Author: Nicholas Ho
Note: The views expressed are that of the author.
As veganism inches towards the mainstream, a group of students at the National University of Singapore wanted to know what others thought about the topic. Enticing students and staff with free brownies and the chance to try our VR sets, we were hoping to initiate conversations regarding the ethical and environmental aspects of veganism.
The day started out slow. We were all eager to inspire compassion and love for animals and the environment in the average non-vegan. We had even chosen the ideal spot of setting our booth up in a canteen, hoping that we could effect immediate change. And to be honest, I think that the booth went even better than expected. Despite some initial resistance from the canteen administration, quite a number of students were actually interested in understanding the more gruesome realities of factory farming and slaughterhouses. Many even agreed that it was difficult to argue against the core tenets of veganism, and realised how easy it was to ignore the suffering that animals on their plate went through.
However, the most important takeaway I had from that day was the entire opposite of our initial goal of educating others. While speaking to a lacto-vegetarian student, I learned of a unique case in which I felt consuming dairy in modern society was morally permissible (do note that I have absolutely no training in moral philosophy and am using the term in a subjective sense).
This student told me that she had a health disorder that prevents her from absorbing most of the protein she consumes. While my immediate reaction was to let her know we only need 30g of protein a day, she proceeded to tell me that she was allergic to a wide range of beans and nuts. More interestingly, she said that she only buys ahimsa milk. Ahimsa is the Sanskrit word for ‘not to injure’ or ‘compassion’, and producers of ahimsa milk ensure that whatever milk they take from a cow is excess milk her calf does not need. These cows are definitely more respected than those in factory farms, even though there is still a commodification of sentient beings.
Listening to her story, I could feel nothing but love for animals despite her consumption of milk; and it made me realise two things. Firstly, there are some genuine cases where consumption of certain non-vegan products is absolutely essential for survival even in industrialised societies. In these cases, it is difficult for any vegan to argue against their actions. While it is true that most people can survive without non-vegan products, we should not be quick to assume that everyone we come across has the same health profile. We must also remember that we are not all nutritionists or health experts and shouldn’t be too quick to provide unsolicited health advice.
This brings me to my next realisation: the importance of listening. I have always thought that I am a decent listener. When it comes to veganism, however, I can get quite emotional. My ability to listen and understand could then be compromised in my flurry of emotions, and I am guessing this is one reason why many non-vegans have the perception that vegans feel morally superior. I believe that for vegan activism to be successful, non-vegans must not feel any judgement while speaking to us about it, and listening is probably the most important skill that all of us must hone. In fact, the better you think you are at listening, the more you should try to learn how you can improve.
Speaking about veganism to non-vegans has always been a difficult process, particularly because meat-eating is such an integral part to society. Hence, deciding to become vegan requires such a major shift in perspective, that we may ‘forget’ why we ate meat, dairy, and eggs in the first place. Once we realise this, it is bound to make our conversations more impactful, changing the world one person at a time.