BEING VEGAN: A personal essay about veganism

being-vegan-personal-essayI 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

image: rian_bean (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)
Posted by × April 29, 2012 at 9:39 AM

12 Comments

  1. The biggest issue for me in the whole politics of eating is the divide that’s created among people solely based on their choice of diet. To be vegan or non-vegan shouldn’t matter. Like any labels I wish they didn’t even exist. But of all the unnecessary labels, to have to use the word vegan is pretty sad. What one chooses to eat is a personal choice that doesn’t hurt anyone else, yet some people blow it up into such a big issue.

    I wish people didn’t get so annoyed at vegans because it just contributes even more discord to this world. The only upside I see is that when people single out vegans and get defensive it at least causes them to think and talk about veganism.

    • Bonnie Shulman says:

      Hi Breathe:

      I agree that discord between people isn’t pleasant. Yet that is the end result of being an advocate for animals. I want to put a stop to the wholesale torture of animals on factory farms. To do that, I have to take a stand. I have to stand up and declare myself for animals. I have to campaign about the abuse, so that more people know what goes on behind those walls where pigs and chickens never see the light of day their entire lives. Speaking up for animals makes some people uneasy, and they get angry. On the other hand, some people, meat eaters included!, appreciate the stance I take. I say meat eaters too because even good people who eat meat don’t want animals to suffer as they do in the current conditions on factory farms. Watch any video by Mercy For Animals and you’ll see what I mean. It’s horrifying.

      Thanks for your response. Take care.

      • First, I appreciate that you’re willing to stand up for animals. It takes courage and it’s a thankless job, which is why so few do it.

        As I mentioned, I see the benefit to standing up for animals and I don’t discourage that. What I was getting at is how can we advocate while maintaining peace? How can we raise our communication to a higher level?

        Saying the V-word pisses people off. It always has… maybe always will because people just don’t like to think that they’re in the wrong. Defensiveness is one of the ego’s most potent tricks. It has the power to disprove even the most solid logic. And so, enemies are built. The point is not even to build “allies” because that too is separation. We’re all humans doing the best we can with the resources we have at work. So the question is how do we advocate for animals by overcoming this ego battle? For me, that just means loving them, being in nature, connecting to them and sharing my love for them. Now I don’t believe that this is making a world of difference or anything. The whole issue of animal rights is no easy situation to deal with and I’d just like to think of different ways of doing things.

        • Bonnie Shulman says:

          Breathe, you ask the million dollar question. And you hit the nail on the head: advocacy can lead to icky feelings between people! I once passed by a demonstration against wind farms, and I asked someone with a picket sign why she was against wind farms, and she kind of spat in my face with disgust at my question. Naturally, I am ALL FOR windfarms now (haha – I actually was before the incident).

          May I recommend a great book? It’s my advocacy bible and I have a review on Amazon.com about it. I think it really addresses what you talk about – we have to change the world for animals without alienating people. I am not perfect, I admit, but I hand out vegan food at work and leave easy vegan recipes in the servery. That helps! Food is good! I’ve even got some people to try out Meatless Mondays, without even asking them to do so. They just thought it was cool to give vegan food a try. They love it now.

          Here’s the book:

          The Animal Activist’s Handbook: Maximizing Our Positive Impact in Today’s World by Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich. These are the top advocates that I know of, and I respect them so much. They are brilliant people who understand that we must not lose touch with people in our animal advocacy. Again, they are the masters. I bow to their wisdom!

          Thanks for writing!

          Bonnie

  2. I don’t hate anyone because they are vegan. But the vegans hate me because I insist that eating meat is natural for humans. Being vegan is a choice. Eating meat is a choice.I respect yours but do you respect mine? Your article is again full of accusations.
    Up to today I never got an answer to the questions: How does a vegan think about a Lion eating a Zebra? How does a vegan think about a cat eating a mouse or a bird? And why do they think different about a human eating a cow or a chicken? Humans are omnivores since millions of years. And please spare me the – how did you cal it “The most ridiculous argument ” that our bodies, our teeth etc are not made for meat. We eat it since millions of years for heavens sake! When do people accept that eating meat is our natural food? Yes we can chose to not eat meat. Yes I do accept that. But it is a choice! And if you want to tell me that I hurt animals by killing them then you have to accuse a Lion as well.
    And by the way, dairy is not our natural food. I agree with you on this. Not because we steal it from the mothers but because it is not natural and that’s why so many people are dairy intolerant. It is natural to be weaned off dairy products. But we do not have a great number of people who are meat intolerant. Because it is part of our natural diet.

    • Bonnie Shulman says:

      Dear Peter:

      When a lion eats a zebra I am distressed at the images of the kill, but I let it go because that is the way of the lion world. They cannot grow plants and raise crops. I am not angry at the lion for having its dinner. I find it pretty ridiculous that you would even think that. Also, people are not lions, so why do you even bring that up as an argument?

      What do I think about a cat eating a mouse or bird? if it is a domestic cat I’m infuriated, because there so many farm animals are being slaughtered already, the by-products of which go into animal food readily available at stores. The decrease in the number of North American songbirds has been attributed largely to household cats.

      If meat is a natural part of our diet, why do so many people thrive the minute they give it up? Also, why are so many of our hospitals stuffed to the gills with people requiring heart surgery? Only a minor percentage were born with heart defects. Among the rest, many gorged on such meat products as steaks, bacon, sausages and chicken fingers, as well as high-fat dairy, until their bodies rebelled.

      I see my article has made you very angry. If this doesn’t prove my point then I don’t know what does. Thank you for writing, PeterNZ.

    • Bella514 says:

      Question for you – would you be able to go right now, pounce on a cow, pig, etc.’s back, chomp through their hide/skin with your teeth to their muscle and eat it without cooking it? If your answer is NO (which it should be if you are human), well then there is your answer.
      Next, just because something has been done for millions of years, does not mean that it is right. Humans have done MANY things for millions of years that have been considered atrocities (sadistic Roman gladiator games, slavery, etc.). Were those things okay?
      These are just excuses. Believe me, I understand, as I made excuses my whole life…Done with that!

  3. Human beings have a variety of options when it comes to getting protein into their bodies – rice paired with lentils, chickpeas or any kind of bean forms a perfect protein. There is also tofu, and a lot of soy products are viable alternatives for those who are not allergic to soy. We cannot educate a wild animal such as a lion, to grow, harvest and ferment soybeans. Or chickpeas. This argument is silly. Lions hunt based on instinct. Human beings are more advanced (arguably) and therefore, we can use our more advanced brains to make food choices that do not cause harm to other living things. We have many instincts that we can overcome, and that we have overcome in order to be able to live in “civilized” societies.

    Eating the flesh of a living thing is a personal choice that kills an innocent creature. There is nothing inherently wrong with your choice. But don’t get defensive when someone points out this fact.

    Fact: You choose to place your tastebuds and your personal enjoyment over the life of another living creature, because you view yourself as more advanced and therefore entitled to consume flesh.

    You do not need to feel guilty about your choice. Just be honest about it, and accept the moral consequences. That’s all. Meat may have been eaten by humans since the dawn of time… but historical precedent is not, in my mind, a valid excuse by which to continue justifying a behaviour.

    In a similar vein, women have been treated as property since the dawn of time as well. Men are more powerful and indeed women did not always hold legal personhood status throughout history. So we should continue in the same vein, no? But this argument doesn’t fly today. Why? Because we know better, so we can act better. The same goes for the meat argument.

    Your dietary implications may not be clean and pretty, but if you’re going to stand firm in your position, stick to it 100%. Do not waver, and do not speak about naturally being an omnivore. Just because you CAN eat it, enjoy it and thrive on it, doesn’t mean you SHOULD continue to do so. If we are enlightened beings, as we all like to claim to be, we should be held to a higher moral standard. If we do not want to hold ourselves up to that standard, that is fine.

    P.S. Before you begin to assume things about me I will tell you that no, I am not a vegan. Why? Because I love eating fish, and cheese on occasion. But I don’t apologize for it. I know I can live without it, and I know that I am making a personal, selfish choice in the face of cruelty and suffering.

  4. Bonnie Shulman says:

    Laura, your reply is so beautifully heartfelt, and I read it with great interest. I love your honesty. Part of my animal advocacy is just asking people to be honest with themselves about the choices they make.

    I also think you make a critically important statement that really hits the nail on the head. I’ll repeat it here:

    Just because you CAN eat it, enjoy it and thrive on it, doesn’t mean you SHOULD continue to do so.

    Thank you for contributing such wise words to the conversation, and all the best.

  5. This is so inspiring! I am a loyal vegetarian and have been for almost 9 years, I really feel deeply moved by it! I’ve thought about becoming Vegan but on a strict competitive national training programme it could be difficult, but you’ve definitely persuaded me to give it a go!
    Thank you for your thoughtful insight!

  6. I just wanted to voice my support and appreciation for this article. With your stance and mine, putting the word “vegan” out in the world is going to make people angry. Anything different makes people angry. But if that anger ever leads to them making sure they understand the implications of their actions, it is worth it. It is worth it if they think.

    I have had a close friend of mine tell me that he honestly believes in mind over matter. He also said he couldn’t ever stop eating meat. That self-limitation is stopping the human race from doing great things. WE must think through our actions, because we are the only species who can. Do what is right, because we are able.

    Can people really be okay with eating a being that loved its mother? I always hypothesize a world were people could speak to animals and I ask the meat eater “Tell that animal to its face that it was born for the purpose of dying and feeding you, only for a single day, before you eat its children.”

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