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On normalism, privilege and vegetarian sandwiches

Patti Whaley

That society treats meat eaters as the norm is a classic manifestation of privilege, says Patti Whalley in this guest blog

On normalism, privilege and vegetarian sandwiches


Recently in a Food Ethics Council board meeting, we were discussing the EAT-Lancet “planetary health diet.” Someone noted that a number of people had complained that the committee who wrote the EAT-Lancet report included several committed vegetarians or vegans who were, therefore, “not impartial.” I am not here to defend or attack the EAT-Lancet report, but only to reflect on the assumption that omnivores are impartial and vegetarians/vegans are not, and what this says about the societal privilege of omnivores.  Usually the “privilege” word is thrown at vegans, because the freedom to choose a high-quality vegan diet suggests a level of economic comfort not available to everyone. Again, that may be a valid argument, but let’s deal with that some other day. 

Some months ago, I was trying to explain privilege to a white male friend in a way that would not offend his white-male-ness, so I hit on the idea of taking the position of meat-eaters as an example. Let’s look at the way society regards meat-eating as a norm, and vegetarianism as a deviation from the norm. The default customer, at most European and American restaurants, is presumed to be a meat eater. Meat eaters almost never have to worry about finding something acceptable to eat at a restaurant. The default restaurant dish is a meat dish. In America, even most main-dish salads include meat or chicken or shrimp. Often there will be only one dish for vegetarians; they rarely get multiple options. Meat eaters always get multiple options; they can even eat the vegetarian dish, if it looks appealing. A meat eater might not find something to her taste at a vegetarian restaurant, of course, but even the fact that vegetarian restaurants are called vegetarian restaurants emphasizes the fact that the default restaurant is a meat restaurant. 

Vegetarian meals are often still considered “special” meals which you must request in advance – for example on airline flights, or when registering for a conference.  Meat eaters never have to specify that they want meat; it will be provided as a matter of course. Meat eaters never have to explain that, no, they don't eat fish either, and no, they don’t want soup that is cooked with chicken broth, and no, a little bacon on top is actually not OK. Meat eaters are the default; non-meat eaters have to explain themselves. This is not to say that meat eaters are bad. It just that society expects most people to eat meat and treats meat eaters as the norm. While quite a bit of progress has been made to cater for vegetarians and other “special” diets – well, you can see by the way that sentence turned out that vegetarians are still “special”, i.e., not normal. 

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to test this theory at the nonprofit where I worked. We always had a summer away-day that lasted from lunch one day to lunch the next day. Being a sustainability charity, we had a fairly high proportion of vegetarians or vegans. People who were vegetarian or vegan would say so on the registration schedule so that the caterers would know how much vegetarian/vegan food to prepare. There would be a mix of meat and vegetarian sandwich quarters for lunch, and there would be a couple of meat options and a couple of veggie options for supper. 

On the evaluations one year, the vegetarians complained that the meat eaters ate too many of the vegetarian sandwich quarters for lunch. Lots of meat eaters, including me, like vegetarian sandwiches. We eat meat, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we want all our sandwich quarters to be meat. So we would take some meat quarters, and some vegetarian quarters, and then there weren’t enough vegetarian quarters for the vegetarians to have a decent lunch. They were left hungry.

So the next year, we decided to upend things. We changed the default from meat to vegetarian. The default foods at breakfast, lunch and dinner would all be vegetarian. If you wanted meat, you just needed to make that request on the registration schedule, and meat would be cheerfully provided. This seemed sensible; after all, there was no risk that the vegetarians would eat up the meat sandwich quarters, so if you asked for meat, you could be certain to have enough. 

Not one person asked for meat. 

But when the evaluation forms came through, the meat eaters complained that there was no meat. They felt particularly aggrieved that there was no bacon for breakfast. I went back to a couple of meat-eaters and said, “but you could have had meat, you just needed to ask.”  “We didn’t want to have to ask,” they said, “why should we have to ask?”  Asking made them feel self-conscious. They were used to the fact that vegetarians had to ask for vegetarian food, but having to ask for meat felt somehow unfair. It felt like they were being singled out, when they were accustomed to automatically getting what they wanted without having to ask. 

I found this fascinating. The meat eaters were accustomed to being the default, and changing the default to vegetarian felt unfair to the meat eaters. Of course, it’s no more unfair to them than the reverse is to vegetarians. But this was a classic manifestation of privilege:  being treated like they were not the “norm” made people self-conscious and slightly offended, even though objectively they were being treated exactly the way vegetarian people had been treated in years past. It is typical of privilege that the person with the privilege doesn’t see it as privilege; they just see themselves as the norm, and being made to feel “not normal” feels almost like persecution.

At my workplace, we were able to reach a reasonable compromise: bacon at breakfast, all vegetarian sandwiches for lunch, and an equal number of meat and vegetarian options for supper. But my white male friend is a meat-eater, so he still refuses to accept the concept of privilege. And vegetarians are still regarded as “not objective” when it comes to analysing a sustainable planetary diet. 

 Patti is a Trustee of the Food Ethics Council and acts as Treasurer