I have been a vegan for nearly three years, and whilst the majority of my close friends and family are very understanding and supportive, and very, very accommodating, there are always those individuals who are shockingly, and bafflingly, negative.
I am not shy about my veganism. If I decide to share a photograph of my meal (this doesn’t happen often, but sometimes me and my partner create entire feasts, and those really do deserve their 15 minutes of fame) I will happily declare that homemade “sour cream” is vegan. Know why? Because making tasty alternatives to our traditional dairy favourites takes skill, planning and creativity, and when I get something right, I’m pretty proud of that fact! But sometimes, it would appear that the only kind of vegan that is acceptable is the kind that never utters the word vegan, because for me to share my appreciation of my meal, just like 80% of my friends on social media do, is an outrage. It results in a wave of passive aggressive, anti-vegan memes flowing through my newsfeed for the next two weeks, usually from the same selection of individuals.
I have to admit I find this very strange. I obviously haven’t been vegan forever, and for the majority of my life I called myself an “ethical omnivore”. However, I have had vegan friends for many, many years, and not once did I harbour any negative feelings towards them or their ethical choices. Admittedly, due to my own nutritional ignorance, I sometimes had concerns about their health, but for the most part their diets were of absolutely no concern to me at all.
Now that I am a vegan, I am noticing quite how much anti-veganism there is out there, and I have to say that even if I was eating animal products regularly, I think I would still be baffled as to why. What is it about veganism that seems to gets to you so much, vegan haters? I can only assume you have been clinging on to some inaccurate and harmful myths about vegans, and about veganism in general, and so I am here to help you break some of those myths down! And also, if I’m honest, give us vegans the answer back that we are so often denied…
“How do you know if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!”
So, I have to admit, I chuckled at this joke the first time I heard it. Probably the first few times I heard it. By about the fifth time, I was responding with polite smiles. The 28th time found me somewhat less amused. I was already rewriting it in my head as “how do you know if someone knows a passive aggressive way to make a dig at your life choices? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you that vegan joke.”
I have come to realise that that joke is more than just a joke. It’s a way of communicating a perceived truth of the vegan community; that vegans only want to talk about veganism, all of the time, so much so that they will shoe horn veganism into every discussion. But where does the truth lie with this? Do vegans shout their veganism from the rooftops? And if they do, what is the inherent problem with this?
Being someone who is within the vegan community, with a lot of vegan friends, I feel like I am able to offer some unique insights into this. So, here’s my experience – these are the times that veganism gets mentioned in my life: If I go to dinner or lunch, I will usually ask the waiter or waitress if there are any vegan options on the menu. On those rare occasions I do that damnably horrible act of photographing my own meal and uploading it to social media, I will sometimes point out that it’s vegan if there is a dairy substitute present that might otherwise be perceived as animal derived.
Now, that’s not really a huge amount of vegan ranting. I mean, I see photographs of cheese boards, pizzas, barbecues and roast dinners on a pretty much daily basis, yet no-one is accusing meat eaters of talking about their diets constantly… And you know what, this is despite the fact that meat eating is everywhere. I mean it is literally advertised on television, in the form of fast food commercials, supermarket deals and cookery programmes. Every single religious or social festival circulates around meat or dairy consumption, from turkeys, hams and cheeses at Christmas, to milk chocolate bunnies and decorated eggs at Easter. Summer advertisements are saturated with images of sausages and ribs sizzling on the barbecue, and bacon and eggs are lauded as the only breakfast that is worth anything in the minds of the hungover or sleep deprived.
There is no vegan equivalent to this barrage of food based propaganda. There are no exclusively vegan fast food joints occupying advertising space on our televisions, and whilst some high street chains now offer vegan dishes, this is rarely considered a selling point. Whilst major supermarkets might be happy to declare the variety and depth of their gluten free ranges, vegan or dairy free alternatives are not equivalently hyped. And do you know what, that’s really not a problem – seasoned vegans know where to find the foods they crave, and so they find them, without the help of advertising. But when it does become a problem is when we get accused of declaring our veganism to the world just for merely mentioning the word, whilst in the meantime, the consumption of meat and dairy is celebrated daily, in every aspect of our culture.
Let me make one thing clear; I do not expect the world to change. I do not expect supermarkets to stop tempting customers with clips of bacon in the pan, or soft scoop vanilla ice cream. I do not expect you to stay silent about the foods you love just to make me feel better. But what I do expect is a little perspective from those anti-vegan omnivores who think I’m being too full on with the promotion of my dietary choices just because I occasionally follow my Instagram posts with #vegan. Some self-awareness might help with that resentment issue you seem to be nursing; if you want to be able to celebrate your foods, why shouldn’t I be allowed to celebrate mine?
“Vegans are militant and aggressive and are always trying to shove their opinions down my throat”
This leads on from my previous point. Again, if you change your perspective a little, you might realise that this is actually truer in the reverse: meat eating is legitimately advertised, not just a little, but a lot. I hear on a regular basis exactly why meat is “good” for us, why plant based diets are dangerous, why farming and slaughtering animals isn’t unethical or unsustainable, yet I have never approached somebody else and offered my opinion on their lifestyle choices uninvited. Literally never. In my extensive experience of the vegan community, it is very, very rare for a vegan to wander up to the dinner table and tell a meat eater that they are disgusting and that they should be ashamed of themselves, yet this idea of the militant, over emotional vegan seems to be a pervasive one.
For those of you who are about you click off to start scrolling their Facebook pages for examples of aggressive vegans, let me first ask you this: do you want your moral, political or ethical leanings to be typified by the most extreme member of an online group? Should we call all feminists man haters because there are some aggressive women on social media who seem to be using this social justice movement as an opportunity to exorcise demons? No, of course not. It is exactly the same with veganism. Annoyingly, it is always the insufferable and antagonistic vegans that get air time. Yet the world is so quick to believe that this is how veganism is, and that this represents the norm of the movement, rather than a select few. Veganism is not PETA, it is not Freelee the Banana Girl, and it is not a gang of balaclavas blowing up your local uni lab. Vegans are simply a group of people who choose not to eat meat or dairy, it’s as boring as that.
There are times when debates about veganism begin, and 9 times out of 10, it will be because someone at the BBQ found out I was vegan and asked me why. Now, vegans reading this will know only too well, that you have two choices in this circumstance. You lie, and say you’re allergic to all animal derived products, or you answer truthfully, that you don’t agree with the consumption of meat and dairy. This is usually followed by another question why. There is no right answer to this question, and so I will usually just say “I don’t want to get into it right now.” However, if the issue gets pushed, and I begin giving facts about animal agriculture or animal-based diets, I will get typified as a militant vegan, even though I didn’t bring up the issue in the first place, and even though I have responded with facts rather than judgements.
This has happened to me since the first day I decided to go vegan, and it continues to happen three years later. It is a common point of conversation among my vegan groups, both online and offline, and it is without a doubt one of the most frustrating experiences in my life to date. So here’s a message to anyone out there who is hostile to vegan “preaching”: if you don’t want to know, don’t ask. If someone brings the subject of veganism up, then continues to impose their opinions on you even after you have requested that they change the subject, then by all means call them militant and aggressive. But until that point, simply hearing an answer you don’t like does not make you the victim of some crazy animal-rights dogma.
I will not pretend that I never write anything on Facebook about animal rights. Of course I do. I make a point not to share disturbing or shocking images of animal slaughter, but I will share articles that I’ve read that are of interest. I share considerably more posts about feminism, politics and current affairs than I do about animal rights, yet I regularly hear that I am oversharing on the vegan front. I think that our perception of what constitutes oversharing is directly related to what we agree with. The majority of my friends are politically aligned to the left, like me. We all share equal amounts of national news, political updates or social justice articles. No one ever accuses me of oversharing these. No one ever tells me all I can talk about is social justice, that I am over-bearing, or too militant with my left wing British politicism. I share one article about veganism, and obviously, in the minds of Facebook, that is tantamount to occupying their entire newsfeed with vegan propaganda.
“Veganism is like a religion”
I once had a friend say this to me. I asked her to explain the conclusion that she had drawn about this social justice movement. She said vegans are unwavering and uncompromising in their beliefs, that they are unable to see how there is an ethical alternative to their vision, and that veganism essentially makes them closed minded. So, aside from the fact that veganism is actually based on the idea of reducing suffering of sentient creatures, and is notably not based on a sacred set of rules imposed by an extra-terrestrial being through which strong faith is a requirement and proof is irrelevant (thus literally not being a religion) it is worth considering this: my friend then went on to say that she would never consider giving up meat, that she could never consider giving up meat, and that she was not interested in hearing any arguments to convince her otherwise. Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds unwavering, uncompromising and closed minded – exactly the qualities she was accusing vegans of in the first place.
Most vegans are very open minded people. There are very few who have been vegan since birth, and therefore we all, at some point, needed to approach our own diets and purchasing choices with a very open mind. What I would implore you to consider is this: are you perhaps accusing vegans of being closed-minded just because they do not agree with your arguments? Is the only way to avoid being accused of “shoving our opinions down your throats” to just nod along with everything you are saying, and to just accept it when our own choices are not respected? Which brings me to the next point…
“Vegans don't respect my choices”
Ok, we don’t really have any option but to accept your choices. I mean, it’s not like we’re breaking into your fridge and swapping your steaks for tofu. I don’t know any vegans who have cut family or friends out of their lives because they continue to eat meat, and there is no legitimate movement to make it illegal for you to consume the foods of your choice. Nobody is actually physically trying to stop you from making choices; in fact, the vast majority of animal rights campaigns are simply dedicated to informing people about the truth of the products they are purchasing, so that they are able to make choices that better reflect their own morals. So I can only assume that, when you tell vegans to respect your choices, what you actually mean is that you want them to like your choices.
To be totally honest, that’s a very unfair expectation, and it’s not one that you would want imposed upon you. Like it or not, vegans disagree with the consumption of animal products. That means they disagree with the act in general, not just disagree with it on a personal level. If a friend of mine expresses an interest in going vegan, I am happy; I don’t respond by saying “oh no, it’s only me that shouldn’t be eating animal products, don’t worry about it.” However, there is a big difference between disapproving of an industry, of a cultural habit, and disapproving of you. I do not disapprove of my omni boyfriend. I know that he is a lovely, caring and sweet man. I may judge the industry that he directly finances with his consumption choices, but I don’t judge him as a person.
I think a lot of individuals who are offended by veganism struggle with this distinction, and actually find it very difficult to accept that I, and other vegans, may disagree with some of the choices that you make. To be honest, considering you occupy the vast majority, I don’t know where this sensitivity comes from; we may disagree with the act of eating meat or dairy, but you’ve got the whole of society behind you, so I’m not really sure why you’re so bothered by the opinion of a few. And anyway, omnivores are, in my experience, not withholding in their intent to inform us, right from the offset, that veganism isn’t for them. You are often very open with your opinions, and with the fact that you disagree with us. We, as vegans, are expected to accept that, and to not argue the point. People disagreeing with our choices is a daily experience, and we regularly feel unfairly judged and misunderstood. Would it be acceptable if we expressed how offended we are that you disagree with us? No… that would be militant, wouldn’t it?
“Vegans are illogical and ridiculous; I can’t take them seriously”
Most people understand where vegetarians are coming from. Even if they don’t want to be vegetarians themselves, people can empathise with the decision not to eat food that has involved the death of another creature. But a lot of people still have this idea of veganism as being very extreme, and frankly ridiculous. We grow up in a world where farming animals for milk is considered perfectly normal. People believe that we need cow milk, without even considering the biological nonsense behind an argument that we have evolved to actually need the breast milk of another species; specifically, a cow. A lot of people don’t realise that there is a lot of death and suffering implicit within the dairy industry, and as a result, they think that milk consumption is harmless and that vegans are simply humanizing animals and making a fuss about nothing. The point of this article is not to create an argument for veganism, so I will say simply this: the science is there, we do not need meat or dairy to lead a healthy lifestyle, and there are also copious facts available about the true nature of the dairy industry, should you be interested in the ethical side of things.
I can understand how vegans can seem stupid and ridiculous, getting upset over eggs or cheese, and overly emotional about the general welfare of animals that, to the mainstream mind, are there to be farmed. After all, that is exactly how the western world must have looked in the eyes of the residents of Yulin when social media erupted in disgrace at the annual dog meat festival.
During this meat festival, my Facebook feed was full of protest videos, memes and articles from omnivores who were outraged and emotionally scarred by the trauma of the animals involved. A lot of the people on my friends list who are anti-vegan responded sentimentally, and, at least in the eyes of the people from Yulin, became just like every vegan they so abhor. One vegan friend of mine summed it up perfectly in a status that, unsurprisingly, drew a lot of negative attention from omnivores: “You know how you feel seeing footage of Yulin? That’s how Vegans feel every day.” So what were your excuses for begin so outraged by this meat festival? It’s unnecessary? It’s brutal? Dogs are intelligent, sentient creatures that deserve to be respected? When you scoff at vegans for getting teary eyed over cows, you are actually scoffing at the same arguments you have likely used to justify your outrage at other forms of animal cruelty.
My point here is that we all react emotionally to things in equal measure, particularly when it comes to animal cruelty. I see so many clips of dogs that have been abused and desperately need rehoming, bull-fighting protests, calls to close Sea World, orangutans who have been orphaned due to deforestation. A lot of these posts are shared by people who eat meat, and who would be amazed that their empathy and compassion for these animals was somehow defined as overly emotional and ridiculous. If you have shared happy ending videos of cats who have been saved from floods, whales being cut free from nets, orphaned foxes being released back into the wild, then you are actually just the same as the vegans that irritate you so much. Deep down, we all connect with the animal world, we all care and feel compassion for animals, and we all strive to be kind and caring individuals. Vegans simply extend those morals to farm animals. That does not make them any more or less emotional, ridiculous or irrational than you.
I often feel trapped in a catch-22 scenario – if I don’t speak out about veganism, many of the incorrect assumptions about us continue to circulate; that we lead miserable, boring lives, eating miserable, boring food through which we derive no pleasure. But, if I openly celebrate about my veganism, I am more than likely to be accused of being obsessive, dogmatic, irrational. I’m starting to think that the only acceptable way to be a vegan is to do it in secret. But where does that leave me if it happens to be something I enjoy; something I am proud of; something that, frankly, does no harm to anybody, that I don’t believe should be treated like a dirty secret?
The more I think about this issue, the more I am reminded of how feminists have been treated throughout history. I think of all the men (and women) I’ve met who tell me they “hate feminists” because “feminists hate men”, “feminism is about female domination” or simply “feminazi’s are a buzz-kill”. The more socially aware of us can immediately identify that these statements are a load of rubbish, yet meninists and anti-feminists everywhere will have an enormous online stockpile of examples and stories that back them up, meaning that trying to indicate how illogical it is to draw these conclusions about a civil rights movement can be deeply frustrating, and often hurtful. Those sympathetic to women’s rights will happily declare that anti-feminists simply do not understand the movement, and would definitely reject any calls for women to be quiet about feminism, in case they accidentally support accusations of extremism.
Yet this is what we do to veganism, when we demand that veganism is quiet, hidden, uncelebrated. Most vegans are proud to be vegan, and we should be allowed to be proud without you feeling threatened. And, just as is the case with feminism, those who are uncomfortable with veganism, who typify it as extreme, or who view happy vegans as dogmatic or obsessive, need to spend some time truly looking at the roots of their hostility. Are we really doing anything that you yourself don’t do, on a daily basis? How many vegans have you actually met, in real life, who are angry, vindictive and intimidating? How happy are you to talk about your own lifestyle and moral or political opinion, and does that actually balance with the level of input you expect from others? Because if you think about those answers truthfully, I think you might be one step closer to realising that your hatred of vegans actually has nothing to do with vegans, and has everything to do with you.
image: Helen Alfvegren: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rockspindeln/