I lost respect for someone recently, someone who I work for and have known on and off for over a decade. Being vegan – well, it changed my life and I suppose it stands to reason that it’s going to change some of my relationships too. I feel a sadness and regret about it but on the other hand, I feel very much as though there is little point in spending time pining over someone who doesn’t want to listen or change, despite their frequent declarations to the contrary. That’s the true danger of ignorance: we often have no idea that we are.
I’ve mentioned my boss before on this blog and looking back, there was some naiveté on my part in wanting to believe that she was one of the people who genuinely wanted to support my decision to go vegan even though she has never flat-out asked me about my reasons for doing so. Instead there were just the off-handed, jokey comments here and there that I guess I wanted to believe stemmed from general discomfort as opposed to actual belittlement or an attempt to justify her own “personal choices” to me. Now I’m not so sure.
It’s not that she hasn’t been supportive at all. At the work Christmas party last year she made sure to order some vegan appetizers with the catering which was thoughtful, especially given that I am the only person in the office who doesn’t eat meat. She is one of the few people who has bothered to read the little PeTA cards I have taped up in my cubicle that contain fun facts about various animals. She has been a support to me in many areas and has provided me with stable employment on more than one occasion. I will always be grateful for the generosity she has shown over the years and I will always care about her. That said, this alone does not make her incapable of ignorance nor does it mean I owe my undying loyalty to someone who clearly does not get it.
It really started with the jokes. Over the past year, there have been several. One day when I wore my “Friends Not Food” shirt to work (it has a cow, a pig and a chicken on it), she complimented me on it and then in the next breath told me that she was eating at The Keg Steakhouse that same night and that, “They aren’t going to be my friends tonight!” Nudge nudge, wink wink. Another time in the lunchroom she was heating up some meatballs made of ground turkey and joked about eating turkey balls to me. Hilarious! There was the time she told me about how delicious these lobster rolls were that she’d eaten and even though she acknowledged me by saying, “Well, I know you wouldn’t like them” (even though being vegan has nothing to do with disliking the taste of meat), she continued to rave about them as though I were an engaged participant. Each time I have said nothing.
Then one day this month while I was covering reception, she came back from a lunch date she’d said she had been looking forward to because she hadn’t seen the person she was having lunch with in a while. When she returned, I asked her how her lunch was, thinking more along the lines of the company rather than the food. She said it was great and then told me what she ate which was “a nice steak” that she really enjoyed. She then stopped herself when she realized who she was talking to and clarified to me that, “I ate a cow…I had a nice cow,” and laughed uncomfortably. My first thought was, “Yes, I know what a steak is,” but again, I said nothing and just stared uncomfortably back at her.
After the regular receptionist came back from her break, I went to heat up my lunch. The cow comment really bothered me and as I stood at the microwave waiting for the food to be done, I thought that if I didn’t say something soon, the jokes would keep coming. So as my food was heating up, I went to her office and asked her if she had five minutes. She readily invited me into her office and I closed the door.
I was nervous and my mouth instantly became devoid of all moisture. If this were someone I didn’t respect or care about, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But this was not nobody. This was my boss – my mentor in some ways – and my friend. This was also someone I knew could shut down in a heartbeat if you said something to offend her and my heart was pounding. I forged ahead, with the gist of what I said being:
I just wanted to let you know why I don’t always respond when you tell me about your lunch or what you’re eating. It’s not that I don’t care about you or that I’m not interested in your day or what’s going on in your life. It’s that certain jokes about food aren’t funny to me and when you make jokes, I don’t always know how to respond. On the one hand, I want to reply and tell you that it’s not really funny to me because of what animals go through but on the other hand, I don’t want to polarize you and make you feel like you can’t talk to me. All of these thoughts are going through my head and I’m still trying to figure out how I can be an advocate for animals in everyday life while walking that line of not preaching to people or making them feel judged.
I was talking a mile a minute but tried to appear calm. So far she was looking at me and nodding her head and seemed responsive. Then I said this:
“Animals suffer tremendously for our food and it’s just very difficult for me to find certain comments about our food funny.”
And that’s when the walls went up and I could see her stiffen and shut down. I needed to wrap it up:
Anyway, I just wanted to let you know where I was coming from in terms of why I don’t always respond to you when you’re telling me about lunch or whatever but that it doesn’t mean I don’t care about you or what’s going on in your day. You’ve known me for a long time and I just wanted to tell you where I was coming from as a friend, that’s all.
I waited a beat to see if she wanted to say something but instead she only gave me a stiff smile, a quick nod and a hard stare. I left her office and went back to the lunchroom to eat, where I pretty much just pushed the food around my plate while I replayed everything in my head, wondering what I could have done differently to get a better response. I was very careful to say “our food” not “your food” and tried to let it go. I had said what I wanted to say and if she chose to say something further later on, I would just have to wait.
She responded via email a couple of hours later.
The email apology is not something I’m a fan of in general. Sometimes it’s necessary under the circumstances but this was not one of those instances. When someone comes to you in person and shares something intimate from their heart, you do not follow-up with an email. It’s cowardly. Although I wasn’t completely surprised to get an email based on the body language I saw from her when I left her office, I was so disappointed. Really? A fucking email? Okay. It’s a fucking email. I tried to tell myself that at least it was something even though it felt hollow and meaningless. It was very formal and just started with my name and was even signed, “Sincerely” (when was the last time you used “Sincerely” in an email to a close colleague or friend, even when you were pissed at each other? That’s another thing I hate about email apologies – you can read too much into them and make yourself crazy).
In her email, she apologized for being insensitive and assured me it would not happen again. She thanked me for telling her as she would rather be aware than not. Fine. But then came the rationalization. She told me (sorry, typed me) that she was “very aware” of how animals were treated for the purpose of food and that it was, “tough to turn a blind eye to for those of us that still choose to eat/use animal by-products.”
My first reaction was incredulity. Is she fucking serious? Did she just make this about her and how hard it was for her to continue to live like she does because she has to turn a blind eye to the suffering that she only thinks she knows about but really has no fucking clue? I don’t doubt that she has some vague understanding that animals suffer for our food. Every omnivore has some awareness that slaughterhouses exist and that yes, animals must die for our food, just as I was once faintly aware when I ate meat and dairy. But other than maybe thinking that these animals suffer for a few brief seconds right before someone kills them, most people have no idea what is really involved for these animals from birth to death. They have no idea as to the extent of their misery and suffering. If my boss really was “very aware” as she claims to be, she most certainly wouldn’t be making the jokes she has been making in front of me for the past year (otherwise that would make her a very cruel and shitty person, which I don’t believe she is). No, she is ignorant and clueless on this matter and let me tell you, that is tough to realize about a person you once held in high regard.
My regret about this situation is how I responded. My first instinct was to just go by her office at the end of the day and thank her in person for her email, just to connect with her face to face and so we could start the next day fresh. But I second-guessed myself and thought that obviously she wanted to correspond via email so I should at least acknowledge her before the day was out. So I emailed her back and I fucking apologized for implying that she didn’t know about the suffering of animals and was, “sorry if that’s how it came across”. I reiterated that I was, “trying to be clear about my own views” and that I “treasured our working relationship very much” which is why I felt she would be open to “hearing my thoughts on the issue.” I’m rolling my eyes at myself. I totally caved.
But it was a lesson. It was a lesson that forced me to ask myself: Who do I stand for? Who am I doing this for? And my answer was what it has always been: for the animals. It is for the weak, the exploited and the voiceless. THAT is who I speak for as a vegan and who I represent. THEY must be my first priority – always. And I must accept the fact that along the way I am going to piss people off. I am going to lose friends. I am going to screw up. But other than my lame-ass apology in the name of keeping peace, I did nothing wrong here. I spoke up for the animals and I did it in a way that showed respect to my boss. I didn’t call her out in a roomful of people and I didn’t try to humiliate her. I treated her like an adult who has lived longer than me and who I thought could handle an adult conversation. If she felt threatened or judged or that she had to justify her choice to me, that’s on her not me. The reason people go into defensive mode is not always because they are actually being attacked; it’s because deep down they’re already well aware that they should really fucking know better.
This all happened nearly three weeks ago. Since then it’s been mostly fine between her and I and that’s probably how it will remain, at least for a while. What I had hoped would be an open and honest dialogue that would deepen our understanding of one another instead feels like a line has been drawn in the sand. But I can’t control how someone else responds. I can’t blame myself for someone else’s willful ignorance. I can only speak truthfully for what is ethically just and hold myself accountable for how I treat my fellow human beings in the process. Above all, I cannot worry about what someone thinks of me while millions of animals suffer minute after minute on factory farms in fear, isolation and pain. I want to be a voice for them. As a vegan, I speak for them. And what this recent experience taught me is that I will no longer apologize for doing so.