For the past year or so, I’ve been doing what I think most people do when they’re young and newly liberated from their ultra-conservative family – learning about the world. Before this, I was very sheltered and of the belief that the world is mostly okay save for a few small things like the price of gas and there being too many polyester shirts.
Since learning about a lot of other stuff that’s going on, I’ve become very political, and, well, very angry. I’m angry about drone strikes. I’m angry about Islamophobia. I’m angry about the mainstream media. I’m angry about the wage gap. I’m angry about rape culture. I’m angry about gentrification. I’m angry about climate change. I’m angry about factory farming.
I’m angry about a lot of stuff.
That last one is the biggest problem for me right now, though. I was raised to believe that there is a happy cow out there somewhere who generally enjoys life up until its last days and then dies quickly and painlessly and makes its way onto my plate. Turns out that isn’t the case, and factory farming is a source of enormous animal suffering, not to mention violations of worker and human rights, as well as the leading cause of global warming. As soon as I found this out, I did what I’ve been trying to do whenever I learn yet another thing about the world that’s out of whack – I tried to make whatever difference I could. I’ve been vegan for a few months now.
I haven’t told anyone about these new eating habits. I want people to know – I think there are a lot of people who, like me, didn’t know this stuff existed. I know there are also a lot of people who know but choose not to think about it, and that upsets me. I went out for one lunch with a friend of mine and ordered a bean burger, and before I said anything other than “Can I have a bean burger?” she was jumping on me about vegetarianism and preachy vegans and I haven’t eaten food in front of anyone else since. I don’t want to be a preachy vegan. I don’t want to police or shame people. I do want to have important conversations about our society’s eating habits and what they mean for our planet. Is there a middle ground there, or is telling someone that you’re eating vegan (not buying leather, not buying Nike or Sodastream or sharing anything by FCKH8, the list is so long I’m starting to realize I can’t avoid being immoral) inherently judgemental of their choices?
It’s your friendly neighborhood goat lady here. I asked Cap if I could take this one because honestly you remind me a lot of me, if I hadn’t had enough land, time, and knowledge to take up small-scale farming. So I thought maybe I could offer you some thoughts, although I don’t think there’s really any easy answers here for you.
Well, ok, I tell a lie. I have one easy answer for you. Your friends’ feelings about your diet are their feelings, and you don’t have to let them stop you from eating in front of people. Order your bean burger, and if whoever you’re with says something, try saying as mildly as you can, “Wow. I just wanted a bean burger. How bout the weather/the local sports team/that book you’re reading?”
The bad news is that there is no way for you to bring up their omnivorous eating habits over a meal without you sounding like a jerk. Because let’s face it, trying to ruin someone else’s enjoyment of their food by talking about the ways industrial agriculture is toxic to everyone and everything it touches is, in fact, a jerk move. Your anger over their omnivorous diet is yours to manage and shouldn’t be inflicted on your friends, just like you don’t want your friends inflicting their defensiveness on you when you were just looking forward to a burger.
What you’re essentially wanting to do here is evangelize. You don’t just want people to know about the abuses of industrial meat production, you want them to share your outrage and also become vegans. You say you don’t want to police or shame people, but at the same time you are eyeing them with suspicion that they “know but choose not to think about it” and getting upset because they aren’t meeting your self-imposed moral standards. Evangelizing, however, is best accomplished via either a deep, loving relationship with someone and the trust that entails, or levels of tact, compassion, and humor that would put Captain Awkward to shame.
Conversations about our food system are absolutely essential to have. The ways in which agriculture are broken are many, deep, vicious, and evil. But there are many things other than moral conviction that shape the way human beings eat, including but not limited to what foods we can afford to buy, what foods we have access to, how much energy we have to cook them and eat them and clean up afterward, what foods we were socialized to eat… The list could go on, and on, and on.
If you want to have a hope of discussing the food system with people and having them actually be receptive, I can offer you a couple tips. For background, I live on 2.5 acres where we produce our own dairy (via goats), poultry, rabbit, a significant chunk of our vegetables, and we’re just branching out into grains. My husband works full-time, and I hold down the farm. Why am I doing this? Because I freakin hate the industrial agriculture system. But, and this is a big but, I do not expect anyone else to change their lifestyle and start doing things my way. Not everyone can eat the way we do. And achieving a vegan or even vegetarian diet isn’t possible for everyone, either.
When I talk about the food system in general, I try to do it without making constant reference to my own food choices. I also don’t do it if I’m not at peace with the way other people eat. If you’re angry at them because they’re eating meat, it will come through. If you constantly make reference to your vegan diet as the example of how people should do things, people will feel policed, shamed, and judged. They will react poorly to both these things.
If you do have to reference your own food choices, make sure you know, believe, and convey that your food choices are not appropriate or achievable for everyone. You need to make peace with the fact that the only food choices (and indeed behavior in general) you can control are your own, and with the fact that people are not eating meat AT you. No one is choosing to be omnivorous because they’re an evil person who delights in suffering and environmental damage, but if that’s how you’re approaching people then the discussion is going to go nowhere.
Moral purity is impossible to achieve, particularly in the realms of food. Even a vegan diet contributes to environmental damage and human suffering, especially in terms of out-of-season produce shipped in from half a world away, exploitative and dangerous conditions for migrant farm workers who pick your produce, and the fertilizers and pesticides used to grow crops. Yes, even organic agriculture has issues. There is, literally, no way to eat without contributing to large scale suffering unless you’re able to be completely self-sufficient in food production, and while I’m pretty convinced that farming is a religious calling for me even I don’t want to try it. Because I’d never be able to do anything but grow food and fiber and process and preserve it.
This applies more generally to social justice at large, as well. You cannot achieve moral purity; it is not humanly possible to refrain from compromise. Forgive yourself when you have to do it; forgive others when they do it; be at peace with the fact that the world is an imperfect place and you are doing your best. And if you’re going to evangelize, approach your fellow imperfect human beings with love and grace. There’s a Vonnegut quote I’ve been reciting to myself lately: “There’s only one rule I know of, babies. God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
SOME BASIC COMMENTING GUIDELINES Food choices are a fraught subject. Animal welfare, environmental destruction, and human rights abuses, also fraught subjects. Approach your fellow commenters with generosity; as I noted above no one is eating an omnivorous diet because they are delighting in evil; and not all vegans are out there judging your omnivorous food choices. As always, health or body shaming is verboten. This is a most excellent community, y’all, so let’s bring our best to any discussion we have here.
 Cap would never let me guest post again if I started writing the book on how and why I’ve chosen these particular crops and animals in this post. Someone remind me to revive my defunct blog.
 The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a great place to start engaging with human rights abuses in farming quite generally, and I highly, highly recommend them. More specific to livestock, The Livestock Conservancy works to preserve heritage breeds that can produce without horrifying industrial conditions.