In many circles, vegans have a bad rep. Often labeled as wack jobs, treehuggers or, gasp — pacifists! — the choice to be vegan tends to attract a lot of cultural judgment.
In his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain put it in these terms: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.”
Comparing a philosophy that’s based on nonviolence to a terrorist group seems apocryphal at best, but Bourdain isn’t alone; such opinions are not uncommon.
Laura Wright, head of the department of English at Western Carolina University — and vegan herself since 2001 — decided to get to the bottom of this often-vitriolic antiherbivore sentiment. The result was her new book, The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals and Gender in the Age of Terror.
The book discusses society’s view of the vegan identity, particularly in the post-9/11 world, and digs into pop culture, media, advertising and the myriad ways society has shaped its collective opinions.
“I wanted to write about veganism for a long time,” says Wright. “I think the thing that really did it for me was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Harold Fromm, a notable environmental literature professor. It was a complete takedown of vegans for being self-righteous and holier-than-thou. I thought, somebody needs to look at why this particular identity causes so much anger considering it’s basically an identity of peace.”
Wright’s assertion is that the post-9/11 world has created a more negative view of veganism, painting it as weak or unpatriotic.
“There was a backlash against anything perceived as un-American, and the American diet is very much made up of meat,” she says.
By offering a rigorous critique of cultural norms people often unquestioningly accept, Wright hopes her book will make people reevaluate what they think they know.
Wright will talk about her book during three appearances in Western North Carolina. On Sunday, Oct. 11, at 1 p.m., she’ll appear at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. Then on Thursday, Oct. 22, she’ll be at Firestorm Cafe & Books, and on Friday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m., Wright will take the stage at Malaprop’s Bookstore. Carol Adams, the renowned author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, will join her for the discussion at Malaprop’s.
In the end, Wright hopes her book can help people realize that what they think about vegans — or any other group that’s outside the mainstream — isn’t always a choice they’ve consciously made. “There are always a bunch of things that contribute to the way we think about people,” she says. “This is my attempt to look at a lot of the reasons that we think about vegans the way we do, and help people gain a broader understanding.”