Right now if you take the bus down 16th Street in northwest Washington, D.C., you’ll pass a banner that might not make sense at first, or after that. It shows North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un riding a missile. It says, “Don’t go ballistic. Go vegan.”
The blue banner hangs outside the office of the animal-rights-advocacy organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, which also issued a letter this week to none other than U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to use veganism as a strategy for world peace.
The letter began mundanely enough, thanking Tillerson “for calling on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” then pivoted to food. “We want everyone to go vegan so as to spare animals suffering in the factory-farming and slaughter industries,” the letter continues. The group is saying nothing there that would surprise people familiar with its mission or with the agricultural practices necessitating it.
But then the PETA letter takes a hard turn into some curious shadows, continuing, “And because eating vegan has been shown to help curb violence.” The group doubled down on that in an accompanying press statement this week, writing, “Eating vegan meals has been shown to help curb aggression.”
As in, people-on-people aggression? Apart from arguably aggressive acts of procurement, eating cheese or fish makes a person more aggressive?
A fascinating idea and, if true, a worthwhile consideration. The justification for the claim, according to PETA’s letter, was: “At Alabama’s highest-security prison, for example, prison operators found that serving inmates vegetarian meals as part of a violence-reduction program resulted in a significant decrease in behavioral problems … We’re pointing out this link in our call to Kim Jong Un to change his diet, which might just lead to a change of heart in his dealings with other nations. You never know!”
Do we never know? If it is presently difficult to get Kim Jong Un not to repeatedly violate international accords and human rights in his own country, why would it even be conceivably possible to assume he will change his own diet at the suggestion of Rex Tillerson?
And even if Kim Jong Un did—if amid all the requests to be made of North Korea at this point in history, Tillerson told the autocrat that he really should stop eating meat—is there real reason to believe this would change his temperament?
This isn’t the first time PETA has made this sort of claim, injecting some hot veganism into a news story that might, on its face, seem otherwise totally unrelated. Consider the 2015 headline “PETA Says Vegan Diet Could Calm Woman Who Shot at McDonald’s After Baconless Burger.” She was sentenced to three to seven years, at which point the group sent a letter to Michigan’s Kent County Sheriff suggesting, “Switching to vegan meals might just help this hot-tempered prisoner curtail some of the rage that led to her incarceration in the first place.”
I asked PETA where these claims come from. Obviously a person who doesn’t eat bacon isn’t going to shoot a person over being deprived of bacon, but is there any solid evidence veganism makes a person less aggressive? If anything, a quick search for veganism and aggression conflates the two in the opposite direction. As in, My aggressive vegan neighbors won’t stop telling me that I’m worse than Satan. Or, My teen turned vegan and said she can’t love me anymore and is holding her breath until I renounce a lifetime of slaughter, and I’m unwilling to do that, please help.
PETA’s director of communications responded by linking me to a 2011 NPR story—one about the aforementioned Alabama prison. It’s a story about a silent Vipassana meditation program among death-row inmates at Donaldson Correctional Facility outside of Birmingham:
Isolated in the gym, the inmates wake up at 4 a.m. and meditate on and off until 9 p.m. They eat a strict vegetarian diet. They can’t smoke or drink coffee. And there is absolutely no conversation—only an internal examination of how the body is reacting.
“You’ll start feeling little stuff moving all around on your body,” [inmate Johnny Mack] Young says. "Some guys can't handle this; some guys scream."
It’s a rude awakening for some prisoners, Vipassana teacher Carl Franz says.
“Everyone’s mind is kind of Pandora's box, and when you have 33 rather serious convicts facing their past and their own minds, their memories, their regrets, rough childhood, whatever, their crimes, lots of stuff comes up,” Franz says.
If you ever find yourself trying to describe what public radio was like to someone in the future, and you had to give an example of what types of stories they did, I can’t think of a better example than one about a meditation program on death row. It’s a good and provocative story. But veganism was no part of it. Vegetarianism was, but even that dietary change was a relatively small part of program. Sitting silently every day for 17 hours withdrawing from caffeine and tobacco might affect a person in ways dramatic enough to be considered confounding variables.
The prisoners may have become less aggressive after this program, but the official results are based on the account of a warden named Gary Hetzel, who said he “could see a significant decrease in behavioral problems, acting out.” The inmates in Vipassana programs “seemed to be much calmer, much [more] at peace.”
Though ultimately there were obstacles to continuing the program because it was insufficiently “Christian.”
I told PETA that the story of the Alabama meditation program didn’t convince me that veganism would de-escalate the North Korea situation, or even be a generally valid recommendation for aggressive people. And advocacy organizations are generally granted the intellectual leeway to selectively cite facts that support their cause, but it’s an especially sensitive time to be making seriously misleading claims.
PETA replied with a thoughtful litany of other anecdotal evidence that veganism quells aggressive behavior. Which isn’t nothing. For example, a 275-pound Virginia man serving a 28-year term for burglary has, according to one vegan blog, “eaten his way back to physical and mental health.” He “became a near vegan through a special program at the prison, and it had a big effect on him,” including losing 50 pounds, doing well in community college, and quitting cocaine.
Again, confounding variables. There is also, PETA notes, a long-held philosophical belief that aggression of any sort in a society begets aggression of other sorts. This stems from writing attributed to Plutarch and Pythagorus, the latter being widely quoted in vegan blogs to have once said: “For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other.”
Still the name People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals itself draws a clear distinction between people and animals, despite the ethos of the organization. If all animal life should be treated with the same respect as human life, then why is a clear line drawn at plant life? I go through vegan phases, and I’m no advocate of animal cruelty, but if I had to choose between killing a redwood or a subway rat that crawled up my pants, I wouldn’t have to think long. And down the road from PETA’s office, in the Chesapeake Bay, there is currently an infestation of invasive catfish decimating the ecosystem. According to NOAA, the “alien” catfish have quickly come to represent around 75 percent of the fish biomass in the bay and are “likely to cause economic or environmental harm to human health.” They taste fine, though. When I get a chance to order Chesapeake Bay catfish I feel the opposite of guilt, less aggressive than counter-aggressive.
Last year I spoke with the famously vegan entrepreneur Russell Simmons about how to be at peace in a violent world. He said he really didn’t care if people found him preachy or annoying on the subject of food. The problem is a sort of paradox, in that if you believe someone else is doing something truly unconscionable, you’re not “being chill” by saying nothing. As in, if you saw a person hitting a kid on the street, you’d step in. If you consider animal abuse akin to human abuse, you speak up, because the real aggression is in silence.
I wrote back to PETA to say that in my work covering public health, I’ve found a lot of good reasons to argue for plant-based eating, including serious data about preventing chronic diseases and slowing the melting of the world. There’s no need to delve into dubious speculation about human temperament when you already have these strong, pressing causes to champion. The communications director thanked me for my feedback. But I don’t know, maybe I was being aggressive.