If you’re a vegan, and you don’t live in a cave, you are probably aware of how many types of non-vegans there are. There are people who support veganism, but won’t adapt the lifestyle themselves because they live under certain circumstances, people who accept it but claim that they could never go vegan because they “love the taste of *insert any animal product here*”, vegetarians who believe that as long as the animals get to live they remain unharmed… the list could go on forever. The type I’m going to focus on today, though, is the one that is usually the most difficult type to explain your veganism to: the people who think it’s impossible to be vegan, and question and criticise you to the point where you start to wonder if they look at you as an alien. These are people who have lived for a very long time with the idea that you need animal products to survive, and that’s just the way it’s supposed to be, and normally this makes them quite old (though this does obviously not indicate that every old person is like this). And when do most of us have to spend time with old people? Big family dinners.
A situation many of us can relate to
Every year at Christmas, or whatever holiday your family celebrates, the dinner table is filled with all kinds of animals and foods that have come out of animals. You’re sitting there with your plate of everything vegan you could find, probably just some potatoes or bread, and a lonely little pile of vegetables. The smells make you mentally vomit, and you try your best not to think about who everybody else is eating and what they had to go through in order to end up in your relatives’ mouths. Across the table is your grandmother, who belongs to That Group of non-vegans and doesn’t yet know that you’re vegan. Desperately, you try to prevent her from finding out, because you know what big of a deal she’s going to make of it. And when she inevitably asks if you want some chicken, because “you’ve only got rabbit food on your plate”, and you politely say no, someone who happens to know that you’re vegan overhears the conversation. To your terror this person has to tell your grandmother “no, they’re vegan“, in a way that makes vegan sound like something exotic and as far from their lifestyle as you could possibly come. And then there’s the reaction.
How to handle the reaction
Your grandmother will find it difficult to understand – to her, the freakiness of being vegan is equivalent to the freakiness of suddenly growing two heads. So it’s up to you how you choose to explain it, and motivate it to her, especially if she’s the kind of person who won’t stop talking about it until she can at least to some extent wrap her head around it.
”I don’t eat meat, dairy or eggs.” Naturally you know that veganism is so much more than just what you eat, but maybe this is the easiest way to define it to someone who has no idea what it is. If you go with the whole ”to exclude the exploitation of animals for any purpose”-talk, then she’d probably lose track pretty fast.
”How can you not eat meat, dairy or eggs? What do you even eat?”
What you want to say could sound something like this: ”Well, Grandma, have you ever heard of plants? Beans, rice, potatoes? The things that the human body is actually supposed to thrive on, instead of corpses, milk meant for babies of another species and someone’s ovulation?” And you’re completely right about that. But if you start screaming this at a family dinner, it’s likely to, instead of making everyone want to instantly go vegan, just make everyone uncomfortable and weirded out (unless your family members need to be yelled at in order to understand something, and that’s just the way you talk to each other). If I might suggest a different approach: ”I eat just the foods that you eat, except I replace the animal products with things like beans, lentils and soy products. And there are tons of different meat, dairy and egg substitutes for vegans to buy.”
”But your body needs the nutrients that animal products contain!”
The classic. The thing people tell themselves to feel better about not being vegan. And the thing your grandmother takes as a plain truth. Now, your instincts tell you to start talking about the higher rate of cancer and heart disease you get by eating animal products, but that won’t make your stubborn relative shut up. It’s way more sustainable to in this situation simply state that you get the same nutrients from the foods you eat, and that you feel perfectly healthy.
”The animals are fine; we treat them well.”
Taking up your phone and showing your grandmother some footage of animals being murdered will not be seen as an appropriate thing to do during a family dinner (or any dinner at all). Neither will explaining graphically why the animals suffer. This statement is difficult to respond to, because you don’t just have to explain with facts how veganism works, but you have to motivate why you would decide to do something so drastic without making everyone feel super guilty or grossed out. Of course you can if you think it’s worth it, and some families may have their own “cultures” that would allow this more than others, but generally speaking this doesn’t seem to be the smartest move. I think I’d personally go with something like: ”I just don’t feel right supporting the industry, without really knowing what’s going on in it.” Which probably wouldn’t end the questions. This is about the very core of veganism, and I have to admit I need help with figuring out a good response suitable for the dinner situation.
I know it doesn’t feel right to sit there smiling politely and pretending to accept your family’s choice to eat meat, while innocent animals are stuffed into small, dirty spaces and having their heads blown off. It feels like you’re not doing enough for them. But not every situation is suitable for activism. Save your ”meat is murder”-t-shirt for a different occasion, when you more appropriately and successfully can affect people and spread your veganism. And just sit through those family dinners when it’s needed, and try to take your focus off your veganism and place it on spending time with the people who are important to you (even if they aren’t, but you don’t want to make them feel bad by not being there). As they’re usually the ones who necessarily have to bring up your veganism, it’s best to find the most simple way possible of handling the topic, even if it in that moment doesn’t feel like you’re doing the animals complete justice. The important thing to remember is that everyone is capable of going vegan, and you can help them do it, even if some people are easier to convert than others. And since your grandmother is one of the most difficult people to convert, you do the animals the most justice by saving your energy to when you have the actual power and conditions to turn people vegan.