And I will never be 100%.
I've come to understand that the modern food environment is as full of us as we are of it; what we consume is integrated into much more than our physical selves. Just a short time ago the standard American diet was guided almost entirely by simple taste preferences and restrictions, it seemed that the great experiment of fat, sugar, and salt had made us rather unwitting slaves to the wants of our taste buds. Today, things are becoming much more interesting. Many of our dietary choices have become a myriad of complex and sometimes grandiose social statements about the state of human nutrition, our environment, and our moral fiber; it is as if we are consuming identity rather than food.
For food, it seems, is the complex language we use to communicate a great many things. Identity is one of those things, yet even more fluently we use food to communicate what I consider to be the single most important social message: inclusivity.
And herein lies the crux of the vegetarian lifestyle; An offering of a harvest (or of a slaughter) to a neighbor or friend is the oldest form of invitation into one’s in-group and community. Therefore the greatest and most pervasive source of denigration of the vegan title is this: we refuse this ancient and sacred form of inclusivity when we refuse what is offered to us. To refuse a meal is to refuse inclusion, to refuse inclusion is to abandon relatability and influence with a given group. And what’s more, it is an insult to refuse the offering of such a scarce and treasured source of nutrition as animal products once were.
But Let's back up for a second:
Imagine you are trying on the hat of vegetarianism or veganism for your first Thanksgiving (perhaps you just did). The complex language of your food choices has communicated to your friends and family that your choices might be in conflict with the ingroup to which you all belong, and so they begin watching you closely. Self-appointed guardians of the group's dietary parameters, they begin to point out when you have deviated from the dictations of your once carnivorous lifestyle.
Grab a roll but leave off the butter, skip the turkey all together, or say you down a salad even though it has a sprinkle of cheese, your friends and family are suddenly always evaluating what it is that you consume, though they never much cared about your diet when it was similar to theirs.
Why do they care what you eat?
Ultimately I believe those around you begin monitoring you so closely because they are exploring what it would be like to follow your dietary parameters. They are trying on the restrictions of your newfound lifestyle. We are highly networked social creatures after all, and when one member of an ingroup makes a different choice than the rest, the entire group is forced to assess the choice and compare it with their own, ingroups are built out of similarities, after all, and major differences are scarcely allowed. But this is the engine of social change, it begins with a dissimilar individual, spreads to their ingroup, then spreads exponentially to the groups beyond.
We behave like nodes in a circuit, when one node activates the others near it feel a flow of electricity, but it is always met with some measure of resistance. The ultimate social goal of any human throughout time is to proliferate the ideas they believe to be the most important, but there will always be resistance.
And by this, the vegan and vegetarian must come into contact with this moral quandary. If the goal is to reduce the net consumption of animals we must do much more than modify our own dietary choices, we must have a scalable model with a relatable and feasible entry point for every person around us. If we fail to achieve relatability, as vegans and vegetarians of the past have, we will simply be considered members of the out-group, and even those closest to us will no longer feel the pull toward similar behavior. We will continue to constitute only a small fraction of the population and vegetarian ideals will exist only in isolated fragments of the country and the world. We will find ourselves removed from the circuit.
Therefore I implore the fellow plant-based dieters around me to embrace pragmatism over idealism. Where you will draw the line in the sand is up to you and you alone, but remember that vegetarian/veganism should not be a game of us vs. them, and it should not be a game of willpower or deprivation guided by technicalities or unflinching rigidity. It should be an inclusive and open exploration of diet as a solution to the world’s most pressing problems.
I envision a workable model going something like this: Eat the cookies that your neighbors made for you even though they have a bit of butter and egg, you can bake them a vegan batch later on that will spark a much more meaningful conversation than your refusal of their offering. Eat the meal that came with cheese even though you requested it without, it won't do the world any good sitting in the trash. If a meal mistakenly comes with meat, you decide; but know that the damage has already been done and it is counterintuitive to all forms of vegetarian ideals to have the restaurant make another dish. Lastly, never expect to have food specially prepared for you when you go to any social gathering, eat what is offered to you or make arrangements beforehand, and bring a delicious, plant-based dish for all to try so that the language of food can communicate in both directions.
The road to lower global animal-product consumption is often conditional and full of grey, not black and white. We must develop a food language that is both inclusive, and included, for any meaningful change to occur.
If we want to change the world, we have to do so with everyone around us.
As always, thanks for reading,