Edmonton Youth Council's sustainable snacking feeds online trolls

It’s been a busy week of discussion and avoiding the online comments section for Marina Banister, the chair of the Edmonton Youth Council's sustainability committee.

'It’s easier to attack their gender or their qualifications than it is ideas,' says U of A lecturer

Edmonton Youth Council member Marina Banister (left) was joined by Cristina Stasia, a faculty lecturer from the University of Alberta (right) on Edmonton AM Monday morning to discuss the social media backlash against a recommendation that Edmonton City Council adopt a meat-free snack platter. (CBC)

It's been a busy week of discussion and avoiding the online comments section for Marina Banister, the chair of the Edmonton Youth Council's sustainability committee.

Last Monday, the group submitted a recommendation that city council swap out its meat and cheese-filled snack platter in favour of a vegetarian option, citing cost-cutting and sustainable consumption as a rationale behind the change.

In the week since the recommendation went public, people have been taking to social media and the comments sections on online stories to slam the concept — many taking aim at Banister herself.

While some took issue with the philosophy behind the council's recommendation, calling Banister a "veggie Nazi" — others targeted her in a much more physical sense, including hostile and sexually-suggestive comments.

"She looks great until you get her clothes off and she proceeds to just lay there exhausted from all that walking and not eating real food," reads one comment.

Attacks like this are not uncommon — particularly when new ideas are presented by a woman, said Cristina Stasia, a faculty lecturer in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Alberta.

"It's easier to attack their gender or their qualifications than it is their ideas. It's a lazy way out."

On top of that, Stasia said meat consumption itself is a gendered concept — ranging from historic paintings of meat-toting kings (while queens are often painted holding vegetables) to modern men-and-their-grills sentiments so popular on Father's Day.

As a comparison, Stasia described former Oilers player Georges Laraque's decision to become vegan.

"I don't remember similar amounts of backlash at all," she said. "It was coded as a health choice."

Knee-jerk beats debate, says expert

According to Stasia, many people also tend to launch personalized and reactive attacks when confronted with something unfamiliar — in this case, the idea of removing meat and cheese from a catered snack delivered to council two or three times a year.

"It's much easier to say to Marina or the youth council: 'You don't know what you're talking about, you're just a skinny babe, you should listen to us,'" she said.

Banister questions if the news coverage and resulting feedback would have been different had the online stories included photos of a male council figure — noting that one early publication included a picture of Coun. Andrew Knack holding a vegetable platter.

"I think that if that was the picture on the online article, the conversation would have been different."

She also thinks it would have made a difference if she, or the person featured, had been older — a sentiment echoed in at least one of the comments posted to CBC's earlier story.

Banister says the resulting online backlash may have been different had she been older - a sentiment echoed in this comment posted on an CBC online story published on July 7. (CBC)

However frustrated she is, Banister has been trying to maintain perspective on the matter — preferring to focus on the positive feedback she has received.

In that category, she includes some "productive conversations" she's had with several members of livestock industry and the Cattlemen's Association.

"They wanted to reach out and talk about what they're doing for environmental sustainability right now, which I thought was a really big benefit of the whole conversation."

As for the rest, Banister says she's following the advice of friends and co-workers to ignore the comments and hype.

"I think it takes a lot more gall to send a negative personal message to someone than it does to tweet something out or comment on an argument."

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