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?