I wasn't shamed or scolded into becoming a vegetarian. And there's little reason to think those tactics do much to reduce the number of abortions, either
I was once an animal-rights activist. How I got there taught me a lot about how to change minds—and how not to.
As a 20-something college student roaming the halls after class, a particularly eye-catching pamphlet lying on a table beckoned me to read it. A steak lover all my life, I’d long wondered what would make someone eschew meat, thinking perhaps vegetarians knew something I didn’t. This pamphlet by Vegan Outreach had read my mind and decided it wanted to give me a clue. Shocked to my core by the flood of new information and heart-wrenching images, I sought to read more on the subject, devouring books from the library whenever I could.
One morning I woke up and announced to my live-in boyfriend that I was going vegetarian. “I’ll just try it for a week and see what happens,” I said.
What happened was a surprise to both of us. By the end of that week, my energy soared and I developed a newfound interest in cooking. This was right after 9/11, and I look back now to wonder if the devastation of that attack played a role in my need to reduce how much suffering there is in the world.
Having already heard people complain about “preachy” vegetarians, I kept the change to myself unless it was necessary for someone to know. Eating is such a central activity to human socializing that it’s impossible for the subject to be avoided. After refusing offers of pepperoni pizza for the umpteenth time, you might decide to preempt having to refuse foods by letting people know you’re a vegetarian right off the bat. Being a vegetarian 20 years ago meant you had to be a walking encyclopedia on the topic because every Tom, Dick, and Mary would ask me the same three questions:
- “How do you get your protein?”
- “Why did you become a vegetarian?”
- “Would you eat meat if you were stranded on a desert island with no other options?”
I was dismayed to learn that those questions were most often used to open the door for argumentation, rather than a genuine interest in understanding. It became clear people had no desire to learn something new, they simply wanted to tell me I was wrong. Suddenly, everyone was an expert in anthropology, nutrition, and animal agriculture. I’ll never forget the coworker who overheard me tell someone else I became vegetarian, which made him feel the need to point to his teeth and say “You see these canines right here? This means we’re meant to eat meat!” (It was years later I learned that our teeth are actually most closely aligned with the teeth of herbivorous animals, not carnivores.) Another time, a coworker saw that I was snacking on trail mix for lunch and remarked that my lunch looked “gross”. When I asked what was gross about dried fruit and roasted nuts, she took her fast-food burger out of its wrapper and obnoxiously waved it in front of me, saying, “Don’t you wish you were eating this instead?”
I pointed to my trail mix and said, “This is why I’ll be around to see my grandkids grow up, and your burger is why you probably won’t.”
She looked at me and said with surrender, “Ouch”.
I was quickly discovering that the “preachy vegetarian” was largely a myth, and my existence as a meatless eater was enough to make others feel defensive. Studying nutritional science, anthropology, and the various ways in which animal agriculture contaminates the environment helped me handle all the questions and misinformation.
About a year later, I moved from the Twin Cities to Southern California, sans the boyfriend. We’d been growing apart, and my new passion for healthier living didn’t help. He was the type to be content having no social life and maintaining his status as a regular at what was our favorite steakhouse, while I was extroverted and had made serious lifestyle changes. We could’ve easily inspired a modern revival of The Odd Couple.
Soon after getting situated in my new home state, I attended vegetarian meet-ups and became even better acquainted with all the ways in which humans can be unfathomably cruel to animals. It was learning more about frivolous animal experiments, fur in fashion, and factory farming that led me to join local animal-rights groups and become vegan. Pulling the curtains back on the horrors of reality often awakens the crime-fighter within, causing one to dedicate their time to telling people what they’ve learned in the hopes it awakens their inner hero, too.
That said, I only became that “preachy” vegan in the public sphere by attending demonstrations. In my private life, I leaned into those discussions only when family or friends asked questions. Similar to the process many of us experienced while deconstructing religious beliefs and becoming nonreligious, these conversations often lead to feelings of disappointment, anger, and confusion as we discover that others may not be ready to hear what we now think of these cultural institutions.
A bevy of us activists gathered to hold signs in front of KFC when they refused to stop getting their chicken meat from factory farms that crammed their chickens into tiny crates. Thankfully it helped, as KFC soon publicly announced they’d only receive meat from free-range farms. We worked tirelessly to create public service announcements and billboards alerting Californians to vote yes on Prop 2, which would prohibit farmers from continuing the practice of caging chickens (and it passed by 63%). We arrived at a circus with signs to protest their abuse of elephants. No industry was safe from us calling attention to their mistreatment of animals, and we accomplished this without angrily shaming the customers and patrons of these establishments. We quietly held signs alerting people to the industry’s offenses, gently answered people’s questions, and ignored the occasional person who’d shout expletives while driving by.
The goal for most activists was to reduce animal suffering. Until society was ready to make more significant changes, baby steps were necessary. It would be naive to think most people would make sweeping institutional changes once they learned the facts. Realistically, even if the majority adopted vegetarian diets, some people will still need to eat meat, dairy, and eggs. This is why reducing animal cruelty is the goal, not outlawing all the industries that use animals.
What is the real goal of anti-abortion activists?
Let’s compare this to the tactics of the anti-abortion movement.
What do science, sociology, economics, and psychology say would greatly reduce the rate of abortion? What steps could anti-abortion activists take that would make a couple or a young, single woman a lot less likely to opt for abortion if they experience an unintended pregnancy? Do anti-abortion activists vote for politicians and laws that would better support people economically, increasing the chances they’ll opt to become parents?
Unfortunately, they don’t. What we see instead is their wholesale determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. “Right-to-life” activists will angrily shout at people entering Planned Parenthood clinics, using language that seeks to shame and demonize, and propose laws that serve to humiliate or criminalize women seeking an abortion (the recent Texas Abortion Bounty Law is one for the Absurd Laws Hall of Fame). They show no desire to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies in the first place, evidenced by their opposition to contraceptives and secular sex education, nor do they have any interest in supporting the economic changes that would influence someone to carry to term.
Some who are anti-choice set up crisis pregnancy centers for expectant mothers seeking help, but even then they resort to lies, misleading information, and other unethical practices, the inevitable result of putting religion and ideology before people.
For perspective, let’s imagine most animal-rights activists approaching things the same way. If vegan activists were gathering at the Wendy’s drive-thru every day to call the customers “Murderers!”, or trying to pass laws that force anyone seeking bacon to first watch undercover slaughterhouse footage, or getting jobs waiting tables in a restaurant and then refusing to serve customers who order meat because it’s against their religion, or owning businesses and refusing to provide health insurance coverage to omnivores, and turning a deaf ear to any reasonable compromise—vegetarianism wouldn’t be on the rise, it would’ve declined faster than you can say “I’ll have the taro root burger, hold the cheese”.
If these tactics were working for anti-choice activists, support for access to legal abortion should have plummeted since Roe in 1973. Instead, that support has risen from 54% to 59%. Only 38% of Americans now think abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, down from a high of 48% since Roe.
The pending decision of the Supreme Court gives the impression of a cultural success. But the tactics of anti-choice activists since 1973 have actually failed, and failed desperately, to sway the voting public.
Anti-abortion activists have no interest in lowering the rate of unintended pregnancies because a reduction in birth rates and lessening strife are in direct opposition to their goals. They want more babies born, regardless of the circumstances. To the “pro-life” activist, so what if the child is born to psychopaths, child molesters, or in abject poverty? Their goal is controlling women whom they see as rejecting their God-given role, which is why they earn the moniker “forced-birth activists”. The more babies each woman has, the bigger “God’s Army” will be, echoing the mission behind the Quiverfull movement.
Every successful cult has rules that serve to promote the growth of the cult, and what’s a faster method of exponentially multiplying members than literally creating them?
It would be dishonest to pretend militaristic animal-rights activists don’t exist. Of course they do. At meetings, I personally met activists who’d spent time in prison for property damage and threats made to clinics conducting animal experiments. At a party to promote a documentary film, I met an activist who was on the talk circuit after recently serving time for releasing minks from a fur farm. I recall thinking at the time how interesting it is that the guy who would be the hero in a Disney film is vilified in real life by the same culture.
Not that I agree with extremist tactics, but I understand why some people think they are necessary to be taken seriously (as long as fatalities aren’t one of their goals). It’s an unfortunate fact of life that those in power would rather maintain the benefits they receive from their privileged status, and history is replete with those who’ve proved that the pen isn’t always mightier than the sword. The problem is we all disagree on which issues are worth aggressively fighting or even what is considered an issue. Nonetheless, as a humanist whose empathy extends to non-human animals, I never participated in any acts of eco-terrorism nor do I condone it, as it doesn’t reflect humanistic values and has a tendency to do more harm than good for the cause. Every revolutionary movement has members that splinter into two camps: those who want to “kill them with kindness” and those who are determined to achieve results “by any means necessary”. Perhaps the most effective methods of reform utilize the best of both by “speaking softly and carrying a big stick”. As Martin Luther King said in 1967, “Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating…but in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Terroristic vandalism of medical research involving animals is devastating to the people who’ve dedicated their lives to developing effective medical treatments and cures for diseases. Not all animal testing is equal, to be sure. Anyone familiar with the leaping bunny logo is aware of the atrociously unnecessary animal testing most beauty companies were guilty of conducting before public awareness created an uproar that resulted in change. But as a brain tumor survivor, I’m forever grateful to the countless professionals responsible for discovering and developing the medicine and technology that’s given me almost 30 more years of life so far.
If animal testing led to the breakout advancements that prolonged my life and the lives of millions of others, does it make me selfish to say I’m okay with that? To the animal-rights extremist, it does, just as the anti-abortion extremist rejects any reasonable exceptions for why abortion needs to remain safe and accessible.
Finding a reasonable middle
My comfort in maintaining a reasonable middle ground is what led me to step away from both the activism and the vegan diet, returning to vegetarianism. Did you know ice cream is an excellent, effective heartburn soother? Pregnancy gave me a chronic case of the affliction, a common side effect of creating a brand new human being (whose existence makes it all worth it, of course). For a small percentage of women, heartburn remains for years after giving birth, so when my son was five and I still couldn’t eat a plethora of foods without feeling an inflamed esophagus afterward, I realized I was one of the unlucky ones with a lifetime guarantee. Religiously chewing antacids led to some strange symptoms that indicated I’d been overdosing on calcium (their main ingredient), and once I swapped the chewable stuff for the kind that goes plop plop, fizz fizz, those symptoms vanished. Then one fortuitous evening, I ate some ice cream after dinner and the frozen custard instantly cooled and coated my stomach. I tried to get the same relief with vegan ice creams and frozen yogurt, but to no avail. It simply must be the real deal, even the stuff labeled “frozen dairy dessert” doesn’t work. Solidifying ice cream’s spot in my diet was a new medication my doctor prescribed for me that explicitly lists antacids as a contraindication, forever relegating the fizzy water medicine for my husband’s use.
I shared my secret to heartburn relief here because it’s exactly the kind of thing an omnivore would’ve told me back in my activist days that I arrogantly would’ve shrugged off as a silly excuse. I’m embarrassed to admit that. As a vegan activist, when you’re unaware of legitimate differences in dietary needs, there’s a strong tendency to dismiss someone’s “I wish I could be vegan but…” The truth is, nobody owes anyone justifications for their diet choices.
Hardcore animal-rights activists can do better by hearing their fellow human beings and accepting when someone is doing their best. Don’t judge people by applying purity tests. Anti-choice activists can improve by learning the actual facts on pregnancy and abortion, supporting healthcare reforms and secular education, and voting for politicians who understand the role income disparity, education, and access to reliable birth control plays in unintended pregnancies and the decision to opt for abortion.
Of course if they do all that, they might see things very differently.