Friday, September 18, 2009

The switch inside...

If you have been vegan for any significant length of time, you have undoubtedly asked yourself several vexing questions during your tenure. You may have wondered why your mother persistently mispronounces the word, nearly fifteen years later. (Or maybe that’s just me.) You may have speculated over why the omnivorous world seems to view you as a priest in a confessional as they lay their souls bare about their flesh-eating ways (“It-is-not-much-it-is-just-fish-I-tried-to-do-the-vegetarian-thing-but-just-couldn’t-resist-my-grandma’s-brisket”) seeking absolution, like you are some sort of God proxy figure. And then there is the Eternal Question, the one that has nagged at us since the word vegan was first coined by that English gentleman in 1944. It usually sounds something like this: what makes me different from my omnivorous and even vegetarian friends? Why do I tick when they tock? How can I see something so very clearly when it remains obscured to my friends, my family? Further, why do I see this when others do not and how can I get them to see it, too?

We all have friends who are so progressive in every other way but for whom the diet part of the equation does not factor in much. They eat whatever is in front of them, no or few questions asked. But then there are those who are aware of their consumption habits within the context of what they eat. They may scrupulously avoid food that is out of season or shipped too far or artificial or over-packaged or produced by horrible companies, Many even will avoid the most infamously torturous “delicacies” like veal and foie gras, but the line they will not cross is a broad one and one that is very clearly rolled out in front of them. The line is more of a wide gulf, really, and it separates the vegans (a.k.a., The Crazies) from everyone else (a.k.a, The Sane Ones). Vegans have good intentions but they take it too far, they may say or broadly hint. We are absolutists, extremists, people who wake every day with the sole purpose of wrecking everyone else’s good time. My question is this: when we are trying to live our lives with integrity and a certain measure of consistency, veganism could be seen as the natural extension of a general point-of-view, an intuitive conclusion to draw when taking into consideration one’s whole path and perspective, right? It would be ignoring the elephant in the room for many of us to not adopt a vegan lifestyle. It is rooted in the same desire to live compassionately and mindfully, therefore it would be radical and extreme to pretend that it wasn’t natural. It entirely natural if you are trying to live compassionately, are concerned about social justice, believe in your power to effect positive change.

Knowing this further compounds the confusion I feel when those who are so clearly on a similar path as mine take an entirely divergent route right exactly here, where how we live our lives and food intersect. It is as though we were walking along together, really enjoying one another’s company, compatible as peas in a pod until my feet just want keep following the path – the one that seems to be the most natural one – and my non-vegan friends take an abrupt turn and bid me adieu. “You’re on your own with this one, friend. Good for you but not for me,” they say as they skip off and I am left baffled once again. I can think of so many examples right off the top of my head and after almost fifteen years of wondering about this, I am no closer to understanding it. There are friends who won’t purchase any new clothing because they don’t want to support the brutality of the sweatshop industries. They are not vegan. There are people I know who will go on a hunger strike at the drop of a hat to draw attention to the military violence overseas. When they resume eating, they eat the product of violence. There are feminists, artists, freedom seekers, peace workers, culture jammers of all variety who actively reject the consumerist-patriarchal-military-industrial-you-name-it complex but feel no conflict with eating animals and even more who do feel that inner-tug but decide to live with it anyway. How is it that our moral compasses are so out-of-synch on this single issue, but return to being coordinated once we leave it? I know that people disagree all the time on core issues – we all have our own path, it is part of what makes us unique, blah blah blah- however when things are lined up to point in a certain direction, and then that direction takes what seems to be a random, hairpin turn, it is only natural to look back and say, What on earth just happened there? Where did you go?

Except it’s not really accurate to say that I am totally confused because I do have an idea, even if it’s fuzzy and only a metaphor. I tend to think of vegans as having had their switch turned on. Imagine the switch as the mechanism that turns on a light. Either it’s the kind of switch that turns on a blast of light at once (the equivalent of a mental epiphany) or it’s a dimmer switch, slowly illuminating a room over time (the equivalent of a slow dawning). This light switch reveals the arbitrariness, brutality and injustice of our dominion over non-humans. Occasionally people have the light switch engaged but then decide that they no longer want to see all that it exposes, or that they still do see but it doesn’t affect them the same way any longer. (They can see but have turned off the corresponding feeling switch.) For most of the vegans I know, though, I would say that once that light switch turned on – either as an epiphany or a slow dawning or somewhere in between – it is stuck on. From that point on (the point being where recognition leads to an inner- and outer-transformation) our new perspective has fundamentally altered us. The veil has been removed and we can clearly see. The challenge is in coexisting with those for whom the practice of eating animals is still shrouded, either intentionally or unintentionally, and that we are asked to suspend seeing what we do so the rest of the world can continue maintaining the status quo, which is that animal parts and products are neutral and harmless, no different than broccoli or apples or kidney beans. To us, this is being complicit in a deception we have already identified and rejected.

So this is how I’ve come to think about vegans, as patronizing as it may very well be to omnivores: somewhere along the line, our lights were switched on. This doesn’t mean about everything, that we are above reproach in all matters. It also doesn’t mean that I think omnivores are entirely in the dark, Gollum-like creatures lurking in the shadows. I don’t think this, never thought that. (Okay, there was probably a period in the spring of 1995 when I did, but no longer.) Vegans are just regular people who have our lights switched on. Once the light switched on, we made changes accordingly. We can be approachable and helpful, but it is a tall order to ask us to pretend not to see what is plainly obvious to us.

How do we activate this switch in another? We can’t. We can leave a trail of clues to locating that switch but the other person’s hand has to be on it herself. You cannot force anyone’s hand, you can just sort of coax it along.

Helping others find their light switches is our work.


  1. I love the light switch metaphor. Sharing on Facebook!

  2. Agreed, we need to help others switch on - I love this post.

  3. Here's the thing--right now, eating animals is commonly accepted as well as convenient. Therefore people will continue to do it. Once upon a time, many people were slaveowners. I'm sure some of them--hopefully many of them--thought twice about this practice, but everyone did it, and if they didn't they wouldn't be able to harvest their crops, and until there was a better way...etc.etc.etc. Not that I'm saying meat-eaters are as bad as slaveowners, but you get me, right?

    Meanwhile, I must be honest--my switch is turned on, but I am still not 100% vegan. I'd say I eat vegan about 90% of the time, and the rest of the time I make allowances with my ethics for the sake of convenience (or taste). So who am I to judge?

    Anyway, great blog Marla--you are one of my vegan gurus!!

  4. Thank you to everyone who has commented.

    Lisa,the slavery analogy is an apt one, I think. There's a book - by someone named Marjorie Spiegel (I think!) - called The Dreaded Comparison. It explores the similarities between institutionalized racism and animal exploitation. I will look for it to lend you. I will also say that it took a good year between when I was calling myself vegan and when I was fully implementing it. If you do want to make the commitment, I recommend Meet Your Meat or something of the kind. That was what did it for me. All these years later, no looking back!

  5. Lisa, think about it? How are meat eaters not as bad as slave owners? Did you not just describe them in the same way...that people did/do these things b/c it was convenient? They are two forms of social oppression that are very similar. There may be differences in how these forms of oppression came about, but they are overall the same thing....with the main difference being human just look different from animals and that they dont speak the same language. Other than how we look and the languages that we speak, all animals are quite similar, both human and non-human.

    I would argue that the slavery of human animals is just as bad as the slavery of non-human animals. If you know this, then you should not make exceptions for convenience or taste. Don't get me wrong..just trying to help you see the light.

  6. This actually reminds me of when my husband got sober. I had many people coming up to me, explaining that they themselves did not have a drinking problem. they would then go on to explain why. I had become the confessor. I didn’t tell them that people without drinking problems didn’t think about their drinking, because I knew they weren’t ready to hear it. They didn’t want to think about a life without drinking alcohol ever, ever again (just exchange ‘alcohol’ with ‘meat’)- it seemed so extreme, even though in their hearts they knew they should stop.

    Instead I listened, perhaps made a few gentle suggestions, and encouraged any efforts they made to ‘cut back’. Over the years some have quit, some tried to quit, some cut back, and some still drink like fish. It really is quite similar, isn’t it? I know some vegans think just getting someone to stop eating meat once a week isn’t enough, but it’s actually pretty HUGE. Looking at the big picture is always depressing as hell, so I try my hardest not to peek and just enjoy the small ‘victories’; I’ve been with my husband for 14 years and just this year he stopped eating all meat except fish; I’m currently struggling to become vegan- it might take me years to get there, as it did to become vegetarian, but I try to keep in mind the idea of ‘progress not perfection’; both of my parents have become vegetarians in the last few years and they love it
    I do get angry with people who say they love their pets but have no problem eating a hamburger. ( I also know a vegetarian who doesn’t like pets, which I find kinda weird). But all I can do is be an imperfect example. Man, I totally needed to read this to remind myself of all the good things, because I really have been dwelling on the negative aspects of my friends’ eating habits as of late (i almost 'de-friended' a couple for bbq comments). Thank You!

  7. Leslie, I'm wonder what's keeping you from going vegan... for me it was butter and mayonnaise. Once I discovered Earth Balance to replace butter, and Vegenaise to replace mayonnaise I was ready to go! There are really good replacements for most dairy and eggs these days, so it's easier than ever to go vegan and stay vegan... there's even a really good cream cheese substitute: Tofutti! :)

    For me, I loved animals my whole life, and yet still ate meat, and struggled with how it was I was doing it. I realized it was a "disconnect", similar to that light switch, and once the disconnect disappeared (it was a video that did it for me), that was it, I had to give up the meat. As I say, the butter and mayo came later.

    I could not be happier now though, and can't imagine going back, so glad that "disconnect" is now a "connect". My light switch is on (but it's a low energy consumption compact fluorescent bulb, so no worries!).

  8. Erica, I totally agree that it is simply a selective, arbitrary difference (human versus non-human) that makes our brutality acceptable to so many. Once you see that, it is hard for some to justify and impossible for others. Thanks for your insights.

    Leslie, thanks so much for your comments. Wow, the drinking thing was something I hadn't thought about as a analogy but it is true: I remember when I was afraid I was drinking too much in college but could not imagine a life without the "opportunity" to get drunk with my friends again, I made the same sort of excuses one hears around eating animal products. Thank you for pointing that out. There are quite a few parallels actually (the addictive aspect of both, the social aspect of both) that make it difficult for some to imagine life without it.

    For many of us who have had this particular light switched on, making the shift to living as a vegan was relatively easy. We saw the suffering, we saw our complicit involvement and tacit approval and so we removed ourselves from the cycle. After all these years of living as a vegan, I just have to acknowledge that for some - for reasons I do not fully understand - it is not that easy. I sometimes wish I was able to be in their bodies for a short time so I could better understand what people are referring to when they talk about it being too hard to be vegan. I do agree that small steps can add up to big changes. That's very cool about your parents becoming vegetarians! And about struggling to become a vegan, here's just a little suggestion that you can take or leave: don't think of it as a struggle. Remember all the abundance of the plant world, all the amazingly delicious foods, and how lucky you are at this point in human history to be able to not contribute to suffering with your choices. It doesn't need to be - shouldn't be - a struggle. Think of it more as an embracing. I think framing it as an "embracing-goal" rather than a "struggle-goal" may make a difference. And thank you for your kind words and all that you do, Leslie.

  9. Thanks for your helpful suggestions, Curry. I do think that finding suitable substitutions works for so many who are transitioning. I have found, though, that some are so disgusted by vegan analogs (rightfully so in many cases) that they think, "Well, see? I think dairy-free cheese is disgusting so I could never be vegan." Here's the thing, though: before I went vegan, I was a vegetarian for a loooong time, holding on to that "I could never be vegan, I like cheese too much" mentality. All the vegan cheeses I'd tried were horrible plastic-tasting monstronsities. However, when, like you, Curry, I saw the movie that really shook things up for me, I just decided to live without it. Once that shift happened, it was no longer a struggle. It was not something I'd have to live without any more. Cheese was now something I was happy to leave behind. So I guess that the point of this is to explore and see if there are vegan versions of items you like - including making them in your own kitchen - but if there's not, you will survive. Not only that, you will thrive. I do not for one moment feel that I am "missing out" on anything being a vegan and I think that is a combination of attitude and finding the foods that I love. I think that is true for so many of us who have successfully adopted the lifestyle. And I'm so glad you've got that low-energy, compact fluorescent bulb switched on, Curry!

  10. Curry, I just wanted to add that my comment sounded that I was advising you on transitioning to being a vegan when I know from what you wrote that you have already embraced it. I meant what I wrote as possibly being helpful to those you support who do not find all vegan analogs palatable. There are ways around it. (Though I think that Earth Balance is personally responsible for so many conversions!)

  11. No problem, Marla, I get what you're saying. Some embrace the analogs, others want nothing to do with them. When I first stopped eating meat I bought out Boca and Morningstar Farms! Now I go to the store and I have zero interest in those products. But, I do really like the Follow Your Heart Monterey Jack "cheese", in sandwiches with Yves "salami" or "bologna", every once in a while.

    I also occasionally buy a pack of Light Life Smart Dogs, and have them all the way, with ketchup (HFCS-free), mustard and relish. I grew up eating meats, and my favorites were those that in no way resembled animals! So I feel a need to revert to that "comfort zone", but not regularly.

    I am an odd vegan in that I bring a compassion toward omnivorism with me. I know what it is to cook and love the flavor of meats. I cooked them myself, so I can totally relate. I can also totally relate to a plant based diet.

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  13. Ketchup on (n)ot dogs!? Curry, I am a Chicago girl and we are famously fascistic about what is allowed to adorn our dogs. My own child has forsaken me on this, though, so I am becoming more tolerant. :)

    I think your perspective as someone who really enjoyed meat - which was the same for me until the day I figured it out and quit without looking back - is an important one. I think omnis assume vegans either a) hated meat or b) have superhuman willpower. In other words, it's often assumed that we possess some quality they don't have.

    I think that since analogs work for you, you should embrace it! It seems to be around 50/50: half who like them and half who don't (and then there's a whole range of products and people are all over the map with preferences). Taking all other factors out (healthfulness, over-packaging, etc.), they are great as transitional tools for those who like them. There are those who don't like them, however, and we need to figure out how to support them, too. Personally, I find that if I can get people a few recipes they love and get them excited about food/cooking, along with time-saving ideas, that seems to do the trick. The important thing is to be there as ambassadors, which it sounds like you are kicking butt at with your compassion for others.

  14. Wow, what an apt metaphor. I like it! I do sometimes struggle with the brightness of my own bulb--when a friend comes over for dinner and brings a non-vegan dessert, for example, or when my mom bakes me a non-vegan birthday cake. (Why is it always dessert?!) My default position is to eat it and be gracious, because it's offered out of love, but I always feel a little uncomfortable. Anyone else feel this way?

  15. Thanks, VB. I don't think anyone who offered something to you with love would want you to be uncomfortable. Here's what I would do, I'd say something along the lines of, "Oh, cool. Is this vegan?" If the person says no, then graciously just say something like, "Thank you so much for thinking of me but I'm really committed right now to being vegan. I do appreciate the thought and effort, though." It's tricky but I do have to say that this never happens to me. Have you possibly sent out mixed messages in your efforts to be accommodating/ express gratitude? It can be confusing for people, understandably, and I do see how much you to not want to be insulting. I think it can be done with just consideration and consistency. Anyone else have experience with this?

  16. I think you're right, Marla--it's definitely in my nature to be accommodating and not make anyone feel put out. I'm going to try and be more mindful in those situations. It's hard when it's my mom, though! :) Now, I need to find someone who might like a re-gifted loaf of egg-laden raisin challah bread. *sigh*

  17. Coworker? For next time, there is this fabulous challah I made once before and my son keeps clamoring for more so I may have to make it again soon:

  18. I am a vegan and have been puzzled as to why so few have considered the consequences of their dietary choices. I became vegan long before I knew anything about societies treatment of animals. I went horse-back riding and while waiting to go out for about a half-hour, I sat and watched chickens pecking about and I enjoyed seeing them. It dawned on me at that moment that I eat them. I did not know anything else about farming. I went home and became a vegetarian. One year later after reading "Diet for a New America" I became a vegan. For me, graphic images would work, because I am extremely compassionate toward animals, but as we know, this will turn many away and then they will never allow themselves to learn more. Steady soft messages of the beauty of animals and their capacities to bond with us as our cats and dogs do will endear many to farm animals. Keep up the good work Marla. You are an inspiration!!

  19. You're an inspiration, Sue. I'm so glad you're writing!

  20. Awesome post. I don't always love that the light switch is on for me because it feels very lonely to be out-of-sync with the rest of my family and community, but the switch is on and I have to make choices accordingly.

  21. Thanks for your feedback, Peace! The light can certainly make us more vulnerable and lead to us feeling out-of-synch with others. We are lucky today to have online communities to offer virtual support but if you can find some in your actual community, that would be ideal. I certainly relate to your feelings of isolation. You are not alone.

  22. Fabulous post, so powerfully written. I adore your blog, thank you for what you do.

    Sigh. Trying to flip that switch in others is what I spend my life doing, haven't found a quick way yet.

    I spent this morning sitting in on a meeting of a friend's animal welfare society. They spend a lot of time, effort and money to rescue, treat and re-home stray and abused dogs and cats. (Here in Saudi Arabia where doing things like this is even more dangerous and strenuous than normal.)

    Well, my heart fell to my feet when, at the end of the meeting after discussing how to save these poor dogs and cats, how much money to donate, etc, they planned on what menu to use for their next function. "Beef and chicken okay for everyone?"

    Couldn't believe it.

  23. Wow, Voracious Vegan. That's the one that boggles me. Veterinarians and self-described "animal lovers" and then people who work so much for dogs and cats who just drool over the thought of a McDonald's "chicken sandwich" or host a BBQ for fellow animal rescuers. I guess that's not all that surprising in light of the fact that we have lots of people advocating for "animal welfare" of the very same farm animals they eat.

    Hmm, the light switch metaphor isn't working too well for me... do we become a light bulb after we turn on the switch? Anyway, I look at it like this: those people I agree with on many things are people I have so much to learn from. They know many, many things I don't, and I wouldn't want to jeopardize my close relationships by proclaiming they are in the dark while I'm enlightened. How foolish would that be while I would have to confess that I am equally in the dark about many things they are not? So I look at it as a give and take... I think they have something to learn from me as well, and I'd my job to communicate as effectively as possible so they can learn... while learning as much about their perspectives as possible.

  24. Thank you for your feedback, Voracious Vegan. You are facing challenges that few of us do with your work. I had to say, sadly, that when I worked at an animal shelter (dogs and cats), it was the same basic situation, maybe a little friendlier to vegetarians and vegans. There were more than seventy employees, and I think that three of us were vegan (we all challenges one another to do it) and the rest were regular ol' omnis. I would bring in vegan snacks and try to talk to people about the hypocrisy of saving one while eating another but most did not want to hear and were very comfortable with their separating the two. I got mocked by a few people for being vegan, too. In all, it was disappointing. The work you are doing in very important. Just hang tough! And thank you for all you.

  25. Hi, Luella! Thank you for your honest feedback. To speak thruthfully, I had issues with the light metaphor because 1) it sounds a little like a religious "awakening" (which, honestly, it might be similar to for many of us) and b) the implication that vegans are all now enlightened, literally and figuratively, about everything. As you saw in my second to last paragraph, I say that this is not true: we simply have our switches turned on about this issue. We could be clueless about misogyny (sadly, I have seen this example time and again), the larger nonviolent movement, deep ecology, etc. Also, as I said, I don't think meat-eaters are necessarily in the dark (though some choose to be): it's that this same switch isn't engaged in them. I have learned a lot from my non-vegan friends, people who have challenged me to be more consistent and more understanding and more kind. The learning process must be mutual and I never thought otherwise. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  26. This is the first time I've read your blog, Marla; found a link to it on I like your wit, your writing skill, your honesty and your modesty.

    I confess I'm 99.9% vegan; my only compromise is Miracle Whip, because I don't like vegan equivalents of Hellman's or other brands of mayonnaise. I don't take time to cook from scratch, so I eat lots of finger foods (tomato or cuke or faux deli or PBJ sandwiches, soy burgers, tofu dogs and the like). Yes, I feel guilty when I think about it. But I reason that at least I don't have any other vices. Still I realize that by bowing down to MW, I'm betraying sweet laying hens. (If I knew about food chemistry, I could invent vegan MW, and profits could be plowed into AR causes!)

    As for your light switch analogy, it works for me. I might add that the light has the effect of enabling everyone else in the room to see -- when they decide to open their shut-tight eyelids, that is!

  27. Susan, thanks so much for your very kind words. I think that many - if not most - of us have had an item that we just couldn't find a comparable version of as vegans. Do you happen to live near a Trader Joe's? Miracle Whip/mayo was never anything big in my life, but I did a little research online and apparently the Trader Joe's Reduced Fat Mayonnaise is accidentally vegan and tastes a lot like Miracle Whip. It's worth a try if you can get your hands on some. I would also say that I never thought that I could live without dairy cheese until I made the commitment and now it is something that doesn't factor in at all. Last, maybe Google "vegan Miracle Whip recipe" and see what comes up. There must be more like you who crave the Whip! ;)

  28. Hi Marla,

    I'm not near a Trader Joe's, which is just as well, since comments on the web make its reduced fat mayo sound gross-tasting!

    I did, however, Google as you suggested and found the following under

    Miracle Whip (vegan alternative)

    3/4 cup Flour

    1/2 cup Sugar (more or less to taste)

    1 cup Water

    1/2 cup Vinegar

    3/4 cup Vegetable oil

    2 Tbsp Lemon juice

    2 tsp Salt

    1/2 tsp dry Mustard

    3/4 cup silken tofu

    Cook together flour, sugar, water, and vinegar until thick.

    Combine last 5 ingredients in a blender and blend well.

    While flour mixture is still hot,
    add it to blender mixture and blend.

    * * *

    Do you suppose that's soft tofu, not firm? I would think so. I don't know much about it.

    As for cheese, yes, I know what you mean. The last thing I relinquished was Swiss cheese. I like several vegan cheeses, but don't buy them much.

    Will let you know when I try the homemade MW.

    Thanks much.

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