Vegans Decide: Am I an Apologist or an Extremist? Depends on the Eye of the Beholder.
The other day my son asked me a question that turned out to be more nuanced than at first blush, as his questions tend to be. He asked what was the most common criticism other vegans leveled at me. I said, “That I’m an apologist,” fresh off that day’s latest disapproving comment on Instagram. “Or that I’m not vegan enough.” Then I thought about it for another few seconds and said, “No, it might be that I’m an extremist,” remembering a random potshot from the day before, this time on Facebook. “That I’m a purist.” The more I cogitated on it, the more I realized that the scornful comments from other vegans about how I practice my veganism seem to happen in equal measure on either end of the too strict/too accommodating continuum. Weird, huh?
Let’s first look at some real-life examples that will set off the armchair critics…
• If I give someone seeking advice guidance on phasing animal products out of their lives rather than shame them for not removing it all at once? I’m an apologist.
• Even though I know it is a process, I don’t pretend that animal products are harmless. Thus, I am an extremist.
• I understand that we live in an imperfect world, thus even our choices as vegans are unavoidably influenced by this, so I’m an apologist.
• I still hold that we should do the best we are able to despite this lack of perfection. Therefore, I’m an extremist.
• If I am encouraging to non-vegan restaurants when they try to incorporate more plant-based options to their menus it must follow that I’m an apologist. (I’m also a sell-out who doesn’t care about vegan small businesses.)
• When I give restaurants feedback that removing animal-based ingredients and still paying for them without a substitution is not a fair or considerate option for vegan diners, it must mean that I’m an extremist. (I’m also pushy and discouraging.)
. . .
Maybe this can be understood as falling under the same header as how we form many of our opinions, from “What is beauty?” to “What is pornographic?”: It is simply a matter of the subjective perspective, the eye of the beholder. We all have our preferences and our biases, our backgrounds and our slants. My personal set of biases make it so I am more inclined to think that those whose vegan practice and activism looks more like my own are more effective and reasonable. Our brains are hardwired for confirmation bias; it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it is something to be aware of so we can try to factor that into our calibration and realize these reactions are not necessarily rooted in facts but inseparable from the flawed mechanism through which we interpret information.
Perhaps it’s also that the internet pushed our tendency towards criticizing and judgment into hyperdrive. Whereas once we knew that there was a lot we didn’t know about those we don’t even know in person, with access to conversations online, suddenly we know allllll of what a person is about without room for nuance. We have the illusion of familiarity and instant understanding; heck, perhaps it’s our predisposition towards confirmation bias that is behind this as well.
I guess the point is, our activism is our activism, our vegan practice is our vegan practice, our way of communicating with others is…you get it. How can I be both a vegan apologist and a vegan extremist? It’s in the eye of the beholder.
How about you? What criticisms do you face from other vegans?
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Photo credit: Anders Nord/Unsplash (This is a different tuxedo cat. Tuxi hasn't let us get close enough for this nice of a shot.)
Tuxi, or What the Animal Rescue Community Can Teach Vegan Advocates
A couple of weeks ago, we noticed a little black-and-white cat in our backyard. This isn’t all too uncommon — we found our tortie Clara Bow in the backyard as well as a very young kitten. There are outdoor cats in our neighborhood, some of whom are feral, others may be stray or in-and-out cats. I am not sure. But this one particular cat, whom we started calling Tuxi because she is a tuxedo cat, was one we started seeing every day. She is definitely fearful and quite likely feral. We started putting food and water out for her and she started eating. My son even built a pretty structurally sound teepee in the yard for Tuxi out of sticks and wood remnants and, lo and behold, she actually hangs out in there. (The backyard faces my office so I can spy on her.) When we go outside, she runs away but it is clear that the yard is a home for her.
As it became clear that Tuxi was in our yard every day and had come to accept provisions there, it also became clear that we’d need to humanely trap her and get her spayed so more kittens wouldn’t be born outside. I reached out to a friend who does a lot of work with the Chicago rescue community and she posted on a local TNR Facebook group to see if anyone might be able to help with the trapping. Very quickly, a woman who lives five minutes from my house stepped forward to help and the ball was in motion. We texted and she came over to drop off the trap and once again to help me when it wasn’t setting up properly; she also supplied me with all kinds of good advice for getting Tuxi to go into the trap. The same day I set it up, I looked out my office window and Tuxi with her pretty green eyes was blinking back at me from inside the trap.
Rosi, the neighbor with the trap, worked with her numerous contacts to get me a vet appointment and before too long, I was on my way to the clinic with Tuxi in my car. I got perfect directions on how to identify myself at the vet’s office, which is about 40 minutes from my home, and yet another volunteer cat rescuer named Laurie dropped Tuxi back off at our house after the surgery and vetting. Laurie also dropped off extra cat food for a colony that Rosi is helping with, which I put in my car, and when it was time to return the trap to Rosi’s house, she had a really nice insulated shelter for Tuxi on the porch. I left the food from Laurie along with the trap and it felt so elegant and efficient in the exchange. For those wondering, when we’d released Tuxi a little earlier, she backed out of the trap and ran from our yard but she has returned every day for food. If she wants to move in with us, she is more than welcome but it is baby steps in winning over feral cats. For now, we are working on building trust by bringing out food and water every day, and helping her to get used to our voices when we see her in the yard.
The whole experience was seamless. I reached out to my friend in the rescue community and she picked up the baton; Rosi picked up the baton next; we picked up the baton again by trapping and delivering Tuxi; Laurie picked up the baton finally by dropping her off back at our home. This kind of coordination and willingness to help really made an impression on me, and reminded me of the rescuers I knew when I worked at a large animal shelter back in the 1990s. These are the folks who gladly pool their resources and work to alleviate suffering of outdoor animals, primarily cats, year round, feeding, sterilizing and keeping them as comfortable as possible. I was always struck by the selflessness, egolessness and dedication of this community.
. . .
This experience got me to thinking: What would vegan advocacy look like if we truly wanted to help those who were looking for support? For example, when I was looking for help with a stray cat, no one reprimanded me. No one shamed me for not adopting immediately. No one yelled at me that there are outdoor cats in my neighborhood. They stepped forward to help and didn’t get territorial with one another, knowing that it takes a village.
How often do we see someone who is dipping a toe into veganism get chastised for making mistakes, get attacked for not having a 100% vegan wardrobe yet, get shamed for being a little trepidatious? Instead of people stepping forward in genuinely helpful and supportive ways, like the TNR community did for Tuxi (and me), too often the vegan response to someone seeking encouragement or help is shaming and beratement. What if we looked at the vegan-curious in the same way the cat rescue community looked at this cat in need and the person who wanted to help her, who needed support and for people to step up in a helpful way? This isn’t a one-time thing. Over many years I have observed how willing the rescue community is to work together, extending themselves, their knowledge and resources in a helpful way.
What if we looked at new vegans like animal rescuers do cats who need help and we took our egos and our desire to “teach a lesson” out of the mix? What would our advocacy look like then? I don’t know all the answers, but my guess is it would be way more effective for actually helping.
None of this is to say I am perfect. I am as sarcastic as they come. If a newbie or not-quite-vegan is looking for help, though, maybe we should be more like the cat rescuers I met and give people the benefit of the doubt, suspending our insistence on everyone knowing everything about veganism right from the get-go so we can step forward in helpful ways.
I’d love to know your thoughts. Please leave a comment by clicking on the word Comments at left.
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