Officers of law ticket civilians, they sneak up on us, they maintain the rules and order but, most important for my purposes here, the police have also taken a solemn oath to be sworn Enemies of Fun. As someone who gets that sinking feeling whenever I spot a police car behind my own, I share that visceral negative reaction people have with officers: Oh, no! I wish they weren’t right behind me. Oh, damn, I hope I don’t get pulled over for anything. Are all my city stickers up-to-date? Can’t they just turn off and go somewhere else? A police officer showing up while people are just safely minding their own business creates a universal “wah wah waaaah” sound effect that is part of our shared experience. We all feel suddenly and conspicuously guilty in the presence of a police officer.
Vegans, just by our mere existence, can have a similar affect it seems. As a result, our presence creates resentment and agitation, whether we are outspoken advocates or not, simply because of what we represent. A vegan at a barbeque is the equivalent of a nun at an orgy: the buzz-kill, the drag, the spoilsport. If only we weren’t around, there would be one bacchanal of a feast - bacon hanging from the rafters, oozy cheese flowing out of every spout, a small mountain of hot, battered and deep-fried animal parts on every countertop – but, no, we had to show up and be all vegan about it, making everyone else feel bad with our sour faces. Why can’t omnivores just enjoy life without us prudes always showing up and managing to ruin their good time?
I was sort of accused of being aligned with “the vegan police” not too long ago. I had expressed unhappiness with a certain famous author, one who had written a well-regarded book that looked at the ethical implications of eating animals, but who, a couple of years later, started promoting more “humane” ways of eating them. This was disappointing and simply sad to me: why create all these new labels (often meaningless) and standards (often toothless) when the bottom line is that eating animals is unnecessary and necessarily exploitative and cruel? Why must we devise labyrinthine, opaque systems for avoiding the inevitability that taking another’s life for a momentary pleasure is simply unjustifiable? There are few wrongs in life that are so lacking in nuance and also so easily rectified than this one. A friend disagreed with my perspective and characterized what I’d said as being reminiscent of “the vegan police.” I was a little offended, sure, but more than that, it got me thinking about the meaning of this term.
Those accused of being vegan police are the humorless, severe and ultra-orthodox arbiters of good and evil. We measure life by a certain moral yardstick and we are always on the right side of that yardstick. We are busybodies, preoccupied with patrolling others. When the vegan police walk into the room, all merriment ceases, the dancing ladies stop doing the can-can, the piano player freezes over his keys and you could hear a pin drop until, like lightning, all the fun quickly bolts out the nearest doors and windows.
I have to say that I get it.
Even as a member by default of this particular order, there are some vegans I am nervous of making a perceived mistake in front of – and not a “mistake” like, say, eating chicken, but a mistake like voicing support for the “wrong” organization. We walk that moral razor’s edge daily, and we can easily lose our footing and go teetering in either direction depending on how our lives are interpreted by others. Activists wield emotionally charged terms (for example, the always-in-vogue abolitionist vs. welfarist polarity) as if they were cudgels, and, in turn, many of us shrink into ourselves, afraid to reveal anything that could paint us with a label that diminishes us. In our efforts to hold ourselves and each other up to impeccable standards, we can become neurotic and tyrannical hard-liners. I’ve seen this dynamic of shaming and one-upmanship, as well as the chilling effect it creates, too many times to deny its presence in the vegan community.
We should voice our differing views, though, because we need to be honest. To be intimidated into silence or cajoled into towing the party line of solidarity is a very damaging approach, one far too reminiscent of a twisted family dynamic for me to participate in. I believe that while we do nitpick one another to death sometimes, arguing over this or that fine point when our core values are aligned, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t openly disagree with one another, sometimes vigorously so. The social justice movement that we are actively creating together is something novel and audacious and shot through with ambition. It is also unprecedented. There is no question that we are going to argue and disagree as we find our way through this work and that is the only honest way to do it. Despite how it is often depicted, veganism isn’t a cult. We have no position papers. Creating a social justice movement for those whose exploitation is so deeply entrenched throughout the world – with all people, regardless of wealth or social status, taking advantage - is hugely difficult, messy work. We need to hash this out and accept that we won’t necessarily always or even often agree. We just need one component, though, that seems to be in short supply.
The essential piece of the equation is respect.
Why do we jump to the worst conclusions about one another? Why do we rush to judgement? Why are vegans our own worst enemies? Time and time again, I have seen good people vituperated during disagreements, treated as if they were just one small step above the worst animal abusers themselves. Why? Why the lack of nuance and inability to see the big picture? Is it because social media, where so much of this plays out, lacks the painful consequences of real life and reinforces those with poor impulse control? Is it just a symptom of living in a violent world, one that we can’t help but let influence our interactions?
I suspect that there are multiple causes. We need to understand this better. In the meantime, though, we can all try to not see the very worst in one another. We are a tiny minority and face a monolithic, uphill struggle as we try to change how society functions on the most far-reaching and altruistic level history has seen. Make no mistake, the vegan movement is made of boldness. Feelings will be hurt. I’m not asking for a group hug or a drum circle or even for us to share our best source for affordable yet stylish vegan shoes with one another. Not at all. We won’t always get along but we could perhaps give each other a break once in a while, right? We could give one another the benefit of the doubt occasionally, even when our fingers are dying to tell someone off and smack that return key, couldn’t we? Could we show one another the empathy, compassion and tenderness we regularly feel for battery chickens? I think it shouldn’t be that hard.
Remember that while we are condemning and berating one another, people who are just beginning to explore veganism are looking on. Is that what we want to show them, that their new community will seize upon any perceived mistake they make, be it linguistic, tactical or just a difference of opinion? That is no way to grow a movement and, damn it, we need one another and many, many more of us if we are going to make this thing work in a meaningful way.
So here are some quick things you can do instead of flying off the handle at a Very, Very Wrong Vegan. You can:
Take a deep breath. (In with peace, out with anger…In with peace, out with anger…)
Punch a pillow.
Take a cardio-boxing class.
Spend an hour playing with kittens at an animal shelter.
Read some Sylvia Plath.
Watch reality TV and scream at your television until you feel all better.
Do what you need to do to get the mean reds out of your system and then come up for air again. When you can speak honestly but not abusively, you are in a good place to create a dialogue. This is only common sense but sometimes we all need reminders.