Berklier-than-thou: Ethical vegetarians are the most obnoxiously judgmental of all vegetarians


This post is about a study on inter-group hostility, normally an unsurprising report in and of itself. But here, the surprising thing is that all the groups behave the same way — but, think different ways.

And, it’s about white, middle class vegetarians — a fun test cohort.

Bottom line:  Among different kinds of vegetarians, inter-group hostility is not because anyone has a gripe with what anyone else eats necessarily, rather, it’s because of what they think about eating.

The paper: Rothgerber H (2014) Horizontal Hostility among Non-Meat Eaters. PLoS ONE 9(5): e96457. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096457.

The study asks different kinds of non-meat eaters to judge each other:

  • health vegetarians (those who abstain from eating meat and seafood for reasons of personal health), 
  • ethical vegetarians (those who abstain from eating meat and seafood for reasons of harm to animals and/or the environment), and
  • vegans (those who avoid all animal products including dairy and eggs).

Ethical vegetarians ranked health vegetarians least favorably, even though their behaviors are identical (not eating meat). Ethical vegetarians ranked vegans (who don’t eat any animal products) higher than health vegetarians, which is surprising, because these behaviors are different (eating animal products, but no meat, versus, not eating any animal products).

One would think that similar behaviors (vegetarian) would be viewed favorably, but nooo.  The ethical vegetarians identify by intentwhy are you not eating meat? Your health? So what, you precious freaking snowflake. The health of the planet and protection of animals? OK then, consider yourself at home, consider yourself part of the family.

Ethical vegetarians (or vegans) have a social identity, and

. . .Health vegetarians (who think vegetarianism is a personal, health choice), then, threaten to take attention away from and undercut the distinctive message of ethical vegetarians. They may induce omnivores to conclude that vegetarianism, rather than being a political movement, is an individual lifestyle choice, removing the moral implications of their behavior.. . . 

We’re going to call this the Berklier-than-thou effect.

The Bay Area has been a hot-bed of food-intention-qua-social-movements. In NorCal, the first time we lived here, we didn’t get this whole North Berkeley-food snob thing. “I grew carrots for Chez Panisse,” my friend the hydroponicist bragged — not because he was a good carrot grower, but because he was part of a movement. (His hydroponics skills have moved past carrots lately, another movement.) We left NorCal the first time in part because, in normal conversation, someone remarked that he only used saffron if it was from the Punjab, as a social statement.

Compare and contrast SoCal — no one cares what you’re thinking, pretty much ever. Mens rea is marginally of interest to anyone not in law enforcement. Food as a social movement? Nutrition is whatever you can drink through a straw in a cup with a lid. No one cares what you’re thinking. See, Liz, illustrated above.

(N.b., We’ve blogged quite a bit about meat sourcing, and problems with toxins in the food chain — here, here, here, here, and here.)