Since becoming vegan, and as any other vegan can attest to, this is a common response I get when I tell people I don’t eat animals or their by-products:
“Well, it’s a personal choice.”
Not, “Why are you a vegan?” or “How long have you been a vegan?” or “Tell me about being vegan” (God, I would fall off my chair if anyone ever asked me that last one). Nope. Instead it’s the old “personal choice” standby, a statement that not only declares my (presumed) position on the matter but theirs as well, conveniently leaving very little room for any further discussion and effectively shutting the conversation down.
So, I’d like to clarify a few things.
First of all, yes, it is a personal choice. I literally did get up one morning and decided that after watching the film Vegucated, I was not going to eat meat and dairy for six weeks. That six weeks turned into a year and that year has turned into the rest of my life. Every day I “personally choose” not to eat meat, dairy, eggs or anything else that has come as a result of an animal’s suffering and I will continue to make that choice until the day I die.
You know what else I choose to do everyday? Shower. Get dressed. Go to work. I choose what bus to take. I choose what to make for dinner. I choose what to wear and whether or not to be nice to people. You get the point. But it’s at this point where the personal choice “argument” hits the wall for me. Because really, everything we do in a day is a personal choice. From the big decisions to the ones we aren’t even aware we’re making, they are all personal choices. And we only have to read the news or look back at our own mistakes to know that some choices are better than others.
When does someone’s choice extend beyond being just a personal one? I’ll tell you: as soon as it affects someone else. Be it negatively or positively, as soon as our personal choice impacts another, even indirectly, that’s when it stops being strictly personal. Imagine if a convicted murderer stood up in front of a judge before sentencing and said, “It was my personal choice to kill so I don’t think I should be judged for it.” They’d be laughed out of the courtroom. The moment they chose to take a life that wasn’t their own was the moment it stopped being a decision that was just about them.
And that is what being a vegan comes down to: yes, it is a choice in that I, personally choose not to eat meat and dairy. I choose the veggie burger without cheese and mayo over the steak and eggs with extra butter. But that choice extends beyond the personal because it is a choice that has consequences. It has an effect. It not only generates a demand for more veggie options, it also does not contribute to the profits of the meat and dairy industry. Most importantly, it does not create the added demand for animals to be killed or exploited just so I can eat.
In the “About” page of this blog, I ask the question: Is smoking still considered a “personal choice” even though the general public is by now well aware that it also harms other beings? In Toronto, it is against the law to smoke in a car with children under the age of 16 due to the health hazards of second-hand smoke. Why just children, why not adults too? Because children are more vulnerable and need laws in place to protect them from the adults in their life that are either willfully ignorant or feel so entitled to their addiction that they don’t care who else suffers in the process. Unfortunately for animals right now, they are the vulnerable and we are the irresponsible adults, puffing away on our burgers and milkshakes while they languish in a trapped vehicle known as the Western diet.
If being vegan is a personal choice, then it’s one we can all make. From an ethics standpoint, when a meat and dairy eater says to me that my diet is a personal choice, they inadvertently admit to me that they too have made a personal choice to eat cooked flesh, drink a pregnant mother’s milk and eat the menstrual cycle of another species (if you think that’s gross, it should be – that’s what meat, milk and eggs are). And that’s why it doesn’t hold as an argument for me: personal choice is either willful action or it’s an excuse. It can’t be both.
Above all, do you know why being a vegan or being an omnivore isn’t just a personal choice? Because the animals don’t have one. From the moment they are born into a factory farm or a dairy farm, their lives are not their own. They are not even considered living beings under the law but property, free for humans to do pretty much whatever the hell they want with them. They are commodities to be sold, traded and used. They are slaves – things – and nothing more. The only reason we continue to believe differently is because food companies spend millions on advertising each year to make sure we find no reason to question our “personal choice” – one that has been carefully crafted for us ever since we were children watching our first McDonald’s commercial.
Personal choice is rarely limited to just us. The very act of making a decision or choice implies an action of some kind. So we need to ask ourselves: are we using our personal food choices as a reason not to change or as a weapon to create it?