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  • Paul D. Wilke

Trying to Be Vegan


No person shifted my views on food ethics more than Dr. Melanie Joy. Her 2010 book, "Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows," did more to realign my perspective than just about anything else. Her premise was simple: Our food choices, especially when it comes to other sentient beings, come largely from our cultural values, and those values are part of what she calls the dominant ideology of "Carnism."


Carnism comes with many baked in psychological defenses that help perpetuate the current system. For those living unconsciously within a dominant ideology like carnism, eating meat feels like common sense. Exploiting animals is defended as natural, normal, or necessary, and if you pay close attention, people supporting the practice will almost always use one of those 'N' words as a justification.

According to Dr. Joy, carnism explains why we consider dogs and cats as members of our families, named, loved, and eventually mourned, while other creatures end up on our dinner plates. I can eat my pig but will go to jail for eating my dog. The only difference, in either case, is the value we collectively apply to determine our behavior.


Eating a dog or a pig both cause suffering, but only one is frowned upon. Carnism makes this so. Dr. Joy also notes that, beyond a few culturally acceptable options, people are generally disgusted by eating most other kinds of meat. Pork is off-limits to Muslims, cows are sacred to Hindus, and Koreans enjoy dog meat, much to our own society's hypocritical horror.


Americans wouldn't think of eating tigers, raccoons, or bears. Thus people who consider themselves animal lovers often remain blissfully ignorant that many of their food choices are anything by animal-friendly. Or, when challenged, they deploy one of the three "N"s mentioned above.

A simple thought experiment highlights just how subjective this whole thing can be. Imagine, for example, that I invite you over to my house to barbecue a Golden Retriever and partake of some rat stew all washed down with some of my best opossum milk. Can I count on you to be there? Probably not. No one will come, everyone will be disgusted, my wife will leave me, and some good citizen will call the police about that Golden Retriever (but not the rat or opossum, alas). My attempt at social outreach would backfire catastrophically, but at least my point would be made.

Anyway, that's the very condensed version of Dr. Joy's argument, and I found it compelling. "When a system is institutionalized, its beliefs and practices are promoted as facts rather than opinions and are accepted unquestioningly" (1458-1459). That's absolutely true.


Once I saw that our food choices are products of our culture and not necessarily part of any natural order of things (or common sense), I began to look deeper at the ethical implications of those choices. When I peeked behind the curtain that hides our entire meat and dairy production system - a curtain put there on purpose - I did not like what I saw and have since tried with varying degrees of success to change my ways.


But implementing a significant personal change like that after decades of ingrained habit has been harder than I expected, and barriers, both social and institutional, are everywhere. How a person copes with these challenges is something that I've wrestled with over the last few years. I have zero vegan friends to consult with on these topics. I'm on my own and rely on advocates like Dr. Joy to maintain my motivation and momentum.

So I was excited when Dr. Joy recently came out with a new book, Beyond Beliefs, that focuses on just these issues. The book dwells less on the ethical arguments covered in her previous work and more on the interpersonal challenges faced by vegans in relationships with those who do not share their beliefs. For me, that's everyone, making this a topic I'm quite interested in.

Unfortunately for me, Dr. Joy seems to be speaking more to a certain kind of vegan demographic that tends toward the female and activist type. No doubt as a leading voice in the vegan movement she's coming at this from her own perspective, but as a male vegan not particularly inclined toward ostentatious activism and suffering from chronic emotional constipation, I couldn't relate much to those parts of the book that talked about emotional needs, safe places, and triggering, just to name a few of what I like to call "Oprah Words."

In my world, those terms are never used except to ridicule fragile little snowflakes who melt away at the first sign of adversity. As a military officer, I've been steeped for almost three decades in a military culture that does not value conspicuous and overt displays of emotional expression, so the constant use of touchy-feely emotive terms made me cringe at times. Here's a sample from Dr. Joy's book to give you a flavor. The italics are mine:

"Elizabeth gets triggered by seeing meat, eggs, or dairy, and particularly by seeing her wife, with whom she is emotionally close, eat such products. But Elizabeth doesn’t feel she has the right to ask Joanna not to eat these foods in front of her. Intuitively sensing that Joanna will feel controlled and get defensive, and having bought into the carnistic myth that her needs as a vegan are less important than Joanna’s needs as a non-vegan, Elizabeth bites her tongue. Elizabeth feels unsafe and disconnected in this situation. Although she feels a need to re-establish safety and connection, she isn’t aware of these deeper needs. All she knows is that she feels sad, angry, and anxious as a result of Joanna’s behaviors. What Elizabeth does know is that in order to feel better, she needs to reduce her exposure to traumatic triggers, which in her case are animal products. On top of this, though she may not be fully conscious of it, Elizabeth needs to stop seeing Joanna as a perpetrator" (1905-1907).

There are a whole lot of Oprah Words packed into that one paragraph that will invite eye-rolling mockery from the average non-vegan, never mind my military peers. But if you can get past the language, there is still a valid point she's trying to make, which is the need for two people in a relationship to see not only their own needs but the needs of their partners as well.


That's true, but she goes on to make what I feel to be a very dubious connection. According to Dr. Joy, many vegans suffer from Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD), which is just like the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by soldiers directly exposed to, either as participant or victim, to violence. STSD, on the other hand, stems from the indirect exposure to abuse or witnessing of violence. STSD often impacts soldiers and first responders after traumatic exposure to graphic violence. Vegans too, suffer from STSD, apparently, by watching animal abuse videos online (Joy 1752).

Ok, maybe, but it stretches the spectrum of the disorder to lump in the psychological trauma experienced by a vegan who has watched Earthlings with a first responder exposed on an almost daily basis to the gruesome aftermath of car accidents, suicides, and murders. Again, to echo my previous point above, to argue that vegans suffer real emotional trauma comparable to soldiers and first responders only promotes the carnist stereotype that vegans are emotionally delicate.

There is also a lot of talk about "triggeredness," a mouthful of a word describing all the many ways that vegans get...you guessed it...triggered. A quick word search on my Amazon Kindle version of the book finds the word 'triggered' or some close variation 108 times. One section discusses "The Spectrum of Triggardness" where we see the world as one giant traumatic system with only three roles to be played: victim, perpetrator, and hero. (1778-1780).

However, to be fair, Dr. Joy is not arguing that being triggered too quickly is a good thing. On the contrary, she's advising vegans not to fall into the trap of feeling like a victim all the time and viewing the other 99% of the non-vegan population as perpetrators. When we see the world in such black and white terms, nothing good will happen.

Fair enough, and it gets to another risk that vegans face by falling into these traps. Getting triggered by all the overt displays of animal suffering itself becomes a non-vegan trigger to make veganism a punchline.


Getting spun up by the Thanksgiving turkey, for example, is an example of the kind of trigger for non-vegans who half expect this kind of response. A stereotype that is confirmed ends up closing, rather than opening, another's mind. If the goal is to persuade, this is not the way to do it.

Of course, Dr. Joy may counter that too much compromise is just another example of carnism dictating the narrative and forcing vegans to adjust their behavior to that of the dominant culture, rather than the other way around. Why is it always the vegan that has to accommodate and not the other way around?

There's some truth to this assertion, and asking for some accommodation from friends and loved ones is reasonable. But that works both ways. Vegans are only around 1% of the population (vegans and vegetarians together, depending on the poll, comprise about 5-7% of the American population) and therefore are often at the mercy of the dominant culture. This unpleasant fact can put vegans on the defensive in social situations involving food. A solitary vegan participating in a Thanksgiving dinner with 10-15 non-vegan family members can only realistically expect so much compromise.

However, my criticisms above should not diminish the value of what Dr. Joy is trying to do here, which is to find ways for vegans to get past certain psychological barriers in connecting with non-vegans. Nor do I wish to make it sound like Dr. Joy is preaching a message lacking in compromise. In fact, the opposite is the case.


She goes into great detail outlining all the ways vegans can compromise in their relationships without compromising core beliefs. Her recommendations on these fronts represent the most substantial parts of the book and can be applied by all vegans, from the most ideologically dedicated, to those like me merely aspiring to lead more vegan lives.

In my case, empathy, patience, compromise, and humility are the four attributes I actively try to cultivate in myself. Empathy gives me the ability to step outside myself and see how others are experiencing the world. Since most vegans have lived as non-vegans, and not the other way around, they are positioned to understand the psychological barriers that carnism keeps in place. My own case highlights this reality. I consumed meat and dairy for over forty years with no thought to the ethical and environmental impact of my actions.

In fact, I was contemptuous of those who preached a message that eating meat was wrong. I remember that mindset well. Rather than get frustrated that people are not getting the message that I now seem to see so clearly, I can empathize with others because I know what they're thinking. In other words, I can see where they are coming from, even if I no longer agree. Doing that makes it hard to get frustrated when consciousness doesn't immediately shift in a more animal-friendly direction.

Next comes patience. Change doesn't happen overnight and cannot be forced. Really, change usually doesn't happen at all for people who live on autopilot, and when it does, it may not be the radical realignment you are hoping for. Vegans brace themselves to deal with a hostile world, but in my experience indifference is the real barrier to change. "So the animals are suffering. Meh..." This indifference may push vegans to turn up the volume to get their message heard. But the more strident that message comes across, the more people will tune you out. Discussion, rather than debate, should be the rule.

This is a point Dr. Joy makes repeatedly. "When we debate, our goal is to win, to be right, and therefore to make the other lose, to be wrong. Debating is a counterproductive form of communication in the vast majority of circumstances" (2664-2665). As I have learned the hard way, that is very true.


Discussion, according to Dr. Joy, is a mutual exchange of ideas with no intent to win a debate or achieve a conversion (2735). If you are not approachable and open to a discussion, or if people think that even bringing up the topic is going to start an Oxford-style debate, no one will come to you for answers to any questions or doubts they may have. Those will be lost opportunities.

Third, is compromise. In this regard, I suspect Dr. Joy would find my approach too passive and not assertive enough. That may be true, but with so few friends to begin with, I'll not risk alienating those few I do have by asking that we have tofurkey instead of turkey for Thanksgiving. No, I'll just eat the potatoes, corn, rolls, and whatever other vegetarian options that are available. No big deal.


Compromise is even more critical with my family, who respect but do not share my beliefs. This has come at a social cost, though, since what I eat for dinner every night is almost always completely different from what they are eating.

Finally, there's humility, which is perhaps the most important. Dr. Joy spends quite a bit of time talking vegans down from any perceived sense of moral superiority. Not only does such self-perception play into negative carnist stereotypes of vegans but it also forces vegans to live by an impossible moral standard. There are no perfect vegans and any who insist otherwise open themselves up to charges of hypocrisy from non-vegans. Here's what she says:

"Some vegans do, however, see themselves as morally superior to non-vegans, and this stance is both arguably inaccurate and otherwise problematic. The choice to be vegan is an act of integrity and reflects an important ethical stand. But the idea that one individual is morally superior to another is, in all probability, an illusion, and is a counterproductive way to think about issues. How can we possibly determine who is, in fact, morally “better”? Is it the humanitarian who eats animals or the vegan who verbally bullies those who don’t agree with her point of view? Would the celebrated philanthropist from Europe be as morally commendable if he’d been born into poverty and sold into child sex slavery in India? What if he’d been born with a genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder? Most of us, perhaps all of us, do the best we can with the cards we have been dealt. And regardless of whether you believe there is a hierarchy of moral worth, framing a conversation about individuals’ moral superiority and inferiority is pretty much guaranteed to sabotage any productive outcome. So it’s good practice not to use this frame at all" (2764-2770).

Her point here applies to me. Change sometimes comes from strange places. I noted at the start of this article that Dr. Joy's first book played a critical role in changing my own behavior. However, the impetus to even pick up a book on vegan ethics came after reading David Foster Wallace's Gourmet Magazine essay "Consider the Lobster."


Something like that should not have made an impact, especially from someone whose writing I otherwise did not like very much. But there it was, that image of the "frantically clanking lid" and the "pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot" as the lowly lobster is boiled alive.

Those images and Wallace's ability to evoke an emotional response gave me the initial push. And all of this from someone like David Foster Wallace, a lifelong omnivore! Who would have thought change could come from him? But that's Dr. Joy's point. The world is not black and white, full of villains, heroes, and victims all playing one-dimensional roles. It's much more complicated than that. Knowing this, and always working to be a little bit better person, rather than a perfect one, is grounded more than anything on humility and the willingness to introspect.

So what to do? In the end, that's up to you. But my humble advice is the following:

Live a positive and quiet example of your beliefs, advocate when you can, but don't be an asshole, and let people figure it out on their own in their own time. Always encourage, never berate. Seekers will find a way to a better self, however long and crooked the journey.

And always be ready to choose again.

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Joy, PhD, Melanie. Beyond Beliefs: A Guide to Improving Relationships and Communication for Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Eaters (Kindle Locations 2930-2931). Cameron + Company. Kindle Edition.


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