I am sure most of you are familiar with the seemingly harmless quip ‘How do you know if someone’s vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!’ Perhaps some of you have even used this joke to tease that vegan girl you know from school, or that vegan guy that is part of your extended friendship group.
But it is not a joke. Comments like this, and the attitudes they represent, are extremely damaging to both the vegan movement and the mental well-being of individual vegans.
To understand this, let us briefly delve into the vegan psyche. Alongside our colourful array of personal interests (yes, we are normal people living among you!) vegans are always two things. First, we are wholeheartedly passionate about the suffering of animals, protecting the environment, and improving our health. Second, we are deeply confused by our family, friends and colleagues not feeling the same way. At around 0.3% of the U.K. population, vegans are very much in the minority.
On the one hand, vegans know that every time they pick a falafel burger over a carcass in a bun, they are making a compassionate, sustainable and healthy choice. Compassionate, because 3,000 animals die needlessly every second in slaughterhouses around the world. Sustainable, because even the most conservative figures indicate that animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And healthy, because meat and dairy consumption have been linked to an array of health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
On the other hand, vegans experience situations that conflict with our deeply entrenched beliefs everyday. These experiences are neatly summed up by the ‘joke’ I opened this article with. Any attempts we make to discuss the serious issues veganism is aimed at alleviating are often flippantly brushed away by a ‘joke’ like this. Even declining some food we have been offered because it contains animal products leaves us open to ridicule of this kind.
Sadly, the tendency some meat-eaters have to make light-hearted humour of such important issues is very often internalised by vegans and seen as a personal problem. ‘Am I too sensitive?’ and ‘Is veganism too extreme?’ are questions the average vegan will ask every day.
For a long time, I battled with these worries. But it is clear to me now that jokes of this kind are always one of two things. Either, they are misguided but well-intended signs of affection. You can imagine a close friend lovingly teasing you for bringing up veganism for the fifth time that day. Or, they are a defence mechanism employed in a desperate attempt to bury one’s head in the sand. The saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ could not be more applicable.For many, if they fully appreciated the damage and suffering animal agriculture caused, they would feel morally compelled to go vegan. They know this, and it scares them.
Whatever reasons people have for making these ‘jokes’, they have a hugely detrimental impact. They affect the way people perceive veganism, and unfairly portray it as a weird sect catering solely to hippies and the overly emotional. But they also have an effect on the well-being of the unfortunate vegan your ‘jokes’ are directed at. They can leave us feeling even more ostracised, misunderstood and powerless than we do already. Vegan shaming, no matter how well-intended, needs to stop.
So, my fellow vegans, be proud of what you stand for. Shout about compassion, sentience and tofu from the rooftops! Because if we do not, who will?
Image credit: Nicolas Vigier