Earlier this week on the Fat Head blog, I wrote about the attack on Lierre Keith by some vegan nut-jobs who consider her a traitor and a threat. For those of you who don’t already know, Keith was a dedicated vegan for 20 years but had to rethink her beliefs when her health declined and she realized, after some comical attempts, that she couldn’t grow her own food without killing living creatures. No longer able to hide behind a simplistic, child-like love for nature, she set out instead to understand it. The result was The Vegetarian Myth, in which she argues (brilliantly) that agriculture and a plant-based diet will not make us healthy or save the planet.
Nonetheless, her core values remain the same: she loves animals, she abhors the cruelty of factory farming, and she wants us to feed ourselves in a manner that supports the environment instead of depleting it year after year. As she writes in her book: “What separates me from vegetarians isn’t ethics or commitment. It’s information.”
Ah, but there’s the rub: it’s the information that has made her a target, not the change in her beliefs.
When I heard about the attack, my first reaction was to chalk it up to the “vegan rage” Keith writes about in her book. But after thinking it over, I decided I was confusing a correlation with a cause. Yes, they’re enraged and they’re vegans, but I don’t think they’re enraged because they’re vegans. I think it’s more likely they became militant vegans in the first place because they fit the personality type described so eloquently by Eric Hoffer in his book The True Believer. It was published in 1951, but still rings true today.
First, a little background on the author: Hoffer was born sometime around 1900 in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents. His father was cabinet-maker. When Hoffer was five, his mother fell down a flight of stairs while carrying him. She never fully recovered and died two years later. Soon afterwards, Hoffer went blind, perhaps from the emotional trauma. Amazingly, his sight returned when he was 15. Afraid he may go blind again someday, Hoffer educated himself by reading as many books as he could.
After his father died around 1920, Hoffer left for California and worked a series of odd jobs, including a stint as a migrant farm worker, before becoming a longshoreman in San Francisco. When his books became popular, he was dubbed “The Longshoreman Philosopher.”
Deeply troubled by the horrors of Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism, the Holocaust and World War II, Hoffer thought long and hard about the roots of fanatical movements, then began writing down his insights. The result was a slim (176 pages) but brilliant book, The True Believer. If you haven’t read it, I hope you will someday. But in the meantime, here’s a very short summary:
Fanatical movements attract a particular personality type. They are typically dissatisfied with their own lives and have low self-esteem. (Can you say “prone to rage”?) Fanaticism appeals to them because it provides a sense of identity, the ego-boost of idealism, and the psychological comfort of certainty — thus relieving them of the need to resolve life’s doubts, contradictions, and moral ambiguities for themselves.
The appeal of a fanatical movement for this personality type lies only partly in the movement’s stated beliefs; the deeper appeal is in the fanaticism itself. That’s why, as Hoffer noted, fanatical groups often find it easiest to recruit new members from other fanatical groups, even if their beliefs are at odds: Fanatical communists have become fanatical Christians, fanatical Christians have become fanatical Nazis, fanatical Nazis have become fanatical communists, etc. (Plenty of fanatical communists became fanatical environmentalists when communism didn’t work out so well.)
Hoffer labeled these people the True Believers. The need to believe in something — completely, and without question — defines their lives, because fanaticism makes them feel special and important.
Not surprisingly, then, the biggest threat to their identities is doubt. All contrary evidence must be stifled or rationalized out of existence. All logical inconsistencies in their beliefs must be ignored. Anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs is an enemy, and anyone who raises questions about their beliefs must be silenced. (But enough about Al Gore.)
Now, doesn’t that description sound just a wee bit like a militant vegan? Ego boost? Heck yes … I’m now a morally superior human being because I don’t eat animal products.
Sense of identity? Gee, do you think? I once asked a waitress in a restaurant if the pork chops were any good. Turning up her nose just a bit, she replied, “I wouldn’t know. I’m a vegan.” I’m mildly hard of hearing, so at first I thought she said, “I wouldn’t know. I’m a virgin.” After some momentary confusion, mentally rifling through my old catechism lessons looking for a prohibition against virgins eating pork, I figured it out. Either way, it was more than I cared to know about her. “I’ve never tried them” would’ve sufficed.
The comfort of certainty, relieved of the need to resolve life’s moral ambiguities? Most definitely. It’s easy to just declare that a fly and a pig and human being are all equal. (I’ll buy that idea when a pig writes a symphony or a good joke.) It’s a bit tougher to finally admit, as Lierre Keith did, that eating meat enhances your health, then have to deal with the morality of killing to be healthy. The Dalai Lama eats meat now, so I guess he’s got it figured out.
Years ago, I heard Dennis Prager debating some animal-rights nut. Prager asked a hypothetical question: if a boy and a dog are both drowning, who do you save first? The nut wouldn’t answer. He weasled out by saying that since he’s a vegan, he’s strong enough to save both of them. (Then a fly landed on his shoulder, and he fell out of his chair.)
Before anyone gets his or her macramé underwear in a wad, I’m not suggesting all or even a majority of vegans are True Believers. But the ones who throw blood on women wearing furs or smash a pepper-laced pie into an author’s face definitely fit the profile. Here are some quotes from Hoffer himself, with my comments on how they apply to the True Believer nut-jobs who attacked Lierre Keith.
A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.
Bingo. Mentally-healthy vegans don’t scream “murderer!” at meat-eaters. They don’t toss pepper-laced pies at meat-eaters. They just don’t eat meat. (Heck, I even knew a vegan who was married to a meat-eater.) But the True Believer vegans — including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine — can’t resist minding other people’s business. And when their meddling turns out to be a disaster, as when CSPI harassed restaurants into switching to hydrogenated vegetable oils for frying, it doesn’t faze them a bit. They don’t even admit they were wrong; they just keep meddling.
Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.
Three men in masks attack a 45-year-old woman from behind. People in the room cheer. Other people praise the attack online. A website posts a video of the attack with the Benny Hill music playing for comic effect. Is that enough unifying hatred for you?
In order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.
Keith did a bang-up job of pointing this out in her book. She recounted a suggestion by some scientifically illiterate vegan that animals in nature should be separated by a big fence — the carnivores on one side, the herbivores on the other. That way, ya see, there wouldn’t be any killing. Keith then explained, using actual scientific facts, what the result would be: all the animals would eventually starve to death. But this unbelievably stupid suggestion drew nothing but applause from other True-Believer vegans. They were just certain it would work … even the carnivores don’t really have to eat meat, ya see, because dogs and cats sometimes eat grass! In other words, these goofs could only believe what they believed because they had zero understanding of nature.
The uncompromising attitude is more indicative of an inner uncertainty than a deep conviction. The implacable stand is directed more against the doubt within than the assailant without.
That’s why anyone who can plant a seed of doubt is such a threat. Lierre Keith isn’t just any ol’ author promoting an omnivorous diet; she’s a former dedicated vegan. She knows all the vegan arguments inside and out, and she now disputes them with facts. She can shake up the beliefs of people whose very identities depend on those beliefs.
Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance.
Yup … I’m pretty sure if you’re satisfied with your own life, you don’t feel the need to toss blood or pepper-laced pies at people who don’t share your beliefs about animal rights — especially considering that 99.9% of all people who’ve ever lived also didn’t share those beliefs.
All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation, but from holy writ.
It was experience and observation that caused Lierre Keith to change her mind. Her health failed. Her spine degenerated. She was depressed and fatigued. A Chinese-medicine doctor she trusted told her what she already knew: her vegan diet was killing her. Now she’s sharing those experiences with other vegans, and that’s why the True Believers want to shut her up — her personal story is compelling and some vegans might just believe her.
Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.
Militant vegans dream of a world where everyone is a vegetarian, nobody (and no animal) has to kill to eat, and the planet is saved in the process. If only life could be that pretty. Now Keith is telling them that farming kills countless animals, and mono-crop agriculture — all those lovely fields of wheat, corn and soybeans — is destroying the environment. In other words, you can kill some animals on purpose to eat them, or you can kill even more by farming … but you cannot live in your absolute, perfect world because it’s not possible. She has accepted the compromise — what she refers to as becoming an adult. The True Believers are children, and they can’t stand hearing what mommy has to say.
It is the true believer’s ability to shut his eyes and stop his ears to facts which in his own mind deserve never to be seen nor heard which is the source of his unequalled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger, nor disheartened by obstacles, nor baffled by contradictions, because he denies their existence.
Vegans insist they don’t kill to eat. When someone like Lierre Keith points out that farming kills countless creatures per acre (and remember: a pig, a fly and a human are all equal!), plus countless more who die because the mono-crop farms destroy their environments, the vegans still insist they don’t kill to eat. Well, not really, you see, because … uh … because … well … it’s not really killing because we didn’t do it on purpose! By that logic, we need to pardon everyone who caused a fatal accident by driving drunk — they didn’t mean for anyone to die, after all.
The excuse makes no sense. It’s a contradiction. But the True Believers aren’t baffled by contradictions. They’ll simply shut their eyes and close their ears. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll shove a pepper-laced pie into someone’s face.
When I wrote about the attack on the Fat Head blog, one of my readers left this comment:
I am not at all surprised that this happened in the Bay area, although it could have easily happened on a college campus. This is what happens, though, when the extreme leftists among us (let’s call them what they are) get agitated. Look at the treatment of conservatives on college campuses: That Ann Coulter (love her or hate her) travels with body guards and has nearly been pied is just one more example. There is an element of our society that is all in favor of free speech until they don’t agree with it; then they try to shut it down.
In the modern era, most True Believers have in fact ended up on the radical left. Why exactly that’s the case will be the topic of next week’s post.