If you’re vegan or vegetarian: you may have experienced it more than once: you are at the dinner table with other people, and the conversation turns to not eating meat. Some people at the table may be able to have a rational conversation about this, but others get a bit (or quite) angry, defensive, or sometimes downright nasty.
For some of your table partners to turn defensive, you probably actually didn’t even have to start to talk. Your mere presence as someone who doesn’t eat meat/animal products, is enough to make them uncomfortable. And this discomfort may impact the whole ensuing discussion. This is what I call the vegan handicap.
My guess (and I think it’s a pretty reasonable one), is that at the basis of the discomfort lies guilt. Most people in their right mind will know there’s something wrong with what’s on their plate. They may believe that it is ok to kill animals for food, but most of them also believe that when we choose to do that, we should give the animals “a good life” and make sure they “don’t suffer” (whatever those words mean to us). They believe there exists something like “humane meat” and that there is no problem with that. At the same time, however, most of them are buying meat from just any source: at the supermarket, in restaurants, in the cafetaria at their work… They are quite aware that they could at least get meat in organic stores, which they might think meets their criteria for “humaneness”, but almost none of them do that. Apart from all this, there may be a voice inside them that tells them that killing animals for food is unfair.
So the people at your table, looking at you, feel guilty – at a conscious or less conscious level – about the discrepancy between what’s on their plate and what they believe they should do. You confront them with that guilt, and they get defensive. They get the feeling that you are or are going to attack them, while your opinion merely represents that dissenting opinion within themselves: that gnawing little voice inside them, that they actually don’t want to hear.
It is very important to be aware of this dynamic. Assuming this attitude of guilt and defensiveness is not a good basis to work on, I suggest that the vegan at the table needs to go a certain extra length to put the omnivore at ease, and not put oil on the fire. All of this means that things you say may sound accusing and guilt-inducing much easier and faster than you expect or intended. It means that – pardon the expression – you should walk on eggshells.
There’s a lot of points you can give attention to in order to put others at ease and make the conversation go better. Here are some of them: behave very pleasantly, have a sense of humor, make it clear that you’re not accusing them, avoid charged words like “murder”, talk in terms of “we/society” and not “you”, explain how you have eaten meat yourself before (and how it possibly took you a while to see things clearly). Avoid sounding holier-than-thou. Don’t tell them things like they are complicit in humanity’s biggest crime ever (even though you may believe they are). Admit that you are not perfect and that you don’t have the answer to everything. Above all, don’t talk all the time but listen and ask smart questions.
I would summarize this as: be nice. Being nice not just makes the world a better place for everyone (so I’m not talking about faking stuff), but it is crucial if you want to be effective at helping animals.
This whole attitude of yours is, in my view, a lot more important than the content of the actual arguments you will bring to the table. Your conversation is first of all about the relation between you and the others, not about the content. When you have established a good relationship, when there is the trust that you are not accusing or attacking the other, then you can give more attention to the arguments themselves.
Vegan conversation is an art that we all need to master.