How to be a Better Friend to Your Vegetarian

I’ve been a vegetarian for a while now. It feels like the right thing to do. For me.

I don’t push it on anyone else. Living near San Francisco, you’d think it’d be a piece of quiche (so to speak) to be veggie here. Compared to, say, Memphis or Mongolia, that’s probably true, but truth be told, it’s not all that different here compared to the many other places I’ve lived (both around the U.S. and overseas). Sure, there are a few more food options in this area in restaurants and grocery stores, but the same social dynamics exist here as anywhere.

Non-vegetarians are usually well-meaning when they encounter non-carnivores. I appreciate their tolerance, really. I’m a straight, white dude, so my eating ethics are probably the only place where I regularly experience being part of the non-majority culture. It’s far from oppression (though it does have its own -ism), but there are two dynamics I’ve observed that are a tad annoying. In the spirit of National Vegetarian Awareness Week (an event of which I admit I’d never heard before I was asked to write this post), allow me to explain so you, dear meat eater, can be a better friend to the vegetarians in your life.

Solidarity with the vegetarian.

I’ve mostly encountered this one in work situations, but it sometimes happens in social situations as well. Group meal. Food is ordered, carefully taking into account the number of vegetarians. (Thank you!) The food arrives. Then, this happens….

Say food was ordered for 10. Thai food, my favorite! There are 2 vegetarians and the very thoughtful person who ordered the food got basil tofu for 2 and yellow curry with chicken for 8. So far, so good.

We line up, plates in hand. There are a few carnies (no, not carnies) ahead of me, no biggie. Then, a couple of them supplement their curry with some of the tofu. Bangkok, we have a problem.

Maybe they didn’t think of the fact that the tofu was for me and I can’t eat the other food. But, I’ve also experienced situations where friendly flesh-eaters want to show me they’re cool with vegetarian food. See? We’re not so different! I’m like the guy in that Snickers ad. I get a little cranky when I’m hungry. Don’t try to show me how much we have in common by taking food off my plate.

The lunchtime conversation.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice that people show interest in my vegetarianism. It’s often the same kind of interest one takes in a weird animal at the zoo, but I’ll take it. There’s always the possibility that talking about my motivations will plant a seed of thoughtfulness in the other person about what they ingest.

The problem is, 99% of the time, the conversation comes up over a meal. Why is this a problem? The conversation usually goes something like the following:

Them:You’re vegetarian?

Me: Yep. [Cue minor sense of dread because I know what's coming, having had this conversation about 17 kajillion times.]

Them: How long have you been vegetarian?

Me: About 8 years now.

Them: Do you eat fish? Milk? Eggs?

Me: I don’t eat fish, despite Nirvana’s blessing. [Wink wink.] I eat cheese sometimes, but I don’t drink cow juice. Eggs are a mainstay for me, probably my primary source of protein.

Them: Why’d you decide to be a vegetarian? Was it a health thing?

Me: Pie is vegetarian, as is 3 pies wrapped in cake.

3 Pies wrapped in cake

Three pies wrapped in cake…awesome and vegetarian.

—alternately—

Me: I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals. I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants. [Quoting A. Whitney Brown]

Here’s a decision point. Is the person satisfied with my (so far) superficial response? Do they appear to want to engage more seriously with me on the topic? It’s something I’ve thought about for 8 years and—chances are—they haven’t. They’re serious? OK, we’ll take it one step further.

Me: Actually, it’s for a variety of reasons. It started as an environmental thing. (Did you know it takes 3 kilograms of plant protein to produce 1 kilo of beef?) But, over the years, as I’ve learned more about the subject, it’s become more and more of an ethical decision.

I usually try to leave it at that because on my plate is a bunch of vegetables (pie is a vegetable, right?), maybe some tofu, maybe some eggs and cheese. On the other person’s plate is likely a chunk of someone’s charred flesh. Chances are, even from my limited response, they’re already feeling a little chagrined. Maybe they think I judge them. Maybe they’re judging themselves. I don’t know. All I know is some percentage of people get a little quiet at this stage of the conversation.

If they ask for more info, I do my best to beg off. The meat industry just isn’t something you want to talk about in detail when you’re eating the stuff.

Sometimes people ask me if it’s OK for them to eat meat in front of me. While I can’t imagine eating meat anymore, I don’t really care what other people do. Sure, I’d prefer it if others made similar choices to me, but what I’d like even more is just for other people to think through the implications of their food choices and to be intentional about what they choose to put in their bellies.

For me, it doesn’t make sense to kill someone for my culinary satisfaction. If you’ve decided it is OK with you, then who am I to say you’re wrong? But if you’ve never really thought about it and only eat meat because it’s what was given to you as a kid, that’s harder for me to respect.

Caveats and conclusions.

Far from having a holier-than-thou attitude about it, I’m well aware that my dietary decisions aren’t perfect. I know it’s nearly impossible to eat eggs cruelty-free, for example, yet I still eat them for the protein. I only buy eggs that are raised cage free and fed vegetable feed (it’s, how to put this, surprising what factory farm animals are fed), but knowing what happens so I can have eggs makes me sad and uncomfortable. Maybe someday I’ll ditch eggs. It’s a process. For now, I draw the line at not eating anyone with a stomach. I’m not willing to eat anything I wouldn’t kill myself and I’m not willing to kill animals (or humans, but I repeat myself) for my food, mostly because it just isn’t necessary in modern society.

People draw the line in different places. Some go to great lengths to source local, organic, (relatively) humanely-killed meat. Hey, at least they’re making an effort. It’s the folks who mindlessly consume factory-farmed meat out of (most disturbingly, willful) ignorance who bug me. What we eat makes a difference. The environmental impact, by itself, is huge, not to mention the deplorable conditions in which many animals live and die for our grilling pleasure.

Eat like you give a damn, because it matters what you put in your pie hole, but even if you don’t, avoid the social traps above and you’ll make mealtimes more merry for your veggie-head compadres.

 

Today’s post was written by contributing guest blogger, Andrew Hedges, the coolest vegetarian we know. You can enjoy more musings from Andrew at his blog.

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3 Comments

  • Congratulations on becoming a vegetarian! I read most of your post here and I’d like to offer a comment on the subject of “personal choice” you raise which is a subject I am fascinated by and write quite a bit about.

    On Eggs
    I hope you will explore the egg issue further as I am quite sure will conclude that there are numerous ways of getting all of the essential amino acids that make up protein from plant sources. For a concise guide to plant based nutrition that covers all of these options, please check out the book, Vegan for Life, by Norris and Messina. And please make no mistake. We have no more a biological need for chicken eggs than we do turtle or ostrich or turkey eggs. Eggs kill. Hatcheries kill male chicks at birth. All farms kill “spent” hens in the prime of their life when they are just one or two years old and replace the with a whole new generation of young hens. Breeding facilities and testing labs have genetically altered and manipulated the reproductive systems of hens to such an extent that they suffer immensely from adverse health conditions and die prematurely due to their breeding, regardless of how well they are raised. An undomesticated chicken in her natural habitat can live 30 years and die of natural causes. The average domesticated egg laying hen will be lucky to live 5 to 10 years and will die of complications due to egg laying, again, regardless of how well she was raised. The cruelty is bred into their genes. They can’t control that fate.

    Five Reasons Why Eating Animal Products Can’t Be a “Personal” Choice

    Of all the rationalizations we make for eating animals in an age when eating animals is not at all necessary for our survival or health, many people today are borrowing a popular slogan I call “the personal choice defense.” It goes something like this: “My decision to eat animals is a personal choice.” And it is usually followed by a statement sympathetic to their vegan and vegetarian friends, acknowledging that they too are making personal choices that are right for them. Yet, upon closer examination, the choice to eat animals, whether it is once a week or every day, is never a personal choice. Eating animal products is indeed exercising a choice, but it is neither personal nor necessary. Here are five key reasons why:

    1. Eating is a communal, multi-cultural activity until the vegan sits down at the table
    First, let’s take a closer look at what personal means in the context of the highly social human activity of eating. Personal food choices had never been discussed at the dinner table until a growing number of vegans and vegetarians — by their very presence at the table — question the legitimacy of eating animals. A person who tells you that their eating of animal products is a personal choice is really telling you “stay away.” They don’t want you to question their highly-coveted moral beliefs or perhaps they object to exposing their unexamined moral quandary over how one can justify using and killing animals for food in an age when it is completely unnecessary. In other words, they have made this issue personal precisely in response to you making it public.

    2. There is no free choice without awareness
    The irony is that while non vegans defend their choice to eat animal products as a personal one, they will nonetheless go to great lengths to defend it publicly when confronted with a vegan or vegetarian. Like some apologetic white liberals who defend themselves by defiantly exclaiming to a new black acquaintance, “But I have black friends too!”, some will painstakingly explain how intimately they understand veganism — after all, they have already heard and evaluated the vegan friends’ reasons for going vegan and they deeply respect those reasons.

    They’ve carefully considered being vegan themselves, they will assure you, and have concluded that it’s just not for them. But instead of arriving at some novel new understanding of why humans should eat animal products in an age of industrialized slaughter, they simply revert back to the traditional arguments that are all pretty much centered around what social psychologist Melanie Joy calls the three N’s of justification: eating animal products is normal, natural and necessary. (1) But their reasoning reveals the fact that they have sorely overlooked the big idea behind veganism which author Jenny Brown points out so eloquently in her book The Lucky Ones: “We can become prisoners of our earliest indoctrinations or we can choose to look critically at our assumptions and align our lives with our values. Choosing to live vegan is how we’re able to do that best.” (2)

    3. The choice has a victim and the victim is completely ignored
    Let’s take a look at the issue from the animal victim’s perspective, which has been completely denied by the non vegan’s unexamined assumption that animals have no interest or understanding of the value of their individual lives. Does the animal who is being bred, raised and slaughtered for someone’s food care if the person who is eating animals has given the prospect of becoming vegan any serious moral consideration? Of course not.

    The notion that these conscious omnivores think they have done their due diligence by examining the pros and cons of eating animals means nothing for those that value their lives as we do. The fact is the animals we raise for meat have at least as much of an interest in staying alive, avoiding pain and suffering and seeking pleasure as these meat eaters’ pets. As activist Twyla Francois so aptly puts it: “All animals have the same capacity for suffering, but how we see them differs and that determines what we’ll tolerate happening to them. In the western world, we feel it wrong to torture and eat cats and dogs, but perfectly acceptable to do the same to animals equally as sentient and capable of suffering. No being who prides himself on rationality can continue to support such behaviour.”

    4. Many personal choices we make have dire consequence for ourselves and others
    Now let’s take a closer look at the meaning of choice itself. The act of making a choice implies that the actor has free will and awareness of the options and their consequences. In the spirit of justice, we live in a society where our actions and choices are governed by what society deems acceptable. We can make a personal choice to maim, rape or kill someone, but these actions will have consequences that serve as a deterrent. It is generally accepted in a democratic society that we are free to do what we want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else or infringe on the same rights and freedoms of others.

    Yet, for the non vegan, the choice of eating animals is completely disconnected from this concept of justice since justice does not, in their eyes, apply to other species, only to humans (how convenient). In other words, there are no visible, negative consequences to eating animal products. The victims remain invisible and silent to those who eat them, and that is perhaps the greatest deception of all.

    5. Atrocities are never personal
    In reality, the choice to eat animal products negates the very meaning of choice because the animal that had to be killed to procure the product had no choice in the matter at all. And the notion of characterizing such a choice as a personal one is even more problematic since the choice required the taking of another’s life, not a personal sacrifice. Nothing could be more public than the taking of a sentient life who cares about his own life, particularly when that act is neither necessary nor therefore morally defensible.

    When 60 billion land animals and another approximate 60 billion marine animals are killed every year across the planet for a single species’ “personal” food choices based on palate pleasure alone, eating animal products ceases to be a matter of personal choice; (4) it becomes a social justice movement to protect the rights of animals. To deny animals the right to live their lives according to their own interests is wrong and to attempt to defend our choice to eat them as a personal one is delusional.

    A Postscript: After reviewing a lot commentary on this post, I decided to publish a follow up piece, addressing many of the points raised in these comments. See Seven Reasons Why We Have NOT Evolved to Eat Meat. This may become a series where I continue to address the most common reasons people use today for continuing to eat animal products.

    (1) Melanie Joy, “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism,” (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2010) 96–98, 105–122

    (2) Jenny Brown, “The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals” (London: The Penguin Group, 2012) 204

    (3) Twyla Francois is the Director of investigations, Mercy For Animals Canada

    (4) This article does not intend to cover the human health and environmental impacts associated with eating animal products, though these impacts are clearly enormous as well.

    - See more at: http://freefromharm.org/animal-products-and-psychology/five-reasons-why-meat-eating-cannot-be-considered-a-personal-choice/#sthash.rM59oF8j.dpuf

  • A Word on Moral Relativism in Relation to Human and Non Human Animal Rights

    I would agree that, in many cases, morality is a personal matter. The choice of faith or secular belief is one’s personal business. In fact, any belief or action that does not deny others their basic freedoms is generally respected as a personal one. A personal belief does not harm others, at least directly. That’s what makes it personal. However, when it comes to eating animals, there are no neutral actions. We have only two options: either 1. we eat animal products and are directly responsible for sending animals to the slaughterhouse or 2. we don’t eat animal products and thus spare animals a slaughterhouse end. There are no gray choices in between these two actions that could render a less definitive outcome.

    In other words, there is no moral gray area between life and death, slavery and freedom, violence and nonviolence, killing and not killing. We’ve already applied this moral certainty to our own kind. At least in principle, we do not argue that slavery, rape, or murder is justifiable for some races, but not for others. We believe, in principle, that certain rights and freedoms apply to all humans, because we all have an interest in not being enslaved, raped, or murdered.

    So on what grounds do some people think it is okay to abandon this fundamental moral principle when the victim belongs to another species? Why do these people maintain that a sentient being is not worthy of the same protection from slavery, rape, gratuitous violence, and killing simply because he is a member of a nonhuman species? If we say we believe in justice for all, why don’t we extend that principle of universal justice, fairness, and equal consideration to all sentient beings?

    These are questions that we must raise, repeatedly, when confronted with the moral relativist position that seeks to dismiss the idea that animals count morally. Those who argue that this is a matter of personal belief deny animals a voice in the public discourse and sabotage any attempt to accord them justice. This tactic has been used by opponents of all other social justice movements. It is self-serving, irresponsible, flimsy, and cowardly.

    To be fair, some of the moral relativism surrounding this discussion is based on a misunderstanding of sentience. According to scientists, a sentient being has subjective awareness, a sense of self-worth, and an interest in avoiding pain and death — in staying alive. Under that definition, animals in our food system (as well as many other animals exploited for other reasons) are clearly sentient. Thus, there is no escaping the fact that our moral treatment of these animals cannot be based on mere opinions, cultural mores, or personal beliefs and choices.

    This misunderstanding of sentience shows itself when people ask us questions like, Where do you draw the line? Do insects have an interest in not being killed? How about plants? Do they care if they are killed? Actually, what these questions imply is that the intelligence (as defined by humans) of a species determines our moral obligations to its members. But we need to remember that the issue is not intelligence, it is sentience. This is where we ought to draw the line — at sentience. And the sentience of the animals we exploit for our food is highly developed and irrefutable.

    If you want to help animals, start by defending their interests when others would seek to dismiss them on the basis of moral relativism. Ask the hard questions. Get others thinking about the disparities between how we apply basic moral principles to humans and to animals. If we let this one slide, we’re turning our backs on animals in a big way.

    - See more at: http://freefromharm.org/animal-products-and-ethics/when-moral-relativism-becomes-a-justification-to-exploit-animals/#sthash.QIQ30gFE.dpuf

  • […] find out that some of the guests are vegetarian. No problem! We found out a little earlier this week how to be a better friend to our non-carnivore pals, and with a few minor alterations, you can serve a meal that everyone can enjoy. Seriously, […]

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