Do you cringe when someone tells you they are a vegetarian who eats fish? Do you occasionally feel sociopathic when someone refuses to watch a video depicting animal cruelty because it is too upsetting for them to watch as they simply enjoy meat too much to stop eating it? Or how about the feeling of uncontrollable rage when your supposedly vegan meal is presented to you with a huge chunk of dead animal?
I'm basically a peaceful person who should not succumb to such feelings of anger and rage, but I'm also human--sometimes the ignorance, stupidity and/or irresponsibility people exhibit in such scenarios just overwhelms me. I am only fooling myself when I imagine that these feelings have subsided over the years; that I have adopted Buddhist principles and I can let things go. But here's a little secret between you and me: I haven't. I've just become a better actor and found ways to channel the negativity into positive energy ... sometimes.
When people tell me they are vegetarians who eat fish, my previous response was "I didn't know fish grow in the ground or on trees." I've always been a wiseass, still am, but I'm learning to portray a reasonable person when necessary. I remind myself that I, too, was ignorant and naïve at the beginning of my journey to a vegan lifestyle. I was the cocky teenager who boasted about being a vegetarian while I still ate fish. "Fish do not have central nervous systems, so they don't feel pain; therefore it is okay to eat them." Yes, I confess, I made stuff up as I went along; obviously that statement wasn't based on any fact, but I did believe my own lies for convenience. It's not that I ever particularly enjoyed fish, but when dining out, there was always a fish entrée. To put things in perspective, when I was a teenager, you actually had to mix water with powder to make soymilk and it was anything but tasty. There certainly weren't any convenience foods back then (and I'm not THAT old). As a teenager, I had a pact with my mom that I could be a vegetarian as long as I cooked for myself. Well that didn't exactly pan out as I ended up living on cheese – the only meals I could prepare were grilled cheese, quesadillas and pizza bagels.
Now I try the positive approach. "That's great you don't eat cows, pigs or chickens. After I learned how fish suffocate, and how many 'non-target' animals such as dolphins and turtles die in nets, I quickly lost my appetite for fish. Now as an avid snorkeler, I absolutely adore fish – swimming in their natural habitat, not baked or fried on my plate."
Dining out in non-vegan establishments is challenging, but it is possible. The most important tip I have for you is "when in doubt, don't order it." You can question whether the rice is cooked with chicken broth or whether something is made with lard, but it's a crapshoot for the most part. Either your server is going to tell you what you want to hear or they honestly don't know. I know better than to order soup as most have some kind of beef or chicken stock unless they are clearly labeled vegetarian. When I was a "newbie," I would basically ask for a complete ingredient list. The only thing this accomplishes is perpetuate the belief that eating vegan is difficult. Another confession here: I'm not worried if I dine out and my food may contain a minute drop of some ingredient I can't pronounce. Nothing is pure. Car and bicycle tires contain animal products. Plastic bags contain animal products (yes, you should be using canvas bags anyway). Even though you are not ingesting tires, you still drive, don't you? Trying to be totally pure will drive you, and everybody around you, crazy. If you are trying to help others become vegan, giving them a 12-page list of hidden animal ingredients is counter-productive. Stick to the basics.
Finally, the toughest stumbling block is breaking the ignorance barrier. If one doesn't know about the horrific life the animals had before they ended up neatly packaged in the market or served on their plate, then those people can continue to eat animals with a clear conscience. The saying "Ignorance is Bliss" hits home. Sometimes I wish I didn't know about factory farming or how humans are capable of being so cruel toward other species (and each other). Life would be easier that way. But I do know. And once you know, you want everybody to know. And we care. Our goal is to make other people care. You want to shake people and shout at them "how can you not care." But shouting doesn't help. Many people refuse to watch the videos—they know deep down what they see might affect them. Denial is easier. But there are other ways around it. My mom wouldn't watch the factory farm videos but I inherited her love for animals so I knew there was hope. I gave her "Diet for a New America" video to watch; it touched on animal cruelty but wasn't so graphic (it also showed the environmental and health connections of a plant-based diet). At 60 years old, she stopped eating all animals but fish (argh!) but at least she acknowledged what happens to "those poor animals." After eight years of me berating my husband for eating meat (a long, long time ago), it took eight seconds of a factory farm video for him to stop eating animals. You can strap people down in a chair and they will just close their eyes. Ignorance is much easier to swallow than reality.
I believe awareness is growing and will continue to grow as we do our part. Some groups are airing commercials targeting teenage audiences. There are many dedicated activists who leaflet every chance they get. Some activists air videos on public streets. There are books, blogs, websites, magazine articles all ready to educate. All it takes is each one of us to do our part to stamp out ignorance. If you can't leaflet, donate to publish those materials. Leave educational material wherever you go. Share your lunch with co-workers. Be a walking billboard with a vegan tee-shirt. Cashiers and customers will ask about your tee-shirt. Hand them a pamphlet. You don't need to scream at people from your soapbox. There are softer approaches. Just do what works best for you. And if and when you feel the need to choke some sense in to a person who is way past ignorant, don't waste your energy. . . just walk away.