I wear a necklace that spells out the word vegan. People peer at it and ask me, “Are you vegan?” It seems like an odd question, but people find vegans odd. When I respond that I indeed am a vegan, the comeback reply I dread most is when the person lists the animal products they eat, and how they couldn’t live without chicken or cheese.
In the cut and thrust of talk about food, I’ll then respond that the chicken is the body of an animal who wanted to live. That cheese is made from milk, a nutritious sustenance meant for a mother to give her newborn calf. If the baby cow was male, he was slaughtered for veal.
The slaughtering of baby animals is a good way to end what could escalate into an uncomfortable conversation neither of us really wanted to have.
Few of us are born vegan, and those who choose to become vegan usually do so following a personal epiphany, perhaps in the wake of a health crisis, or after meeting and befriending a farm animal whom one might formerly have considered food. That was my route. I was 40 before I understood that I was living a lie, claiming to love animals on the one hand, and eating them on the other. Today, veganism brings me peace of mind and a nice circle of friends.
I find it regrettable that vegans are so widely disliked in the mainstream media, but I’m not surprised. Our insistence that animals are neither objects nor ingredients is a perspective that people find challenging and even subversive. Our choice not to eat or wear animals challenges people to think about their own relationship to animals. Most people love animals. Most people don’t want to think about animals being gruesomely treated and slaughtered. Faced with a vegan, the non-vegan has to think about that. Or else thrust such thinking into the depths of the psyche, and quick.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, on a weight-loss campaign to shed some of his 300 pounds, hurriedly dismissed two PETA-sponsored vegans who brought him a basket of vegan treats during one of his weekly weigh-ins. He wouldn’t even look them in the face. He abruptly dismissed a question from a reporter about veganism and retreated into his office. He skipped a subsequent weigh-in.
His Honour could have relaxed a little. Veganism is a way of life that is not forced on anyone. We don’t come to your house with flyers or make robo-calls. We’re not funded by some giant corporation. We’re people who care deeply about animals, and about the people who have nothing to eat because so much of the corn and grain grown in North America goes to feed livestock, not hungry children.
Vegans mean it when they say they love all animals. A recent vegan advertising campaign showed a dog or cat facing a pig or chick, and underneath was the caption: “Why love one but eat the other?”
The questions we raise bother people. One commenter on a social media forum wrote:
“Those who don’t eat meat, I can empathize with you but you also need to get off your soapboxes.”
I relish the irony of being told to get off my soapbox from someone who is firmly planted on theirs. Non-vegans have been doing more than their fair share of “preaching” for centuries. In our day, McDonalds and Burger King push their beliefs and products on me dozens of times a day through TV and newspaper ads, and coupon flyers stuffed into my mailbox.
The Canadian government forces me to subsidize the meat and dairy industries through taxation. Non-vegans have preached and promoted their point of view on such a large scale that they have successfully hidden the cruelty of the meat and dairy industries from public view.
When I’m responding to an item in the newspaper about the subject of veganism, someone in the next comment box will inevitably ask me why I bother with animals when there is so much human suffering in the world. I love that question because it allows me to explain that I see animal liberation and human liberation as being intertwined.
The great physicist Albert Einstein famously said: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” He also held the view that not eating animals would have a physical effect on the human temperament that would benefit the lot of humankind.
The vegans I know care about injustice, enslavement, and oppression, no matter what the race, ethnicity, or species of the victim. When someone argues with me that human problems take precedence, I have to turn the argument on its head and ask not only what that person is personally doing to alleviate the suffering of human beings, but why they feel the heartless exploitation of other animals should continue even so. Humans are hurting, so kindness to animals must therefore be abandoned?
The most ridiculous argument that I hear is that plants have feelings too. To which I quote the answer provided by vegan food writer Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, who asks, in an episode of her podcast devoted to what she calls excuse-itarians—“Really? Really?”
Animals are sentient and plants are not. Sentient beings have minds; they have preferences and show a desire to live by running away from those who would harm them, or by crying out in pain. Plants respond to sunlight and other stimuli, and apparently they like it when Prince Charles talks to them, but they are not sentient; they don’t have a mind, they don’t think about or fear death, they aren’t aware and conscious.
Finally, there’s the argument of last resort: that eating flesh is a personal choice. If it were my personal choice to kick and beat you, would you say to me “that’s your personal choice”? Being slaughtered for food is not the personal choice of the billions of animals that just want to live their portion of time on Earth.
Being vegan has changed not only what I eat and wear, but how I cope with the anger, outrage, dismissal and verbal abuse of others.
I’m learning, as I go, to let it all go. I speak out where I feel my words will do the most good, and if all else fails, I’ll simply smile and say, “Don’t hate me because I’m vegan.”
Bonnie Shulman is a writer and editor working in Toronto. She earned her Master of Arts degree at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. You can follow her on Twitter at @veganbonnie.