Veganism: A “Playground for the Elite”?

I spoke to about 40 Wesleyan students tonight and it was an excellent experience. They were fantastic kids. I delivered a version of the talk that’s featured in my last post. The Q&A is always the wild card at these kind of events, and tonight was no different. Several students caught me off guard and took me to task for being “elitist.” Veganism? Elitist? Wha? Not everyone can afford veganism, they said. Not everyone has access to a wide enough diversity of plant-based foods to eat a vegan diet, they insisted. Who was I to tell the world to eat plants, they wondered? Hmm.

Is this the Occupy Wall Street generation or what? In any case, good for them for asking these questions.

References were initially to the underprivileged (I was gently reprimanded for referring to “poor people”) and Africans who were still hunter-gatherers. But, interestingly, they were also to students at Wesleyan, who it was said do not have access to the array of foods that would make veganism feasible. My initial response was perhaps a bit glib: I said everyone in the room was, by virtue of being in the room, an elitist; I said I wasn’t speaking to African hunters but privileged Wesleyan undergraduates (all white, if I recall); and I said that I had visited two grocery stores in town before coming to my talk–both of them in walking distance of campus–and found a wide array of affordable produce. Still, one especially articulate student referred to veganism as “a playground for the elite.”

I drove to Boston after my talk and all I could think about was how to turn veganism from a playground for the elite into a central park for the masses. I fired back hard at these students, and am afraid I came off as too confrontational, but these kids were confirming something important: there really is a common perception among people who understand  the benefits of veganism that the pragmatics of this way of life are difficult to negotiate. I told the story about how, on a recent cross country road trip, the best meal I had–corn tortillas with avocado, spinach, pepitas, and salsa–was sourced at a Walmart. This didn’t persuade. These students–or at least several outspoken ones–were committed to the belief that veganism is not only elitist, but logistically hard to sustain.

I don’t believe this. I think veganism is easy, humble, and delightful. But it was good to be jarred from my complacent Austin-Texas-Boston-Massachusetts comfort zone and reminded–even if by those in the Middletown-Connecticut zone–that there is so much work to do when it comes to vegan education.



About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

6 Responses to Veganism: A “Playground for the Elite”?

  1. Melody M. says:

    I would have suggested that the consumption of animal products is what is truly elitist. For our species to insist that we have the right to enslave, exploit, and kill other species for unnecessary purposes merely to satisfy our tastes in fashion, food, entertainment, etc. is very actually in every sense of the word: elitist. Not the other way around. Veganism doesn’t require one to eat fancy alternative products. Everything a vegan needs is in a standard grocery store–it doesn’t even have to be a Whole Foods–thus making a vegan diet completely and logistically easy to sustain.

  2. CQ says:

    I sense their misconception of veganism as impractical originates from the very industries that insist that their dairy milk builds bones, their laying hens are happy, and their beef is what makes men macho.

    I also sense that these students are typical of most socially indoctrinated Americans: they are afraid of change and find it easier to make excuses than to admit they’ve been taught a bunch of lies.

    That said, I feel for these kids. I come from Connecticut, went to college near Boston, and can remember binging on familiar foods in the campus cafeteria as if they were my security blanket.

    Today, I can relate to their resistance even more. Everything around them, from ever-higher tuition rates to ever-bleaker job prospects, is uncertain, even scary. They must find it hard to think about the animals’ feelings when their own lives seem figuratively imperiled by the cutthroat world.

    Yes, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Among other things, we’ve got to remain empathetic, trust that their hearts and heads are reachable, persuade them that it is in their own interests to be vegan, be open to new approaches, and remind ourselves to be as persistent as the abolitionist whose statue resides in the Boston Common. That would be William Lloyd Garrison.

    He famously said: “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

    Here’s another Garrison tip for activists: “With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost.”

  3. Kids say the darnedest things!

  4. jotyler says:

    Wow – thank you for doing this sort of outreach — it’s so important!

    Gary Francione has some fantastic responses to the “elitist” accusation. Here are a few of my favorites:

    “I find the notion that a diet that rejects violence is elitist is bizarre. There is *nothing* more elitist – and I mean *nothing* – than the notion that it is morally acceptable to impose suffering and death on a sentient being because you like the taste. It is true that there is a market for expensive, processed vegan foods. But so what? That does not make a vegan diet inherently elitist any more than a market for people who can buy designer clothes makes wearing clothes inherently elitist.”

    _ _ _

    “There is nothing elitist about veganism. What *is* elitist is the idea that our palate pleasure justifies the suffering/death of another.”
    _ _ _

    “Veganism elitist? Nope. Eating lb. of meat that requires 10 lbs of grain & results in the death of another for your pleasure.That’s elitist.”
    _ _ _

    “As for the supposed ‘elitism’ of veganism, I continue to find that comment bewildering.

    Is there anything more elitist than believing that people are too stupid to understand the argument against animal exploitation and the lack of any meaningful distinction between flesh and dairy?

    Is there anything more elitist than promoting the idea that it is morally acceptable to eat dairy, eggs, or other animal products and to continue the exploitation of the most vulnerable?

    We would never label as “elitist” advocacy for a complete ban on rape (even though rape is, has been, and will continue to be a frequent occurrence in a patriarchal world). But when it comes to animals, advocacy of a complete ban on consumption and use is regarded as elitist.

    What distinguishes the two situations?

    That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is clear: species.”

  5. I don’t know exactly how the students framed the criticism, but I think it’s important to make a distinction between privilege and elitism.

    It seems like you mainly defended against the idea that veganism is for the privileged. That is the idea that you need to be financially well off (or perhaps well off in some other way) to be vegan. You pointed out that vegan food doesn’t need to be expensive, which to me seems like a reasonable response to that charge.

    I often see the word “elitist” used interchangeably with “privileged” but in my mind the former goes a bit deeper. When somebody calls you elitist for arguing that people should be vegan, I think what they’re probably objecting to is the idea that you, as a guy who is comfortable enough to be able to spend his time thinking about the lives of farm animals (and traveling around the country talking about them) should hold up your way of life as a model for those who are less fortunate. Even if people can afford to be vegan, who are you to tell a single mother that she can’t have a burger after a long hard day at her three jobs or say that the hunter in Africa has to give up the most reliable food source he knows? You don’t know what it’s like to be in their shoes, so how can you tell them what they should be eating?

    But what does that have to do with a bunch of kids at Wesleyan? The problem, roughly speaking, is that (most of) the animal rights arguments, don’t allow for exceptions for things like this. That is, the arguments don’t offer a way for you to concede that it’s okay for the African hunter to eat meat, so if you concede that it’s okay for the African hunter to eat meat, you have to accept that your argument is wrong, which lets the Wesleyan students off the hook.

    Anyway, this is a difficult argument to respond to precisely because it strikes at your authority to be making an argument in the first place. I would be interested to hear if you have any thoughts on the matter.

  6. Provoked says:

    I don’t have a problem conceding that the bushman or Inuit have a “get-out-of-jail-card” when it comes to eating animals. It’s because of necessity.

    Whether it’s elitism, privilege, affluence, wealth, or any other uppity tag – The point is that most people in “civilized” cultures are in a position to question their choices. With a full belly – one ought to be generous enough to opt for the least harmful acts to others. Citing those who can’t because of real-life, survival – is just a cop-out for not doing the right thing.

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