When I turned vegan in 2003, one of the mistakes I made was to automatically assume that all other vegans would become my new best friends. Whilst I did not know any for the first couple of years, I was convinced that moving to a more cosmopolitan city in 2006 would provide me with an abundance of ready-made, supportive fellow activists, drinking buddies and confidants, with whom I could put the world to right into the early hours, and complain about the ignorance of the non-vegan world.
Well, I was wrong. Yes, I met some vegans with similar political views, tastes in music and styles of activism to myself, but I also had a shock by the awkwardness of a coffee shop chat with a potential new friend met at an environmental meeting. I favoured dramatic tactics such as spraying my flesh with fake blood; they thought that was counter-productive and in bad taste. I had an all-or-nothing approach to a cruelty-free lifestyle, metaphorically beating myself up for not having known what my camera film was made from; they accepted that nobody is perfect, and the intention to reduce suffering is what matters. I advocated for high meat taxes and strict punishments for animal abuse; they preferred 'carrots' over 'sticks.'
No, we did not become friends, even though differences in opinion need not have meant that we could not have done. But this experience made me realise that I should not have assumed that all vegans are the same. I learned to question my own stereotypes, and now better appreciate that we are all making a difference for the non-humans of this world, albeit in different ways.
On the other hand, though, this self-reflection made me more frustrated at the stereotypes that I encounter from non-vegans during the course of everyday life. I was already very angry about quite a few, as having turned vegan at 15, my biological family had not minced their words, and I did not cope well with constantly hearing that veganism is, "An eating disorder requiring psychological help, a guaranteed socially and physically wrecked life, a rejection of religion, a tool with which to lose weight, and the result of influence by extremists." These are serious examples, contributing to me overlooking others and those I held myself, but opening my eyes and ears has since added a number to the list.
Many of us have likely heard that vegans are arrogant, or that they are tree-hugging-hippies, who must be fans of astrology and certain recreational drugs. I've known people who think that vegans automatically love tofu and soy milk, and those who assume that vegan junk food need not exist, as we all only eat salads. Recently, I overheard plant-based diets referred to as a fashion statement, and my use of contraception has been questioned, as, "Don't vegans worship nature?"
I could go on, but perhaps it is more productive to ask how to turn these stereotypes around. How exactly one reacts, again, cannot be stereotyped; some of us enjoy debate, some are confrontational, and others would rather walk away from direct criticism. A vegan may choose to chat politely about a genuine misconception or go home and write a blog post on the matter. And that's all ok! Yet there is one word that can help us all: INFORMATION. Whether the believer in the stereotype is open to discussion or stubbornly keeps insisting that they are right, (and believe me I always struggle against my urge to retaliate when my father-in-law says that there were no vegans 50 years ago!), it is good to have knowledge and examples on hand to demonstrate why the prejudice is just that, a prejudice.
This article from the UK's Guardian shares the diverse stories of four vegans, one of whom is a self-defined foodie, whilst another gave up dairy for their voice before ever watching Earthlings. The Vegan Woman opens the door to addressing diversity in vegan fashion, addressing different viewpoints on faux leather, whilst Hannah Crisan is in opposition to the campaign tactics used by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The work of Vegan Voices of Colour shows that veganism is not a fad for privileged, rich, white teenagers, and such research can help us challenge our own misconceptions too; as a Caucasian, I benefited from learning about intersectionality as much as vegan critics may.
Internet searches, charity publications, and local libraries can quickly reveal a range of vegan viewpoints on everything from second-hand woolen jumpers and organic produce to the ethics of induced abortion and living with companion animals. No two vegans are the same, and that deserves to be celebrated through friendly debate, idea sharing, and inclusion, not through bullying and dismissal.
Photograph courtesy of Jens Hoffmann, used under the terms of the Creative Commons license.