As Thanksgiving fades into the background and you prepare to see your vegan family member for upcoming holidays, I’d like to say a few things that your loved one may not be able to. I’m not writing this letter to anger or shame you, but rather to encourage you to attempt to develop greater insight into what’s going on with your loved one.
To set the stage, allow me to engage you in a thought experiment that I’d like you to really take seriously. Imagine that you’re going to a holiday event that’s serving a roasted cat as the main dish. Imagine the host “preparing” the dead cat, removing her guts, inserting bread crumbs into her anal cavity, and placing her body in the oven. Later, when the cat is fully cooked, you sit at the table watching others carve up the cat while making merry as if they weren’t eating a cat in front of you. (I’m assuming you’re not partaking in dining on the cat in this scenario.)
End scene. Is the thought of participating in this event upsetting to you? How do you feel about the participants? If you’re like most people, this scenario would be profoundly disturbing. Welcome to the world of being vegan during a non-vegan holiday.
An important aspect of the vegan ethic is that we view all sentient animals as being the same and equally deserving of life. We make no distinctions between the value of a turkey vs. a cat. vs. a dolphin vs. a dog vs. a cow.
The only thing that truly distinguishes these thinking, feeling animals from one another is what we have been taught about their “use.” Society views killing and eating turkeys as acceptable, while other animals are considered off-limits for consumption.
For vegans, all animals are off-limits for consumption, since all think and feel; all have a desire to live, just like us. There is no difference between species in the mind of a vegan. Vegans have unlearned the arbitary distinctions among them, and so it’s every bit as upsetting to witness harm done to a turkey or pig as it is to witness harm done to a cat or a dog. We no longer see a difference like non-vegans do, and many of us have built relationships with animals from these “farmed” animal species as others might with a traditional household pet.
So, if you have a vegan family member coming over for your non-vegan holiday, I’d like for you to be aware that it’s likely very difficult for them. Not only because they have to witness the mutilation and consumption of an animal who wanted to live, but also because they’re observing those they care most about directly participating in it.
I hope you understand that your vegan loved one cares a great deal about you – so much so that they decided to join your event, despite the fact that they may be profoundly upset by your participation in animal suffering. But to be frank, they’re also probably disappointed, because they know you as a kind person, but your participation in this cruelty runs counter to their high regard for you.
I’m guessing that your vegan loved one feels at least some degree of rejection by you because, if you really sought to understand why they chose to go vegan, you’d go vegan yourself. There’s no logical or ethical justification for killing and eating animals, since it’s biologically unnecessary and unhealthy for us. This can be the hardest thing of all for them; they want so much for you to understand their compassion for animals, because it’s a huge part of who they are as a person.
For many vegans, the holidays are also bittersweet because we remember fondly earlier times when we would get together with family and share how we’ve changed and what we’ve learned while living our separate-but-connected lives. That may not be possible when one goes vegan, since many don’t want to hear about how we’ve developed greater compassion for animals and a desire to promote justice for them.
I understand that your response might be “My house, my rules” which is certainly your prerogative. You’re under no obligation to be accommodating to your vegan loved one by having a vegan holiday. However, by the same token, I urge you to respect their decision to refrain from attending future holidays at your home if that’s their choice, as they may similarly need to decide what’s best for them and what they’re able to witness. For some vegans, it’s simply not healthy for them, or your relationship with them, to be exposed to animal cruelty, and they need to decide that for themselves. Many vegans prefer to simply have vegan holidays at their own homes where they can avoid exposure to unnecessary animal cruelty.
So my final request is to really listen to your vegan loved one during the holidays and try to better understand how they’ve changed and why they’re so passionate about helping animals. Perhaps next holiday season you can show them that you really understand by having a vegan holiday, or better yet, going vegan yourself – it would be the greatest gift you could possibly give your vegan loved one and the animals who will no longer be harmed.
Casey is co-owner of Vegan Publishers and Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. He’s an internationally recognized researcher in the area of violence prevention, winning prestigious awards for his work from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has published over 100 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific reports, and has a book forthcoming on trauma-informed violence prevention, published by the American Psychological Association.