Some time ago I was at a party with a bunch of other vegetarians. One of the guests was bemoaning the fact that it was hard to make meat-eaters see the advantages of vegetarianism. "They don't get it," he kept saying. "They just don't get it."
At the time I thought it was an odd thing to say. You either "got it" or you didn't, as if vegetarianism was some kind of counterculture religion, or maybe the latest pop psychology trend? But the more I've thought about it, the more I feel that guy was exactly right. Just like religion, vegetarianism is a hard sell, and those who aren't buying really aren't buying.
Everyone in the world has a cause these days. But not all causes are created equal—at least in the eyes of the public. There are some things that almost everyone supports. Tell someone you're a Big Brother or you work for the Special Olympics, for example, and they'll immediately warm up to you.
On the other side of the spectrum are what I call the "love/hate" groups. They get an immediate reaction—pro or con—from almost everyone. Examples that come to mind are Planned Parenthood, the Neo-Nazis, and those "feed Jane Fonda to the Whales" people at the airport. And remember a few years ago when people were accusing the "Moonies" of brainwashing their kids? Not many people could remain neutral on that issue.
Most causes, though, are less controversial. They have their followers, and in some cases their detractors, but the majority of us don't really think much about them. I think for the most part vegetarianism as a cause is in this largely ignored group. But as the movement gains momentum I get the feeling we may be drifting into that small group of causes that people either love or hate. It seems that lately when I extol the virtues of vegetarianism I have been getting a stronger and stronger reaction.
It happened again the other day. A woman at work asked me why I'm a vegetarian.
"Well...," I said, giving her my most sincere smile. "...Let me just tell you."
I launched into my canned 10 minute speech on the merits of vegetarianism. Unfortunately, I didn't get far—maybe forty-five seconds into it—when I saw her eyes glaze over and she stifled a yawn. Knowing I was going to lose her if I didn't do something, I skipped straight to the end of my speech where I get to the heavy stuff like veal calves and world starvation. The bored look turned to terror, as if I was carrying a bomb or (even worse) asking her for money. She started taking large backward steps, and I suddenly felt about as welcome a Bobby Seale at a DAR convention.
I guess the message is clear. Everybody knows we vegetarians are around, and most of the time they don't really care. To the average meat eater out there our cause is about as important as the Rochester Worm Museum, of the Albanian Home for Aging Soldiers. When we really press the issue, though, it gets personal. At that point the meat eater will either "get it," or treat us like a Moonie hanging around the local playground. It seems that just like the Moonies and those other love/hate groups, we don't yet have the respect of most of those who disagree with us.
The early days of the anti-smoking movement must have been like this. Those people probably encountered lots of hostility from smokers and industry lobbyists. Their persistence paid off, though. As people started to learn and accept the facts, they became much more receptive. Even though there are still plenty of smokers in the world, the anti-smokers are generally acknowledged as having a legitimate cause, and being on the "right" side of the issue. Truth won out in the end.
Hopefully it won't be long before vegetarians get that kind of respect. I know the day will come, because vegetarianism is such a great cause. After all, look at its attributes: it doesn't cost any money to participate, we don't advocate the violent overthrow of the government, and we won't even try to brainwash your kids.
If only people knew.