[some excerpts included from a piece by Kelly O’Brien; the link to the full article is at the bottom of the post]
I just finished reading a great article on Mind Body Green by Kelly O’Brien entitled “6 Ways the Vegan Community Can Be More Welcoming”. I think it addresses a lot of really important – and really far-reaching – ideas that I wanted to mull over a little more. I went (mostly) meat- and dairy-free in 2006, in what began as an adventure in cleaning up my body and bettering my health. It has been a really positive experience for me (weight-loss, increased energy, the best athletic performance of my life, a happier state of being…), and as my health improved, I began reading more about the ethics of animal agriculture. I didn’t like what I was learning and decided it was not contributing to my life in a positive way, so I went completely vegan in January 2010. This has been a very intentional, well-researched choice, and is one that I feel serves me very well every d
What I have noticed, though, is that not everyone shares the same opinion of veganism, which is why I was so intrigued to see this article on MBG today. I thought it was particularly well-timed, as I recently listened to an episode of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…” on NPR, wherein Charlie Pierce says, “Don’t get me wrong: I hate vegans as much as everyone else does”.
As a vegan, I was a little offended, but with further reflection, realized that this common perception might be founded in something a little more emotional. Although the vegan movement is gaining strides in its popularity, it is still considered largely on the outskirts of “normal” in much of our world. It is not unusual for someone who feels marginalized to react defensively to what they perceive as judgment, as it’s an easier reaction than trying a to be understood in a different way (“You don’t understand me, so you must be wrong, and only people who agree with me 100% can be right”).
Conversely, the opposite is true: if we as a group are tending towards exclusivity (and judging non-vegans), it shouldn’t be unexpected that non-vegans might not be as open to the idea: if you are made to feel you are “outside” of a group, your tendency will likely be to dislike that group.
That is why Kelly O’Brien’s article really struck a chord with me. The vegan community is not one founded on judgment and hate, but on compassion, living ethically, and respecting the value of life, the planet, and each other. Why, then, does it tend to invite tension?
The article touches on this idea (“becoming more accepting of those outside the community”) in a way that makes a lot of (very practical) sense. It’s not about being right or being superior: it is about making life choices that work best for the individual. We talk a lot in the Health Coaching program at IIN about the concept of bio-individuality: there is not one diet or lifestyle that works for everyone, so there is no basis on which to judge someone for the choices they are making… as long as those choices are as informed and as intentional as they can be. The idea of being welcoming and of promoting the health and environmental impacts of a plant-based diet are far more useful to the vegan cause than being “othering” or judgmental of another’s choices.
[It’s interesting to be notice the term “plant-based” versus “plant-only”. A vegan diet might not be right for everyone in a biological sense, but the underlying principles of compassion, environmental awareness, clean eating, preventive medicine, etc. can be. This has to be a choice that people make and can sustain happily, knowing they are making the most informed, most beneficial decision they can for their lifestyle and the impact they wish to have on the world.]
I think this ties nicely to the idea of applauding small changes that someone makes in this direction: it’s not a case of assessing “how vegan” someone is (which the article addresses), but instead commending positive changes that people make to better their own health and the health of the planet. Everyone has to start somewhere, and whether that leads you to being entirely organic-raw-vegan (which is great for some!), or to cutting down your animal product consumption a few times a week, it’s the little steps that make huge strides in an effort to improve global health and ecological sustainability.
Language (another of the article’s very clever points) is also key to breaking down barriers between people who might believe different things: if you’re vegan and want to promote the benefits of how you live, you need to frame it in a way that highlights the value of your choices (what it has meant to you, how things have changed, noticeable differences to x-y-z) rather than putting down someone else’s choices. A little bit of positive energy goes a long way, and it’s far more convincing (if convincing is your m.o.) than focusing on something negative.
Please know that I write this from a place of understanding of both sides: I know a lot of really wonderful, welcoming, open-minded vegans, and a lot of wonderful, welcoming, open-minded omnivores. The takeaway from Kelly O’Brien’s article, in a larger sense, is that putting more judgment and antagonism into the world won’t help anyone’s cause: we have just one planet to live on, and only each other to get by, so why not be supportive and resourceful in conveying what we believe in? Everyone might just end up the happier and healthier for it.