I had an upsetting encounter lately with someone I consider a good friend. This guy is a vegetarian and has been for many years. I remember being surprised when he told me he didn’t eat meat (this was back when I was ignorant) because he didn’t look like someone who didn’t eat meat, or he didn’t look like the type of vegetarian person I had conjured in my head; rail thin, weak, feminine, short (?) etc. Even looking back now, I don’t know why exactly I had this negative idea about how vegetarians looked. I thought they didn’t eat very much and had these silly “moral” ideals that they would soon grow out of. I viewed vegetarianism as a fad, and considered veganism extreme, something for hippies and animal huggers.
Obviously, now I’m wide awake and understand that past me was not only ignorant, but I was also incredibly defensive. We as humans try to be good people (most of us, anyway), we don’t want anything bad or evil or unjust associated with us. When someone accuses us of injustice, or infers that we are unjust, we reject that. We get angry, we want to defend ourselves. This is a completely normal response, and it’s one that vegetarians and vegans see often from meat eaters. They don’t want to face their part in the mass slaughter of sentient creatures. Which is why they come up with all sorts of excuses and reasons for why they could never give up meat or cheese, or how non-meat eaters are unhealthy, or how they need animal protein, how they love bacon more than life itself, how they’d eat a baby or a dog on a desert island if they had to. The list goes on and it’s always the same.
This is something I’m familiar with, and I understand the thought process behind it, or the lack of thought process, rather. I was right there just a few months ago. I was making all of these excuses. So has almost every vegetarian and vegan at some point; we all thought we could never give up meat. And we did, and life went on.
The thing that I’m not familiar with, however, is a vegetarian using the same defence mechanism that so many meat eaters use. A vegetarian lashing out at me because they still eat dairy and eggs and I don’t. Last week I went out for a few drinks in the pub with my friends. I don’t drink very often and I had a few pints of Bulmers Original (which is not suitable for vegans) without thinking to check if it was vegan or not. It was a mistake on my part, but I didn’t notice until my friend pointed it out. He said, quite aggressively, that I wasn’t a vegan anymore because I drank it and I was really taken aback by his sudden outburst. Most vegetarians and vegans have, at some point, accidentally consumed something that contained animal derivatives or used something that was tested on animals, and so on. That doesn’t mean they’re not vegan or vegetarian. Nobody can guarantee they don’t make a mistake once in a while, we’re all human after all, and holding vegans and vegetarians to that kind of impossible standard does nothing to encourage meat eaters to give up meat because they view that kind of thinking as irrational. Which it is. Veganism is about trying to cause the least amount of suffering possible.
After an awkward conversation where he made a bet with me that I wouldn’t be vegan in a year (he’s already lost), he left and I was left wondering what the hell just happened. I hadn’t done anything to shove veganism down anyone’s throats, I didn’t antagonise anyone, I didn’t chastise him; nothing. He just lashed out. And I soon realised that he was doing exactly the same thing that meat eaters do. He was being defensive due to insecurity. From his point of view, his friend has been a vegan for just the past few months and intends to continue being a vegan, and as a vegetarian, that makes him feel defensive because he still eats dairy and eggs despite knowing that they’re both exploitative industries. So when I made a mistake, he jumped on it to try and prove that I’m not a vegan to make himself feel… better? Superior? I don’t know, but I do know it comes from a place of insecurity.
I spend a lot of time on vegan and vegetarian communities and forums online, and I’ve chatted to my fair share of herbivores. There are so many stories of vegans who were vegetarians for many many years before transitioning to veganism, and many vegans who decided to transition overnight. Everyone is different! Just because somebody makes a change faster than someone else does not mean that the other person’s efforts are null and void. By being a vegetarian, my friend is doing so much to help the environment and is actively working to save animal lives, to consciously try to live ethically, and that is nothing but a good thing. I think his insecurity and defensiveness comes from a select few in the vegan community who shame people who don’t live up to their standards of veganism or who are vegetarian instead of vegan. This, to me, is such bullshit and it’s exactly why people get turned off by vegans and the vegan community.
Trying to shame vegetarians into being vegan is a terrible approach. It’s like shaming a meat eater; they end up turning a deaf ear to what you’re trying to say and instead only see that you are attacking them. That is not the way to get people to transition! Spreading knowledge and facts is the way to get people to become vegetarians and vegans. Discussing morality is a way. Gently pointing out hypocrisy is the way. Not telling someone they’re a monster. We as a vegan community need to look more carefully at ourselves and the way we speak to other people because, at the end of the day, we were all in their place at one point. We were all totally ignorant, we did use silly excuses and reasoning to justify meat eating and we understand the mindset meat eaters have. Ultimately, just like the way we behave towards animals, we should also treat our fellow humans with some empathy and respect.