I recently shared the following experience on Facebook:
Vegan Education Moment of the Day
Whole Foods Checkout Person (WFCP) seeing my purchases: Are you vegetarian… or are you vegan? Me: Vegan. WFCP: How long? Me: 12 years-ish. WFCP: Why did you go vegan? Me: Ethical reasons. I don’t believe my life is more important than someone else’s and won’t participate in the enslavement, exploitation and execution of innocent beings just to satisfy my pleasure. Are you vegan? WFCP: No… I was pescetarian, then I was vegetarian. I was almost vegan, but then one Thanksgiving… Me: You decided that it was ok to have others die for you ? WFCP: Kind of. I feel guilty a lot of the time. Me: Of course you do. If you want to stop feeling guilty, you can make different choices and choose to live vegan.
Considering the short amount of time allowed in this situation, I felt this was a good way to answer her question and give her information. Shortly afterward, however, a sense of dissatisfaction began to creep in at how I handle such interactions generally and I began asking myself how I might better answer the often-asked question, “Why did you go vegan?” My usual impulse has been to make some grand proclamation and hope that it will somehow be relatable and make an impact on my interlocutor… but I’m rethinking this strategy.
Since I’m finding it very effective lately to use a version of the Socratic method (a dialogue technique that “uses creative questioning to dismantle and discard preexisting ideas and thereby allows the respondent to rethink the primary question under discussion”) in some areas of my vegan advocacy, I asked myself whether the same method might be equally effective here. The answer seems to be, it would. After all, human nature seems to dictate that people will believe the words coming out of their own mouths before trusting and believing information presented by strangers, especially when that information appears on the surface to run counter to their established beliefs. Consider this encounter I had a while back with a non-vegan who expressed all-too-familiar protein “concerns”:
Non-vegan: I could never be vegan – I need protein. Me: Where do you think you get your protein now? Non-vegan: [hesitatingly] Animals… Me: Right!!! Now, considering that the animals humans eat for protein are largely herbivores and exclusively eat plants, where do they get their protein? Non-vegan: [hesitatingly] Plants…? Me: Right!!! Soooooo… Non-vegan: I… could just eat… plants! Me: Right!!! You get your needs met and the best part is, no one has to die!
In the past, I would have heard the protein question and took it as an invitation to leap into a verbal dissertation involving everything I know about protein, amino acids and human health, which might serve to either educate or confuse the listener or, worse, trigger a defensive cognitive dissonance response since the barrage of information I’d be presenting would most likely fly in the face of everything they’d been taught by people and organizations they trust. In this case, instead, I chose to ask the questions that led my interlocutor to draw her own conclusions and find her own answers (which were, of course, the ones I’d hoped she’d come to!) and, once that had happened, I gave a brief Protein 101 discourse just to reinforce matters. As I strongly believe should be the case with every discussion about veganism, I brought the idea of ethics into the conversation to avoid reinforcing the erroneous idea that veganism is merely a diet as opposed to a fundamental matter of justice.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite comic book series was called “What If?” Each issue would present “…an event in the mainstream Marvel Universe, then introducing a point of divergence in that event and then describing the consequences of the divergence.” So, imagine if my interaction with the Whole Foods Checkout Person had gone like this:
WFCP: Why did you go vegan? Me: Great question! To best answer it, let me ask you three questions: do you believe it’s wrong to cause unnecessary harm and death to animals? WFCP: [likely response] Yes.* Me: Great! So do I. Did you know that eating and otherwise using animals and animal products causes unnecessary harm and death to animals? WFCP: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, that makes sense.* Me: And that’s why I’m vegan – because it’s wrong to enslave, exploit and execute vulnerable individuals, regardless of species membership, race, gender, age or any other arbitrary criterion, to satisfy human pleasure, comfort and convenience and all of that involves unnecessary harm. WFCP: Thanks! So, what’s the third question? Me: Glad you asked! Did you know that the answer you gave to the first question indicates you already agree with the principles of veganism? WFCP: Huh. I guess I do!*
*Of course, this is an oversimplified example showing the best possible responses to our questions and will not always be the ones given since people tend to want to debate these issues due to deeply held beliefs born of a lifetime of cultural indoctrination into speciesism. Vegan advocates should always be prepared to explore related topics that arise in conversation such as “How do you define ‘unnecessary‘?” and “What constitutes ‘harm‘?”. There are excellent and informative abolitionist vegan websites listed at the end of this essay (more can be found in the Online Vegan Resources section of our main website at www.VeganEducationGroup.com) that can help us educate ourselves and to which we can direct both non-vegans and vegans for solid, unequivocal vegan information.
(the questions in the above scenario were adapted from vegan advocate Chris Petty’s questionnaire shown below)
By going this route and asking specific questions, the non-vegans with whom I speak (and this includes vegetarians and other fill-in-the-blank-atarians) not only hear my reasoning for why I live vegan, but in the process also explore their own beliefs and come to understand that they, too, tend to agree with the ethical and moral principles of veganism. The idea that they are curious enough to ask such a question indicates a willingness to learn, at the very least, one person’s reason(s) for living vegan and, better yet, may indicate their own willingness to explore these ideas further and hopefully incorporate them into their lives by making the choice to live vegan.
Sadly, there is a plethora of individuals and groups that, intentionally or not, dilute and confuse the meaning of veganism to the point that it is often mistaken for a diet, a fad, a lifestyle or a trend. For those of us who take unequivocal vegan advocacy and education seriously, it is imperative that we properly define veganismfor those who don’t understand what it is, and it makes sense to keep questioning our advocacy methods and adapting where necessary to steadily evolve into the most effective agents of change we are capable of being.
[I encourage all readers to click the blue links embedded in this essay and explore the information on those sites. The podcasts and essays connected to those links will help to expand on the ideas presented here.]
Live vegan. Educate others. Start now, here’s how:
To take a stand against one form of oppression while willingly participating in another shows a lack of integrity and an unwillingness to take responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions. All one needs to do is engage in a little bit of critical thinking to see this.
It’s always sad to see the anger that comes out in people when their entrenched beliefs are challenged as their participation in the oppression of the mostvulnerable members of our global society — non-human animals — is exposed.
When one agrees to participate in the oppression and exploitation of one vulnerable group, it opens the door to further oppression and exploitation of other groups. The myth of human supremacy begets speciesism, which in turn begets racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism and the like. If one feels “superior” to a particular group and gives oneself permission to bully and oppress them at will (to the point of killing and eating them by the billions, in the case of non-human individuals), why should another group be expected not to do that to them? How is that fair in any way?
You can’t demand justice while committing injustices.
A non-vegan once asked me, “Isn’t it hard being vegan?”
OK, it wasn’t “once” and it wasn’t “a” non-vegan – I’ve been asked many times by many non-vegans, some out of well-meaning curiosity and some who were looking to poke holes in the foundation of my ethical stance to abstain, wherever possible, from meat, dairy, eggs, honey, leather, wool and all other products of animal exploitation. My answer always starts with “No”. Sometimes it ends there and we go our separate ways, but more often than not I will take the time to explain just how easy it was (and still is) for me to choose to live vegan once I understood the injustices involved in turning a cow into a steak, a chicken into a cutlet, a pig into bacon and a baby calf into a suede jacket, to list but a few examples of the tyrannies humans force on vulnerable individuals of other species.
A good question to ask non-vegans who believe living vegan is “hard” is, “Who told you that?” In my experience, it’s never a vegan who tells someone that living vegan is hard… because it isn’t. It’s usually someone or some company with a product to sell that counts on such misinformation to keep consumers from thinking critically about veganism and the moral obligation it entails. Stretching one’s arm 6 inches beyond the cow’s milk to reach the almond milk, for example, is not a difficulty – it’s a minor inconvenience and slight change in a habit pattern that will become a new habit when practiced for a short while. Shopping for affordable non-leather shoes may take a little more time that simply buying ones made from the skins of dead animals, but this is again only a minor inconvenience and one easily overcome. In my experience, this is true of nearly all shifts from using products of animal exploitation to living vegan and, once new habits are in place, everything is easy again.
If there is anything “hard” about living vegan, it’s dealing with the cognitive dissonance of non-vegans.
Non-vegans. They come one at a time. They come in groups. Sometimes I feel like Bruce Lee entering a room full of black belt warriors and having to defend myself against their simultaneous assaults. They come online, at work, at the grocery store, in restaurants… sometimes I’m surprised they don’t come knocking on my door when passing my house and spying the vegan bumper stickers on my car (usually, those random doorknockers are Jehovah’s Witnesses wanting to share their “good news” with me. Want to know my definition of fair trade? Graciously accepting some of their literature and handing them some clear, consistent vegan information in return after discussing why veganism needs to be the moral baseline for our treatment of all sentient beings. That’s the best news I know).
As a recovering non-vegan (more of an anti-vegan when I really think about it), I get it. I was the classic, stereotypical animal product consumer, waving hamburgers under my vegetarian friends’ noses, snarkily asking my PeTA-supporting former boss where the “People for the Ethical Treatment of Humans” pamphlets were and thinking up clever ways to derail their veg-trains. I understand where non-vegans are coming from and why many, but by no means all, behave as they do toward vegans:
I was unable to diagnose, recognize and deal with my fears back then. Instead, I acted out in denial and avoidance of those uncomfortable feelings. Somewhere inside, probably near the pounds of undigested red meat rotting in my intestines, I understood that every hamburger begins with a cow begging for her life. I knew something dreadfully awful was happening to veal calves and it wasn’t, as I so cleverly rationalized (and I’m not proud of this, though I was at the time), “the only life they know anyway so, since they have no frame of reference for what a happy life is, why does it matter? And if their lives are so bad, it’s actually merciful that we slaughter them so young and put them out of their misery. We’re doing them a favor!” I knew that chickens didn’t “sacrifice” themselves to become the nuggets I was eating twenty at a sitting. I knew… and I denied. And I defended. And I attacked. Those were the methods I employed to keep from hearing, understanding and – worse – feeling the truth about animal exploitation and my complicity in it. I kept the truth a comfortable distance away and drowned out the voice of my conscience with pseudo-intellectual rationalizations and justifications that, as I now know, were mere fabrications of my frightened ego.
When I deal with non-vegans now, especially in terms of vegan education, I try to meet them where they are, remembering that I once stood where they stand – blinded and misguided by a multi-billion dollar propaganda machine that would have us believe we need to eat animals to survive (false), that we would suffer and maybe die if we didn’t (false), that animals were put on Earth to serve us – the “superior race/top of the food chain/most advanced species” in the history of the planet (false) and on and on. I remember that I too was once afraid to take a stand for my ethical beliefs in a society that marginalizes, ridicules, bullies and berates those who swim against the current of cruelty and go against the grain of gluttony, afraid to be looked at as “abnormal”, afraid to no longer be accepted by those who engage in behaviors I now consider morally unacceptable…
So I do my best to let them know how it was for me, what happened to cause me to change and what it’s like for me now. I let them know that making the choice to live vegan is the single best choice I’ve ever made and that living vegan is the best action I’ve ever taken. I let them know that it’s best to follow one’s ethics instead of one’s palate. I let them know that veganism is not a diet, a fad, a lifestyle or a phase – it is one’s personal commitment to a social justice movement that seeks to dismantle speciesism, the most egregious and deadly form of oppression on the planet today. I let them know that every argument against veganism is an argument in favor of slavery, bullying, misery and horrible, needless death. I let them know that if they believe animals matter morally at all, then living vegan is the only rational response. I let them know that living vegan is as easy as making the decision to withdraw support from and cease complicity in a worldwide system of animal exploitation. I let them know that vegan food is nutritious, delicious and all one needs to survive and thrive in optimum health.
And I let them know that I, and millions of other vegans, are here to offer education, informationand supportif they are willing to put their fears aside and embrace that which they already believe in – justice for all.
Live vegan. Educate others. Start now, here’s how:
I caught a bit of an interview with comedian Cameron Esposito on NPR in March 2016. I don’t know and therefore have no opinion on this person’s work, but something they said in relation to same-sex marriage really struck me. Here’s the quote:
“The thing that I protest against the most or that upsets me the most is people that are unable to change. I mean, we’re all just doing the best we can with the information we have up until that point, but when you’re given opposite information and you refuse to change or adjust, then I think that is a real problem… It infuriates me because I believe that adults should be able to look at evidence and adjust their perspective.”
I can relate to this on several levels. Here are two:
When I explain to non-vegans that there is no moral justification for using sentient individuals for reasons of pleasure, fashion, entertainment or other human conveniences and they proceed to either ignore the information, try to find holes in the logic or – worst of all – create bizarre counter-arguments to defend continuing their habits and traditions of unjustifiable animal exploitation, it is, to borrow Ms. Esposito’s phrase, “a real problem” and can at times be infuriating.
Similarly, in over 20 years of working professionally to help people who suffer from addictions understand the benefits of living a clean/sober/recovering life (as opposed to living a life wherein one descends into an ever-deeper and ever-darker hell of one’s own construction) and offering them the tools they’ll need to build such a life and instructing them in how to use those tools, it can be frustrating to see them choose to continue using their old tools rather than the new tools while knowing full well that their “best” thinking got them into the terrible trouble they’re now in and that to keep moving in that direction will have potentially deadly consequences. One of the most brilliant therapists I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, the late Angelo Castiglione, used to say, “Addiction is a disease that resists its own recovery”. Sadly, I’ve found this to be the truth.
I’ve long noticed a correlation between the defense mechanisms used by addicts to protect their maladaptive behaviors (y’know, those quirky li’l behaviors they exhibit like, say, coping with “stress” by shooting heroin in their neck – that falls under “recreational use”, right? – or drinking three bottles of wine in one evening to “take the edge off” – believe me, somewhere in the middle of the first bottle, those edges are as smooth as a cue ball) and those used by non-vegans to protect their use of products of animal exploitation. These include, but are not limited to: rationalizing, justifying, minimizing, intellectualizing, blaming, shaming, deflecting, avoiding and the granddaddy of them all, DENIAL (here’s my favorite acronym for denial: Don’t Even Notice IAm Lying). I see them all used by members of both groups all the time. Am I saying that those who consume animals and their secretions are addicted to those substances? Not necessarily, as I don’t definitively know that to be the case, but when confronted with the idea that what they’ve been doing all their lives – engaging in behaviors taught to them by their well-meaning parents and viewed as “normal” (which we all know is just a setting on a washing machine) by the society in which they live – cannot be morally justified, their first instinctive response to the cognitive dissonance they now feel is to fight to protect themselves from what they perceive to be an attack on their character and an attempt to cause them shame and to… (gulp!) … change.
When I engage in vegan education, it is not my intention to shame anyone about their behavior. In my opinion, there should be no shame in engaging in behaviors one truly does not know are wrong or harmful to others or themselves. That is simple ignorance born of a lack of education in a particular area and aided by ongoing campaigns of targeted misinformation designed to maintain and deepen such ignorance on a mass scale. When this happens, one is, in a sense, a victim. However, when one engages in willful ignorance – learning the truth about one’s complicity in the exploitation of the vulnerable and purposely choosing to ignore it and take no meaningful action to change – I believe that a feeling of guilt is appropriate and necessary because, when one does this, one is indeed guilty of victimizing others. Brené Brown, Ph.D. and other psychologists have shown that feelings of guilt can and often do lead to positive changes in behaviors and attitudes and that guilt is actually a healthy emotion: “I now know I’ve been behaving in ways that conflict with my core values and beliefs and feel badly about my behavior. From now on, I will behave differently and live, as best I can, in congruence with my morals and ethics.” Cessation of guilt-inducing behavior leads to, as you might imagine, a reduction in guilt and, as an added bonus, increased self-esteem. Plus, to put it bluntly, when individuals start living vegan, they stop paying people to kill innocent beings. What could ease one’s guilt and restore one’s self-esteem better than ceasing to hire hit men to kill babies (yes, most of the animals used by humans for food are killed within the first months of their lives) and adults and entire families for no good reason?
The night I made the decision to start living vegan, I experienced that same moment of cognitive dissonance that others feel, and I chose what I felt, and still feel, is the only acceptable path. Here is an excerpt about that very moment from another essay of mine:
“At that moment, when my closed mind opened, the light inside turned on and my heart spoke louder than my stomach, I knew I had been changed forever and that I could no longer participate in the system I now understood for what it was. It was then that I began to live vegan – to eschew, wherever possible, the use of products of animal exploitation and to educate others where and when I could about how they too could stop promoting this injustice. I hadn’t known till then that there was another choice available – a choice to live a vegan life – and once I knew, I couldn’t un-know.”
Ms. Esposito said that what is most upsetting is “people that are unable to change”, however for me it is people who are unwilling to change. We all have the capacity to change; some of us simply refuse to do so, even when presented with evidence that change is, if not required, then certainly a really, really good idea. Changing from using vulnerable beings for one’s own selfish pleasures as a non-vegan to living vegan spares the lives of others, improves one’s own life and make the world in general a better place. These are not opinions – these are immutable facts that it makes no sense to deny. But, as is the case with addiction, denial is not about what makes sense. It is about what makes us comfortable, or at least not uncomfortable, and there is a sad comfort in that which we know and have gotten used to.
Do I find this, as Ms. Esposito does, infuriating? I have, but it’s rare that I feel such exasperation these days. Instead, I make a point of remembering that I, too, have had plenty of personal experience with being unwilling to act appropriately on new information, which makes it difficult for me to resent others when they act as I did. I have at times been unwilling to change, but more than willing to keep myself in the dark and refuse to see the light for fear that facing the truth might hurt me in some way… because being non-vegan is “all about me” and living vegan is all about them, the non-human victims of human violence and oppression. Admitting to and reminding myself that I was among the unwilling allows me to remain (somewhat) calm and rational when discussing veganism with non-vegans, an approach I find to be much better received and far more effective than any vitriolic rant, verbal fisticuffs or fusillade of finger-pointing.
I’d like to say I wish everyone would live vegan, as I believe it’s the key to a better, healthier, more peaceful world, but wishing won’t get us there. As I first heard via Stephen King, “Wish in one hand, shit in the other. See which one fills up first.” On the other (non-shit-filled) hand, what willget us there is clear, consistent, unequiVOCAL vegan education.