Vegan Moral Superiority and Other Misunderstandings

Since moving to Portland 4 years ago, I have only traveled back to California once to spend Thanksgiving with my family. There are many factors that go in to my decision to stay in Portland for the holiday: the hassle and expense of travel, the possibility that weather negatively impact travel, having to be away from my community here, the typical stress that comes with the holidays and family, and my desire to participate in an all-vegan Thanksgiving.

Every year, Sherri and I thoughtfully consider what we will do for Thanksgiving: stay in Portland, or go see my family in Sacramento. I don’t see my family a lot, so each year this is a tough decision. Mostly due to some other family circumstances, we briefly decided to spend this year’s holiday with my family. We discussed the negative feelings that would arise from participating in a non-vegan Thanksgiving. We decided that we’d bring enough vegan items from Portland (rolls and pies from Sweetpea), and would cook some of our favorite dishes so that we had plenty to eat. This seemed like a reasonable coping strategy.

However, as we got closer to Thanksgiving week, I realized I was not looking forward to our trip at all and that it had everything to do with our having to celebrate with a dead turkey and dead pig at the family table, amongst other non-vegan items. I realized it was just not possible for me to celebrate, or even to feel fully connected and present under those circumstances. I talked with Sherri about this and she agreed. I called my mother shortly afterwards and told her we’d be staying in Portland to celebrate a vegan Thanksgiving with friends. At the time, she seemed to understand.

Up until now, I had always assumed that my family understood and respected why I was vegan, even if they are not themselves vegan. When I visit, my mother makes sure to buy things I can eat and makes vegan meals. If we go out as a family, we go to a restaurant where there will be plenty I can eat. Between this and never having been interrogated about my veganism, I assumed that my family understood where I was coming from.

But conversations I’ve had with family members since telling them I couldn’t enjoy or, in good conscience, participate in a non-vegan Thanksgiving have left me feeling like they don’t understand at all, and really don’t respect or value my veganism as I would like.

As I’ve mention before on this blog, being vegan is an essential part of my moral, ethical and spiritual life. It is a necessary part of my commitment to the five precepts of not harming, lying, stealing, misusing sexuality or intoxicants. Being vegan is part of what makes me a whole, integral person. It is not a lifestyle choice any more than choosing not to murder or be violent towards humans is a lifestyle choice. It is not something I choose to turn off when it is inconvenient.

Being vegan, in and of itself, has been very easy for me. I am fortunate enough to live in a Western, industrialized and highly affluent society where whole grains, legumes, nuts, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables are abundant. I can easily find shoes and other clothing items that do not use animal-derived materials. There are times when I am directed by my doctors to take a medicine that is probably not purely vegan (as this is impossible given how pharmaceutical r&d works). I make exceptions here, when alternatives aren’t available and when my health is at risk. Luckily, these circumstances do not arise that often.

In talking with my family this week, a few things came up that really bothered me. I want to address those issues here, because they have come up in my conversations with other people as well, and I think they are representative of common misunderstandings between vegans and omnivores.

Misunderstanding #1: Vegans are judgmental of omnivores’ decisions. They feel morally superior to omnivores.

I have no doubt that some vegans feel this way about omnivores (and non-smokers about smokers, and non-drinkers about drinkers, etc.). But, by and large, the vegans I know, including myself, do not. The process of how to behave in our world is a highly complex, intimate and individual thing. I don’t ever pretend to understand all the issues that a single person has to contend with in navigating their own life. The decision to be vegan, like any other fundamental belief, has to be made from within. I don’t expect anyone to become vegan because I am, or because of something I say.

That being said, I do not believe veganism is a matter of opinion and I do believe it to be a moral issue. Do I believe it’s wrong to treat animals as property, raising and killing them for food? Yes, I do. Do I believe the world would be better off if more people were vegan? Absolutely. There really isn’t a question about that. It would be better for human health, for our environment, and certainly for the animals themselves.

Having beliefs and being consistent in my actions around them does not automatically constitute me judging those who do not share those beliefs. I also feel the world would be better off if no one misused tobacco, or alcohol, or heroin, or cocaine. But it doesn’t mean that I find users of any of those substances to be bad people.

The goodness of a person is the sum total of their life experiences and decisions and it isn’t something I can ever know or judge and I don’t even try.

Misunderstanding #2: We’re not forcing you to eat non-vegan food, so why should it bother you to be part of a meal where other people are eating non-vegan food?

There are a couple of parts to this.

The first is logistical. It’s annoying to be at a party where you can’t eat everything. Not sure what this is like? Next time you’re at a party or potluck, pick one or two dishes at random and limit yourself to eating only those. Most of the time, that’s what it’s like for vegans, if we’re lucky. And if we’re really lucky, both dishes are something we actually would like to eat. It gets annoying very quickly to have extremely limited food options and to always have to vet every dish before you eat it. When it comes to Thanksgiving, I want to be able to fully partake in the feast and enjoy a bit of *every* dish.

The second has to do with feeling like an outsider. When I sit down to a meal that includes non-vegan items I immediately feel like the odd man out. I am the weird one with the weird diet rules and I can’t fully participate. This can be compounded by how often the other guests will talk about how delicious the non-vegan food is, or otherwise draw attention to it. I cannot possibly share in this experience and I can’t possibly ignore it either. If you are someone who has had other experiences where you feel like an outsider (e.g., you’re part of another minority group, you feel like the black sheep in your family, etc.) these feelings of otherness and exclusion can be further compounded.

The third has to do with the physical and emotional discomfort that arises during shared non-vegan meals. The odor of cooked flesh and of dairy milk and cheese is unpleasant to me. The sight of cooked flesh is upsetting. Whereas an omnivore might see cooked flesh and think “yum, delicious,” I can only think about a life that’s been unwillingly sacrificed. For reasons I am still trying to figure out, the magnitude of this discomfort is proportional to the significance of the shared meal.

Misunderstanding #3: You’re letting your veganism get in the way of connecting with family and friends.

This one really baffles me.

First off, why is it never phrased as “you’re letting your omnivorism get in the way of connecting with family and friends”? Because of their minority status, vegans are assigned all of the responsibility for any disconnect that is created between themselves and their non-vegan relatives and friends. I don’t think this is fair and I would like to see more omnivores examine what they can do to make the vegans in their life more comfortable. If you have a vegan relative in your life and you’ve never considered having an all-vegan Thanksgiving for them, I think you should.

Secondly, I have plenty of both vegan and non-vegan friends with whom I related very well. The omnivore friends that I get along with well understand and respect my veganism. They do this by never asking us to compromise on having non-vegan items in our home (even when we host). They understand when we don’t accept invitations to events where non-vegan items will be celebrated. Most of all, they are confident enough in their decision to remain omnivores that they don’t feel threaten or judged by my being unequivocally vegan.

Misunderstanding #4: Other vegans I know are not so stringent, why are you?

This is an impossible question to answer since I can’t know the minds and hearts of other vegans as if they were my own. But I can take some guesses as to what’s going on.

For the purposes of this exploration, I will assume that the vegans of which you speak are truly committed vegans (e.g. not just when it’s convenient), that they are vegan in more than just diet and that they are vegan because of their desire to recognize that animals are deserving of rights. This is the kind of vegan I am, so it’s really the only situation to which I can speak.

The first thing that comes to mind is that these vegans are not yet confident in their understanding and their ability to talk about the moral foundations of veganism. It is a complex topic, and a minority view at that. It is not easy to talk about to a mainstream audience, one which is often to be hostile towards the idea of veganism from the start.

The second thing that comes to mind is that the person may not want to make themselves a target for ridicule, ostracism or interrogation. Vegans are often asked all manner of questions about their diet, what they do and don’t eat and how they get proper nutrition. These questions can be invasive, and even when they are not, it gets tedious to field the same questions over and over again, often from those who are largely ignorant about nutrition. The questions frequently feel judgmental rather than exploratory. Moreover, we live in a culture where vegans are regularly made fun of in the media and pop culture and this is often in our minds when we make the decision whether or not to identify ourselves as vegan and committed ones at that.

The third, and more serious issue that comes to mind is that people act in ways that are contrary to their personal beliefs all of the time. History is rife with examples of this. I don’t quite understand why this is, but it happens enough that it’s clearly a part of human nature. I recently read something in Slate about the Penn State sex abuse scandal that shed some light on this particular issue, so I’ll share it here:

“[non-action/non-reporting is] a reflection of a universal human tendency to look out for oneself, and to preserve hierarchical institutions about which one cares and upon which one is dependent. It’s also a reflection of the nearly boundless capacity to ignore inconvenient facts and to make excuses for those within our own circle.”

It takes a whole lot of energy and moral courage to be vegan in the first place and even more so to disrupt the institutions upon which we rely. I can understand why many vegans are not yet ready to go this far and may appear to be okay with living in a non-vegan world.

Conclusions and Further Reading

I feel a bit better getting that off my shoulders. I hope that my family (and others) will read what I’ve written and understand a bit better where I’m coming from.

One last thing I want to say is that while more and more omnivores are thinking critically about where their food comes from, I don’t think many have bothered to read up on animal rights in order to understand what motivates the vegans in their life. I certainly hadn’t done this before I was vegan. Consider reading up on the issues if you really want to understand what makes your vegan tick. Here are some good starting points:

P.S. I’d also love to hear from other vegans who have gone through similar situations with your family and friends. How do you cope with shared non-vegan meals. Do it bother you? Why? If it doesn’t bother you, why not? How did you communicate to your loved ones about your veganism and it’s importance in your life?

15 comments

  1. Brennan Novak

    Thanks for the excellent post. While, being a former vegan and current black sheep in my families, I can relate and empathize with almost all of your points- some of the dynamics you mention are totally inescapable within large celebratory groups- the available food options as well as people talking about how delicious meat is… I always found the snide comments (about how I ‘am missing out’ and such) were always the hardest parts, and perhaps were big contributors to what eventually wore me down from totally abstaining from consuming animal foods and partaking in meals where animals are consumed.

    I suppose unlike you I never had a hard time with the smell of certain meats (I never did and still do not like the smell of beef), but chicken soup, or bacon smells good to me and always did despite it’s sources. Currently when I think & focus on animals suffering, factory farms, the imagery, the empathy kicks in and makes me want to become vegan or at least vegetarian again- but, the animal foods I do consume I research the sources, quality of life, etc… and I try very hard to only eat food which comes from good sources with good ethics (which i realize in the the vegan / vegetarian world there is no such thing as a “good source for dead animals”).

    I currently eat a low dairy, low meat diet, but I oddly do feel (overall) that I am healthier and more balanced than when I ate a grain / heavy vege / vegan diet. To be honest, it is confusing and a bit frustrating, as it is not as clear and cut and dry as I wish it were- I wish I could optimize the code of my head and heart to have zero cruft, but it’s currently a bit mucky but the result oddly makes my life feel more healthy and enjoyable. Currently I am gluten free and families and people seem to argue with that lifestyle less for some reason so I assume a large of why I am not vegan anymore is that I have picked and choose what battles I wanted to fight in my life and my current configuration works best for me thus far. I totally applaud and am grateful to people (like you) who do manage to live the 100% vegan lifestyle as I do believe all of humanity would be better off living closer to it.

    • Christie Koehler

      One thing I didn’t mention in my post, but that your comment suggests is that not everyone immediately thrives on a vegan diet. While I think most people can do very well eating no meat or dairy, I recognize that it’s more difficult for some than for others. I’m glad you’ve found something that works for you, and by having a low-meat and low-dairy diet you’re already doing a lot more for animals than most Americans.

  2. Kasi

    Great article! I’m an omnivore (keep trying to shift but having issues with the sig other). I just finished hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at which half the attendees were vegan, so this post helped me see from a different viewpoint. I was surprised that making dinner vegan (with the exception of the bird) was easy! Everything else simply required the swapping out of butter, bread, and milk. I really thought it would be more pricy/complicated. Thanks for the post!

    • Christie Koehler

      Glad you found it easy to make so many dishes vegan! I’m sure your vegan guests appreciated it. I think in Portland we have a lot of great and affordable options for veganizing most any dish.

  3. Beth (linettasky)

    [This turned out long and rangey; I apologize. I have a lot of opinions.]

    The first vegan I knew well was my friend Martin. He since has started eating eggs (although no other animal products). I honestly don’t know why he is vegan. I know that he avoids dairy products because he doesn’t like the way they make him feel, and I know that he was a vegetarian long before he went vegan, but I don’t know why he stopped eating meat. Under Martin’s influence, I’ve eaten vegan for many small periods of time (multiple days being the longest). He lives at a house where friends gather every Sunday for dinner, and generally Sunday dinner is a vegan meal, although someone often brings cheese as an appetizer. Martin’s veganism has never bothered me. He is a fantastic cook, and he’s introduced me to all sorts of great foods.

    On the other hand, a woman I know from college and am Facebook friends with went vegan towards the end of college, and she is obnoxious. 90% of what she posts online is about being an animal rights vegan, and almost all of that is putting down non-vegans for eating the way they do. Things like, “I don’t understand how vegetarians can justify their hypocrisy.” I find her self-righteousness and sense of moral superiority distasteful, and I’m not interested in listening to what she has to say. Like the evangelical Christians I grew up with who made me feel bad for being bisexual, she makes me feel bad for eating meat. It’s exactly the same feeling — shame, and a desire to stay closeted and avoid the person who is making me feel bad.

    Martin is the person who made me feel like eating vegan could be a pleasant thing. The woman from college makes me feel like I’m going to hell every time I enjoy a piece of cheese — but she doesn’t make me want to stop eating the cheese. Generally, I think vegans like her are more obvious, and that’s what people make fun of. (On a whole other rant, Martin eats whole foods. The woman from college eats a LOT of processed, prepackaged food. If I saw eating vegan as a diet where I had to eat a lot of packaged food, I would be seriously put off.)

    If you were my sister, and you said that you were unable to go to Thanksgiving because you could not feel comfortable celebrating with a non-vegan meal, I would be really sad. I would miss you. It would probably feel like a personal rejection, and I’d wonder if you still valued our relationship. No matter how eloquently stated, in my experience, the statement “I can’t be at your house because [of a huge moral disparity]” feels like a personal rejection — our values differ, and they differ enough that you can’t even be around me. I might know rationally that you don’t mean it that way, but my emotional brain is a twitchy rabbit. It wouldn’t much matter why; it could just as well be that you can’t go because my partner smokes and that makes you ill. I’d still probably feel rejected.

    That said, you aren’t rejecting your family of origin, you’re rejecting the food. Have you ever hosted your family for a holiday? Have you ever offered to make dinner for them? Not, “I’d like to make you a vegan meal and see how you like it,” even if that’s the underlying idea, but “I’d really like to have you to break bread with me and celebrate Thanksgiving/Solstice/New Year/my birthday/my anniversary.” I know your family is far away, but would something like that be possible?

    But also, just keep the lines of communication open. It may take a long, long time for them to understand. Taking the slavery example from the Abolition Approach FAQs, there were many years in this country where people felt that it was okay to treat other people as property. It took a very, very long time for that to change — and, actually, the perception that people of certain races aren’t quite human is still present for a lot of people. I know that, as much as I try to respect the views of the animal rights vegans I know, I still can’t bring my brain around to their perspective. That doesn’t mean I never will; it means I haven’t yet. I’m open to it! It’s possible your family is, too — but it’ll take time.

    • Christie Koehler

      @Beth I agree that there are vegans who do not eat healthfully and who are obnoxious and alienating in their speech about veganism and animal rights. It’s unfortunate that the behavior of a minority of vegans is taken by omnivores to be representative of the entire movement. These are difficult and complex issues to talk about and I think it takes a lot of practice and patience to talk about them without resorting to ad hominem attacks (which it sounds like your one college friend does).

      To answer your question, I have hosted my family for meals, both at their house and mine. This year I invited my brothers to Thanksgiving before we had decided to go to California. I have never (explicitly) invited the whole family because I’ve always thought it clear that it’s too much for my entire mixed family (step father and brothers) to come all the way to Portland, and that my mother would want to see them during the holiday as well. Sherri and I typically host Thanksgiving when we are in town, and I think most people who know us know that anyone is always welcomed. But I will make it a point to communicate that to my family for next year (even though I don’t think they’d take us up on the offer).

  4. Julia Martz

    Great article. You managed to articulate everything I’ve been noodling in my brain this month. I too have opted out from holiday dinners with the in-laws because of the judgmental and snide remarks intended to bully me. Indeed, that’s what it is, bullying. Life’s too short and I finally accepted that I don’t need the drama. There are other vegans in the same boat and we can all have our own little vegan-orphan holiday pot lucks, together.

  5. Kelly

    This is a wonderful post, thank you so much for sharing.

    Thanksgiving for me is a special kind of hell. This year, I had to excuse myself from the kitchen (while my food was cooking) because I was nearly in tears when my sister’s boyfriend started preparing the turkey.

    Nobody is ever even willing to try the food I prepare (and I always prepare enough for everyone). Once they find out it’s vegan, they’re not interested, even if it’s something like pie (I made a killer boysenberry pie this year, I’m the only one who ate it)

    I love my family, but they can be very hurtful, and it makes get-togethers much more stressful than they should be.

  6. Garret Merriam

    I used to but heads with my family over this all the time. One year I even walked out on Thanksgiving in protest. I’m not sure exactly what changed, maybe I’ve just mellowed in all respects, maybe they’ve gotten better at understanding me, maybe I’ve become calloused by the other horrible things I’ve seen, but for whatever reason it hasn’t been a problem for a long time. I have moments where, at the table I’ll look down at their food and be struck with the thought ‘that used to be a thinking, feeling being, and now it’s dead because of these people that I love’. Sometimes my mood will drop, sometimes I’ll brush it off and move on, hard to know what makes the difference. I think it’s helped by the fact that, on the whole, I trust that I can have a conversation with them on the topic and they will listen to me and at least for the most part understand me, even if they’re not persuaded enough to change their habits. Since I know I can have that conversation I don’t feel like I have to stand on principle in order to let them know what I feel.

    • Christie Koehler

      I’m glad to hear you’ve arrived at an easier place. I do think the feeling of being heard and seen for who we are makes a huge difference, and I’m sure it is a factor with my family.

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  8. MyVeganJournal DotCom

    We stayed home this year too! I’ve been vegan for almost 25 years, and like you, I just wasn’t in the mood to sit at a table with a dead bird. Just too sad, and the thought of it was really starting to stress me out. We stayed home & had a wonderful time, just my husband and I, and it gave us the opportunity to bake vegan food all day! I made my very first seitan roast from scratch and it was fantastic! I also got to watch the live~streaming of turkeys running around at Farm Sanctuary :) So peaceful!
    Happy Holidays!

  9. Marisa

    I can completely relate to your post. But I’m one of those vegans that won’t say anything for fear of being judged or picked on. When someone asks questions about it I tend to become hostile myself because I’ve dealt with so much already from the people I lived with (family) especially my mother. She had once said I became vegan to make her life harder. If you could email me, I’d love to chat with you some time.

  10. Melissa

    I know I’m a year late to the convo but I really appreciated this post. Going through a tough patch with my omnivore relatives around the holidays. If nothing else, this validated my feelings and made me feel like less of a weirdo for sticking to my convictions. Thanks!