Tuesday, December 15, 2009

“Does This Idea Smell Funny to You?": An Open Letter to Omnivores

(Preface to my fellow vegans: By now, if you’ve paid any attention to the semi-regular essays I post here, you’re well aware that they’re generally comprised of critical observations of vegans pertaining to how we relate to the Big Other: omnivores. I hope I haven’t come off as the “supervegan”, or conveyed the notion that I feel myself in any position to lay down the law in the movement, or implied for a moment that most vegans I know are somehow misguided in their approaches to activism. Quite the contrary: most of the people who read my blog are active in media of various types that, frankly, put my puny efforts to shame. A lot of my posts thus far have been preaching to the choir, and I hope that hasn’t been offensive. My approach is born mostly out of my experiences as a very isolated vegan; thus, I relate the methods and thought processes that have been effective, useful, or sanity-saving in my interactions with omnivores.)

Okay, my omnivorous friends, let’s chat.

Most omnivores I’ve met (and considering I’ve never met another vegan face-to-face, that’s no small number) are beset with an ideological xenophobia that is quite disheartening. The single most common response I get to the question “Why can’t you go vegan?” is (after the religious response) something to the effect that “vegans are just too weird”. There is utterly no engagement with the ideas of animal rights, because every omnivore I’ve ever met seems to think that calling veganism “weird”, “radical”, “fanatical” or “liberal” is the incontrovertible logic that leaves the position of animal rights in a logical shambles. Omnivores always seem to get tangled up in some barely-germane issue of the ideological aesthetics, not of veganism, but of vegans. Despite living with a vegan who did not substantially change his personality after going vegan, my parents somehow seem to fear that my veganism means that all their hard work in rearing me in such a way that I am not predisposed to arson and throwing red paint on people has been for naught. After all, aren’t such behaviors “what vegans do”?
Please, let me be the first to disillusion you. What really matters to the good of the movement you are so scared of is not how many fur coats are ruined, but that animals are spared because no one wants to wear them in the first place.

Be honest with yourself -- which kind of vegan are you more comfortable with: the one who, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t articulate his or her stance to you? Or the one who shows you veganism for what it is: logical, doable, ethical, moral, and ultimately, joyful? That’s us. We are vegans. We were once like you; ignorant (willfully or otherwise), happy to be on the top of some nebulously-conceived “food chain” that conveniently left us grinning at the pinnacle, with every conceivable bird, mammal, fish and reptile under us. But the thing is, after sleeping for years, we woke up. We ripped off the down comforter of culture and emptied the hot water bottles of our educations. Many of us paid a price to do so, because getting out of bed lets in cold air of which the still-dormant are not appreciative.

Sometimes, you have a point: we do some pretty weird things sometimes. Yes, there are those of us animal advocates who seem bent on making this whole business as miserable as possible. I know. I don’t like them either. I wish PETA would just stop. I don’t think it’s clever to crow over horses kicking people trying to shoe them. And I do wish some vegans didn’t act as if eating iceberg salad while you eat steak makes death on a cross look like climbing a tree to pick apples.

Still, cut us some slack. Remember, we do silly and even harmful things, just like you. We’re still human; it’s just that we don’t think that fact gives us the right to do whatever we please with the rest of our fellow beings. Cut us some slack: vegans are collectively presumed guilty by association; and omnivores are only too happy to play jury, judge and executioner. It’d be nice if you’d stop.

May we make this perfectly clear? Veganism is far, far more than the sum of its weirdest, whiniest and rudest adherents. For every chakra-aligning, crystal-toting, om-chanting vegan out there, there are 50 who can lay out the perfectly logical, scientific basis for veganism as the only ethical choice. By picking on the disagreeable aspects of vegans at large and extrapolating them to veganism itself (a purely subjective process, by the way), you are doing nothing but taking the easy way out, thinking critically with half your brain. Don’t do that. Veganism isn’t a faith, but we have faith in it. We know that it is both an obligation and a gift; both the right thing to do, but also wonderfully expansive, encompassing all sorts of people, some of whom are not going to make you happy. But so what? Not getting along with everyone didn’t turn you off omnivorism, did it?

This habit of stuffing new ideas into little conceptual boxes labeled “Too Scary/Weird/Radical/Liberal/Anti-traditional to Consider Seriously” is, on the largest scale, what abolitionist veganism is trying to combat in the first place. The conceptual box of “Animals as Means to Human Ends” must be stripped of its gildings: of tradition, of convenience, of apathy, of social acceptability. Because that box, seen in its hard and ugly nakedness, apart from centuries of social sanction, is nothing less than a cage.
It smacks of the worst sort of intellectual laziness, this practice of hopping on the slightest irritating, quirky or offensive trait of veganism and refusing to look past it to the blatant logicality of the idea itself. Remember, if you will, that it’s the ideas that matter. If you don’t like sanctimonious vegans, it’s up to you to be the most unsanctimonious new vegan you can be – start a trend! Just do your judging from the inside out, please.

For every Crown Shakur that “proves that veganism is unhealthy for children”, there are one thousand and one healthy vegan children proving you wrong. For every violent, machismo campaign based on intimidation and belligerent posturing, there is someone who will spend their time (often years of it) to explain the indispensability of nonviolent abolitionist vegan education...and do so in a way that renders the stereotype of “grouchy judgmental vegan” utterly moot.

Do yourselves a favor. Look past the fact that many vegans are left of center politically. Look past the fact that soymilk tastes sort of funny the first dozen times you try it. Look past the hippies at the Whole Foods and the tattooed, pierced punks and look at the ideas – we believe in them and their power to transform so strongly that we’ll let them speak for themselves. And please, please, please, look past PETA. Most of us don’t like them either.


  1. Ughg. PETA gives us all a bad reputation! When most omnivores here that I don't like PETA anymore than they do, at first they are relieved...until they find out the reason I don't like PETA is because they aren't vegan ENOUGH. Sorry, PETA, but giving awards to slaughterhouse designers and exploiting women is not going to gain you any points with me.

    I love this post, Nathan. Your writing is an absolute pleasure to read. I love the point you make about not all omnivores are normal, but people still eat meat. Next time someone tells me that vegans are too weird, I'm going to ask them if every meat eater is normal....great idea!

    Although, I do take a bit of offense at your insinuation that crystal toting hippie dippie vegans can't lay down a powerful and persuasive argument about the logical and ethical necessity of veganism. I'm a bit of an om chanter myself, but my arguments are air tight. We can be both, you know! ;-)

  2. Thanks for reading! I always appreciate your responses.

    And I do genuinely apologize for any offense I might have caused. I meant not to castigate those vegans who lean that way, or even the practice of yoga itself, but rather the fact that it does, for whatever reason, seem to turn omnis off veganism, even though veganism and meditation are not mutually inclusive. I was poking fun, not so much at vegans or what they do, but rather at what omnivores in general seem to always think we do. Again, my bad!

  3. Im not against animal ownership, animals for pets or am I against eating them or wearing them. But I will not put myself in the vegan box for not myself eating them.

    I realize that for the world to become vegan we would indeed run into a severe food shortage. Humans do not eat grass yert the food chain animals spend half there lifes on pasture. There would not be enough grain to feed the world if everyone would be vegans. You also think that vegans are having your food made on a cloud and brought down on a cloud. GET REAL, find out where your food comes from....

  4. I'm pleased to see you don't call yourself a vegan. As well you shouldn't: if you "aren't against animal ownership", you don't belong in "the vegan box" anyway.

    And, how, might I ask, did you come to "realize" that a food shortage on any severity would occur as a result of everyone going vegan? We have (unfortunately) yet to see such a shift; hence, you are in no position to do anything but theorize.

    With regard to the grain issue, I'm afraid you've got it exactly backwards. There would actually be more calories/energy to go around if the majority of humans accessed those directly through primary ingestion, rather than consuming the energy after it has been processed by "food" animals. As well, vegan food sources are far less resource-intensive than raising animals for food; approximately 151 gallons of water to raise one pound of wheat; it takes 435 gallons of water to raise a pound of beef. This info, if you're wondering, comes from that biased bastion of vegan propaganda, beefusa.org. And do I really need to point out the infinitesimal fraction of vegan food sources that grain makes up? Seriously, give me (and the rest of my fellow vegans) a little credit for knowing about those exotic things called fruits, legumes, and vegetables.

    I do know where my food comes from (and nowhere in this post did I even mention clouds), but I am equally aware of where it does not come from: it does not come from the body of a sentient being, condemned to suffer and die for the mere whims and predilections of people who grant themselves the right of life simply on the accident of their species.

    Now, I hope I haven't wasted your time with this response; I've rather an inkling that I've wasted mine...