Thursday, September 20, 2012

Conversion Narrative in Veganism

The following is part two of a three-part series I wrote quite a while back. There was a chance that these were going to be published in an upcoming anthology in which a separate essay (by me) having nothing to do with religion will appear, but it didn't pan out (nobody's fault and no hard feelings). Honestly, I'm sort of OK with these mini-essays not being published, since they are sure to irk people in a way that I don't necessarily feel comfortable irking. 

The previous essay in this series, Religion and Vegan Advocacy, received a couple comments that deserve a response. I plan to write a separate post addressing these and any other comments I get on this second installment and the eventual third installment. 

OK. Here's the essay now. 

Oh wait, one more thing. If these essays had actually made it to the point of being published, I can assure you that they would have been edited and re-edited and fleshed out and would just be plain better (because my editors are rock-stars, that's why). So ... now that I've sufficiently lowered expectations, here you go!

The words “convert” and “conversion” come up a lot when vegans talk about choosing to be vegan. In many ways, this makes sense. In others, it’s problematic.

In what way is this conversion narrative a positive?

First, it’s something that just makes sense. Everyone knows what conversion means: in the simplest sense, it’s changing from one thing to another. When non-vegans choose to be vegan, that’s a type of conversion. Often, it can feel like a religious conversion; something akin to a spiritual awakening. As one blogger writes:

People often ask me why I made the decision to go vegan. I can point to certain events leading up to that moment that are helpful in explaining how I got here, but at the same time, when I really think about it, it’s almost as if it wasn’t a choice at all … What I mean is that it was almost like I had been asleep before and suddenly I woke up and saw the cruelty and suffering around me; being vegan seemed like something I simply had to do. 

I’m sure that many vegans can relate to this. I know I can.

This blogger may not have used the word “conversion,” and maybe that was intentional on her part, but the above quote still falls under the umbrella of what I mean when I refer to conversion language.

One could imagine Paul—formerly Saul—saying something similar about his conversion on the road to Damascus: “All of a sudden, I saw a light and I woke up.”

Sentiments such as these are all over the internet. One blog, The Vegan Light Bulb, has the tag line, “Stop looking at the shadows and look into the light!” Another blog is called My Vegan Awakening. James McWilliams even has a "Vegan Conversion Narrative" series on his blog.[1]

The word conversion is apt when describing the change from one ideology to another, and so I submit that the use of the word when talking about the change to veganism is technically correct. When one chooses to be vegan, it could be said that they are rejecting the ideology of speciesism and embracing equal consideration of other-than-human animals. Veganism could be said to be the ideology of this embrace.

That said, it’s important to consider what problems arise from use of the conversion narrative.

By framing veganism as a conversion, vegans present veganism as something ideologically different from what non-vegans believe. Conversion language doesn’t give enough weight to that fact that many people already agree, to an extent, with the precept that unnecessary killing of animals is wrong. The conversion narrative presents veganism as an ideology that is wholly different from the way non-vegans already view animals, but in many cases, this is not true.

The word conversion is also closely—perhaps intrinsically—tied to religion in our culture. For reasons that I state in my post, Religion and Vegan Advocacy, I see this as a problem.

Another pitfall of the conversion narrative is that most people don’t want to be converted. Most people are happy with who they are. When a non-vegan hears a vegan talking about their conversion, they may see it as this odd metaphysical shift instead of a simple decision made for rational reasons; reasons the non-vegan may likely be able to identify with.

If the problems of the conversion narrative outweigh the positives, and I think they do, then what easy-to-understand alternative could vegans use when describing their transition to veganism?

Carol Adams has used a different term to describe the act of becoming vegan in her book Living Among Meat Eaters. She refers to non-vegetarians as “blocked vegetarians”[2] and the process of becoming vegetarian as becoming “unblocked.” Living Among Meat Eaters is obviously a book geared toward people who already eschew animal flesh (a point Adams reinforces within the book), but it’s worth asking whether or not vegans should use the blocked/unblocked language when speaking to non-vegans.

Non-vegans may bristle at the notion that they’re blocked and somehow less connected to their minds than vegans are. Additionally, this term has caused a few vegans I know to refer this the book as a little too “woo” for their liking, meaning that its language takes on a new age feel and/or seems to be rooted in nonscientific thought.

If “unblocked” seems to exchange religion for woo—which may work for some, but not for others—then what other word or phrase could be used to talk about our transitions to veganism?

Vegans may appeal to a broader set of people when, instead of using conversion language, they say something like, “I chose to be vegan because…” This frames our actions simply as a choice.

It’s true that “conversion” also denotes a choice, but it carries baggage. It also suggests, because of its close association with religion, that vegans substitute one faith-based way of thinking with another faith-based way of thinking.

Veganism is a rational choice that most people are capable of making. Framing that choice as a conversion, though, may keep them from seeing it that way.

[1] This essay was written before McWilliams started the "Vegan Conversion Narrative" series, so that name and the name of this mini-essay is nothing more than coincidence. I just decided to add a reference to his series in at the last minute here since it seemed to fit so well. 
[2] In this book, Adams uses the word “vegetarian” to refer to vegetarians and vegans.