When non-veganism isn’t an option: An existential perspective
When people become vegan they are often bewildered at the strength of the resistance or criticism they receive from others, particularly their family. They may have faced resistance to many other choices before, but when it comes to veganism there is none of the usual open-mindedness and willingness to embrace change, and little sign of a genuine desire of family members to love them even while they hate their behaviour. Why is this so, and what can vegans do when faced with a family imploring them to revert to non-veganism?
The late Albert Schweitzer once said, “The problem with man today is that he doesn’t think.” He went on to say that human beings tend to copy what other people do, and conform to what they believe is acceptable or “the right thing”. This is not entirely a conscious choice; rather it is an unconscious acceptance that one’s culture, societal norms, or the “way things have always been” are correct.
Sanctions for not adhering to certain norms may result in being excluded from the family or community. For example, a family may reject an individual who decides to marry outside their faith or culture. Other families may not agree with their children’s choices, but do not reject them. Instead they may appeal to the individual to change, encouraging them to embrace their culture by behaving in a collectively acceptable way.
Different dynamics appear to underpin different families’ responses to someone becoming vegan. Personal ridicule or criticism can be levelled at the person, with complaints about how difficult they are making things for everyone else, or how family celebrations will never be the same again. Remarks often relate to the family’s disappointment that the vegan is being “difficult”, upsetting the way the family operates. Often these complaints focus on personal disappointment and appeals to lost intimacy and shared traditions, and do not make the same appeals to wider cultural norms that occur in other conflicts.
Why is resistance personally focused when a family member becomes vegan, and generically focused when another family member changes faith, say or extends there family outside of their culture. For example a family who adhere to strict Judaism would most likely resist a member of their family marrying a Muslim. Likewise, a European couple in a strict Christian denomination might be resisted in their attempts to adopt a child from a family of a different nationality whose country broadly don’t uphold Christianity. In each case, an appeal might be made to their actions being ‘against their culture’. I believe the reason has something to do with how the family’s non-veganism is personally affronted by the values of the vegan, in a way that other actions or beliefs may not be.
Imagine a family with strong beliefs about the type of partner their daughter should marry in terms of race, religion or sexual orientation. One of their daughters advises that she wishes to marry outside these boundaries. If tradition is valued and her parents believe it is more correct for people to act in prescribed ways, they are likely to exert pressure on her to conform to what they believe is acceptable. They may criticise, ridicule, implore, or even eject her from the family until she changes her ways. The daughter may or may not stick to her guns, but either way she experiences discomfort because her family is not honouring her beliefs, while she is attacked for not honouring theirs.
However, whilst a daughter may seek her parents’ acceptance for her choice, she is unlikely to expect her bothers and sisters to copy her. This is what makes the choice to be an ethical vegan different: the person who chooses to be vegan wishes not only their family but the whole world to be vegan.
Why does the vegan wish to impose their values on others?
The ethical vegan has become aware of the gross inequity in the rights afforded to human vs. non-human animals. They have lifted the veil on the generally unquestioned doctrine of human superiority that results in Speciesism. Speciesism is a value system that affords different rights to members of different species, or even to sub-categories within a species: for example, domestic animals have legal and moral protections that animals raised for industrial use don’t.
Individuals who choose to be vegan not only want their family to accept their choices—they want them to become vegan too.
Vegans typically report the following about talking to their non-vegan family:
- They advise their family why they have become vegan and the trauma and anger they feel in relation to the extent of animal abuse in society, including in factory farming, retail and manufacturing.
- The family may be open-minded and discuss the vegan’s choice more fully. Alternatively, they may criticise the choice because of its negative effect on family habits and traditions.
- Having told their family of the extent of animal cruelty, and that if they don’t choose veganism their daily choices involve using products and services that abuse animals, vegans expect the family to make the same vegan choice. They say things like, “If my family really understood my pain, they would be vegan. How could they not be?”
This is where the vegan suffers enormous angst in living in a non-vegan family. I believe their angst is existential in nature, and increases the angst of everyone involved.
Existential angst or anxiety is a feeling of dread, anxiety or anguish that arises when an individual becomes truly aware of their freedom to choose his or her own being. The immensity of this responsibility influences many people to deny they have such a freedom. Instead they refer to the objective rightness of culture and tradition, as if they have no choice to be or do anything else. Vegans experience angst because they know their family does have choice despite the vegan’s heart-felt belief in the wrongness of the non-vegan way of being.
The family deals with their existential anxiety and the challenge to their choices by appealing to culturally and socially created myths (unquestioned assumptions) about why non-veganism is the correct order of things. They do this by referring to what people must eat in order to be healthy, “the natural order of things”, religious dogma, and the superiority of humans over animals.
Creating a more conscious world
Whilst an existential perspective highlights that each of us may choose our own way of being, the vegan finds it hard to accept that other people choose to be non-vegan. They believe veganism is the only ethically acceptable option that affords all living creatures the right to live a life not controlled or dictated to by humans. They can’t sit in silence when they see inequities or atrocities perpetrated on animals by people who never question the belief that humans have the right to choose how they treat other creatures.
In an attempt to redress this imbalance, vegans act to change the non-vegan choices that impose suffering on animals. This is far more central to their sense of self identity and moral and ethical rightness than other choices like sanctioning marriage outside a faith or culture. As we have pointed out, that is not the same.
Veganism is a philosophy of the non-use and non-exploitation of animals. The vegan has learnt that animal cruelty is institutionalised in industrial processes related to the production of food, clothing and furniture, in product testing, and in other uses e.g. entertainment and sport. A person may disagree with animal cruelty yet choose not to be vegan, not considering that animal cruelty is inherent in the goods and services they buy. Non-vegans do not knowingly collude with animal cruelty: they are unwittingly collaborators, until a vegan tells them the truth.
A vegan who talks to family members about these issues and finds that they do not also become vegan believes that the family agree with the cruelty, or disbelieve what they have been told, or are indifferent. As the family dynamic is inherent unequal, with parents tending to assume they “know better” than their children, they often resist challenges to their choices from their children (even when the children are adults). The discomfort they feel may be existential because it challenges the certainty with which they see “the world”. They are being shown that there is “another way of being” different to how they have fixed their world, and they are being asked to accept this knowledge and act upon it.
If family members refuse to change, the vegan knows that the non-vegans now have knowledge but choose to continue with the collusion. This is why they say that their family don’t understand them. They sometimes say that the non-vegan family members are demonstrating that
- Cruelty and animal exploitation is acceptable.
- They do not wish, or are unable, to empathise with the vegan’s trauma.
- They do not believe that animal cruelty is as far-reaching as the vegan reports.
Because of the extent of animal exploitation in the industrial process, non-vegans are unwittingly colluding with cruelty every time they put milk in their coffee, eat meat, use cosmetics or household cleaning products that have not been labelled cruelty free, sit on a leather couch, or wear a woollen jumper. It is impossible for them not to collude with industrial cruelty unless they specifically choose the vegan option. This is why the vegan and says that their non-vegan friends or family don’t understand them. They are colluding with those who harm animals by their daily lifestyle choices. Their choices don’t just affect them: they affect the millions of animals who are part of a production system that exists because of human demand.
If you are a vegan, what can you do to respond to your family’s resistance to veganism and attempts to influence you to revert to being non-vegan? There are a number of strategies:
- Manage Strong Emotion
Learn to manage the strong emotions that invariably arise when your family members don’t appreciate the inherent cruelty of their choices. Bring yourself to a state of calm so you can have productive conversations about these very challenging subjects. Learn to slow your breathing; use self-soothing self-talk techniques; develop a positive mindset and re-frame conversations so you can move other people towards veganism in steps rather than trying to convert them in one conversation.
- Improve your Communication
Learn to communicate effectively about veganism. Identify the specific issues that interest your family and focus on them, and later tease ethical issues into these conversations. For example, if some family members are interested in health, focus on the benefits of a vegan diet rather than trying to discuss social justice.
- Become Informed
Learn as much as you can about the arguments for veganism in terms of diet, environmental destruction, water use, economics, demographics and social justice. You will be more credible if your passion is underpinned by evidence.
- Get Support
Surround yourself with other vegans who understand you, and gain their help and support. Regularly debrief them about your experiences, and work with them to become the best advertisement for veganism you can be.