When Popeyes’ new fried chicken sandwich went viral for its deliciousness last week, I did not pause, not even for a second, to consider the vast toll of suffering and environmental destruction inherent in its rise. I am guessing you didn’t either; indeed, I can already feel your eyes rolling deep into your head at the mere suggestion that there’s anything to feel guilty about regarding the sold-out sandwich. So before we go on, let me warn you: The rest of this column is going to give your eye-rolling muscles a very good workout.
You want to shake me: Shut up, killjoy! Haven’t I heard how unspeakably delicious the sandwich is? As The New Yorker proclaimed, “The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is Here to Save America.” So why spoil this one last true thing by mentioning the squalid, overcrowded, constantly lit, 40-day life span of the typical factory-farmed, fast-food chicken?
Or, for that matter, the irony of the sandwich going viral at the same time as heartbreaking pictures of the Amazon rainforest on fire. Many of us, myself included, engage in painless, performative environmentalism. We’ll give up plastic straws and tweet passionately that someone should do something about the Amazon, yet few of us make space in our worldview to acknowledge the carcass in the room: the irrefutable evidence that our addiction to meat is killing the planet right before our eyes. After all, it takes only a few minutes of investigation to learn that there is one overwhelming reason the Amazon is burning — to clear ground for cattle ranching and for the cultivation of soy, the vast majority of which goes not into tofu but into animal feed, including for fast-food chicken.
As I say, I did not consider any of this, because I don’t regularly come into contact with a lot of preachy vegans. Indeed, preachy vegans are something of a myth. There’s an old joke — “How do you know you’re talking to a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you” — that is as untrue as it is revealing about the teller. Although vegans can marshal stronger evidence to support their claims than adherents of many other belief systems — whether of other diets or major religions — they get little respect, and their ideas rarely receive mass media acknowledgment other than mockery.
I am not a vegan. I am barely, failingly, a vegetarian/pescatarian — I make an effort to avoid meat, but for reasons of convenience and shameless hedonism still end up eating it several times a month, especially fish. My purpose here is not to change how you eat, dress or think about the ethics of consuming something like the Popeyes’ sandwich. Instead, as a fellow omnivore and a person concerned about the planet’s future, I want to ask you to do something much more simple: to alter how you think about vegans.
I want to urge you to give vegans a chance — to love and to celebrate them instead of ridiculing them. We need more vegan voices, because on the big issues — the criminal cruelty of industrial farming; the sentience and emotional depth of food animals; the environmental toll of meat and the unsustainability of its global rise — vegans are irrefutably on the right side of history. They are the vanguard. Climate scholars say that if we are ever to survive a warming planet, people will have to consume far fewer animals than we do now. We will all have to become a little more vegan — and if we are to succeed in that, we will have to start by saluting vegans, not mocking them.
We are nowhere close to that now. In the media, in pop culture and even in progressive, enlightened polite society it is still widely acceptable to make fun of vegans. The stereotype of the smug, self-satisfied, annoying vegan has taken deep cultural root. One survey found that vegans are viewed more negatively than atheists and immigrants, and are only slightly more tolerated than drug addicts.
It’s true that America’s food industry has recently begun investing heavily in animal-free milks and meats; supermarkets are brimming with bounties of meat alternatives, Burger King is selling an Impossible Whopper, and KFC just announced fake fried chicken wings and nuggets. This is all great news for the planet, yet no one thanks vegans for creating a market for these alternatives. Not even the meat-alternative startups themselves, which call themselves “plant-based” and strictly avoid the V-word, perhaps because food industry surveys find that “vegan” is the least appealing label that can be applied to food — worse than “diet” and “sugar-free.”
“There are many things that have gotten better in the five years that I’ve been vegan, like the availability of options or the quality of vegan cheese — but the attitude that omnivores have about vegans doesn’t feel like it’s changed that much, if at all,” Summer Anne Burton, editor of a new vegan-focused magazine called Tenderly, told me. “Even people who are really radical and progressive in lots of areas of their lives still seem really suspicious, frustrated and annoyed by the idea of someone being vegan.”
The annoyance manifests in all kinds of ways. Burton will post an inoffensive vegan recipe, and someone will invariably reply, “That would be better with bacon!” Vegans are constantly tarred with the suggestion that they are unfun — they’re asked whether oral sex is vegan, or accused of ruining weddings and birthday dinners with their outlandish preferences. “Being vegan or talking about your reasons for being vegan is taken to mean you are judgmental and smug — ‘You must be fun at parties!’ is probably the thing that I hear most often,” Burton said.
The tragedy here is that the mockery intimidates vegans. Rather than being out and proud about their beliefs, vegans find themselves biting their tongues. “A lot of us overcorrect,” Burton said. “You make a sacrifice because of your beliefs, and when people ask you about it, you’re afraid to sound judgmental or smug, so you brush it off.”
There are many theories for why vegans have it so rough, but the one I lean on is guilt and cognitive dissonance. Many omnivores understand the toll that meat wreaks on the planet, and we can’t help but feel the tension between loving animals in the abstract while eating them with abandon on the plate. All of this creates feelings of defensiveness, so when a vegan comes along, their very presence seems like an affront. To an omnivore, every vegan looks like a preachy vegan.
Well, that’s the point! As a culture, we are far too comfortable with consuming animals. The idea that meat is cost-free is exactly what led us into this trap; delicious as it may be, we should feel embarrassed and uncomfortable that people are going gaga for a mass-manufactured fried chicken sandwich.
For the good of the planet, put down the sandwich. But if you won’t do that, at least refrain from putting down the people who are trying to light a path to a livable future. The vegans are right. The vegans were always right. The least you can do is shower them with respect and our gratitude, because they deserve it.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.