–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Virtue at Others’ Expense

by | Jun 13, 2024

During some Thanksgiving or other, while preparing a big feast for over a dozen guests, the following item from Vox caught my eye. 

How to host Thanksgiving dinner when everyone has a dietary restriction

by Julia Belluz

On holidays like Thanksgiving, we bring our weight loss diets, health issues, aversions, religious beliefs, and world-changing agendas to the dinner table with us. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s evidence of a growing awareness about where our food comes from and what it can do to our bodies. But it does mean hosts are left panicking over how to accommodate everyone’s needs and preferences.

This challenging new reality was all too familiar to many of you who wrote in. Elie Challinta described a dinner in which one person had celiac disease, another was allergic to garlic, a third was pescatarian, and a fourth couldn’t eat anything spicy.

“I hadn’t done that much research since getting my masters,” Challinta wrote.

Now I’ve had just about enough of everyone’s “growing awareness,” and the discovery that there is such a thing as a “pescatarian” threatens to bring on a sudden rage, but it’s the overall gist of the thing that’s got me wondering how things could have gone so horribly wrong. Certainly, there are duties involved in one’s role as a host, but there are equally many that apply when one is a guest (including not being a burden to your host and the other guests), so statements like “hosts are left panicking over how to accommodate everyone’s needs and preferences” suggest that at least this writer from Vox and her reader, “Ellie Challinta,” are confused about certain elements of human social interaction.  

I recall, as a young child, failing to eat some vegetables that were on my plate. My mother told me to eat them, explaining that they were “part of the meal,” and I did. The point was not one of nutrition – no one thought about that in the early 1970’s – but of respect. That my parents had spent their hard-earned money and my mother had put in a substantial amount of work in shopping, prepping, and cooking the meal, were of far greater significance than my personal tastes – there was nothing wrong with the vegetables, I simply didn’t like them – and thus called for deference on my part. 

This was the beginning of an education in manners. My parents were of a generation for whom virtue is self-effacing and never involves imposing oneself on others, a view that not only no longer holds sway, but is threatening to disappear altogether, in favor of its opposite, as people today are inclined not just to pursue their virtue at others’ expense, but their (often nebulously defined) “well-being” too. Sometimes I find myself wondering why, at a time of unprecedented freedom, prosperity and long life, so many people in the developed world are so pissed off so much of the time, and perhaps it’s because of stuff like this. After all, who among us hasn’t found him or herself fuming with aggravation, in an endless snarl of traffic, only to discover that it’s all because of a lone jogger or cyclist, who thought it a good idea to make scores upon scores of people late to wherever they might be going, just for the sake of his workout?  

A story related by a close friend of mine also comes to mind, regarding something that happened to him when he was in rural China. He was at a dinner, hosted by a family in their village home, and was dismayed when his hosts passed him a plate of roasted cicadas. The prospect of eating them was beyond nauseating, and he considered refusing or disposing of his portion somehow, while his hosts weren’t looking. But he could see how much it meant to them that they were able to share with a guest what they obviously considered a delicacy, and he ate the cicadas, which, as he expected, were the vilest things he’d ever consumed.

Would he have been justified in refusing, had he been an ethical vegan? I don’t think so. Indeed, in my view, it would be worse to do so for that reason than out of disgust. There is a kind of rugged honesty to the rudeness involved in rejecting something your host offers you at a dinner party, on the grounds that you don’t like it, but to do so because your virtue demands it represents an entirely different level of dickishness.  

For one thing, what was supposed to be about everyone is suddenly all about you. The host now has to figure out how to accommodate your food preferences. Does he prepare you a separate meal? If you bring your own food, will it need to be heated up, and will he have the oven or stovetop space to do so? The host may have twenty guests coming, but now he’s spending more time on you than on all of them put together.

For another, you’ve just signaled to your host and fellow guests that you think they are bad people. After all, the reason why you have refused your host’s hospitality and insist on munching on kale while everyone else tucks into their kibbeh and kebabs is because you think that eating meat is a serious moral offense. So what does that mean you think of your host and of your fellow guests? Indeed, why are you even sitting with them at the table at all, given that in another context, you might be throwing containers of blood at them or brandishing a sign and screaming across a barricade?

Finally, however the tension is resolved, the result is the segregation of oneself from one’s host and one’s fellow guests, at what is supposed to be a social event. Even the most considerate person, who brings his own meal, requiring no heating or other preparation, and displays no contempt for his host or fellow guests, is not fully participating in the party. He is not accepting his host’s hospitality; not experiencing the culinary traditions of the host’s family and culture; and not sharing the dining experience with the other guests.  

And all for what? Eating one meal out of thousands you will consume in a year will have absolutely zero effect on your weight-loss program, health, or the welfare of a single animal, but it will honor your hosts and make you a part of an important social, human experience that has for millennia signified the bond of friendship that might exist between all of us. When we break bread together, we become close in a way that we were not before.

It’s hard not to conclude that the person who refuses someone’s hospitality, whether for reasons of weight loss or general considerations of health or morality, beyond simply being boorish, is engaged in a kind of posturing and showing off. And it’s only in today’s weird cultural climate that anyone could confuse such a performance with virtue.  

The public’s interest in your virtue and well-being has always been grounded in the fact that good character and health are supposed to make you less of an asshole to and a burden on everyone else. Today, unfortunately, they are just as likely to make you more of both. 

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