University of Sunderland lecturer Dr Alex Lockwood has been a vegan for more than 10 years.
But during that decade he has come to realise that – despite being a professional, white male – he has been consigned to the fringes of society.
Alex doesn’t want your sympathy, he doesn’t want your praise. He just wants to live his life free from prejudice. So, is that unreasonable?
“For most of the time, I enjoy being a vegan. I enjoy the benefits of being healthier: with less inflammatory animal proteins in my bloodstream, I recover from exercise quicker. I enjoy the environmental benefits, knowing that my carbon footprint is much, much less than it would be if I was eating animals.
And I enjoy knowing that I walk the walk: being one of the 97% of Britons who call themselves animal lovers, I live my life aligned with that beliefs: I mean, animals are my friends, and usually I try not to eat my friends. Sounds normal, right?
But then I’ve been vegan for over 10 years now, and have become stronger in my commitment to a vegan life practice. To begin with, what was hardest was saying no to social foods, like the tin of Celebrations handed around at Christmas, or a colleague’s birthday cake. It wasn’t the chocolate so much (okay, it was the chocolate!) but it was about being left out; being seen as not part of the group.
This is hard, and in my research interviewing vegan men, it is definitely one of the hardest things to overcome, when you choose to live aligned with your values as someone who cares for other nonhuman animals.
And yet being vegan can still be difficult. Or rather other people—perhaps even you—make it difficult for me. Because for some reason, people dislike vegans.
This discrimination comes in many forms. From wisecracking jokes, all the way up to chefs in restaurants secretly giving vegans animal products in their meals (and, thankfully, losing their jobs for it).
The hardest moments are when you have to bite your tongue. Meeting a new partner’s parents, for example, and his or her father spouts some obviously wrong ideas about animals. What do you do? Correct him, or play along?
As the philosopher Josh Milburn asks, “should vegans compromise?” The answer is usually yes; and perhaps that’s because all humans have to compromise and tolerate opposing views, because that’s how we get along. That’s how society works.
But then the suffragettes didn’t tolerate not having the vote. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement didn’t tolerate racist laws. And vegans, or those who become advocates for animals, don’t tolerate the exploitation of other nonhuman beings.
Recently I snapped.
I was on a three-day workshop. It was hosted by a fancy hotel. In my application to be part of the workshop, I told the organisers I was vegan. And I also told them it was hard for me at meal-times to see people eating animals.
I was reassured that my comfort on the workshop would be important to them, and they would do everything to make sure I was looked after.
But this wasn’t the case. When I arrived, all the welcome breakfast snacks were non-vegan. There was no plant milk alternative, only the dairy milk. So yet again, I had to be the ‘troublesome vegan’ and complain—even though they’d promised this wouldn’t happen.
When the vegan alternatives arrived, the venue, mockingly labelled the fruit a ‘vegan treat’. Well, actually, it’s not a treat, it’s a right, under 2012 Workplace Legislation.
Lunch was even worse. While everyone else had the immediate choice of four different hot meals, I waited 40 minutes for a tiny bowl of watery pasta. And still no one running the training did anything about it.
How was this making me feel part of the group? Recognised and respected?
And so this time I did not put up with it. I complained. And I left. And yet it is I who will be seen as the troublemaker, even though I provided three months advance notice. Even though I was fighting for not even 50% of what everyone else got as standard. Is that fair? Is that how you want your colleagues to be treated? Your family? A friend?
Vegans live in a non-vegan world.
It is becoming easier every day due to the massive success of campaigns such as Veganuary, and the high profile that veganism now has in places such as sport (World Number 1s in cricket, tennis, motor racing, the world’s strongest man, and many other sports, are all now vegan) and in our high streets, means it is easier than ever to eat like a vegan.
But veganism is not, and has never been, just about the food.
Veganism is now a protected belief under Equality Law and Workplace Legislation, but most people still think this is just about what we eat. It is not. Veganism is against all forms of seeing non-human animals as subordinate to human animals. It is about wanting justice for non-human animals so that they get to live their lives too, to see out their birth-rights of freedom and flourishing, just like we get to live free from others telling us what to do.
Why should we enjoy that, but not allow others to have the same freedoms we enjoy? Who gave us that power?
And it is hard living in a world that continues to exploit other beings, when we really don’t have to.
Some people I know have taken what is called the ‘liberation pledge’. They choose not to sit down and eat with anyone who is eating animal products. They will not go into restaurants serving animal products. They wear a silver fork wrapped around their wrists as a bracelet, which is a reminder to them, of the pledge they have taken.
For me, this pledge is too difficult to make. I have a very small family—the only surviving members are my uncle, auntie, and my sister. To choose not to sit down with them for, say, Christmas dinner, would isolate myself from the family in ways that I just couldn’t bear.
And I feel that I have more influence with my friends by sitting down and talking to them, rather than removing myself from summer barbecues or birthday meals.
It is far from ‘normal’ to consider yourself an animal lover but also let that animal whom you love be killed for your taste pleasure.
And if it is ‘natural’ to kill a pig and serve her for dinner, why is it not ’natural’ to kill a kitten and serve him for dinner? Have you ever asked, who told you it was natural? Who made these rules? All a vegan does is ask that question: who told me it was natural? And all we’ve done is come up with a different answer: it isn’t.
For myself as an academic who researches everyday vegan lifestyles, and our broader relationships with non-human animals, there is an added struggle.
Part of my work takes me to the gates of slaughterhouses, where I observe activists who hold vigils there for the animals who go into slaughter. I talk to them, and I also talk to the slaughterhouse workers. I also see the animals—the pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, mainly—and look into their eyes a few moments before they die.
This is hard enough. But say then I return to work that lunchtime and have a meeting with a colleague, who is eating a chicken salad. They are literally eating my research subject. This is highly upsetting and distressing; and yet my colleague eating their sandwich not only believes they are doing nothing wrong (and, legally, that is true) but that I am the troublemaker, ruining their enjoyment of lunch.
Academics at universities have studied these small everyday moments where vegans feel hurt and left out, and have come up with some names for them: microaggressions and microinequalities. A microaggression might be someone cracking a joke about male vegans losing their masculinity. A microinequality might be turning up to a conference where breakfast is offered, but there are no vegan options and no plant milks for the tea.
These are small enough things, right?
But imagine if every day of your life you get this. Every day at work. Every evening out with friends. Every time you visit your family. Every time you go to your running club. Every time you watch the television or read the paper.
However small, a microaggression is still an aggression. The person making the joke might not think of it as such—but would that excuse hold up if the joke was a sexist or racist one?
In the end, the world is changing. What makes me most hopeful is that the younger generation do not see themselves, or their identities, as so fixed and unchangeable as older generations.
So veganism is coming in from the fringes. Perhaps slowly. Perhaps not quickly enough. Sadly, those who have been vegan for decades have taken then brunt of the discrimination, of the aggression and the inequality.
I certainly feel I have shouldered my fair share. But in the end, what have I suffered in relation to the 80 billion land animals who are killed every year—millions every hour—so we can eat pigs in blankets? In the end, even meat-eaters know that vegans are living healthy, ethical lives.
Now what is stopping you from doing the same?”