Are you still a vegan?
The question comes up a lot. It’s intended to be supportive, and could even be called a tacit expression of admiration. What it leaves me feeling, though, is frustrated by a common misconception of why people might choose not to eat animals. I’m not in any way criticizing those who ask the question. I’m only using it as a pretext for strategic thought about how to present our message. In any case, the question is, if you are vegan, one you’ve likely fielded. Happened to me on Thursday.
The immediate implication behind the question is that one would only become a vegan to serve ephemeral, human-centered goals such as weight loss or reduced cholesterol. While I realize that many people do become vegan for these reasons (and, in many cases, end up gaining weight), my sense is that they are the minority. Still, for those who become vegan because we’ve recognized, though whatever means, that the animals we currently eat have basic moral standing, these reasons are essentially irrelevant, if not sort of mildly insulting to the ethical mission we’re undertaking.
For what it’s worth, my answer to the question is invariably “why wouldn’t I be?” And then I’ll say something to the effect of “I care too much about animals to eat them” or “the way we treat animals is awful.” The simplicity of this justification, I’ve noticed, can be disarming. Perhaps because I write about these issues a lot, or am employed as a professor, or occasionally toss off some fancy-pants language, there’s a sense that my choice, if it’s not for my health, must be for some obscure reason that my supposed access to some rare realm of expertise could only explain. But it’s not. Even my nine-year old daughter gets it. When her friends ask her why she doesn’t eat meat, she tells them, matter-of-factly, “I love animals.” And it’s true.
When we advocate for veganism, or when we have a chance to explain it to a non-vegan, we would be well advised to recall the elegant simplicity and intuitive truth of this justification. What amazes me when I encounter ethical arguments for eating animals is how utterly tortured they can be. In light of the “animals matter” or the “I love animals” defense, the muddled nature of these defenses makes perfect sense. Defending animal consumption, because the counter argument is so piercing in its clarity, requires some smoke and mirrors.
It seems that we could do a much better job sticking to our ethical guns (bad phrase), when the opportunity to do so presents itself. We have to take what we opportunities can without being an asshole about it. Advocating for a way of eating that runs counter to the roiling rapids of convention is hard enough work on it’s own terms. Nobody wants to be told that they’re doing it wrong. Nobody likes to think you’re saying you’re more moral than they are. Nobody likes to be told that they have to give up grandma’s meatloaf.
But it they ask, we should at least give them the ethical meat of the matter.