The other night, I went to go see Chelsea Peretti open for Aziz Ansari down in San Jose. I’d never seen Peretti’s stand-up before, but I was mostly into it -- until she segued into a vegan joke.
“Why do vegans care more about pigs than about the migrant farm workers who pick their vegetables?” she asked, to the general amusement of everyone except me.
“Wow, that wasn’t even original,” I huffed to my very patient friend. “I mean, really. I’m cool with vegan jokes, but come up with one I haven’t heard a frillion times. Obviously I care about migrant farm workers. That’s not even – How is that -- Ugh, God, it’s as bad as the one with the chicken on the desert island. Vegans aren’t all assholes, god dammit!”
Dimly, through my boring outrage, I became aware of a pronounced silence. The self-satisfied laughter along our row had faded, and I was the only person talking. Loudly.
Asshole vegan, thou becomest thyself.
Look, I get it. Vegans are easy to make fun of, with our Feelings on down comforters and our tendency to smell like kale. That doesn’t mean I don’t get mighty sick sometimes of dumbass bros getting all “hilarious” on me because they think it’s great to give me a hard time about all the cockroaches that are killed in the pre-seitan wheat fields or whatever. Even my grandpa, who’s a member of the NRA, stopped telling that joke on Thanksgiving 2009. Find a new angle, for Morningstar’s sake.
However. I also think it’s possible that vegans are not entirely blameless for our image, here.
I’m not trying to suggest that we take responsibility for other people’s jerkwad tendencies; rather, I think it’s helpful to be able to step back sometimes and reevaluate just how much mental energy we’re putting into forwarding PETA ads and sticking “Love animals, don’t eat them” decals all over other people’s bicycles.
Take it from someone who used to wear “Meat is Murder” T-shirts to school dances: It’s very easy to fall into an unproductive “They started it!”-style cycle of dickheadedness when it comes to this kind of stuff. Trust me, though, that it’s far better to pull that plug early on.
So, be honest, vegans. Vegetarians, you can play too. Are YOU exhibiting any signs of veghead assholery?
1. Comparing Factory Farms to the Holocaust
A few days ago, I saw that the incomparable Marianne Kirby had posted a mini-rant about vegans likening factory farms to slavery on her Tumblr. As Marianne says:
“I know they may feel the same to you in your animal-loving heart of hearts but you are being an asshole by seriously disrespecting the memory of those who lived as slaves and their living descendants. The same goes for the Holocaust. Stop it.”
Here’s the thing. I took animal welfare classes in school. I’ve dedicated hundreds of hours to researching the horrors of factory and battery farming in the United States. I’ve been inside two slaughterhouses, one approved by Temple Grandin and one very much not. Both made me cry hysterically. And as far as I’m concerned, factory farms are not the same as slavery. Not even in my heart of hearts.
Yes, animals, many of whom are capable of some level of compassion and all of whom are capable of bone-deep fear, suffer greatly in our current factory farming system. The whole battery hen/baby chick macerator thing gave me nightmares for weeks. But the horrifying treatment that livestock animals undergo is completely separate from the cultural and literal genocide that took place during the Holocaust and during slavery in the United States.
To compare the two is a hyperbolic, racist, reactionary action. It essentially distills centuries of human suffering into the experience of one bird or one pig. It also equates “fixing the slaughterhouse system” with “fixing the Holocaust” or “fixing slavery:” As if the living descendants of slavery or Holocaust victims could forgive the crimes of years past as easily as next spring’s crop of chicks will forget how their older sisters died.
At this point in time, factory farming is awful. But it is not genocide. It's disgusting, but it's not slavery. Mixing the issues trivializes an essential, traumatic part of human history.
I understand the impulse to draw people’s attention to the suffering of farmed animals. If you do that by comparing the USDA to “OMG Hitler,” though, I will want nothing to do with you.
2. Refusing to Understand that Veganism is Not For Everyone
In my travels throughout the world (read: Internet), I have come across many vegans. Most are lovely, wonderful, compassionate people who genuinely want to make the world a better place. Once in a while, though, I run into people like Doug.
I met Doug in the comments section of a website advertising Heifer International, an organization that sends livestock animals to children in need. Doug was angry. Doug was vegan, and Doug did not want me and my co-workers sending a goat to kids in Somalia.
The children of Somalia would only torture the goat, Doug seemed to think. They would milk it, after all, and they would probably eventually slaughter it for meat. This, Doug knew, was Unethical. He suggested that the kids try going vegan, instead! Never mind that they lived on a patch of land where getting full nutrients from the ground was nearly impossible. Anything was better than milking a nanny goat for six-odd years before killing her!
Yes. Let that sink in. Doug would have rather children starved than send them a goat.
Doug is an extreme case. But he does illustrate my point that vegans can get a little tunnel vision-y when it comes to their daily diets. It’s true that most meat is way expensive, so eating meat-free can save you money in the long run. All those fancy-ass soy ice creams and nutritional yeast flakes? That starts to add up, fast. Some people don’t have the funding or inclination to spend extra dollars on something called “cheese-style product.” That doesn’t mean they’re not doing their best to eat mindfully.
Aside from the economic perspective, lots of people can’t be vegetarian for health reasons. They might be allergic to soy, for example, or suffer from chronic anemia. Sometimes, vegetarianism is just not on people’s priority list. And that’s OK. It has to be OK, because otherwise you’re policing people’s food choices in a way that should start to seem miiiighty familiar. And, as you well know, that’s really fucking annoying.
3. Getting Irrationally Huffy Over the Presence of Cheese
This is definitely one I’m guilty of. If I’m especially hungry and have been promised free food, I always find myself channeling some sort of Kristen Wiig character and asking, in a half-lidded eye sort of way, “Do these sandwiches have, like…mayonnaise on them? Oh.”
This is usually coupled with a lot of sighing. It ain’t cute.
It is frustrating, admittedly, to go to yet another wedding/bar mitzah/hamster funeral and find that you’re relegated to aggrievedly scraping the feta off of the celery sticks while everyone else sucks down on filet mignon cheesecake cheesesteak milkshakes. At a certain point, though, you have to accept that unless the host is feeling particularly conscientious or you are at a party hosted by people who regularly compost, the veggie options are probably going to be few and far between.
And as subtle as you think your pouting might be, allow me to reassure you: It is not. Everyone and their elderly aunt will consider you a big whiner. Because at the end of the day, you are one vegan. They are a stressed party host. Chances are that you will be left by the wayside.
Solution: Plan the fuck ahead. Circumvent the hangriness that follows being cheese-blocked out of some severely delicious spinach puffs with a stashed Kashi bar or a grapefruit. No one’s forcing you to sit there and work your way through a bunch of sourdough rolls that you tried to “jazz up” by sprinkling them with black pepper. You can fix the problem before it even begins.
It’s reasonable, I think, to ask that a restaurant try to make a moderately special order for you. If you’re at a house party and all the desserts have eggs in them, though, don’t you dare waste precious Scissor Sisters groovin’ time by spitting in all the remaining chocolate muffins.
4. Not Cutting Yourself (or Other People) Enough Slack
Most people are probably not setting out to intentionally get under your skin when they start asking questions about veganism. I’ve had friends, for example, who ask me if ketchup and/or mustard is OK for me to eat. Or they’ll ask about when I decided to give up dairy and eggs and what my rationale behind it was. “Don’t you, like, miss cheese?” they ask, eternally gormless.
Sometimes, if I’m feeling confrontational, I’m tempted to snap at them. When people ask the same questions repeatedly about what I perceive to be a fairly straightforward lifestyle decision, it starts to wear on me a little. But these guys aren’t actually trying to be smart-asses. Many of them are just trying to wrap their heads around the whole thing -- and by being short with them, I wasn’t helping the cause a whit.
Just chill out a little. Veganism shouldn’t have to be about always jumping down your loved ones’ throats about venison. It should be a good opportunity to take health and the environment into your own hands. If you demonstrate that you’re not spending your Saturday mornings crying into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s that you can’t even eat, maybe you’ll start making your friends or loved ones think about their own lifestyle choices.
Relax a bit. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Like they say: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. (Although honey’s not really vegan, either. Whoops.)