Something was wrong.
As I worked through my prepared remarks to a class of 20 graduate students at the University of Arizona, I sensed a distinct lack of interest. Funny slides went by without even a chuckle. My questions went ignored. Many in the audience simply looked down – not to take notes, but simply because they weren’t engaged.
I went to my emergency procedure, asking:
“How many of you have had a bad vegan experience?”
To my left, the professor laughed.
Only later, after the class had ended and all the lingering students had left, did the professor tell me they hadn’t wanted me there. When she had discussed the class topic and my visit in the opening class the previous week, the consensus was, “Vegans are angry. Vegans are fanatics. Vegans are unreasonable.” And “Vegans are nuts."
When I was standing in front of the class, of course, I didn’t know this. But having broken the ice with “bad vegan experience,” the questions came quickly. I did my best to emphasize that my only goal was to reduce suffering as much as possible. For example: I’d rather that three people ate half as many animals than have one person go vegan. This both saves more animals, and each meat reducer has more potential for further change.
One of the early questions was, “Do you think all killing is wrong?” In a twist on the Socratic method, I replied, “What do you think my answer will be?”
“That all killing is wrong.”
“And what do you think?”
“Not all killing is wrong. Mercy killings, for example.”
Well, yes, I agreed. I would never keep a dog or cat alive if the rest of their life was only going to be suffering. I’ve experienced times when I’ve wanted to die; if I knew all I had to look forward to was more suffering, I’d want the option to end it.
And yes, I admitted the general treatment of different species does vary. I’d much rather be reincarnated as a cow destined to be slaughtered for beef than as a chicken being raised for meat (to make it fair, one would have to be reincarnated ~250 times as a chicken – a truly hellish scenario – to provide the same amount of “meat” as a cow).
As the students realized I wasn’t there to preach at them (one told me later this is what they were expecting), but instead to have an honest exploration of the issues, the questions got deeper. For example: No, I’d rather not exist at all than be a factory farmed chicken or pig. But I don’t know if non-existence would be preferable to the life of any cow in any circumstance.
This entire time, I knew some fellow vegans would strongly disagree with my shades of grey answers. But the point wasn’t to reinforce an easy, black-and-white worldview. My goal was to get these non-vegan students to take all animals seriously, to really consider the issues and the implications of their choices, and to frame their research in an honest, constructive manner.
It worked. Over and over, someone would say, “I never thought of it that way.” “I never considered that.” “No one has ever put it like that before.” “I can see that.” Previously, they had all “known” – and had rejected out-of-hand – the caricature of the vegan worldview (all killing wrong, honey as bad as veal, etc.). But this was a different ballgame.
The discussion went on and on, respectful, insightful, and sincere. It went on after the class was supposed to end, but no one left. Eventually, the professor stepped in, but students stayed around to ask more questions. Since then, I’ve been contacted by many of them who had additional questions or who want to talk more.
In the end, the class wasn’t a “vegan experience,” good or bad. It was a discussion about normally unseen animals, the individuals these students rarely (or never) considered previously.