Be nice to vegans

Victoria Helmer, Columnist

Vegans have a bad rap, but I think they’re just a misunderstood bunch. Tino Mori, a Wire opinion section alum, wrote a wonderful article in 2015 where they recognized that veganism, while morally applaudable, has become a “cultural punchline” that we too easily dismiss, stressing the value of truly listening to vegans. 

With a few exceptions here and there, I was vegan for almost four years and am currently a vegetarian with modest consumption of animal products. When I was vegan, the hardest part was dealing not with the dietary but instead social dimensions — it was the bearable, but mostly annoying, emotional labor I had to do when people went out of their way to criticize my diet. 

This is not to say that my diet did not deserve scrutiny. It did. But the “debates” that followed felt more like silly fights for dominance than actual dialogue. Maybe I’m just an easy target, but the one-sided conversations were so draining and frequent that I thought I’d speak out on behalf of vegans, even though I’m not even vegan anymore. 

A lot of vegans are sensitive individuals who care very much — sometimes too much — about cruelty towards animals, and there are literally blog posts for empathetic vegans struggling to cope with the pain of living in a non-vegan world. As dramatic as it may sound, I really resonate with them.

Veganism requires certain privileges, but having privilege doesn’t automatically render anyone’s feelings invalid. Some vegans spiral into an exhausting mix of resentment and cynicism if you diss their lifestyle without giving them a chance to be properly heard, and there are plenty of misconceptions surrounding veganism. 

To me, veganism is about reduction, not elimination. The ideal would be an elimination of unnecessary suffering, but we don’t live under ideal conditions. Today, all of our lives, to some extent, are structured around activities that will hurt others. Being alive necessarily involves some consumption of resources and production of pollutants, and no matter how hard you might try, your existence will always — to some degree, no matter how small — hurt someone or something. 

Moral purity doesn’t exist. Being vegan is about striving to do what feels right when possible. To paraphrase Isaac Marion, it’s about trying to repair a world you’ve helped destroy.

Being vegan quenches an emotional tick that you can’t fully comprehend unless you’ve experienced it yourself, and a combination of allergies, food sensitivities and social class prohibits many people from doing so. It takes moral luck to satisfy this tick. At the same time, some people can’t see beyond a forest of rationalizations. There are also some who can see beyond but still won’t care, and that’s just a part of their makeup. 

I think a lot of us are conditioned to associate veganism with militance, but most vegans are nicer and more tolerant than you would imagine. A lot of vegans are meek, sometimes sad creatures who dislike our food system but have compassion for those who eat meat, regardless of the reason. Unless they somehow come from a vegan family, odds are they weren’t born vegan, and they almost definitely have lots of loved ones who eat meat. 

Veganism is one of the few political stances that requires you to actually do something on a daily basis, and projecting any cognitive dissonance one may have onto an innocent vegan is counterproductive. No one needs to give anyone a gold star for being vegan, but the least you can do is to hear them out and openly listen, rather than lecturing them on why you think their diet is pointless.