Thursday, March 5, 2015

Do Vegans Help or Hinder by Attending NonVegan Functions?

The Vegan Vine
Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell
Last year I attended a childhood friend’s baby shower. It was a brunch affair so other than fruit and plain bagels, there wasn't anything that a vegan (or health conscious person for that matter, especially one having a baby) would want to eat. Not surprisingly, there were lots of animal products: bacon, spare ribs, chicken, eggs, butter, cream cheese, sausage, etc.

I enjoy being around family and friends but have grown apprehensive about being in environments where I know everyone else will be recklessly devouring the flesh and fluids of tortured animals.

In the nine years that I’ve been vegan and twenty one as a vegetarian, I’ve attended many functions where animal foods were present and plentiful. Never one to mince words, I’ve always been outspoken about being vegan and will rarely shy away from a confrontation. But over time, I’ve also learned to pick my battles.

Occasions where animal products are ubiquitous are not new to me, but my guilt in being party to them was, and in some way I felt that my presence at the shower signified (at least to myself) that I condoned the oppressive and cruel actions of others against animals through their animal consumption.

I reached out to my friend Laura, who runs the Princeton Vegan Book and Movie Discussion Club, for some advice. “I have thought about this quite a bit lately," she said. "If we vegans can look at the big picture, we probably have more chance of helping our nonvegan friends and family to think about what they are eating if we are sitting at the table with them than if we stay home. Of course, it is hard to sit around a table with meat, eggs, and dairy once you've made the connection with the animal suffering that was involved.  But if we choose to stay home, who will be there to represent the animals and our planet?  If we can do it, who knows what conversations might ensue, what connections might be made before, during, or after the meal? Even if nothing is said, our food choices tell a story."

Suddenly, it dawned on me that just being a vegan at a nonvegan gathering can be regarded as taking an activist approach. As possibly the sole vegan, I have an opportunity to change attitudes about animal suffering, more so than not being there at all.  My presence alone—along with who and what I make a point of eating and not eating—may encourage others to reflect on their own thoughtless habits. If I were not in attendance, everything would go on as usual and there would be no physical presence of protest. Furthermore, my being there and my refusal to eat what everyone else is eating may make some people uncomfortable, as it should.

I presented this position to another vegan and fellow book club member, Irene, and got a completely different take. She believes that a celebration is not the proper place to discuss the unethical behavior of others and alleges that dancing around it in order to be diplomatic is colluding with those promoting the murder of animals.

I see her point, but I also contended that due to social norms that sanction violence against farm animals and their mass consumption through debased might makes right thinking, most nonvegans are unaware of any unethical conduct or wrongdoing and are more than happy to remain ignorant, which is why I think these events can be opportune moments to inform and enlighten.

Irene went on to say that vegans can make a more prominent statement by simply boycotting an event where their absence is painfully obvious. Here, I think she makes a valid and compelling argument. For example, if a vegan is the guest of honor or a highly anticipated attendee at a nonvegan event, their nonappearance will be plainly felt. This act of dissent can be a real teachable moment as long as everyone in attendance knows the reason for the vegan's absence.

The old adage, "this is how it has always been done," doesn't cut the mustard. It wasn't acceptable for Jim Crow segregation nor was it admissible for the old boys club in keeping women out. Similarly, custom and/or "treasured" traditions involving food are not moral justifications for causing animals suffering and death. 

It got a little heated during the aforementioned baby shower when one of the women seated at my table told me that her daughter (who wasn’t present) doesn’t eat meat but likes eggs. She said this with pride as if this were cause for praise. I took the opening to explain some of the cruelties involved in egg production. With no good retort, she gave the same reply that most nonvegans typically give to end the discussion—the self-justifying line about everyone having the right to make their own choice. Fellow vegan rabble-rouser Ed Coffin explained why this perversion of personal liberty is invalid. “I hate when people dismiss veganism as a ‘personal choice,’" he said. "It’s not, it’s a moral obligation. Would those same people also assert that murdering someone, or beating a dog, or raping a child is a ‘personal choice?’ When your actions directly impact the lives of others, it’s no longer a simple ‘personal choice.’ ”

Robert Grillo, president and director of Free from Harm, put it plainly: “’Personal’ choices don’t have victims.”

“Anybody who has ever been vegan or vegetarian knows that it gets you in a lot of situations where you are expected to justify yourself,” said Christin Bernhold in an interview with the Weekly Worker. “People either ask with genuine interest why you are vegan, or they react aggressively. Naturally, there are moments when you don’t want that conversation again. Still, it always triggers a debate.”

I’ve come to realize that as much as vegans may dread activities that have us being surrounded by animal oppression and exploitation, sometimes just by being there we can be agents for mindfulness and change. Some interactions we have with others may be confrontational and some may not, and some may go better than expected with people who are genuinely interested in aligning their values with their behaviors—not just saying they care about animals but backing it up with ethical deeds. It may often be awkward or socially suicidal to talk about what people are eating while they’re eating it but it is, nonetheless, imperative. We should not shy away from interactions simply because people may become uneasy. We would not pacify someone who causes a child or a cat to suffer, so why do we want to make those who abuse farm animals feel comfortable? 

During these occasions I may look on people's plates with sadness and discouragement, but I never feel compelled or encouraged to partake in their feast. Unlike them, I choose to put my heart—justice and compassion—before the interests of my stomach. Rather, these events make me feel even more empowered to educate others and be the best vegan I can be. If, on the other hand, nonvegan events make some vegans feel like outcasts or socially pressured to conform with others, then perhaps the best thing for them and the animals is to avoid nonvegan events altogether.

It is neither compulsory that vegans attend every nonvegan happening, nor should vegans avoid every nonvegan event. I trust that, like myself, vegans will stay informed and figure out how to eloquently address conversations surrounding animals in their own time and will decide what each situation calls for.

In the end, the possibility of changing minds and behaviors regarding animal consumption is not possible without connections and conversations. Our presence alone invites others to become more aware of farm animals and, perhaps, to question their own participation in animal suffering. Who knows, you may stumble upon that one person who has been meaning to go vegan for some time but just didn’t know where to start. And then they met you!


cathy said...

Outstanding commentary Bethany. I am sure every single vegan can relate to the event scene you described and attended. I see it as an opportunity to educate.
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Great post Bethany.

I think it is important for vegans to be at non-vegan events. Our presence alone could make a difference, even if we don’t open our mouths. As vegans we are aware how easy it is for people to dismiss the atrocities that happen to farm animals. A large part of the reason it is so easy for them is that they don’t see it happening. Out of sight out of mind. If it is so easy for someone to dismiss this amount of cruelty imagine how easy it is for them to dismiss vegans if they don’t see or know any vegans. By avoiding non-vegan events we are sending a message that we do not fit into society. That message will not help our cause. We need to encourage potential vegans, not give them another “reason” to keep the status quo. Let them see how happy & healthy we are as vegans. Some of them might just want to learn about it.