I recently saw two criticisms of my blog on Facebook. What, only two? To be honest there’s never any shortage of criticism. The human obsession with using and consuming inappropriate substances and causing death and destruction to vulnerable innocents in order to facilitate the behaviour is very deeply entrenched. Shooting the messenger is almost a reflex for some.
The first criticism was that vegans should not call themselves vegans because this implied criticism of people who are not vegan. Now that’s a bizarre notion. It could lend itself to all sorts of ridiculous parallels which ends up as being that we should not define ourselves in any way because it implies criticism of those who do not define themselves in that way.
The idea that being vegan is an overt criticism of people who are not vegan is particularly puzzling, given that veganism is defined by living in a manner that minimises the harm we cause to others. Most humans that I have met in sixty years on this planet have no problem at all with the notion that we should not do harm to others; on the contrary most people are quick to condemn anyone who thinks that causing harm is even remotely acceptable.
Almost everyone says they care about animals; says they’re against cruelty; says they believe it’s right to stand up for those who are oppressed and powerless. Being vegan is simply living in a way that reflects the words we all say. And if we feel criticised by encountering someone who, by calling themselves vegan, reminds us of the conflict between our words and our actions, then I have to suggest that this says more about the uneasy state of our own conscience than it does about the vegan.
Holier than thou
The second critical comment claimed that I had a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, especially towards those who wish to take their time and make gradual or partial dietary adjustments rather than adopting the ethical stance that is veganism, but I’ve seen it used as a general criticism too. Again, this comment is by no means original.
‘Holier than thou’ doesn’t offend me, but tells me more about the accuser than perhaps they want to tell. In the case of my lack of delight about proposed dietary changes, the first thing that it makes me realise is that the writer has no understanding of what veganism actually is. They apparently think it’s a diet and like all diets, these are all about the dieter. A diet is a regime of restrictions undertaken for the benefit of the dieter; to lose weight, to alleviate the effects of allergy or intolerance, for the observance of a cultural or religious tradition etc.
I can’t blame the casual observer for thinking of veganism as a diet or a menu choice. There’s so much misinformation going about and so many ‘advocates’ who adopt the view that their nonvegan contemporaries are in some way incapable of understanding a truthful message about veganism and its desperate urgency when viewed from a victim’s perspective.
Are vegans ‘holier than thou’? As always, I can’t speak for everyone, however the experience of facing up to the violence and bloodshed that our species embraces as the norm is a deeply humbling one. When it happened to me, a very real sense of profound shame weighed me down for many months. I have never forgotten, and never want to forget, the awareness of the horror for which I was personally responsible.
That horror is not an abstract notion for me. When I was learning exactly what I had supported, I forced myself to watch the consequences of my consumer choices. Because of me, beautiful, gentle, innocent individuals with families and friends, who valued their lives and wanted to be left in peace to live them, had faced nightmares that I had never before been capable of imagining. I no longer need to imagine them. Now I know exactly what they faced for me. I have heard the screams gurgling through blood that spurts out of gaping throats; I have seen despair in the defeated eyes of the doomed; I have seen the saws getting to work before the spark of life has gone.
The many ways of saying ‘go away’
Taking a step back, it seems that what these accusations of being ‘critical’ or ‘holier than thou’ are really saying is, ‘I want you to just shut up and go away because you’re making me uncomfortable’, but in the interests of fairness and to see if I can learn any lessons, I’ve really thought about them, and all I can say is this.
When I became vegan, I realised that I had betrayed every value that I always believed to define me. In doing so I discovered that I was not the mother or the sister, the friend or indeed the person that I had fondly imagined myself to be. Never was I so aware of being unworthy. That I should think of myself as ‘holier than thou’, in some way morally superior, is so far from the mark that words fail me, and I would be very surprised to find that I’m the only vegan who feels this way.
In becoming vegan, each of us faces demons that we have spent a lifetime ignoring. Living in a world where the majority of our contemporaries are as we once were, serves as a constant reminder of our own failings and we are each our own most merciless critic. All we can do is ask others to stop making the mistakes we made ourselves, and as advocates we do it every day and in every way we can devise.
The shame of my previous behaviour will never leave me and to be completely blunt, I’m not even slightly interested in trying to score points off anyone who continues on the path that I walked before I was vegan. There can be no comfort in being ‘better’ than anyone else, or in trying to find someone whose behaviour is ‘worse’ than mine was so that I can point a finger of criticism at them. I don’t feel morally superior to anyone; how could I be anything but humble when we have all behaved so abominably? The only differences between us lie in recognising our mistakes and resolving not to repeat them.
Be vegan. Today.