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March 2003
Vegetarian Advocate: Confessions of a Polite Vegetarian

By Jack Rosenberger



When it comes to being an ethical vegetarian, I worry that I am too polite.

Sometimes when I am working at home and the telephone isn’t demanding my attention and my seven year old daughter is at school, being taught rude behavior and swear words by her classmates, I conduct a thought experiment of the empathic variety: I try to imagine the daily life of a cow imprisoned in a feedlot. In my experiment, it is wintertime; there isn’t any shelter to protect us from the oppressive wind and cold weather; and the feedlot is largely barren (except for the cold cow waste that slops against my legs). There is little or nothing to do but eat—boring, uninspired “feed.” Most of the time we stand around, avoid the unpleasant or unruly cows, and try to stay as warm as possible.

If I were a cow confined to a feedlot and aware that I was living my last days on Earth, and I could talk to humans, I would hardly be polite. What would I say to carnivores? Nothing overly nice, of course. As for vegetarians, I’d urge them to demonstrate, write letters and emails, speak up, and just raise bloody hell. Afterwards, of course, they’d free me from the feedlot and transfer me to an animal sanctuary.

I don’t think enough about the billions of cows, chickens, lambs, pigs, rabbits, and other animals who are slaughtered for human consumption each year in America. And while I am a longtime vegetarian and therefore part of the solution rather than part of the problem, I fear that I have created an all too comfortable vegetarian universe for myself: my wife is a vegetarian, we are raising our daughter as a vegetarian, I have vegetarian friends, and, since I work at home, I work in a vegetarian workplace. Yet, too often my vegetarianism doesn’t leave the kitchen table.

Indeed, I wish I were more assertive. I wish I would challenge carnivores more often about their diet, and encourage them to eat less meat and eventually become vegetarians.

Like me, you might want to rethink what vegetarianism means to you. And ask yourself some questions, such as: What do I want to accomplish as a vegetarian? How can I be a better vegetarian? How do I want to influence people to become a vegetarian? Lastly, as a vegetarian, what do I want my personal legacy to be?

The Time is Right
One of the positive things about being a vegetarian in America today is that we, as a nation, are critically re-thinking our daily fare. A dietary revolution is underway. The topic of food has moved into the realm of critical thought and debate like never before. The best evidence of this shift is the popular success and critical notice of nonfiction books such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Greg Critser’s Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, and Marion Nestle’s wonderful Food Politics. A new awareness about food and health is underway. And this bodes well for vegetarianism.

What to do? Here are five suggestions:
Promote vegetarianism. Engage your family, friends, and co-workers in conversations about vegetarianism. Most people don’t understand vegetarianism, let alone veganism. Talk about why you became a vegetarian, what being a vegetarian means to you, what you enjoy about being a vegetarian, and describe the type of foods or meals you regularly eat. Keep it on a personal level.

When it comes to eating meat, less is best. Encourage your non-vegetarian friends to eat less meat. Emphasize the health problems—heart disease, various cancers, diabetes, and so on—that are caused by eating meat. Memorize several medical studies about the health effects of eating meat so you have an arsenal of facts and information to share with uninformed carnivores. A good book for this is Peter Cox’s You Don’t Need Meat (St. Martin’s Press, 2002); it’s filled with easy-to-understand information. As for your friends who are die-hard carnivores, ask them, “Why do you think you need to eat meat three times a day?” The typical carnivore answer, of course, is “protein”—to which you can explain that the typical American eats way too much protein, which can cause a host of health problems, and that vegetarians consume plenty of protein without ever eating meat. Whatever health-based argument carnivores put forth, you should point out that millions of people around the world eat little or no meat and are perfectly healthy.

Challenge false and deceptive media images. The culture of carnivorism is built upon a foundation of lies. Companies, such as Laughing Cow, a cheese company whose trademark image is a smiling cow, foster the Myth of the Happy Farmed Animal. Challenge these false images and debunk them in conversations with friends, letters to the editor, and so forth. We need to drive home the truth that for probably 95 percent of the farmed animals in America, their daily life isn’t grazing in a farmer’s yard or a gentle, open pasture, but being cramped inside a battery cage or imprisoned inside an enormous, foul feedlot. We also need to remind carnivores that farmed animals are treated this way and killed for solely one reason: because people enjoy eating their flesh. Without them, slaughterhouses would not exist.

If you’re a vegetarian for ethical reasons, identify yourself as an ethical vegetarian. Many persons don’t seem to know much about vegetarianism, let alone that there are moral reasons to be one. Telling people that you are an ethical vegetarian is a conversation starter, it establishes a moral base for discussion, and can make some carnivores reconsider their diet. If someone asks you, “What’s an ethical vegetarian?” tell him or her that being a vegetarian means treating animals with respect; it means treating others the way you would like to be treated. Or else, you can toss them a zinger like: An ethical vegetarian is someone who won’t eat anything with a face.

Protect vegetarianism. It is common for journalists (and others) to define vegetarian as including people who eat meat. In a recent article from Reuters Health, entitled “Babies’ Mental Delay Tied to Mom’s Vegan Diet,” Alison McCook writes: “Vegetarians [compared to vegans] typically avoid meat, but may eat some animal products, such as milk, eggs, and possibly fish.” Wrong. Last time I checked, fish were still animals. Vegetarians never eat animals. Period. Unless vegetarians like you and me protect the definition of what it means to be a vegetarian, the vegetarian label will become meaningless.

It is up to us to foster a vegetarian America. Speak up, challenge the assumptions of carnivores, and enjoy the ride.

A bumper sticker I’d like to see: “Pray for me. I eat meat.”

Veggie Toolbox
Giving literature and other educational materials to meat-eaters has proven to be very effective, and there’s a wealth of free stuff out there on the web (and available in “hard” copy as well). The Why Vegan? booklet from Vegan Outreach, clearly outlines the issues of ethical vegetarianism—with color photos; available as part of their free vegan “starter pack” too (; 412-968-0268). 101 Reasons Why I’m Vegetarian by Pam Rice is a tried and true pamphlet from the Viva Veggie Society (; 212-414-9100). People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is an excellent source for information and has free vegetarian “starter kits” available (; 757-622-PETA). A few listens to “Veganism in Nutshell,” the new recording by PETA’s Bruce Friedrich, will get you up to speed on all angles to the discussion (free online; $5 for cassette or CD).

Adopting a rescued turkey or cow from Farm Sanctuary (; 607-583-2225) for an animal eater is a sure bet. They’ll receive a certificate with a picture and biography of the adopted critter. Finally, if that doesn’t convince ‘em, a gift of artist Sue Coe’s illustrated book Dead Meat ($22;; 800-788-3123) and a copy of PETA’s eye-opening video, “Meet Your Meat” (free online; $10 for video), will do the job.


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