The Struggles of A Dogmatic Vegetarian

So, reading through ZEEL I feel like a lot of people are sharing their environmental ethic, their own personal environmental accomplishments, and what they think needs to be done/changed in the world. Which is awesome! But, I’m going to mix it up a bit. Like many of you out there—as an adult, my lifestyle of the past 7 or so years is nothing like the comfy suburban lifestyle my loving parents tried to share with me. I have made many changes in pursuit of a simple, low carbon footprint lifestyle and each change only makes me feel that much richer.

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We’ve all been here.

But, the purpose of my post is more of a “Dear Abby” style—“Dear ZEEL” if you will. Making changes, making sacrifices, cutting out comforts, these things are relatively easy for me. What is difficult for me… is being kind about it. Maybe kind isn’t the most appropriate word but I’m not sure what is. I’m a better “model” of good, eco-friendly behavior than a “campaigner,” you know? Basically, I’m a dogmatic vegetarian…and I need help. I feel like I’m at an AA meeting… but really people! I fear I am giving our movement a bad rep and that is the opposite of what we need right now. We need people to feel inspired, encouraged, and welcomed by the vegetarian movement—not pushed away.

Background:

For whatever reason, I have always (and probably will always) enjoyed absolutes—the definitive, incontrovertible rights and wrongs of the world. When everything is packaged into tidy little boxes labeled “good” or “bad” all decisions are made that much easier. I suppose when everything is labeled in such a manner you only have one decision ahead of you—to do what is “right” or to rebel and do what is “wrong.”

If I know the “rules” of life it makes it easy for me to do well/thrive. Absolutes such as “always look before you cross the street,” “sleep 8 hours a night,” and “always say please and thank you” are comforting to me because when I follow these rules I feel like I am doing the “right” thing. Unfortunately, such absolutes rarely exist in the world of morality. So, as you can imagine, the metaphorical rulebook I’m trying to write on “how to live the most environmentally friendly life as an American in 2017” isn’t going so hot.

My post is inspired by a quote from Dr. Henning’s “Morality in the Making.” As you can see, this quote is incredibly relevant to my dogmatic tendencies…something I’m not exactly proud of.

In some ways, we all live out the Golden Rule, right? We unconsciously treat others the way that we would like to be treated (see The Five Love Languages if you’re familiar with this concept). Anyways, the point is you will unconsciously treat and speak to people in the ways in which you expect/would like to be treated. Due to my weird dogmatic tendencies, I appreciate directness, brashness, and someone telling me exactly what to do and why. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is…I was a really bad vegetarian. It’s not what you’re thinking—I had no problem not eating meat. But when someone (friend, family, stranger, whoever) would ask me why I wasn’t eating meat my normally extroverted and loud spoken self would start stuttering over words trying to defend myself.

I knew I couldn’t say, “because it’s the right thing to do” since, after me, no one on this planet is receptive to that kind of answer. I also didn’t want to make it about death and pain because I personally believe that the practice of hunting in itself is not unethical, although it certainly can be depending on the execution. I also refused to take the “better for my health” argument because while being vegetarian can offer a multitude of health benefits… that is NOT the reason I am vegetarian. I also believe that directing the argument towards one’s own personal wellbeing, rather than addressing the larger issues at hand, is a missed opportunity.

So, what am I left with? Facts? Numbers? Do I tell my questioning tablemate that agriculture is the #3 contributor to greenhouse gases? That cattle grazing is the primary cause for deforestation in the Amazon? That livestock takes up 30% of the Earth’s land mass? That the very burger they are chewing on required some 600 gallons of water?

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Me overwhelming people with information.

For years it was a failed conversation. And it was a failure because I would either resort to the numbers and facts which no one want’s to hear during their meat meal… Or, after becoming exhausted from having to defend myself at each meal, I began to use short phrases like “for sustainability” or “environmental efficiency” which also didn’t do much to move the conversation in a positive direction. I felt I was either overwhelming someone with information/becoming argumentative trying to convince people that global climate change existed… or I was being too curt/rude by practically ending the conversation with two words. So, after accepting defeat as a shoddy vegetarian… I decided to eat meat in front of people.

I am still a vegetarian under the safety of my own roof. I don’t buy meat and it is not a part of my lifestyle. However, when I go to family reunions, I don’t spend my dinners with the breakfast muffins anymore or hide from my Uncle Chuck when he asks me why he doesn’t see his famous grilled chicken on my plate. I don’t ask the waitress for chickenless chicken alfredo when I’m out with my coworkers or even friends. I’ve given up on the idea of inspiring or “campaigning” for the environment in terms of a vegetarian diet. For some reason I will never understand, people take food personally. It doesn’t matter if they made it, bought it, or even if you’re eating under their roof. When you choose to nourish your body in a different manner than the norm, it’s attacked. Not always, of course. But time and time again I am asked about my choice in a less than kind matter and with defensive rebuttals no matter my response.

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I’m not vegan, but I like how this comic expresses how some personal choices are attacked while others are not.

I know becoming silent is not the answer. I know I can only invoke so much (micro as it is) change to the “system” and if we want true change we need a bigger movement. But, I don’t know what the right response is. I don’t know how to speak to someone and keep them from thinking that my tofu pepperoni sandwich is a personal attack on them and their lifestyle. I don’t know how to politely share my thoughts/ethic in a way that might make someone ponder the impacts of their diet later, instead of argue with me now.

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I know I’m not the only vegetarian on this blog that has dealt with these issues. How do you handle them? Do you have a short elevator speech you say each time? Do you avoid words like “climate change” and “greenhouse gases” to prevent having to defend the argument of global climate change to a denier in the span of your twenty minute meal? How do you handle education gaps? For people who don’t know what methane is, the importance of the Amazon rain forest, or even basic water issues? Do you try to explain yourself using science and reasoning or simply smile and make it sound personal and say something like “it’s just a decision I made.” Share your insights with me! Successes, failures, all of it.

Thanks for listening and I appreciate any and all feedback.

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22 thoughts on “The Struggles of A Dogmatic Vegetarian

  1. maggjones

    To say I feel like this is exactly what I’ve been waiting for within the imaginary confines of ZEEL may sound like an exaggeration, but that is how I feel and this blog is about feelings when it comes down to it. The woes of secularized faith in humanity towards what we were designed to be. I have barely been able to make progress on further postings because my initial post honestly seems kind of self-grandizing and humbrag-ish.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rebecca Croy

      So glad you like it! It’s definitely hard to expose one’s weaknesses and struggles online, but I think we need more “Dear Zeels” out there. It opens the floor to share advice/suggestions on various challenges and to just build a greater sense of community in general! No one is in this alone. And you shouldn’t shy away from writing more posts! We are constantly evolving ethicists and we all have something to learn from others. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Amberlyn Olsen

    I know the feeling exactly and I usually care a great deal about what people think but after watching Cowspiracy, doing my own research, and taking Professor Henning’s philosophy course, I cannot even imagine eating the flesh of an animal and I’m surprisingly steadfast in my choice and am happy about it. That makes it very easy for me to talk about it when asked, but only when asked. If someone has a misinformed or well meaning rebuke, I respectfully disagree and shift the conversation by admitting that SOMETIMES I miss a good polish hotdog or pulled pork but otherwise i don’t miss it and they can’t usually argue with you about not missing it or liking it anymore. Usually people let it go after I tell them i don’t eat meat because of the environmental impact of the meat industry and that my choice to not eat meat is the easiest thing i can do that has the largest impact. If people want to press the issue than they should be prepared to hear your answer and if they’re not, that’s not your fault and you can mollify the situation with a smile and simply state that you’re not forcing your choices onto them but the reasons you stated are the reasons and its OK to not always agree and then walk away.
    The hardest thing I’ve come across is ensuring people who watch my daughter are respectful of my decision to raise her without eating meat. I hope that was helpful and coherent.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rebecca Croy

      I really like how you admit that you do miss meat! Too often, I feel as though I am being villainized as a vegetarian because others cannot relate to me or my lifestyle. I think I’m going to start telling people that sometimes I miss pepperoni pizzas to make myself a bit more relatable and not so abnormal. Thank you so much for insight and help!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jordan Thurston

    This is very relatable! It is a challenge in and of itself to be a vegetarian yourself, but it is an even greater challenge to explain to others why you are making commitment, ESPECIALLY in the face of opposition. This is very relevant after this thanksgiving holiday, where I had to explain to all of my incredulous relatives why this year I would not be eating the turkey portion of the feast. Of course, as you noted Rebecca, I faced a lot of objections and for some reason could not stand up for my position, even though I am well versed in the vegetarian movement and committed to my philosophy. It seems that everyone in my family had an IMMEDIATE rebuke for my argument, and here is where I floundered. I always find myself backing down, not in my commitments, but in standing up for my beliefs. It just seems easier to say “no, I won’t have any turkey. End of story.” than engage in a long debate with argumentative relatives who don’t quite understand. This is not effective, however. I also wonder the best approach to help them understand. I would think it may be most helpful to explain it to them in terms they can understand. Try to feel out their environmental ethic, and then respond to that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rebecca Croy

      Yes! I agree with every word. It’s exhausting to argue with every family member at every holiday event. I like your idea of asking about the other person’s environmental ethic first. Maybe if I play politician and answer their question with my own question it will help me learn more about them and find a topic that we can both relate to and build the conversation from there. Thanks for your suggestions and good luck with your family! It’s not easy arguing with relatives.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Gaby Sevilla

    Prior to taking Dr.Henning’s environmental ethics class, I have been in the position of asking my vegetarian/vegan peers questions about their eating habits.. I respected their eating habits, and in all honesty, they really did not owe me an explanation, if anything, I was just curious to know their reasons if they were not solely based on strict health conditions, such as an allergic reaction that may lead to severe consequences. Being that it is now towards the end of the semester, I would label myself as a confused meat eater. Confused because I am now not as ignorant as I once was at the beginning of the semester(which is funny, because I thought I had an decent foundation of knowledge about the environment), therefore, I cannot ignore the information that I now know without feeling bad that I am not acting justly. This class truly pushed me to question my eating habits, which I think it’s for the better, but I do not know how to initiate the next proactive step for myself. What I find interesting about your situation, Rebecca, is that after confronting the difficult situation of not knowing how to respond to the questions you receive about your eating habits from those who have opposite views, I am facing a similar difficultly of answering questions, but the only difference is that these questions are through the perspective of a person who eats meat. I want to be able to respond to vegetarians and vegans of why I continue to have little meat within my diet or why, perhaps in the future, I decide to fully transition my diet to a vegetarian one. I am in an uncomfortable position of knowing what I should do because I am adamant in doing my part to better the environment but my current effort is not enough. Hopefully reading the perspective of someone who has a differing point of view with similar struggles helps! As for responding to others about why you chose to live the life you do, my personal suggestion would be to expose people about your knowledge as best you can despite their ability to understand. I am grateful for what this class has exposed me to and I am sure you can have an similar impact on people’s way of thinking through your insightful opinion/choices!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rebecca Croy

      Hi Gabby,

      Thank you for sharing your story. I understand your struggle of wanting to do your part, but still forming your environmental ethic and determining the changes you will/can make. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s the most rewarding one. The three things that have helped me the most in trying to tease apart the intricacies of my ethic are reading more about the issues, writing, and deep reflection through solo activities (hiking, running, swimming, etc.). As I mentioned in my post, I’ve been eating meat in front of people lately to avoid confrontation and in my eyes it was always: “meat is meat—it’s all bad.” I know that cattle obviously has the worst impact, but in those moments I wasn’t giving it much more thought than that. Until a few weeks ago, that is. I watched Okja (it’s on Netflix and I strongly recommend it if you’re struggling to figure out where you stand on meat issues) and now I absolutely refuse to eat mammals no matter what. I don’t care who is across the table from me—I can’t bring myself to do it. I physically feel sick when I think about killing and eating an animal so emotionally comparable to a dog. It’s an interesting revelation for me because for the entirety of my vegetarianism it has always been about climate change, environmental efficiency, and water scarcity. Now, however, I can’t shake the feeling that pigs are so smart and loving that people choose to have them as pets.. I think sometimes it takes a bone shaking experience like that, even if it’s just a movie, to help us realize where we really stand. Good luck and I hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Rebecca Croy

      I just realized I spelled your name wrong! I’m so sorry, I’m on my mobile and can’t see much of your comment as I’m writing.

      Like

  5. Karli McIntyre

    I have been experiencing a similar dilemma in my own life when trying to discuss my food options with those who have a very limited knowledge base when it comes to environmental issues. I am myself am a vegetarian because I am concerned with the impact of large scale meat production on climate change. Over the course of Dr. Henning’s environmental ethics course, I have transitioned from being opposed to all forms of meat consumption to a viewpoint where I would consider eating environmentally ethical and cruelty free animals. One approach that I have used when discussing my dietary choices to those who do not understand is to find an environmental cause that they do care about that we have in common. Sometimes it is protecting endangered species, sometimes it is human health, and sometimes it turns out to be public land issues. By finding common ground on an environmental issue, it can be easier to then transition into talking about an issue you care about personally like climate change or animal cruelty in CAFO’s.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rebecca Croy

      It sounds like we have the same basis for being vegetarian, but you go about being vegetarian much better than me! I really like your idea of finding a common ground. I imagine it immediately dissolves any tension in the room because both parties are talking about something they agree on! Brilliant. I like it a lot. 😊 Thanks for sharing!

      Like

  6. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12. At first, my only reason was because my best friend was doing it and I wanted to be just like her, but things have obviously grown from there. Today I do it for a mixture of all of the reasons; the environmental ones, the animal rights ones, the health ones, etc. I also struggle with answering the questions people always ask about my eating habits the first time they notice them. I have found that the best way to respond is first to say “I have a lot of reasons, do you really want to know?”. About half of the time people just say they don’t actually want to hear too much about it, in which case I just say that I do it for health reasons and we move on.
    The other times, when people really want to know, I start with the most scientifically based and emotionally removed reason that I have- that humans are physiologically herbivorous. This is a link to the lecture that this statement is based on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWgnhFp70ns. If they seem interested in that, I move on to the human health aspects- how many processed meat products have been classified as carcinogens by the FDA, how nutritional value is lost exponentially as you move up the trophic pyramid, and how we can absolutely live a healthy life with a plant based diet. Then, water consumption and the other environmental issues. If they are still hooked after that, I talk about animal rights as much as I can. It seems to me that the key is to start with some undeniable scientific truth, then move on to the anthropocentric argument, and then talk about the environment and animal rights last once I’ve already laid a more easily acceptable foundation.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rebecca Croy

      Hi Sophia,

      Your comment really interests me because it sounds like what you’re doing is exactly what I was doing… except I didn’t ask the initial “are you sure you want to know?” question and it seems like this makes all the difference in the world! When I tried to use scientific arguments I found that the conversation went absolutely nowhere productive, but maybe it’s because the person who asked the question didn’t truly want to know why I wasn’t eating meat. Maybe it was just their way to show surprise at the lack of turkey on my plate or to let me know they disapprove of my diet. I do not know but what I do know is that I will never engage in a conversation about vegetarianism again without asking the person first if they really want to know.

      I guess one other aspect of your response that I didn’t include in mine is the herbivore argument—I was completely ignorant to this theory and I really appreciate you sharing that video! It’s very thought provoking and I am definitely eager to learn more about it. Thanks again for all of your insight and I will take your advice to heart.

      Like

  7. Jake Peterson

    If you are so steadfast in your ideas, I think confronting people may be important. As a vegetarian myself, I often end up debating people on this issue. It’s just a matter of how you frame it. I wouldn’t shy away from points like climate change because they are hot-button topics, they enhance your point. But, I think it’s important to go into the conversation not with the goal to necessarily get someone to change their mind. Instead, focus on informing them why you personally made that choice. There are many different conversations that we need to have in our society as we face what many people are now seeing as outright ecocide. Plus, in the end, the confrontation is never as bad as one usually thinks. I still totally understand avoiding the conversation with family, that can especially start to feel like a personal attack.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rebecca Croy

      Thanks for your encouragement! I think it’s really cool that you feel so comfortable debating with people but I’m not sure if that’s the right path for me. I find myself stumbling over words and getting really uncomfortable as soon as there’s any sort of tension in the room… and sometimes I find myself still stressing over the conversation hours later. I admire people like you who can stay cool as a cucumber even when the conversation turns to a debate. Thanks for speaking up for vegetarians like me. 😊

      Like

  8. Audrey

    Hi Rebecca!
    I really appreciated this post as I feel I have ran into similar issues regarding my diet/eating style! I have been following a vegan diet for about two years now and have found that the hardest part is trying to explain why I eat this way/presenting it in such a manner that will be easily understood by someone who is a die-hard meat, diary, and egg consumer. In my experience, those not similar with the lifestyle usually go about asking questions in more of an accusatory way and then it sparks more of an argument rather than a discussion- and these discussions are so crucial to educating more people about the dairy/meat/egg industry and spreading the word about issues surrounding the ethical and environmental issues as to why many people go vegan in the first place. It can be hard to use these questions as a platform for seeing both sides and appreciating multiple inputs rather than feeling like I need to justify my eating choices so it is nice to see you looking for effective ways to go about solving this problem and all the input that follows. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rebecca Croy

      Hi Audrey!

      Thanks so much for your response! I totally agree with you about people who aren’t familiar with the lifestyle coming across as more accusatory. This past weekend was another family test for me as a relative criticized my boyfriend and I for choosing to make our sandwiches with tofurky instead of the deli meat they’d generously provided. There were so many groans of “ew” “gross” and “I don’t even to be near it” you’d think we were pouring sewage onto our sandwiches. In times like that, trying to spread the word about the environmental benefits of reducing meat intake feels like a waste of time. I still tried—but I’m not sure if it made any difference. Hope you’re having better luck than me!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. David Baker

    Hi Rebecca,

    Great post… very engaging!

    I also found that answering the “why aren’t you eating meat?” question with “I can show you videos on YouTube that would make anyone go vegan instantly” doesn’t help get the ethical principles across as well as a short, I’ll-tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear type of response. When people ask me about my refusal to eat meat, I usually respond with the health benefits excuse. If the conversation goes further, then I am always ready to delve into the ethical dimension involved with my refusal to eat meat.

    Overall, I do find it difficult explaining my reasoning for becoming vegetarian to others who are not vegetarian and do not fully understand vegetarianism, and I (guiltily) usually try to nip the conversation in the bud as soon as it arises. I guess it is my “duty” as an educated advocate to take advantage of those conversations, but it is so difficult explaining Ethics 101 and Environmental Ethics in one conversation! I think the easiest, most practical way to approach the situation is to gauge the crowd and act accordingly…

    Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Madeline Hueske

    This is an interesting reflection, as I recently (since the new year, so we’re talking very recently) decided to go vegetarian as well. It was a decision I’d been pondering for a while, and after cutting nearly all meat out of my diet besides fish, I figured it wasn’t too much of a leap. So reading this is perhaps a bit of a glance into my future as a vegetarian, for better or for worse.

    I don’t really consider myself as someone who is incredibly dogmatic, so I’ve yet to experience a situation where I’ve felt inclined to “defend” my position on meat eating. Friends have been very supportive and understanding, and I can’t figure out if I just have great friends, or if I’ve surrounded myself with people who are not fazed by a plant-based diet. However, it is very early on in this new diet for me, so I could run into roadblocks later on, especially if I enter an environment that isn’t so full of planet-conscious treehuggers.

    I think it’s important to be able to defend your position, however, regardless of how contentious the issue is. I myself decided to stop eating meat because of environmental and ethical reasons, but I have absolutely nothing against people who are able to get around these issues (ethically and sustainably produced meat products), and in fact envy them a little for cracking the code! I guess for me the bottom line is, stick to what you believe in, respect others’ eating choices, and hopefully they’ll respect yours. Thanks for an interesting read!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rebecca Croy

      A new vegetarian! Welcome to the club 😊 Whether you have really great friends or just friends that are used to vegetarians—consider yourself lucky! What an awesome support system. Also, we need more people like your friends who don’t feel the need to insult someone else’s own eating habits.

      Since writing this post I’ve had a lot of encouragement from bloggers like you telling me how important it is to defend my position and that I shouldn’t shy away from the conflict it may or may not bring. This support has overwhelmingly helped me feel stronger when responding to the vegetarian critics of this world. So thank you!

      As for those who have “cracked the code”—you and I are on in the same boat! (Minus the envy piece) Many vegetarians are opposed to hunting, but I am not one of them. Like everything, execution is everything and while I do find trophy hunting to be unethical I am not opposed to sustenance hunting as long as it is done so ethically and without environmental harm. I work for a tribe and I see many of my coworkers ethically hunt for their dinner in an environmentally conscious way that I can totally get down with. So, when I’m offered a small baggie of elk jerky as a gift I don’t avoid eye contact and say “no thank you” like I would with a hot dog. I smile and say “thanks!” because while I myself don’t wish to kill, I have no judgement whatsoever on the manner in which that elk was hunted so denying their gift would simply be rude for no reason other than to follow a label—“vegetarian.”

      Good luck and thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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