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Lambs to Slaughter

by Jessica Schlueter

Most evenings around sunset, you can find my brother and me on our local park bench catching up with neighbors, throwing the tennis ball for our dogs, and meeting new friends. The other night, in one such meeting with a local woman, the conversation quickly turned to young love and the current object of my brother's affection. After describing this perfect romantic candidate, he finished with, "and she's vegan!"

Our new friend's face twisted into a disgusted sneer as she scoffed "Ew, well that's a huge pain." We quickly explained to her that we both live vegan lifestyles, and thus we actually consider that to be a bonus, not a "huge pain". In an instant, we watched her features soften and her tone mellow as she leaned in and whispered something along the lines of, "You know what? I've actually been trying to eat less meat and shift more that way, and I love it, tell me more."

This wasn't the first time I've seen an otherwise rational, compassionate, intelligent, and curious human being react to just the mention of veganism with rash negativity, though it may have been the first time I've seen them retract it just as quickly. Having been a vegetarian for sixteen years and vegan for nearly three, I've heard every possible reaction to my lifestyle. Something about abstaining from animal products inspires every person around you to suddenly consider him/herself a contestant in some sort of "Last Comic Standing" scenario where whomever succeeds in making the most fun of your dietary habits wins. Gone are the days when "PETA = People for the Eating of Tasty Animals" quips would suffice; you've got to be much more inventive to earn my disdainful glare.

Unfortunately for some, it's not always a laughing matter. I've received dozens of emails from teenagers asking for advice about how to tell their parents they're giving up meat. They write, often with a tone of trepidation and despair, seeking help preparing for the almost inevitable doubt, judgment, and mocking they are sure to encounter upon mentioning that they will no longer be consuming certain food groups. I hesitate to warn them that once they've made it past their parents, they'll have to deal with siblings, teachers, cousins, great-aunts, neighbors, first dates, college lab partners, football teammates, prospective bosses and everyone down to the nurse's aid who won't try to conceal her laughter when you tell her you had an almond milk based vegan chocolate shake for lunch (can you tell I visited the doctor's office recently?).

But why? Why such a culturally accepted and promoted stigma surrounding a lifestyle that seeks, above all else, to remove suffering and pain from the world? You can confidently and comfortably tell a friend you're no longer buying diamonds sourced from Angola because you don't want to support the blood diamond trade, or you are only purchasing organic fabrics because of overuse of chemicals in the cotton industry, or even that you're adopting your new dog so as not to financially support puppy mills. But, in many situations, explaining that you don't consume animal products because you don't believe your own temporary gustatory pleasure is worth sacrificing the life of another being is not only treated as a ludicrous idea, but often received as a threatening one. This perceived threat is capable of stirring up some pretty wild emotions. Just check the comment section at the bottom of any vegan-themed Huffington Post article and you're sure to find yourself in the middle of a heated battle.

What is it about the all-powerful stomach that affects our emotions so profoundly? Not even the stomach, but rather the taste buds, the microscopic cells that live in our mouth: why are these cells given such a privilege, such carte blanche, regardless of the disastrous effects their cravings may have on animals, humanity, and the environment? Food is intertwined with our emotions on a primal level: we lose our appetite when heartbroken, we overindulge in desserts to deal with stress, and we celebrate miracles of life such as births, weddings, and holidays by gathering around a table and sharing a home cooked meal- but take these rituals and remove the dairy-based ice cream, and you've got blasphemy.

When I tell someone "I'm vegan," I hear myself say, "I don't eat animal products because of the disastrous and tragic effects their production causes." What vegans have to understand is that when we say "I'm vegan," there's a good chance our partner in conversation is hearing "I stopped eating everything delicious because I'm stronger and morally superior to you and you better stop enjoying your meals and stop baking cakes with your mother and stop welcoming summer with a hot dog at a baseball game and stop drinking a beer with your Dad because you don't know if that brewery uses fish bladder as a clarifier and I know it's worked since college but you're going to have to stop using your go-to gourmet French duck confit recipe to impress women so you should probably just abandon all hope for your own happiness and try to gain satisfaction from the fact that at least the animals aren't suffering."

So how do we resolve this troublesome trend?

First, to the omnivores: next time you encounter a vegan (or even as you sit at your desk reading this article), think about why you have the preconceived notions you do. Ask yourself why you are so eager to either mock or fear this simple act of removing cruelty-laden products from your diet and wardrobe. Is it because you truly believe at your core that your canine teeth are designed for taking down and disemboweling an animal, or is it because the idea of Tofutti vegan cream cheese makes you nervous? Do you really believe we should make our moral decisions based on the behavior of wild animals (if so, remember that rape and infanticide become fair game) or do you just need an abundance of buffalo chicken wings to authentically experience a football game (side note: Gardein makes some epic vegan buffalo wings)? And, if you’re relating more to the latter sides of those two sentences, might I suggest checking out an intro-to-veganism blog for recipes or visiting QuarryGirl for a crash course in the possibilities of plant-based indulgence?

Second, to the vegans: pay close attention to the read-between-the-lines example two paragraphs above, and try to remember what you thought of vegans before you became one. I personally thought vegans were lunatic extremists who didn’t drink milk because they thought it was spiritually disrespectful to consume something that came from another creature; I’d never seen an undercover video from a dairy farm, and the symbiotic relationship between the dairy industry and veal industries never entered my mind. Just because we tend to be informed about the tragedies going on behind slaughterhouse doors doesn’t mean our neighbors are, and perhaps equally importantly, just because we’ve eaten at decadent vegan restaurants that taught us vegan food can be just as if not more enjoyable doesn’t mean the person you’re talking to even knows that non-dairy cheeses exist. If you want people in your community to consider compassion towards animals, start by being compassionate with them. Aggression rarely gets us anywhere, but an invite into your home for some vegan manicotti (shameless blog plug) just might inspire some change. Because, as we know, once you’ve gotten into their stomachs, you have a much better change of getting into their hearts.

Jessica Schlueter is an occasional writer, a vocal animal activist, and a passionate advocate of local music. She is currently working to help major food companies go vegan so you won't have to. Find her on twitter at @jlschluet or jschluet7{at]gmail.com.