I often get asked if I’m tempted to “cheat” with regards to veganism. If you’ve ever asked me this question, I apologize. I probably looked at you as if you had asked if I had ever been tempted to eat sawdust. For you see, the whole idea of eating animal products seems absurd to me. It’s simply unthinkable, because I don’t consider meat or dairy food. A whiff of cheese, milk, or lunch meat disgusts me as much as wood particulates would most other folks.
This often makes it difficult for me to empathize with omnivores. I know I’ve got to if I want to be a good activist, but if I’m to be brutally honest, I find it really really hard. I was listening to a few of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s podcasts yesterday, however, and they inspired me to reflect on (and correct) this attitude. Colleen was discussing how omnivores are something like “blocked vegetarians,” that ending one’s consumption of animal products involves removing those mental blocks, and just realizing a truth that was always apparent (namely, the real nature of factory farming). I find it an apt metaphor, and one that evokes in me a greater level of empathy.
It also brought me back to a couple key incidents during my stint as a vegan: when I was “accidentally poisoned,” or given animal food, in other words. It has only happened to me twice (as far as I know), and both times it involved dairy products. The setting of these incidents is trivial, but if you must know, one involved some dining hall pesto and another some cornbread at a friend’s house. I know I say all the time that veganism isn’t about personal purity (because it’s not; it’s about compassion). But it’s still upsetting. At those moments I felt that I had lost something…then something clicked. What could I have possibly lost? Was I treating veganism as a game?
It has become far too easy for me just to go on eating plants, without thought of why I do so. While I may not consider animal foods “edible,” it is a fact that many individuals do. That those animal foods are part of a cruel and unforgiving food system. That the struggle for less meat consumption is not some abstract notion, or a noble quest to be as “clean” as possible. It is a means of speaking by example and by purchasing-power for entities that do not have a voice: animals, workers, communities, the planet.
A few other vegan bloggers I follow have also explored eating animal foods as well as empathy/compassion (Gena, Agnes, Katie, Angela, Sarah). The conclusion is an obvious one, but worth repeating: that it is more important to make veganism fun and simple, than to kick up a fuss over traces of gelatin or cry over, ahem, spilled milk.
You see, the fact that I can consume animal products humanizes my efforts a little, both in the sense that I become more humble as a result and that I become aware of my power as a human animal. And I’m going to continue to seek out this empathy, to seek out understanding. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying. The moment that veganism becomes trivial to me, and I can’t understand why it might be difficult, and I can’t connect it to the perils of the industrialized food system, well, that’s when I’ve failed.