At its simplest level, the notion always made some sense to me: we hurt and kill animals for our pleasure and convenience, and we don’t have to.
But I’ve always held so many levels of resistance to veganism. Surely it’s not that simple.
I bring up the topic now because I’m about to give it a whirl, not as a response to any kind of ethical crisis, but instead as a health experiment. My diet has been without any hard edges for a long time. Nothing has been off limits, and as a result I’m steadily gaining the 1-pound-a-year perma-fat that the experts say will continue to bog down the typical adult until they die.
I ate about nine chicken taquitos at a get-together not long ago, and I think it was a cry for help. I want to put some strict boundaries onto my diet, if only so I become more conscious of what I eat and so I can practice that “just say no” reflex. Just for a month, to see what happens.
I was going to do the paleo diet, since that’s the thing these days, but to be honest the “on-limits” foods instantly depressed me. I don’t want to eat shrimp and avocado omelets, with berries and balsamic as a snack. Paleo looked like it would prescribe an increase in the animals foods that have had me feeling a bit, uh… clogged these days.
So I’m going the other way, and swan-diving into the plant kingdom. Besides, I’ve had it on my bucket list for a while now: try out a vegan diet for 30 days.
But what about the social ickiness I’ve always felt about veganism? Well I went over my long-standing reasons for steering clear of it, and I have to admit they’re looking a bit wilted since I last checked:
1) It’s too hard.
I know more former vegans than vegans. The unwillingness to live a cheeseless life seems to be the primary reason my once-vegan acquaintances quickly backpedaled to the more moderate vegetarian camp.
Usually restaurants have between zero and one vegan dishes, so that’s what you get. The world is made for omnivores, so you’re painting yourself into a pretty tiny corner if you only allow plants into your body.
While researching this post I kept running into the same surprising anecdote: when people go vegan, they typically wind up expanding their palette. They end up doing a lot more cooking, trying a lot more different goods, and learning a lot more about nutrition in the process. After the initial restocking of the fridge, and a crash course on vegan staples, finding something to eat isn’t so hard.
Ok, so it’s harder than what I’ve been doing, which has basically been doing whatever’s easiest and most gratifying to me. Maybe “hard” is just “harder than the easiest possible approach.”
2) It’s too idealistic.
Oh, I don’t want to hurt anything, so I’ll only eat plants. While I’m at it, I’ll never get angry. I’ll never drink. I’ll never swear. I’ll never take a pen from work or listen to burned CDs.
Life feeds on other life, and that’s a reality we all have to accept. Animals kill animals. We’re animals. We kill other animals too, and we couldn’t have gotten to where we are today without doing a lot of killing and dismembering of animals that really didn’t want to get killed or dismembered. Yes, it’s ugly, violent, bloody. It’s nature.
This was another argument I’ve used to veto the idea of going vegan. Just because I find nature’s violent side a little disturbing sometimes, does that mean it’s wrong to kill animals for food? Mother Nature creates horror on a daily basis. The spectacle of a predatory cat ripping its prey apart while it’s still alive is something most people would hide from their children. Most nature shows won’t even show it. Just because it’s unappetizing and disturbing, does that make it bad or wrong?
Looking a bit closer, it’s not such a great argument. The real atrocity, in the view of some, is not how food animals die but how they must live. In the system that creates food for us, animals are typically treated worse than history’s slaves. There’s plenty of footage online if anyone isn’t clear on what I’m talking about, but I think we all are.
Now, not everyone agrees that there is an equivalency between human and animal lives, but that’s a moot point. Even if we rank animals firmly below humans on whatever arbitrary “worthiness of respect scale,” I really don’t want to picture an animal I know being treated like that: Chico or Marley or Rocko or whoever.
Of course non-human mammals have personalities, any dog owner knows that. But it’s so much easier to eat them if I never had to know them. They don’t look like animals by the time we see them anyway.
There are lots of schools of thought on this but no matter how I dice it (the argument, not the animal) it always comes down to the same bottom line: we inflict suffering that we don’t have to inflict, and it’s easy for us to justify because we don’t have to see it.
3) Vegans are angry.
While I was researching this post, it was sometimes difficult to find articles on veganism that didn’t degenerate into ranting and accusing. A lot of vegans do seem to have trouble refraining from getting vindictive when the topic comes up, and as a meat-eater, all it’s ever done is make me dig my heels in. It’s like they’re always trying to slip in the gross-out reference, telling you there’s pus in your cheese, or calling your burger a crime scene.
I think the vegan cause suffers from this. I know now that it is only a minority that are always looking for a fight, but those few really do a number on the image of veganism. It is an emotional issue and it’s easy for someone in either camp to get heated about it. But I wonder of those loose-cannon vegans realize that to alienate one omnivore to the vegan cause is to ensure that one more person will probably eat meat with full self-justification for the rest of their lives. Do this to a couple of people, and maybe it was better for the animals if that person never went vegan in the first place.
But as I said, this is a vocal minority and most vegans seem to recognize that peace between humans and humans is a prerequisite to peace between humans and animals.
On a related point:
4) I don’t like PETA. I don’t want to be one of those people.
This is the institutionalized version of the antagonistic approach in #3. When I think of PETA I think of their publicity stunts.
They seem to love to shock and enrage, and while it might be a great way of preaching to the choir, they are probably most successful at getting omnivores (both the staunch and the fence-sitting kind) to hate not only their organization, but the word vegan and the notion behind it.
It’s almost like they’re secretly trying to turn everyone in to Ted Nugent. To scream “Meat is Murder” at a meat-eater is to say “You’re a selfish prick who kills for pleasure, you bloody murderer! Join us!” I suppose the audacity of their stunts might get them on TV, giving them a chance to arouse more hatred for their organization, and forfeit any chance at converting anyone, but they’ve created the image of vegans and vegetarians as being subverts, accusers, haters. How this is supposed to help animals is something I will never understand.
Their hearts might be in the right place but their methods (or at least the most visible ones) are an embarrassment, and so many vegans don’t support them. What a burden PETA must be to vegans who recognize that you can’t change the mind of someone who hates you.
So my disdain for PETA remains, but I no longer equate PETA with the vegan cause, because that’s just not fair.
5) I don’t want to ask the waiter fifty questions.
This might just be the one that’s been the biggest dealbreaker for me. I have always had a rather extreme contempt for nitpickers of any kind, and there’s no way I’m going to interview the server in every restaurant so that I don’t accidentally swallow some whey extract that somebody else would have eaten anyway. I will not be one of those people who holds up everyone else while they make sure everything conforms to their self-imposed “alternative” standards.
Now that I’ve seen how a few vegans handle this, it’s not hard. Meat dishes are obvious, and they know what foods typically contain animal products. If questioning is necessary, it’s usually limited to “Does this have any dairy in it?” and the server always knows, or can easily find out. When it doubt, they can order something else.
There may be other complications I haven’t foreseen, but this part of it no longer intimidates me.
6) The harvest of plants kills animals anyway.
This is a pretty well-worn argument by now, but we know that the harvest of food crops by machines results in the violent death of all sorts of sentient creatures, from field mice to rabbits. There doesn’t really seem to be a way around this, as long as food production exists on an industrial scale.
There are still a lot of vegans who seem to believe that by living a vegan lifestyle, they don’t cause any harm to their fellow beings — that they can criticize the lifestyles of others from a karmically “clean” position. I’ve always resented this particular hypocrisy, and I kind of let it disqualify veganism as a possible lifestyle for me.
But it didn’t take too much research for me to discover that most vegans do recognize that the purpose of their lifestyle is to greatly reduce the suffering caused by their way of living, rather than eliminate it. I’m sure they would have told me this if I had asked.
7) How could I ever say, “Ok, this is the last cheeseburger. Ever.”
One time I was getting my hair cut and I was half-eavesdropping on a conversation on the other side of the mirrored partition. A bride-to-be was getting her hair done, confessing to the hairdresser her worries about getting married:
“It’s just… I guess… I’m never going to have sex with anyone else for the rest of my life!”
No word on how she’s doing.
I have had the same thoughts about cheese. And wings. And lattes. How could I ever reach a point where I’m going to say, ok, this is the last one. Ever.
The way I see it now, “lifetime commitments” are not really possible. Not technically anyway, because the 30-year-old making the commitment is not the same person as the 48-year-old who is going to be responsible for upholding that commitment eighteen years later. We’re all constantly becoming different people with evolving values year by year* so the person you are today can’t make promises for the people you will be 5, 10, or 25 years from now. Each day, each moment, we have the options of upholding or re-evaluating and re-negotiating our commitments with ourselves and others.
Of course, people can and do honor commitments that they made in their youth, but it’s either because they happened to carry a consistent belief in that department through the years, or because they’re afraid of rocking the boat and living the values they carry today, if it means making a major lifestyle change or upsetting other people.
So there’s no need to make a lifetime commitment. I’ll go all the way through 30 days, and on day 31, breakfast will be whatever I feel like eating.
*or at least I hope you are. If you have the same beliefs you’ve always had, you haven’t grown a lick, just gotten closer to your grave.
So none of my reasons really hold up for me anymore. Now I’m not saying that my cheeseburger days are over for good, or that I’ve “seen the light” but it seems like now is the perfect time to tackle one of my Life List items and eat a vegan diet for 30 days.
I want to see what it does to my body, to my social interactions with others, to my wallet, and to my opinion of myself. After the 30 days is up I’ll do whatever I see fit.
Even just playing around with veganism feels like I’m opening an enormous can of worms. If I change the way I eat for ethical reasons, it means I must examine everything I do now. How can I hold my eating to an ethical standard but not the rest of my life: the products I buy, the stores I shop at, the public figures I support, the charities I give to, the way I talk to people, the places I spit my gum out, the way I dispose of my batteries…
It’s the pandora’s box of ethical living — one endless slippery slope. Well I’m not going to worry about that for now. I’ll do my vegan experiment, let one thing lead to another, and keep an open mind.
NOTE: Experiment No 9 is just finishing up now, and my final report will be posted later this week, but I wanted to get this experiment underway first because I have all this vegan food in my house and I’m ready to go.
I will eat a vegan diet for 30 days, beginning Monday, February 21 and ending Thursday, March 24.
I am limiting the lifestyle changes to my diet for now. Veganism is about more than just what you eat but also what you wear and who you buy from.
During the 30 days I’ll read and watch essays and videos on the vegan issue from as many viewpoints as I can find. I will hear PETA’s schtick, and Ted Nugent’s. I’ll see what makes sense to me.
I will report the changes I see in my experiment log.
There are a few foods on which vegans aren’t unanimous. Honey is one. I do not believe bees suffer, but I can’t argue that eating honey is an example of exploiting the animal kingdom. I am not going to seek out any honey, but I’m not going to go to great lengths to make sure none enters my body either.
To my great relief, my favorite beer, Keith’s White, is vegan-friendly. But there are probably animal products out there I don’t know I’m consuming.
Another issue is refined sugar. It’s usually made using bone char, which is an animal by-product. Now, I’ve bought raw sugar, but I’m not going to worry too much about eating incidental refined sugar in foods other people prepare. It is not necessary to use bone char as a filter in the refinement process, so I suspect that its use in sugar production only occurs because the meat industry happens to create a cheap supply of it, and not because all the refined sugar fans out there are creating a demand for it.
Anyway, I can’t possibly account for every contingency or grey area right at the outset. I’ll learn as I go along.
If you’re interested in doing this too, even for just a week instead of a month, you can post your progress in the comments section of the experiment log.
Whatever you do, bon appetit.
Photo by David Cain