Who’s Really Missing the Point?

I recently read an article in The Star which struck me as tone-deaf to an absurd degree. The article, which you should read (it’s short) before my response below, argues that plant-based meat products are misguided and ultimately harmful to the vegan movement.

I take an odd enjoyment in reading this sort of argument, even if it does end up raising my blood pressure half the time. Contrarian perspectives are attractive to me, even if I end up in vehement disagreement with the author, because I truly feel that listening to good-faith detractors is how we bolster our own arguments. Listening to those that disagree with us is how we learn to be more persuasive in our argumentation.

Anyway, the article starts by calling the plant-based meat craze “disingenuous” because these products — the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger chief among them — mimic “the very products they are meant to replace.”

The next sentence introduces the main argument: meat, along with its synthetic analogues, have no place in vegetarianism.

Embracing a vegetarian or vegan diet means embracing a dietary culture that precisely sets itself apart from one that includes meat.

Historically, this has more or less been the case: veggie diets haven’t included meat. In fact, vegetarianism is typically defined as the abstention from meat.

Embracing a vegetarian or vegan diet means embracing a dietary culture that precisely sets itself apart from one that includes meat. Thus, it is the consumer’s fundamental conceptualization of meat (real or fake) as the pre-eminent protein source that requires examination and reshaping if the current trend toward vegetarianism and veganism is to last.

The author goes on to attempt to apply cognitive dissonance theory to vegans and vegetarians who consume plant-based meat:

Cognitive dissonance theory posits that conflicting beliefs, thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that a person has on a particular matter will spur an effort by the individual to mitigate those tensions. Here, plant-based meat products seem to assuage the tension between thoughts of “I shouldn’t eat meat; it’s bad for animals, the environment and me” and “I love meat, the way it looks, feels and tastes; it’s the quintessential protein source.”

There’s a fundamental flaw with the argument in this piece, which essentially boils down to: “vegetarianism and veganism have historically been entirely anathema to the consumption of meat of any kind, so plant-based meats are ‘missing the point.'”

There is no reason the “point” of vegetarianism and veganism has to be an aversion to meat, other than the fact that this has historically been the case. “Plant-based meat” is a relatively new term, one that has not existed for the majority of vegetarianism — never mind veganism — and the author does not provide an argument as to why our conception of vegetarianism shouldn’t adapt to the updating lexicon.

The author doesn’t consider the power of redefining what “meat” is, which is in my view the most promising attribute of the new plant-based meat category. There is no legitimate reason that meats have to be animal-based; in fact, the argument that it’s not meat if it’s not made from animals makes strange bedfellows of the author of this article (who appears to be vegetarian) and the companies that profit from mass exploitation of farm animals.

Look, we’ve been eating meat for a million years. Sure, we can live just fine without eating it or its plant-based imitators. But the reality is that just about everyone — most vegans and vegetarians included — grew up eating meat; we enjoy the taste and texture. That vegetarianism has typically featured an abandonment of our childhood taste for meat is not a legitimate reason why it should remain the case. In fact, the availability of plant-based meat is likely responsible for many of us sticking with it.

To say that eating our meat and enjoying it, too, is an example of “cognitive dissonance” (it’s not — nobody is eating Gardein chicken thinking “I’m not supposed to like this, it’s meat!”) is to, ironically, completely miss the point of vegetarianism and veganism: ethical consumption. To insist that we not consume plant-based meats because somehow doing so keeps the spotlight on animal-based meats (an argument without support; we could just as easily claim plant-based meats are stealing the spotlight) is to effectively insist that animals continue to be raised and killed for the sake of honoring the past — when every vegetarian was an abomination.

Even further, the advent of plant-based meats likely serves to increase the cognitive dissonance of omnivores. Everyone wants to believe they’re a good person who does not cause unnecessary suffering. Placing plant-based meats on the menu alongside animal-based meats means each bite of the latter has the ability to produce severe cognitive dissonance: I’m eating an item that represents greater suffering when I could have opted for the nearly-identical plant-based alternative.

The more we show that we can be vegan or vegetarian while still enjoying the tastes and textures we savored as omnivores is to show that an ethical lifestyle is not necessarily an ascetic or restrictive one. Since the author of the piece seems to have an admiration of psychology, perhaps a small lesson is in order: small changes are easier for people to adopt than larger ones. If we create vegetarian and vegan options that mimic animal-based choices, we are bridging the gap between herbivorism and omnivorism, thus increasing the chances people will make the change.

Those that would like us to be pedantic purists are advocating that our movement remain in the 20th century and not adapt to a changing lexicon. It makes little sense to condemn our movement to its failed past when the lessons of the present demonstrate the promise of today’s efforts.


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