‘Vegans turn people off with their extremist messages’ – if only I had a pound for every time I have seen this written or heard it said, I could start a sanctuary…
Extremist – NOUN chiefly DEROGATORY
A person who holds extreme political or religious views, especially one who advocates illegal, violent, or other extreme action
Having looked at every dictionary definition I can find, I can find no clue as to why those who advocate the cessation of unjustifiable violence to other beings should be accused of extremism. In fact the quoted definition quite specifically states the opposite, defining extremism as advocating violence. And yet the accusation is made, time and again, and frequently in response to articles, blogs or conversations that are completely lacking in violence, politics, religion or references to law.
Those vegans who choose to stand up for our fellow beings (most of the ones I know, actually) seek to spotlight the culture of violence and exploitation that our society accepts as the norm – and what a culture of horrific violence it is. The myriad ways in which humans remorselessly inflict suffering on all other beings serve to illustrate our sickening ingenuity as a species.
When I first became vegan, like many of my peers, there was an air of fresh innocence and optimism about me. I had uncovered an unpleasant truth, a horrific bloodbath of needless exploitation and had passed through a storm of bitter self-recrimination to reach the conclusion that my only possible rational response was to become vegan. I felt sure that, amongst those I knew, none of whom were vegan to my knowledge, I had to be the only person who had seen what I had seen, and I was confident that once others knew too, they would feel exactly as I did.
And there lay the very first indication that this wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I thought. Like the sound of a cracked bell ringing came a dull response from those I knew to my revelations and my optimistic solutions. Gradually it began to sink in that I was not the only person who knew, or sadly the only person who entertained fleeting thoughts that it was wrong, but I was certainly the only one who seemed willing either to face the truth or to act on my convictions.
Talking the talk
I found that the essence of the matter was that most people liked to be associated with the concept of caring about animals. However for most, while this concern is something that is frequently verbalised (‘Oh yes, I love animals’, ‘I’m not vegan but I don’t believe in cruelty’) it is seldom followed through to examine how and indeed why their own self interest will always trump the needs of any other being.
How frequently does ‘loving animals’ gloss over the fact that bringing innocent sentient beings into existence as a resource that humans have no nutritional or other need for, and killing them so we can dismember, use, consume and excrete their corpses, can never by any stretch of the imagination fit in with an image we may cherish of ourselves as caring human beings?
Opinions vs moral issues
‘I respect your opinion and you should respect mine.’
Agreed, however it is important to differentiate between opinions that lead to choices, and morality. If anyone wants to paint their house purple and use roller skates instead of a car – they have my total respect.
If however another human considers they have the right to rape or enslave others, to abuse children, to carry out murder or to participate in domestic violence, these are not open to debate and should never lead to ‘choices’. These are moral issues and in the view of most people, they are utterly wrong.
What is the factor that differentiates between these situations? Victimhood. As soon as we create a victim, we have moved from a choice that is ours to make, into a situation where we consider we have an entitlement to harm another for our self-interest. The species of the victim is irrelevant; if a victim is sentient, they are worthy of recognition as autonomous individuals.
So, to get back to the point
And so, to return to my initial thoughts on why vegans are so frequently accused of ‘extremism’, I suggest that this may be a case of shooting the messenger. The vegan message is the antithesis of extremism, urging the cessation of violence towards the helpless and vulnerable; promoting respect for all living beings by ending the cultural view shared by most humans of entitlement to harm others for reasons of self-interest.
The reaction of nonvegans is certainly extreme – and why wouldn’t it be? The behaviour that we are highlighting is extreme. That’s not opinion – contrary to another frequent accusation – it’s a fact and we cite as evidence the further fact that vegans by and large have all been nonvegans at some earlier point in their lives. They know exactly how extreme their behaviour was and they have elected to stop and to share with others the insights that made them decide to do this.
My own experience is that when we are nonvegan, examining our own actions in the light of our stated values can throw up some very unpleasant inconsistencies. Some may consider these extreme, I know I did. I would definitely suggest, however, that any ‘turning off’ that occurs is nothing to do with vegans or veganism, but rather is the result of our own inbuilt resistance to acknowledging the harm that our actions are causing. Some of us may never be able to face it, some will seek to justify their own circumstances and why what they do is different, while others will become vegan and will spread the message.
I just wish with all my heart that someone had shared the vegan message with me decades ago.