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
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
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
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
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
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
of health problems, and that vegetarians consume plenty of protein
without ever eating meat. Whatever health-based argument carnivores
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
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
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.”
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 (www.goveg.com;
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
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; www.fourwallseightwindows.com;
800-788-3123) and a copy of PETA’s eye-opening video, “Meet
Your Meat” (free online; $10 for video), will do the job.