Friday, November 9, 2012

Speaking Up

Every once in a while, we get (figuratively) slapped on the face, and while it can really sting at the time, the upside is that we are often left with a totally new perspective which can really help us to grow and change.  This happened to me last summer.

One of my blog posts was used (with my permission) by another vegan website.  It was a post I particularly liked, from August 2011, called “Veg*n Activism.”  In it, I cautioned vegans from turning off their friends and family by ranting, raving and starting arguments about the vegan diet, and instead condoned the idea of “compassionate activism.”  I wrote:

“Compassionate activism has three steps:
1.    Never assume that your way is the right way for everyone. 
2.    Set a good example that exemplifies your beliefs
3.    Spread your beliefs using peaceful methods and means.”

Well, one reader did not like step 1, “Never assume that your way is the right way for everyone,” and she certainly let me know about it! When I first got her feedback, I really didn’t agree with her.  I strongly believe that we all have different beliefs, values and cultural differences, and that just because I believe one way doesn’t mean that I should force that belief upon anyone else.  For example, I don’t think it’s right to take another life for my lunch.  However, other people and cultures believe very differently, and who am I to say my belief is better, more ethical, etc?

However, as this reader continued to comment on my blog, she eventually made a point that really slapped me in the face.  Whether or not it’s ethical to eat animals is one issue; whether it’s ethical to eat animals that were raised on a factory farm is another issue, and we all know that almost every animal product on almost every shelf in America comes from a factory farmed raised animal.  She likened factory farms to concentration camps in the Holocaust, which is pretty thought provoking. We are all outraged by the Holocaust, and I would like to think that if I lived in the times of the Holocaust (or slavery, or a similar horrific time in history) that I would be one of the people that marched against it in Washington, and spoke out about it when the topic was brought up at cocktail parties.

However, when people ask me at a cocktail party why I am vegan, I don’t want to offend or force my beliefs on others, so I say something polite about how the factory farms are really terrible, and a meat based diet is terrible for our health and our environment … but I don’t start telling gory stories about the atrocities in a factory farm.  I have always justified this approach by believing that I was encouraging people to try a vegan diet by setting a positive, uplifting example, and not making them want to run when they see me coming!  There is a lot of truth to that way of thinking.  People don’t want to be preached at, and made to feel bad about their current choices.

However, this approach doesn’t necessarily move people to action, either.  If I wouldn’t stay quiet about slavery, why would I stay relatively quiet about the horrific lives and deaths of (literally) billions of animals across the world in factory farms?  Yes, I write books and blogs, I lecture and speak.  I’m not staying quiet, per se, but I am usually preaching to the choir.  People seek out vegan materials when they have already been convinced that they need to seek it out.  I just help push them along and be successful at it.

I think we vegans – and I’m pointing at myself here – need to be further upstream in that sequence, and convince other people that they need to seek out the vegan diet in the first place.  I think, given the magnitude of the atrocities happening to billions of lives every year, we have an obligation to reach out to those people proactively. The question for me is, how do I do this in a way that will open the person up to my information, and not close them down?  To be polite, yet still effective?

I don’t know that I have a good answer, but here are some of my ideas:
·      When someone asks why I’m vegan, I can say, “There are amazing benefits to our health and the environment that come with a vegan diet, but my main reason is that there are some truly unconscionable things that happen in the factory farms.  Would you be open to hearing a couple of examples, or could I suggest a book that you may want to pick up?  I really think it’s one of the most important ethical issues of our time.”  By asking if they are willing to hear some examples and getting their approval before jumping in, perhaps they will be much more likely to be open to hearing the message. 
·      Instead of solely blogging and writing for other vegan sites, perhaps I (and you!) should write and submit articles to mainstream media.
·      Find a way to work into conversations with people that I’m vegan.  Most people will then ask about it, at which point I can then go back to the first bullet point and see how much they are willing to talk about it.

These are just a few easy ideas.  Do you have any more?  Please comment!

I think the key point I want to make is that we really are experiencing one of the worst ethical issues to face our generation.  It’s like a genocide against animals on a billions-of-lives-per-year scale.  Is it okay to stay quiet about it?  I think not.  I think we still need to employ compassionate activism, but focus on the word “activism” – it implies being active, not passive. 


  1. After being a vegan for a year, I have started to find my own vegan voice. I am just so damned passionate about how I have lost weight, feel great (haven't been sick once the past year), love what this means for the animals (to me the most important aspect) and the environment, and even how it has changed me spiritually, that I have no problem sharing. But I do it in a way that doesn't disrespect others and I try my hardest not to be judgmental. I answer every question unless I feel I am being baited and then I have to judge how far I want to take the conversation. I always look at where other people are coming from and start there. But instead of telling people what to do, I make it all about me.

    With my life and actions, I try and impress on people that life as a vegan is joyous, compassionate and very easy to do. I think that can be contagious. I have experienced some great responses and some of my friends are moving towards vegan diets. And I share my food. I have learned to cook and love it. I am constantly giving away food to people who are now asking for more recipes.

    I think telling people what to do, will rarely work. It is making it look so good that everyone else wants what you have. Also, educating myself (as difficult and emotionally sad as that can be) on every aspect of veganism was so important to sharing this with others.

    I have some vegan friends who are very quiet about their choices. This makes me sad. I believe that, if done right, each vegan has the ability to transform other people, just as they were transformed. I think the most exciting thing is not just turning someone else on to the importance of this lifestyle, but knowing that, they in turn, are going to continue to pass on the advocacy.

  2. I've migrated to the middle ground you are seeking in social situations in a number of low key but rock solid firm ways.

    For example, at cocktail parties I socialize with the best but I NEVER consume alcohol of ANY kind for ANY reason. Instead, I ask for a lemon or lime juice spritzer. If a brain dead host is stymied by my request I merely ask for the ingredients and make it myself with everyone looking on. Lots of times some other guests will follow my lead. This makes for a great example. If I am pressed to explain my choice I respond without hesitation.

    Restaurants are VERY competitive. So nearly all of them at least pay lip service to special requests. Since I am paying the bill I feel no hesitation in telling my waitress how to assemble my meal if standard selections are unhealthy. If a brain dead waitress demurs I ask to see the manager to press my case. If he cannot cook I ask to see the chef. In the end, I get it my way or I am leaving to find a better restaurant. I nearly always get my way.

    For private meals I always notify my host I require healthy choices or I'll simply join the feast without eating. Hosts always notice this and this makes my point. If pressed to explain I always respond without pulling punches.

    These techniques make the point that unhealthy food will not be tolerated.

  3. Thanks for this post, especially for the suggested response! I'm working to find my "vegetarian voice" and am more and more convinced that vegan is the next logical step. (thanks for the youtube, video, too!)