Part 1: A Simple Conversation

This post  will be a departure from my normal foody abstractions. After much thought, I’ve decided to talk a little about veganism and society. Pretty broad topic, eh? Not really – talk to most vegans and they’ll tell you how easy it is to become frustrated and sad when faced with the choices made by the vast majority of society. It’s also easy to feel isolated in a crowd, even if the crowd is your loving family and friends. By the way, for those of you who don’t know me, I don’t tend to aggressively convert or berate anyone – at least intentionally *wink, wink*. In what follows, I’ll simply be trying to convey what it’s like to walk a kilometer in my extremely fashionable, non-leather shoes. I’ll also be trying to convey how important I think it is to remain positive and to enjoy everything that life has to offer while treading softly and thinking of others – all others. That is, after all, what being vegan is all about for me. So, if I haven’t lost your interest already, by all means read on.

I sat down with the excellent intention of delving back into a great book I’m currently reading, only to get sidetracked after quickly checking my email. Since I’ve “gone blog”, I’ve found this whole other world at my fingertips: other vegans; other eloquent vegans; other eloquent vegans who can cook, and write, and engage the imagination and the spirit; other eloquent vegans who can cook, and write, and engage the imagination and the spirit, and remind me why I became vegan in the first place.

This post (or series of posts if this thing gets any longer) will likely surprise those of you who know me, since, after a brief outspoken period at the start when I was all excited about it, I’ve generally kept my thoughts on veganism more or less to myself unless pushed. I was stunned to realize the other day that I’ve been vegan now for over 6 years. Though they have flown by, and aside from the very start when I was fortunate enough to have a great friend/mentor living nearby, these 6 years have been spent in vegan isolation. True, I went to school at an “environmental” campus (though the only official information I found linking McGill and vegetarianism was a single page about eating vegetarian, and I only just discovered the McGill Animal Liberties Club… Goes to show how well stuff is communicated between the two campuses… but I digress). However, there really weren’t a whole lot of true vegetarians around, let along vegans. Sure, there were a few “vegetarians” who ate chicken and fish, but that AIN’T vegetarianism – but let’s not get started on that.  If there were fellow veggies around, they certainly weren’t very vocal about it. And this is the crux of the matter.

I’m not alone in my veg-isolation. Recently, a former student of mine came up to me and shyly let slip that she was vegan too. She told me how isolated, frustrated and alone she felt. Aside from joining vegan clubs or the like, which are pretty hard to come by in some places (though I am pleased to see that it’s getting better), it’s very difficult for someone who holds what are very likely to be strong ethical beliefs that eating and using animals is wrong to talk about it with someone who is not vegan. More often than not, such a discussion will get heated and turn into an argument or, at the very least, an uncomfortable conversation. Let’s face it – what you choose to eat is surprisingly personal, and talking about it with someone who doesn’t share the same views is not always a pleasant experience. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why veganism has been compared to a religion by some people, which I completely and categorically disagree with because one is based on fact and the other is based on faith. But that’s something for another time —  Ari Solomon wrote a great piece (“Who You Calling’ Vegangelical!?“) that discusses this issue, so go check it out.

My point is this: it is often difficult for a vegan to share their thoughts about veganism with someone who is not. This leads to isolation, since so much of our social lives revolve around food (at least mine does). So, the dilemma is this: should a vegan speak openly about their lives with others who probe, with the full understanding that they will likely face a verbal firing squad and/or end up being called a preachy twerp, or should a vegan give up, shrivel and withdraw from society? You may think that I’m exaggerating or being overly sensitive, but until you’ve walked in a vegan’s (non-leather, just in case you’re checking) shoes and heard the things that we’ve heard (over and over again), you won’t truly understand how tempting it is to just give up and be done with the bulk of society. Most vegans have felt isolated and targeted on more occasions that they can count, and the worst part of it is that the people doing the targeting and ostracizing don’t realize it in the least.

This brings me back to my new world, this online gathering of kindred spirits. I’ve now lost count of the number of posts out there written by vegans for the world to read and to understand. I’ve come to the conclusion that we vegans are generally not freaks, not hippies (well ok, I’m some of us are), and, most importantly, we are not striving to make you feel bad about yourselves – that’s something you do all on your own. We have simply made a choice that the bulk of the population is not ready to make for a variety of reasons. The issue I have with these reasons is that the vast majority are complete and total bunk, and it all boils down to convenience and tradition, which should never be considered reasons for anything. But again, that’s fodder for another post (you can see I’ve got a lot boiling away in this noodle of mine, eh?). This post is meant to explore the incredible déjà vu that most vegans encounter in conversations with omnivores. There are countless posts out there comparing the most typical things vegans hear on a daily basis. These posts  blew me away, because — and I didn’t realize this in my isolation — they’re almost identical. Anywhere in the world, you’ll get the same series of responses to the same set of answers. It’s absolutely incredible.

No, this is not an after-school special. It's just really hard to find a decent image of a conversation! Google it, you'll see.

Assuming there’s a preamble that would require me divulging the fact that I’m vegan (please note: I use the term divulging deliberately), what follows is the inevitable and predictable exchange that, 9 times out of 10, will occur.

Lil’ Vegan: …yep, I’m vegan.

Lil’ Omni: *Puzzled look* So you eat fish right?

Lil’ Vegan: Nope, being vegan means that I don’t eat anything that either had a face or a mother, nor do I wear or use any product that’s derived from animals. That includes silk, leather, wool…

Let’s pause the conversation here for a moment. I don’t understand how someone can think that a fish is not an animal. True, I majored in Zoology, but I knew fish were animals when I was in preschool. I always let this slide, ascribing the question to the fact that Lil’ Omni may not have come across the term “vegan” before. I’m happy to explain, with a smile, exactly what veganism is. I usually leave it at that. However, it takes all of my inner strength not to break out my biology book when someone immediately asks the follow-up “but you eat chicken right?” I think that everyone would benefit from a quick biology review, or at the very least a quick skim of a biology textbook discussing Kingdom Animalia. That would clear a bunch of things up right off the bat. But again, I have no problem explaining what vegans do and what we stand for. The problem I have comes with the almost inevitable exchange that follows the fish-chicken question.

Lil’ Omni: *Looks me up and down* But you’re wearing a leather belt right?

Lil’ Vegan: Nope, no leather.

Lil’ Omni: Shoes?

Lil’ Vegan: Nope, no leather.

Another pause here. I don’t understand why, when I’ve just finished telling someone that I don’t use any animal products, that they immediately try to find something – usually leather – supposedly squirreling itself away somewhere on my body. And again, this appears to be universal phenomenon, and is usually the first hint that the person you’re having the discussion with is setting themselves on the defensive, looking for some way to make themselves feel better by finding fault in your as yet unsaid argument. But back to our conversation… in a couple of days. It’s way too beautiful to stay inside any longer.  Stay tuned for Part 2.

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Milli says:

    it’s funny how stating one’s views about veganism is usually considered “fanatical,” “extreme,” or something else negative but stating one’s views about eating meat does not seem to require any kind of justification.

    regardless of how i feel morally, environmentally, religiously, etc. i have a lot of dietary restrictions due to allergies/ sensitivity (controversial in itself for some reason) and i physically cannot digest beef. people still criticize my recent decision to cut it out of my diet. would they rather i live in excruciating pain and the large number of side-effects that come with eating certain foods? yes.

    as long as my diet is “normal” it requires no thinking or reflection on their part- they wish to do what they want without any real reason behind it. in fact, as my lifestyle has gradually shifted toward veganism my family and friends are more determined than ever to stuff me full of meat. how about a little maturity, guys?

  2. lil' vegan says:

    Hi Milli,

    It’s definitely a tough situation when your family is not supportive of your decision, especially when it really has nothing to do with them. It’s possible that the only remedies are time, understanding, patience and politely “stickin’ to yer guns”.

    I’d encourage anyone else who’s reading this to post ideas or experiences on how to best deal with loved ones who insist on foisting meat on a veggie? I’ve been lucky enough not to have to deal with this rather aggressive reaction from my family, so any help would be appreciated. Who knows… maybe we can conjure up a communication breakthrough!

    In the meantime Milli, hang in there, live and eat well, and remember that you’ve got friends here.
    Lil’ Vegan

  3. Kebes says:

    Good post. It’s nice to hear more about the vegan perspective.

    I don’t want to diminish the isolation and difficulties you face in your ethical efforts… But I would like to point out that what you describe is not unique to veganism. Any ethical stance that deviates too strongly from the status-quo will be met with similar challenges and attempts to discover inconsistency. People feel that their lifestyle and life-choices are validated by others making similar choices; the flip-side is that they feel attacked when others make dissimilar choices.

    So if you take up any ethical counter-normal stance (against diamonds, avoiding products from certain companies or countries, pushing for fringe political reform, software freedom, etc.) you will meet opposition, or, at best, extreme confusion.

    Again, I’m not trying to invalidate your experiences with veganism. But, you have a broader community to commiserate with once you see it as a particular case of “troubles caused by pushing the ethical envelope”. 🙂

    1. lil' vegan says:

      Keeeebes – I didn’t know you were lurking out there in cyberspace! Welcome to my lil’ corner of the web 🙂

      A very valid point as usual, but I have a feeling you won’t find the same kind of immediate defensiveness that seems to crop up when veganism is the topic of conversation. I could be wrong of course, but it just seems to strike a more personal note than, say, the avoidance of diamonds (which I’m all for), the avoidance of Walmart (which I’m all for, though I’m intrigued to see what kind of change David Suzuki will be bring about… but I digress), the ousting of certain twit political parties (which I’m all for), and freeware (which I’m all for)… Hmmmm, I’m seeing a trend here… Maybe I should call myself an ethilope pusher?

      1. Kebes says:

        Obviously some ethical stances elicit greater opposition than others. The ones that imply a greater change to one’s lifestyle (environmental conservation, veganism, etc.) elicit more intense objection.

        FYI: “Freeware” is not the same thing as “Free and Open Source Software”. Last I checked you used proprietary software (e.g. Microsoft Windows) and are thus behaving unethically from the point of view of the Free Software community.

  4. robyntara says:

    I know how you feel. I recently converted to veganism, which started as a month-long personal challenge, and have experienced a wide array of attitudes ranging from curious and accepting to disapproving and back again. Some of my family members do not understand and often think I’m crazy for doing this. I tell them that it’s what’s best for me, for animals and for the environment and leave it at that. I leave the proselytizing to PETA. I also tell them to read my blog if they really want to know why.

    I’m only interested in really sharing with people who are open-minded, and this attribute is detectable about a nano second after I utter the word “vegan”. The moment I see an eye-roll, I say it’s for ethical and environmental reasons and that it’s the least I can do to help make the world a better place. They continue to roll their eyes. Whatever.

    People can be really defensive if you tell them you’re vegan. It’s almost liking coming out to a homophobe… at least that’s what I imagine that to feel like. I just keep on keeping on, whether they like it or not. We all should. We will still gain allies anyway.

    http://www.taraincognita.wordpress.com

    1. lil' vegan says:

      You totally read my mind – check out my latest post, which I wrote about a day before you posted your comment. That just proves that we all get treated pretty similarly, no matter where we’re from. Weird eh? Ahhh human nature. Glad to know you’re blogging your troubles away as well – I’ll be sure to check it out!
      Thanks for posting 🙂
      Lil’ Vegan

  5. Kelly says:

    I am totally an isolated vegan.the only vegans I know in person are my husband and my son…hehe! I swear the other day iwas shopping somewhere and said the word vegan and was giddy when the guy behind the counter said he was too! Crazy, I know but it was nice to be in the same room as someone else that has made the same choice as me. Sometimes it really does feel like everyone else in the world is doing the opposite.

    1. lil' vegan says:

      Yeah I hear you, but I try to focus on how nice it feels when you DO encounter a kindred spirit (to borrow Anne of Green Gable’s expression – at least that’s how I think of it).

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