Dietary fundamentalism impairs sight and hearing

argumentConversations about diet raise important questions concerning the ethics and ecology of food. Too often, though, these conversations get short-circuited by the certainty and intolerance characteristic of fundamentalism.

One symptom of fundamentalism is tunnel vision: seeing only what we want to see. Certain that a meat-and-potatoes diet is the American way to eat, some people buy beef, pork, and poultry without a second thought. They neither know nor want to know where that meat comes from. They neither think nor want to think about actual animals, let alone about how these beings live and die, or about the broader impacts of the industrial food system.

To some extent, this is simply a matter of ignorance. Supermarkets, after all, do a slick job of selling flesh in tidy plastic packages that distance us from reality. For many meat eaters, though, it is also a matter of not wanting to see, not wanting to face challenges to habits of thought and fork. Some of us cherish that comforting distance.

During my decade as a vegan, my vision was similarly narrowed, both by ignorance and by my certainty that eating meat was morally and ecologically wrong. When my wife and I visited a local organic farm to buy strawberries or greens, I neither knew nor wanted to know that white-tailed deer were also frequent visitors. I neither knew nor wanted to know that the farmer got permits to shoot deer when crop damage was heavy. If I had allowed myself to see and know, I would have had to reconsider my narrow ideas about meat: Venison was a byproduct of my fruits and vegetables. Why shouldn’t the farmer eat it?

If I had thought about our own garden’s dependence on manure fertilizer—or had been willing to take an honest look at all the impacts of crop production, from the deaths of millions of birds and mammals annually to habitat destruction to the exploitation of farm workers—I would have had to admit that my ethical high horse was a precarious place to ride. If I had seen these things clearly, or if I had taken a closer look at how most creatures live and die in the wild, I would have been forced to recognize that the world is a complex and nuanced place, one that does not fit the tidy black-and-white categories I had imposed.

A second symptom of dietary fundamentalism is impaired hearing. When we are certain we have a lockdown on truth, it’s easy to become intolerant. When we become intolerant, it’s easy to stop listening. When we stop listening, we have little hope of understanding, let alone respecting, each other.

All some omnivores need to hear is that the next guy is a vegan and, click, their minds lock shut. No ideas or questions will penetrate, no matter how reasonable. All some vegans need to hear is that someone eats animal products and, click, their minds do the same. Just like that, the Dalai Lama is recognized as a meat eater and goes from revered to reviled. Just like that, Ellen DeGeneres mentions eating eggs from a neighbor’s chickens and goes from paragon to pariah.

Fundamentalism deafens us to the possibility that different people have different nutritional needs, and that those needs change over time. Following a book discussion last year, a woman told me how, after many years as a vegetarian, she had needed to eat some meat to stay healthy during her pregnancies. Her vegetarian husband had been upset and, more than two decades later, they still couldn’t talk about her occasional omnivory.

Fundamentalism also deafens us to differences in circumstance. As a vegan who could afford to buy fresh, high-quality produce in New York and New England, I felt certain that all humans should eat the way I did. But diets that are feasible for you or me may not be feasible for others. In different climates and circumstances, people can buy, grow, raise, gather, catch, and hunt different kinds of foods. All too often, people don’t have enough food of any kind, let alone the luxury of choosing what they eat.

Most of all, fundamentalism deafens us to the values we share. It blinds us to our common ground. At the height of my own moral certainty about the evils of meat eating, I didn’t believe I could share any food ethics with someone sitting down to a plate of scrambled eggs, let alone grilled chicken or braised venison. I was wrong.

Many people—omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike—care about animal welfare. Many of us also care about ecological health, the fair treatment of farm workers, and world hunger. Many of us want to know where our food comes from, and want to feel connected to, and good about, those sources. Whether we know it or not, we are united by our desire for humane, just, and ecologically sane food systems.

Thankfully, some of us do know. We know we can ask moral questions without slipping into moral rigidity. We know that a little tolerance goes a long way, especially in Internet forums where anonymity often undermines civility. We know that people from across the dietary spectrum can respect, listen to, and learn from each other. We know that being vegan or vegetarian doesn’t make people crazy sentimentalists, and that being omnivorous doesn’t make them heartless barbarians.

And we know better than to waste energy squabbling, berating one another for what we do or do not eat. Browbeating, after all, does not change or open minds. It only hardens categories.

© 2013 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Tovar, do you remember the George Carlin routine about driving? How everyone driving slower than you is a moron and everyone driving faster than you is a maniac? I think there’s something of the same phenomenon in it. The reason that routine is so funny (and it is so very funny) is that it taps into the idea of how entrenched our ideas about ourselves and our choices are.

    I struggle with this. While I’m all for civility and open minds, I also think that there are choices about food that are counterproductive or just plain bad — both on the sentimental and the barbaric ends of the spectrum. That said, I’ve found that there are thoughtful, articulate, civil people representing every segment of that spectrum, and I’ve found that engaging with them has been interesting and productive.

    • Tovar says:

      I think the Carlin analogy is a good one, Tamar. And I agree that some foods and diets are “just plain bad,” as you put it, whether for human health, the planet, the survival of certain species, etc. One question is this: How do we have conversations that illuminate “good” and “bad” without descending immediately into those entrenched, oppositional places?

  2. somsai says:

    To tell you the truth I seldom discuss food choices people make but do talk about cooking and growing food lots. Many, perhaps most, around here have dabbled in various degrees of vegetarianism, many haven’t eaten any animal with a backbone in decades. It’s fairly common amongst the upper middle class in America, kind of like an advanced degree, passport or road bike. It’s cultural.

    I certainly can’t fault people for not wanting to know where food comes from, in cultures without supermarkets butchering is still a specialty profession. Kinda yucky, plus a pig lets the entire world know it’s about to be murdered, or at least the entire village.

    I thought of you and this blog when I ran across this post on a food blog I’ve been following of late. It describes how most people deal with the acquisition of meat in many thousands of villages.

    Food. Do you have enough? or not. For a large part of the world that is the only discussion.

  3. Ingrid says:

    I’ve thought about this issue a lot — perhaps most of my life. I’ve always recognized that my level of care toward animals is viewed as extreme by some, and as “normal” by those who share my proclivities. I obviously feel very strongly about living as compassionately as possible, based on the suffering I have personally encountered in my work with animals — what they endure at our often cruel hands. We inflict so much unnecessary pain on other species … completely unnecessary.

    What I do appreciate about the people who feel strongly about issues of compassion is that they are willing to roll up their sleeves and fight for what they believe is right, for what will bring more peace and less physical and psychological violence to this crazy world. There has to be a certain rigidity inherent in causes of justice. That is, if you don’t believe in the “rightness,” say, of suppressing genocide, you will simply not have the psychological verve and resilience to persist through the turmoil, marginalization and sometimes life-threatening situations required to advocate on behalf of those you want to protect.

    You linked out to a piece which mentioned Gandhi’s move away from veganism. I don’t know how many people have read Gandhi’s autobiography, but his framework was what I would characterize as evolving fundamentalism (oxymoron noted). That is, he obviously changed his perspectives throughout his life, in sometimes quite bizarre ways, but when he held his views, he held them strong enough to literally change a society.

    I know what you’re saying … that strong beliefs in the absence of an open eye, mind and ear lead to all manner of intolerance, even atrocity, often negating the very goodness that a person may set out to achieve. We have ample examples of that. But it’s also far too easy to slip into a state of moral relativism, where you open yourself up to all ideas as equal, utterly diffusing any sense of moral rightness, which then undermines the very foundations of almost every sane and just society.

    The sad part about food fundamentalism is that at its crux, we have an anthropocentric system that exploits beyond reason and employs cruelty beyond imagination — toward nonhumans and humans both. There is no way, as you say, to live completely without harm. But for those who care at least a little, it takes a tremendous amount of self-examination to not succumb to the rigidity of despair — over how entrenched and uncaring people can be around issues of cruelty, often for the sake of pure frivolity, gluttony and greed. Some of us fear that the world will never change, and that we’ll exploit ourselves into our own demise, and the demise of every other species first, which seems more likely as time goes on. And on the other side are those who fear that the world will, indeed, change, and that those changes will mean radical shifts in personal paradigms. I think those dueling fears are at the core of almost every issue we face in these times.

    • Tovar says:

      Ingrid: You’ve pointed out some of the central issues here when you write of the need for “certain rigidity inherent in causes of justice,” of Gandhi’s “evolving fundamentalism,” and of the need to live in middle ground between “strong beliefs in the absence of an open eye, mind and ear” and “moral relativism.”

      Well said.

  4. Phillip says:

    Fundamentally, I think this is a great post, Tovar!

    Obviously, this conversation spans most topics… not just food. And it’s dead on.

    Personally, I try to stay open in conversation. There’s often a lot to learn, even if you don’t agree. But I also know my tolerance and my patience sometimes get stretched thin.

  5. Tovar,
    You’ve been in my thoughts as I just spent a few days with The Wannabe Buddhist (mentioned in my ethics post). During one of our somewhat circular debates, I recommended your book. “I wouldn’t want to read it.” Yep, just as blatant as that. He literally said those words!

    Which of course begs the question “What am I failing to see?”


    • Tovar says:

      Well now, SBW. I may be wrong, but that sounds a lot like “I wouldn’t want to let someone throw any inconvenient wrenches into my fundamentalist worldview.”

  6. Paul Roberts says:

    “…the world is a complex and nuanced place…”

    This is what we all find so difficult to accept.

  7. Erik Jensen says:

    Add your excellent points and overall argument to the backdrop of Bill Clinton becoming a vegan and the rage of the paleo-diet and the growing public approval of hunting, our culture is all over the place.

    A couple paradoxes I think we all need to accept. They both defy both these trends, and acceptance of paradox is a lot of what all this discussion is about. The first is that at this point in history, agriculture, mostly for cultivating edible plants, and hunting for recreation and food, are inter-dependent in most parts of America and other rich western countries. As much as hunter-gatherer societies and agriculture based ones have been different, we need to take the best from both.

    The other is that the “meat is better” vs. “more vegetable-based/non-meat is better” (for the environment and your health) varies from landscape as well as each person. Some cultivated areas of America should be plowed under and turned to grass for the raising of animals for meat, or for hunting (I prefer the latter). In other areas, smarter (cleaner) and increased production of plant-based foods is a better idea. I’ve questioned both near vegans on their claim that what they are doing is better for the environment as a general claim, and others that eat meat at every meal.

    Lately, I’ve been making a point, at least during the work-week, or largely only eating meat or fish once a day, being “vegetarian” until evening. On the “life-philosophy” side consistent with that, I’ve also been reflecting on living with and even benefiting from both being a hunter and angler, and “primal” nature of that, and that fundamentally distinct lifestyle, as well as relishing the benefits that agriculture eventually brought, at least to a large swath of humanity: technology, security, modern medicine, and a host of other benefits.

  8. unethical_vegan says:

    Your commentary is quite absolutist. Very few veg*ns are the kind of anti-speciest fanatics you describe. Based on evidence-based research I am convinced that ruminant animals are far more self-aware than field mice. Since my goal is compassion, not perfection, I view the death of field mice (some of whom would die naturally) to be a necessary utilitarian compromise.

    I am also very skeptical of any claims of short-term health improvements based on dietary change. The placebo effect is remarkably powerful. I suspect that many ex-v*gans feel better because the want to feel better. Likewise, I believe the same phenomenon occurs when many switch to a veg*n diet.

    “How everyone driving slower than you is a moron and everyone driving faster than you is a maniac?”

    Ironically, I gave up driving around the same time I stopped eating animals.

    • Tovar says:

      I’m sorry to hear that something about my commentary strikes you as absolutist. As I have tried to convey, some vegans and some omnivores act and speak in narrow-minded, fundamentalist ways. Some do not.

      Like you, I believe that ruminants are more self-aware than field mice. Having abandoned my one-time quest for perfection, I too am more concerned with compassion.

      Short (or long) term health improvement (or degradation) based on dietary change can be complex, whether we’re talking the reintroduction or elimination of animal-based foods. I agree that the placebo effect may be significant in many cases, as may other simultaneous changes (like eliminating refined flours, sugars, or hydrogenated oils).

      • unethical_vegan says:

        Your one-sided commentary details the ways in which vegetable/grain production vegetables could harm the ecosystem, wild animals, or farm workers but does not balance this with the the ways in which hunting or animal husbandry could harm the eco-system, wild animals, or workers.

        Your commentary tacitly assume that vegans disapprove of those who eat hunted meat or “free range” eggs. I and many other vegans do not.

        Your commentary also creates strawmen. I have yet to meet a single vegan who reviles the Dalai Lama or believes that Ms. Degeneres is a pariah.

        You commentary tacitly assumes that vegans are not aware of the ethical issues surrounding organic food production. I, for example, learned of the decimation and threatened extinction of inter-tidal fish species by industrial organic agriculture over a decade ago. More recently, I have become convinced that our use of animal manure is a growing ecological disaster.

        Your commentary tacitly generalizes from your experiences as a vegan to all vegans. For example, I have been veg*n for many decades and I never had any certainty about the “evils” of meat eating.

        • Tovar says:

          UV: I have neither time for, nor interest in, an argument with you. From what you say about being a vegan who does not disapprove of those who eat hunted meat, we probably agree on a lot.

          You seem to be inferring a lot from my post, both what it says and what it does not. When I write about how “some omnivores” and “some vegans” seem to think, I mean just that: some, not all. When I write that “some of us” from across the dietary spectrum recognize our common ground, I mean just that: some of us do. When I describe my own perspective (past and present), I mean just that: mine. When I don’t write something, I don’t mean it anyway just because you or anyone else imagines I do.

          “Reviled” and “pariah” both include a bit of poetic hyperbole. But I’ve seen plenty of righteous indignation aimed at both the Dalai Lama and DeGeneres.

          In this post, I did not set out to write a thorough critique of agriculture, animal husbandry, or hunting. I’ve critiqued all three in various ways elsewhere. I set out to make a point about fundamentalism, including my own past fundamentalism as a vegan. Period.

          • Was it not robert anton wilson who coined the phrase ‘somebunol’ to make up the gap in english where we need a word for ‘some but not all’?

            DeGeneres? as in Ellen? Is she still on TV there?


          • unethical_vegan says:

            “When I write about how “some omnivores” and “some vegans” seem to think, I mean just that: some, not all.”

            some but not all ex-vegans use anecdotal self-diagnosis and amateur ecology as a way to validate their decision to eat flesh.

            “I set out to make a point about fundamentalism, including my own past fundamentalism as a vegan. Period.”

            every specific example of “fundamentalism” in your essay focused on veganism.

            • Paul Roberts says:

              “some but not all ex-vegans use anecdotal self-diagnosis and amateur ecology as a way to validate their decision to eat flesh.”
              Amateur ecology? So… enlighten us.

              “every specific example of “fundamentalism” in your essay focused on veganism.”
              Hmmmm… Have you read much of this blog? Start with the title.

              So far your attempts at entering the discussions at hand have been little more than ankle-biting. Thanks for your giving us so little of your time and expertise.

              • unethical_vegan says:

                “So… enlighten us.”

                The burden of proof should be born by those who make anecdotal
                claims. I make no such claims here or elsewhere. Moreover, I would be very interested in seeing more academic life cycle studies that seek to address these very questions. If you find it fulfilling to *believe* in Tovar’s story, the more power to you. I have no problem with his story or much of his book (which I have read), but the tone and content of this particualr blog post rubbed me the wrong way.

                • Paul Roberts says:

                  “Moreover, I would be very interested in seeing more academic life cycle studies that seek to address these very questions.”

                  Especially pertaining to white-tailed deer there are MANY studies out there, and a lot of expertise all over the country. What in particular are you after and have you pursued these questions? Attempting to call Tovar out with an empty hand isn’t helpful for ay of us.

                  “If you find it fulfilling to *believe* in Tovar’s story, the more power to you.”

                  I’m not sure what you’re getting at with this statement.

                  • unethical_vegan says:

                    “Especially pertaining to white-tailed deer there are MANY studies out there, and a lot of expertise all over the country.”

                    There is an incredible dearth of academic research on the relative ecological and societal impacts of aquaculture, fishing/hunting, animal husbandry, and agriculture. Anyone who speak with certainty on these issues is naive at best.

        • Marcia says:

          Oh, I’ve been on many blogs where vegans rip ex vegans a new one, Ellen included. They go on and on about it. Strawman indeed.

          • Tovar says:

            Thanks, Marcia. I’ve seen the same. Fortunately, there are also vegans (and vegetarians and omnivores) who recognize the narrowness and pointlessness of such rants.

  9. At first I thought unethical_vegan’s comment was supposed to be ironic.

    But then I realized that another possible symptom of dietary fundamentalism might be loss of reading comprehension skills. That’s might explain how unethical_vegan somehow managed to see “absolutist commentary” in this post.

    It’s incredibly convenient if you can project/imagine/make up absolutist statements from people on another side of any debate. Then you get to both lecture people AND feel even more “right” in your views.

    Dan @ Casual Kitchen

  10. chacha1 says:

    I was pointed over here by Dan at Casual Kitchen, and it’s a great article.

    I am an enthusiastic carnivore, but I must confess I don’t want to look my food in the face. I don’t even buy whole chickens. This is me being a wimp (in my own assessment).

    I guess I fall on the “honor the animal” end of the spectrum, meaning I try to get humanely-raised organic products and I support whole-critter consumption. It has been great to see, over the past few years, the growth of humane, organic, small-scale farming here in California. I hope our state can lead the way on this.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Chacha.

      Though I’m not one to push anyone in any particular direction, I’d encourage you to contemplate taking some step toward looking your “food in the face,” as you put it. (That could include vegetable as well as meat production.)

      It sounds like you’re already bringing mindfulness to your eating. And yes, like you, I’m very glad to see that trend in farming. 🙂

  11. Tovar says:

    The recent “Vegan Sellout List” website ( came to my attention in the past week, when I discovered I’d been listed. They must have been getting mobbed with attention, because they’ve changed things. Now you can’t search for those who are listed, most links (including their home page) lead you to another site’s video about factory farming, and you can’t even register as a user.

    In any case, their stance is an unfortunate demonstration of fundamentalism in action. In places, their intent seems to be to incite violence against ex-vegans. For instance:

    Most of the vegetarians and vegans I know think this site is a nightmare, sending the worst possible message.

    • Ingrid says:

      Has anyone established who owns I wasn’t able to find out through a cursory search. I ask because, as I’m sure you all know, sites like are duplicitous Rick Berman operations which people think are legitimate websites. Anyone involved in social justice causes will be no stranger to the efforts made at undermining movements from within. Anyone remember Cointelpro? You should read “Green is the New Red” if you think it’s not going on today. Animal rights and environmental causes are a favorite target.

      Anyway, based on my experience, I just have a healthy, initial skepticism about origins until I know for sure who’s behind an issue or site that makes all of a group of people or social justice effort look bad. Sadly, sites like this, regardless of source, make it so easy for meat eaters to cynically dismiss vegetarians along with legitimate efforts toward compassion and justice for nonhuman animals. People who deride an overall movement like animal welfare based on isolated interactions — a movement that has at its core, compassion for all species with many dedicated people rolling up their sleeves in sanctuaries, peaceful rescue operations, and humane education — are just as culpable in cultural brainwashing … with a much less noble ideal.

    • Tovar says:

      Thematically related to the website (which has, interestingly, become less and less accessible in recent days) and its claims about “blackened souls”:

      I recently found that a couple of vegans felt compelled to comment on the Utne Reader reprint of an article I wrote last year (

      One opined that “You were never a vegan. You may have engaged in vegan behavior, eating a vegan diet, but veganism extends far beyond your diet–veganism defines your soul.”

      Another opined that I “understood nothing about nutrition and had no motivation to look into how to eat a healthier vegan diet” and that I did not “understand is that it’s about far more than diet. Veganism is a way of life, a philosophy…”

      These are other symptoms of fundamentalism I have noticed before and could have noted in this post: (1) the remarkable ability to see into others’ souls and minds, and know who they really are/were and what they do and do not understand, and (2) the conveniently circular logic whereby anyone who abandons the faith was never a true adherent to the faith, thus all true believers will be believers forever.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      Ironically, was a viral subversive campaign to coax omnivores to watch animal right material. the fact that it prayed on the prejudices of some omnivores is quite amusing. i have huge ideological differences with peter young but i have to admit that this campaign was bloody brilliant.

  12. SBW says:

    Now just a banner if the sites based in the UK a criminal offence.
    Personally I like vegans they’re delicious

  13. Harvey Klum says:

    I am a meat eater and always have been – in my past I was very cavalier about where I sourced my food- just buying in supermarkets/ even economy stuff. I have since seen the light and now believe that we need to think about everything we eat whatever our particular food preferences. Game is my preferred choice of meat and I eat it with respect. Food wastage is one of the worst things about the Western world and it sickens me. I believe that whatever your principles about food, a route we can all agree on is that mindfulness is one of the most important qualities we should strive for – mindfulness of the preciousness of food and our planet.

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