“How can you tell if someone is a vegan?”
“Don’t worry, they’ll fucking tell you”
I remember hearing this for the first time. I laughed hard. And then I set to work mentally storing it away – I’m terrible at remembering jokes, and I wanted to remember this one! I couldn’t wait to pass it on.
The beauty of jokes in general – and this joke in particular – is that they are instant connectors. The teller and the audience are connected in shared understanding. You and I now become ‘us’. And for there to be an ‘us’, of course, there has to be a ‘them’. In this case the ‘them’ is vegans. Or rather, it is our shared understanding of what vegans are like: smug, sanctimonious, pious killjoys. Not like us!
Most of us don’t want to be on the other side of the joke. We want to be us, not them! Most of us have egos that purr when we are reminded that we know best, and that they are hopeless, deluded fools.
Being on the other side of the joke feels terrible! So most of us will do anything we can to avoid it. We laugh along with comments that make us a bit uncomfortable, rather than be a killjoy. We keep our mouths shut rather than say what we really believe, rather than risk looking pompous or – heaven forbid – earnest.
From comedian to punch line
And (very) recently I decided to make the journey over to the other side of the joke – from teller to subject, from comedian to punch line. I went – I can barely say it – vegan.
Well, in fact, I didn’t actually go vegan. I stopped eating meat and dairy products. Mostly. I still have the occasional egg. I sometimes still have foods that have a bit of milk in. There isn’t a nice, neat category to pop me into, but I’ve decided to make a radical change to the kind of food I eat.
After a good 18 months of gradually eating more plant-based food and less meat, the tipping point for me was 8th October 2018 – the day that the world press reported on the most recent findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the words of the panel, humanity needs to make ‘urgent’ and ‘unprecedented’ changes in all aspects of society in order to mitigate the inevitable and catastrophic effects of global warming.
I spent the day alternately avoiding the news, and then greedily, masochistically consuming everything I could find on it. I felt sick, afraid, and ashamed.
The difference between knowing and knowing
Why now? I mean, we all knew this stuff anyway, didn’t we? But we’ve been in denial. I’ve been in denial. I’ve thought about climate change in the past, got freaked out, and then pushed it away with a game of Candy Crush.
But, somehow, now I don’t just know it’s real, I know it’s real. I know that not thinking about it isn’t going to help, that joking about it isn’t doing something about it. So what could I do about it?
So, as part of an ongoing conversation with my wife about the various measures that we can take as a family to reduce our environmental impact, we decided that night that we were going to go vegan (ish).
Having enjoyed re-telling the ‘how can you tell if someone is a vegan?’ joke myself so much over the years, I had a sense of the kind of reception my apparent late-in-life conversation might get.
So it’s not that I was surprised by the proportion of people who greeted me with derision, bordering on contempt… it’s not that I was surprised by the passion with which some people tried to convince me that I was naïve / a hypocrite / a mug.
What surprised me was how much it pissed me off. What surprised me was how hurt and threatened I felt by it.
The ego and the inner cynic
Why? Well, I guess, because now I was on the other side of the joke. And my ego didn’t like it. So it went on the defensive. I came away from conversations feeling bruised and misunderstood, practicing responses in my head, knowing that next time someone tried to ‘catch me out’ I would be prepared and show them that it was not I but they who were naïve!
And then I has a bit of time to cool down and get curious. OK, my ego had been pricked… what is this telling me?
Well, I guess it tells me that my ego has become wrapped up in this decision that I’ve made; that in feeling myself being turned into a cipher for all of those old stereotypes about vegans (smug, sanctimonious, fuelled by vanity more than values), something was hitting home. The part of me that enjoyed that joke for all those years was very much still there, and had sprung to life.
Helpfully I found myself recently reading a book by the author and philosopher Charles Eisenstein and this passage rang out to me:
“What motivates my inner cynic? The principles above (of the interconnectedness of all things in the natural world) are frightening, because they foster a tender, vulnerable hopefulness that might easily be crushed, as it has so many times before”
Caring makes you vulnerable
By trying something new, heartfelt, values-driven and – in the best and possibly also the worst sense – naïve, I’ve invested in hope. And, in doing so, I’ve made myself vulnerable. Even now as I write this my inner cynic is screaming at me:
“Get off the fucking cross man…all you’ve done is spend a month eating a lot of vegetables. People are going to read this! You’ve spent over a thousand words simultaneously arguing that you are not a cartoon of a newly converted vegan, and proving that you are.”
To which the other part of me says: “That’s OK.”
Taking a fierce stand
When all of us in Global Warriors got together with the aim of defining what we meant by the term ‘Warriorship’, we came up with a kind of motto or tag-line: “Taking a fierce stand for us all”.
By that we meant being willing to actually stand for what you believe in, not for the sake of your precious ego, but for something bigger; being willing to risk looking utterly foolish in doing so; being willing to let go of the part of you that wants to be the cool, aloof, outsider, commenting snarkily on everyone and everything else.
Shedding the armour of cynicism is painful. I’m finding it difficult, so why should I expect others to immediately and enthusiastically do so just because I’ve decided to eat less meat? And my wish would be that we can all make a little more room for one another to be hopeful, earnest, naïve. These qualities are the ones that will save us. As Eisenstein says:
“The cynic mistakes his cynicism for realism. He wants us to discard the hopeful things that touch his wound, to settle for what is consistent with his lowered expectations. This, he says, is realistic. Ironically, it is in fact cynicism that is impractical. The naïve person attempts what the cynic says is impossible, and sometimes succeeds”
Now is the time to be naïve and impractical
Hard-headed pragmatism and a focus on what is ‘practical’ has taken us this far, and will take us no further. Now is the time to be naïve, to dream, to pursue the impractical and the unrealistic.
And to take a fierce stand for these things. Our future depends on it.