Are Vegan Men Just Reinforcing Their White Masculine Power? A Sociologist Thinks So, But I'm Skeptical

"I find their performances of masculinity often defy the conventional feminization of meatless diets."


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Move over, feminized glaciers—there's a new absurd-sounding social science paper making the rounds in conservative media: "Meatless meals and masculinity: How veg* men explain their plant-based diets."

The study purports to show that although being vegan is a feminine trait, men who adopt the diet do so for masculine reasons (like rationality) instead of feminine reasons (like emotion) and are thus upholding rather subverting the patriarchy. That's not conservative spin: The study is in some sense making the claim that rationality is masculine and emotion is feminine—which to my mind seems like a gendered assumption on its own.

The study also has a lot of problems and deserves to be mocked. Here's its summary:

This article analyzes qualitative interviews conducted with twenty vegan and vegetarian men in a semi-urban area of the southeastern United States to better understand how they conceptualize and explain their food consumption identities in relation to their broader identity practices. I find their performances of masculinity often defy the conventional feminization of meatless diets, while also upholding gendered binaries of emotion/rationality and current tropes of white, middle-class masculinity.

This is such a limited sample size that already we should be skeptical of any grand claims. The bulk of the research consists of interviews between these 20 men and the study's author, Mari Kate Mycek, a graduate teaching assistant at North Carolina State University's Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Mycek characterizes her subjects' justifications for going vegan as inherently masculine because they "situate themselves on the reason side of the reason/emotion binary and subsequently work to maintain a masculine/feminine binary. Veg* men justify their diet-identities as not only reasonable and rational but not emotional. By making this distinction, they align themselves with binary thinking that distances them from devalued femininity. Rather than risk being seen as feminine by showing emotions, they turn an activity traditionally labeled feminine into a manhood act."

Let's turn to examples. Tyler, a 22-year-old grad student, told Mycek that he became vegan because "I started being more interested in environmental issues and I realized that my diet could have a lot of effects on the environment….I realized I had to at least do something to like walk the walk or whatever, so that's what I did."

Several other participants described their reasoning as a matter of ethics—indeed, Mycek summarized 13 of the 20 men as having gone vegan for "ethical reasons." For five others, it was "health," and for the final two, it was "environmental."

What I'm not seeing is a clearly explained difference between "emotion" and "logic," given that the participants apparently went vegan for reasons that could easily be characterized as both emotional and logical. Ethics are just moral principles, and moral principles are informed by a variety of things: moral intuition about right and wrong, personal experience, etc. Don't you have to possess, or develop, a sort of emotional interest in protecting the planet to become vegan for environmental reasons? Why should this decision be characterized as solely rational?

And if the male vegans sound overly logical and rational in their interviews with Mycek, perhaps that's because it was a friendly interview being conducted for academic purposes. Under such circumstances, I can imagine a lot of people, and not just men, wanting to sound like their decision-making process was principally guided by rationality. But reading between the lines, it sort of sounds like Mycek thinks female vegans would say, oh, I'm just viscerally disgusted by cows dying, those are my feelz—while presuming that there's nothing rational about feeling this way. Maybe it's Mycek who's reinforcing a binary.

It probably sounds like I'm beating up a trivial research paper, but "Meatless meals and masculinity" is a good example of a kind of incoherence that's all too common in academia. A recent piece at Quillette strikes at the root of the problem. The author, S.A. Dance, enrolled in graduate school but now teaches at a high school. He writes:

I wondered if my graduate school training just amounted to a parlor trick. Last year, at my high school, the students enjoyed arguing if a hotdog is a sandwich, the millennial equivalent of asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The hotdog question made its way to the whiteboard in our staff lounge. By the time I arrived, my colleagues had written their responses. Some argued that a hot dog is not a sandwich because a sandwich requires two pieces of bread and a hotdog bun isn't supposed to separate. Others averred that it most definitely is a sandwich: Meat between bread is a sandwich, end of story. I saw these responses and thought, "Simpletons!" before putting my graduate education to work: "In order to determine if a 'hotdog is a sandwich,' we must first determine the proper understanding of 'is' for if we do not grasp the ontological necessity of being itself, we fall into an abyss wherein 'being' is and is not itself and thus a hotdog is and is not a sandwich for it is and is not its very self." I was quite amused by the whole situation until a colleague told me that a student had seen the whiteboard and said he wanted to study philosophy so that he could write like me….

I see pretentious prose masking empty thinking in my high school students' writing. I often read sentences like this: "The persistent continuance of racially prejudiced ideologies in the minds of many Americans has only diminished to small degrees or some might think not even at all." Clearly, the student meant to write "racism is still a problem in America," but, realizing the banality of this statement, injected it with prepositional phrases and multisyllabic words. This style of writing is almost encouraged in graduate school. Theorists, by and large, write sloppily.

Perhaps they write sloppily to disguise the fact that they aren't saying anything new or insightful, just reciting ideological arguments against things they already thought were bad. Perhaps they're engaged in what Joseph Heath, a philosopher at the University of Toronto, calls "crypto-normativity," a phenomenon he encountered when serving on a jury for a Canadian book prize. Heath's entire post on the subject is worth reading in full, but here's a snippet:

The most striking thing about the books is that, out of 16 books I received, only four were straightforward instances of what would traditionally be thought of as "social science," according to the positivist conception. In other words, only four of them had as their primary objective the desire to establish and present to the reader facts about the world. The others, by contrast, had as their primary objective the desire to advance a normative agenda—typically, to combat some form of oppression. That is to say, they were driven by the "emancipatory" interest of human reason.

Most of these could broadly be classified as one or another form of "critical" studies. (In academia, the term "critical" is often introduced into the description of a field, in order to flag this orientation toward normative questions, particularly those involving one or another forms of oppression. Thus we have "critical" legal studies, "critical" race studies, "critical" aboriginal studies, and so on.) Most of these books were also profoundly cringe-inducing. They were, to put it mildly, bad. Forced to read a dozen of them, however, I began to notice certain patterns in the badness….

A long time ago, Habermas wrote a critical essay on Foucault, in which he accused him of "cryptonormativism." The accusation was that, although Foucault's work was clearly animated by a set of moral concerns, he refused to state clearly what his moral commitments were, and instead just used normatively loaded vocabulary, like "power," or "regime," as rhetorical devices, to induce the reader to share his normative assessments, while officially denying that he was doing any such thing. The problem, in other words, is that Foucault was smuggling in his values, while pretending he didn't have any. A genuinely critical theory, Habermas argued, has no need for this subterfuge, it should introduce its normative principles explicitly, and provide a rational defence of them….

Reading through these books, I discovered a whole new set of cryptonormative terms that I had perhaps been vaguely aware of, but had not realized how important they were. There is obvious stuff like "neocolonial" and "racializing" (always bad), but there is also the term "stigmatizing." Stigmatization is, apparently, always bad. Anything that stigmatizes anyone else is bad. In some cases, entire bodies of empirical research, which might introduce a bit of moral complexity to the analysis of a particular situation, were swept aside on the grounds that they are "potentially stigmatizing" to oppressed groups. Thus the potential for "stigmatization" served as all-purpose license to ignore inconvenient facts (an egregious display of normative confusion).

In any case, it seems to me fairly obvious why these books are written in the way they are. The authors feel a passionate moral commitment to the improvement of society—this is what animates their entire project, compels them to write a book—but they have no idea how to defend these commitments intellectually, and they have also read a great deal of once-fashionable theory that is essentially skeptical about the foundations of these moral commitments (i.e. Foucault, Bourdieu). As a result, they are basically moral noncognitivists, and perhaps even skeptics. So they turn to using rhetoric and techniques of social control, such as audience limitation, as a way of securing agreement on their normative agenda.

I expect that Mycek's normative agenda is: sexism bad, veganism good. (Her paper makes clear that she is indeed a vegan.) The paper works to obscure this agenda by using sparse qualitative data to advance some related conclusions about gender and veganism. At a time when the ideological coalition that controls the federal government is souring on higher education, this approach does the academy no favors.