Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Flexible" for Whom?

A conversation with a new friend a few weeks ago led to her mentioning a vegetarian she knows. She suggested to me that she views vegetarianism in a more positive light because it is "more flexible" than veganism. It wasn't a casually tossed off comment; she acknowledged that she realized it might be an offensive thing to say to me. I wasn't offended. I lumped it into a general category with some of the other related comments and criticisms I've received over the years, whether directly from friends, family and strangers, or indirectly in articles written by complete strangers (often, but not always, non-vegans) and purported animal advocacy groups.

In all cases, the suggestion is made that it would somehow be "better" if I consumed animal products. The comments from people I know may range from suggestions of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge variety ("Oh c'mon! Can't you just have a piece of this delicious cheesecake? It's sooo good and I won't tell anyone that you had any.") and those simply suggesting that in being unequivocal about rejecting animal exploitation, I am somehow being too rigid or narrow-minded ("Moderation is reasonable. Everything in moderation." "Vegetarianism is more flexible.").

This always leaves me with two questions. The obvious one is something I wish to address in a forthcoming blog post: What does it mean to be "flexible" about an ethical choice like veganism? Perhaps the most important one in terms of understanding why someone would say this to a vegan, however, is to ask: Flexible for whom?

On (Not) Being a Pain in the Ass

Whenever it's been suggested to me that my veganism is too rigid or inflexible, I have always questioned the motive behind the statement. It's significant in terms of how or whether you want to respond to it. For instance, I have had non-vegans bring it up to me when eating arrangements are being planned and negotiated. In those cases, what they've often meant to say is: "Your being vegan inconveniences me."

A few years ago, a former boyfriend and I were on a road-trip through New England, aiming to close the gap between Belfast, ME and Fleetwood, PA within 12 hours. We had a great late breakfast at the Belfast Co-op, but somewhere outside of Boston we got hungry. Without a handy GPS gadget, we crossed our fingers and took an off-ramp and stopped at the first place we encountered. It was a busy and surprisingly vegan-unfriendly soup and sandwich place.  I questioned a cashier briefly about customizing a sandwich, only to find out that none of the bread was vegan. I shook my head in frustration and my ex muttered something along the lines of "this wouldn't be so difficult if you weren't vegan".

I glanced out the window and noticed a supermarket across the parking lot. "Order your food and I'll meet you at the car in twenty minutes," I told him. I brightened up immediately when I spotted a salad bar in the store. I loaded up on vegetables and chickpea salad, then grabbed some chocolate organic soy milk and snacks for the road. "All set," I grinned, sliding into the passenger seat."Easy peasy!"

Of course, it's important to note that all of this -- relatively hassle-free as it was -- could have been so easily avoided had we just brought a small cooler and packed some food to bring along. You see, "Be Prepared" should really be a vegan's motto rather than a boy scout's. A little advance planning takes care of the overwhelming majority of ordinary social situations involving meals.

Have an upcoming date at a restaurant? Have a look at the place's menu on its website and if needed, call ahead. Better yet, suggest a place you already know has delicious vegan-friendly food. Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants are often good bets. If someone invites you over for dinner, communicate your needs well in advance and offer to bring a vegan-friendly dish or two that would fit in well with the meal. This takes the pressure off your host and gives you an opportunity to share delicious vegan food with others. Win-win, yes?

It's fundamentally important that you look out for yourself as much as you can to avoid the easily avoidable. Then, if someone tries to make you feel as if your being vegan is inconveniencing them, you can smile and hand them a cookie -- or the Luna bar stashed in your bag!

Tradition, Rejection, Oh My!

Anyone who's ever spent some time on a vegan discussion board is familiar with the often similar stories from newer vegans about coping with shared family meals. The vegan's opting not to eat whatever non-vegan dish is offered up is viewed as a rejection or rude. "But you used to love my abracadabra animal dish. Won't you just have a little bit of it?" the distraught-looking favourite aunt may say over a shared holiday meal. "Wow, that veganism stuff is pretty strict," your sister may take you aside to stage whisper to you. "Can't you make an exception for Aunt Lovely's abracadabra animal dish? It's (insert holiday of choice here)! She'll be really hurt/offended/upset/forced to take home leftovers!!!"

Parents of teenagers or young adults who go vegan may take things even more personally and feel that the values which they attempted to instill in their offspring were deemed lacking somehow. If meals are shared often, then their parents are reminded of this day after day and there can be friction. All you can really do in cases like this is to either prepare your family in advance about the changes you've made to your diet as a part of your veganism, as well as to reassure Aunt Lovely (or other family members) that it's nothing personal, but that your choices are guided by convictions you now hold following observation, research and meaningful reflection. 

You need never compromise your ethics to soothe hurt feelings. Use your words.

One of These Things (Is Not Like the Other)

I think that in some cases, some of the "won't you just try a little bite?" types of statements are simply a reaction to the fact that your actions demonstrate your having taken an ethical stance that differs from the one held by the other person. (You remember that old Sesame Street song?) Perhaps the other person feels as if his or her own stance has been deemed "wrong" and feels judged and thus a little defensive. Somehow, proof is sought that you have inner-conflict about to bubble over and that you really, really want that cheesy bite of nachos your friend is having as much as your friend does. It's assumed that you must want to be reeled back in. After all, if you do, then that ol' status quo maintained and all is back to "normal".

More often, it's really usually just as simple as the other not understanding how or why you've decided to go vegan -- or (thanks to the confusing messages in mainstream media) what it means to be vegan. It ends up assumed that veganism is tantamount to some sort of self-depriving diet on which you're no doubt miserable, and on which you'd be grateful to be given an "out" to cheat. I've had so many well-meaning friends offer up such "temptations" over the years. I'm convinced that most of them really thought they were doing me a favour rather than trying to trip me up in a "gotcha" moment of weakness.

All you can really do in these situations is to calmly and clearly explain your choices and, if the time and the place is right, how it is that you came to make them. You may not change their own minds about animal use at that moment, but at least you can attempt to get them to understand and to respect your choices. You can get them to understand that you don't really want to have that slice of pepperoni pizza waved under your nose.

It's a good opportunity to get them to start thinking about why someone would view the exploitation of other beings as inherently wrong. Once someone actually spends time pondering what's involved behind the scenes in animal use, they may come to realize that they actually happen to agree -- to have agreed all along -- with many of the reasons which led you to veganism. Very few people could say with absolute sincerity that they would be completely comfortable hurting another animal for no justifiable reason.

Have that conversation. Plant that seed. Be that flexible.