By Shelby Jackson, VRG Intern
Sometimes social pressures make being vegetarian a struggle. Growing up in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, amidst a family of ranchers and a high school swarming with Future Farmers of America enthusiasts, veganism often set me apart from the rest of my community. Though it was difficult at the beginning, I would soon learn some tricks of the trade that would allow me to politely confront aggressive oppositions to my lifestyle choices. Upholding and smartly promoting vegetarianism began to feel natural and easy, and my assured confidence allowed me to persevere through the most heated of confrontations.
Some vegetarians are more inclined to activism than others, and it is important to recognize where you stand, and to choose your battles accordingly. If I attempted to convince every person who gave me trouble for being vegan, I would be an emotional wreck. Arguing about issues you care deeply about can be extremely frustrating, and it is important to realize that it is not always worth it. If you feel emotionally taxed, or have the feeling that your arguments for vegetarianism are chipping away at your well-being, take a moment to self-reflect. Realize that you most likely will not convince the pig farmer to become vegetarian, and that not everyone can be persuaded to change their habits. This does not mean you should give up; rather, you should target your efforts to an audience that may perceive your message more readily.
Patience is key. My mother was upset when I became vegetarian, but 6 years later she decided to adopt the diet herself. A relatively modest promotion of vegetarianism around the aggressively omnivorous is often the best approach to take. In high school, one of my tennis teammates, Morgan Chissoe, the daughter of a cattle rancher, made fun of my veganism nearly every day. Rather than getting into a heated argument every time Morgan did this, I would simply shake it off, offer a brief explanation of why I thought she was wrong, and aim a joke back at her. Two years into our friendship, she began asking me more detailed questions about my lifestyle choices and soon after became vegetarian. She explained to me how, at her farm, the mother cows’ cries when their offspring were taken away often kept her up at night. I would have never guessed that this particular friend would become vegetarian, and that my lifestyle choices would eventually cause her to re-examine her own.
When asking Morgan how her family reacted to her transition to vegetarianism, she claims they saw it as a “phase,” and often made jokes about her new dietary choices. A country girl whose family’s dinners are often steak and mashed potatoes, Morgan had to endure verbal abuse from her family members at every family gathering. Having grown up on a farm and been around cattle her entire life, Morgan feels her family will never truly understand vegetarianism. Despite this, she claims things have gotten better: “My step mom regularly buys veggie patties and when she makes beans, she makes the vegetarian kind just for me.” Her mother even started eating occasional vegetarian dishes after realizing the health benefits.
Being vegetarian in an agricultural community, Morgan is continuously confronted with opposition. She does her best to answer their questions, but when she starts to feel disrespected, she states, “You have your opinion and I have mine and it’s my life so I will eat what I want and feel good about it.” Morgan claims that most accept this answer and if they do not, she simply leaves the conversation. Morgan’s advice to a struggling vegetarian is to “hang in there because even though people do not agree with you, those close to you are likely to gradually come to respect your viewpoints.” Morgan explains how one of her omnivorous friends always wanted to be vegetarian but was too overwhelmed by the community’s love of meat. After becoming inspired by the way Morgan adjusted to her situation, she soon became vegetarian.
Sometimes such strong opposition stems from familial ties to meat industry occupations, or engrained cultural habits; other times, it could be from lack of understanding. Grace Afsari-Mamagani, a college student, claims that a meat-heavy diet is the cultural norm for her Polish family. Because her mother insists that a vegetarian diet is a less healthy diet, Grace is sure to demonstrate that she knows what she is doing and has educated herself enough to understand how to create a balanced, varied diet. After becoming more informed, Grace’s mother is more accepting of vegetarianism, and has noticed that Grace has become healthier and now eats a wider variety of food than she did when she ate meat. Always willing to explain and defend her decision, Grace realizes that “some people will probably never change their minds.” For Grace, “That’s okay: I can inform them, provide my viewpoint, and accept the differences.” Grace believes that “sometimes you just have to let the criticism happen after you have done what you can; I always try to take it with a smile.”
My grandmother, who has killed and prepared her own fish and chicken for a large part of her life, will never understand veganism. Even after I have explained countless times how important veganism is to me, I have caught her slipping animal ingredients into my vegan holiday pies. I have learned to supervise and help with foods she makes for me, and to bring my own meals when visiting. Some people will never understand veganism, and it is helpful to accept this and, like Morgan and Grace, move on rather than fixate and become frustrated by something that is unlikely to change. This is not to say that you should lose hope in convincing those close friends and family members that appear unlikely to change. It helps to be patient and mindful of the way you portray vegetarianism. Never make it look difficult and try not to complain about such things as lack of options at a restaurant. You want to portray vegetarianism as the easy, enjoyable, and worthwhile lifestyle that it is.
“’Surviving’ in an Agricultural High School,” an article written by past VRG intern Veronica Lizaola, claims that attending a high school that was not accepting to vegetarianism “eventually reaffirmed and strengthened my beliefs.” For Veronica, opposition to her dietary choices “served as the ultimate motivating force to inform others about a more ethical lifestyle.” Instead of becoming discouraged when others try to bring you down, become inspired by their lack of understanding and the tremendous potential you have as a vegetarian. A vegetarian presence alone is enough to cause others to think about vegetarianism—and this simple act of thinking is often the first step to an eventual dietary conversion, or at the very least, a more informed and respectful view.
Debbie Schaefer, became vegetarian at the age of 11. When Debbie first told her parents about her decision, they “started crying as though I had just confessed to some horrific eating disorder.” Last Thanksgiving, her aunt purposefully cooked everything in turkey broth, and then scolded Debbie for being rude when she refused to eat anything. One of Debbie’s teachers commented that all vegetarians are “self-centered, inconsiderate, and attention seeking.” This teacher then attempted to get a rise out of Debbie by describing, in detail, how he had chosen a live dog at a restaurant in China, watched its slaughter, and then enjoyed consuming its flesh.
When asked how she overcame such opposition, Debbie says, “It’s been a lot of trial and error.” Debbie claims that she used to try to educate people as to why she became vegetarian, but then she came to the conclusion that “if someone isn’t open to hearing it, then they are not going to.” When answering questions about vegetarianism, Debbie simply responds, “I wanted to know where my food came from, and when I found out, I didn’t like it.” Debbie has found that this response helps guide those genuinely curious to do their own research, while not giving those eager to argue much to work with. Years later when Debbie asked her parents why they cried when she first told them, they said it was because they felt as if she was “rejecting their lifestyle choices—something they took rather personally—and worse, they couldn’t understand why.” Debbie feels that, although it has taken years, “they are slowly beginning to understand,” and now only eat meat once or twice a week.
Aulbry Freeman, a college student from a town with few vegetarians, became vegan in high school. Aulbry was so used to getting grief about vegetarianism that she was “automatically defensive, and wouldn’t hesitate to tell people the disgusting truth about the food they were eating while they were eating it.” A few of Aulbry’s omnivore friends disliked her constant criticism so much that they began to distance themselves from her altogether. After a year’s time, Aulbry realized that offending and disgusting people was not the best approach. Aulbry was reflecting the disrespect from her community back on to them; and often, the victims of her harsh criticism were those who deserved it least. When facing daily opposition against being vegetarian, it is easy to get sucked into unproductive methods of advocacy. Lashing out at anyone who eats meat or uses dairy products casts a bad image of vegetarians and does nothing to promote the cause. Rather than directing useless criticism back on to those who oppose you, or those whose lifestyles are different from your own, keep in mind that there are better ways to voice your concerns. Individuals are unlikely to become vegetarian, or even to respect it, when they are being criticized. The best approach vegetarians can take is to politely inform, as those willing to adopt a vegetarian diet must make the decision on their own.
When being rudely confronted about your lifestyle choices, keep in mind that these moments are prime opportunities for advocacy—because it is in this instance where a small amount of carefully executed effort can leave a lasting impression. An individual must be seen as credible for another person to sincerely take their words into consideration, so be careful to not offend. When it comes to family members and close friends, there is a fine line between activism and rudeness that is easy to overlook. Rather than offending those who are close to you, channel your frustrations and cultivate it through an intelligently constructed explanation. Stay positive, remain patient, and remember: you are always affecting change, even when it seems like you are not.