How not to sway people’s opinions

Now that social networks are the preferred mode of online interaction, I don’t blog as much as I used to. I’m lucky if I write in this space more than once a month. But I do spend a lot of time on Facebook, and over the years I’ve accumulated plenty of “friends.”

My friends have many different opinions, and they all like to share them with me. I have atheist friends and devoutly religious friends. I have athletic friends and sedentary friends. I have conservative friends and liberal friends. I’m even — say it isn’t so — friends with both road runners and trail runners! But usually we all get along pretty well.

One of the friends I’ve had the hardest time handling over the years is a vegan. Now, I don’t have anything against vegans, but I’m not personally a practicing vegan.

That said, I’ve always found that many vegans are admirable because of their moral consistency. I find it hard to dispute that a vegan lifestyle, everything else being equal, causes less suffering than a non-vegan lifestyle. I’m impressed with folks who stick with their convictions even when confronted with a delicious double cheeseburger, a melt-in-your-mouth peach cobbler smothered in ice cream, or an expertly-prepared fish stew.

So when my friend posted photo after photo of horrifying conditions in meat-processing plants or images of abused animals that I really didn’t want to see while I was eating my breakfast, I tolerated it. As a meat eater, if I can’t handle knowing the consequences of eating meat, I probably shouldn’t be doing it. Sure, it made me uncomfortable, but I had to admit, my friend did have a point.

In the end, I don’t find the arguments of vegans convincing enough to change my ways, primarily because I believe that the concerns of humans generally trump those of animals. I would hope that, all else being equal, a vegan would agree with me — or at least acknowledge that it is just as bad to harm a human as it is to harm an animal.

So I was surprised this afternoon when my friend posted an unflattering image of a morbidly obese woman on Facebook. In the photo, she was seemingly unaware that her dress left her stomach and legs exposed, and that her stomach covered the rest of her body to such an extent that it appeared she was not wearing underwear. There was a disparaging caption on the photo, which my friend seemed to think was funny. It was decidedly not funny. It was sad to see him mocking another human being in this way.

And it made me think: Does this “friend” actually care less about humans than he does about other animals?

It made me wonder what the real motivation behind all those images of factory farms was. Was it to sway opinions and make the world a better place through the rhetorical device of making people uncomfortable? Or did my friend just get off on making people uncomfortable?

Suddenly his veganism didn’t seem so admirable. If you’re only a vegan because you like to belittle and humiliate people, that’s not nearly as impressive as being a vegan because you have a well-defined set of ethical principles.

More importantly, if you are a vegan activist and you want to sway people to your side by asking them to care about how we as a society treat other animals, then you should probably start with the understanding that you should treat your fellow human beings with dignity and respect as well.

Needless to say, my “friend” is now a former friend. Don’t worry, I still have plenty of ethically consistent vegan / vegetarian friends, and I continue to admire them.

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