I recently sat down with a group of six vegans to record a podcast (stay tuned in the coming weeks). My objective was to understand their perspective. I expect some who listen to the conversation will be critical of the fact that I didn’t challenge any of the statements they made. It felt, however, that it was most important to let them answer my questions about veganism without engaging them in a debate. Many of these conversations devolve into debate and I believed it was important to first understand their point of view. It was worthwhile and interesting. I have highlighted a couple of points relative to the discussion below.
Not all Vegans are Created the Same
I think that many of us have a caricature of a “typical vegan” in our minds. This might not reflect a certain look, but more likely shapes the narrative we expect to hear from them. I was surprised at the range of motivations for veganism from around the table. It seems that eventually there is overlap in the motivations, but the starting point is different, and this motivates, to a degree, the openness of the individual vegan to flexitarianism. There were three different starting points among the group:
Do no harm to animals. This is a more absolute position and does not tend to allow for flexibility.
Reduce our environmental footprint. This seems to allow for greater flexibility as incremental changes can reduce overall harm.
Improve health. There are those who choose to forego meat for health reasons and again, this seems to be more flexible in terms of how other people eat.
As I said before, regardless of starting point, most vegans seem to at least acknowledge the importance of all three elements and tout all three as benefits of veganism.
The Definition of Activism Differs
I remember a news story recently in which the headline was “Vegans attack Paris Butcher.” We’ve also recently seen stories of vegan activists invading livestock farms. These types of activities shape the perceptions of many people about vegans. Veganism is not just about the choice not to eat meat but also an effort to have others make that choice. That activism can, however, take a variety of forms. Most of the people in the group that I spoke with were uncomfortable with the more aggressive activism. While they would welcome an opportunity to talk to me about stopping (or reducing) my meat consumption, they were not inclined to berate me. For them, activism means supporting companies that are providing vegan options and having normal conversations about food choices.
Seek First to Understand
There are some unresolvable differences of opinion in the vegan/omnivore debate. We often don’t take enough time to understand the perspectives of people with different opinions/beliefs than our own. My conversation helped me to understand the vegan perspective better. It also helped me to put human faces to a group. I think to a degree we suffer from “veganophobia.” I think that invading farms is abhorrent and unproductive. I can, however, respect the choices that individuals make even if I disagree with their reasons for making those choices. Now that I understand their perspectives better I can engage in more productive conversations on meat consumption – even if we are unlikely to agree.
We don’t all get the opportunity to sit down and talk to a group of vegans. If you get the chance take it. If you don’t get the chance, take the opportunity to listen to the FoodFocus podcast episodes that present my conversation. Like me, you may learn something.
Recommended citation format: von Massow, M. "Talking to Vegans: A Reflection”. Food Focus Guelph (56), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, September 9th, 2019.