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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Tom Owen | Sharing Vegetarianism

anim_veggies.gif (4508 bytes)Sharing Vegetarianism with Meat Eaters
by Tom Owen

Anyone can choose to have a healthier heart and greater vitality, to have less impact on the environment, and to live with the peace inside which comes from knowing animals don't have to suffer and die for us. With such wonderful reasons behind us, naturally we have the urge to tell the whole world about going vegetarian. It almost seems selfish not to. Yet it's frustrating when these truths are so often ignored or, worse yet, retorted with hostility. Alex Press, vegan from New York City, writes:

The problem is, unless you've been asked to talk about your reasons for being a vegan, you will be seen as "pushy" no matter how politely you state your case. Proselytizing is "pushy" almost by definition. Recently, I made a series of posts to the New York Times meat forum. Sometimes I was sarcastic, but the hostility I encountered was far out of proportion to the alleged provocation. Most of what I said was measured -- sometimes factual, sometimes philosophical. But the responses were crude and cliched and ignored nearly every point I made. One person, who complained about "animal-rights Nazis," claimed he had friends who were vegans and vegetarians and, unlike me, they were OK precisely because they didn't "try to shove their views down other people's throats." I suspect this meant they simply didn't talk about their way of life. It's a no-win situation: "Shut up or no one will listen to you."


How do we get the word out when faced with this dilemma? If we remain silent, the myths persist: "Vegetarians run the risk of being protein or iron deficient," "Vegetarian food is boring," "You need meat to be strong" -- all these blatant falsehoods live on when we don't speak up. 

I asked John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America, how he shares ideas with meat eaters. He said, "Leading by example and enjoying yourself" works for him because "joy is contagious, and people will want to be like you and will ask 'What are you doing?'" He added, "Always ask if people want to know. If they say 'yes,' you have the green light. ... If they say no, don't cast your pearls in that situation because people are at certain readiness and sometimes they're not ready to hear something. Then all you can do is lead by example."

My experience has been that people become ready to hear the health reasons before the environmental or animal rights ones. Some may call it heresy, but I always lead with health issues because I know that health vegetarians usually become receptive to other reasons with time. Such was the case with myself. Instead of proselytizing, I say things to peak people's curiosity and get them to ask about my dietary habits thereby giving me the green light. If a conversation has steered towards health, I mention that my cholesterol used to be 270 but it's now down to 180 and that I'm now completely free of heart attack risk -- and then I shut up. I don't tell them how I did it unless they ask. But trust me, they ask. So far no one's ever not asked. If the discussion of weight comes up, I mention that I used to be twenty pounds overweight and that I lost it all and now easily maintain my ideal weight, and I eat as much as I want. Again, I whet their curiosity and get them to ask me how I did it. When they ask, I explain, and this is the key: I do so without any judgment of them. I almost never have trouble with people being unreceptive. When the dialogue gets going I have many opportunities for debunking myths. If someone says "I could never live like that, eating all that bland, low-fat food," I playfully counter with, "You haven't tried my eggplant fettuchine." Again, I'm peaking their curiosity. Perhaps they'll ask for the recipe. If it's a good friend, I may even offer to make it sometime. There's no better way to debunk the myth of boring food than by cooking something you know is terrific for people.

I know many vegetarians who will not talk about vegetarianism without talking about animal rights. While I respect their zeal and courage, I do not think this approach is always effective. The goal is to communicate, and that cannot happen when people are defensive or feel they're having something "shoved down their throats." If they're not at the level of readiness where they need to be, no amount of proselytizing will get them there. That does not mean you should never talk about animal rights. If I have a person open to my health-vegetarian ideas, I can often move on to other issues without losing their receptiveness.

Usually people are more accepting of the environmental reasons than animal rights; hence, I may move in that direction after health. Again, the key is to not make it sound like an indictment of them. To keep my ideas nonjudgmental, I stay focused on myself. Instead of saying, "You're wasting thousands of gallons of water each month by eating meat," I say, "I'm able to save much more water than I ever could by taking military showers or by not washing my car." Again, hopefully their curiosity is rising so that they ask, "How?" If they do, and I see they're still receptive, that's my green light to proceed. I can explain what Pamela Teisler-Rice does in 101 Reasons I'm Vegetarian, when she says that it takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat and that the water that goes into a steer could float a destroyer.  

If I move on to animal rights, I use the same approach. I keep it nonjudgmental and focused on myself. This can be challenging because there is such passion on both sides of the issue. A lot of times if I've been talking about the health and environmental reasons, the person will bring up animal rights. He may say something along the lines of, "It's these self-righteous animal rights activists that I can't stand." I may have a chance to diffuse that hostility by saying, "I hear you. I used to think the animal rights activists were just a bunch of wackos. I grew up on a small farm in Texas, and we didn't mistreat our animals. Our cattle were allowed to graze and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, so it used to seem nutty to me that people were so uptight about the animals' welfare."

Notice I start by acknowledging their point of view by showing that I once shared it. This respect I've given them is what clears my path to move on and talk about what I've learned about the horrors of factory farming. By not allowing any anger to creep into my voice, I can keep their attention. Animal rights is by far the toughest issue to talk about with meat eaters because there's more hostility directed towards it than any other vegetarian issue. It's also perilously easy to make your ideas come across as an indictment of meat eaters. A big part of not coming across as judgmental is in your tone of voice. If you're just saying the words, but in your heart you're judging them as evil human beings, they'll pick up on that -- and anything you say will be for naught. Robbins says it's important to convey your ideas "with that feeling of connectedness to the power that is within them, because when you put groups in a box, they feel it. When you create that wall of separation, they feel it." If you do manage to connect with a person, the chances of a flaming argument developing are greatly lessened.

There are, however, no guarantees given the volatile nature of animal rights. Robbins says, "If you carry vision ... you're a pioneer, and you can always tell the pioneers by the arrows in their back." If you've done your best to be respectful towards people, that's all you can do, so don't hold it against yourself if someone gets upset. Most vegetarians are painfully aware of the horror animals must go through in factory farming. For this reason, it can be difficult not to judge those who support this institution. Yet, as I've suggested, not judging them is critical to establishing receptiveness. You need to understand deep down that meat eaters are not evil. I know some people may disagree with me on this statement, but hear me out. One of the greatest hampers to human communication is the simplistic view that people are either good or evil. Think about it. Most vegetarians are former meat eaters. Were they simply evil and then suddenly became good the day they gave up meat? Or are human beings complex creatures with a myriad of virtues and faults? As Robbins said, we have different levels or readiness -- or, stated differently, different levels of awareness. Back when you ate meat, you didn't do so because you were evil; you did so because that's what made sense to you back then. Why judge someone for being where most of us once were? You were just as precious a spirit back then as you are now.

I can certainly remember thinking, "Oh, come on, what's wrong with having a good old fashioned American burger?" You can understand a person's point of view without endorsing it.  I suggested talking about health first, then environment, then animal rights not because health is the most important issue -- I consider the three equally important. It's just that this progression creates the least resistance. It works for me. I understand, however, animal rights is the most important issue for many people. If this is the case for you, you can use your two less important issues to lead to your most important one. If it makes someone more receptive to your ideas, isn't it worth it? On the other hand, if you are skilled in talking in a nonjudgmental way, you may be able to pull off leading with animal rights. I've never tried it, but maybe you could make it work. It's up to you.

Above all, don't get flustered if you make mistakes. We've all done so. I've gotten angry and spewed off sarcasm out of frustration. Those mistakes are what helped me to find a method of interaction that I think works better. Even if you never have discussions with meat eaters, if you only lead by example, you're doing a service. Robbins says, "We are pioneers and what we're doing is forging trails that the great majority of people will walk on soon enough but can't see it yet. They'll be very grateful that we've made the trail. They don't have the courage to walk out until it's been proven safe. We're proving it safe."

For the complete transcript of John Robbins' reply, click here.


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