How to Handle Vegan Arguments Like a Pro
Pretty much every vegan has been interrogated by family, friends, and strangers about their choice to boycott animal products. Sometimes people are genuinely curious. Other times, however, the line of questioning can be surprisingly hostile. Figuring out how to eat a healthy plant-based diet isn’t the hardest thing about going vegan; it’s learning how to handle vegan arguments like a pro.
People actually get aggressive with someone for making the compassionate, environmentally conscious, and healthy choice. It can be frustrating and isolating. How do you most effectively react to the common attacks? While knowing answers to the specific questions is a good start, so is learning more about rhetorical strategies in general.
I spoke with Jesse Tandler, a rhetoric teacher and the educational program director at Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, and with Erin Kwiatkowski, Mercy For Animals’ own global vegetarian support manager, to get their tips for being an effective vegan communicator.
Give Them the “Feedback Sandwich”
When was the last time someone’s hostility and defensiveness made you want to change your behavior? If you can find a way to take the other person’s position seriously, even if you strongly disagree with it, your own position is much more likely to be heard.
Tandler explains: “Begin by agreeing with some point they’re making and showing them that, in some ways at least, you’re on the same team. After giving them credit for their point, you can go on to discuss how you came to your conclusion and then respectfully ask them for their opinion on what you’ve just said.”
A variation of this method is the “feedback sandwich.” The idea is simple: Start with positive reinforcement, put the critique in the middle, and end with more positive reinforcement.
View Them as “Blocked Vegetarians”
In Living Among Meat-Eaters, her excellent book about how to talk to non-vegans, author Carol J. Adams offers a useful way of thinking about carnivores: She calls them “blocked vegetarians.” Unless you were raised vegan, you were once a blocked vegetarian or vegan who hadn’t confronted your discomfort with animal suffering. Thinking this way about people who eat animals will help you remain compassionate when faced with their logical blocks.
“The biggest mistake vegans make when helping someone else make the switch is forgetting they were once meat eaters too!” Kwiatkowski says. “Even though it’s hard, we have to show the same compassion to our non-veg friends and family that we show to animals.” Remember what it was like before you stepped through the vegan matrix and meet people where they are in their own moral journeys.
Never Fudge Facts
Even if you don’t know every detail about the ties between animal agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions or about the accidental amputations in chicken “processing” factories suffered by two workers on average each week, knowing enough to present a coherent and factual case is important. Have a couple of go-to stats up your sleeve and know the basic arguments for veganism—but you shouldn’t pretend to be an expert.
“Make sure not to misquote stats or other arguments,” Tandler says. “It’s vital to remain credible. You don’t want someone going home and seeing you fudged a fact, because it will reinforce their belief that vegans are just exaggerating.”
Channel Your Inner Socrates
Another effective strategy is to call on your inner Socrates. Ask respectful rhetorical questions that get people to make statements you agree on—for example, “Do you think it’s usually OK to kill someone because you want something you don’t need from them?” This advanced method is tricky to pull off without annoying someone, but if done with respect, not a sense of superiority, it can be quite effective; you get them to articulate arguments for veganism as if they were their own.
Optimism can feel difficult when you stop to consider how many animals are killed for food every day. “A defeatist attitude rarely makes anyone want to join your team,” Tandler observes. “After all, you’re pretty much saying that you’ve already lost, so what’s the point? But when you consider that each vegan spares the lives of about 30 farmed animals per year, there is cause for a positive attitude.”
The morally superior, full-of-themselves vegan stereotype is annoying, but we must remember that it exists for a reason and that people are extra-sensitive to perceived judgment. If people believe you have a holier-than-thou attitude, they’ll be turned off.
“It’s OK to admit that you’re not morally pure and that no one can be,” Tandler says. “A vegan lifestyle is a way to reduce suffering, not eliminate it. I know that by being a human in this world, particularly one living in the United States, I can’t avoid a suffering footprint—just as I can’t avoid a carbon footprint. But I can significantly reduce that footprint and be an example for others.” Feel free to borrow that exact phrasing the next time someone tries to “catch” you in your moral imperfection.
It’s also important to positively reinforce any progress; you don’t want to let the perfect get in the way of the good.
“For many people, going vegetarian or vegan overnight is too hard, and studies show it often results in reverting to eating meat,” Kwiatkowski explains. “There are so many habits to reform in this process, so suggest taking it one step at a time, whether that’s cutting out one type of animal product first (ideally chicken, fish, or eggs!) or limiting the days a week they eat meat, dairy, or eggs.”
But Respect Yourself Too
Sometimes you just aren’t up for the argument, in which case the most effective communication strategy might be to abstain from talking about it altogether. That doesn’t mean you should backtrack to placate people though. It’s a fine line.
“I understand sometimes not wanting to talk about it,” Tandler says. “It can be exhausting to continually defend your lifestyle choice. At the same time, if someone questions it, agreeing or saying it’s merely your personal choice is disingenuous.”
If you’re really not feeling up to a debate, offering to send your interrogator a couple of links to articles and videos from sources like Mercy For Animals that “might explain it better” than you can at the moment is totally legitimate. “Plus, getting people to watch videos on their own, without their having to defend themselves to you (only to themselves!) will generally be more effective in promoting the cause,” Tandler adds. And if their nutrition questions are too technical, sending people to The Green Plate and mentioning that they can get free live-chat support from experts on the site is also useful.
Above all, take care of yourself and remember that you’re doing the right thing for animals, the planet, and your health. If people have a problem with that, it’s probably because they know eating animals is wrong but haven’t been able to work up the same courage to change.