On his Facebook page, Professor Gary Francione posed an interesting question: Have you talked to anyone about veganism today, and if so, what was the response?
This got me thinking about all the times I’ve discussed veganism with other people and all the responses I’ve received.
By far the most pleasant was a woman I met during a workshop I was attending through work. It was the lunch break, and I sat reading a book. Most people in the class were leaving, heading out to buy lunch, but I had brought mine and was settling in for the hour. A woman started talking to me, and I mentioned, for some reason I can’t recall, that I am vegan. She seemed very interested and started asking me a lot of questions—not the angry, defensive, bullshit questions you’d expect from non-vegans, but honest, thoughtful questions that belied a sincere interest.
I doubt very much that lady became vegan, but it was so great just to sit and talk with someone about it and not have to defend it or argue over it. She was such a pleasant person to talk to that I regret not getting her name. I have not seen her since.
One of the worst responses came from a friend. We were on our way to have dinner in a restaurant when she found out that I’m vegan. I was still relatively new to it at that point and had yet to encounter all the bullshit responses, so I was in no way prepared for the tirade she unleashed on me. Looking back, I’m still a bit taken aback by the vehemence of her response. It was out of character, and I understand now that I hit a nerve with her.
She trotted out one of the usual arguments: “Look at these canines” (baring canines and pointing at them to remove all doubt). “These are the teeth of a carnivore. We are meant to eat meat”. At the time, unfortunately, I had no prepared response, and as I am not particularly quick on my feet, I was left speechless. Now I know what to say about how human physiology actually shows that we are not “meant” to eat meat.
She followed that with questions about how I expected to get….you got it, protein and calcium. Again, as a new vegan unprepared for this sort of assault, I didn’t answer well. I did have some knowledge, but I didn’t make a spectacular argument. Now, of course, I’d respond with “Where the hell do you think an elephant—who is bigger than me by quite a lot—gets his or her protein or calcium? Not ALL animals eat meat, ya know.” Yep, I’d have shut her up right quick.
She also criticized me for ordering the vegetable burger for my meal—she said that there was no way I could ever be totally vegan because I couldn’t always know what was in every food I consume, and how did I know the bun was vegan? What if it had eggs in it? I had already talked to the restaurant about this—and the veg burger was clearly marked on the menu as vegan—but I was tiring of her ranting and simply said, I want to do the least harm possible. That is all I’d say on the subject, so she finally stopped haranguing me.
Interestingly, years later this lady very graciously offered to bake me a bunch of vegan cupcakes to serve at my wedding reception! She makes amazing vegan cupcakes, and she seems to have accepted me and my veganism.
I’ve come to understand that when faced with “the vegan in the room”, people react in a defensive manner because they are suddenly confronted with someone who is living according to his or her principles, and the vegan serves as a reminder that it can be done, if you want it. The vegan in the room, without meaning to and simply by being there, reflects back to non-vegans all the ugliness of what they are part of. The vegan in the room reminds them of their own shortcomings and deficiencies, without ever having to say anything. We shake people up and force them to think about things they’d really rather not think about, which makes them uncomfortable, guilty, angry and defensive. It really is quite remarkable.
Those are two ends of the response spectrum. I’ve also experienced the middle response, or the mildly interested response—they care, but not really. They get that it’s important to you, so they don’t attack you, but they don’t really want to know a whole lot about it. They’ll accommodate you because they are pretty good folks, but they sure as hell aren’t interested in being vegan. They don’t ask a lot of questions because they really don’t want to hear the answers.
I’m not sure which response is worse—the uber defensive one, or the “meh” one. At least the defensive folks are thinking, even if their thinking is misguided and misinformed.
Personally, I’d love to see more responses like the first one I described.