Writing, life, politics

Ways To Piss Off Vegans: #1

Imagine you’re at a wedding reception, say, sat at a table that consists entirely of single people and couples who’ve only just been introduced to each other. And imagine that the following conversation were to occur:

Person 1: [To Person 2] Do you ever watch that Sunday morning discussion show thing on BBC1?

Person 2: No, I’m usually out then. Is it any good?

Person 1: Why are you out?

Person 2: Well… I go to church.

Person 1: Church?

Person 2: Yeah. Erm, I’m a Christian.

Person 1: [Apparently curious] Right. Perhaps you can tell me something. I’m just curious. But why are you a Christian?

Person 2: Oh. Okay. [Thinking] Well, I guess it’s because I feel blessed by the love of Jesus Christ and inspired to follow his teachings.

Person 1: [Looking a bit determined now] And one of those teachings is that you should do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, right?

Person 2: Yeah. It is.

Person 1: Okay. [Starts getting aggressive] So what if, say, you had a daughter, and she was in hospital dying, because she had something wrong with her heart, and she needed a heart transport, but there were no donor hearts available, and then some Columbian gangsters murdered a nine-year old street girl and stripped her body down for spare parts and her heart was being offered for sale on the black market, would you buy that little girl’s heart from the people who’d murdered her? Which would be basically paying them to kill someone else’s daughter? Would you do it?

Person 2: But… I don’t have a daughter who needs a heart transplant.

Person 1: [Really quite aggressive now] Yeah, but if you did, would you? Would you?

Person 2: [Helplessly shaking their head] Well I don’t know. Anyway, about this Sunday show?

Person 1: [Insistent] I’m just curious. I’m not being nasty. But would you? Would you do it?

Person 2: How could I know? How would anyone know how they’d react in that situation?

Person 1: [Sits back in chair triumphant, as those he’s proved a point] Ah. See! And what about…

You’d probably find such an exchange bizarre, incomprehensible, even. On what possible planet is it in anyway acceptable to demand that a complete stranger provide an answer to your bizarre, random, arbitrary, hypothetical thought experiment?

And yet it happens to us vegans all the time. If I had to pull a guestimated fact out of my body’s rear-mounted, downward-firing, solid waste disposal orifice, I’d say that on about 25% of the conversations in which it emerges that you’re a vegan, one of the others persons present decides to demand that you answer a bizarre, random thought experiment, typically involving plane-crashes on Pacific islands populated entirely by rabbits. And of course, if you do try to provide an answer, the person usually takes that as an invitation to badger you about it for the next half hour, no matter how much you say, “Could we not just agree to disagree?”

(I don’t mean that 25% of people react this way. I’m suggesting that in any such occasion, there’s about a one in four chance that one of the several people present will react in this way.)

And of course, although they’re aggressively demanding that you explain to them why you’re a vegan, they’re not actually expecting you to give any kind of logical, internally coherent answers; if you do , that only makes them more aggressive, as they take that as some kind of personal attack by you, on them. It sometimes seems that the only way to make them stop is to either agree to abandon in their entirety your ethical and philosophical beliefs, or just get quite rude and tell them to shut up,  sod off, and leave you alone.

It really pisses me off, and I know from talking to other vegans that it really pisses them off too. It happens often enough that you’re sometimes inhibited about mentioning that you’re a vegan, and instead dance around the subject, as though you’ve got some kind of bizarre eating disorder you’d rather not discuss. It’s important to stress that these aren’t occasions where we’re in any way proselytising, trying to push our opinions onto others. It’s simply situations where us being vegan has merely come up in conversation.

It most recently happened to me, two days ago, at a wedding.

Him: Why aren’t you eating the starter?

Me: Erm. We can’t.

Him: Why not?

Me: Well… We’re vegans, and there’s cheese and honey in it.

Him: [Apparently curious] Right. Tell me this. I’m just curious. What would you do if you were trapped in some woods and there were only rabbits to eat?

Me: But we’re not trapped in some woods with only rabbits to eat.

Him: [Insistent and demanding, if not quite aggressive] But what if you were?

I’m always more than happy to explain why I’m a vegan, to anyone who genuinely wants to hear why. And if you’re curious about the ethical difficulties I face in my day-to-day life, that’s fine too. But please don’t then hit me with the bizarre random thought experiments. I’m not a barbarian living in the bronze age. I’m not trapped on a biologically implausible tropical island. And I’m not living in a near-future dystopia with a sick daughter who urgently needs a heart transplant from a transgenic pig. I’m a middle-aged, twenty-first century bloke on a reasonable income living in an advanced Western democracy.

And I’m also just trying to enjoy the wedding.

11 Comments

  1. Wimble

    At the risk of causing offence (if I do, I apologise): one of the possible answers is “I’d kill and eat a rabbit”. Which, of course, is going to be taken as some kind of moral victory by your antagonist, for having made you give up your vegan principles.

    However, the counter example is “What if you, Mr. normal meat eater, were stranded in the middle of nowhere, and all you had to eat were beetles, and frogs? Or even at the top of, I don’t know, the Andes, and had no food at all, apart from your fellow plane passengers. What then?”. Which, of course, will be viewed as a *completely* different category of question!

    I do see your point. Did you enjoy the wedding, other than that conversation?

    • Jonny Nexus

      No offence intended, because you’re asking the question in a polite way in an appropriate context.

      I’d say, exactly, I agree with your comment entirely. This (eating animals when faced with death) is a valid, if abstract, philosophical question, and one that in other circumstances might prove an interesting discussion. Along with the ethics of sailers murdering other sailers on a life-raft to eat them.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R_v_Dudley_and_Stephens

      But it’s not a nice question to be asked in what’s supposed to be a social setting, by a complete stranger, who’s demanding an answer in a manner that is at least assertive, if not quite aggressive.

      I do sometimes try turning it around in the manner you discuss. My reply to his “Would you eat roadkill?” was “No, for the same reason that I wouldn’t eat a person who I found killed by a car. If I were to die tragically I’d hope the persons who found me would treat my body with dignity and respect, and if they were to roast me and eat me, I wouldn’t consider that to be either dignified or respectful.”

      It didn’t work. 🙂

      Other than that somewhat annoying conversation, the wedding was great! Thank you for asking!

  2. Jim

    I’ve had that conversation regarding seafood. Seafood is gross to me (not really sure why, and don’t really much care why). Whenever I say that, there usually someone who presents me with the deserted scenario. And my answer is that person yes, I would eat seafood to survive. In fact, I’d probably eat him to survive. That last comment tends to quiet them up.

    • Jonny Nexus

      It’s a good conversation ender. 🙂

      But it’s interesting to hear that it can occur in other contexts.

  3. Ian

    How it should be done:

    Him: Why aren’t you eating the starter?

    Me: Erm. We can’t.

    Him: Why not?

    Me: Well… We’re vegans, and there’s cheese and honey in it.

    Him: Did the hosts know? Have you asked the venue for an alternative? Appalling treatment… Can I have yours?

    • Jonny Nexus

      To be fair, that’s how most people react. In this case, it was an unfortunate mixup/communications breakdown. Because it was a hall, rather than a premises with a kitchen, the food was all pre-cooked so there wasn’t really anything they could do.

  4. Henry

    At the risk of being part of your 25% rule, I have a question. I understand the cheese thing, since calves are a byproduct of milk production, and normally find their way to McDonalds.

    But why honey? It is widely known among beekeepers that bees find empty hives and move in, and are more likely to swarm at weekends when humans are there to catch them. (Or at least run screaming in search of a beekeeper to rescue them.)

    Years ago hunters killed bee colonies to get at the honey, but in these days of moveable-frame hives, it’s an advantage for the bees to be kept, since they are more likely to be treated for disease and fed in the autumn, and so to survive over the winter.

    Modern beekeepers trade honey for sugar syrup. The bees get food security, the humans get something that tastes a whole lot better than sugar syrup.

    (We also get pollination, which helps us grow the crops that you will eat.)

    I’d say that modern beekeeping is symbiosis, not predation. And, judging by their swarming patterns, the bees seem to agree.

    • Jonny Nexus

      Firstly, you’re not part of the 25! Like I said, I *like* it when people, such as yourself, ask genuine questions seeking genuine answers. And since you already know the issue with milk, that puts you ahead of about 90% of people.

      What annoys me is either:

      a) People who pose the bizarre thought experiments in an effort to somehow force you to “back down” from your moral principles; or

      b) People who say something like, “You’re idiots to refuse to drink milk, given that none of the animals get harmed”, and then get pissed off when you politely explain that actually, all the male calves either get killed as newborns or used for veal.

      In the case of honey, I’ll freely admit that the case against is much, much weaker than with milk, eggs, or wool. In many ways it’s more of a theoretical argument about the way you should view other species. As with silk, I generally just say that whilst I can’t argue that it counts as “cruel”, I’d rather have a big moral buffer zone around any use of “animals” in order to be really happy that I’m on the side of the angels.

      And opting out of honey is often regarded as a sort of “optional” part of veganism. Having said that, I think that commercial honey production can often have elements to it that you wouldn’t find in the less intensive end of the industry.

      From a Vegan Society page on this:

      The queen bee is usually killed every year and a new queen introduced to the colony. The queen may have her wings clipped to prevent her from flying; this is to stop the bees carrying out their natural instinct to swarm (the old queen and a large proportion of the bees leaving the nest once the colony has provided a new queen to replace her).

      Far from being ‘just’ simple insects, bees have a complex communication system, display co-operative behaviour and take part in activities such as collective decision-making, organisation and conflict resolution.

      Farmed bees are vulnerable to insect attacks and diseases such as American Foulbrood and European Foulbrood, Varroa mites and associated viruses, which have increased significantly in the UK over the last 5-10 years, along with a decline in bee numbers. One method of dealing with American Foulbrood is to burn the hives while all the bees are inside.

      http://www.vegansociety.com/resources/animals/bees-and-honey.aspx

      So I guess if I were to meet someone who only eats honey produced by small-scale beekeepers who don’t do that sort of stuff, I wouldn’t be able to say they were doing anything wrong. But for what are, if nothing else, abstract philosophical principles, I would still not want to do that myself.

      Hope that all makes sense!

      • Henry

        Well, I used to be that small-scale beekeeper, and I am planning to do so again. (I’m planning to build a house for the bees when I’ve finished extending the house for humans.)

        The foulbroods are notifiable diseases, which brings us into “foot-and-mouth” type legal territory. In Britain, beekeepers are mandated by law to notify them, and the man from the Ministry comes around and burns the hives. The debate about that shades into the debate about farm law and farm practices in general.

        I did have a poke around the ‘Net yesterday evening, and among other things found Michael Greger’s 2005 Satya article on honey, which seems to have stirred up a bit of a hornets’ nest, if you’ll excuse the simile.

        It makes more sense of my (claimed) vegan neighbours whose reaction to discovering that I used to be a beekeeper was “got honey”?

        Beekeeping is a corner case, I guess.

  5. Brendan

    My experience in my 20s was a bit different.

    Him: Why aren’t you eating the starter?
    Me: Erm. We can’t.
    Him: Why not?
    Me: Well… We’re vegans, and there’s cheese and honey in it.
    Him: *gleefully obnoxiously exaggerated sounds of eating and enjoyment*

    • Jonny Nexus

      Yeah, I’ve had that quite a bit as well. And it is very annoying, even more so because they aren’t trying to wind you up and make you angry – they seem to think that you’ll actually find it funny.

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