My vegan friend insists I justify myself

I believe in an "expanding circle of us," but a chicken egg is not my moral equal.

Published April 26, 2007 10:54AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a dear friend of long duration (we met in 1968) whom I will shortly be visiting in California. She is a long-term vegan because of strong convictions that it is as immoral to kill and eat animals as it would be to kill and eat human beings. She feels duty bound to express her views whether they are welcome or not. I certainly have no issue with her right to her views, nor with her felt obligation to try convincing others.

My own view about ultimate meaning is simply existential -- that mankind evolved eons ago in the same way that all creatures have, with no ultimate purpose other than to survive long enough to reproduce. And because we evolved in small bands of fellow humans, upon whose survival we depended, we are programmed to be deeply committed to those we perceive as "us," and deeply suspicious of any "others." I agree with the evolutionary psychologists who say that as humanity evolves, we are gradually expanding the circle of "us." Viewed that way, it seems only natural that the circle eventually be extended to nonhumans.

But I have never felt compelled to extend the circle of what I feel to be "us" outside of Homo sapiens. And my question to you, Cary, is: Can this be a respectful response to my friend when she demands that I justify how I can eat animals? I am not looking for a debate about the relative merits of veganism versus its various alternatives. My question is how I can tell my friend that I am not moved by her issue without being dismissive of her. I have practiced several responses, but would very much appreciate the benefit of hearing from others.

Hoping you think my question is worth the attention of your readers,

Nonvegan in Pennsylvania

Dear Nonvegan,

When your friend demands that you justify how you can eat animals, I think the whole world of your friendship stops right there and you ask, How can a friend of mine be demanding this of me?

Does she accept you as you are or not? That is the question. If she does not accept you as you are, how can she be your friend?

So, feeling as I do -- not about what to eat and drink but about the sacredness of friendship -- I think the only respectful response to such a demand is to ask if she can be friends with someone who she thinks has a deep moral flaw, who she thinks is practicing a deeply immoral life. For surely this is what she believes. She cannot believe otherwise because she has left no neutral ground.

I sometimes hear people say things such as this: "I'm not arguing with you or putting you down, I truly, truly want to understand you!" I do not believe that. I hear that as "I truly, truly want to know how you can be such a wicked person and still go about in apparently normal fashion!" And to such an assertion I would say, if you truly, truly want to know, then truly, truly don't ask me; instead, study closely and honestly the world of people who are not vegans and truly, truly ask whether they can all be classified as murderers or immoral people. But do not try to clumsily lure me into a veiled exercise in character assassination!

That is what I would think. Maybe it's just the ham and eggs talking, but I would think, basically: Bullshit. Be my friend if you will. Be kind to me if you like me and want to be my friend. But do not insult my intelligence by asking me to participate in such a charade. Saying to someone you regard as a friend, I demand that you justify your behavior to me, is asking one to believe a lie: That is, I don't believe that such a demand grows out of anything other than a will to power over another.

If she is your friend, she does not put you through this exercise. She acknowledges that the world is full of contradiction, that she does not know everything, that she is not God, that she is not perfect, that she is trying to live a life that she thinks is right but that she does not know everything about what is right and what is wrong.

Now there are many kinds of friendships, sure. Some friends like to argue with each other. Some friends like to fight with each other. That's why we have Fight Club. But Fight Club is Fight Club and we do not fight about Fight Club.

So although I take a similar view to yours, I would not get into it with her. For as you know, I am a writer who mainly works toward emotional experiences and revelations of a personal nature; I cannot force people to believe things they don't believe, or to change their minds about things they don't wish to change their minds about. My work is deeply confessional, in the sense that even when I am proposing a position, I am in essence simply revealing a bias and, in that sense, a weakness. That is, for instance, in the matter of the Virginia Tech shootings, to say they mean nothing is not a position as much as a confession, an abandonment, a surrender: What they evoke in me is a deep sense of emptiness. That is all I can say with certainty.

My personal experience with people who deeply believe that eating meat is wrong is that their beliefs proceed, like mine do, from deep subjectivity. Theirs belief may be supportable, but they are not really arguable.

I also sense that they want us to be vegans. They probably can't help wanting us to be vegans. But precisely how they manage their own desire to change us is what makes them either brilliant, amusing and loyal friends or people you want to run from.

But we are talking about you, not her, not them. So back to you. To the extent that you worry about what to say to her you are in a sense attempting to manage her. To that extent you are forgetting yourself, forgetting to be intensely and uncompromisingly honest and present.

I agree with your basic premise -- the "expanding circle of us" argument. But I do not want to serve as ammunition in your argument. I don't want you to have the argument. I want you and her to be friends and to agree that this argument is one you don't need to have.

So what would it be like if you were uncompromisingly honest and present with her, without need to be correct or logical or to manage the relationship and her reactions? What if you were just there, with love for your friend? What if you were simply delighted to be there visiting with her? What if you were to take careful note of your gut reactions to her but not make any attempt to manage the situation, merely to inquire of yourself honestly how you are responding? What if you were to simply hear her out on her position? Do you need for her to accept or agree with your position? And if she insists that you justify your position, what if you were to ask her, point-blank: Can she be friends with someone she believes to be immoral?

As for me, I am not raisin bran, nor am I Christopher Kimball's marvelous North African lamb stew with tomatoes, chickpeas and spices I made a few weeks ago with 7 pounds of bone-in lamb shoulder from Guerra's. I ate the lamb stew. I did not become the lamb stew. We are what we are. We eat what we eat. In the end, we do not become steaks or bacon or flowers.

We become dust.

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