First published in Ecorazzi on 15 June 2016, with a nod to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”.
One would think that vegans are an itinerant group with all the references to journeys in expressions like “it depends on where they are on their vegan journey” or “it’s my vegan journey.” I am all for travelling and experiences. However, when we talk about “our vegan journey,” what we are really saying is that “we” are the focus of our veganism, not the animals.
Each of us came to veganism as a result of some experience. We might have watched a film, read a book, had a conversation or been influenced by an advertising campaign. We might have gone through a thought process, had concerns about our health or the environment or had a sudden revelation, a moment of clarity, or made a connection between our food, clothing or other choices and their devastating repercussions. It may have taken us years to go vegan or we might have made that choice early on in our lives. We might have observed meatless Mondays for a period of time. We might even have been vegetarian before realising that dairy and eggs were equally as devastating as meat. These experiences are valid and important because they make up our individual and collective histories and they are part of our life’s journey. They also make it easier for us to relate to others and how they may be thinking or approaching veganism. However, they have no more or less value than that.
Whether directly or by implication, we all acknowledge that we were misguided prior to going vegan and that animal exploitation is unjust. I have yet to encounter a vegan who has not said something like “it’s the best thing I ever did” and/or “I wish I had done it sooner.” It is clear to us that the injustice to animals is at the heart of veganism. Yet, when it comes to advocating for veganism, we are not clear.
We demote injustice instead of speaking clearly for the animals. We sideline the suffering of 60 billion land animals and trillions of aquatic animals per year to save listeners some momentary discomfort. We promote reduction of animal foods consumption, baby steps, welfare improvements and so on, and we rationalise such promotion because of our “journey.” We shift the focus away from the victims and on to the human dining experience, as if taste was more important than the death of the animals. Would we do that if we were talking about physical abuse? Would we say to a group of abusers, please stop abusing once a week just because you feel that otherwise the abuser group might not listen or be swayed to stop the beatings? No. We would not because by doing so we would betray and deny the suffering of the victims. We may not reach all the abusers or convince them to stop the abuse, but we are least not going to give them a pass to continue their behaviour, whether they reduce the frequency or ameliorate the methods. If and how anyone modifies their behaviour is up to that individual only, but our message must remain the same.
People appreciate clear messages. This basic principle applies to the non-vegans we may reach with advocacy. If they are receptive to our discussions about our concern for animals, then they will be receptive to hearing a clear message about veganism. I have had conversations with people telling me that they no longer eat a particular animal or that they have substantially cut down animal foods consumption and I ask why they are making distinctions or why they are limiting their non-animal consumption to one day. I always make it clear that although doing less harm is “better” than doing more, I will not advocate less than veganism. More often than not these types of conversations lead to more discussions and that is never a bad thing. In fact, it is clear to me that many people would have gone vegan sooner if they had heard a clear message about veganism being a moral baseline, instead of the usual “reduce consumption” or “happy” exploitation messages that many “animal advocates” promote.
Our personal experiences are valuable because we understand where non-vegans are coming from. They are useful tools for us to thoughtfully and kindly communicate shared experiences, educate, banish misconceptions, answer questions and demystify veganism. But they are notthe baseline from which we should be advocating for veganism. The plight of animals should serve as our unwavering beacon because they pay the ultimate price, and it is the least we can do for them.
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost