The Yuck Factor

Surveys regularly find that 10% of Germans are vegetarians. Given the statistics on rising meat consumption and my own experience of regularly being the only no-meat guest at gatherings, this number has always dumbfounded me. Where are these 8 million Germans that have supposedly given up animal flesh? Shouldn‘t I encounter a disproportionately high, not low, percentage of them, given that I live in a big city and know mostly university-educated people?

New studies have now shown what I‘ve always suspected: a) Only between 16 and 35% of self-proclaimed German vegetarians really don‘t eat meat. That is, between 1.6 and 3.5% of the German population is actually vegetarian. And b) there‘s a distinct difference between real vegetarians and meat-eating „vegetarians.“ While both intellectually oppose the exploitation and consumption of animals, only the real vegetarians were physically repulsed by meat. Their disgust prevented slip-ups, against which the meat-eating „vegetarians“ were not immune, because they had only their moral convictions, not their disgust to keep them from eating animals.

Now, it goes without saying that not being grossed out is no excuse for living against your own morality. I‘m guessing the „vegetarians“ know that, and many of them feel guilty after a lapse. That aside, the interesting lesson for the vegan movement is that perhaps in addition to focusing on ethical argumentation―after all, only 10% of Germans feel bad enough about eating animals to at least call themselves vegetarians―we should also focus on grossing people out.

Partially, the meat industry is doing it for us. Every scandal of rotten, disease-carrying, or mislabeled meat is an own goal. These incidents nauseate consumers.

But I think another important aspect is at which age people become vegetarians. In my experience, people who become vegetarian or vegan only as adults, after decades of eating meat, never quite develop the same yuck factor as those of us who stopped eating meat early on. I became vegetarian as a young child, and while it was some instinctive awareness of injustice that initially made me vegetarian, it was at least in part my squeamishness and utter disgust that kept me vegetarian. I was so grossed out that I wanted my parents to store their meat in a designated section of the fridge. I refused to eat with them if they ate certain foods. And I left the house when they fried particularly foul-smelling meat or fish. It was less my morality that was being aroused by the filthy steams or the flesh touching my fruit. It was my physical repulsion.

Similarly, I only gave up eggs and dairy as a young adult. Slowly, after several years of being vegan, I‘m developing a disgust for eggs and dairy. But I don‘t think I‘ll ever be as disgusted by these products as I am by the meat I don‘t even remember the taste of. And I almost certainly will never be grossed out by honey or wool. For me, my ethical conviction is enough to keep me from buying these products anyway, but some people also need the support of the yuck factor, and the younger people are, the easier the yuck factor settles for good.

So we must not only work on providing ethical arguments, but also on installing disgust in meat eaters, to the point where they stop seeing meat as food and find eating farmed animals about as repulsive as they now find cannibalism or eating their pets. Encouraging children to become vegetarians or to stay vegetarians once they have discovered the truth that saddens most kids, is an easy way to plant the seed of lifelong disgust. Most people are more easily repulsed by something they‘ve never eaten than by something they‘ve eaten all their life. And many children are naturally squeamish. In the case of eating animals, this is a good thing.

Ethical arguments can make people go vegetarian and for some people they suffice in keeping them vegetarian. But disgust will ensure that more of those who intellectually oppose animal exploitation will permanently live by their convictions. Let‘s spread the yuck factor.