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.


Alex said...

As a vegetarian, ie the less moral cousin of veganism, I often wonder about the cross contamination issue. Do you mean cross contamination during the course of the preparation of food for one meal - which is unreasonable clearly as well as not following health and safety procedures (which is why vegetarian food in a restaurant should be okay for this)? Or do you mean permanently having stuff untouched by non-vegan products?

I personally try to keep in mind with cross contamination that vegetarianism is a moral choice not a religious obligation like other forms of food rules - thus if I make a mistake or someone after I've eaten something tells me there has been cross contamination then I try not to get really angry about it. These things happen.

LiseyDuck said...

I mean cross-contamination during the preparation and serving of the meal. For example making seperate meat and veg curries but stirring them with the same spoon, or splashing rice with chicken stock through carelessness, or taking otherwise vegetarian items to the table on a dish that also contains meat. If by 'stuff' you mean kitchenware, then no I don't expect that to be the case in non-vegan households. I just tend to assume that people wash their stuff properly. (my own kitchenware is kept vegan, but that's a different story)

Mama Motz said...

I agree with parts of this article, this is the second blog I've seen about this article. When I read it the first time I got quite a chuckle. Upon reading the second time around I noticed the same nuances you did.

I will say that I attend extended family gatherings and I end up bringing my own food because no one will 'cater' to my family. They think that the harder they make it for us the easier it will be for us to break. On the flip side, I have over eager parents who would love to take their grandchildren out to breakfast at iHop but since nothing is vegan I don't know how I can allow it. I thought maybe I could invite them for breakfast one day?

Iris said...

The parts about 'normal' socialisation in the end are very good, I agree. Since veganism is somehow trying to combine very moral with practical issues, it can sometimes be difficult to draw the line about how careful you should be.

I also think that the 'trouble' one goes through with having veganism questioned by your friends, is worth it because of the diversity it brings. I know those who have almsot exclusively vegan friends - and I'm not sure why it would be so holy. I bet that most people have some part of them repeatedly questioned and mocked (where I live, religious folks are rarely taken seriously) and the troubles with veganism are often what you learn the most from =)

Okay, not so much on topic, but I liked your blog entry