Self Righteous?

13 Jan

It’s a complaint I’ve heard a lot.  I (Stacia) hate being around vegans/vegetarians because they are so self-righteous bla bla bla.  How much truth is there to this?

When I first went vegan it pretty much turned my life upside down.  To say I was confused would be a grave understatement.  Prior to that time, I thought that people who broke laws and committed heinous crimes caused most of the world’s problems.  I had not considered that in the present day and age and in my country that ordinary people could be contributing to violence en masse.  When I first learned about how animal products reach our plates, I thought, “Oh my goodness!  I am not any more compassionate than any of my friends.  I had better tell them about this stuff straight away because they will not want to participate in this any longer either.”  What I found was that people did not want to talk about it and used any number of tactics to derail the conversation and put me on the defensive.

I was very new at being a vegan at that point and did not have the slightest idea of how to handle those situations with even a minimum of grace.  On several occasions, I found myself using shame to try to convince a friend to listen and care.  Not surprisingly, it didn’t work and I didn’t get the idea that the recipients of my shame tactics were excited to chat with me again anytime soon.  I should have known better.  Even if someone is right as rain, if I am shamed I want to do whatever I did 10 times over while jumping up and down and flipping off the shamer (with great zeal I might add).  I’ve learned to give myself a bit of a break about this though because talking about veganism is like anything else that you are new at, like writing poetry or making ceramics.  Your first tries at it are usually pretty bad. Unfortunately, these are sometimes the only conversations that occur because the door shuts after the first fumbling attempt to explain and defend a new choice.

I am far from being alone in having tried to use shame to bring about change.  I see this approach used quite frequently in a whole host of other social justice pursuits.  Vegans are far from having the cornerstone on this one!  Besides the “human nature” response to shame that I have (and probably many others as well), there is another reason why using shame to bring about social change is ineffective. It is much easier for people to avoid being shamed by exclusively hanging out with people who are similar to them and who do NOT present challenges to grow and think in new ways.  Even if you think a person SHOULD care and change whatever, fill in the blank_______, most everyone has a hectic complicated life.  People are worried about loved ones who are ill or having a surgery, worried that they will lose their jobs or home, concerned about their children’s grades or development or just plain trying to keep the house clean, the meals cooked, and the bills paid.  Of course people want to avoid shame that will rob them of their already precious and thinly spread energy stores.

But if vegans are not the only ones using shame and self-righteousness, why are they largely defined by it by non-vegans?  First I’d like to reemphasize that much of the conversation surrounding a person’s eschewal of animal products occurs in the immediate time span following a new way of eating.  This is also the most verbally clumsy time for the fledgling veggie and it is surprisingly easy to close down communication lines.  Also, it can’t be forgotten that every group of people connected by an ethos has its share of less than pleasant people!  Most everyone knows it would be ignorant to meet a Buddhist/Christian/Jewish person/etcetera who is a jerk and decide that everyone who shares that religion must be too.  Yet, it has remained socially acceptable to apply this misnomer to vegans/vegetarians.  I would like to explore why otherwise intelligent and kind people will employ a subterfuge here that they would not even think of applying in other situations.  Vegans are not the only ones culpable in this communication gap.

The answer is simply that people are either consciously or unconsciously trying to avoid the issue because this is violence that they could do something about.  Labeling a person “self-righteous” or “sanctimonious” often achieves one of several outcomes.  The person speaking is derailed into a defensive mode or she or he stops speaking to avoid being looked upon with negativity or not liked.  It either sidetracks or silences the speaker.  Labeling someone also seeks to invalidate what that person has to say and to let others know that what she or he thinks is not important.  Once the label is effectively minimized, the labeler can comfortably escape thinking about the issue.

It is hard to know when and when not to speak.  I was raised in a family that has strong elements of racism, homophobia, and patriarchy.  My first act of resistance was to refuse to believe that whites are better than non-whites.  I began to speak up about this as a child.  It was painful to give up some of my grandfather’s love and approval for this refusal to conform.  I also began speaking up about homophobia, heterosexism, and sexism as I got older.  It’s a good bet that any derogatory comment about women, people of color, or gay individuals that gets said in my presence will not go unchallenged.  It is a rare day that it does and one after which I will feel dirty for weeks.   This is what happened when my mom and three of my aunts came to visit me in San Diego shortly after my grandfather died.  One of my aunts said the N word right smack in the middle of CoCo’s while we were having our breakfast.  My mom immediately began kicking me furiously under the table and pleading with her eyes for me to keep my mouth shut.  I bowed to my mom’s wishes because they had all just lost their dad, but I felt rotten for a long time after.  If I had to do it over again, I would not have let that one fly.

This is what made the animal issue so confusing for a neophyte vegan!  Throughout my life as I have attained new knowledge and insights about injustices, I have been willing to speak up for those being harmed by them.  When I first became vegan, each time I was around someone eating or talking about eating animal products, I felt yucky inside for not speaking up (this means almost every waking moment!)  I felt like a coward day and night.  It felt awful and led to quite a confusing year or so.  It would have been easier if I had had friends who were vegan, but at the time I didn’t have any.

Thankfully, I don’t feel like that anymore!  It is still really hard for me to decide when to speak and when not to speak about harming animals.  I realize that if I speak every time, I would be a drag like Debbie Downer from Saturday Night Live, but if I never speak, I am acquiescent to cruelty.  Like Dr. King said, “Our lives begin and end the day that we become silent about things that matter.”

So, how do I feel inside when I do speak up for animals?  Better than other people?  Am I snottily enjoying a moment of self-satisfaction?  Not even close.  I generally feel anxious and worried about getting it right.  I often feel inadequate.  I wish that I had the humor or Chris Rock, the likeability of Ellen, or the writing skills of Alice Walker so that I could convey a message that would hit the target with perfect precision, through the funny bone, the intellect or the heart.  Every vegan knows the most you get is a sound bite, so you better make it good.  What I feel most though is sad and lonely.  I feel like it is a shortfall of mine that I cannot find just the right words to encourage whoever I am around to consider reducing violence towards animals.  This is a far cry from self-righteousness.  Now that I do have vegan friends, I hear similar sentiments from them.  In moments when they are speaking up for animals, they generally report feeling a sense of heartache and/or discomfort.  Maybe there are a few who get high on a feeling of superiority, but I think they are the exception, not the definition.


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