_"The great thing about veganism is you barely have to lift a finger to offend people!"
_"Just because you can't do everything doesn't mean you should do nothing."
PictureRyan Patey (R), of T.O.F.U. magazine.
Yet another discussion I was eagerly anticipating, Biting Off More Than You Can Chew was a free-form dialogue between audience members and moderator Ryan Patey of T.O.F.U. Magazine, who incidentally lost his 2011 title of Furthest Distance Traveled to this year's smattering of British and Australian attendees.

Working from his Very Official list scrawled on an Air Canada cocktail napkin (I like his style!), Ryan threw out a few topics for us to muse upon and explore with each other. Let's review some notes, shall we?

The first topic of discussion was the "cruelty-free" label and descriptor: we all know that a product described as cruelty-free does not involve the murder or exploitation of non-human animals, but what about our fellow humans? Is cruelty-free chocolate really "cruelty-free" if it contains no animal products but contains cocoa harvested by slaves? Thankfully, there are a lot of great companies out there (as least with chocolate) creating truly compassionate alternatives- if we support and thank those companies, we can encourage ethical commerce. The companies who aren't truly "cruelty-free" can be encouraged to change and find alternatives. Vegans are a passionate, considerable online presence, and by using that presence patiently and kindly, we can really influence how companies work.

Another hot topic was the recent lawsuit filed by Eden Foods founder/CEO Michael Potter to avoid paying for birth control and erectile dysfunction drugs for Eden employees. I may or may not have uttered a too-loud "ugh" when this topic came up, so I was the one who got to explain what was going on to those who were out of the loop (and in case you're out of the loop, too, here ya go). The only concession I'll give Potter is that at least he's unilaterally consistent in describing both birth control and Viagra as "lifestyle drugs," but as you can imagine, many of the women in the room expressed quite firm feelings in the opposite direction. Above and beyond the established basic premise that the decision if and when to have a child is a personal choice, many women take hormonal birth control for a host of other medical reasons, including to mitigate excessively painful or irregular menstruation. Because Potter's stance allegedly comes from his aversion to putting "chemicals" in the body, the discussion moved further to envelope the use of other medications and how to balance one's ethical impetus to improve the world with the obligation to keep oneself healthy and, most importantly, happy.

Ultimately, one audience member said, not everyone can afford organic chocolate or American-made clothing. It's awesome when you can, but the focus should be on reduction, not elimination. Jumping right in can be alienating or intimidating to new vegans- why would anyone take that first step when it's actually 100 steps?

I'm well aware that every time I step outside the door, I affect someone else, said another observer. It's important to differentiate between animal cruelty and human cruelty, as we ultimately can't try to incorporate everything under a Vegan umbrella. At the same time, however, we must recognize that it's all one fight.

It's easy, when you're in a community, to assume everyone shares the same values as you, but really, it's only one value you share. We can feel angry or disappointed when we hear another vegan express something sexist or racist, especially because their eyes have already been "opened." But remain open to the idea that they just "don't know," and take the opportunity use it as a learning experience. It can be difficult for us as vegans to find humility and admit we don't know something.

Another significant issue addressed was body image and fat-shaming: the vegan movement is frankly doing a terrible job with body image. Individual vegans, celebrity vegans, and vegan advocacy organizations are all using a lot of triggering words and images. Obviously, that can be very alienating to people. Sadly, a lot of people come to veganism through disordered eating or to disguise or justify disordered eating. One woman's experience writing a nurition blog was very upsetting- she ended up having to resign from that blogging community because people were posting calorie counts, before & after body pictures, and so on. "It's an unusual situation where the people who are turning you on to that aspect of the community are simultaneously isolating you from it," she said. Some people, however are empowered by fitness blogs to make healthy and informed choices about food and exercise. Ultimately, if you are a blogger, be clear and honest about what you are putting out there, and create a comfortable space for all readers. Celebration of food culture is such a huge aspect of veganism- but that is not appealing to all of us, and we should remember that.

The Final Word: Sometimes it can feel stifling, like you will offend someone no matter what you say. Be confident in what you say, but be cognizant of how it affects others and be open to discuss how it might offend others.

Recommended reading from Barb Troyer of All Things Vegan Radio: Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan G. Johnson.



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