Societal progress is marked by an attitude of intolerance toward thoughts and behaviors previously tolerated but now deemed harmful. As an example: racism, previously tolerated and even celebrated in American society, is now heavily stigmatized. Even the most virulent racists will deny that they’re racist. That’s great.
The question is often asked: How will we feel in a future vegan world about the people who eat animals today? It’s an interesting thought experiment that’s worth diving into.
To be candid, I don’t know that we will ever see a “vegan world” per se. I think we will always have hunting; we’ll always have people who insist that meat from a real, living animal (as opposed to clean meat) is the healthiest food on the planet; and we’ll always have people who insist on the old, traditional way of doing things.
But let’s say we eventually come to live in a world where eating meat is heavily stigmatized. We begin to look down on people who require an animal to be raised in wretched conditions and sentenced to an early, brutal death in a similar way to how we look down on people who wear fur. That’s undoubtedly a stark improvement to the current state of things, in my view. But what will we make of our collective past selves — the ones who ate animals until the zeitgeist made us stop?
I genuinely don’t know. It is tempting to point to the institution of slavery and racism paired with our present-day horror of it as a potentially illustrious example of how we might feel about eating animals in the future, but I think that’s mistaken. Everyone — vegans included — puts human and non-human animals in entirely separate moral categories, and I don’t think we’ll ever fully overcome that false binary. We will always view human-to-human atrocities as infinitely more horrific than human-to-animal atrocities.
So it would be brand new territory. At first, there would likely be a significant adjustment period. No one would be looked down upon for having eaten animals in the past because most everyone else would be guilty of the same. But what about the generations born into that mostly-vegan world? Will they grow up and ‘cancel’ the celebrities and other prominent figures who are members of generations before them who ate animals before it was widely recognized as wrong?
Again, I don’t know, but I think doing so would not be particularly helpful. By all means, cancel those that would continue to eat animals in a mostly vegan world. But in an age where every post on the internet may remain for eternity, and in which societal progress often moves at lightning speed, we would be left with very few famous people to look up to if we cancel those who failed to stop eating animals of their own volition.
This is my criticism of “cancel culture” more generally. I believe, in large part, that cancel culture is a necessary and important reaction to a justice system that all too often fails to bring wealthy assailants to account. In many ways, cancel culture is a social mechanism for justice where none was served. But where I feel cancel culture oversteps its bounds is when people are canceled for thoughts and behaviors that are emblematic of the era in which they were made. For example, comedians are sometimes canceled for jokes they made a decade or more ago, when things were much different. I’m not saying those things are okay, I’m pointing out that we are often deluded into believing we would be paragons of social justice regardless of the time period we were born in, and we should recognize how strong a force societal expectations and norms are.
In fact, there are no doubt behaviors we currently engage in and justify which will eventually be looked back on with horror. After all, most cancel culture “participants” are not vegan today, and I suspect they would not welcome being canceled in a future mostly-vegan world. We are more products of our environment than we’d sometimes like to think, and we’d do well to be compassionate to our collective past selves if we want a society that rewards personal growth and change.