I suspect that some friends and family members who aren’t vegan, think of me as being like a strict vegetarian who has become so because they ‘love animals’. I live with cats, and I am single so I suppose that adds to the impression. I suspect too, that because they think that I’ve ‘gone soft’ over animals and adopted what they view as a crazy diet, they avoid asking me anything about veganism. Do they find me a bit embarrassing? Maybe they know how passionate I am about the subject and they don’t want to ‘set me off’. Perhaps it’s a bit like after something really awful has happened – a death or a disaster – and we sometimes find talking about it difficult, we avoid mentioning it so as not to make the sadness fresh again, often serving to make the subject more obvious by the gap it leaves in the conversation when it would be so natural to talk about it.
And I admit that talking about veganism does frequently ‘set me off’, and I can’t deny I do often mention it in conversation because I so much want people to understand how important it is to me. Is it misplaced politeness that they don’t respond? Yet when someone is showing me photos and telling me about the breast milk and eggs and flesh they consumed for tea, or is describing the new leather boots or the wool jacket that they’ve just bought, they clearly don’t realise that they are telling me exactly how little they know about either me or veganism. Alternatively they might be telling me they don’t give a damn about me and don’t care if they’re causing me distress – but I honestly don’t think it’s that. Or I hope not anyway.
Because veganism is brushed aside in this way, it’s overlooked as a wacky menu choice. For many it’s in the same dietary restriction category as vegetarian options, or gluten or lactose intolerance. In fact a recent remark by someone I know made it obvious that they actually didn’t know the difference between vegan, gelatine and gluten. There are so many misunderstandings.
Why is it so important to us?
For most, the decision to be vegan was made as the result of a huge and traumatic epiphany, and for every vegan it’s been a life changer, has shifted their entire perspective about every single aspect of the world. It’s so hard not to share something so vast with family and with those we count as friends. We once shared their outlook and a special bond, and it’s hard to believe that this ‘light bulb moment’ in our experience has changed the underlying feelings that have bound us to them in love and friendship for so long. It hurts to lose that. The grief can be very real. The grief IS very real.
Recently, a close friend was given a gift by someone who had very evidently given a great deal of thought to finding something they considered was appropriate and special. The giver of the gift, although they may know my friend is vegan, is unaware of the significance of the term. Nevertheless, recognising that my friend is an ethical person, and aware that they do not eat animals, the gift was a donation to a charitable organisation to give a goat to a third world family. In a bizarre sort of way, I can understand why this was thought to be a good idea, although for a vegan, such a gift could hardly be any less appropriate.
I’ve written before about the risks of shared (mis)understandings and it occurs to me that veganism itself may be another. There are exceptions of course. However maybe when some of the people we love don’t ask us about veganism, perhaps it’s not because they don’t care; it’s because they think they know all about it already and they genuinely consider that they’re being tolerant and giving us space to make our ‘personal choices’ while they make what they continue to think of as theirs. Many of us have an ingrained politeness; an unwillingness to intrude that may be seen as apathy, depending on the circumstances.
In another recent conversation with a close friend, reference was made in passing to abusive relationships and the impact these have on our lives. When having this kind of conversation, it would be considered rude to latch on to such a reference and demand the details, who and where, when and what exactly happened. It’s just not done; such intrusion would be unthinkable unless our confidant(e) wishes to volunteer this information.
It may be that some of our friends and family are apprehensive of mentioning veganism for a combination of all these reasons. They think they know already. It can be like lighting a blue touch paper because there’s just so much we are desperate to say and it’s so hugely important to us. We have such a profound emotional connection to the subject that has changed every aspect of our lives. It can be rather overwhelming on both sides. Our audience may be unaware that this pointed avoidance of the subject simply adds to the seething frustration so many of us feel, a frustration that only becomes worse with the passage of time as the gulf between us widens.
What veganism isn’t
So. Veganism. I’m working from my memory of what I thought before I understood about it, so here goes, for the record. I’ll start with a shocker.
I do not love animals in general. I love some living nonhuman animals and I have loved other nonhuman animals who are dead.
I do not love people in general. I love some people and I like others.
Being vegan has nothing to do with whether I love nonhuman or human animals. I respect other people enough not to harm them, not to steal from them and not to kill them. Veganism has made me realise that every species deserves nothing less than the same respect.
I did not decide to be vegan because I’m so gullible that I believe every thing I read on Facebook. I, too, used to think that the horror stories were all ‘worst case scenarios’ and very much the exception to the rule. However once I started to investigate, what I found changed my view of humanity, shamed and embarrassed me in ways that I never realised I was capable of feeling.
Being vegan isn’t anything like being a ‘strict vegetarian’ despite the way it is portrayed in the media, by celebrities wanting to present it as the latest fad, and on restaurant menus. I would have to list all the things a vegetarian diet isn’t in order to even begin to explain about veganism, so any type of dietary restriction is not a good starting point for a frame of reference. It’s not a health kick or an environmental one, although vegans tend to become extremely knowledgeable about these because both health and the environment are impacted by it.
Being vegan isn’t founded on ‘beliefs’ or on anything that cannot be proved factually and scientifically, but rather is a fact based ethical stance. It is a fact that the animals that we use are sentient. That means they have minds and thoughts, needs and preferences. They live as we all do, connected to life by our perceptions and our emotions, experiencing the world through our interactions with others and with our environment. Their lives matter to them.
It is a fact that humans do not need to eat or otherwise use animals for any purpose. The most compelling case against veganism would arguably be if humans had some nutritional need that only animal bodies, eggs or lactation could fulfil. We have no such need and in fact the evidence accumulates daily that our consumption of animal products is utterly disastrous for humans as a species from every single perspective.
It’s not about farming methods, whether a farm is a factory one or a family one, whether it’s free-range or not. To explain, consider this. The concept of ‘farming’ humans in any environment for any reason, is a repugnant one and rightly so. Everyone instinctively knows that it would be impossible to farm humans in a way that didn’t violate their every right. In fact it’s impossible to farm any sentient individual in a way that doesn’t violate their every right. Their lives are pitiful and their deaths are agonised and terrifying despite what the adverts and the industry would have you believe. There’s not a decent way to kill anyone who is desperate to live, whatever their species.
So if that’s what it’s not, what is it?
When someone recognises that animals are like us in every relevant way and that we have no justifiable need to harm them, becoming vegan is quite simply taking a decision to live life in line with that understanding.
Veganism is simply the decision to stop harming, hurting and killing them. It’s a decision to stop wearing them, to stop using chemicals and toiletries that are tested on them or that use parts of their deceased bodies as ingredients. It’s a decision to stop being ‘entertained’ by them, to stop taking their milk, their eggs, to stop eating their corpses. It’s a decision to stop doing all the unnecessary and inherently violent things we do to them just because we can. We have a wealth of alternatives.
That’s all it is. What our species does to those who are defenceless and vulnerable is unjust; simply unfair. Veganism is a decision that we take, on an individual basis, that we don’t want to be part of that any more and we stop.
So now that I’ve got that off my chest, if you know me, and if you ever have cause to refer to the fact that I’m vegan, please don’t shrug and roll your eyes like I’m some weirdo with crazy ideas. I’m vegan. I decided to stop harming innocent individuals who are like us in every way but species, that’s all. I really don’t find that funny or worthy of mockery.
And if you’d like to hear more, please let me tell you more. I could talk about it for hours, can recommend reading materials if you’d rather not talk and I can say with the utmost sincerity that this decision to stop hurting others was the best one I ever made. I wish with all my heart that you would understand. I wish with all my heart that you would make that same decision.