In biology, there is an organizational technique called cladistics. Cladistics uses a bunch of characteristics to group organisms in a “cladogram” based on whether they possess or lack each of those characteristics. To make a cladogram, you look at your list of characteristics and your list of organisms and you say things like, “Does this thing have jaws? If yes, proceed. If not, branch off into an out group spur.” Same for “lungs? yes/no” and “fur? yes/no” and so on until you get a rough family tree like this:
In this example, the hagfish would be considered the ultimate “out group” because it lacks ANY of the characteristics used to generate the tree. The hagfish is an eel shaped creature that can tie its sinous body in a knot and will eviscerate its dead (or not quite dead) food source by squirming inside it and slurping its way out.
The innermost “in group” in this cladogram example is the mammals. Humans are mammals, and very tribal. And therefore somewhat xenophobic. Believe me, no one wants to be the slime secreting, jawless, carcass sucking hagfish.
And yet, when I contemplate the cladogram of social acceptability, I find myself in the hagfish slot sometimes. I call myself a vegan since it’s a quick way to get my point across. I’m not actually a vegan since I wear animal products (leather, wool, silk) and I eat honey (produced by animals). But other than that, I don’t eat any foods made by or from animals. This can be, as you might expect, socially awkward. Sometimes people hear that I’m a vegan and visibly flinch. And since no one wants to be the hagfish, I find myself qualifying and backpedaling, and otherwise trying to hurdle a few rungs over on the cladogram of Americanism, which I think works out like this:
So, if I don’t want to be less American than Communists, I have to say things like, “Oh, no, I’m not one of those vegans who join PETA and shame other people and self-flagellate and are totally ridiculous. I’m ok, really, I’m cool, I think it’s cool that you eat meat, really! In fact, I kill animals all the time, I just don’t eat them.” Because if I don’t want to be in the ultimate outgroup, then it’s imperative to find some even outter out group. This requires making someone else seem weird and ridiculous. My vegetarian friends do it too: “Yeah, I’m a vegetarian, but don’t worry, I eat cheese. I mean, my God, who gives up cheese?” Weirdos. Vegans.
So I’m working on doing that less. Because people can ignore my food choices, or not care about them, or judge them to be patently ridiculous if they want to, but I don’t need to try to win social acceptability by mocking anyone else. That’s pitiful, pathetic, weak behavior (and yes, I hear your jokes about how I wouldn’t be so weak if I just had a steak once in a while. Believe me, whatever your joke about vegans is, I have heard it. Because they are all. the. same.)
So, I’m trying to catch myself before I throw anybody else and her diet under the bus. After all, there’s plenty to mock about my diet. I mean, even the hagfish isn’t vegan.