Most people can understand why some people are vegetarian; even though they eat meat themselves, they are often able to appreciate the simple idea that vegetarians don’t want to contribute to the killing of animals for food, or clothing. Veganism, on the other hand, can seem way over the top and many people simply aren’t sympathetic to the cause.
In practise, a vegan lifestyle boils down to paying a lot of attention to what you eat. In many restaurants you may not find something suitable; you will probably be an expert label reader in supermarkets, and when you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, you may need to explain what you eat and don’t eat. And it’s not just about eggs and dairy, but also about products containing them.
As a vegan, you get used to all this quite easily, but the perception of the omnivorous population is that this it is too “extreme.” Veganism is extreme. Vegans are extremists. And extremism is never okay. That’s the way the argument goes.
Most people use words like “extreme” or “radical” to indicate something negative. What they mean is: too much. Too far, too different. People are usually more fond of the truth that is “somewhere in the middle”.
But when can we call something really, truly extreme? When something deviates too far from what most people do – the ‘norm’ – it is usually considered, almost automatically and by definition, as negative and undesirable, just because it deviates so much. But – and this is my point – there’s nothing that says that this norm itself is okay. The norm, in other words, is not necessarily a point of reference.
Back to milk, eggs and veganism. Current agricultural practises seem hard to reconcile with the values we cherish. Yearly, billions of male chicks are killed right after birth because they can’t lay eggs. Layer hens are debeaked without anesthesia, with a glowing hot knife. The efficiency of the egg industry is of an almost demonic level. Animals are packed as tightly as possible in order to save space. In hardly any cases do they get to see daylight and artificial lighting is used to manipulate their laying cycles and production. Regarding milk, just like with humans, a cow doesn’t give milk – at least not enough – when she’s not pregnant or has young. Artificially impregnating cows and relying on them giving birth every year is hence a necessity for sufficient milk production. As for the males, the calf will end up as beef. This is equally true in the case of organic products. What happens is that animals are treated like things, with which we can do what we want, because they aren’t people, not for some morally relevant reason. We engineer everything in a way that ensures the animals get as big as possible, as fast as possible, and to give us as much product as possible – whether it is meat, eggs or dairy.
Is it reasonable to say that whoever doesn’t want to cooperate with or support these practises and this attitude towards animals, that whoever wants to give animals a different position in our culture, and wants to boycott these products in hope of reducing demand for them and finally abolishing them… is it reasonable to say that such a person is extreme? Only in the sense that their behaviour (especially in terms of buying and eating) really deviates from the norm. But does this mean it has to be appraised negatively? Maybe the central question is: can a culture, a society, a nation or maybe even the world be totally, incredibly wrong about something? Could it be that the norm is so thoroughly wrong that seriously deviating from it is maybe the only right position?
Of course, anyone can claim a certain norm is wrong, and that entire countries or cultures do wrong things. Thoughts like these may lead to people bombing buildings and other forms of terror. But in the case of protesting the abuse and use of animals, this protest is based on two fundamental things; it is based on empathy, or compassion, with living beings, stemming from the realisation that they can feel and suffer. And secondly, we can build a rational case showing why the norm is, to put it mildly, problematic.
No one who makes the minimal effort to investigate the implications of egg and dairy consumption can easily dismiss the motivations of vegans as extreme, ridiculous or unimportant. Of course the tactics and strategies used by individuals and groups to achieve their goals can be radical or extreme, independent of the objective, but that is another discussion.
I believe an attitude or behaviour that really deviates from the norm can be perfectly okay and may at times theoretically be the only morally right position, if one has a good argument and if it is rooted in empathy.
Is this a plea for radical viewpoints and behaviour? Not necessarily. It is a plea to be critical about concepts like radical and extreme. It is an appeal to avoid clichés, to not take the middle of the road by default, and to really examine how far exactly we need to go to reach the good, the true and the beautiful.