Choosing Compassion Over Fear

Many people are afraid to go vegan — for various reasons. They may wonder what they’ll eat, where they’ll get their calcium or protein — or whether they can give up cheese forever. Most often they’re afraid of what it will mean socially. What will their friends think? How will their relationships be impacted? Will people think they’re acting “high and mighty”? Will they stop being invited to parties and events? I’ve talked with people who were especially concerned about offending or inconveniencing others with their veganism. Wondering, for example, what would happen if they were offered non-vegan food and had to decline. How would their rejection land with the one who offered? Will they be seen as freaks or outcasts, or clueless beneficiaries of class privilege? These fears stop many would-be vegans in their tracks. Even after they learn the truth about the animal exploitation industries and the horrible torture and eventual killing of tens of billions of animals in the United States alone each year, many people are afraid to make what they recognize as an important change for good. Even if they know it’s the most compassionate thing to do — and even as their own values continually urge them to.

Some of these fears are not entirely unfounded. Any time we speak the truth, especially when it goes against mainstream cultural norms, there is always the risk of backlash from those who have a stake in upholding the status quo or those who are simply in denial and wish to remain blissfully ignorant of the harm they’re doing. When confronted with veganism, non-vegans are made painfully aware of the violence behind the food on their plates and how their behavior — their choice to consume food and use products made from animals’ bodies — perpetuates that violence. This creates cognitive dissonance[1], the mental discomfort experienced by one who’s actions are contradictory to one’s beliefs or values. Most of us would never knowingly or willingly inflict terror, injury and death upon animals. In fact, many self-described “animal lovers” I know regularly consume the flesh and secretions of animals and fishes without question and don’t consciously find any fault with it. This complete and utter lack of awareness is the result of carnism,[2] described by Melanie Joy as “the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals.” The “carnistic defenses”[3] that hide these contradictions and allow us to make exceptions to what we would normally consider unethical, are challenged by veganism.

I’ve heard stories from vegans (primarily via social media) about negative responses they’ve received from various people in their lives when they shared their decision to go vegan. The responses range from outrage, shaming and shunning, to name calling and even threats of violence. An acquaintance who moved to Portland from the Midwest told me about how she was attacked online by one of her husband’s colleagues over their decision to go vegan. Her husband’s colleague made threats and called her derogatory names. Other stories I’ve heard simply revolve around vegans being treated rudely by someone who yells “bacon” or some other equally ignorant comment. I’ve had my fair share of defensive questions from non-vegans, such as “Don’t plants feel too?” and “Won’t cows take over the world if we don’t eat them?” Or assertions like, “Sorry but I LOOOOVE my meat!” Thankfully, these comments haven’t come from close friends or family.

My partner and I have been fortunate to have people in our lives embrace our decision to go vegan. I say embrace rather than “accept” or “respect” because they’ve made every effort to support us and our awakened values of compassion. Some of them have confided in me that they’ve reduced their meat or animal product consumption because of things they’ve learned from us. Others have said they know they should go vegan, but aren’t there yet. We’ve had non-vegan friends invite us to dinners where they’ve prepared fully vegan meals. Some have completely given up eating meat as an important first step and my 32 year old brother went fully vegan as a result of our conversations and his own research.

Some friends have been having an annual fondue party on Christmas Eve for a few years now and have invited us every year. Before going vegan, we first stopped eating non-aquatic animals — so they adjusted their fondue dinner to include scallops. Then when we went vegan, they incorporated shabu shabu — a Japanese dish where you simmer tofu and vegetables on skewers in vegetable broth at the table. When we visited our friends in Los Angeles, they welcomed us with a delicious home-cooked vegan Greek meal, even though neither of them is vegan. When I visit my parents in the Central Valley of California, they stock up on vegan food for us. When my partner was in Cleveland on business, the chef at his hotel restaurant created an amazing vegan breakfast every day he was there and said he was thrilled to have the opportunity to take up the challenge and get creative.

I should caveat this by saying that I’ve been involved in social justice movements of various kinds for nearly 15 years, so becoming vegan for ethical reasons was probably not terribly surprising to the people who know me best. Many of them have received an earful or two over the years about patriarchy and violence against women, white supremacy and racial justice, US militarism, the prison industrial complex and so forth. I have strong convictions and I don’t hesitate to express them — through my words and my actions.

I’m thrilled that my choice to — as Colleen Patrick-Goudreau puts it so beautifully — “live according to [my] own values of compassion and wellness, and to change how [I] regard and treat animals”[4] — has not only led to dozens of wonderful new friends in the vegan community, in Portland and beyond, but has strengthened and made my existing relationships more authentic and fulfilling.