The longer you’ve been vegan, the more you notice the tensions and power dynamics undergirding most interactions between vegans and carnists. It saddens me to admit how often I swallow the things I wish I could say, but like most ethical vegans out there, I am sometimes too polite because I am playing “the long game.” Here are four cultural taboos I intend to challenge more openly in the year ahead.
Taboo #1: It’s almost never “bad luck” when someone is diagnosed with a “disease of affluence.”
Because eating animals is considered, as Dr. Melanie Joy says, “normal, natural, and necessary” in our society, the mountain of scientific evidence in support of plant-based nutrition is largely ignored, and as a result we expect each other to take responsibility for our lives in every aspect BUT our physical health. We disempower ourselves for the sake of habit and convenience, eating “food” that makes us sick and then feeling somehow victimized by fate when the consequences of our choices boomerang. But social mores forbid any mention of Uncle Artie’s immoderate fondness for cheesesteaks and hamburgers when Uncle Artie’s in the hospital awaiting a triple bypass.
Taboo #2: People who consume animals are seldom challenged when they call themselves “animal lovers.”
When the golden retriever I was dog-sitting had to go to the vet, I deliberately put on my “I love animals too much to eat them” t-shirt from Herbivore. “I wish there were more people like you out there,” the technician told me. (I didn’t know what to say to that besides “thank you.”)
Taboo #3: Liberals expound upon social justice, intersectional feminism, and environmental sustainability, but most refuse to acknowledge the connections between climate change and systems of oppression and the factory-farmed animal products in their own refrigerators.
Al Gore’s ironically-titled film An Inconvenient Truth is a prime example. Another is Bruce Hamilton, the Sierra Club deputy executive director interviewed at the beginning of Cowspiracy: Hamilton goes on and on about how humanity has to clean up its act, but when the filmmaker asks about the link between climate change and animal agriculture, Hamilton’s earnest demeanor abruptly turns hostile. When it comes to environmentalism, the outrageous socioeconomic inequality wrought by capitalism, and other progressive causes, most folks on the left are as hypocritical as the “pro-lifers” on the right; but call them on this hypocrisy and the best-case scenario is someone admitting the validity of your argument before awkwardly changing the subject. (To be fair, Hamilton did write in a subsequent blog post, “Eliminating or reducing meat consumption in your diet is one important way to reduce your contribution to climate change.”)
Taboo #4: Someone with a meat-obsessed partner is less likely to respond to your efforts at vegan outreach.
Even if they are sympathetic to the causes of animal rights and environmental stewardship, a person with an aggressively carnivorous partner will remain an “excuse-itarian” in order to preserve (ostensible) equanimity in the relationship. Point out this unspoken negotiation, though, and that apologetic sympathy may curdle into a defensiveness from which the conversation is unlikely to recover.
Depending on the person you’re hoping to reach, I believe it’s worth waiting weeks, months, or even years for the right opportunity to speak these destructive cultural blind spots into visibility. Until that opportunity presents itself, they’re simply not going to hear you.
In the meantime, you can articulate your points more generally (i.e., without calling out any colleague, friend, or family member in particular), as I am doing now. Much as I despise the addiction-promoting design of social media, the boundless outreach potential is why I’ll never give it up. And when it does make sense to have a one-on-one conversation, conduct it with gentle candor and relentless optimism. Develop a reputation as someone who holds space for those who are questioning carnist culture, and eventually your friends and family may be ready to face these taboos for themselves.
Camille DeAngelis is a novelist and travel writer whose most recent book is Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People, and you can read two sample chapters by signing up for her email updates. She is currently working on a follow-up book about the creative benefits of veganism. Connect with Camille online on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or on her blog, Comet Party .