The Power of Memes
by John Beske
This essay starts with three epiphanies: The first happened when I was a sophomore in college and moving aimlessly through a general degree in art. I happened to meet the husband of a daughter of some friends of my parents. He was an art director at an ad agency in Minneapolis, and as he described the ins and outs of his job and his work, it suddenly struck me that this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I transferred to a university where I could get a degree in graphic design, and I have followed that star for my entire career.
The second epiphany hit me about eight years later. I was now working as an art director at an ad agency in Minneapolis and life was good, but at the moment I was very sick with bronchitis and watching public television from my bed. They started broadcasting a documentary about factory farming called “The Animals Film” and somewhere in the middle of it, I decided I would never eat another animal, and to this day I haven’t and I never will again.
About eight years after that, I was an art director at the largest and most famous ad agency in Chicago, where I was creating ads and TV commercials for some of the world’s most well-known brands. While flying back from a vacation in Europe, a movie came on called “Defending Your Life” about a successful advertising executive who dies at a young age, and in the first days of the afterlife is forced to confront all of the important life choices he had made while he was alive. It suddenly dawned on me that one component of my job was basically to lie to people, and that the whole advertising profession was shallow artifice, and that I needed to move to a life with more meaning.
It took a few years after that before I felt that I really hit my stride, but I realized that I deeply loved the tools and the promise of graphic design, but I needed to use these tools, as much as I could, to build a healthier and more compassionate world.
Then about eight years ago, Marla (my partner in life and in Vegan Street) told me she thought we should start producing memes to share on our recently revived website and Facebook page. I was fairly illiterate about social media, and when she showed me some, I wasn’t impressed. I thought some of them were amusing and a few were even mildly thought-provoking, but nearly all of them were completely devoid of any design sense. I believed that I could apply my decades of design experience to develop memes that would stand above the others.
This was our first ever Vegan Street meme – published on July 23, 2013
Later that day, I designed my first Vegan Street meme. It was certainly not my best work (I eventually got a lot better at it), but it did establish a theme that we have carried to this day – a square, 800 x 800 pixels, with a simple headline set in Rockwell Bold (or sometimes Rockwell Regular), an eye catching image or series of images and a VeganStreet.com logo in the lower right corner. At the time I had no idea that a square was the geometric choice of Instagram (or that Instagram even existed for that matter). I just was really drawn to the shape.
For the first year, we met our goal of publishing a new meme every weekday, though it was really difficult to come up with enough ideas, and I felt we’d burn out before we got to 100. Since then, though, we have published more than 1,250 of them, with another new one every other weekday, and we rarely have writer’s or designer’s block anymore.
Each meme is designed to carry a single message as eloquently and concisely as possible, and each message is designed to either promote a positive aspect of veganism or a negative aspect of industrial animal production or other animal abuse. We make a point to contain all of the necessary information within that 800 x 800 pixel square, so there is no need to link to any external explanation. Of course, many of them are based on news stories, reports or other external information, and we always provide a link from our website to our sources.
Another limitation we face is time. In addition to our memes, we regularly post recipes, essays and lots of other content. And we spend most of our time on our client work through Vegan Street Media. So we typically have between 1 ½ to 3 hours to conceive, research, write, design, build, publish, share and promote each meme. Not a lot of time to mess around.
The memes are all designed to be shared, and collectively they have been shared many thousands or possibly millions of times. The goal is for everyone who sees them to instantly understand them and be moved by them. In advertising, we were taught that we had about 1.8 seconds to get someone’s attention – the amount of time it takes someone to flip the page of a magazine. Now I suspect that social media has cut that time by at least half – to less than a second before they scroll away from our message. In other words, we have to grab their attention immediately or we have forever lost them.
It is also important to Marla and I that everything is also elegant and professional and always communicating a consistent message and style. We feel that the strength of our memes lies in the library as a whole more than each individual post. If someone visits our web portfolio or one of our social media pages, our goal is that they see one beautiful and powerful meme after another. Of course, sometimes we fall short of this goal (even Michael Jordan only hit 52% of his shots), and sometimes we feel we did something great that gets very little positive response. Conversely, sometimes I feel that a meme didn’t hit the mark, but it still drew thousands of likes.
Fortunately, the vegan message has many, many components, and there is always an abundance of material for us to draw from. Our plan is to keep regularly producing Vegan Street memes as long as our minds and fingers allow us to do so. And hopefully all this work will help lead to a healthier, more compassionate, more just and more sustainable world. Images are powerful; words and images together are the basis of storytelling and people, no matter how busy and advanced we may be, still are reached and influenced through a persuasive story that grabs them.
When Vegan Besties Break Up
When I first went vegan, new friends were a big part of helping me to ease into that transition. I was lucky enough to be folded into my local animal rights organization along with a bunch of other newbies as if we were all going through a new vegan orientation together. There was one woman in my unofficial grouping and we immediately clicked as friends. She was hilarious, confident, brutally honest and deeply committed to the cause. It wasn’t long after we met that we were genuine let’s-hang-out-together friends. We would seamlessly segue from protesting outside the circus to sampling cruelty-free body care products at the old Garden Botanika like it was the most natural thing in the world. It was an intoxicating time and I will always associate this friend with those heady days when life felt very electric and I’d found my life’s purpose.
For a few years, we remained very close. Remember those early years with your first best friend, how close and intense those friendships could be? Our friendship was like that. We were ride-or-die besties. Over time, though, life happened. There were moves, marriages, breakups, deaths, and, for one of us, motherhood. We would still touch base a few times a year and remain friendly - we had the kind of comfortable, easy shorthand unique to friends who share a lot of memories - but our friendship kind of withered on the vine. We grow the things that we put time into nurturing and I think we both kind of moved on with our lives, which was easy to do living across the country from each other. No harm, no foul. We maintained a distant friendship, though, touching base even less often as the years passed. Finally, we didn’t really have anything in common but our shared past and veganism.
. . .
I have had similar experiences with some other vegans on my path: We grew apart. There were no angry confrontations or resentments necessarily, it was simply that we no longer had the same connection, or maybe we assumed that there was more of a connection than there actually was. Friendships between vegans are not all that different from other kinds of friendships and there are a million reasons for growing apart but sometimes, as vegans, we feel like we’re supposed to be friends. Sometimes a friendship fades out over purely circumstantial reasons: one gets married or moves and lives change. Maybe those circumstantial changes exacerbate other areas of difference. Maybe one’s politics have changed. Maybe personality clashes have emerged.
I think sometimes we feel pressured within ourselves to stay friends with other vegans because we share that important commonality that makes us different from so many other people. Especially if we don’t have a big vegan community, we can hang on longer to the friendship than we would otherwise. At a certain point, though, we all have to decide if friendships are worth hanging on to when we have outgrown them or moved in different directions, whether we are vegan or not.
. . .
We all have our lines in the sand with what we’ll accept from a friend and what we will not, whether it’s QAnon adjacent conspiracy theorizing or narcissism, bigotry or gossiping. There are some times when the conflict is not bridgeable. There is a sense of sadness and loss with that, of course, but if the friendship is not worth the maintenance of it, it may be time to move on.
My first vegan friend and I will always have our memories: The protests, the great conversations, finding the world for ourselves as vegans and warm friendship. But when it is time to move on, it is time to move on, whether or not the friend you are cutting loose is vegan.
How important is it for you to maintain vegan friendships even when that is the main commonality?
Ten Arguments Against Veganism That Are Really Grasping at Straws
I originally wrote this a number of years ago but recently updated it because, well, I think it’s a quality piece but also because I wanted to give a little shout-out to my friend Benny Malone’s new book, How to Argue with Vegans. (He did not ask me to do this, I just felt like it and who’s stopping me?) I have not read HtAwV yet as my book queue is VERY long at the moment but I know I know Benny has a sharp, agile brain and an impressive understanding of logical fallacies, so I expect it to be very good. (You can learn more at the lively discussion group for the book.)
Shall we commence? In no particular order…
Ten Arguments Against Veganism That Are Really Grasping at Straws
1. “Plants Feel Pain.”
You know that one YouTube video that defensive meat-eaters post as incontrovertible proof that plants feel pain? The one where it proves simply that plants respond to stimuli in order to maximize favorable conditions and decrease unfavorable conditions just as any living organism would? (I’m not going to link to it and give it any views, but trust me, it’s janky and if you really want to see it, you can find it.) The opinion that plants are sentient does not merit equal consideration with the demonstrable fact that animal species feel pain as they possess brains, central nervous systems, pain receptors and a demonstrable fight-or-flight response, not plants, and stating so creates an unbridgeable false equivalency that we are somehow expected to accept carte blanche. People are allowed to have their opinions about fairy tales - hey, I believe that the tooth fairy could beat one of Santa’s elves in a cage match - but does that make it a fact? No.
. . .
2. “I’m [Insert Ethnicity] and Eating Meat is Part of My Culture.”
Oh, my! Their ancestors were meat-eaters?! Well, what do you know: So were mine. In fact, so were pretty much all of our ancestors with rare exceptions. How exotic and rare! The great thing about evolution is, you know, a capacity to adapt, change and grow. Do these folks maintain other oppressive views and practices today of their ancestors and justify them? Why are the ones they enjoy (like eating meat) acceptable, but others, like discriminating against those of different races or genders, not acceptable? As someone whose ancestors were discriminated against and largely wiped out due to their heritage, I find ethnic pride to be both creepy and faulty ground for justifying cruelty to others.
. . .
3. “It’s Okay Because I Give Thanks.”
If you want to know how patently absurd it is to think that we can erase a senseless act of violence by “giving thanks,” I wonder how you’d think of it in different scenarios. “That arsonist set fire to my house but before he did, he gave thanks, so I guess I don’t really have anything to complain about.” “At first I was pretty bummed out I was robbed at gunpoint but the thanks I was given by the robber made all that unpleasantness disappear.” I could go on and on. This reminds me of that old thought experiment that asks if a tree falls in a forest but there’s no one to hear it, does it still make a sound? Here we have the quasi-spiritual meat-eater’s equivalent: If an animal’s life is taken but thanks was given, did the animal still have his or her life cruelly taken? Allow me to meditate on that for a moment...Yes.
. . .
4. “I Grew Up Eating Meat.”
Similar to justifying one’s current habits based on their ethnic background, saying that you grew up eating animals should be a no-brainer as almost all of us did but instead people repeat this inanity as though it is something that confers onto them a unique meat-eater-for-life status. I grew up eating meat and look at me now, terrorizing you with my vegan propaganda. Weirdly enough, so did Donald Watson, the man who coined the word and co-founded the first freaking Vegan Society. My point? Ancestry is not destiny, thank goodness, and neither is personal history. I grew up on the standard American diet of the 1970s, which meant bologna sandwiches, Kraft singles and Hostess cupcakes; contrary to common assumptions, those who grow up to be vegan were not necessarily raised by hippie parents who prepared us for our future vegan lives with miso soup, mung beans and kale. We all started somewhere and most of us started somewhere similar, I’m guessing.
. . .
5. “Vegans Are Big Meanies So I’m Going to Eat More Meat.”
They had a roommate once who was vegan and, whoa, she was such a pill! Or their cousin was vegan and so controlling. Or once they worked with a vegan and he was so judgmental. Or they just had a negative experience with a vegan on Facebook when they shared that bacon eating contest. These interactions might have led them to announce with great flourish that they are going to go off and eat a big steak because that’ll show those mean vegans. This is akin to telling an anti-domestic violence activist that they are going to beat their partner because they have a bad impression of him or her. It’s sad for the ones they harm but at the end of the day, their actions are solely their responsibility. Trying to pin the responsibility of your actions on someone else is admitting that they are not in control of their own decisions.
. . .
6. “Perfect Veganism is Impossible So Please Stop Being a Hypocrite.”
I have to break some bad news to you. Are you ready? Okay. We live in an imperfect world. A wildly messed up world, in fact. Vegans are actually trying to fix this. Vegans aren’t saying, “Be like us. We’re perfect.” We’re saying that despite this very flawed world, we are still going to try to reduce harm and keep it from, you know, getting worse. Yes, there is evidence of animal exploitation all around us, in everything from bicycle tires to asphalt. Does the fact that vegans cannot be perfect point to hypocrisy or simply the pervasiveness of animal agribusiness and their profiting off of every last bit extracted from an animal’s corpse? I’m thinking it’s the latter. Any guess who is actually trying to change the status quo of cruelty to animals, though? That would be the vegans.
. . .
7. “Hey, it’s My Personal Choice.”
Saying that eating animals is their “personal choice” while not acknowledging the senseless violence against those with no personal choices to exercise for themselves – and endure everyday horrors like forcible impregnations, stolen babies, mutilations, and a short, misery-laden lifetime of confinement – is the ultimate in myopia. It shows what a poor grasp they have on the practice of extending empathy to others and it’s not a good look.
. . .
8. “Veganism Won’t Fix All the World’s Problems So Shut Up.”
Again, just because something isn’t everrrrrrything, do we need to throw it out the window? Can you name one change we could all adopt that would have a positive, wide-ranging effect on world hunger, water scarcity, water pollution, land use, climate change, worker exploitation and the well-being of billions of sentient lives in one fell swoop? This is by no means an exhaustive list, either. Going vegan is the best bang for your buck in terms of a ripple effect of creating positive, meaningful and lasting change. No, veganism alone won’t rid the world of oppression but it’s a lot better than acting like we are powerless to inflict less violence upon others and the planet.
. . .
9. “ I only eat humane meat, dairy and eggs.”
1. Vegans don’t believe that such items can be humanely acquired so we are already at an impasse. 2. Anyone who has researched the industries with an open mind and using honest sources would also not believe this. 3. You really don’t exclusively eat these products, either, unless you don’t ever dine out at places that don’t meet your exacting standards. 4. How is it that a niche market that actually serves a very small percentage of the market somehow also reflects the purchasing habits 99% of defensive meat-eaters? 5. Welcome to the mystical fantasyland that is Magical Thinking, where free-range unicorns knowingly (and painlessly) sacrifice themselves for our plates. It looks like you have your passport ready! 6. Did you remember to give thanks?
. . .
10. “Vegans Eat Fake Food.”
Hello, we eat vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and spices. The animals people eat have heads, bones, feathers, appendages, gills, organs and more removed; they have been artificially (and forcibly) impregnated, they’ve been mutilated, castrated, and selectively bred and manipulated for production. Please don’t try to pull this card on us unless you are prepared to hear about how “natural” the things you eat are.
. . .
And sooooo many more! Please check out Benny's book for more examples and counter-arguments.
Vegans for BDS
Yesterday, I heard a story on NPR about how one extended family that lived in two neighboring apartment buildings in Gaza was decimated - literally, 22 members of the family, including children - were killed when the Israeli military bombed their homes without evacuating the people who lived in the buildings, supposedly targeting underground tunnels used by Hamas. This extended family of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, children - a family of civilians with close business ties to Israel and who were unaffiliated with Hamas - is among the more than 240 known casualties in Gaza. As I write this, 12 have been killed in Israel due to this most recent conflict.
John and I started VeganStreet.com in 1998 because we were moved to speak up against injustice, oppression and cruelty, and speak up for justice, compassion and equality. As Vegan Street has transformed over the years, our vision and voice has expanded to include speaking up against persecution when we see it as our evolving vegan practice is one of expanding, inclusive advocacy. As naive as it might sound, we believe we cannot get to the root of what allows cruelty to animals to continue unchecked unless we can be clear-eyed and fearlessly honest about that seed of brutality - that poisonous seed that allows us to turn our fellow beings into commodities or pariahs based on arbitrary circumstances of birth - whenever we see it.
This is why Vegan Street stands in solidarity with Vegans for BDS, which is part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a Palestinian-led, non-violent movement for equal rights for Palestinians and effort to make Israel comply with international law. Just as there was an active movement protesting South Africa’s apartheid in the 1980s, there is a growing worldwide campaign against the deep systematic discrimination and displacement of Palestinians on smaller and smaller parcels of land. The South African anti-apartheid movement was ultimately successful with a multi-pronged effort that included vigorous boycott, divestment and sanction strategies, and the hope is to use similar pressure points to help indigenous Palestinians in their fight for basic human rights, fairness and sovereignty.
This is also why we support the Vegans for BDS in their campaign to pressure plant-based consumer products seller PlantX to end their planned expansion into Tel Aviv, which has been funded to the tune of $11.5 million by Psagot, an investment company that is financially linked to Israel’s military occupation. The cruelty of decades of occupation and control of Palestinian land cannot be wiped away with investment in a plant-based company, nor is such a relationship ever truly apolitical or neutral. In fact, as conscientious consumers and advocates, we must do everything we can to remind plant-based businesses of our ethics and values by holding them accountable to the violence they are aiding and abetting through their associations and investments.
As one half of Vegan Street, I wrote this as someone who feels deeply connected to my Jewish heritage; my grandparents were fortunate enough to evade genocide in Europe and my grandfather’s quiet but ever-present grief as a ghetto survivor is forever etched on my psyche. As a Jew, I was taught to speak up for the oppressed, to never be on the side of the oppressor, and to think deeply about the kind of person I want to be and the legacy I want to leave behind. My Jewish background instilled the values in me that led me to go vegan 26 years ago, and today, these same values lead me to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and their fight for human rights.
Please join me in asking PlantX to show true compassion and stand against injustice by not expanding into Israel.
What We Don't Say When We Say We're Vegan
When I first went vegan, it was the mid-1990s and I worked at an animal shelter in humane education. Although the concept of veganism was pretty much at the infancy of a growing public awareness - a little further along in some areas, less so in others - even then, I still had baggage as a rare in-the-flesh representative at my place of work. I saw the eyerolls and irritation when I’d request vegan meals at catered holiday parties. I noticed the smirks at my little attempts at advocacy and the snubs at group outings. When pushback happened, it was very noticeable because for the most part, we were a tight-knit group and got along great, except for those times that the simple fact of my veganism became its own wedge. I remember my last day there, I went out to lunch with Jennifer, a friend in my previous department, and she said, “You are one of those good vegans. You lead by example. Most vegans are way too pushy.”
Although it was meant to be a compliment, mainly what I felt as we walked down the street was baffled. How many vegans did Jennifer really know? How many did she interact with? This was in the days before social media, certainly before the internet as we know it today. I actively worked to find a vegan community and I only knew a handful of individuals myself, the same people who were at every rodeo protest and Meat Out leafleting event, so how could Jennifer - avidly a meat-eater, we had a relationship of playfully harassing each other - know so many vegans to have developed this entrenched worldview about us? It was also so early on that the trope of the pushy vegan wasn’t really a widespread thing because we barely registered as a blip worth being bothered about. Somehow, though, it was clear that Jennifer’s attitude was not isolated to just her but was aligned with the prevailing position of my coworkers. That was odd to me and it was then that I learned that simply by existing as vegans, even if we toe the line and don’t rock the boat (admittedly, not my strengths), our identity as vegans is already a strike against us.
. . .
Moments after wondering how Jennifer could have this vast experience with vegans, enough to form her dim view of us, I thought this: I was knee-deep in researching animal agribusiness, which was why I went vegan in the first place. Like many people in the process of going vegan, I read every article and book that I could get my hands on and I watched every horrific documentary. It was like a light in a dark room progressively being turned on to the point where the things you used to not notice became starkly illuminated. My little moments of outreach, were they really so invasive given what vegans know about the gravity and scale of unnecessary suffering and violence inflicted on innocent beings? Being seated at a leather booth at the restaurant with Jennifer, the smell of charred flesh and fried cheese in the air, bones soon to be on her plate: Did she have any idea how much tunnel vision the average vegan has to develop just to get from Point A to Point B without breaking down? As vegans, we have researched and immersed ourselves in understanding how animals are systemically brutalized and we see glaring evidence of it everywhere while most people don’t notice and we’re expected to keep it to ourselves lest we be perceived as pushy buzzkills. If people realized how much even the most outspoken vegans have to numb themselves to or steel themselves against just in order to peacefully coexist - things the average person doesn’t notice, from the innocuous-seeming cheese danishes on a platter in the breakroom that remind us of the horrors of the dairy and egg industries to coworkers who are selling tickets to BBQ fundraisers - well, I think they’d be pretty impressed with how stoic we actually are in the face of that and how much we keep things to ourselves.
. . .
Vegans are not the victims here. Make no mistake, that is not my point. The animals are the ones who are victimized. The broad-stroke characterization of vegans are a bunch of aggressive killjoys, though, is as unfair today as it was in 1995. If I were as sensitive and fragile as people seem to like to think of me, though, I’d never be able to leave my house, knowing what I know, and if I were a fraction as pushy as meat-eaters characterize vegans, well, I would never shut up. Ever, ever, ever. Yet I live a pretty normal life. Pandemics aside, I haven’t made a decision to barricade myself in my home just yet, though the thought has certainly been tempting.
The fact is, to be an effective voice for the animals, you have to be informed, which means pain, you have to engage, which means vulnerability, and you also have to detach for reasons of self-preservation. It often feels like both a clumsy dance and a tightrope walk. I have come to look at what we need to do the Hokey Pokey: You put part of yourself in, you take yourself out, you put yourself back in and on and on. You even shake yourself about. That is how you have to engage to be a long-term animal advocate, even when your whole heart is shattered and your nerves are shot. It gets easier as you go but there will always be imperfect moments because we are imperfect vessels.
I have heard many vegans say, “Once you see, you can’t unsee. Once you know, you can’t stop knowing.” I have said the same. Our paths have led us here and now we have to share what we know with the hope of jumpstarting someone’s heart, removing blinders, expanding awareness. It’s not always easy but it is always worth the effort. We can be an awkward combination of hopeless idealist and battle-weary cynic in one body, from one moment to the next, in our pursuit of trying to help the animals.
Pushy, though? Given everything? No. We are resilient and determined. We also don’t say a small fraction of what we’re thinking and what we know
. . .
"Stay in my own lane?" Dude, this is my f**king superhighway and you don't get to patrol it.
It seems whenever an expression gets adopted into popular usage, it isn’t long before it is co-opted and applied in ways that are far afield from the original meaning, especially when the words were created in Black culture and they are often appropriated heavy-handedly as a cudgel to mock or silence. (Check out this illuminating piece and subsequent Twitter thread by Black journalist Joshua Adams examining how the term “woke” evolved into a sneering slur to learn more.) It isn’t surprising when words or phrases change meaning; language is fluid and ever-evolving, and how we use it is personal and often stripped of its origins. We don’t have a universal brain for usage and interpretation. That said, it’s worth considering how these words and phrases, often originally grounded in an attempt to heighten awareness, are weaponized by white people. I am specifically thinking of another phrase that has been co-opted from Black culture, often used to silence and suppress.
I am talking about the knee-jerk use of the phrase “Stay in your lane.”
Whom do I hear it from and when do I hear it? I hear it from other white vegans and animal rights activists, specifically whenever I post content in support of BLM and against police brutality on our social media.
It goes like this: Whoop whoop! “Who’s that in my comment thread? Why it’s one of those self-deputized officers who police the best use of my time and apparently they feel I have strayed from my lane. I’m getting pulled over. Oh, noes!”
. . .
John, my partner in life and at Vegan Street, and I came to the conclusion organically that our veganism is part of
a larger vision that is anti-oppression. We have been activists together since we met in 1993, marching against wars, invasions and for equality from the beginning. Before we met, we were activists for causes from feminism to environmentalism on our own. This is not to get back pats but to say as individuals and as a couple, we have a long history of trying to integrate our beliefs with our actions and vice versa; to this day, at any given time, you might find protest signs against the rodeo and against the Trump administration smooshed up against each other in our car trunk, cohabitating discordantly but not uneasily. Our activism can be messy, chaotic and sometimes misguided but always with the best of intentions.
Not according to these self-appointed arbiters of what is and what is not a genuine and worthwhile use of our time and platform. They pop up like clockwork every time we post in support of other causes that are rooted in compassion, equality and justice, implying that we are either “showing off,” (or as the likes of Tucker Carlson might depict it, “trying to be woke”) or telling us outright that we should stick to vegan recipes and memes. If I had a dollar for every time I read some variation of “I’m here for the recipes; this is too much,” in response to a BLM post or a barking of “Stay in your own lane,” meaning, apparently, that our lane begins with vegan cupcakes and ends with jackfruit tacos, I would have at least a four figure check to send an animal sanctuary. Alas, scolding those of us with the nerve to stray from exclusively vegan content does not manifest as dollars so all I have is a repetitive stress injury in my hand from blocking people.
. . .
Why is it so hard to imagine that people who would be against violence and bigotry against other species may have a thought or two about police brutality and systemic racism? Why is this so mind-boggling? Isn’t inclusivity some of what we should expect from anti-oppression activists? Apparently not.
So in case there was any confusion, let me clarify what is in my lane: Speaking up against racism, discrimination and bigotry; connecting the dots against oppression; expanding my circle of compassion and concern; using my platforms to amplify the voices, messages and causes that are aligned with my values. Also in my lane: Vegan recipes, memes and anything I damn well please. What is most assuredly not in my lane: Following directives and being pressured into silence by vegans who are miserly with who they care about. Be gatekeepers of your own lane, people. In the meantime, I am happy to create and curate what is included in mine and I don’t need your feedback or approval, Officer Friendly.
Go police your damn self.
Of Worst Case Scenarios and Learning to Love Again
There are times when the worst thing you can imagine happens. For anxious people like me, worst case scenarios (WCS) usually only happen in the mind, though that doesn’t mean that the suffering is lessened much and it doesn’t mean you skated through it without a bump or bruise.
Over the past couple of years, I had a few potential “worst things” happen outside of and within a collective difficult time, including one rather massive lifequake, and somehow managed to dodge the worst effects of those bullets. I was rendered a little wobbly, yes, but the WCSs were somehow evaded. On the last day of July, though, I wasn’t so lucky. We weren’t so lucky.
Something bad happened and it really happened.
We lost our beloved Romeo suddenly, unexpectedly and horrifyingly. He was a ten-pound ball of fluffy curls as well as my personal earth angel who saw me through all of the jarring vagaries of the past couple of years with steadfast loyalty and love. Words fail to describe the breadth and contours of the trauma and deep, cascading and erupting grief that followed his death and continue to tug at me but I will just suffice it to say it was one of the worst experiences of my life.
I have lost loved ones abruptly and I have lost them in protracted, bit-by-bit ways. There is no reason to quantify the devastation of each individual loss but I will say when trauma is involved, the suffering is worse. While the losses are all uniquely felt and grieved, some, especially when there is ceaseless suffering, can be experienced with a measure of relief for the end of one’s pain. Not with Romeo, though. I wouldn’t say Romeo was in the prime of his life because every freaking day was his prime as he greeted each day as a fresh joy to bask in, but it was definitely premature and to say that his death hollowed me out is an understatement. The loss, right when we were finally seeing the light at the end of my husband’s scary, circuitous medical marathon, was gut wrenching in the anatomically-correct sense of the word.
. . .
How do you love again after devastation?
It seems to me that allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to love again and risk loss is an act of faith, betting that the benefits of potentially exposing yourself to grief again outweighs the drawbacks. In my case, it is trusting that I would rather have the multitude of joys (and occasional hassles) of a life shared with another frustratingly mortal and impermanent being than armor my heart against the pain of loss and settle for the sadness of longing instead. I opted to open my heart again to another.
Ruby-Mae was one of six puppies born to a pregnant chihuahua my friend rescued and fostered. She and her littermates were born on Mardi Gras, February 13, so they all had New Orleans-inspired names. Ruby-Mae was originally Roux, as in a flour and fat that have been slow-cooked and whisked together to thicken a dish, common in recipes like the gumbos and jambalayas of Louisiana. When I saw my friend’s post that she had puppies in her home, I felt a little pluck in my heart. It was an opening. I checked back in with myself. Was it just the feel-good hormones from seeing happy, safe puppies? I slept on it. No. I was ready to adopt again, and I let my friend know I was going to toss my hat in the ring of prospective adopters. If it worked out, great; if all the puppies we’re already spoken for, well, that was okay, too. All I knew was that my heart was ready again. About six weeks later, I learned that a puppy was mine if I still was up for adopting. I checked with my heart again. I was ready. (Oh, I also checked in with my household.) Two weeks later, we picked her up and Roux became Ruby-Mae. On the car ride, she started relaxing her weight against me, an act of trust. Ruby-Mae was home. Today, it has been one week. She immediately became an essential part of our family.
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I remember when my son came home from the hospital after I’d given birth, even though I’d had 35 years without knowing him, within a week, I couldn’t remember a time without him. What did I do before??? (Well, sleep was one thing.) It is the same with Ruby-Mae. Yes, she has the needle-like teeth of a pterosaur and an uncanny - or perhaps fully canny to puppies - ability to summon forth every carefully hidden cord in every room like a snake charmer, but she is perfection. Like Romeo, Ruby-Mae is tiny (actually, he would look like a giant next to her) but she is lion-hearted, self-possessed and full of life. She’s affectionate, sensitive and never met a sweet potato chew she didn’t devour like a termite in a Warner Bros. cartoon house.
I am head-over-heels. How could I not be? First of all, there’s her little puppy grunts and breath, that’s a given. There’s her perfect little chestnut eyebrows. How observant she is, how playful, loving and hilarious. I even love those toenails that rival her teeth for pointiness.
She is not a stand-in for Romeo. No one could be his proxy. She is her own perfect Ruby-Mae.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to veganism for many people is one they will encounter right away: The avoidance or even dread of entering new territory that is wired right into us. Right out of the gate it seems that moving towards veganism is hamstrung by this innate desire to avoid the things that make us feel vulnerable, like mistakes, imperfection and discomfort.
No huge shocker here, but I have some thoughts about this.
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When I first went vegan in 1995, it felt like the learning curve was both very steep and jagged. Even as a vegetarian of over ten years at that point, many things I used to eat, wear or buy were no longer available, that was a given, but even some things I’d thought were fine had animal ingredients in them. I was lost at cooking, figuring that so much -- pizza, enchiladas, chocolate chip cookies -- was never going to be eaten by me again. Then there was my wardrobe. Then there was dining out, traveling and social gatherings. Everything felt challenging and ungainly, expensive and impenetrable; every attempt to minimize mistakes felt miniscule and futile. That first year, I hit so many walls and was humbled pretty much daily. Things were legitimately tougher then, though: we didn’t have the options and inroads we enjoy today. Plant-based diets were far more uncommon and certainly not dependably available on a widespread basis. My mind was made up, though. I was going to do this thing through sheer force of will if necessary.
Through the stumbling, though, I was learning. I was gathering my resources. I was gaining experience. I was learning -- painfully, at times, and full of frustration as well -- things that I could apply immediately to making veganism easier for me, like where I could find lunch options at work if I didn’t bring my own within a ten-minute walk, or how to find cruelty-free cosmetics and personal care products through my worth-every-penny guidebook that fit in my bag. Through activism, I found new friends who shared my values and lifestyle, and we helped one another gain more proficiency and better shoes. I found new recipes I loved in the vegan cookbooks that were starting to pop up here and there and I even started the process of figuring out how to adapt old favorites with dairy and eggs. (If I never have to have another agar cheesecake, though, I won’t miss it. No, not even for old time’s sake.)
The point is, slowly but surely, a certain deftness developed within me. If veganism hadn’t been as important to me as it was, I probably would have quit after the second time I mistakenly bought “dairy-free” cheese with casein in it (((shudder))), but it was that important so I didn’t quit. Lo and behold, it within a matter of months, it got easier. Yes, I still stumbled, just as I sometimes do today, but less often.
This should not be a surprise. It works this way for learning all things: Practice, consistency, intention, perspective and attitude make all the difference.
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The first time my veganism was tested in a major way, and also the first time I really internalized that “Hey, I’m kind of good at this!” feeling was when we took a road trip down Route 66 the September after going vegan. I was understandably nervous about driving through parts of the country that are still, more than 25 years later, not exactly vegan hotbeds but I figured that we could stock up on nutrition bars and power through. At times we did just that - or dug into our stash of the only hummus in 300 miles to get us through a long stretch - but more often than not, we did just fine. I flipped through my dueling, well-worn vegetarian restaurant directories with notes in the margins and we found places to eat. I figured out how to cobble together meals at the hotel breakfasts. A vegetarian server at a Chinese restaurant in Missouri helped us to put together the best meal we’d had in days and even gave us crystals as we walked out the door. Health food stores fueled us with snacks. I learned how to read between the lines on menus and develop confidence with ordering food. It was kind of a trial by fire, but because of that and the previous work I’d done to learn how to do this, by the time we returned home a week or so later, I felt a new self-assurance in my veganism. If being hungry on the red dirt roads of Oklahoma without obvious vegan options didn’t break me, nothing would.
Expect that there will be bumps, especially in a world that is not exactly designed for veganism. That is part of learning and those very bumps will help you to gain experience and skillfulness. Do it long enough with the understanding that it’s not about perfection -- which is about the ego -- and about trying to live a more conscious, compassionate and intentional life, and before you know it, you will have plenty of smooth surfaces between the bumps. It won’t be long, too, before you’ll be having your own a-ha moment of figuring out your options at your metaphoric only-restaurant-in-miles-in-Oklahoma and when that happens, you will know that, baby, you’ve got this.
Did you have a moment or experience that really challenged your burgeoning veganism? What did you learn from it? How did that help you gain your confidence as a vegan?Recognizing that many of us have neophobia to greater and lesser degrees is an honest place to start. Even if it’s not a raging phobia with a capital P, learning new things is often uncomfortable because of the unavoidable period of uncertainty and awkwardness before integration. It’s just baked into pushing yourself in new directions and many of us are wary of “looking stupid”, even when no one is watching. If you want to maintain your current level of normalcy, that is easy enough to do. Just keep doing what you were doing and don’t take on new challenges because they all require a period of incompetence, from learning ballet to learning a new language. Wading into new waters requires a certain willingness to stumble or fall, pick yourself up, learn and grow from the experience, and adopting veganism is no exception as it is a new territory for many of us. It’s easy to maintain the personal and cultural status quo of not rocking the boat, and accepting that the discomfort of learning something new is necessarily part of the process can be challenging to those of us who just want to get it right the first time.
1970s Sitcom Characters as Vegan Archetypes of Today
Are you a little Rhoda? A dash of Vinnie? Do you know someone who’s basically Maude? Believe it or not, we can look at sitcom characters from the ‘70s and find plenty of vegan archetypes.
Let’s dive in, shall we? Laugh tracks are optional.
Mike & Gloria Stivak All In the Family
A vegan power couple if ever there were one, Mike and Gloria Stivik are the pair that go to protests together, host monthly potlucks, book clubs, a speaker series and anything else they can squeeze in. Mike’s bombastic father-in-law may have called him “meathead” but we all know his noggin is powered by vegan protein, and Archie may have called Gloria “little girl” but she is self-possessed and always stands up for what she knows is right. Sometimes Mike and Gloria bicker over who was supposed to bring the megaphone or the best way to store their vegan leaflet collection, but this duo is in it to win it for the animals. Even if they might be a smidge too intense, earnest and, well, dorky at times, no one doubts their integrity and many wish they could find a similar vegan partner who is up for protesting the rodeo and hitting the vegan buffet alike, just like Mike and Gloria have in each other.
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Rhoda Morgenstern Rhoda
A creative professional by day, the acerbic Rhoda Morgenstern will never waste the opportunity to knock the wind out of meat-eating trolls with her signature, corner-of-her-mouth put downs. She’s so deft, dry and surgically precise with her well-timed barbs, the targets scarcely know what even happened, except that they have been owned. Unlucky in love thus far, Rhoda has a stylish headscarf for every occasion and would be the perfect partner for anyone who is entertained by nonstop sardonic commentary about foolish behavior and would be content being happily child-free for life.
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Maude Findlay Maude
The unofficial leader of the leather-free sneaker brigade, Maude and her feisty friends will show up to all the protests with their signs from 20 years ago and they may have some cat fur on their clothes, but Maude and her squad are nothing if not steadfastly reliable, which is what the animals need from their advocates. Rain, sleet, intense heat or cold be damned, they will show up against exploitation in their jackets festooned with animal rights buttons more consistently than activists half their age. Maude is smart, confident and is never afraid to put a wanna-be hit-and-run troll in his place with her withering put-downs, more heated than Rhoda’s asides but just as wounding, plus she’s able to literally look down her nose at rando clowns because she’s at least a foot taller than almost anyone else
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Lionel Jefferson The Jeffersons
Educated, witty and opinionated, Lionel manages to be a powerful voice for progressive change without talking down to people but allowing them to see the flaws in their logic. Because he is so clever with his takedowns, Lionel gets accused of being uppity a lot but he remains cool as a cucumber in the face of angry pushback and he’s always got more blistering insights certain to get under the collars of those who prefer the status quo. His little knowing smile reveals it all.
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Chrissy Snow Three's Company
It’s not easy to get the best selfies and food photos when you’ve got two roommates and a very nosy, bumbling landlord, but bubbly vegan influencer Chrissy Snow is going to give it her best shot, no pun intended. (Or was a pun intended? Chrissy forgot and she doesn’t care.) People often underestimate Chrissy because she can come across as being a little shallow but she pays it no mind because when everyone wants to know what she eats in a day, what her fitness routine is, what her favorite cruelty-free personal care products and cosmetics are, that trickles down to wins for the animals. Chrissy sees no insult in being called a bunny hugger anyway. Bunnies are cute!
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Felix Unger The Odd Couple
Felix Unger is a little high-strung and is way too prone to asthma attacks to be a bunny hugger of the likes of Ms. Snow above (he is allergic to hurt, feathers, scales and just about everything) but that doesn’t mean he won’t throw it down for the animals because what he lacks in human warmth, he makes up for in persistence. With a personal library full of only the densest, most high-minded books that make a moral case for the equality of all species, Felix is a true crusader for animal rights and is more than willing to pontificate on his views at length, whether or not his speech has been requested. Known for his ability to clear out a party single-handedly, Felix doesn’t mind because there’s less for him to get an allergic reaction to and he can have plenty of vegan leftovers to bring to his roommate, whom he keeps trying to convert. (Won’t happen, Felix)
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Sue Ann Nivens The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Sweet and sassy Sue Ann Nivens can craft and cook with the best of them but don’t let her dimples fool you into thinking she’s just a happy homemaker. Sue Ann has a rapier wit and more than a few sharp edges in addition to hot glue guns, craft scissors galore, a well-stocked spice cabinet and enviable kitchen implements. The original DIY vegan, Ms. Nivens was the first to experiment with aquafaba and air fryers and she’s always got something soaking on her counter, whether it’s cashews (for cheese) or grains (for rejuvelac). Sue Ann is here to make veganism more accessible for the masses, even if the amount of information she can retain is a little intimidating to the average newbie, and if she’s a little overwhelming with her resourcefulness, well, she’s not going to apologize for being so darn competent and talented. Now, should we make a homemade tofu press?
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Vinnie Barbarino Welcome Back Kotter
Vinnie Barbarino was born for the era of social media and, boy, does he ever work that iPhone and selfie stick for the animals. Here’s Vinnie flexing in front of animals in a truck bound for slaughter. (There are pigs in the background if you look really close.) Here’s Vinnie in a Speedo posing with his girlfriend on a tropical beach, because nothing screams social justice movement like a little #VeganInspo. Here’s Vinnie finding whatever camera and controversy he can because he’s not thirsty, he’s just passionate. Oh, Vinnie.
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Cousin Oliver Martin The Brady Bunch
Precocious and adorable, Cousin Oliver is the spokeskid for the animals. Pushed in front of cameras to make heartfelt entreaties to the public for compassionate living, it is hard to deny that this kid can really work the charm. Enough said.
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Dwayne “Schneider” Schneider One Day At a Time
Known almost exclusively by his surname, Schneider is one of those unpretentious fix-it guys you’d never think was vegan, which makes him a great secret weapon. Schneider is the guy you call when your humane trap stops working, the sanctuary tractor needs fixing and you need a pick-up truck for the vegan food drive you’re doing. Schneider has a heart of gold, and he doesn’t want or need accolades for it. In fact, the only social media he needs is being able to yell out a window to tell you he’s got an inside track to some extra kitty litter if you need it.
Do you have any to add?
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When Unity Is Untenable.
Like many people who grew up under a yoke of dysfunction, I was raised with the belief that loyalty to family was a virtue that was both paramount and inviolable. It was not something you thought about; the mere act of considering an alternative to steadfast loyalty was an indictment of one’s character. Loyalty was understood in my household as unswerving, unquestioning obedience as opposed to anything I would have any agency over. Loyalty from this framework removed the element of choice: You were uncritically obedient. You agreed with your father, no matter how irrational he was, because otherwise you’d get in trouble. You didn’t question your aunt’s views, no matter how hateful and bigoted they were, because doing so would be disrespectful. You toed the line. Buttressing this expression of loyalty was its heavy-handed cousin, the notion of unity.
I know when I am being asked to suspend or discard my own thoughts and values for the sake of unity because that was the environment I grew up in, like many others. We were raised with empty platitudes that exhorted us: We must unite. We must stand in unity. We must be united together. Because we grew up with this notion, we recognize when we’re being pressured to fall into line again.
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Unity makes sense from an anthropological point of view.
The survival of the family, thus the continuation of the genes at the most fundamental level, meant we came together in a united front to uphold and defend the members of our tribe. We were stronger woven together than as individual strands. If there was wavering, if there was less than conformity behind each other and especially behind a “leader”, it made the whole unit more vulnerable to being attacked. This makes all the sense in the world if there is a mastodon charging at your living quarters, but starts to become irrational pretty soon after that.
These ancient echoes still reverberate in many of us, though, fostered by family and messaging by society and perhaps even coded into our DNA. A display of unity is what we learn from an early age to avoid being cast out and exposed to potential harm. Our primitive genes can’t really tell the difference between real and perceived threats. Even when we live seemingly very autonomous, self-sustaining lives, the expectation that we will fall in line with those in our units remains a powerful pressure point for leveraging compliance.
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With the new administration in the U.S. last week, I heard this theme again, the same one I have heard my whole life, the calls for unity, the ending of division. On paper or in oration, this can be moving and often high-minded: Who is for division, after all? That said, we must very seriously consider who we are being asked to unify with in these calls and what is at stake if we heed the call. Are we being asked to unite with people who promote long-disproved notions of the earth being flat? Are we being asked to unify with those who promote convoluted, often bigoted-at-the-very-core conspiracy theories about a shadowy elite (*cough*Jews*cough*) trying to rule the world? Are we supposed to be united with those who believe in the supremacy of white people? With misogynists, propaganda boosters, violent and regressive rioters?
Further, in practical terms, how is this unification supposed to happen? Is the middle ground a place where we accept some of the notions they believe in or tacitly agree to overlook them?
I mean this quite seriously: How do we unite with something or someone that is anathema to our values? I suspect that if we do, we would be asked to accept an erosion of our own morality. Just like when disgraced former reality TV host Donald Trump characterized white supremacists as “very fine people” alongside anti-racism activists, those who were upholding a position against bigotry were deeply downgraded and the racists were suddenly - and very undeservedly - elevated. What happened in Charlottesville should not have taken on the tone of breaking up a brawl between two toddlers over a Tonka truck: This was people on the wrong side of history, the side of history that supports genocide and a belief in racial superiority, suddenly being as decent as those fighting against Nazism, as if these were equally right factions who just had different opinions. It is also like the fundamentalists who insist that creationism be given equal time to evolution in public high school science: It simultaneously elevates one to a position it has not earned as it devalues the other. That is always how these things balance out.
It is irrational, unconditional, unfair, unearned and dishonest.
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We hear this same call in the vegan movement when we are told to put aside our values for the “greater good” of a united front. We are told to great manipulative effect that we are hurting the animals by being divided. Especially when we know that QAnon followers, flat earthers, misogynists and racists are found in the vegan ranks, how would we unite with conspiracies and bigotry without tipping the scales in that direction?
I will never, ever unite with vegans and animal rights activists who promote junk science, unhinged conspiracy hypotheses and oppressive, bigoted views. It does the animals no benefit to unite with such individuals because it cheapens and discredits all of us, thus it hurts our outreach and the animals. What we need to do is elevate. If the people promoting oppressive attitudes and/or disinformation want to meet us there, that is where we can start. They can become better educated. But never, ever should we debase ourselves and this cause by uniting with that which is anathema to an informed, educated, diverse and compassionate social justice movement.
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