It is often said that the hardest thing about being vegan is not the food, it’s dealing with other people. Despite it’s growing popularity, there is still a noticeable stigma surrounding veganism, and often extraordinary negativity and aggression is levelled at vegans for little more than revealing the fact that they don’t believe in animal exploitation. Even among the socially conscious, mocking and sometimes outright bullying vegans is still seen as socially acceptable, and we remain the butt of many cruel jokes and harmful stereotypes. Making this even worse is the fact that vegans don’t often feel like they can discuss these issues openly, for fear of people claiming they are “making themselves out to be oppressed.” This can and does have a very real impact on the mental health of vegans, particularly those with existing issues like anxiety and depression.
The first thing to do is to recognise what you can control and what is out of your hands. You can’t control what people post on the internet about vegans, but you can control which behaviours you accept and which ones you don’t. Setting clear boundaries when it comes to your veganism is incredibly important, though many people mock us intentionally to be hurtful, friends and family often don’t understand quite how hurtful some of these barbs can be, and how important our veganism is to us. What you are okay with brushing off and what you will stand up against sets a precedent; if you argue against anyone who ever makes a vegan joke you’ll wear yourself out and likely give them the rise they want, but at the same time, just grinning and bearing it sets a precedent that this treatment is something you will allow.
Where you draw your line is entirely up to you. Personally, jokes about protein and vegans being preachy don’t bother me in the slightest, I actually make these jokes about myself all the time, partly because I think they’re relatively harmless and partly because it reclaims those jokes rather than having them be something which could be used against me. Jokes about animal cruelty though I will not accept, because that joke is at the expense of suffering animals, not just me, so I think that’s an important thing to call out. We can choose to accept jokes aimed at ourselves and even turn them into a friendly way of starting a conversation about veganism, but we should never allow people to turn the oppression of animals into something they can feel okay laughing at in front of us. There are too few of us to remain silent, and it’s rare that anyone who isn’t vegan is going to speak out in defence of animals in these situations, so it is up to us to do so.
Wherever you draw your line, letting people know when they’ve crossed it doesn’t have to be confrontational, in fact I find that showing your anger or hurt over it can often make people worse. The thing I have found most effective is to calmly but firmly say “I don’t think that’s funny.” You don’t have to extrapolate or justify it, in fact, saying this and nothing else often makes the encounter awkward enough for the person making the joke that they will think twice before doing it again, it doesn’t give them the rise they might want and won’t cause unnecessary conflict. If they do ask why, you should either keep your response short, honest and matter-of-fact, or turn it around and ask them to explain why they think animal cruelty is funny. Asking anyone to explain any joke is usually enough to kill any humour in it, and again it deprives people of the laugh or offence that they wanted to cause when they made the joke. This sounds really simple and commonsense, but you’re not usually thinking rationally when you or what you believe in is under attack, and these things really do work.
If what is happening is not a joke, but a purposeful attempt to criticise veganism or vegans in general then they key is to be as educated as possible about the issues likely to be discussed. Fortunately enough, the same dozen or so arguments are recycled time and time again in slightly different forms, so you’ll get plenty of practice in responding to them, and I’ve written a bunch of responses to these here, and summaries of animal rights issues here. In all the yars I’ve ran this blog I can honestly say that I don’t think anyone has ever presented me with a truly original argument, they all rely on the same fallacies, misconceptions or misinformation.
No matter how anxious these conversations are for you, remember that the key advantage you will always have is that you will usually know far more than the person you’re arguing with, since it’s rare that anyone who isn’t vegan will have ever thoroughly researched animal agriculture unless they live or work around it, and even those in the industry are often shockingly ignorant of certain facts about the production line outside of their own specialised area. Read the books and watch the documentaries; pretty soon there is no point that any of them will raise against you that you won’t be able to disprove, I have a page of collected resources and a facts list which might help you with that. It’ll get to the point where people just won’t raise these issues around you anymore because they know you’ll have an answer for them, and these people are far more often looking for a “gotcha” card than they are a serious conversation about veganism.
Part of the problem is that you are almost always going to be outnumbered in these situations, surrounded by people who don’t feel as you do and have no issue with you being made fun of for being vegan. That’s why connections with other vegans is so important, it’s likely you don’t really meet other vegans in your daily life since there aren’t that many of us, but there are growing and active communities on every social networking site and there are active groups in most cities. Spending time with other like-minded individuals, even if it’s just in conversation online, can be really therapeutic, whether you’re engaged in activism together or just having a rant about shared problems. Veganism can be a lonely place to be only if you let it, if you reach out online or to groups in your area you’ll find the vegan community can be really supportive, and we all have similar issues to deal with.
Above all of this advice, try to remember that mockery and derision is what just about every activist of every kind throughout history has been subjected to. We are on the right side of a socially accepted wrong, and regardless of whether or not they admit it, a lot of the people mocking us do so because they know that there is a great deal of truth to what we are saying. We make people uncomfortable because we remind them of the fact that, for most of us, eating animals is a choice. When there are no vegans around there is no distinction between meat eater and vegan, meat eating is the norm and there is no reason to question it, only when someone criticises that status quo are people forced to think about their behaviour, which is rarely a welcome thing. We remind people of the uncomfortable fact that it is possible to live a healthy lifestyle while avoiding harming animals wherever possible, and worse still, that they are complicit in the deaths of so many innocent, sentient beings.
It falls to us to stand up for animals when no one else will, and though that can be a lonely and isolating thing, we should be immensely proud of the difference we are making. Going vegan is an unequivocally positive change and we cannot let the small-mindedness of those who mock and deride us for it to make us think of it as anything less. If there’s a particular issues you’re struggling with or you just need to vent then please feel free to get in touch, I’d be more than happy to support you in any way that I can.