I’ll admit it.
A most fervent wish of mine is that one bright morning, everyone will wake up refreshed, take a nice stretch, and right before breakfast, have a sort of mass epiphany. We could be in the shower, we could be walking the dog, we could be reading our morning affirmation, but in that singular, crystallized moment of our epiphany, people will recognize the fundamental injustice of deciding that we will use others as we wish because we can. We will understand that there’s really not any difference between a human and a fish when it comes to a desire to live free from harm. We will finally know deep in our marrow that because we legally can do something we desire, it does not confer a moral license to do it. Immediately after this epiphany, humanity will shake off our privileges of entitlement as if it were all just a bad dream and with a resolute clap of the hands a la Mary Poppins - “Chop chop!” - we would all move on. From that point on, we would all be vegan.
In this fantasy of mine, the human race would evolve in one giant, collective leap toward a consciousness of expansiveness and connection that would cut out all that unnecessary suffering that occurs before everyone’s fully on board. We could all go to the deli at the grocery store and not have to ask what’s in anything and we could buy birthday presents for each other without ever having to check for wool, leather or silk. We wouldn’t have to look for the rabbit symbol on shampoo or be ill at ease when we don’t know if the glycerine is of animal or plant origin. Everything would be easy, so free of stress. Our children wouldn’t have to avoid the McDonald’s Playland and they could keep all of their Halloween candy. There would be no need to stand outside shivering in the cold as we protest the circus in November. There would be no more time wasted giving dirty looks to people in fur coats. Life would be so easy.
God, just imagine what Thanksgiving would be like.
As much as I want people to adopt a new way of living because it is deeply wrong to ruin or take another’s life to indulge our fleeting, random pleasures, I have been vegan for long enough to realize that this wish is a luxury that is quite outside of my control. It is also rather, well, dictatorial for me to insist that unless others are motivated by my very same values, their reasons are unworthy. It is not enough that the rest of the world go vegan: they must do it for reasons that I approve of, damn it, or else it doesn’t count.
I have noticed a grumbling resentment and condescension towards those who “just” follow a vegan diet, even though that influences the most animals’ lives by far. Speaking hypothetically, what if a very influential person, say a former president of the United States, publicly credits a vegan diet with saving his life? Should we yell and scream and stomp our feet because he’s not vegan enough? Should we stare at his shoes, the same way people check out our shoes when they first hear that we’re vegan? Should we insist upon inspecting his medicine cabinet before we are willing to sign off on it? Or should we be damn grateful and elated for the fact that someone so prominent is normalizing a subject that many feel is inaccessible and beyond their reach? While we need that outer edge to be pushing society toward a new consciousness, we also need these people, human breadcrumbs in a sense, who draw others in and show them a path. Shouting on street corners or demanding personal purity as we sit on our self-built mountaintops of piety may feel good but if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that it’s not going to help the animals. If people think that giving up all animal products and familiar foods sounds radically unsettling – and it does to the vast majority - should we keep judging and nitpicking until they have given up on the notion altogether?
This has been a gradual evolution toward a middle path for me. For years I towed the party line that unless people adopted a vegan diet due to deep ethical convictions, that it was superficial, that it would never stick. I have also seen the contradiction of this idealistic notion many times. (To be fair, I have also seen it reinforced many times.) I have seen people come to veganism through the doorway of environmentalism and I have seen the lifestyle stick. I have seen others motivated primarily by their health, something ethical vegans look especially down upon probably because it smacks of flaky narcissism, but I have seen these same people become the most ardent, most persuasive and unequivocal advocates for vegan living over time.
I have also seen people become vegan for “the right reasons” – people I have felt a deep kinship with, people I have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with at protests - decide over time that they really miss cheese. Like really miss it a lot even though they know about dairy cows and veal calves and the whole bleak picture. They know it. They have read the books, they have watched the movies, and most important, they have felt it in their hearts. One day or over time, though, something just changes. They think, Is a little organic cheese so awful? Oh, and since they’re eating a little cheese anyway, would it be so terrible if they ate some free-range eggs, too? And if they’re already doing that, is it the worst thing in the world to eat a little wild-caught salmon? With the slippery slope fully rolled out before them, they then realize that consuming one is not much more or less justifiable than the rest and these once-ethical vegans become fully omnivorous. I have heard and read the assertion many times that former vegans who start eating animal foods were probably never really committed to begin with and that is true sometimes but not always. Somewhere along the line, they switch off or detour. I have seen it with my own eyes. It threatens us to think that someone who has had a consciousness shift could renounce that and go more or less back to where they were before but it does happen.
While we need to unapologetically reinforce the very core ethical conviction of compassionate living that is at the root of veganism, I think we need to make space at the party for those who came in through a side door. We don’t have the luxury of veganism being an exclusive, members only club, not if we really want there to be less suffering in the world. We can create our little islands of vegan purity where only those with what we deem to possess the right attitudes can dwell, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that this kind of moral turf patrolling is really going to result in less suffering in the world. If someone is getting a foot in the door through the gateway of health, should we push them back out because we have taken out our moral checklists and they do not meet our standards? No, not unless we want to be isolated islands of angry but righteous vegan separatists. Instead, we should encourage people who are trying to get a foot in the door. We should support them. We should share our knowledge.
Ethics provide the strongest foundation of veganism, I have no doubt about that. While we are continually hacking away at the webs of disconnection humanity weaves, the stories people repeat to justify their privileges, we must keep the door open. The apple cart we are upsetting is a massive one culturally and historically but it is also a very personal inner-shift, one after the next, that is going to create the sea change. It is going to take time and it is going to take patience but we are well on our way: progress is happening every day in deep-seated and lasting ways. Until people are fully on board then, let’s throw out some lifelines.
I am going to hold on to my fantasy for now. It comforts me, makes me smile. It is just a fantasy, though. The real change will come from challenging our comfort zones, digging our hands into the mucky mess of it, being creative and giving up the notion that we can make others think the way we want them to think. The core convictions behind veganism are powerful beyond description. Let’s keep chipping away at the lies humanity tells and, most important, let’s keep the door open while we’re doing it.