Today I want to talk about two topics that pop up somewhat frequently in discussions about vegetarianism. As I’ve grown older and wiser, and as I’ve matured a bit in my scholarly pursuits, rhetoric has emerged as a passion of mine. I think of rhetoric as the art of argumentation. The World English Dictionary defines it as “the art of using speech to persuade, influence, or please.”
(As an aside, it strikes me as hilarious that years ago, when we were walking along the west coast of Lake Michigan, I remember having a conversation with Matt about rhetoric. It was our first date [a three-day-long date, mind you], and we were talking about books and tattoos and scholarship, when I confessed that I didn’t really get what people meant when they talked about rhetoric. I thought rhetoric was equivalent to arguing without having any evidence to back up your argument—the art of being full of horseshit. Or, as the World English Dictionary puts it more eloquently, “excessive use of ornamentation and contrivance in spoken or written discourse; bombast” or “speech or discourse that pretends to significance but lacks true meaning.” In other words, horseshit. But Matt, kind and gentle man that he is, showed me a far more intriguing definition for rhetoric. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his lesson opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the world. In the years since that romantic walk by the lake, we’ve had many more walks to discuss the ways in which rhetoric shapes our lives. I believe he said that rhetoric is as powerful bricklaying in the way it literally builds the worlds that we inhabit. Dammit, I love that man and his big brain.)
Anyway, my interest in rhetoric is what allows me to listen to people argue passionately for veganism and paleo diets. I want to hear what people are saying and how they say it. I’m not necessarily looking for answers. To be honest, I’m comfortably entrenched in my own habits, and while I may flirt with veganism and argue on behalf of its principles, I don’t feel pulled toward full-on veganism. Likewise, I listen to people discuss the health benefits of eating meat, but I know that I can’t do it. I’ve been vegetarian for too long to take pleasure in the idea of eating dead animals.
With that nuanced position in mind, here is my take on two vegetarian myths.
Myth #1. “I’m vegetarian, but sometimes I eat meat.” The rebuttal: “You’re not really vegetarian!”
I got into a little tiff on Facebook recently about this issue. An acquaintance of mine took issue with the fact that I call myself vegetarian, but occasionally (rarely, almost never) I eat meat. Her position was that if you eat meat, ever, you are not vegetarian.
I disagree with her opinion, for two reasons. The first is that whenever I tell people I am a vegetarian, the first thing they ask is, “So do you eat…?” You can fill in the blanks: fish, chicken, dairy, eggs, seafood, etc. (My answers: no, no, yes, yes, and no.) When I define myself as vegetarian, it serves as a conversation starter, not as a definitive statement. In other words, people have come to expect ambiguity in vegetarianism. In a functional sense, it’s not an absolute, so why pretend that it is?
The second reason is that being a vegetarian is really hard for some people. In certain situations, it can feel almost impossible. We live in a meat-eating world. I realize that, and I’m sure you do too. When a person declares himself a vegetarian, what he’s saying is, “I don’t want to eat meat” or “I’m trying to eat less meat” or “I like the idea of not eating meat.” I am sympathetic to all of these positions because I know how hard it can be, for example, to scan a restaurant menu in vain, hoping to find something you can eat while your dinner companions are chewing on animals. I get it. If we lived in a world that was predominantly vegetarian or vegan, it would be less understandable why a person would identify as vegetarian and then go out of her way to eat meat. I suppose I’m applying some situational logic here, but in the end, I always see discussions about food as just that: they are discussions, and I’m comfortable with that openness.
Myth #2. “Earth Balance is so much healthier for you than butter.”
This argument drives me crazy because it’s bad logic and it’s an empirical claim that is not, to my knowledge, supported by data. Allow me to explain.
Remember that scientific experiments are all about controlling variables. In this example, we have three experimental groups: butter, Earth Balance, or nothing (the negative control! do not forget the negative control!). The Earth Balance myth takes advantage of the fact that the arguments about butter being bad for us are analyzing the data from a butter vs. no butter angle. They assume that if butter is bad for us, substituting something else for butter must be better for us. But remember, that was the argument made for margarine, which used to be loaded with trans-fats. Now we all think that trans-fat is the devil.
Now, I happen to like Earth Balance and think it has a useful place in our pantries. It’s a nice option for vegans and dairy-free folks. It doesn’t have a scary ingredient list; in fact, it looks pretty wholesome to me. Yes, it’s more processed than butter, and healthwise, I’m inclined to think that butter from grass-fed cows is pretty awesome. But my point here is that we should be skeptical of any claims that X is better for you than Y, unless one of those items is the negative control. Walking is better for you than not walking, but is running better than walking? Well, maybe. It depends who you are. For some people, running puts such a strain on their joints that it puts their ability to exercise at risk. For those people, I’d say walking may be better than running. But many of us enjoy running—the challenges and health benefits of the sport—and those benefits outweigh the potential for injury.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that no scientific studies have been done in which the only difference between groups is that one group ate butter and the other ate Earth Balance. Nutrition science is notoriously messy; even studies on vegetarianism in general don’t always control very well for differences within the vegetarian group (for example, levels of produce consumption). That’s why my nutritional philosophy is based on eating whole foods, as much as I can, and with as little processing as possible. I’m not militant about it—I do have a thing for pretzels, and graham crackers, and soyrizo—but in the end, I think eating whole foods will always trump debates about Earth Balance versus butter. Either is fine; just eat your spinach too, okay?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with any of this? Are there other vegetarian myths that drive you crazy?