As an introvert by nature, I used to dread telling people I was a vegetarian for ethical reasons. I didn’t really know how to do it without coming across as either too judgmental or too apologetic. How do you tell someone you think what they are doing is morally wrong? It’s not easy. So not wanting to dance in that minefield, I usually avoided the topic altogether until forced to do otherwise.
But finally, someone would ask. This always seemed to happen at backyard barbecues while everyone was sitting around the table enjoying hot dogs and hamburgers while I grazed on whatever plant-based options were available. Naturally, me sitting there not eating what everyone else was eating drew attention and questions.
Those initial exchanges usually went something like this:
“You don’t eat meat? Really?”
“Nope, none at all.”
Then, almost inevitably,
“Not even fish?”
“Nope, no fish either,” I’d respond.
“How come? Do you do it for health reasons?”
Then an awkward pause, maybe a furtively exchanged glance or two, all finally waved away with an air-clearing, “Well, that’s nice, but I could never do that!” Everyone quickly nods in agreement and gets back to their burgers.
The conversation moves on.
I’ve become quite good at reading the room during those delicate moments when a stereotype first meets reality. To be fair, in my experience, these initial conversations have been mostly cordial and rarely mean-spirited. What strikes me is that people are genuinely curious about ethical vegetarianism and/or veganism but at the same time are afraid to ask questions for fear of getting subjected to some condescending lecture about animal ethics. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think most people would rather have a conversation and not a confrontation. Fair enough.
Thanks to the antics of a few bad actors with large social media platforms, people expect vegetarians and especially vegans to be insufferable assholes. Whether warranted or not (for the record, I think it’s not, but that’s another topic), many have negative stereotypes of the kind of person who avoids animal products for ethical reasons. We’re portrayed as a bit preachy and self-righteous. I suspect my very presence generates a bit of discomfort, at least at first. I know how I treat those first-encounters will either reinforce those negative stereotypes or leave the door open for further dialogue.
Usually, though, I’ll nudge this first conversation away from my eating habits and on to something less socially vulnerable for me. Sitting around a table where everyone is scarfing meat is not the time or place to plant a flag and engage in a passionate debate about food ethics. I could do so, trust me, I really have thought this through, but it’s a kamikaze mission in this kind of setting. Coming together around the dinner table is and always has been a powerful social bonding experience, and the odd one out at these gatherings is at a disadvantage to argue it should be otherwise.
Maybe there’s a better way.
You see, once that awkward ‘coming out’ moment is past, the worst is over. From there, the initiative slowly shifts in my favor. Now I get to chip away at whatever stereotypes people have about vegetarians, particularly male vegetarians. I’m not weak and lethargic. On the contrary, I enjoy weight-lifting and don’t have trouble keeping the muscle on or my energy up, even with no meat and dairy in my diet. I’m not sick all the time or protein deficient. In fact, I’m probably in the best health of my life. I don’t have supple man-boobs from consuming too much soy (oddly, I hear this last concern a lot from the guys). Similarly, my testosterone seems just fine (another concern I hear from the fellas).
With the physical stereotypes debunked, I can begin to open people up to beliefs and practices that may have seemed unimaginable before. In other words, by serving as a real-world, living example, I get some small say in shaping how the people in my social orbit view vegetarians. Eventually, people come to see nothing all that strange. It becomes routine, boring even. That’s a kind of progress, believe it or not. Getting to the point where the bizarre appears benign is an essential step in realigning a perspective.
I’m glad because I don’t believe getting in people’s faces works. That’s not my style, and I know a lot of people who feel the same. In my experience, changing a mind is a slow, fitful process, and not something that can be done by turning up the volume of your megaphone. Habit, tradition, pleasure, culture, doing what everyone else is doing, these anchor us to our beliefs more than we would like to admit.
And yet, some folks are more open after contrasting the culturally-mediated stereotypes of vegetarians with what they actually see in someone like me. I’m firm but not strident in my views. I’m not constantly lecturing from a soapbox in a condescending way to all the sinners in the world, though I can still coherently and politely articulate why I do what I do.
I’ve found this ‘not trying too hard’ approach, which is arguably not even really an approach, works best over time. Call it a kind of quiet, slow-burn proselytizing. Just being a stereotype-defying embodiment of a much-maligned belief is often more effective than forcing arguments on an audience already culturally-conditioned to be resistant to them. In fact, this way has worked for me. People often come with questions once they realize I’m not what they expected. And in some remarkable cases, they are even inspired to reduce or eliminate meat or dairy from their diets.
I’ll be honest, this doesn’t happen every day, but it happens enough to be encouraging, and sometimes from people I would have never expected. Seeing someone’s paradigm shift for the better in real-time is energizing. That doesn’t mean all these curious people become vegans. No, often it just means a more ethically motivated reduction of meat and dairy, but it reveals a conscious desire to change in a more radically moral direction. That’s a beginning. That’s how real change happens in the real world, one tentative step at a time.
Believe me, once your perspective shifts, once you allow yourself to see the horrors that get ignored because the system is rigged toward collective ignorance, you cannot pretend it is otherwise. There’s no going back. You become prey to those truths and must choose to either confront them openly or not. Either way, a conscious choice is made, either by embracing the contradictions and hypocrisy with a shrug or by trying to reconcile them in ways that make the world a little bit better place. Indeed, the very presence of a quietly ethical vegetarian like me becomes a constant reminder of that choice.
Our lives are stories we tell about ourselves, ones where we’re the heroes. It’s often jarring when these hero narratives are disrupted by how we actually live. People hide from uncomfortable truths in humor, irony, and the self-reinforcing ignorant warmth of the herd. Someone like me breaking bread with a bunch of meat-eaters is a small disruption, a hint at an alternative to the status quo. A choice. Here at social gatherings centered on meat, as so many of them are in our culture, the devoted pet lover who also adores bacon double cheeseburgers confronts the choice between moral contradiction or honest awareness.
Again, the choice, always the choice. I can be the quiet contrast, a silent reminder that culinary pleasure these days quite often only comes at the end of a chain of almost unimaginable animal suffering. A quietly confident vegetarian does not need to shout in a loud voice in these situations; the lived example will suffice until the mind is open to another way.
Maybe some of you are thinking this approach is too timid? Maybe not “activist” enough? Perhaps you are right. However, I’m convinced my more sedate approach is already being used by millions of people today and it is yielding results. While the number of vegans and vegetarians in the population has remained steady over the last ten years, the market for plant-based products has exploded, a trend that most experts believe will continue. Why is that? Are PETA’s loud and confrontational tactics finally shaming millions of meat-eaters to re-look their dietary habits? I doubt it. No, millions of stereotype-defying vegans and vegetarians out there are gradually tipping the scales in our favor by the quiet examples they set. You may know some of them in your own lives. I count myself as one. We quiet emissaries of ethical eating are changing not only the terms of the debate but also the economics.