There is a peculiar tendency, especially among social justice warriors who advocate intersectionality, to reply to anybody promoting a vegan lifestyle with some variation of “but poor people can’t be vegan.” This is almost inevitable during any debate on the topic of veganism, and it occurs so frequently and reliably such that it deserves a closer look. I believe that this sort of statement serves several purposes, including: (1) to derail the conversation; (2) to provide a strawman argument against veganism; (3) to signal one’s virtuosity; and (4) to perpetuate the trope that vegans are assholes.
Before going into each of these, I would first like to say that nobody is in any position to tell poor people what to eat. Adhering to any special diet — including (or especially) veganism — requires the privilege of choice; poor people have little to no say in what they eat. While many people overestimate the extra expense and inconvenience necessary to be vegan, no one has a right to tell poor people what to eat.
You’d be hard pressed to find any vegans that disagree with this. Judging by the number of times the “poor people can’t be vegan” statement is uttered, you’d be forgiven for thinking that vegans are hellbent on guilting every last person into giving up animal products, no matter their income. In reality, vegans are generally understanding people who acknowledge the struggles of the poor and encourage, recognize, and congratulate any effort people make to reduce their consumption of animal products.
Indeed, the invocation of “poor people can’t be vegan” is seldom in response to anything related to poverty. This statement functions as a means to take the focus off of the person saying it (who seems to never make the claim that they are poor themselves) and onto the person who is advocating veganism. Effectively, it derails the conversation from a discussion of the merits of veganism (among people generally able to abstain from animal products without much inconvenience) to an accusation of disdain for the poor.
Similarly, it is a strawman argument. Rarely is the “poor people can’t be vegan” response targeted at somebody who said anything about the poor. It is used to deflect from the topic at hand — or, more accurately, to characterize vegans or veganism as something they are not, in order that they may be swiftly dismissed without any semblance of rational consideration of their arguments. People who engage in this dishonest rhetoric who are not poor are “appropriating” the struggles of the poor to alleviate feelings of guilt that result from participating in the suffering caused by animal agriculture.
Which brings us to virtue signaling. Intersectionality encourages activists to seek out anything that can conceivably be argued to be a form of systemic oppression, and to be as loud as possible about it. Finding a new cause — the more obscure the better — is a trophy hunt, and the discoverer is rewarded with praise for speaking out for the “victims.” Similarly, stating one’s alliance with victims of the intersections of disadvantage functions as a means to both receive praise and to signal one’s virtuosity. Therefore, “poor people can’t be vegan” serves the purpose of not only derailing the conversation and providing a strawman argument against veganism, but also of letting everyone know that the person who made the statement is a Good Person who stands in solidarity with the oppressed. It is the social justice warrior equivalent of commenting “first” on a shitty YouTube video.
Lastly, it is meant to perpetuate the stereotype that vegans are rude by implying that they are hassling the poor about going vegan. As already stated, this is not true, as it is rarely a response to somebody who said anything about poverty, and vegans are generally understanding people who are empathetic toward the poor and are happy to see any reduction in the exploitation of animals. By bringing up poverty, the person who says “poor people can’t be vegan” is effectively putting words in the mouth of the person to whom they are responding. This way, veganism can be dismissed as an oppressive, classist, philosophy with little to no self-awareness.
Who needs rational debate when you’ve decided your interlocutors are assholes?