…i hate that joke. This outpouring of stuff just got longer and more abstract, as 2am drew closer. I may edit it in the morning, for accuracy and who-gives-a-shit-atiousness. Only read if you are interested in reading the word ‘vegan’ 51 times.
It’s coming up to my 6-month Veganniversary! Time to reflect, I suppose, and buy myself a metaphorical bunch of roadside carnations.
Many vegans and pro-vegan websites are keen to emphasise that it’s an easy and not-at-all-radical “lifestyle choice” – hey, it simply prioritises ethics over fast-food convenience. No can of worms there, not even mock-meat worms. But adopting the Vegan label is a commitment nonetheless, and if there’s one thing that we all hate, it’s commitment. Naturally I don’t want to hurt animals. But unconditionally refusing to eat Tim-Tams for the rest of my days? As a person from urban Australia with almost unlimited access to Tim-Tams, this commitment poses an issue. Because Tim-Tams call to you when you are most vulnerable – the moments when frankly, you couldn’t give a shit about where milk came from, because you’ve spent the past hour trying to stop Grandma from having a nervous breakdown, and you’re tired and there are Tim-Tams on her kitchen counter, and you just want something sweet and chocolatey and the Tim-Tams are the only option in the house, and besides, someone else bought them, and nobody’s watching, and you spend your own time comforting grandma but who’s there to comfort you? Tim-Tams. That’s who. That’s what they’re for.
So you eat Tim-Tams, but you don’t feel better. Because what being a committed vegan has very, very slowly taught me is this: Deciding that you actually (for once!) agree with some premise (that treating animals as property to be exploited is unnecessary in our society, that prioritising one species such as cats over another such as cows is nonsensical) and then acting in a way that knowingly ignores this premise is about as close to an understanding of “sinning” as a non-religious person can get. When you agree with (n) on a fundamental level, for example if (n) = that stealing an old lady’s handbag is wrong, then pretending to yourself that you have an excuse to do (n) just feels shitty. And it’s not that you feel shitty about the lady losing her handbag (you gave it back straight away, all guilty-like), it’s that you’re clearly just another weak-willed human who can’t even live up to your own standards. Like a participant in the Milgram experiment, a little psychological prodding is all that’s needed for you to ignore your own highly touted notions of right and wrong. How did you end up so weak-willed, as a person? I have experienced this disappointment in myself, even over something as trivial as a Tim-Tam – in fact the triviality of the transgression is probably what made it worse. If I was going to ignore my vegan ideals, I could at least have the dignity to do it under pain of death, or extreme hunger, or a bikie gang initiation barbecue, or something.
Over these six months, my attitude towards vegans/non-vegans has been constantly changing. I began with an attitude of “keep moving and get out of the way” as nobody likes a pushy, in-your-face vegan, right? Ugh. So I kept it on the downlow, especially with my extended family. At this point I was still trying to figure out to what degree I wanted to be vegan. What about delicious, bio-dynamic locally-produced grass-fed small-batch emissions-offset yoghurt? Isn’t supporting progressive farming practices as good as – nay, better than – boycotting all dairy? What about a delightful orange and poppyseed cupcake, given to you by your students who made it to an old family recipe? Don’t you owe it to them to accept it gracefully and with appropriate deference to culinary traditions? What about when you’re at an expensive cafe, on a trip interstate, and the menu looks bloody amazing – isn’t it just self-flagellation to deny your tastebuds that experience? Isn’t it better to buy quality, long-lasting leather shoes than sweatshop-produced, cheap canvas shoes?
Thus, the commitment to veganism requires that you accept certain tenets as true. You must accept that the use of animals as products or property is unjustifiable. You must feel this unjustifiableness deeply, not just in the way that buying another pair of earrings or eating two serves of dessert is unjustifiable. Maybe it’s my art-school brainwashing, but the idea of accepting ANYTHING as unequivocally true is tough. There are so many variables! Yes, pro-vegan info sources have a lot of good arguments that I could try to memorise and recite to myself. But many of these arguments could be overturned, as technology changes. What if, hypothetically speaking, it became more environmentally sustainable to continue using animal products? Truths are relative in time and space, should this be a factor? Just as a belief in God requires a fundamental acceptance of His infinite existence, a commitment to the ideals of veganism requires deep belief that it is not a sham, nor misguided pop-culture, and that following it will be undeniably beneficial in all aspects of my life. To the established vegan, the benefits are so blatantly obvious as to be a non-issue. To me – single, part-time, non-committal in all areas of my life – making a decision predominantly based on faith in The Holy Vegan Info Websites felt a little like that one time I went to church and everyone was singing with their hands in the air, and I thought it was nice and everything, but like, couldn’t they see how this looked to everyone else? It looked like crazy people.
And now here I am. I am the crazy people. It seems like vegans try to avoid comparisons to religion, but to me, it is the only analogy that makes sense. In order to follow a lifestyle that so pointedly deviates from the norm and refuses to make concessions, it must have a significance bordering on spirituality. The clincher can not be the environmental benefits of veganism (though this is important) or the health claims (though i’ve never looked better) – these will always be debatable. For me to be vegan, and continue to be vegan, I think that there are two essential conditions that must be met.
Condition 1: I must hold beliefs such as (but not limited to) that intentionally causing suffering to others, and the injurious subjugation of one being to another, are both unjustifiable in the culture in which I live.
Condition 2: I must feel that to act in violation of my own beliefs is degrading and abhorrent to myself personally.
I figured this out in the incident with the Tim Tams, a few other cake-related deviations, and also another incident where I ordered a tempeh burger at Jus Burgers and it came with mayo. Along with the vegan thing, I am a firm believer in not wasting food, so rather than complain like some self-righteous hipster and ask for a new one, I sucked it up and ate the burger. In the aftermath, I was filled with a kind of undefined self-disgust, even though part of me was arguing heatedly that it was better than wasting a whole burger over a squirt of mayo. I guess this helped me to identify that my food-wasting sentiments could be overridden by my vegan sentiments. And it was the last time that I was content to be a “keep moving and get out of the way” vegan. If I feel like my personal foundations of morality are being shat on, then that’s the time to order a new burger.
So ultimately, i think, veganism is not just about thinking that animals are cute and hurting them is mean. It ends up being not really about the animals at all, though they are the starting point. It is a determination to not shit on my own beliefs. Plenty of people will concede that exploiting animals in factory farms is awful and probably bad, but they’re still ok with eating that meat. I tend to think that knowing something means acting accordingly, and if you do not act accordingly, then either you don’t actually know/believe it, or you’re oddly happy to shit on your own values – in which case, such people satisfy Essential Condition 1 but not Essential Condition 2, and thus are unlikely to become vegan ‘converts’.
The fact that many people seem unaffected by Essential Condition 2 explains why so many non-vegans and vegans seem to be at war. That joke that’s been floating around, for example – How do you know if someone is vegan. They’ll fucking tell you. This conveys to me a simple misunderstanding on the side of the non-vegans. It’s not just a way to be cool, like wearing an oversize jumper with a reindeer on it – people who follow it for these reasons will give it up when it’s boring again, or when their reindeer jumper shrinks in the wash to a banal, regular size. Veganism is fundamental to a committed vegan’s sense of self. Railing against vegans, complaining that they make things difficult for the rest of us, sneering that a vegan’s occasional bouts of hypocrisy make them unworthy of having an opinion and somehow justify that BigMac – these people, I can only theorise, have an inability to conceptualise Essential Condition 2. They cannot comprehend that violating a fundamental belief can cause emotional and psychological trauma. Writing it that way sounds like a big self-pity festival that I’m holding for myself, but I’m just trying to put into writing the feeling of being told that you’re a pain-in-the-ass for simply not desiring the same food as everyone else.
Imagine you are a new mother, whose instinct is to protect, and you’re told to smack your peacefully sleeping baby. You refuses angrily, not understanding why one would smack a sleeping baby, or for that matter, an awake one. You’re then scoffed at for ruining things for everyone – everyone else has been smacking up a storm, and the babies are all still alive, aren’t they? Smacking babies is fun and normal, why you gotta be difficult? These people are unable to grasp that you are filled with guilt and horror at the mere suggestion of hurting a sleeping newborn. They recognise that it hurts the baby a bit, but that doesn’t translate to it hurting you yourself.
Am I still making sense? What I’m trying to articulate is that the kind of people who tell that aforementioned joke do not recognise that veganism is personal. Vegans FEEL the necessity of not exploiting other beings. They don’t just THINK it. They don’t just look at factory farmed animals and go “Hmm, that looks a bit iffy. Let’s give that a miss, if possible.” It’s not an objective choice. Committed vegans feel that the mistreatment of animals is a personal blight – personal because it is our own society that perpetuates it. When my belief is dismissed as being inconvenient or too-frequently referred to, I automatically assume that these people are the kind that cannot conceptualise the spiritual – or at the very least, psychological – value in having a conviction and bloody well standing by it.