Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Home as a Safe Zone

Transition and Compromise

Before learning about abolitionist animal rights, I spent many years as a vegetarian, slowly shuffling around animal products, but for the longest time with no actual end goal to go vegan. Veganism was a final step, I'd heard over and over again. Any steps taken towards minimizing my use of animal products were great, I told myself. Veganism was for those nutty pro-violence animal rights activists, I told myself.  I was doing "enough".

For several years, I lived with a non-vegan. He was a non-vegetarian who had suggested to me early on in our relationship -- since I did most of the cooking and thus orchestrated most of our shopping -- that he'd be happy keeping our kitchen meat-free, and to continue sampling the variety of other plant-based products I had begun selecting to bring home home. I was snapping up animal-free alternatives to many familiar food products, curious to try them out. I had replaced our dairy milk with rice and soy. I had traded in our household products for more simple things like baking soda and vinegar. Our scrambled egg or omelet brunches soon revolved around tofu and our morning coffee became whitened with Silk creamer.

My partner even agreed to avoid meat when we ate out together. I don't remember how it came up, but he seemed happy with it. However, although he avoided meat, he leaned heavily on other animal products while I found myself shifting more and more towards vegan options. For a long while, even as I found myself transitioning, I was "alright" with his consuming other animal products. It wasn't so much that I still thought that (not) eating meat was any more ethically significant than (not) using other products, but just that I had continued to consume cheese for years after I had stopped eating meat, myself, so the sight and smell weren't viscerally offensive to me. It was ultimately a compromise, although my own consumption habits were obviously changing.

The reality was that he didn't share my evolving views. It may have been convenient for him to just eat and use whatever was around in our home, but if he ever chose to avoid animal products outside of our home, it was mostly out of deference to me. His going through those motions made our cohabitation less inharmonious than it could have been, but convenience and deference don't build an ethical framework. Eventually, when I was not around, he would "treat" himself to burgers, cheese, eggs and ice cream, sneaking them into our apartment when I was out of town, the wrappers and containers in the trash the only evidence left behind of their consumption. The bottom line was that he did not see anything wrong with using others. Me? All I needed at this point was a small push. The chasm between us was about to get much wider.

A "Liberated" Kitchen

It was not long after we parted ways and I had settled in to living by myself that I made the conscious decision to go -- and to stay -- vegan. I had begun listening to the (now defunct) Vegan Freak Radio podcast hosted by Bob and Jenna Torres. I had decided to join its associated online community. I had also started reading Gary Francione's work. Everything became clear to me: How could I not go vegan? Living alone and being the only person filling or emptying my fridge, my closets and medicine cabinet made it incredibly uncomplicated. There would be no more cheeseburger wrappers, empty egg cartons or chocolate milk containers in the garbage can when I returned from a weekend away. There would be no more uneasy feeling that I was sharing space with someone who obviously just wasn't "getting it" and just going through the motions -- someone who had come to regard animal products as treats of which he was being deprived.

From then on, my kitchen was mine. I might find myself sitting across tables from friends, family, acquaintances and others who would chow down on animal parts, but I would no longer have to do so in the space I chose to call 'home'. It had become my "safe zone" -- the one spot in my immediate life in which I would not be expected to regularly observe and ignore others' animal use from across a table. I swore that it would remain so.  No, veganism isn't just a diet, but drawing the line at food felt reasonable to me.

On Defending My Wee Vegan Space

Over the next year or so, I found myself in a couple of situations with guests where I needed to restate and to re-defend my boundaries. The first such occasion involved friends who had come over for a beer and movie night. At one point after we had all had a few, interest was expressed in getting Chinese takeout. "As long as it's vegan," I reminded my friends. I also pointed out that we could easily, easily walk a few blocks to any number of other eating venues if they wanted something else. We decided on some dishes and I went to return some empty bottles to the kitchen as one friend called in our order. When the food arrived, two of the dishes were meat-based -- they had ordered them anyway. "Lighten up!" I was told. I let it go at the time. It was awkward and new to me to assert myself about my veganism, particularly in a sense that didn't specifically involve my own consumption. I vowed, though, that the experience would never be repeated. I felt disrespected.

Over the subsequent few years, I settled into my decision comfortably. The truth is that I don't often have guests and that most of my socializing involving meals revolves around eating out. Exceptions to this have arisen when I've had friends visit from out of town and/or when I've had company stay overnight. I posted on the My Face Is on Fire Facebook page a few weeks ago to ask about others' experience with maintaining vegan homes, and this was brought up a few times by vegans as sometimes leading to awkwardness, particularly when there are young children involved or guests with their own dietary restrictions.

For me, either friends have shown up with food partially-consumed during their trip, or if we have gone out to eat, the issue of what to do with doggie bags has arisen. A scenario that came up for me recently involved a day-trip into another city with someone I had recently begun dating. Our plan had been to head back to my place to watch movies upon our return. We had dinner before heading back and my friend had his Thai chicken dish boxed up to bring with him. Since we had not yet had a conversation about my house rules, I winced and found myself tucking an unwanted bag into my fridge for several hours. I tried to tell myself that it wasn't a big deal, but the truth is that this was the first time in several years that I found myself with someone bringing non-vegan food into my place when I was able to say something about it.

From Single to Not-so-Single

I ended up having "the talk" with the new dating interest, not thinking that it would be a big issue. The result was that he told me that my rule overly-complicated things and that it imposed restrictions upon him that he felt would make our interaction a pain in the ass for him. What if he stayed over and wanted something specific to eat? Did I really expect him to read the ingredients on every single food item he brought into my home? He claimed that he respected the reasons behind my rule and respected my ethical choices, but said that he nonetheless felt that it was "unfair" to him. Very briefly, I considered telling him not to worry about it -- to forget I had said anything. As soon as I found myself thinking it, I became disappointed in myself and never uttered the words. We rarely ate out together after that and things (very, very) soon fizzled as I found myself unhappy that I had allowed myself to be made to feel guilty about having set such a simple boundary in my own home.

Since finding myself going vegan, only two relationships I've had have progressed to a point where cohabitation was discussed as an eventuality. One was with a vegan while the other had been with a non-vegan who'd expressed willingness to compromise and to keep all products used or consumed at home vegan-friendly. With the latter, I felt as if I was revisiting my vegetarian past, setting myself up to deal with trying to pretend that someone who thought that animal exploitation was alright wouldn't merely end up behaving out of deference to me, but we went off on our separate paths for altogether unrelated reasons before we got to dabble. But how would this work moving forward? What about the next relationship?

Many vegans who live in more densely-populated areas than I do have told me that they refuse to date non-vegans. They do so to avoid any of the aforementioned issues. Many cite the difficulty posed in needing to compartmentalize another's speciesism when you find yourself getting up close and personal with that "other". Some go through the motions and get involved with non-vegans, but then come to this decision after finding themselves in increasingly serious relationships and then left faced with irresolvable ethical differences and the ensuing heartache. When I asked about it on the MFIoF Facebook page, the majority of the respondents to my post expressed that they were happily and harmoniously sharing their homes with other vegans. A few expressed satisfaction with situations involving non-vegan partners or roommates, where compromise of some sort had been reached. Some of the respondents were crossing their fingers that their loved ones would eventually "come around".

The thing is that even though sometimes -- not often -- our non-vegan friends, family or romantic interests do come around, but there's never a guarantee. It's incredibly wrongheaded, I think, to try to build a romantic elationship on the hope that the other person will "eventually" change such a significant aspect of his or her own belief system. I received a surprising number of disheartening private messages from individuals expressing sadness and frustration with their own situations. A few were vegans whose relationships with their respective non-vegan partners either were disintegrating or had disintegrated after compartmentalization or compromise had proved to be too difficult.

Would this too, then, be my fate? Is it really that unrealistic to hope that I may one day get to share my "safe zone" -- my home and the kitchen in it -- with someone whose views on speciesism might actually reflect my own? Is it really so unreasonable to think that in this world, where speciesism permeates each and every aspect of our daily lives, there could be a second human can-opener for Eli-cat and Minou-cat who might not balk at having almond milk with his cereal? Someone who might actually insist on it and also insist on his or her no longer participating in the exploitation of others? I guess we'll see.


WritePublishDie said...

It wasn’t far from the time of my becoming vegan that I decided not to allow any animal products in my home. It wasn’t out of an arbitrary sense of personal domain by duly exercising my right as a homeowner, or the principle of personal purity (whatever that means), but because I couldn’t stand the thought of having the remains of helpless victims scattered among my personal effects; I couldn’t face daily reminders of the suffering that those innocents endured just to eventually become a marketable product to be treated by everyone else as normal and common as any other inanimate commodity.

The reason for having such stringent standards comes down to fact that I take veganism very seriously: I view it as the paramount issue facing humankind today. It reflects who we are as a species and what we are willing to do to other sentient species regardless of the harm it causes them. The callous indifference displayed by the vast majority of people regarding this issue of animal use is dismaying to say the least. But I refuse to exacerbate that feeling of horror by allowing someone else to bring their apparent ease at exploiting the weak and innocent into my living space. If I can do nothing else, I can at least do that.

As an atheist and a vegan, I certainly recognize the unlikeliness of meeting someone with like characteristics. Compromise would be an option if it had no ethical bearing; in the case of veganism, it most certainly does. The fact that someone would be willing to partake in the unnecessary death of another person automatically excludes them from my realm of interests. Therefore, veganism would be essential to any of my prospective partners. Atheism, on the other hand, would be highly conducive to a successful relationship -- some allowances could be made in that area such as Buddhism (Jainism would be even better) -- but complete disbelief wouldn’t necessarily be mandatory.

Anyway, how am I supposed to develop a sense of good will for someone knowing full well that they don’t have a problem with hurting others. Call me weak -- personally, I couldn’t stomach it. So whether their omnivorous activities excluded my house or not, it would still be a deal breaker for me.

With friends and family, I simply expect them to respect that I won’t have any of that stuff in my home. So far, that has not been a problem.

As enthralled as I was to have such an ideal spokesperson for atheism as Richard Dawkins when I deconverted from religion, I am just as intrigued by the message of Gary Francione. Especially since his stance (vegan abolitionism) is so contrary to the unfortunate direction the other vegan organizations have been heading. Veganism is intrinsically abolitionist, by definition. They (PETA, HSUS, etc.) have betrayed that message. These groups are going to be in for a big surprise once they realize that all of their unjustified compromises with the animal exploitation industries didn’t lead to a vegan world, but instead to more entrenched producers and more entitled-feeling consumers than even before all of the reforms.

So, in the end, I guess I would rather be alone than be with someone who didn’t share that core value with me. My cynical side informs me that such a position probably precludes virtually any prospect for a serious relationship in the future. Regardless of that, I know myself well enough to know that I could not do otherwise.

As an aside, I wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed reading your blog and look forward to other thought-provoking entries in the future.

WritePublishDie said...

And judging by the enticing dishes you’ve captured in photos from earlier posts (“What This Vegan Eats”), some prospective guy is really missing out on some delicious and healthy vegan fare. I’m jealous of him already. Now go find that lucky vegan!

M said...

Thank you so much for the thoughtful -- and kind! -- comments.

I'm actually strongly considering bowing out of the dating scene altogether at some point in the near future, for reasons reflected in what you've written above. Things to consider over the next while..