I’ve been a vegetarian for about two decades. I keep my reasons for becoming and staying vegetarian quiet and I don’t talk about my vegetarianism much – I don’t want to be one of those vegetarians. Unfortunately, in an effort to be just “cool” about something that matters to me, I end up in uncomfortable situations like listening to a detailed description of sausage making, being served dessert made with gelatin, or being gifted leather items. It’s not the other party’s fault: for the most part, they don’t know my values because I haven’t told them; I default to privacy. I am deeply grateful for my friends and family who are respectful of my beliefs and who make an effort to accommodate me.
There are a couple of areas of life that are particularly prone to a blurry line between informing and preaching: religion, politics, and certain lifestyle choices (we know the joke). They are areas of life where people have made choices and where believers have dedicated a lot of time and energy. They are highly invested, which means the cost of being wrong is very high. These are areas that help us define our identity; things that we consider pretty fundamental to who we are. If I were to try to sum up who I am, both Pagan and vegetarian would be on my list of descriptors.
I’ve noticed that if I mention that I’m vegetarian, even casually and in context (when declining a meat dish at a potluck, for example), many people react defensively. They explain to me how little meat they eat, or defend their need for animal protein, or tell me about how they tried to be vegetarian once… these are not conversations I generally want to have. If I don’t tell people, though, I don’t know whether or not there’s meat broth in the soup. And while speaking out about certain topics is seen as preaching, silence will sometimes be taken as lack of caring.
A friend of mine who is a Quaker says that it is a bit of an awkward “coming out” every time she has reason to mention it. People often confuse Quaker with the Amish or Mennonites, and will ask her questions about why she drinks alcohol or uses a cell phone. If she has reason to refer to her spiritual beliefs, she is often facing a challenge of explaining without seeming to preach. Pagans, as members of another minority and sometimes misunderstood religion, will have a similar balancing act, further complicated, perhaps, by the fact that our values vary from Pagan to Pagan, so we can’t even necessarily turn to our own community for the unquestioning support other groups can give each other. If you are an evangelical Christian, you don’t have to explain certain things to your church: it is assumed that you are anti-abortion, for example. But even though I consider my vegetarianism to be a part of my Paganism, that is not an assumption I can make when with my spiritual community. And, on the other side, in my limited experience with the vegetarian community, they may not share some of my Pagan values that lead me to choose leather shoes over synthetics in some cases.
When there’s unnecessary waste in a ritual*, when there is boundary crossing during ritual**, when there is strongly gendered roles in ritual, it doesn’t fit with my values as a Pagan. I hold those values – I live by those values – because I believe they are good ways of being and acting. To not speak up, especially around consent issues, feels like betraying my beliefs. But by saying “I don’t think that belongs in ritual”, I am saying “I think you are wrong” to the people who did it. I would leave behind postmodern relativism and criticize both their artist work as ritual creators and their religious values… be caught comparing their values to mine and finding their’s wanting.
For it to be worth it to me to speak up – worth risking making other people uncomfortable or defensive – it has to be something I care about and that I also think I can change someone else’s mind about. I know that I’m unlikely to convert any meat eaters to vegetarians***, but I do hope that if I talk to someone about ways to increase consent at a ritual, there will be a chance of having those suggestions implemented in the future. I think the difference is that everyone knows that vegetarian is a choice they can make, where they may not know yet about consent culture. There’s less likely to be a conflict with their own established, chosen values, and I have the opportunity to present ideas as something new to them that they can take on as their own.
I pick my battles, but please don’t take my silence as lack of caring. I hold my values close to my heart and I judge myself (and you) by them.
* See point 8, for example.
** A friend tells a story of a semi-public spiral dance where everyone was encouraged to kiss each other; she would turn her face to try to receive kisses on her cheek, and people, including the ritual leaders, would dodge around her to kiss her mouth anyway.
*** Though, if I bring truly delicious vegetarian food to potlucks, I might convince a few people to include a few more meat-free meals in their daily lives without saying a word.