Some people just don’t like vegans. The fact of our ethical veganism, even if we don’t say a word about it, can be an affront to those who are still eating animal foods. We challenge the way others eat and live just by being vegan. And, understandably, most people feel discomfort when their way of life is challenged.
But it’s more than that. People expect to be scolded by vegans. How many times have you heard that vegans are judgmental, superior and unkind? Is that an unfair assessment or do some vegans alienate the very people they want to convert? Most of us are passionate, after all, about animal rights. It can be hard to keep that from turning into something that is condemnatory and critical.
Before I became an animal rights activist and vegan, I was already a dietitian with a relatively varied background in public health. I worked with migrant farm workers in the rural Midwest, low-income families in urban areas, pregnant teenage girls and well-to-do suburban women seeking weight loss. I learned a lot about working with people whose experiences and world views were different from my own.
One of my clients in a Washington, DC clinic was about the angriest person I had ever met. Her 2-year-old son was iron deficient and the pediatrician insisted that she see me. She would hardly look at me and, when she did, it was with intense and rather unnerving dislike. She was angry because she knew I was going to tell her that she wasn’t taking care of her child. I was going to judge her and find her wanting.
Of course, I didn’t do that at all. I told her all the reasons why kids with loving and attentive parents can have low iron levels. I let her tell me about the challenges of being a single mom without much income. Within 10 minutes, she was completely relaxed, talking and listening. At the end of our session, to my huge surprise she actually apologized for her initial attitude. She volunteered to come back for follow-up.
It really wasn’t that hard to help this woman feel respected and accepted. But I have to admit that I find it much more challenging to do that as a vegan activist. Sometimes I am desperately unhappy with people who won’t do the right thing by going vegan. I have to take a deep breath and remember the kind of conversations and interactions that will win the day for animals.
Be a cheerleader and a giver of positive strokes. Appreciating what people have done so far is likely to make them more receptive to your gentle, respectful prodding to go further. It’s not always easy when you feel like they haven’t done a whole lot. But yelling “You’re still murdering animals!” has never been shown to be an effective technique in getting people to change.
Be concrete in your reasoning and suggestions. People need information that they can understand and act on. A treatise on “the inherent rights of animals” is likely to be far less compelling to the average person than concrete examples of the suffering of factory farm animals.
Keep it simple. Most people can handle only so much information and change all at once. So maybe on the first day of their vegan adventure they really don’t need that list showing which beers are vegan and which aren’t.
Do whatever you can to make change less scary. I’m a big believer in feeding people good vegan food before suggesting that they drop animal foods from their diet. They’ll be that much more open to the reasons for going vegan if they know it’s not a death sentence for their taste buds.
Create a good environment for change. My activist soul has a tough time embracing “flexitarian” measures like Meatless Monday and Vegan Before 6. But anything that pushes the world toward more plant-based eating can help create an environment in which the “Go Vegan” message sounds less foreign. If it gets us a step closer to our goal, it’s good.