Full disclaimer: I am speaking from my own lens as someone based in Portland, Oregon—a liberal city voted the most vegan-friendly by a recent media platform. In my experience, the society that often flanks me is incredibly accommodating to vegetarians, but not nearly as much to vegans. Think restaurants, dinner parties, or the constant revealing to those in your circle to what exactly you do—and don’t—eat. Such accommodations might not be nearly as prevalent if I lived in, perhaps, many regions in the south.
It’s rare in our society that someone saying, “I’m vegetarian” will get any odd looks, eye rolls, or genuine appeals to go to the pork side. We accommodate vegetarians, and are quick to be apologetic and even embarrassed if we accidentally serve them meat. There are furtive whisking aways of the “offensive” plate and oftentimes an overt, eager (and very appreciated) attempt to accommodate non-meat-eaters in the rich and constant human demand to revolve everything around food. For that, I’m grateful. But have you ever wondered why the same attention isn’t paid to vegans?
Our accommodations to vegetarians may exist because the vast majority of us know what goes on behind closed factory farm doors. Somewhere inside all of us, we’re aware that eating meat (at least how the majority of meat is sourced today) is inherently wrong. It’s cruel. We can’t deny what fellow living, hurting, feeling creatures must have endured to get that burger on our plate. In the rare cases that the meat being served actually was ethically and morally sourced, there’s still no denying the pain and fear a living being experienced to make it happen. Most of us have separated ourselves from the once-living animal on our plate and what happened to it. We might not know the exact gory details, and we’ve probably never seen a slaughter and certainly never in a factory farm, but we can guess. Even if we’ve never seen an animal hunted or butchered, there’s no denying that the meat on our plate is, well, meat. And that a being once living unwillingly gave its life for what sits before us, almost certainly in a prolonged and incredibly cruel way.
No wonder we cater to and often apologize to vegetarians who dine with us. However, that response is a cue. It’s a reminder that, yes, everyone has a good idea of what eating meat really entails. In that accommodation and that eagerness to serve vegetarians, we’re acknowledging and admiring their values, their morals, and their choice of kindness.
But not vegans.
Why don’t we have the same attitude towards vegans and accommodate them in the same way? Here are two primary guesses, both equally unfortunate. Either we don’t know the cruelty inflicted on dairy animals, or we don’t care and consider a life of inarguable torture and fear (which is what factory dairy farms demand) far superior to that of death.
In reality, most of our dairy products come from animals in factory dairy farms. They live “lives” that are arguably worse than that of their counterparts in line at the slaughterhouse. The cruelties and abuse they face are nearly unfathomable. After a very short life, often one of rarely (if ever) seeing grass or sunlight, they’re spent. They can simply no longer produce milk at the same rate, no matter how many artificial inseminations and drugs they’re pumped with. And then what happens to them? They’re killed either for meat or simply to get rid of them and make room for the next, younger crop.
Dairy animals usually live longer than animals earmarked solely for meat, all while having their milk falsely and painfully overproduced and harvested. Which is worse: A short and cruel life, or a long and cruel life? Either one ends the same way, but the technicalities of the abuses can vary.
The answer is obvious. Neither is “better,” although some people might prefer one over the other if they had to put themselves in the animals’ shoes. So, which is it? Do we not understand what the “life” of a dairy animal entails, or do we not care? Maybe there’s a third possibility.
It’s easier to look at a grilled cheese sandwich or glass of milk and not immediately link it back to the animal it came from. After all, it’s not as obvious as meat. We can distance ourselves, fueled by the childhood fantasy of a happy cow roaming lush green hills and gladly being milked by a caring farmer. However, very few of us actually believe that’s the reality of dairy farming today. It’s select ignorance fueled by foolish hope.
It’s telling how differently we treat vegetarians and vegans. Vegetarians are often heralded as morally superior compared to omnivores, whether overtly stated or not. I’m not personally saying that’s necessarily true, but that’s what’s suggested in how we treat vegetarians. It’s clear. It’s in how menus are designed these days and how most of us would never make a snide remark or joke about choosing not to eat meat. But vegans? They get the sighs, the eye rolls, the PETA jokes and the lack of invitations to dinner because they’re “just so picky” and “hard to cater to.”
What does it say about us that we treat vegetarians and vegans so differently?