The vegetarian’s alienation

Of his days as a vegetarian, Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma,

What troubles me most about my vegetarianism is the subtle way it alienates me from other people and, odd as this might sound, from a whole dimension of human experience.

Other people now have to accommodate me, and I find this uncomfortable: My new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship. As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad. On this matter I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners. (313)

Pollan is right that being vegetarian tends to have an effect on one’s social life. If he only experienced negative social effects, it might be because (as B.R. Myers points out) Pollan doesn’t seem to eat with any vegetarians while he experiments with meatless eating. Had he done so, he might have realized that vegetarianism can also bring people together. For example, a vegetarian who was not so fervently hoping to eat meat again might have sought out advice from more experienced vegetarians for preparing meals without “a lot more thought and work” (313) and made new friends in the process. A dedicated vegetarian who was concerned about social life might also have attended events of a local vegetarian group.

Furthermore, Pollan neglects to address a crucial point. The kind of conscientious meat-eating for which Pollan will argue is also a personal dietary prohibition. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer elaborates,

Imagine an acquaintance invites you to dinner. You could say, “I’d love to come. And just so you know, I’m a vegetarian.” You could also say, “I’d love to come. But I only eat meat that is produced by family farmers.” Then what do you do? You’ll probably have to send the host a list of local shops to even make the request intelligible, let alone manageable. This effort might be well-placed, but it is certainly more invasive than asking for vegetarian food (which these days requires no explanation). (55)

In other words, the social awkwardness that Pollan writes about makes a stronger argument against conscientious omnivorism than it is against vegetarianism.

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