Some controversy has been caused in the local blogosphere (historians, take note! I believe that was my first use of that word in this space) by the public declaration of veganism by Brittney Gilbert, who writes for Nashville Is Talking. A response appeared in Tiny Cat Pants, prompting dozens of comments, and various other references appeared in other blogs.

I like Brittney — she’s a good dude — and since I’ve been alternately vegan and lacto-vegetarian (or just veg*n for short — meaning any variant) for the past 10+ years, I thought I might weigh in with a few comments.


People choose to be vegetarian or vegan for any number of reasons. For me, my initial steps towards being vegetarian were tied to healthy eating, and reading Diet For A New America cemented my decision on ethical grounds.

The most impressive people I’ve ever met are Lorri and Gene Bauston, founders and owners of Farm Sanctuary. They learned about factory farming and knew they had to do something about it. To raise the funds to open their first shelter in New York, they sold tofu dogs at Grateful Dead concerts for years. Since then, they’ve been instrumental in lobbying for laws banning “downers,” foie gras, and much more. I’ve been to Farm Sanctuary’s California shelter quite a few times and shared a few meals with the Baustons. I organized the first Walk For Farm Animals in Portland, Oregon. I’ve met Howard Lyman and heard him speak about the importance of reforming the farming industry. I’ve met Lin Jensen and heard him speak about the qualities of inner peace that can be found in a peaceful diet. I’ve met Jennifer Raymond and heard her speak about vegan cooking (and even sampled her cooking!). I’ve met Linda Blair and heard her speak about being vegetarian and an advocate for animals.

Farm Sanctuary isn’t the only organization out there doing this work, of course — there are dozens of other organizations doing great things for farm animals and other animals, and much of that work protects non-veg*ns, too (such as work done to prevent the spread of BSE, or Mad Cow disease). And those organizations don’t all look or behave like PeTA, either. (Not that I don’t agree with PeTA — they’re just on the radical end of the spectrum. Radicals arguably help moderates make progress. But that’s a different discussion.)

Anyway, what I see in the discussion that’s been happening in the past few days — and what I’ve experienced for myself for years — is that there’s a lot of anti-veg misinformation out there, a lot of anti-veg mythology, and yes, perhaps a lot of pro-veg smugness too. The latter is hard to contain, but it may be just an evolutionary process: a lot of times it’s the zeal of the newly converted. After a while, most veg*ns probably learn that it’s easier to get along in mainstream society if you’re fairly low-key about your diet, and only offer up information when asked.

The anti-veg stuff is a bit harder. Once people have an idea in their minds, it can be hard to shake it out. If anyone has ever met even one smug veg*n, it seems like all veg*ns look smug for ever more. There’s also the issue of odd debates. Non-veg*ns often draw strange conclusions about the motives and attitudes of veg*ns.

From Aunt B’s veg*n-questions post at Tiny Cat Pants:

Many of you become vegetarians/vegans because of concerns about whether animals are treated humanely during the farming process.  Are you not also concerned about the suffering of human beings during the farming process?  Are the hands lost to augers during your soybean harvest less of a concern to you?  What about the inhumane treatment of migrant workers brought in to harvest fruits and vegetables?  Is it because you perceive they have some choice in participating in farming that makes their suffering more palatable?

This is a strawman. The suffering of human farmers and farm-hands has nothing to do with the suffering of animals, in that, just because I choose to modify my diet in such a way as to reduce my burden on the suffering of animals, it doesn’t follow that I don’t care about the suffering of humans. On the contrary, the stories I’ve heard first-hand from people who’ve worked in slaughterhouses and factory farms are enough to convince me that avoiding animal products not only has a positive impact on so-called “food” animals, but also stands a chance of positively impacting human work conditions.

Similarly, Aunt B asks:

Do you believe it’s possible to live a morally uncompromized life?

No, and I think this line of questioning is useless. Non-vegetarians frequently take vegetarians to task over what they consider inconsistencies in their reasoning. Yet I’ve never heard a veg*n claim to be perfect, or claim that they had no impact on the earth or its fellow inhabitants.

Yes, I realize how ridiculous our choices are to many of you. It’s fun to make fun of us. My friends and coworkers do it all the time. (“Let’s go to the steakhouse for lunch today, Kate!” Ha ha.) Odd how few people consider it appropriate to make fun of other lifestyle choices or beliefs. But I’ve got a thick skin and I don’t mind it. Not everyone does, and I actually met someone once who said she used to be vegetarian but she couldn’t handle the social awkwardness. Whether you think it’s silly or not, isn’t that a bit unfortunate?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people point at my shoes and ask if they’re leather. They’re not, but what’s the idea? Is there a vegan lifestyle police force I don’t know about?

Some veg*ns are pompous holier-than-thou jerks, some are judgmental of non-veg*ns, some are looking for opportunities to make meat-eaters feel bad about their diets. But a lot of us are not. A lot of us are trying to make the world a kinder, gentler place, and our actions are not an indictment of your actions, even if you choose to interpret them as such. Our actions have nothing to do with you.

Speaking for myself, I can say that I know of at least 6 people who’ve become vegan or vegetarian citing my indirect influence, and that flatters me. But I don’t set out to convince anyone to stop eating meat, let alone cheese (it’s amusing to me that I hear from people so often “I could give up meat but never cheese!”). On the other hand, I would love to convince people to stop participating in a process that marginalizes both the farmer and the farm animal, but that goes well beyond where we decide to go for lunch together.

Vegetarianism and veganism, somewhat explained and somewhat defended

4 thoughts on “Vegetarianism and veganism, somewhat explained and somewhat defended

  • November 28, 2006 at 10:26 am
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    I don’t get why anyone should care what anyone else’s choices are in life — and that includes choices about food, religion, drug use, sexual behavior, etc. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, why should I care what you ingest, or whom you worship or sleep with?

    I have, however, occasionally felt somewhat defensive about my own choice to eat meat when talking to veg*ns. Not sure why that is, really, or whether it’s them or me. I suspect that it’s at least in part because I do feel somewhat guilty about contributing to the atrocities done to animals and uncomfortable about stuff like antibiotics and other ‘improvements’ the meat industry does (although I do make an effort to buy organic meats from sources that treat their animals humanely whenever I can)…but my convictions are not quite strong enough for me to make such a radical change in diet, especially since I’m a very picky eater and it’s hard enough finding a decent variety of things I can eat. And that makes me a bit uncomfortable in the face of people who do manage to make those changes, because I feel like I should too.

    But that’s not your problem (the collective ‘you’ meaning all veg*ns); it’s mine, and so nowadays if the subject should come up (which it doesn’t often because I don’t really have much day-to-day interaction with any veg*ns), I make a conscious effort not to make any more of a big deal out of it than my own often odd food preferences. It’s just another thing about people — like one friend of mine who can’t eat wheat, or another who has a nut allergy, or my dislike of salads — something that only needs to be addressed when cooking a meal for someone or picking out a restaurant where we can all find something to eat.

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  • November 28, 2006 at 12:06 pm
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    I think that as with all religious choices not pushing your beliefs onto other people is a great way to behave. I applaud people who make strong and difficult decisions based on their beliefs and stick to them but only if they don’t try to force them on others.

    Seems to me, you’re doing great. It’s too bad so many people are so judgemental about other peoples choices that aren’t their business.

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  • November 28, 2006 at 2:17 pm
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    This post didn’t show up on my flist today. Odd. Regardless, thanks for “strawman”–that’s the exact word I was trying to think of yesterday.

    This is a great post. I’m not very eloquent in saying or writing why I eat what I do and why I don’t eat what I don’t. I suppose that’s why I’ve never influenced anyone except the BF to refrain from eating meat.

    We all have our reasons for what we eat and we all have our rationalizations. I’m one of those people who’s said, “I could never give up cheese!” and I still haven’t entirely. It’s a choice that I can’t really justify, but I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself. As long as I avoid arguments with people who think I’m a hypocrite for eating cheese.

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  • December 1, 2006 at 4:52 pm
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    I have an imbalance that is easiest to maintain by consuming red meat. I live in a town with a VERY strong vegetarian presence – I am often in the place to say “I really need some meat could we go someplace where I can get that” – talk about an amusing reversal.

    You will be amused that one of the most popular burger places in town is Local burger that gets all the ingredients locally.

    I do tend to get our meat at Checkers grocery because I know they buy at local farmers.

    When we have anyone over for dinner we try to ask “Do you have any food allergies / likes / dislikes. Are you a vegetarian of any type and if so please define what the type means”

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