Veganism, Year Two: People's Reactions to Veganism

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Two years ago tomorrow, I posted "Meat, Dairy, Psychology, Law, Economics" on this blog, discussing my decision earlier that week to become a vegan. I wrote a follow-up post a week later, discussing the important work of animal rights lawyers, in particular that of my colleague Joan Schaffner at GW Law School. Last July, on the first anniversary of becoming a vegan, I posted some thoughts on the nuts and bolts of being a vegan, reflecting on my first year of refusing to support in any way or participate in the torture and killing of sentient beings.

Now that another year has passed, I thought I would offer a few more thoughts on being what one might call a "pedestrian vegan," that is, someone who strongly believes in and acts upon the moral implications of recognizing animals' right not to be exploited for any reason, but who does not write in an academic or professional capacity about vegan issues. I am glad that Professor Colb continues to write in a passionate, compelling, and deeply intellectual voice about vegan issues (the two most recent examples on this blog being here and here, on July 8 and 12, respectively). My thoughts are much less well articulated, and they are not based on the breadth of knowledge that Professor Colb brings to these issues. Even so, I know that some readers of this blog are considering taking up veganism; and I hope that my very occasional updates on my experiences as a vegan might offer support to those readers and, perhaps, even encourage others to make this life-affirming change.

Two years on, I can report that being a vegan is both very easy and needlessly difficult. It is easy in the sense that there is a very short learning curve to becoming a vegan, essentially involving a one- or two-week period during which one re-learns what one can buy in grocery stores and restaurants. There is no problem with having adequate vitamins in one's diet; and replacing leather and similar items is a simple, one-time matter.

Being a vegan is needlessly difficult, however, for a number of reasons. First, while vegan products are out there, they are not at all easy to identify; and there are few reliable guidelines other than reading the lists of ingredients on every item that one buys. (Because I tend to stick with something when I like it, this is admittedly easier for me.) Also, most restaurants have very limited vegan options, meaning that the fun of eating out is tempered by being forced to choose from one or two items. I also find that it is difficult to find something other than nuts or chips as a snack, when I am in an airport or a convenience store. Even so, I have never been literally without a vegan option. As anyone who has seen me lately can verify, I am not starving.

Another needlessly difficult -- or, perhaps more accurately, annoying -- aspect of being a vegan is that people feel free to express (typically very ignorant) opinions about me or about veganism in general, making it tricky to discuss vegan issues in various contexts. Here are three common examples of this phenomenon:

(A) Perhaps because I spend so much time with lawyers and lawyerly-types, I find that the most common response to "I'm a vegan" is for a person to try to explore the boundaries of my moral position. Essentially, a person will try to get me to admit that there are circumstances under which my objections to eating or wearing animal products would be nullified. For example, a person will ask whether I'd be willing to eat a cow that died of natural causes after a healthy natural life, or whether I could kill a pig that did something that was a threat to my life. Last summer, after my first anniversary post, there was a particularly spirited exchange on the message boards of this blog after two posts by Professor Dorf (here and here), in which most of the conversation involved setting aside the reality of how animals are treated (all sides agreeing that those real-world practices are morally repugnant) and instead discussing whether there is a valid moral objection to all uses of animals, no matter how humanely they might be treated.

Although I find such a discussion interesting, being a pedestrian vegan means that I do not have to answer the question of what I would do if, say, a goat broke into my house and threatened me with a gun. Even if there might be circumstances under which one could imagine making an exception to veganism, I have not yet heard them; but more importantly, none of the animal products that are now (or will ever be) available for me to buy would even come close to passing any such test. At this point, I find the notion of ingesting or wearing animal products as disgusting as I would find eating or wearing products made from human bodies. There are mildly interesting hypotheticals about when a person might morally turn to cannibalism, too; but they do not make me reconsider my views on eating people.

(B) On a more personal level, people will sometimes take as a given that there is something wrong with being a vegan -- some kind of psychosis that has caused a misguided soul to become a deviant. For example, I learned that a member of my family has concluded that my choice to become a vegan is the result of my inability to get over the loss of my beloved pets. The idea is that I am to be indulged, because I supposedly just cannot see past my grief to understand that normal human beings eat meat. At some point, supposedly, I will "get over it" and get back to being an omnivore.

Even without the pop psychology back story, there is also the question: "Are you still a vegan?" This can, I hasten to say, be a very positive question, asked in a hopeful and supportive way. Asked in a different tone, however, it is nothing more than the "get over it" reaction without even an attempt to explain what "went wrong."

(C) As I noted above, eating at most restaurants can be somewhat difficult, because there are so few choices that do not involve meat or dairy. Even the restaurants that have one or more veggie options usually make those dishes with dairy products, making it necessary to specify carefully to the server that those ingredients must not be included in the meal. This, in turn, raises a difficult strategic question: What should one say to a server?

My experience has been that saying, "I'm a vegan," is likely to elicit blank stares. Even when one adds, "... which means that I do not eat meat or dairy products," servers can be quite obtuse. (I remember a server at a supposedly vegan-friendly restaurant in St. Louis telling me that cream of mushroom soup is vegan, because there is no meat in it. She persisted even after I tried three times to explain the difference.) By contrast, I have tried simply ordering non-meat options and then saying, "I don't eat dairy products." When I do that, I have found that the servers often go out of their way to tell me that, for example, a particular tomato sauce has cheese mixed in.

The obvious explanation for this reaction is fear of lawsuits. If a restaurant serves dairy to a vegan, there are no consequences. The server/restaurateur might well think: "Why should I bend over backward for some crazy vegan? Just give him the usual stuff, but tell him whatever he wants to hear." On the other hand, if they serve dairy to someone who is lactose intolerant (after they have been told that the person does not eat dairy), then there can be real trouble.

The problem is that using this ambiguous phrasing cuts in opposite directions. It does mean that I have much less chance of being surreptitiously served non-vegan food. On the other hand, by doing this I am choosing not to confront biases against vegans and veganism. This is an old conundrum that all non-majority populations face, and it is just as troubling for me as a vegan.

These difficulties, however, are more than offset by the health advantages, the environmental friendliness, and -- most importantly -- the moral implications of choosing to love all animals. Once you've experienced it, you will wonder what took you so long.