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Culture war diminishes sustainable living need

By Professor Nick James

You've probably heard the old joke, "How can you tell if someone is a vegan? Don't worry, they'll tell you." 

It's an example of the disdain and even animosity often directed towards vegans. 

Nick James
Professor Nick James

So, given that most people would prefer to see much less animal suffering in the world, why is there so much resentment towards those trying to do something about it? 

In addition to concerns about animal welfare, there is a growing awareness of the connections between the meat and dairy industries and climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction. 

But while more people are adopting plant-based diets and lifestyles, the resentment directed towards them by omnivores is growing. There is a culture war between vegans and non-vegans that shows no sign of abating. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an animal law teacher and researcher who, while not a vegan, favours a mainly but not entirely plant-based diet and lifestyle. 

I am sympathetic to the vegan world view, however, I also think many vegans contribute to the culture war, as I will explain. 

One of the many criticisms directed towards vegans is that they are 'woke'. 

When referring to someone as woke, the heart of the criticism is a lack of sincerity: the woke person is more concerned with emphasising their own moral superiority than with addressing injustice. 

However, the woke label is often applied even when there is no reason to question the integrity or sincerity of the allegedly woke person. 

Instead, it is applied to any perspective further to the left than one's own. 

There are many people who are vegan for legitimate reasons and there are clear benefits to a collective shift towards a more plant-based lifestyle. 

According to the World Economic Forum, 40 per cent of the global population can't afford a healthy diet and it's only going to get worse if we continue to use our dwindling and drying farmlands to raise meat instead of crops. 

Our dietary choices must change, and they will. Researchers say by 2050 most of us will be eating cereals that come from grasses, and plenty of protein-rich beans and legumes. 

So, in many ways the vegans are just ahead of the curve. 

But I don't think those advocating veganism today should be surprised when their advocacy provokes such passionate negative reactions. 

Many of us feel threatened, or at least annoyed, by those with similar moral values who claim to be prepared to go further than us to be true to them. 

It is difficult to persuade another to adopt your value system whether regarding diet, lifestyle, or religion without appearing sanctimonious, self-righteous or, indeed, determined to demonstrate your own moral superiority. 

The French philosopher Michel Foucault insisted that power always provokes resistance. 

Seeking to influence another person's beliefs or behaviours is a blatant exercise of power, and it will always be resisted, whether by refusal, retaliation, deliberately contrary behaviour or accusations of "wokeness". 

And the harder the push, the harder the pushback. 

The militant vegans who splash fake blood on designer dresses at fashion shows, who picket KFCs and who spray-paint butcher shops with red 'Meat is Murder' slogans are more likely to provoke people into eating more meat just to make a point. 

Earlier this year two activists campaigning for the right to a healthy and sustainable diet hurled soup at the glass protecting the Mona Lisa. 

I know of someone who responded by saying that from now on he will be ordering two steaks when he goes out to eat, "just to cancel out a vegan". 

But the issue is nowhere near as simple as 'vegan is good / woke is bad'.

We should avoid simplistic and facile generalisations, and not assume that all members of a group share the same characteristics as the extreme examples. 

Not all vegans are radical, art vandalising activists loudly decrying the evils of consuming meat. 

There are many people who identify as vegan who don't talk about their diet (unless asked) and who even eat honey and wear leather (this doesn't make them 'bad vegans' or ineligible for veganity. People are entitled to draw their moral line where they choose). 

And not all omnivores are loudly anti-vegan, anti-woke champions of a carnivorous diet. 

There are many people who do not identify as vegan but who are concerned about animals and climate sustainability, and who are striving to lead a mainly but not entirely plant-based and sustainable lifestyle. 

A vegan lifestyle is usually but not always less harmful to the planet, is less likely to contribute to the suffering of other sentient beings (but such suffering can never be avoided entirely) and is often associated with better health. 

That said, one can eat hot chips and drink diet soft drink all day and still be vegan. 

Criticising and rejecting veganism is consistent with the individual right to make such lifestyle choices, but if it is a knee-jerk reaction to overzealous and apparently self-serving vegan advocacy it ignores the many benefits of collectively moving towards a more plant-based and sustainable lifestyle. 

The culture wars will surely continue but it would be nice if both sides could make their cases with a little more sensitivity to nuance, tolerance of difference, and good old-fashioned courtesy.  

Now I am off to have some oat milk ice cream, not because I want to appear morally superior or to save the planet, I just reckon it tastes good.  
Professor Nick James is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Law at Bond University and among his many other roles is the President of the Australasian Animal Law Teachers and Researchers Association.

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