How do we get the word out when faced with this dilemma? If we
remain silent, the myths persist: "Vegetarians run the risk
of being protein or iron deficient," "Vegetarian food
is boring," "You need meat to be strong" -- all these
blatant falsehoods live on when we don't speak up.
I asked John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America, how he
shares ideas with meat eaters. He said, "Leading by example
and enjoying yourself" works for him because "joy is contagious,
and people will want to be like you and will ask 'What are you doing?'"
He added, "Always ask if people want to know. If they say 'yes,'
you have the green light. ... If they say no, don't cast your pearls
in that situation because people are at certain readiness and sometimes
they're not ready to hear something. Then all you can do is lead
My experience has been that people become ready to hear the health
reasons before the environmental or animal rights ones. Some may
call it heresy, but I always lead with health issues because I know
that health vegetarians usually become receptive to other reasons
with time. Such was the case with myself. Instead of proselytizing,
I say things to peak people's curiosity and get them to ask about
my dietary habits thereby giving me the green light. If a conversation
has steered towards health, I mention that my cholesterol used to
be 270 but it's now down to 180 and that I'm now completely free
of heart attack risk -- and then I shut up. I don't tell them how
I did it unless they ask. But trust me, they ask. So far no one's
ever not asked. If the discussion of weight comes up, I mention
that I used to be twenty pounds overweight and that I lost it all
and now easily maintain my ideal weight, and I eat as much as I
want. Again, I whet their curiosity and get them to ask me how I
did it. When they ask, I explain, and this is the key: I do so without
any judgment of them. I almost never have trouble with people being
unreceptive. When the dialogue gets going I have many opportunities
for debunking myths. If someone says "I could never live like
that, eating all that bland, low-fat food," I playfully counter
with, "You haven't tried my eggplant fettuchine." Again,
I'm peaking their curiosity. Perhaps they'll ask for the recipe.
If it's a good friend, I may even offer to make it sometime. There's
no better way to debunk the myth of boring food than by cooking
something you know is terrific for people.
I know many vegetarians who will not talk about vegetarianism without
talking about animal rights. While I respect their zeal and courage,
I do not think this approach is always effective. The goal is to
communicate, and that cannot happen when people are defensive or
feel they're having something "shoved down their throats."
If they're not at the level of readiness where they need to be,
no amount of proselytizing will get them there. That does not mean
you should never talk about animal rights. If I have a person open
to my health-vegetarian ideas, I can often move on to other issues
without losing their receptiveness.
Usually people are more accepting of the environmental reasons
than animal rights; hence, I may move in that direction after health.
Again, the key is to not make it sound like an indictment of them.
To keep my ideas nonjudgmental, I stay focused on myself. Instead
of saying, "You're wasting thousands of gallons of water each
month by eating meat," I say, "I'm able to save much more
water than I ever could by taking military showers or by not washing
my car." Again, hopefully their curiosity is rising so that
they ask, "How?" If they do, and I see they're still receptive,
that's my green light to proceed. I can explain what Pamela Teisler-Rice
does in 101 Reasons I'm Vegetarian, when she says that it takes
about 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat and that
the water that goes into a steer could float a destroyer.
If I move on to animal rights, I use the same approach. I keep
it nonjudgmental and focused on myself. This can be challenging
because there is such passion on both sides of the issue. A lot
of times if I've been talking about the health and environmental
reasons, the person will bring up animal rights. He may say something
along the lines of, "It's these self-righteous animal rights
activists that I can't stand." I may have a chance to diffuse
that hostility by saying, "I hear you. I used to think the
animal rights activists were just a bunch of wackos. I grew up on
a small farm in Texas, and we didn't mistreat our animals. Our cattle
were allowed to graze and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, so it
used to seem nutty to me that people were so uptight about the animals'
Notice I start by acknowledging their point of view by showing
that I once shared it. This respect I've given them is what clears
my path to move on and talk about what I've learned about the horrors
of factory farming. By not allowing any anger to creep into my voice,
I can keep their attention. Animal rights is by far the toughest
issue to talk about with meat eaters because there's more hostility
directed towards it than any other vegetarian issue. It's also perilously
easy to make your ideas come across as an indictment of meat eaters.
A big part of not coming across as judgmental is in your tone of
voice. If you're just saying the words, but in your heart you're
judging them as evil human beings, they'll pick up on that -- and
anything you say will be for naught. Robbins says it's important
to convey your ideas "with that feeling of connectedness to
the power that is within them, because when you put groups in a
box, they feel it. When you create that wall of separation, they
feel it." If you do manage to connect with a person, the chances
of a flaming argument developing are greatly lessened.
There are, however, no guarantees given the volatile nature of
animal rights. Robbins says, "If you carry vision ... you're
a pioneer, and you can always tell the pioneers by the arrows in
their back." If you've done your best to be respectful towards
people, that's all you can do, so don't hold it against yourself
if someone gets upset. Most vegetarians are painfully aware of the
horror animals must go through in factory farming. For this reason,
it can be difficult not to judge those who support this institution.
Yet, as I've suggested, not judging them is critical to establishing
receptiveness. You need to understand deep down that meat eaters
are not evil. I know some people may disagree with me on this statement,
but hear me out. One of the greatest hampers to human communication
is the simplistic view that people are either good or evil. Think
about it. Most vegetarians are former meat eaters. Were they simply
evil and then suddenly became good the day they gave up meat? Or
are human beings complex creatures with a myriad of virtues and
faults? As Robbins said, we have different levels or readiness --
or, stated differently, different levels of awareness. Back when
you ate meat, you didn't do so because you were evil; you did so
because that's what made sense to you back then. Why judge someone
for being where most of us once were? You were just as precious
a spirit back then as you are now.
I can certainly remember thinking, "Oh, come on, what's wrong
with having a good old fashioned American burger?" You can
understand a person's point of view without endorsing it.
I suggested talking about health first, then environment, then animal
rights not because health is the most important issue -- I consider
the three equally important. It's just that this progression creates
the least resistance. It works for me. I understand, however, animal
rights is the most important issue for many people. If this is the
case for you, you can use your two less important issues to lead
to your most important one. If it makes someone more receptive to
your ideas, isn't it worth it? On the other hand, if you are skilled
in talking in a nonjudgmental way, you may be able to pull off leading
with animal rights. I've never tried it, but maybe you could make
it work. It's up to you.
Above all, don't get flustered if you make mistakes. We've all
done so. I've gotten angry and spewed off sarcasm out of frustration.
Those mistakes are what helped me to find a method of interaction
that I think works better. Even if you never have discussions with
meat eaters, if you only lead by example, you're doing a service.
Robbins says, "We are pioneers and what we're doing is forging
trails that the great majority of people will walk on soon enough
but can't see it yet. They'll be very grateful that we've made the
trail. They don't have the courage to walk out until it's been proven
safe. We're proving it safe."
For the complete transcript of John Robbins'
reply, click here.