October 10, 2007

Bad, Wrong, and Vegan

Posted in vegan, veganism at 5:20 pm by nevavegan

Bad, Wrong, and Vegan

Like I said yesterday, I’m having trouble trusting my words at the moment. Those of you who know me, know that I have a lot on my plate at the moment and it’s making it hard to be the blogger I’d like to be. So forgive me if I misspeak here.

More than a decade ago I moved into a group house in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, before that neighborhood was so trendy and yuppified. I was grateful for a place to live, with seemingly nice roommates. So I decided to cook a meal for all of them. I didn’t make very much money but I wanted to do something nice for my roommates.

Unfortunately sometime during that meal one roommate, a guy, decided to play quiz the vegan. Somehow this wound up with him extracting from me the information that six or so years prior to that meal I had done something that really wasn’t good for animals. I admitted that I had done this thing and also said that I deeply regretted it and considered it a terrible mistake. At the same time I reflected that in an odd way, doing something wrong had been the thing that probably set me on the path toward veganism.

My roommate was incensed. He pounded his fist on the table. He yelled that I was a hypocrite and in his opinion I might as well give up being vegan because I was a sham. He then yelled that I could never make up for what I’d done and he despised me. This after eating my food and drinking my wine, but there it was.

I was deeply hurt. Not because I didn’t know the wrongness of my prior actions and not that I didn’t live with constant regret. But I was hurt because I thought I was doing something nice, feeding everyone a home cooked meal, and I felt I was paid back in a confrontation that was mean, unfair, which more or less ruined the evening for everyone, and given the fist pounding and the significant size difference between myself and this guy, felt fairly physically intimidating to me.

The other roommates had looked uncomfortable and then positively ill and then drifted away as the confrontation continued. A friend who dropped by for the food but didn’t live there looked uneasy, his eyes got huge, he kept opening his mouth as if to say something, then stopped and just drank more wine instead.

What was my terrible crime? Years before, my boyfriend at the time had given me a gift of a baby rabbit purchased at a pet store, and I, even knowing pet stores are terribly wrong, and it’s wrong to financially support them, fell in love with the rabbit. I was nineteen and a vegetarian. I was old enough to know better. I knew everything wrong with the whole thing and yet I did it anyway. I organized no great protest of the pet store. We did not return and demand our money back. Yes, I know there’s everything in the world wrong with that story, but that’s what happened.

Happily he did no try to pry further back into my life to learn I had previously gone fishing, eaten animals my father had killed, eaten rabbits my father had killed, eaten animals I had raised and loved, worn fur trim, worn leather, carried a purse made out of crocodile that I’d found in storage in my parents’ house. I can’t even imagine how much fist-banging would have been involved then. I don’t think I can possibly list anything and everything I did wrong. I generally say of all of this that I was very young and just didn’t know better and had been raised to accept all of these things. But I’m not sure age is the relevant factor. Most of us live our lives one way, the way we are taught, until something transformative happens at some point and opens us up to empathy and compassion. And opening up to those things can really be ego-crushing because to change requires admitting something was wrong in the first place. So many people find that kind of examination incredibly painful and try to avoid facing it.

In any case I managed to eventually work out my differences with that roommate and we ended up getting along. Not that I condone fist-banging ever.

The H Word: Hypocrite

I tend to think we’re all hypocrites, some less than others, but still we all have our issues. It’s not just that I’ve done things in the past that weren’t good to animals. I really value being good to people and not acting in an underhanded, passive aggressive way. In fact I wrote an article about how damaging gossip is. Yet, I’ve caught myself gossiping. The thing is that doing better and being better is a work in progress. It’s easy to fall back on bad habits and it’s generally difficult to break them. Shocking as it sounds, I find it easier to be vegan, because at this point it’s largely habit for me, than I find it to always be empathetic to people who don’t present themselves well, for example people whose mental illnesses make them disruptive, angry and aggressive. In cases like that I often have to take a deep breath, step back, and remind myself that nobody chooses to carry around those kinds of burdens.

Does the fact that it doesn’t always come perfectly naturally to me mean it’s hopeless and not worth pursuing? I really don’t think so, because if nothing else, the effort I put in matters to me and matters to those immediately around me. And also I hope for the cumulative effect of many people putting effort into kindness and compassion.

We all screw up. We all fall down. We all make mistakes. But the belief that we have to be perfect all the time is paralyzing. If we believe we must be perfect at everything we do, then it can be an excuse to do nothing. It means we can’t experiment, learn, and grow.

To go back to the idea of being a nice person, we can recognize that we have failed in the past, and might fail again, but still acknowledge that it’s important to keep trying. Knowing that we can’t be perfect isn’t a carte blanche to be as awful as we’re capable of being. Instead, it’s an incentive to keep trying and to also be able to apologize for the mistakes we make along the way. Likewise with veganism. Most of us weren’t born vegan, we might have even done very non-vegan things in the past. We might screw up tomorrow and accidentally eat something that isn’t vegan. But we’re going for the balance here. We want to keep trying to do our best and not let the mistakes paralyze and disempower us. Mistakes are also learning experiences, when we mess up once we know to look out for that problem next time.

Also, what does hypocrite mean? It refers to a person who holds one value, but behaves in a way that is opposite to that value. So, Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite to own slaves while calling slavery immoral. Many of us looking at history are deeply disappointed by his personal failings and participation in one of history’s truly great wrongs. However his own participation in a deeply immoral system doesn’t mean he was wrong to call slavery unethical. The message was still valid, even delivered by a deeply flawed human being.

So the call to prove our own lives free of hypocrisy before we can talk about anything, much less veganism, is another red herring. Most of us don’t fall in the Thomas Jefferson category either in the extent of our influence nor in the depth of our hypocrisy. However, we can make mistakes but still have valid concerns and a valuable message.

“Just one drop and I’m falling apart again”

If the bad actions of my younger self, or my occasional laziness, gossip, grumpy mood, whatever, today are the worst things I ever do in my life, I suppose we’ll all be pretty lucky. The gift of wrestling my former self and making changes in my life is that I know in a very real sense that I can be wrong. I can be wrong, I can be stubborn, I can be mean and selfish. Since I know this possible I can try harder to avoid it. But if I fall down and screw up, I’ll get back up and try harder.

I once knew a guy who went to 12-step. He’d been sober five years and then one night had a dessert that had been spiked with some liquor. Since he’d fallen off the wagon anyway he went ahead and had a few beers, and then a few more the next night. Later he said he’d given up on the whole idea of 12-step, he liked drinking and it was too hard going to all those meetings and always watching what he did. I’m hardly in a position to judge who has a drinking problem and who doesn’t, but I do know that sobriety had been important to this person, both due to actions of his own while drinking that he regretted and a family history of alcoholism. But he felt if he couldn’t be perfect and spotless he’d just toss in the towel.

But veganism, compassion, kindness, trying to do better for the environment, etc. aren’t necessarily things anyone should chuck out the window due to one mistake, particularly a mistake from lack of information or a moment of inattentiveness. But I’m consistently amazed at how many people (despite voicing their own strong opinions) think that before I can express an opinion on veganism I must prove my complete blamelessness in every aspect of my life.

I’d love to be perfect and it’s never going to happen, which doesn’t mean I can’t try to be “better.” It just means I’m a flawed person in a flawed world and sometimes even my best isn’t going to perfect. Other times all the choices available to me are bad in some way and it’s so hard to find the one that’s least harmful. Still we have to muddle through somehow and keep hoping the balance falls in the good.

You’re Not Making A Difference

Many people lately, vegans and non-vegans alike, have told me that my being vegan really makes no difference. It spares only a small number of animals, and maybe not even those animals as others are “eating my share.” Further, they say, veganism will never catch on with large numbers of people, so therefore veganism doesn’t really make a difference.

I think that my being vegan makes a difference in the fact that I’m a living example that someone who didn’t come from an animal-friendly environment can be vegan. I show that vegans can eat well, hold normal jobs, need not be socially isolated, and can have a sense of humor, and so on. Being vegan shows other that veganism is possible.

Likewise, buying a hybrid car really doesn’t accomplish that much, individually. Instead, people hope that by buying into hybrids they encourage more to be made, that others start driving them, and that more and more people will use them. Because one hybrid, not a big difference, you’re hoping lots of people do it.

My earlier point was that hybrids are not accessible to many. I’d love one, but I can’t afford one. Many people are also faced with similar financial constraints. But anyone can be vegan. It doesn’t require special equipment or a down payment, and foods can be as simple or as gourmet as one chooses.

But there it is: if you’re the only person recycling are you accomplishing much? Maybe not. But if you’re the first in your community to recycle, but you teach others, push for curbside recycling, find ways to make it easy, or even hold neighborhood recycling days and make it a social event, then maybe that’s something.

None of us do so much all by ourselves, but we teach others and spread the message.

There is the other aspect too. When my father commented that I wasn’t accomplishing anything with animal rescue because I’d found and saved so many animals, but still the homeless, abandoned, starved, and sick animals kept coming, he entirely missed the point. It might not send huge ripples through the entire world, but to each animal I save it means everything.


1 Comment »

  1. Gary said,

    When someone says ‘not many people will become vegan, so it’s not worth it,” some replies that come to mind are:

    – Do what’s right regardless of what other people are doing.

    – If it takes a million people to make a difference, we’ll never get there if everyone has your attitude. We get to a million people one at a time. You and I are two. Change one friend each, now we’re four. And so on. In the meantime, we contact food manufacturers and legislators and work it from that end, too. Before you know it, we’ve passed anti-cruelty laws and created a market for veg restaurants and a huge number of veg products in stores. Never say never. Have faith that we’ll create a better world, then act on that faith.

    The whole fist-banging episode sounds like defensiveness: Look for any reason, no matter how irrelevant, to blunt the vegan’s message and therefore feel superficially justified in committing cruelty. It’s pathetic. Sorry you had to go through that.

    As you said, even a hypocrite can put forth a valid, if not compelling message. But I don’t think you’re a hypocrite in the usual sense of the word. It’s not like you’re eating meat and telling people to abstain from meat. The beauty is that anyone can become vegan no matter what they did in the past. And btw, I think your “crime” was merely one of ignorance. Your intentions were good and compassionate, and that is never a totally bad thing.

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