Friday, December 11, 2009

Exclusivity and Purity and PeTA

I decided, long ago, that a vegan life was morally superior to an omnivorous life. Making that decision was much easier than making real change to redirect my life would be. I believe that there are a lot of people like me out there. By that, I mean that I believe there are thousands, if not millions, of people who have read about how America produces meat and dairy and abhor it without knowing what they can do to change it. Veganism is an obvious first step that each person can take, but it's not as easy as, "stop eating animal products." Sure, that's the mechanical truth of what needs to happen, but it's not that simple. The problems a typical American omnivore faces when trying to make this step are many and varied and complex.

First, there is the problem of knowledge. To a person who has spent an entire life eating meat, dairy, and eggs, the world of vegan cooking can seem alien and inaccessible, and--let's be candid--pretty freaking unappetizing at first glance. It isn't just a matter of "stop eating meat." It is a matter of internal struggle, taking anything from a single moment to a period of years, to form and solidify a belief system with enough power to compel someone to make a gigantic leap into life as a vegan.

I am not typical of the vegan mindset. I did not pursue veganism because I feel it is wrong to eat animal flesh. I don't feel that way. I don't think hunting for food is barbaric. I don't think animals and people are "equal." That doesn't mean that I have nothing in common with other vegans or that I have no place in the vegan community.

I grew up on a farm in rural Arkansas. I grew up helping my parents grow our own food, sell excess produce to others from the bed of our truck, raise and slaughter livestock, hunt for game animals, and feed the fish in our stocked ponds. It was a very subsistence-based and natural way to live. The animals in our care were treated with love, respect, and kindness every moment of their lives--even those last moments. Animal husbandry was an honorable thing when I was growing up. I grew into an adult never knowing thing one about how very different the meat and produce in my grocery store was from that which I consumed in early life. I honestly thought that all farms treated their animals the way we had. I honestly believed that all livestock was killed for food with similar humane practices to those I had witnessed growing up. Naive? Absolutely, but I don't think I was alone in that assumption.

When I learned about the horrific tactics employed with antibiotics, genetic engineering, feeding, housing, and violent slaughter of animals raised for meat in my own country, I was disgusted. I knew I needed to change some things, and I turned to the vegan community of published work and internet talk to find advice, guidance, and support. I received some to be sure, but mostly what I found was frustrating, counter-productive, or downright hostile.

There is immediately an off-putting sort of moral-superiority complex in the vegan community. The language used and the rhetoric tossed about is angry and cruel in its dismissive tone. People new to veganism are often insulted and discouraged right off the bat. Whenever I try to discuss this with a longtime vegetarian or vegan, they usually dismiss my comments by saying something like, "Well, I'm right to be angry." That's true. Everyone should be the meat industry and the agencies who enable them to continue in their atrocious work. I feel that anger from the vegan community is often sloshed with a very haphazard bucket all over the population. This misses the mark and alienates the very mainstream of society that we need to accomplish real change.

Groups like PETA who call themselves animal activist groups have done as much damage to the cause of animal rights in this country as the USDA. I mean that with sincerity. Good people who would otherwise entertain rational, logical discussion of vegan life are now so jaded and alienated because of shock activism that the very mention of the word "vegetarian" will bring out snarls or snorts of derision from typical Americans. You do NOT convince your peers to see things your way by frightening their children, destroying their property, or using a megaphone to impugn their character. Screeching and righteous moral outrage do not win friends. They do not win battles for us, and they do not enlighten the uninformed. Most importantly, they don't serve to garner public support for ending the inhumanity of industrial meat production.

Another disturbing trend in vegan culture is the concept of purity. Passion is good. I like passionate people. Passion without empathy, however, is pretty freaking useless. At some point you have to ask yourself, "Am I passionate because I want to spread my beliefs, or am I passionate because it makes me feel superior to those around me to be so." I think a huge problem that a lot of vegans don't want to admit or talk about is the idea that veganism is an all-or-nothing prospect. You can find heated discussions between people about whether or not they should be "allowed" to call themselves vegan if they follow the principles in their eating but don't abolish leather goods. You can find yourself the target of sarcasm or biting lectures from an 18 year-old self-righteous twit over innocent questions about why eating honey is considered wrong. Veganism is not generally a culture that shows kindness to its new members or to those who find parts of veganism a good fit for their lives without buying the entire package plan on the first day. It feels very much like a group of people in an exclusive club who reserve the right to refuse entry to anyone with the wrong hair color or handbag. It feels petty and immature, not to put too fine a point on it. At best, it is a formidable thing designed to shame people into submission. In reality, what it does is chase people back into a steakhouse defeated, angry, and defensive.

To all of that, I offer you my personal perspective:

My goal in becoming vegan is to make sure that my own corner lives morally and justly. Beyond that, I want to spread excitement and provide realistic solutions to as many people as I can to help alleviate the suffering of animals, the destruction of ecological balance, and the poisoning of my fellow Americans. All of these evils are inflicted upon my country by the industry of meat production, and I want to make sure that everyone fighting against that industry receives whatever information, support, and encouragement I can offer.

I will practice and extol the virtues of a vegan diet.

I will avail myself of all vegan products that I find useful, affordable, and of good quality to replace their non-vegan counterparts in my home.

I will live an example of realistic environmental responsibility by recycling my family's refuse and maintaining our personal belongings as well as I can to prevent waste.

I will champion organic farming coops who offer meat and dairy taken from animals who were raised well and offer them up as options to the omnivorous friends and family who will not stop using animal products.

I will be kind to and encourage any and all new vegetarians or vegans I meet. I will praise their efforts and be tolerant of whatever approach or belief they have that led them to being part of the solution...even if it doesn't look anything at all like my own.


  1. Great post, Amy! I've been a vegan educator/activist for nearly 20 years and I have heard this kind of response from new vegans many times.

    Activists waste far too much time debating about who gets to call themselves a vegan or an animal rights activist. Effective advocates for animals should be supporting everyone who is making any effort to reduce their animal use. And we should be more focused on making a difference for animals, not the 100% purity of our own lifestlye. Have you read this essay on activism by Vegan Outreach?

    Thanks, too, for your nice comment on my blog (about the Thanksgiving menu). I'm looking forward to following your family's vegan adventure!

  2. Well, thanks for reading it! My largest "thing" with the blog was the idea that if people were watching will be that much harder to slip in this first flush of transition. I'm a lapsed vegan several times over, but this one feels permanent because I have my family with me on it this time.

    I have not read the essay from your link and will do that.

    We will appreciate any encouragement or advice you have. In fact! Since you are a nutrition advisor, I would love to see anything you may have written in the past about complete nutrition for young vegan children. So far, it seems pretty easy to stay complete. My daughter ends up with so much dirt in her mouth from playing outside, that I don't think B-12 is an issue, but all the same, I would love any information you know of on the subject.

    Have a great weekend.

  3. Amy, this is the section on feeding vegan kids from my website. And I would definitely make sure that your daughter is taking vitamin B12. Don’t depend on dirt!!