On The Ideology of Diet

We throw the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ around so much that I think we forget that it’s true. Do you ever really think about what it means to eat?—about what happens when you eat? The intimacy of it all? Your food becomes one with you when digestion reduces it to its base components and repurposes them to build your cells. Long before we discovered that science, we were thinking up ways to eat “correctly”.


We throw the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ around so much that I think we forget that it’s true. Do you ever really think about what it means to eat?—about what happens when you eat? The intimacy of it all? Your food becomes one with you when digestion reduces it to its base components and repurposes them to build your cells. Long before we discovered that science, we were thinking up ways to eat “correctly”. This usually meant avoiding foods we didn’t want to be incorporated into our bodies or spirits—the traditionally perceived scavenging aspects of swine, for example; or, conversely, risking our lives in the hunt to secure foods imbued with powers we desired for ourselves—like the strength and vigour of stags.

The incorporation of the animal into the self when we eat meat challenges our attitudes toward animals (and nature, by extension). As sociologist Julia Twigg puts it, “They are both in us, as our enduring biological heritage, and beyond us, as a parallel society and a projection of what we are not.” 

Vegetarianism and veganism have enjoyed a period of increasing popularity within the last few decades. Every time I browse UberEATS, it seems there are more love heart symbols denoting vegan dishes than there were the last time I opened it. I frequently see sponsored pro-vegan posts on my social media feeds: “I’m ME, not MEAT,” reads a doe-eyed calf’s speech bubble. Try though some of us might, it’s becoming much harder to avoid that reckoning with animals and nature, and to avoid conscious consideration of our diet. Whatever diet you do subscribe to—given that you don’t have health-related dietary restrictions—it increasingly feels like a choice made and remade purposely and multiple times a day, rather than a cultural norm immune to introspection as it once might have seemed.

So what has been the public response to this development? That’s easy to glean—while there’s plenty of sympathy for the movement, between the negative stereotypes of vegans, snide comments at family dinners, and the occasional genuine outburst of rage in response to public pushes for more vegan-friendly options, it’s not always good. Often cited is a 2015 study by MacInnis and Hodson showing that only drug addicts inspire the same degree of loathing in the public as vegans do. I recall reading news reports followed by articles about a couple of anti-vegan protesters biting into raw squirrels whole—fur, guts, bones and all—next to a vegan market. The week prior, one of those same protesters ate a raw pig’s head at a vegan food festival. “Why are you doing this?” asks a shocked onlooker in a video of the first incident—a deceptively simple question with no clear answer. 

It’s worth noting that these shocking responses to veganism are probably just as rare as what they are reacting against; those human embodiments of negative vegan stereotypes—you know, the holy and righteous types who commit themselves to recruiting as many people as possible to their ideology, regardless of who has expressed interest or who hasn’t. Both extremes are just very… very loud minorities. But still, that a diet centred around minimising cruelty could evoke anger at all just seems downright unreasonable. One would assume we’d all be happier to see less bloodshed in the world. Sure, maybe people don’t appreciate the way some vegans can come off as morally superior, or over enthusiastic about their diet. But is that seriously all it took to urge protesters Deonisy Klebnikov and Gatis Lagzdins to tear into what was essentially roadkill, on a busy street, in front of children? Annoyance? 

There are genuine criticisms to be made of veganism itself—that it’s hardly a catch-all answer to the question of ethical eating, for example, given that plenty of vegan products are produced via Third World exploitation. There are especially criticisms to be made of veganism’s loud followers who can be quite ignorant of the economic barrier that prevents much of the working class from following in their expensive footsteps. However, it seems outbursts like the squirrel incident rarely cite economical ethics in their fervour against veganism. More commonly, such incidents are framed as an expression of concern for the health of vegans—“Anti-malnutrition,” Lagzdins called it, despite promoting a diet of (solely) raw meat and eggs on his YouTube channel. “My message is that veganism is malnutrition, and the reason I and other people eat raw meat is to show what humans eat in nature.” 

Like any other cultural phenomenon, anti-veganism is complex, and people are attracted to it for different reasons—but behind these different reasons there seems to be an emerging coherence. Lagzdins’ actions call for a return to the ancestral lifestyle, for us to live as humans traditionally lived “in nature”. Lagzdins is relatively popular on far-right spaces like /pol/ of 4chan, so subtle nods to conservative values in his reasoning are unsurprising. In fact, to many, the association of veganism with the left-wing and anti-veganism with the right probably seems logical and natural. Sure enough, studies have shown that conservatives are more likely to return to consuming meat after trying a vegan diet—the two main reasons being that they were less likely to have cut meat out for ethical reasons, and that they received less social support in their decision to do so, respectively. But what is it that tends a diet towards a specific political orientation? 

I mentioned earlier that coming face to face with the question of what (not) to eat has far-reaching connotations. What people refuse to eat (again, excepting health-related diet restrictions) tells us about their self-perceived orientation in or adjacent to the natural world. How far is the gap between us and animals? Can it be bridged? Do we even want to bridge it? Studies have shown that, in contrast to people who are less prejudiced, those who are more prejudiced against groups within their own species (e.g. far-right anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-BLM, anti-feminism, etc.) are unsurprisingly more likely to insist upon a fundamental, insurmountable difference between humans and animals, society and nature. A la the Structuralist school of thought, this frame of mind forms the basis for the marriage of ideology and diet. 

What solely determines our love or hatred of all things, according to Structuralism, depends on the position in which they reside within culturally constructed categories. Assuming this is true for everyone, it seems to be even truer for those who are more prejudiced—i.e. more susceptible to extremist rhetoric—in that the boundaries of their inner hierarchies of living beings are more severe. Consequently, those outside of an “acceptable” categorisation are rejected more intensely. In short, the link between conservatism and militant anti-veganism appears to be a stronger adherence to boundaries which categorise living things. 

The psychological term “social dominance orientation” describes the tendency in some to accept and even prefer circumstances that sustain inequalities, combined with a general preference for hierarchical social structures—and of course the exertion of authority within those hierarchies. In the West, meat-eating has pretty much always been the dominant practice, rendering veganism a purposeful, public (given the social dimension of food) departure from tradition. It’s a violation of the very core of conservative values—and a borderline nonsensical one, as it gives uncomfortable reverence to animal’s lives despite their lower position in the dominant hierarchy that puts humans squarely on top. 

It’s generally understood that those with a high social dominance orientation seek to maintain hierarchies because it is, in their opinion, perfectly natural to do so. This thinking is supposedly a faithful imitation of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, for whom we have always spun narratives of dominating nature itself through plant and animal domestication, animal husbandry, building cultures revolving around the hunt, and so on. Ironically, the industrialised town life that the majority of the West enjoys drives a wedge not only between humans and animals, but also between humans and the ancestors some of us so dearly wish to emulate in mind and body. For most of us, contact with animals—real contact—has long been severed. One viral tweet from last year has a father quoting his child who asks: “Dad, isn’t it weird that the word chicken can mean an animal or a type of food?” 

In stark contrast to the bygone era of catching, farming and killing your own dinner—a lifestyle idealised by the far-right—there is now so little that links the weight of a life with our most basic sustenance. Though many of our ancestors survived on meat, their back-breaking, lifelong dedication to the craft of sustainable animal husbandry shows a respect for animal life that is arguably on a par with that seen in veganism's rejection of cruelty in modern industrial agriculture. It is the reunification of these concepts that provokes the unease on which vegan arguments can operate—and inspire rage.

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