Non-vegetarian friends rarely handle this well. If the subject comes up, at least one person will immediately and vociferously attack it in one of these ways:
- I don't get it! Boy, I sure do love a big steak. And my mom's meatloaf. So great! What is with this vegetarian shit? I love lamb chops, and fried clams, and lobster! You know, one favorite place of mine is Kelly's down on the beach. Boy, they sure do make a great hamburger. Another thing I like...
- What is their problem? I'm so tired of all this preaching. Everyone's telling people what to eat, what to smoke, what to say. Why can't they just enjoy a normal life like anyone else? Let me tell you, my sister-in-law is one of those vegetarian types and I can't eat at her house. Just broccoli and shit. Tofu! It's not food! Who'd eat that shit?
- So what do you mean, like, I'm a bad person? Who are you to judge! I bet you do bad things, and you're telling me I'm a jerk just for doing what everyone does! People like you are all hiding something.
- Wow, that's really unhealthy. Be sure to get enough protein. I mean, you have to make up for it. Be sure to eat huge amounts of [food with high protein content] in it or you'll get really sick. OMG you make your KID eat vegetarian? That's like CHILD ABUSE!!!
- It's ridiculously unnatural. Humans are hunters, we eat meat. I mean, c'mon, ancient cave paintings are about hunting. We aren't meant to survive with out it. How else would we continue to be large, dominant creatures with upper arm strength and a killer instinct? People who don't eat meat are girly and possibly homosexual. It's a betrayal of our natural healthy state.
None of these make sense. Let's learn!
- Other people don't necessarily like your food, and you know it. Why should others like a whole class of foods you enjoy? For that matter, if you learned that a food you enjoyed was made from babies or profited al Qaeda, would you continue to eat it? Your taste has nothing to do with other people!
- Did anyone just tell you what to do, or what not to do? Other people not eating something doesn't constitute restrictions on your habits. It's their choice. If your sister-in-law can't cook, either tell her so or push the food around on your plate until it's time to go. And tofu is just another food, not some condensed symbol of Berkeleyite pseudo-meat hypocrisy. Like it or don't, but leave the poor curdled soy alone.
- Wait, who said that? The person across the table from you just said she doesn't eat meat. Did she go on to say that people who eat meat are psychopathic murderers without empathy? Did she just start with a lecture about where your burger comes from, or what some religious figure said about eating animals? Did she tip your plate over? If not, she's just choosing to eat differently from you, and the implication of wickedness is all yours. Not everyone with principles is either a Tartuffe or an inquisitor. Drop it.
- You're just wrong. People who eat a reasonable mix of foods don't get malnutrition. And that reasonable mix does not have to include meat. When you hear people talk about getting enough "protein," they are talking out their ears. "Protein" in U.S. culture is just a word for meat. Actual proteins come from many foods, and nobody is getting beri-beri or pellagra from lack of burger. Go look it up!
- If you hear an argument for modern behavior based on "instinct," or "evolution," or "basic human nature," stop and investigate, or just dump it. Any human behavior can be justified or condemned based on unexamined assumptions about our nature. These arguments have been used to justify rape, celebrate war, demonize men, excuse cannibalism, and attack pantaloons. Humans have survived with and without meat just as we have survived in the Antarctic and the Sahara, survived genuinely destructive malnutrition, survived Pop-Tarts, and survived living in rivers of raw sewage without antibiotics. All evolutionary biology means is that someone lived long enough to fuck and someone else lived long enough to squirt out some babies of which some survived. It does not imply burgers.
What have we learned? We have learned that meat eaters like meat. We have learned that people who feel criticized morally become upset and defensive. We have learned that in U.S. culture, not eating something can get a person in big social trouble. And we've learned that the reasons for this are not reasonable. And finally, we have learned that reactions to food choices are visceral (ha).
It's true that vegetarianism in the U.S. is almost always a moral choice rather than a tradition or a practical dietary one. Choosing not to eat meat implies a judgment on the act of meat eating parallel to the message of celibacy, sobriety, or boycotts. Vegetarianism also goes against deeply rooted (ha) beliefs about wealth, health, pleasure, and choice. It's not neutral.
What I take from this is that many people are threatened by the idea of conscious morality. Of any kind. Someone who makes a moral choice and gives up some pleasure, adding some complexity and trouble to life, is a psychological threat. The immediate response is that the person making that choice is a stereotyped hypocrite from a Hollywood movie, an unhappy person who wishes others to be unhappy, an obsessed idiot. I've noticed a linguistic shift during my life that perfectly evokes this: I hear people using "righteous" to mean "self-righteous," as if the very idea of moral choice implies hypocrisy and the need to control others.
I myself am not a vegetarian. I have no meat days twice a week. I am not a believer in "animal rights," nor do I consider killing animals and eating them to be immoral. My reasons are humanist. Meat takes a lot of grain to make, and eating meat has an environmental and economic impact on others. I've been impressed by some calculations of how much better one can do just by eating less meat, and so far I'm doing so. I have no authority or desire to tell anyone else to do the same, or to say that I'm "more moral" because of this. It just feels right to me, and I enjoy my food more.
if you're not a vegetarian, and vegetarians make you grumpy, consider why. Are there good reasons why someone else's personal moral choice makes you upset? Are people who make a moral choice necessarily hypocrites, nannies, deluded utopians? Or have you avoided and denied ethical and empathetic impulses so much in your own life that anyone making the effort has you terrified?
Hating others for harmlessly doing what they believe to be right does not reflect well on us as individuals or as a society. Eschew that.