Thinking of all the people you know and love who don’t ascribe to veganism, and who thus consume copious amounts of animal products, can be overwhelming. You may wonder: How can they not see that it is wrong? On some level, most people probably do understand that it is wrong, but they feel that eating meat and animal byproducts is a necessary evil, or they hesitate because of the stereotypes surrounding vegans.
It’s important to remember that most of us who weren’t born vegan gradually became so. There was a time when we knew that what we were doing was wrong, yet we continued to do it. Others may go vegan or vegetarian for a period of time before reverting back to omnivorism, never quite eschewing the merits of an animal-free lifestyle, but feeling that “it’s just not for me.”
But there are many people who are at the stage of contemplation who may never leave it. These are the folks for whom gentle reminders of the existence of reasoned vegans is most effective in pushing them over the edge.
Vegans get a bad rap, and some of it is undeserved. Part of the reason we are stereotyped and “othered” is because of the way we approach nonvegans. Using emotion-laden language, shame and disgust as a method to guilt those around us into going vegan is not working. I’m talking about the Direct Action Everywhere people who barge into restaurants and scream about how the chicken they’re eating is like the pet hen they have back home.
Anyone who has taken a course in public health knows that this is ineffective, even counterproductive.
We need to keep in mind that most people grow up in households where meat is consumed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like religious beliefs, culinary practices can help one stay connected to their culture, their family, their home.
This is not to say that it is okay for people to cause suffering to animals just because they grew up that way. What I am saying is that to most people veganism is odd. It takes a careful and measured analysis for one to conclude that veganism is a moral imperative. One has to be able to separate themselves from their roots and look at the merits of veganism objectively. That is not easy to do. For people like me, who lived the first 20 years of life eating meat every day, it’s more likely than not that they won’t change their behavior.
What I’m getting at is that we need to temper our expectations. This goes doubly for vegans who for some reason are especially aggressive toward vegetarians. We need to meet people where they are at, and provide them with reasoned, measured, rational conversation instead of hyperbolic guilt-tripping. We need to remember the choices we made when we decided to go vegan — the choice to endure awkward social interactions, the choice to experience more frequent inconvenience — and realize that others may be hesitant to go vegan because they see these sacrifices, not because they don’t understand that animals feel pain.
We also need to realize that the image we put out matters a lot. When PETA made a stink about Obama swatting a fly, that hurt the cause. People see vegan activists and equate those particular people with veganism. It’s an error of cognition, sure, but it’s one we need to be aware of.
When we understand how many people want to be vegan, but not “vegan,” we will be more compassionate — and more effective — in our advocacy. There are people who are on the edge of making the switch, who need to be shown the diversity of thought in veganism, who need to be shown that we are not in the Cult of Nutritional Yeast.
Because in the end, ineffective vegan activism means more dead animals.