Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Biting My Tongue, Part 2

Over the past few years I’ve dined at Italian restaurants with a few family members who, of the plethora of menu options available, have ordered the veal parmesan. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn't eat veal parmesan; I’m sure it’s very tasty, and to each his own blah blah blah... But, like gifting Turkish delights to an Armenian, or eating bacon-wrapped cheese curds in front of a devout Jewish person, picking the baby cow off the menu in front of a vegetarian makes me do a little mental head tilt of confusion. It’s just a little... weird?

As much as I enjoy a good debate about the morality of meat-eating, I usually bite my tongue about others’ meals because nobody, especially vegetarian ole’ me, likes for their food choices to be the center of conversation. Even when the subject of my vegetarianism does come up, I try to be polite and never engage in a Wollenian style takedown of others’ carnism.

But the biggest reason I stay mum at the dinner table is because militancy - whether about gun rights, immigration, abortion, or calves being tethered into immobility - rarely works. At least not with friends and family.

As anyone who cares deeply about any issue knows, we impassioned folk have a choice to make everyday: to be outspoken about the wrongs that bother us, or to sit back quietly and lead by example. I think the latter works better in the long-run because, as much as we define ourselves by what we are, we also define ourselves by what we are not. The Other is just as much a part of our identities as The Self, so every time we say/tweet/post something divisive, we may harden the juxtaposition of opposing opinions.

Here’s what I mean:
  • I am a woman; I am American; I like Coke; I am a Chicagoan; I am a vegetarian
  • I’m not a man; I’m not an Afghani; I don’t prefer Pepsi; I’m not a New Yorker; I don't eat meat

So every time you say something about being a man; it reinforces my womanhood. Every time someone in suburbia posts about their 2nd Amendment rights, it reminds me that I’m a Chicagoan who hates gun violence. Everytime I share a video about overfishing or ag-gag laws, I’m forcing people to identify themselves at meat-eaters.

In other words, sharing strong opinions cultivates defensiveness. We think that the rightness of our own beliefs will entice people to step over to our side, but it usually makes people take big steps away from us. So, as much as I love the chance to correct someone who thinks that the milk in their fridge comes from a farm like Dotty and Kit’s in A League of Their Own, I try my best to stay mum on the subject of modern-day animal agriculture because, if I push my points to strongly, I’m going to push people away.

Perhaps the most persuasive action is a quiet, kind patience.

Take my cousin, Emma, for example - a lifelong vegetarian who gave up meat as soon as she learned who it came from. When I started thinking about transitioning to a meat-free diet, I naturally thought of her. But I didn’t think of her Tofurky or her leatherless shoes. Rather, I thought of her kindness and her patience with the rest of us; her constant acceptance of our different food choices. She was the quiet vegetarian who never made me feel guilty for eating turkey at the holidays or having down feathers in my winter coat.

And that’s the thing: when people hear the word “vegetarian,” I don’t want them to think of me. Or if they do, let it be with the kindness with which I always thought of Emma. Let my presence as a plant-eater in others’ lives be but a brief respite in their minds before going on to ponder the real substance of the word.

Militant vegetarians - or environmentalists, or Tea Partiers - do their cause a disservice. Combativeness should stay in the town hall or on the streets in protest, but not at the dinner table because - and this is the the truth that makes me bite my tongue every time a family member orders the veal - had I ever been made to feel guilty by a vegetarian, I probably wouldn't be one today.

I made the transition, and now there are two vegetarians at our family gatherings. Last Thanksgiving, Emma and I sat together at the far end of the table, happily plopping vegan stuffing and butter-free mashed potatoes on our plates while handing off the turkey slices and corn casserole to those around us. Then, at our most recent family gathering a few weeks ago, the turkey master himself, my grandpa, gladly scooped up a slice of of our vegan dish for the first time ever. A vegetable pot pie. He really liked it.

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