I recently wrote two articles related to the ethics of meat-eating. The first, published in Salon, was called 'New atheists must become new vegans: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the extra moral burden on moral leaders'. Due to a clear issue with the title, imposed by Salon without my consent, I followed up in The Daily Banter with 'Letter from the rubble of a Salon article'. To a large degree the second piece cleared up many misconceptions, and thanks to articles such as the Friendly Atheist’s, the original debate intended was finally achieved. Problem solved? Well, not exactly. An unsettling issue remains in how much of the initial backlash was conducted.
Misleading title or not, the amount of hate-ladened slurs was stupefying:
“The only thing I have against vegans is their self righteous bullshit.”
“… vegan clowns…”
“Vegans are mentally ill.”
“If these vegan militant tossers don't like it, go suck on a tofu dick.”
This anti-vegan sentiment has been unashamedly echoed recently in other domains. For example, the company Threadless has released a tee-shirt called “I hate vegans”. In response to criticism, Threadless stated, “The tees we choose to print are based on votes from our users. This design scored highly and was chosen for printing.”
The crucial issue here is terminology. "I hate veganism" would be fine as it is criticizing an idea, whereas "I hate vegans" represents an intolerance of a specific group of people: bigotry. Not only were Threadless promoting this kind of intolerance, they were doing so by popular demand. But no matter how many people hold a particular view, no stain of bigotry can be washed with the soap of majority.
This behavior is a symptom of a wider problem - the inability of many to erect a partition between ideas and people. I call attention to the distinction of “vegan” versus “veganism” not due to fears of oppression towards those who choose chickpeas over chicken, rather to help ensure honest discourse can continue to flow through once-taboo topics unobstructed.
When one demands their right to criticize religion, they can do so by appealing to their fundamental right to lambast any idea. In the words of Maajid Nawaz, “No idea is above scrutiny, just as no person should be beneath dignity”. However it is critical we maintain consistency across the board. The pillar on which this project balances is eroded by many ‘progressives’ whenever they voice contempt for conservatives rather than conservatism, new age hippies instead pseudo-spirituality, anti-vaxxers in lieu of pseudo-science, or vegans in place of veganism.
Many on both the political right and left (such as the "regressive left") cannot distinguish ideas from people, and this is precisely what lands them on the frayed edges of discourse. One tends to mistake the person for the idea, the other the idea for the person. The middle ground represents the fertile lands of true progress because ideas can be modified or discarded, whereas people cannot. The utility of this space has been emphasized by many, most recently Dave Rubin in The Rubin Report, and encapsulated by the “new rules of discourse” put forth by Sam Harris in ‘The End Of Faith’. It is precisely this that allows one to fearlessly challenge religious dogma, barbaric cultural practices, homophobia, sexism or dietary preferences.
We need to develop a natural repulsion whenever one conflates ideas with people - however trivial one believes an issue to be - with similar automacy when we are now faced with a racist comment. As our technological abilities gain momentum exponentially, the prospects of a trial-and-error march forward into the future grows increasingly treacherous amidst modern weaponry and other potentially harmful acquisitions. It is only within the space of ideas that we have a laboratory able to test competing hypotheses in a benign fashion. This is truly sacred and worth maintaining.