I often think about this piece Sherry Colb – brilliant author, lawyer and vegan advocate – wrote a couple of years ago concerning taking the liberation pledge, where a vegan pledges not to share a table when there are non-vegan items being consumed. Sherry visits many of the concerns and considerations I too have made about the pledge from why food but clothes ok to the social aspects. I recommend you read the full piece here. The pledge itself no longer exists as it was at the time Sherry wrote her piece and you can read about that here.
Like Sherry writes in her piece, I appreciate tremendously those friends and some family who order or prepare onlyvegan food when I’m present. It says so much about their thought process and basic empathy. For example, a few years ago, I visited a very dear friend in New York. We met at a non-vegan eatery. He ordered the same plant-based dish as I did because he drew on Jewish ethics and said of course he wouldn’t eat non-vegan food in front of me because he knew how important it was to me.
Early on becoming vegan, we visited my husband’s family over the Christmas holidays and they prepared only vegan food so we could all enjoy the food together. I was dumbstruck as my own family doesn’t do that. And I do love how my nephews keep track of all the new vegan spots for when I visit them.
And recently, an acquaintance at a shared-interest (not vegan-related) meet-up at a pub, told me he didn’t buy any crisps for any of us to share (I was the sole vegan) because they all contained milk powder. I was impressed with his thoughtfulness, surprised and thanked him for it. He took the time to read the ingredients and decided it was best we all have none than exclude me. That’s impressed me and it’s not the norm.
These moments are important for a variety of reasons. They’re lovely social moments where we can appreciate those around us and feel, at the very least, seen and respected. Maybe they’re opportunities too, highlighting how animal products are ubiquitous even on things like crisps. And they serve as reminders people can be different and can change, after all, most of us weren’t always vegan.
I think back to whether I’ve treated friends with the same respect and I recall two instances, both when I was non-vegan.
The first happened when I travelled for a month with an Orthodox Jewish friend. She kept kosher and Shabbos. I made sure everything we ate was kosher or at least kosher-friendly. I read ingredients and learned from her what to look out for. I also made sure we were all set to observe Shabbos whenever we were going from place to place. I’m not religious in any way. This was of life was meaningful to her on a very deep level. And of course, I prepared all kosher-friendly food when she came to a party I hosted so nothing there would be off-limits to her and everyone else could enjoy it too.
The second happened with secular Jewish friends who came to dinner with a mixed group of people. I had no idea they kept kosher. I prepared non-kosher friendly food and they had to make do. I was mortified and could only apologise profusely. I’ve never forgotten that and it still serves me well both personally – I always make sure my hosts know I’m vegan – and to ensure I ask guests and friends specifically if there are significant dietary factors I need to know about.
Back to Sherry Colb’s piece and considerations about the vegan pledge. Sherry writes:
blending in with my vegan sandwich does very little to change how people think of animals, if they think of animals at all. If I want people to see what I see when I look at a slice of bovine muscle tissue and a slice of clotted bovine lacteal secretions, I need to do something more than just blend in. Of course, if I am too obnoxious, people will not want to listen to what I have to say. (I assure readers that I am far less aggressive in person than in writing.) So one has to cultivate kindness and warmth while simultaneously standing for one’s principles. Stubler believes that such behavior will begin to change the way other people think about eating animals and their derivatives.
I am not arrogant enough to think that I individually can change the world in a major way simply by refusing to eat at a table with people consuming animals. On the other hand, it would be liberating—for me—to never again have to sit at a table, eating my food, as I try not to smell and see the violence going into other people’s mouths. It would be honest for me to say that I am uncomfortable sharing a table with people while they are eating animals and their secretions. Polite ethical vegans have to engage in so much dishonesty just to get through the day. People ask, in accord with a chapter and the title of my book, “Mind if I order the Cheeseburger?,” and vegans must come up with something easy to hear instead of just saying, “Obviously I mind!!! You are eating the remains of living, feeling, innocent beings, and I believe that is outrageously violent behavior. How could I possibly not mind?” Instead, many of us avoid conflict by saying, “Sure, go ahead.””
I always struggle … it’s detest really … being in a setting where I have to avert my eyes to just manage to be social and maintain those bonds or be in those unavoidable situations. Those non-vegan items were individuals who were exploited and killed for our habits. I can’t stop thinking about that. Ever. It’s an essential truth even non-vegans realise and often choose to simply ignore.
For example, I was visiting non-vegan friends in Naples and on my suggestion we all went to an award-winning pizzeria with a full vegan menu of a typical Neapolitan dish of deep-fried pizza. None of them had been there, despite all living in the city. And the reason we were all going was because the place has an incredible vegan menu. Did they all order the vegan deep-fried pizza? Of course not.
During our meal, they asked me a variety of questions about veganism and about my book, which I answered. At one point the only answer I could muster was a version of what I’ve said above – it’s deeply disturbing to me to be sharing this table with you. The things you’re eating were alive, wanted to live and should be included in our moral society. They died for no morally good reason. I can’t not see that.
None of them blinked at this. It made absolutely no difference to them. This isn’t because they’re bad people. They’re not. I suspect there were a few things happening in their minds.
First, they realise they’ve been ill mannered, putting someone who is a visitor in an uncomfortable place. Generally, Neapolitans are extremely hospitable people. And this situation as I articulated it them puts them at odds with that.
And second, it’s the norm in the world to objectify and exploit animals. The world doesn’t look askance at our consumption, exploitation and killing of animals. So, I’m the outlier. Unfortunately, even with my belief expressed even my friend of over 40 years, who was there and heard these words from me, continues to eat non-vegan food when we’re together. And that’s extremely difficult and sad.
people who eat animals and their secretions do so out of habit and the many years of brainwashing that all of us endure from a mix of advertising and clueless but well-meaning parents who know little about nutrition. This is why a person can have a dog whom she adores and for whom she buys lots of toys and can simultaneously buy a slice of nonvegan pizza, completely unaware of the contradiction she is living. Because people are not acting out of malice when they do what is unquestionably violent, sharing a nonviolent meal together is a kind thing to do and it may well begin to change the world, one meal at a time.
And that’s all we can do. One meal, one piece of advocacy at a time. I don’t ascribe cowardice on vegans who don’t take the pledge. We each do the best we can in whatever our circumstances. Some of us can live in a vegan bubble. Others can’t. Some of us manage to be vocal and some of us can’t. We’re all doing the best we can in the capitalist, non-vegan world we share.
I’ve not taken the pledge. I’m not ready to possibly give up long-term friendships and family. If possible, I generally invite people to a vegan place. Or just for drinks. Or, if I can, I simply avoid the interaction altogether. And often, that’s just not possible. What do you do?
Professor Sherry Colb was a prolific writer and author with books, articles, blog posts and journals. Two books on veganism she’s authored are: Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, which I read early on after becoming vegan. As the title suggests, she answers many of the questions vegans get from non-vegans and does so in a forthright manner and with humour. Sure, you get facts, the ethical discussion and all the serious stuff. And it’s all wrapped up in a very accessible narrative. I highly recommend it.
And in 2016, she wrote Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, which she co-wrote with her husband, Professor Michael Dorf. I read this book when it was first published and highly recommend this too.