Thursday, October 15, 2009

The power of a word...


Self-doubt can be the worst kind of curse. If I were the sort of person who could and would curse my enemies, I would probably zap them with the plague of self-doubt. (Thankfully, I possess neither the power nor the ill will to afflict another with my damnatory abilities.) There are people I deeply envy who, when others express apprehension about their talents or goals, do not let those doubts cloud their self-esteem or judgment. They take it in and they let it go. I am not normally one of those people: if someone expresses apprehension about an idea of mine, especially at a critically early stage, the whole thing can collapse into a heap around my feet, irreparably punctured and deflated. Something was different with Chicago VeganMania. I’m going to try to figure out why.

Vegans can be our own worst doubters. We often anticipate resistance to our message so we try to shroud what we are advocating of by never uttering its name, like the combination of consonants and vowels itself is a boogeyman that will send the average person off shrieking in terror when spoken. So we call refer to the word as something else, like "plant-based," or we cover it in something that we think will be more palatable, wrapping a cushion of apology around it, saying things like, "Well, it won't happen overnight. Don't worry," as though we’re talking about compulsory amputations or mandatory checkpoints on every street corner. I think we convey that there is something to fear when we use such tactics, even when our intentions are good. I do appreciate the advantages of a more dialed down, nuanced approach to advocacy, and I also see that the one-size-fits-all school of communication is pretty much destined to be a failure. This doesn’t stop me from believing deep down inside, though, that we can be direct about the change we want to see in the world while still being friendly and receptive. We are complex people, who need to convey information to other complex people: shouldn't we aim for fluidity?

Our recent event, Chicago VeganMania, is making me think about all sorts of things. Nothing really new, just making me more convinced about things I already suspected. One thing I’ve been thinking about is the sheer audacity of naming an event we were hoping to draw lots of curious omnivores to with the words "Vegan" and "Mania" right there in the name. We didn't call it something more vague like "VegFest," we didn't try to masquerade it as something it wasn't, pulling a bait-and-switch on the public expecting some nebulous “green” event. The boldness of laying all our cards on the table was part of the plan and part of the charm: there were no illusions about this festival from the beginning. Thus people came - and they came in droves, a long line snaking out the door and around the block all day - with open minds and warm spirits.

At the beginning when this idea was first hatched, there were at least two full meetings devoted to just debating the name. There was a party of one who felt uneasy about the word "mania," feeling that it made light of mental illness (to which I say that I appreciate the consideration but we all need to lighten up a little) but the word that seemed to make the most uncomfortable was the one that we all ultimately are trying to get people to be more comfortable with: vegan. There were people who have learned to try to sneak the concept in by making it softer and squishier (and insert the squat and meaningless expression "veg" in its place) or eradicate the word all together. "What if people are intimidated?" was a common concern. "Will we only attract the converted?"

My gut feeling from the beginning was that the name Chicago VeganMania was a stroke of genius, as I’m nothing if not humble: we could be bold (no one questioning what it was all about) and self-effacing (making light of the "vegans are obsessive maniacs" stereotype) at once. When we are direct but friendly, we send those we are communicating with the message that we trust them and they can trust us to treat them as intelligent and reasonable beings who do not need coddling. It wasn’t like we were shouting with megaphones from the rooftops, “Go vegan now, you stupid schmucks!” We were simply direct about the fact that this was an event with a distinctly vegan orientation. This built an environment of reciprocated trust between the omnivores and the vegans, which was a major hurdle we didn’t have to try to dismantle later.

We brought to the day the attitude that we had nothing to hide and everything to share: thought-provoking speakers and conscientious businesses, wonderful non-profits and delicious food. Who wouldn’t want that? No excuses, no fear, and, as such, there was little resistance and tons of goodwill. Thinking back, I remember of the lovely craft fair that originally sparked the idea behind Chicago VeganMania: the organizers did not try to conceal what it was about, anticipating correctly that there was a demand for homemade, one-of-a-kind goods. They did not create messaging that conveyed, “Just try this for a day and if you don’t like it well, you can still buy your mass-produced, sweatshop-created items when you leave.” They were proud of their unique and diverse community of participating crafters and artisans, just as we were proud of our unique and diverse community of vegan participants. Why would we shroud it in anything that diminished the forward momentum of the day? It just wouldn’t make sense. I say that as long as your message is communicated in with a warm and generous spirit, you shouldn’t be afraid of the word vegan. It is the attitude of condescension and rudeness that gives people pause, not necessarily the word itself (though some are apprehensive because of negative associations through personal experience and ignorance). That’s why we have to turn things around by associating the word vegan with positive identifications. If people still want to reject it outright, well, that is their loss.

I do understand that each community is unique and we all know our own best. Calling an event VeganMania in South Dakota or Mississippi might not be a recipe for drawing big crowds. Do what works for your location to foster more compassionate living.

Just don’t let the word vegan become a boogeyman. It shouldn’t be feared or a source of anxiety. Once we embrace it ourselves – not as a cudgel to create more divisions but as a means for passionate, diverse, intelligent and kind people reaching out – I believe that the world will embrace it, too.

13 comments:

Spiral said...

I have never really considered myself to be haughty or 'holier than thou' about the way I eat, or even 'in your face' about it, and yet there are many times in my past I can recall using the word 'vegan' and pretty much attracting anger and argumentiveness. I understand that people's food is very personal to them; in Cultural Anthropology, what a culture eats is a main classification point when trying to define what makes a culture cohesive as a culture. It's personal, I get that.
But I have also experienced in my life MUCH more haughtiness and 'holier than thou'-ness and anger and argumentiveness from omnivores at me, over the way I eat. I understand that the way I eat threatens them, and that perhaps they are subconciously trying to justify the way they eat to themselves, piecing together arguments and trying to see if they hold. I get that. But I don't always want to argue.
I feel bad because knowing what is going on all around us in our world with our food, I feel like I should be actively trying to persuade people to stop the insanity, be it through outright fact stating, or through guerilla techniques where the people I am talking to might not even guess it is the dreaded 'v' word I am defending. I thought Skinny Bitch was ingenious in it's 'guerilla attack' on omnis in the guise of a diet book; people's guards were down, because their only thought buying the book was 'of COURSE I want to be skinny!' Then BAM, it was all about veganism.
I don't know, Marla...Every year at Thanksgiving I feel like I have to defend my plate against the arguments and attacks of my family. How relaxing of a holiday is that? But at the same time, when I perform a 'sneak attack' about the government (which my family agrees with), leading to the FDA and it's double motives, leading to factory farming, THEN leading to veganism, they are always a lot more receptive to my viewpoint.
The other week, my violin teacher and I were walking out of the classroom, and I was wearing my Mercy for Animals T shirt. We saw a spider creeping towards the classroom. She looked really uncomfortable, saying 'are you one of those PETA people who got mad when the President killed that fly? Would you be mad if I killed this spider?' It was automatically judgeing me, like 'are you one of those crazies'? I felt bad, and told her no...even though I didn't want her to kill the spider :-(
Once again, I feel like a hypocrite. This is a really difficult and consuming issue. How many of the thousands that showed up to Veganmania weren't vegans, though? I was under the impression that most of them were?

Leanne Maily said...

loved it.... well said.

vegan has been a dirty word for too long! when it is full of love and compassion and hard work- it is nothing but a super word of empowerment. I missed the discussions on naming the event, but gosh darn it, so glad you never waivered! It wouldn't have been the same event otherwise. :)

xoxo Leanne

Marla said...

Spiral, thank you for your heartfelt response and I have to say that I so agree with you and never meant that vegans are necessarily the ones who are overly aggressive in debates. I have been in that same situation COUNTLESS times with co-workers and family members, when I am simply enjoying my meal without commentary and I get attacked. Oh, so many times! It is very frustrating, the, to have this pervasive stereotype of the "angry, pushy vegan" when that is so counter to my personal experience. Ultimately, we're all fallible, we're all flawed, but I am not going to apologize for someone else's poor behavior: I just try to be a positive role model, as cheesy as that sounds. And I think that your example of how you can lead into the topic of veganism by disarming people is perfectly apt: no one thinks we should just start screaming, "Go vegan!" and expect receptiveness. Getting in through a side door is a perfectly natural and smart way to bring up the points you want people to hear. If they're defensive from the beginning, you won't ever get to that point.

That's too bad about the spider incident. I probably would have said, "No, I'm not a 'PETA person' but I don't see why you'd want to kill that spider."

As to how many people showed up, well, we weren't able to get a great census but my understanding from talking with folks and getting feedback from some of the speakers was that the omnis outnumbered the vegans, which is phenomenal. My friend Rae who spoke said that only about 25 - 30 percent of the room self-identified as vegans and the rest were omnivores. These were people going to a talk, which is very exciting.

Thanks again for your words, Spiral. I know that it can be exhausting sometimes.

Marla said...

Thanks, Leanne. I am very curious myself as to what sort of crowd we might have drawn with a VegFest or something like that. It might not have been too different, but it might have been significantly so. You are helping to transform the word in the most positive way!

Chandelle said...

Feels like you're readin' mah mind, Marla!

I have serious self-doubt. In fact, when I started reading this post I wondered if you'd read my recent post about deciding to accept eggs from my partner's students. Did you read that? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Veganism was a first step for me. It opened doors to larger issues of food justice. But I just don't believe that veganism is the bottom line anymore. I know that makes me heretical or a traitor to some, but I'm just trying to parse this out as best I can.

I've realized, for example, that all industrial agriculture is incredible destructive to our environment - not just feedlots. I've had to confront the fact that my monocropped rice and beans are perhaps not as dangerous as feedlots, but certainly comparable in their capacity to destroy soil health, eradicate top soil, encourage disease and infestation, and so on.

I've also realized that industrial agriculture - including the burgeoning organic market - are terribly destructive to animal life. Those fields of grain and beans and soy and tomatoes and blueberries harbor no other life. Birds don't live there. Rats, squirrels, foxes, deer, mice, dogs, cats - nothing traverses that land except humans receiving, more often than not, a slave wage. Industrial agriculture destroys everything. I've come to wonder if I've really saved any animal life by switching to a plant-based diet.

Of course, I've had people throw this argument at me more than once, and I've defended myself by drawing a line between deliberate, unnecessary death and accidental, arguably necessary death (since I do have to eat). I believe this distinction is important. But from a practical perspective, I can't say that those little lives don't nag at me.

So what do I do? Well, jeez, I try to buy from small farmers, I try to buy locally, I try to realize that I can't be perfect. But I also consider that, beyond the vitamin A issue, maybe those eggs from backyard chickens are a better food source, ecologically speaking, than grains or legumes that are intensively cultivated far away. Pastured chickens add to the soil where they live. In most cases where they live with families, they aren't de-beaked, the male chicks aren't destroyed, and sometimes (depending on the family) they aren't killed when they've ended their "production life." I've always wanted to adopt chickens. They are such funny, loving little creatures. Maybe it's saving animal life to take eggs instead of other, intensively farmed, plant-based protein sources.

I can't imagine ever eating meat. I understand the arguments of people who consume grass-fed, local, pastured animals. I get it from a health perspective and in terms of ecology. But my ethics do transcend the issue of how the animal is treated before slaughter. I don't think I've ever believed in my life that giving an animal a name makes it okay to destroy it. And I don't think I could ever decide that it's normal to eat dairy products. I consider dairy products even more dangerous than meat, in many cases, and also more cruel, in most cases.

I don't know. I can't figure this out. It's especially confusing because I want to do this professionally - I want to move people toward a whole-food, plant-based diet. But I don't know if I could ever bring up the word "vegan." It scares people away. I still used it because I loved that look of surprise when people realized that I didn't look like their idea of a vegan, and my kids were healthy, and I was foaming at the mouth or anything. I loved expanding minds just from that little connection. But I don't know if I could ever use that word professionally. Is that right? Is it just inevitable, because people fear change? I just need to know the best way to help people - and to be true and good to myself, my children, the animals, and the planet. That's all. Such a small thing, y'know. :)

Marla said...

Hey, Chandelle -

I have to apologize because I'm so daunted by what seems to be the dozen or so blogs you maintain. I know of your beautiful Phytophiliac.com but I'm afraid that I've lost the others. Could you jog my memory here?

So much to say about what you've written and its so close to bed. Rather than going through point-by-point, here's what I think: from a purely ecological framework, eating some eggs from local hens that are living a decent quality of life is likely less harmful than trucking in non-local, unseasonal food from all over world. We do try to minimize that in our house, but given our short growing season and climate, it's just not very realistic. We try to do our best, though, and here's the thing: you will become like the dog chasing her tail if you try to eradicate every flaw in your diet from a sustainability and/or ethical perspective. We lived in a flawed world with a flawed food system and we are flawed beings. Given that, eggs to me are non-essential and I just reject the idea that something from another sovereign being is ours to take. Do I think that the hen was brutalized? No. But I do disagree with the idea behind it. (Not vociferously: there are WAAAAY bigger challenges to my sensibilities!)

I also understand the challenges to using the word career-wise because it does have so many unfortunate associations. Here's my take on it: if you feel you can get more people in this direction using more vague terms, then you have to do what your professional and personal instincts are telling you. I do not know your field like you do. And maybe by the time you are really practicing, there will be more positive associations with vegans and you won't have that much of an uphill battle. (Some of that will also depend on you creating a great model with your work and advice, which I have no doubt you will do.)

For what it's worth, I don't believe that veganism is the bottom line, either: it's living fully engaged, dynamic, ecologically conscious and compassionate lives. I think you're an awesome woman, Chandelle - I have dreamt about you, for Pete's sake - and I do appreciate your honesty. (By the way, did you get my message about the homemade vegan cheese?)

xo

Marla

Chandelle said...

Okay, now you're making me blush with embarrassment. I did have a lot of blogging balls in the air for a while, but now the only blog I have is phytophiliac. Here's the post where I mentioned eggs:

http://www.phytophiliac.com/2009/10/beginners-mind-part-2.html

I certainly have mixed feelings about the issue of "stealing" eggs from chickens. When we visited Farm Sanctuary, I asked how they handle the issue of chickens producing eggs there since everyone is vegan. The guide told me that they take the eggs, cook them and feed them back to the chickens. These are breeds that produce 10 times more eggs than normal and they lose a lot of calcium; by this method, they gain back some of that mineral loss.

I think that's both a weird idea and pretty interesting. I wonder if it's very healthy for chickens to eat COOKED eggs, for one thing, which negatively changes the structure of animal proteins and oxidizes cholesterol. I've heard that chickens will eat their own eggs, but my friends who have chickens say that the chickens won't eat *all* of the eggs. So in considering adopting chickens, we've always assumed that we would have some eggs.

And yes, I consider this in terms of mutually beneficial symbiosis - we give them a warm, loving, safe home until the end of their natural lives, and we get a food source in return that doesn't require death, while still ensuring that the chickens were able to eat their eggs for the calcium. In this case, it seems less like thievery than barter. Or something.

Of course, this is all theoretical. And dammit, so hard to figure out! Why do we have to be so frackin' CONSCIOUS about everything? Sometimes it's a complete pain in the ass.

Marla said...

Thanks for clarifying, Chandelle: I thought there were, like, eight blogs and so I was a little overwhelmed by the prospect of keeping up with you. :)

I knew that about FS and their eggs and I also thought it was strange to cook the eggs. And while I have no desire to eat eggs - the idea totally squiggs me out in fact - I do understand and respect your thoughts about symbiosis. I thought of an example of sheep living out their lives in a sanctuary type of setting. You are providing food, shelter and veterinary care. They need to be sheared at certain times of the year of their comfort - and because of how they've been bred, probably - so what do you do with the wool? It would seem wasteful to through out and it doesn't seem exploitative to reuse. I'm not someone who would wear the wool myself because a) wool makes my poor tender skin itch and b) I wouldn't want to reinforce the idea to the public who might see me in wool that I think it is a suitable fabric (they would be most likely getting it from inhumane sources) but I still don't see what's wrong from using the wool product one has sheared in this theoretical sense. I mean, as long as the sheep weren't being exploited, of course.

Vegan Burnout said...

Such a great post, Marla. I've consciously worked to make myself more comfortable with using the word "vegan"--when I went out to eat with my friends, I used to tell the server that I was vegetarian because "vegan" seemed like a recipe for trouble. I've struggled with being accommodating (*sigh* birthday cake from my mom) in social situations, too. Slowly, I'm starting to feel my way towards gently refusing that stuff. It doesn't do anyone any favors for me to give the impression that my veganism is negotiable. You've been a huge help!

Marla said...

Aw, thank you, VB. I think the thing is when we come from a place of just regular ol' honesty about it, it makes a difference. Sure there are going to be people who have a problem with it, but, well, that's they're problem. You're only honestly communicating. And, VB, I think we've all struggled with this. Personally, I've been all over the place, from hyper-assertive to overly accommodating, until I finally settled here. This feels much more comfortable than either other approach. :)

Chandelle said...

I haven't actually managed to enjoy eggs myself yet. I've only made two meals with them, but the first time I was reminded of that horrible film in my mouth after I eat them (cholesterol?), so the second time I didn't have any. I'm happy to reserve them for the kids for the vitamin A. I don't think I'll manage to be a regular egg-eater again.

Susan said...

I'm glad Chicago VeganMania was such a success, attracting mostly non-vegans/vegetarians! I went to the Vegetarian Expo in Saratoga Springs in September, taking up my non-veg brother-in-law's offer. He enjoyed the vegan coconut-milk ice cream, but wasn't ready to consider giving up his traditional meals.

Now, here's why I'm really writing to you: I emailed a very good vegan cook in my city and asked if she'd consider creating a recipe that approximates Miracle Whip (remember when I wrote about how that's my last remaining non-vegan hang-up?). She said yes, and she's going to get from me a spoonful of Miracle Whip (good for her for not going out to buy some) in order to know what she's going to replicate. Maybe she'll go into business and make a $1 million with Miracle Vip. :-) I'll let you know if it passes muster! Sorry to get off topic here.

Marla said...

Oh, best of luck with that, Susan. I admire your zest for finding a vegan product that replicates Miracle Whip. It's all about closing all the little gaps, and that appears to be one. Good luck!