I know that, for many, the fact that one is vegan is challenging. I don’t like to criticise people, nor make them feel bad or guilty, so I don’t speak of it often. The truth is, when the subject of what one does or doesn’t eat comes up, many people – meat-eaters, that is – immediately become defensive, and then go on the offensive.
I can proselytise on animal welfare and environmental issues for Great Britain if I need to. I can put the case for animal rights ad nauseam to anyone who will listen.
But it’s more difficult to include and push forward my own personal commitments and ethics. Why? Because as a vegan it is so easy to come across as self-righteous and holier-than-thou, and there is nothing like an animal-lover who is following through on their ethics to a logical (vegan) conclusion to make people who consider themselves to be animal-lovers feel attacked and blamed if they’re not following through.
This is what Jungians would call shadow-projection: inside every meat-eating so-called animal lover is a probably-unconscious or partly-conscious nagging voice that says they could do better, and imagines that you’re about to tell them that.
These closet vegetarians or vegans are actually harder to deal with than those who’ve never thought about what they eat, or don’t even understand the concept of veganism, who will often listen with some interest. (Though indeed the former category might eventually be more open to going veggie or vegan; it’s obvious that they have some guilt about their diet, or they wouldn’t be so defensive.)
So mostly I don’t speak of my diet unless it comes up naturally in a conversation, or is relevant to e.g. eating at someone’s house.
But still, the large number of unsolicited attacks I’ve had from meat-eaters over the years when the topic has come up – very rarely raised by me – have ranged from awkward to painful to out-and-out aggressive.
These are the commonest reactions; you might recognise them:
Trick question #1 ‘But what about plants then?’
One (now ex-) friend as part of a wider conversation asked my reasons for being lacto-veggie (this was several years ago, before I became vegan), as she was catering for me.
I told her that my reasons were based on animal welfare: we know animals suffer physical pain as they have a central nervous system; and we know animals suffer fear and emotional pain too – you’d have to be mindlessly stupid and disconnected not to read an animal’s eyes, face and body language when it’s suffering (I didn’t tell her that she was mindlessly stupid and disconnected, however!).
I added that I’d made a commitment decades ago not to cause more harm than I could avoid.
(There is also, of course, deforestation to grow crops to feed animals, the inefficient use of land to produce meat, the issues of starvation elsewhere partly as a result of our industrial-scale farming practices, and the environmental issues associated with these things, all of which are relevant.)
A few days later, I noticed my exact words quoted by said ex-friend on a public internet forum as a dismissal of such an argument: ‘I find [this ‘animals suffer’ argument against eating meat] bizarre. What about plants?’
I was both hurt and speechless; it was worse because she had been a neuroscientist so should surely know what a central nervous system means in terms of the experience of suffering (but then again she’d worked for the tobacco industry too, which of course involves laboratory animals. I guess you can only live with that through denial.)
And I’ve met that argument over and over: ‘But what about plants? Don’t you think they suffer too?’
Well, as it happens, I do think that every sentient being does experience some kind of suffering – in their own way. But that’s a digression and can lead to a very flaky conversation.
More centrally, I also think it’s a mind-game: a displacement of guilt designed to trip me up, trap me, catch me out. Critically, it’s a diversion from the big topic of animal wellbeing.
It’s also a stupid argument. We have to eat something; we have to draw the line somewhere.
These days, my response would be something along the lines of ‘Well, I’ve been trying to live on air alone, but I felt a little faint; so it was me or the cabbage.’
Trick question #2: ‘Well, do you think that carnivorous animals are evil, then?’
No. I believe evil is a human construct. As it happens, I don’t believe it exists, though I think that ignorance and greed both exist in the human to the extent that we think everything here on this planet – and this planet itself – has been created as a resource for us. We are also the only species capable of destroying the environment on which we depend, too. Blame patriarchal institutions like the Judeo-Christian tradition, although I suspect this attitude predates that too.
An animal is historically adapted to eat biologically, anatomically, environmentally, what it needs to eat. Not only have we developed biologically as omnivores, but crucially we also have the consciousness to make choices, in a way that animals simply haven’t. (Those of us who live in the privileged Western world, anyway.)
Trick question #3: ‘What about e.g. the Inuit?’
I’m not saying the whole world has to be vegan. I’d love it, and a few billion animals would do a whole lot better, but I know it’s an impossibility. In the Arctic circle you don’t have a great deal of choice of vegetables.
Trick question #4: ‘But we need meat for health.’
Not true. Simply not true. There’s so much info available on the web I barely know where to start with this one. Generally, I keep calm and – if they’re genuinely interested – point them to one of the websites or the books I mention under RESOURCES.
Trick question #5: ‘But animals were put here for our use.’
Gaaaarrrgggh. Gaaaarrrgggh. Gaaaarrrgggh. Hard to keep calm on this one. See #2 above.
There are more. I’d love to hear of any ‘trick questions’ that have been levelled at you, and your responses.
Meantime, the first two books on my list here are very good resources, and one of them – I think it’s the Cheeseburger one but don’t have them here to check – has a list of common questions and excellent and informed responses.
As usual, btw, the latest post from this blog is well worth reading (it’s more hard-hitting than my post above):
2 thoughts on “when they ask…”
Really appreciate your tolerant attitude towards those resisting even having an open mind.
Re Q1: plants feeling pain; I am now saying I agree we should respect any life, so as I learn more, I am considering eventually transitioning to eating only fruit and seeds/nuts, i.e. what can be harvested without killing the plant and indeed to its advantage. Leaves I’m still considering, if they can regrow, but that would still be potentially painful damage. My diet is work in progress and this is still very much at thinking stage.
Re Q2: carnivores being evil; I am saying they have different evolutionary histories and we don’t know nearly enough about their intelligences to try to assess their moral principles. We do know a fair bit about humans, including the consequences of our choices, and that we have choices! It is for each of us to decide whether/how to change our behaviour in the light of that knowledge.
Another reaction I get: “I really like eating meat. My body craves it. The idea of not doing so fills me with fear. Would you want us all not enjoying our food at all?” I say, again, it’s for each of us to consider how to respond in the light of what we know about the consequences of our actions. Have you tried any change to your diet? It’s surprising how we can distort the messages our bodies give us (and that works both ways of course); I stopped eating refined sugar for a health reason and quite quickly my taste sensitivity adapted so now I taste much more in e.g. fruit while any encounters with refined sugar are sickeningly sweet.
Does this chime with your experience?
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This is excellent, Cicely, and I like and admire your responses here.
I especially relate to the ‘my body craves meat’ thing – lots of people say it – and it’s kind of a justification. I point them towards the One Green Planet website as it’s a good starting point for really delicious vegan recipes. I also remind people that they eat plenty of very tasty dishes anyway in an average diet – just without thinking of them as vegan.
Thank you for all of your contribution above.
And the squid thing on your own page was heartbreaking, btw.