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
. . .
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
HERE ARE A FEW MORE WAYS TO CONNECT WITH VEGAN STREET
veganstreet.com is one of the INTERNET'S first vegan websites. We have been creating community-building vegan content to the world since 1998.