11 March 2011

Vegan confession: Why I'm not an 'animal lover'

Earlier this week, I learned that Martha Stewart is planning a vegan-themed show and is looking to assemble an all-vegan audience. To get tickets, you have to go to the show's website and tell Martha all about "your vegan passion."

Okay, it sounded cheesy, but who am I kidding? I'd love to go to New York and be in an audience full of fellow vegans. So here, in part, is the pitch I made:
My husband and I are long-time vegetarians, recently turned vegan. While it seems a lot of people are jumping on the vegan bandwagon these days because of health—they want to be skinnier, live longer, look better—we belong to the category of "ethical vegans." This means we can no longer stomach, literally, supporting an industry that commits, as part of its normal operation, atrocious acts of cruelty on so-called "food" animals.
Many folks think people like us must be "animal lovers." But personally, I dislike that term. "Animal lover" connotes someone who oohs and ahhs over cute kittens and fuzzy puppies, someone who lets their Persian cat eat off their dinner plate and treats their cockapoo like a spoiled grandchild. Of course, most of these animal lovers have a huge blind spot in the middle of their affection when it comes to animals like cows, pigs, chickens, etc., and they see no contradiction between their warm-hearted feelings for pets and their cold disdain for species that aren't considered cute and lovable.
I'm a vegan, not so much because I "love" animals, but because I DEPLORE suffering and cruelty—whether it's inflicted on a newly hatched chick, a spent milk cow, a wool-producing sheep who has undergone mulesing, or a fellow human.
This was the first time I'd ever made my feelings about not being an "animal lover" publicly known. (Besides mentioning it to my husband, but I don't think of spouses as "public.")

Anyway, I guess I've avoided speaking about this issue because it just sounds so mean. And yet, that whole "animal lover" label really does bother me. Maybe it's my own bias, but somehow being soft-hearted always gets associated with being soft-headed, and I certainly don't think of myself that way.

Also, I find the label trivializes people and obscures their motives. If I say I'm a vegan because I "love animals," it's easy to dismiss me. I'm nothing but a big softie, my sensibilities are overly delicate, eating a hamburger might make me cry. Animal lovers pose no threat to those who eat animals—they're just "sensitive" types who are wired differently from everyone else. We can humor them, even pity them, but we aren't forced to take their actions seriously. And we certainly aren't prompted to reflect on our own choices.

On the other hand, if I say I'm a vegan because I refuse to participate in the torture of sentient beings—well, that's not so easy to shrug off. It's vegans like me who make non-vegans so defensive. They're suddenly confronted with their own complicity in a very ugly enterprise. The things done to animals in the name of food are hardly a secret these days, and there are few who can genuinely claim to be unaware of the "meat" industry's barbaric practices.

That's why being around vegans is often so disconcerting for non-vegans, especially for non-vegan animal lovers. Say you're someone whose favorite computer screensaver is Baby Animals, someone whose blood boils every time you watch Animal Cops, someone who tears up whenever those ASPCA commercials with the mournful Sarah McLachlan song comes on TV. And you're on your lunch break at work, with a 365 Kittens a Year calendar hanging above your desk, and there's your new vegan co-worker eating his Amy's non-dairy burrito while you're chowing on a ham and cheese sandwich. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

If that's you, the only way you're going to make sense of this (without changing your behavior) is to make your co-worker the "freak" while you remain the "normal" one. Because, hey, you would never hurt an animal. You love all creatures, great and small. But let's be reasonable, you're not some radical, you're not going to go overboard. And what validates and helps you justify your life is the fact that there are plenty of people just like you—millions and millions of self-proclaimed animal lovers who, it just so happens, eat animals on a daily basis.

And that's why I'm not an "animal lover."

Elizabeth Gordon | Facebook
Elizabeth is an Asian-Appalachian writer, activist, and college professor living in north central Massachusetts. Once an avowed carnivore, she was a vegetarian for 15 years before making the conversion to veganism. She is passionate about trying to live a life that lessens, rather than contributes to, the amount of cruelty and suffering in this world. Follow Elizabeth on her Vegosphere blog and Facebook page.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/katzenheim