‘Vegan Killjoys’: Diet And Dinner Table Conflicts
Every vegan has their stories about conflict at the dinner table. Numerous studies have sought to explore this phenomenon in depth. One vein of research considers the “Meat Paradox,” i.e., the cognitive dissonance that many meat-eaters experience when forced to confront their dietary habits at the same time as their aversion to animal cruelty.
Hank Rothgerber has shown that even a written description of a vegetarian can trigger strong anti-vegetarian views and strong meat-eating justifications. Julia Minson used the framework of “Do-Gooders” as the basis of a study showing that merely triggering the thought of a vegetarian could activate a strong sense among meat-eaters of being morally judged.
In this article, social scientist Richard Twine chooses the figure of the “killjoy” as a way to process material he collected from interviews with 40 vegans based in the U.K. The killjoy framework was created by Sarah Ahmed to shed light on feminists’ interactions with the world. According to Ahmed, a “killjoy” breaks with behavioral norms and thus disrupts the well-being that exists when dominant cultural norms are shared by a group.
Twine shares quotations from his vegan interviews where participants vividly recall the confusion, disapproval, shock and sometimes ridicule they experienced, especially when first transitioning to veganism or vegetarianism. Within the framework of the “killjoy,” refusing to eat meat is tantamount to breaching a social and moral order; it brings on unhappiness, even when unhappiness is not intended.
Twine also introduces “practice theory” to understand vegan transitions and negotiations with non-vegans. Within practice theory, the focus is on competencies, materials, and meaning instead of on individuals or institutions. People, in essence, are “carriers” of practice. This approach leads to a number of helpful insights.
First, when someone decides to become vegetarian or vegan, family members usually lack the competency and materials needed to effectively prepare vegan meals. This in itself can account for some of the awkwardness that veganism introduces at the family table. Second, veering off from the dominant culture’s values and meanings can destabilize a shared sense of happiness. Most vegans and vegetarians come to see meat not as food but as dead animals. Such meanings can make is harder and harder for vegans and vegetarians to eat alongside omnivores, and if the reasons are communicated, they cannot help but disrupt the well-being of omnivore family members.
In his final section, Twin turns to two themes from his interview data that point to positive vegan activist strategies and social negotiations that can help bring omnivores into the “vegan affective community.”
In a number of the interviews, the subjects mentioned that non-vegan friends and family members started to cook vegan dishes for them. Twine calls these people “non-practising practitioners” who make the effort to learn about vegan food preparation in order to support the vegan who is close to them.
The second form of social negotiation that builds bridges is “demonstrative vegan practice.” Many of the interview subjects relayed how they cooked and baked for non-vegans and received appreciative comments and a restored sense of commensality (communal eating and drinking), if only temporarily.
Within the safe bubble of a vegan potluck or vegan fair, the experience of joy among vegans is often palpable. Many times, however, vegans are the unintentional killjoys who threaten the happiness of those who eat meat. Twine’s final section outlines practices that can help construct a new shared happiness based on meanings and practices outside of the previously fixed social norms.