There are common responses to vegetarianism that even the most stalwart vegan grows weary of hearing. Questions like, “So are you one of those crazy PETA people?” “Is it hard for you to get enough protein?” And even — bafflingly — “You don’t eat meat? What about turkey, do you eat turkey?” But there’s one thing meat-eaters say that, though seemingly innocent, gets to me in a way that ignorance or hostility never do.
“Oh, I could never do that.”
When someone says this to me, simple conversational decorum requires that I smile and nod, but I secretly want to grab the person by the collar and shout the rest of this article into their face.
Let’s start with the obvious: the statement “I could never do that,” is, in this context, factually incorrect. Here are some things you could actually never do: Fly to the moon by flapping your arms. Fold a piece of paper in half more than seven times. Bench press a cruise ship. Perform brain surgery on yourself. Divide by zero.
You could stop eating meat; you just don’t want to. This is an important distinction.
Which brings me to my next point: the reasons people cite in support of their self-exemption from vegetarianism are predictable and transparent and weak. I love chicken. I love bacon. I could never face my extended family at Thanksgiving dinner. My whole recipe book would become obsolete. I love steak. My spouse loves steak. I wouldn’t get enough protein. I’d never feel full living off bean sprouts. I wouldn’t get enough iron. I’m from the Midwest. I love lobster. OMG, I loooooove bacon!
These reasons seem to fall into three main categories: (A) I love meat and refuse to give it up, because humankind has yet to discover a delicious food that isn’t made of animals; (B) I succumb so readily to peer pressure that the mere idea of it discourages me from major life improvements; (C) I believe a vegetarian or vegan diet is severely restrictive and will harm my body, because not being well-informed on a subject doesn’t stop me from forming opinions about it.
Most often the person has never even tried giving up meat, and they assume doing so would leave a terrible dietary void they wouldn’t be able to fill, nutritionally or gastronomically. Which is absurd, but also really hard to refute when talking to someone who’s gone their whole life defining a meal as meat plus a side dish. The American diet puts an undue emphasis on meat, and until you go vegetarian you don’t understand how insignificant it actually is next to the endless variety of foods that aren’t animal parts.
I myself used to think I’d never be able to give up meat, until a buddy and I in college got interested in vegetarianism. We had seen a documentary that talked about how eating meat harms the environment and supports animal cruelty, so we decided to go veg for a couple weeks as an experiment. Figuring we wouldn’t last long without succumbing to the siren song of bacon cheeseburgers, we resolved to reward ourselves with a lavish steak dinner if we lasted the whole two weeks without cheating. But the meatless lifestyle turned out to be so easy and delicious that, seven years later, our prize remains unclaimed. Next to the daily rewards of a vegetarian diet, a porterhouse now sounds to me about as appetizing as a soup of boiled tires.
And in this I’m not alone; there are plenty of formerly avid carnivores who look back on their pre-vegetarian days and wonder why they didn’t give up meat sooner. So when meat-eaters say they could never go vegetarian, what are they really saying? I doubt willpower is the main issue. Rather, I think it’s an attempt to excuse themselves from considering the question in the first place. If you make up your mind that it’s literally impossible for you to be vegetarian, then your diet’s ethical, health, and environmental implications don’t even have to come into play. You can’t do it, so you don’t need to bother thinking about it, and that’s that.
The real reason people say “I could never do that” is they’re secretly afraid they should. They’re at least dimly aware that there are ethical, nutritional, and environmental reasons for vegetarianism, and they’re worried that if they open their minds to learning about those reasons, they might end up convinced. Then they’d be forced to choose between their newfound ethical convictions and their lifelong gustatory ones, so rather than face the whole dilemma, they’d sooner stick their fingers in their ears and yell la-la-la-la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you.
When it comes down to it, “I could never do that” is, essentially, a lie that people tell themselves because they suspect the truth will make them uncomfortable. But the truth is the truth, whether you ignore it or not, and sticking your head in the sand is never the right way to respond to it. You don’t have to take the plunge straight from omnivore to full-time vegan; try meatless Mondays, or visit a vegan restaurant. The worst that can happen is that you end up liking it.