Saturday, 31 July 2010

The thinking vegan?

I came across this in the Guardian this morning. Now, I'm quite thrilled that veganism is getting any coverage in a mainstream newspaper from a vegan perspective, in particular coverage that is not about health scares or 'pushiness' or for that matter 'terrorism'/'extremism'. But I have to say parts of it make me wonder.

Now this first bit, I can understand:
I stare because I'm fascinated by the fact that these intelligent, thinking people actually eat the flesh of dead animals. This seems to be the point at which their ethics vanish. They recycle, eschew the use of cars, buy fair-trade coffee and bananas, use environmentally friendly detergent. But when it comes to the moral and environmental issue of meat consumption, their desire for food they enjoy the taste of, the sensual pleasure it gives them, overrides any ethical considerations.
I have, after all, been there many times - including with vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs. I can respect that you (anyone reading this who isn't vegan) might hold different opinions and make different choices to me. This isn't a boundless capacity - there are points where respect and even tolerance stop - but if you are actually friends with me then you are unlikely to have reached the boundary. However, if you are a friend or anything more than a casual acquaintance, you are likely to have a pretty good idea of where we disagree. So you know that I am at the very least curious about where your ethical standpoints come from.

This gave me more pause for thought:
Now, I avoid having meals at the homes of my meat-eating friends. I'm uncomfortable with the hassle that feeding me causes them, and the inevitable awkward conversations about food. I wouldn't express my real views, as I know I would offend them. I could never tell them that their lack of conscience about what they eat creates a barrier between us. Or that it means we will never be quite as close as we could be.
I don't think I've ever turned down an invite on this basis, although I may have been denied a few. I'm not secretive about being a vegan, so anyone who invites me over is likely to be doing so in the knowledge that there are certain things I don't eat. Over the years several non-vegan friends have risen to the challenge and done a bloody good job of it. Furthermore, on many occasions said non-vegans and their other guests have also eaten vegan or vegetarian food and, unless they are better bullshit artists than I give them credit for, seemed to rather like it. Oh, and there are also times I have had non-vegan dinner guests, given them vegan food because hey that's what I cook, and had more compliments than complaints.

I can understand, certainly, why this vegan and others might have issues eating at non-vegan friends' houses. If you don't have intimate knowledge of people's domestic habits, you might not know for sure how careful or otherwise they have been about avoiding cross-contamination. This boils down, no pun intended, to the relationship you have with the people in question beyond the vegan issue - the friends I mention above are all people I trust not to cross-contaminate, play stupid pranks and so on. (Including the guy who sees my meat avoidance as a good thing in the context of a tapas bar, as there is more left for him) There is an element of shyness to overcome about saying 'by the way I'm a vegan', maybe having to explain why you made that choice as well as the more prosaic details of what you do and don't eat. Sometimes it seems easier to say no. But being open about your choices (maybe not preachy in this context) and practical about what you do and don't eat, offering suggestions if necessary, is the best way to calm potential panic about feeding a vegan. (As a thought experiment, I have asked myself what I would need in order to deal with a guest with significant allergies - I'd want them to name some favourite meals, be specific about what I need to avoid, and preferably not cloud the issue too much with other factors) It occurs to me that avoiding interaction with non-vegans just fixes the idea that vegans are 'weird' and antisocial, that our food is strange and inedible to anyone else - whereas accepting these interactions, with the challenges involved, could go some way to normalising veganism in people's minds.