It was around two months ago that I pulled up in front of my small local grocer's just as it was starting to sprinkle. I was on the way home from an hour-long bike ride on the dirt and gravel trails around my city and had stopped to pick something up to throw into a salad. Radishes? Scallions? It had rained earlier and a long narrow puddle had formed alongside the curb where I was hitching up my bike to a lamppost. I squatted to thread the lock's cable through my back wheel and noticed a flutter in the puddle. A large moth was flapping madly and, without skipping a beat, I reached out to scoop him up out of the water. He continued to flap and flap and I cupped my hands to shelter him from the breeze which had picked up and I observed him for a bit. One of his wings was jagged and so I couldn't tell if he was just too wet to fly or if he was, in fact, seriously injured.
A little girl ran over and I looked up to see her mother following, smiling. "She wants to see," she told me. I lowered my hands and the girl looked and asked if he was alright. I told her that I wasn't sure and her mother waved her away. As I stood up, the breeze caught him and blew him out into the street. It had all lasted less than a few minutes. I finished my errand and checked my Facebook messages and posted a status update about my encounter. Although I'd felt sort of compelled to share the brief experience, I also felt a little apprehensive about sharing it after I had done so. Mostly, I had this niggling feeling that someone -- likely one of a couple of non-vegan friends -- would no doubt take a poke at me to garner some likes or laughs. And? Someone obliged.
I'm not super thin-skinned. Having grown up in an extended working class French-Canadian family that included a lot of older male cousins, being teased is old hat to me. I don't even remember what the words used in his poke had been. What was written seemed an attempt to use "Operation Moth Rescue" to paint me as being a soft-hearted "flaky vegan". Another non-vegan friend quickly "liked" the poke... then another. A few more pokes ensued, woven through the thoughtful comments left by those vegan friends (and a couple of closer non-vegan friends) who'd understood my impulse to reach out -- such a simple gesture -- to scoop up a fellow being.
I usually shake my head and respond with an attempt at humour when I become the subject of someone's gentle ribbing. Over a decade as a vegetarian and a smaller handful of years as a vegan have left me dodging barbs, attempting to slip off the radars of more than a few workplace lunchroom clowns, hearing the periodic "plants feel pain too, you hypocrite" comments, being told each and every rare time I catch a cold that my immune system would be stronger ''if only I ate meat'', et al. Every once in a while, I find myself smiling that sort of "You're an asshole, but it would just be too unbecoming of me to dismantle your assholery right now" sort of smile. If you've ever been sucker-punched by someone about your veganism at an inappropriate time and it was obvious that that individual was just trying to be a bully and to make you squirm, you've no doubt worn that very same smile.
But then there have been those gentle pokes from well-meaning friends who may very well be just teasing the way they would tease you about any other story or subject, whether or not it's related to veganism or animal issues. For years I would just smile and shrug, mostly because I'm generally a non-confrontational person and found deflecting less stressful than asserting myself and then merely being told that I obviously couldn't "take a joke". The thing is that these mostly well-meaning friends have not experienced those less-than-gentle pokes vegans get from other friends, coworkers, family or even strangers. They don't taste the hostility in the mean-spirited anti-vegan articles that often show up in mainstream media, saturated with mistruths and ridicule.
As a blogger and as someone who's been involved in online activism for a while now, I've heard again and again from new vegans that the most difficult part of transitioning and settling into being vegan for them has involved dealing with other people. It's most markedly alienating when its people who are -- or were -- loved ones who become antagonistic. Sometimes it's not so much that those loves ones are consciously disrespectful or deliberately antagonistic, but that their words just end up thrown on the pile of all of the rest of the negativity we sometimes encounter from others. And sometimes those words smart more simply because they're from people from whom we expect validation rather than humiliation. The truth is that for those of us who have come to a point where we have chosen to reject participating in the inherently brutal exploitation of others, veganism is a matter of life or death. Tease me about the ABBA on my iPod. Kid me about the piece of kale stuck between my teeth. However, please don't attempt to undermine the seriousness with which I build the ethical framework within which I live my life.
I was on the tail end of a couple of weeks of what had felt like almost persistent ribbing and had ended up in a couple of ridiculous -- and exhausting -- debates in the days leading up to "Operation Moth Rescue". When that (later) self-professed well-meaning non-vegan friend decided to take a public poke at me on Facebook, I felt disrespected. I also felt that all of my fellow vegan Facebook friends had been disrespected and that I had allowed this to happen again and again by not addressing the taunts and pokes which had begun to increase in frequency and insensitivity. I wrote the following :
It's funny how some non-vegan friends will take gentle digs at my veganism, knowing that I blog about it, knowing how serious I am about it, knowing that many of my vegan Facebook friends will read the comments they leave on my wall. I know them well enough to know they're not trying to be mean, but I can't help but wonder where they would draw their line about disrespecting someone else's ethical... stance. If I were Jewish and keeping kosher and talking about it, would they take digs at me for that? If I was against child abuse and writing about that, then what? I don't expect all of my friends to agree with my reasons for being vegan. I don't expect all of them to understand why I choose to cause the least harm I can in whichever way I can and sometimes do things that seem silly to them like rescuing a stunned mouse from a road and sitting on a curb a half hour to make sure he's OK before setting him free, or taking the opportunity to scoop a drowning moth out of a puddle -- or adopting a traumatized skittish cat from the shelter (or fostering/adopting a large number of them in the past, something for which I've been chided by friends and family because it left me "going without").Many of my vegan friends responded with empathy. Many also expressed gratitude (some in private asides) for my having voiced what they too-often felt. Rather than use my post as an opportunity to trigger a dialogue or earnest discussion where we might come to an understanding of sorts, my non-vegan friend expressed that he'd felt censured and stated that he would self-censor moving forward when feeling the urge to share "funny" things. He expressed regret that I had been offended, but with neither an understanding of, nor a desire to understand, why it had been offensive.
Maybe it all seems silly to some, but it isn't to me. I take suffering and death seriously. I take trying to make some sort of difference seriously. It's meaningful to me. This time last year, I made the decision to euthanize my cat Sophie whose asthma became too much for her to bear. This time -- this very week -- six years ago, I lost my cat Monzo to hyperthyroidism and my father to cancer. So I know suffering and I know death. Oh fuck, do I ever know both intimately. I do what I can to alleviate some of it or to disinvolve myself from causing it as much as I can. It's who and what I am and I'm unapologetic about it. I was the 10-year-old kid who scooped up the cat mauled by the collie on the corner and knocked on several doors until an adult would help. I'm now the adult who refuses to participate in any animal exploitation to the best of her ability because this is the best possible life that I can lead -- the life that makes the most sense to me. I don't expect non-vegan friends to agree with everything I do, but I'd like to think that on some level that they could acknowledge that there's some good in this, whether or not they choose to do it themselves.
I had overreacted. I had been thin-skinned and emotional. I had been the stereotypical humorless vegan, even though I had previously always responded with a smile and a shrug.
Hey vegan, can't you take a joke?