to eat less meat; Penny can reduce her emissions and still enjoy the occasional steak. The reason the radical stance of veganism is so prominent, is because it exists in a consumption-obsessed world. The harm that stems from the mocking of vegans doesn’t mean that people should stop being vegan- it means we should stop mocking them. 

The vegan identity is a necessary one. It raises awareness of the urgency of climate change, and provides an example for us to follow. However, to follow such an example requires us first to respect it. We need to understand the underlying principle of both veganism and flexitarianism: our actions need to change. By respecting vegans, we can change the negative attitude that exists toward them. We can stop discouraging people from taking individual action to save our planet. Most importantly, we can learn a thing or two and start consuming less meat ourselves.