Monday, 22 April 2013

Sitting in Judgement: how to tell people that you're vegetarian

I know all you meat-eaters think that giving up cheese is a gigantic, oppressive cross that vegans have chosen to wear.  It's not.  Life after cheese is not that hard.  I rarely ever even think about cheese.  But what is often truly difficult about plant-based living is dealing with the social aspects of being vegan or vegetarian.  New vegetarians are often surprised at the reaction they receive from other people when announce that they follow a different diet from the norm.  These reactions can range from mild disrespect to mockery, or from vitrolic insults to uncomfortable silence.  Of course, it's not all bad, sometimes people are just curious, interested, politely baffled, or completely non-plussed.

I don't think I know any vegetarian hasn't had someone challenge their eating practices in a disrespectful way.  And this situation is strangely contrasted by the perception that vegetarians are judgemental extremists who simply can't stop themselves from shoving carrots up the noses of all the meat-eaters they encounter.

Why on Earth would anyone care, let alone react badly when someone tells them they're a vegetarian? I've come to believe that I understand the reasons for these reactions.  The key word up there is judgemental.  Obviously, no one likes being judged.  The realization that we don't always control other people's perceptions of us makes most of us feel panicky and defensive.  Most people have a general desire to be seen as compassionate, kind, and intelligent, and it's rude awakening whenever we realise that other people have come to different conclusions about us.

But is the label of Judgy McJudgerson a fair one to slap onto vegans?  Are some vegens judgemental?  Sure.  For a long time, 10 years or so, I would have said no. I genuinely hadn't encountered it.  But since becoming vegan, and entering online VeganWorld, I've noticed a species of vegan that are absolutely up on their high, pleather-saddled horses.  And this behaviour is completely misguided.  None of us are perfect vegans, and very few of us became vegans or vegetarians the second it occured to us there might be something unethical about eating animals.  And it's not exactly appealing behaviour that's going to convince others that veganism is a club they really want to be part of.  But these vegans don't speak for the majority of us. 

Truthfully?  I'm absolutely a judgemental person.  I judge people all the time.  It's something I'm working on doing less, but I have to admit: I love judging people.  And I usually find people who don't share this past-time kind of boring.  It's fun.  But I am really not a judgemental vegan.  I don't care what you are or aren't putting in your mouth.  Believe it or not, I don't spend that much time thinking about your eating habits.  Do I want everyone to stop eating meat, dairy, and eggs?  Yes.  Absolutely.  Do I waste my time judging individual people for eating meat, dairy, and eggs?  No!  I have bigger potatoes to fry, and I spent years ignoring the truth of the dairy and egg industries myself.

What does "judgemental" mean anyway?  We all make negative moral judgements about other people all the time, and plenty of these judgements are useful. If I said that I thought we needed to take some more time to understand the reasons behind Stalin's behaviour and not be so quick to label his actions as "evil", I wouldn't arrouse much support.  Because it would be idiotic.  Saying that child abuse, genocide, murder, sexual assault, and not give your seat to old ladies on the bus is wrong is a judgement.  But a useful one.  One that lets us know what kind of behaviour we don't want to be involved in.  What we really mean when we call someone judgemental is that they make a negative judgement about someone that is unfair.  We take a slice of their behaviour or beliefs and using it to make a wider negative judgement about their worth as a human being, or their intelligence as a whole. 

Put into perspective, if I say that I believe eating animals is morally wrong, does that make me a judgemental person?  I don't believe that it does.  If I say that I believe that someone is an immoral person based soley on their consumption of animals and their secretions, does that make me a judgemental person?  Yes, I believe it does.  And I don't honestly hear the latter judgement come around too often in vegan and vegetarian circles.   I'm perfectly aware that someone who eats meat might donate plenty of his/her time to other charitable or social justice calls.  Maybe they spend hours letting friends cry on their shoulders after their friends have been dumped.  Maybe they call their grandmother every weekend.  I don't think I'm a better person than a meat eater is.  But I still think eating animals is wrong.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's perfectly possible to disagree with a moral position or lack of position that another person has, without thinking that they are an immoral person.  I don't have to agree with everything someone says or does in order to think they are a kind and intelligent person. 

Sooooooooo, what does all of this have to do with vegetarians telling people about their veggie munching lifestyle? I think understanding why people react against vegetarians is hugely important for us.  and I think it's important for us to have the confidence to talk about these issues without feeling that we are being judgemental.  And I think it's even more important that vegetarians keep telling people that they are vegetarian.  Who benefits from you keeping quiet?  The animals?  Even the people who are supposed to be fighting for their rights are too afraid to speak up for them.  You?  Does it really sound reasonable that you should have to hide something important to you so that someone else doesn't feel momentarily uncomfortable?  The other person in the conversation?  I guess if you stay quiet they don't have to feel momentarily uncomfortable.  But one of the most common things I hear vegans saying is that they wish that had known all this information before.  They wish the vegan they lived or worked with 10 years ago had spoken up.  They feel pain at the idea that they contributed to cruelty so often for so many years.

So my advice for speaking up and telling people that you're vegetarian?  Tell them you're vegetarian.  My advice for answering tactfully when people ask you why you're vegetarian?  Tell. Them. Why. You're. Vegetarian.  I'm so tired of hearing other vegans start threads on vegan forums asking how to "handle the conversation" with their co-workers, or their family members, or their spouse's relatives about the reasons for their veganism.  As though they are supposed to squeak out their reasons quiet as a mouse and then rock the other person softly and comfortingly back to their happy place.  Just tell them!  But tell them YOUR reasons for becoming vegetarian.  You don't need to tell them all the reasons under the sun for veganism, or tell them why they should be vegan.  Tell them what made sense to you and moved you the most.  If you are talking about what matters to you and what moves you, how is that judgemental?

If they react against your calm explanations of your own beliefs, recognise that you can't control their reactions.  Recognise that they may feel judged and that may not be your fault (assuming you really didn't shove those carrots up their nose).  You don't have to engage with anyone you don't want to.  You can walk away from the conversation if they react disrespectfully.  You can even point out to them that they are reacting disrespectfully.  You end here.  They begin there.  You don't control their reaction.

We live in a world in which people don't feel comfortable telling other people that they have opinions different to the norm.  We live in a world where people don't feel comfortable telling other people that they actually act in accordance with their beliefs.  We live in a world where it's considered normal and reasonable to believe one thing, and behave in the opposite way.  Fix that.  Speak up.