Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, compiles the ultimate vegan answer to the common vegan sceptic’s assertion “I could never go vegan”, in the context of vegan outreach
I am a writer now.
I write books, articles, and blogs about veganism and animals, and most of what I write is in English. However, when I left Catalonia over 30 years ago looking for a new country to settle, I had never spoken a sentence of English with anyone. A few years earlier, when during my degree in zoology I tried to painstakingly translate English scientific papers using a dictionary, I concluded that English was a far too difficult language for me to speak. After all, when in school I was learning French as a foreign language, I thought I was very bad at it, and I needed a private French tutor because I struggled to pass it — and that is a language quite close to my mother tongue, Catalan. I was bad at Spanish too, as despite growing up under the fascist General Franco’s dictatorship that banned the Catalan language in public places and forced all those living in most of the Iberian Peninsula to use Spanish, all my family and friends were Catalan, so I hardly ever spoke Spanish to anyone. I thought I was bad at languages, that was something in the architecture of my brain that made it impossible for me to learn more than one language properly.
Now, in my late 50s, I speak seven languages (four fluently, two medium, and one very basic) and I can understand three more), and I live from writing in the very language I thought was too difficult for a Mediterranean person like me to use with proficiency. When I was a young lad in Barcelona, not in a million years I would ever have imagined that I would end up being a British writer living in London and writing an average of three articles in English every day.
Through this and similar experiences, life has taught me that one thing people are quite bad at is to predict what they can or cannot do in the future. We tend to base most of our decisions on our actions and experiences of the past, and we often conclude that the only things we can do well are things we have already done. We think that we will never excel in what we have not tried yet — human brains are not very good at predicting things, only about talking and getting confused with overthinking. We are much better at assessing other people’s potential than our own, as we have a better perspective when looking at them, and a bigger sample of “others” to infer any conclusion (most of us only have one person living inside our heads). Habits sit heavily in the human psyche and people are often afraid of change.
My experience of how much more I can do now that I never thought possible is what makes me struggle with trying to stop a patronising smile from forming in my mouth when I hear people telling me “I could never go vegan”. I have been vegan for over twenty years, and in this time, I have done a fair amount of vegan outreach in which I started conversations with strangers in the streets about veganism, in the hope I could help them dispel myths and overcome fears in their way to become vegan. Many of these conversations have been quite satisfactory, and with time I have had enough of them to get better at navigating through the narratives they generate. After a while of doing vegan outreach, you learn that there are only a limited number of remarks that strangers tend to tell you when you ask them the critical question “What stops you from being vegan?”. One of the most common replies is “I could never go vegan”. I thought that it would be interesting if I deconstructed the kind of arguments I normally give when I hear such remarks and see if I could rebuild them to conjure the ultimate vegan answer to this common carnist assertion.
How Do You Know?
When people tell me that they can never go vegan, I may reply with several questions, depending on my mood and how the conversation has gone so far. If the person sounds confident and I think is open-minded, I often reply, “How do you know?” If they say “I just know” I normally insist on something along the lines of “How can you be certain about what you will do or not do in say, 10-, 20-, or 30-years’ time?” This normally leads to a correction confessing lack of certainty, which opens up the conversation to progress towards truly answering the question I asked in the first place, but if they say something like “I don’t know, but I am sure I will never be vegan,” then this reveals this person is not open-minded on this issue.
Often, when people say, “I could never go vegan” so emphatically with such narrow-mindedness they mean “I don’t want to go vegan now, and I hope I never change my mind on that”. This is not the thought of a confident person who has reflected on the merits of all philosophies and eventually has chosen the better-fitting one, but the thought of an insecure person with a fear of change. That is precisely the type of person who would benefit from a friendly conversation with a vegan outreacher, so it may be worth not giving up so soon.
The “never” that shows up in the answer is what reveals such fear. It’s a panic reaction to the thought of being vegan, not a carefully thought assertion. It’s a defensive position against what they think you are going to do next: cast on them dangerous vegan spells with dilapidating logic they cannot argue against. It’s a shooting down of the type “I am not interested”, but with doubling resolve. It’s just one step shy of shouting with indignation the hyperbole “Not in a million years I could ever do such an outrageous thing!”.
How should we react to such an impenetrable barrier? I don’t think we should try to jump over it with an even bigger over-the-top comeback. The message is clear. They are telling us that they don’t want to talk to us about veganism, so we should stop and desist. Well, in my opinion, there are three effective ways to deal with this barrier.
The most obvious one is to stop the conversation right there and move along. I do that sometimes if I can sense hostility or even discomfort (there are people out there who fear vegans because they think we may be part of some cult — I have written a whole article about this). Also, some conversations in vegan outreach are attempts from veganphobes to waste your time and stop you from talking to other passers-by who may need your help, so better not to fall into that trap.
Another potential way to deal with this barrier is to lower the other person’s defence by pretending that you want to stop the conversation right there, saying something like this: “Ah, sorry, I thought that you could go vegan, I didn’t realise you were not capable of it.” This one has an interesting effect, because as they were prepared to deflect whatever you were going to say with another “no”, they may then “contradict” your last statement with a, “Well, I could if I wanted to”, or “You are wrong, I am capable to become vegan, I just don’t want to” (you see, when you change “can” with “capable” you move from “power” to “ability”, and confrontational people don’t like to admit that they don’t have abilities). This response will open a gate in the barrier, no matter how tall it was built, that you can use to go to the other side, as now you have moved the conversation from the impossible “can’t go vegan, ever” to the possible “I don’t want to go vegan right now”.
A third way to overcome this barrier is by saying, “Most people are never that certain about what they will do in the future, so if you are so certain you will never be vegan, why is that?” In this response, you are not denying the statement of the person, but try to understand it, as this is not “what most people do”. By presenting it in this way, not only you would sound less judgemental (so the barrier would seem less necessary now), but you would be making them think that they are the odd ones instead of you (something most people do not like to think of themselves as), so they may either correct their statement or try to give you some reasons — which would be more interesting as then you can debunk them one at the time as they are bound to be weak since the barrier was not built out of logic but out of prejudice and fear.
In either case, the goal is to acknowledge the barrier and try to sneak through its cracks or gates, rather than to try jumping over it or trying to demolish it (both too aggressive moves that would just make the barrier stronger and taller). If we manage to continue the conversation, the chances are that the person would realise that there is no way to be certain about the future, so denying the possibility of becoming vegan is not a strong argument, but a ridiculous one — now that they had the time to listen to themselves using it. If you have not been aggressive in your tone and demeanour, hopefully, they will realise that saying “I could never go vegan” is not a good answer to the question “What stops you from becoming vegan?” and it would be better if they think about what actually is stopping them — and once they start thinking about that, their instinct would lead them to want to overcome the obstacles.
Another way to approach the “I could never go vegan” remark is by replying something along the lines of “Why not? What stops you?” They could reply to this with “Nothing stops me”, to which you could reply, “Well, if most people can go vegan and you can’t, there must be something that prevents you from doing what most people can do.” In this type of dialogue, you focus on the “problem” to defect the defection and return to your original question.
The person talking to you may keep denying that there is any obstacle, but if you keep saying that most people “can” (instead of “want”), it would be difficult to support their claim that there is no obstacle in their case.
To defend this position, you would have to illustrate, somehow, that most people can become vegan. One way to do that is by using numbers. For instance, it is estimated that in 2020 there were 1.7 million vegans in Canada, in 2021 there were 315,000 vegans in Spain, in 2022 there were 156,000 vegans in Ireland, 800,000 vegans in Italy, 1.4 million vegans in the UK, 2.5 million vegans in Australia, 2.6 million vegans in Germany, 5 million vegans in India, 13.3 million vegans in the United States, and 50 million vegans in China. Altogether, the global number of vegans was estimated to be 80 million vegans in the world in 2022, and the numbers have been constantly growing in the last 80 years despite all the propaganda that governments and the animal exploitation industries have been spreading trying to stop us from growing. So, there is no denying that many people are indeed vegan, and there are vegans everywhere in the world, so national borders, religions, or cultures do not really prevent people from becoming vegan.
Also, there is a high diversity of people within veganism (increasing all the time, especially thanks to the social justice vegans), and if today you had to guess who is vegan by just looking at a crowd, the chances are that you would be less successful than if you had to guess who is Hindu, Muslim, right-wing, left-wing, or feminist, because you would find that vegans come in all types of people from all works of life, so we are now undistinguishable from mainstream society as far as looks are concerned. You could also bring up examples of people you would never expect would become vegan but they did, such as butchers, cow ranchers, slaughterhouse workers, fisherpeople, hunters, vivisectionists, etc. If these could go vegan, why not you?
The other way to defend your claim that most people can be vegan is by explaining that a vegan is someone who chooses to uphold a particular philosophical belief, as opposed to having passed a particular exam, having been accepted in a particular group, or behaving in a particular way (the behaviour of a vegan lifestyle is the consequence of having adopted the philosophy, not the other way around). Circumstances will change from person to person, and this may change how they manifest veganism, but being vegan is a philosophical choice that everyone with a brain capable of telling the difference between right and wrong can make. Saying that you cannot go vegan is just like saying that your brain is not capable of understanding what veganism is, choosing one philosophy over another, or controlling your behaviour under an ethical framework. If people can choose any religion or philosophical belief, they can choose veganism too, so anyone claiming that this is not possible for them is bound to be unusual and odd. I wrote extensively about this issue in an article titled “Can Anyone Be Vegan?”
Once you have established that the person talking to you continues to claim to have an odd “impossibility” to choose veganism, enquiring deeper will appear more natural (and defending this oddity will be more difficult).
What is the Problem?
Some people may believe they cannot go vegan for particular reasons, as opposed to just saying it to avoid a conversation about veganism. If that is the case, you can address each reason separately, but better transform each reason into a “problem” or “obstacle”, as this will make it more acceptable to discuss arguments to overcome them.
If the person claims that they have their reasons but do not directly disclose them, I think it is OK to put to them some “loaded” guesses that could make them think. For instance, you could ask, “Is this because you think you don’t have enough willpower?”, “Is this because you are not in control of your choices?”, “Is this because you think you need any special qualifications or training to become vegan?”. Although depending on the tone of the conversation these questions could be safely asked “tongue in cheek”, we have to be careful because in some cases they may be the genuine reason. Some people may have very low self-esteem, may be living under the care of others, or may have a very wrong idea about what veganism is, but if that is the case I would think the best reply is to be optimistic and encouraging, letting them know that things change (they can learn that they can do more things than they initially thought, those who look after them may become vegan, and they will discover that no requirement or prerequisite is needed for adopting the philosophy, so it is entirely their choice).
However, here are some of my usual approaches to some of the common reasons people may give for not wanting to even try to become vegan:
- My Religion does not allow it
I would of course ask which religion that would be and then ask them whether the word vegan is ever mentioned in its scriptures. As the answer would always be no (because the word was created in 1944, after all the major religions had already been formed), I would then ask how they know their religion does not allow it, and which specific scripture or doctrine made them think that following the vegan philosophy is forbidden under their religion. They will not be able to cite any because there isn’t any, but if they make one up, you should be able to challenge them (experience in doing vegan outreach in religious contexts is very useful). I would then play it differently depending on the religion (considering that I am not a religious person myself, so I would always have to do it, respectfully, from an outsider’s position), but in essence, I would point out that religions tell you the minimum you should do to be good, not exactly what you should do at all the time, and many religions restrict people’s behaviour, so such restrictions are normally considered good. They must just restrict a bit more than the minimum to be able to follow both their religion and veganism, without each entering into conflict with the other. If their religion involves gods, I often ask them what they think their gods may think about them if they go far beyond the minimum required in their attempts to be “good” and try to live their lives doing less harm to others. I sometimes say that, if in doubt, they should ask their gods directly for permission to be vegan.
- My health prevents it
This is a tricky one because this may be a genuine reason we should not dismiss off-hand. It is also tricky because people are entitled to privacy regarding any health condition, so I would only proceed if they voluntarily disclosed what the health problem is — and I would have to be careful about not making any ableist comment. I would then try to ascertain if the reason they say they have to consume animal products for health reasons is something they have concluded themselves (after some YouTubing research) or if their physician or health carer told them. If it becomes clear that there is no particular health condition or disorder that is been used as the reason, but a general fear that a vegan diet may be unhealthy. I then would mention all the advice of the major dietetic associations that say a well-balanced plant-based diet is healthy for people of all ages, and the consensus among most reputable scientists that a plant-based diet reduces the risks of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, many cancers, and obesity (as well as the recent research that suggest that it may also reduce the risk of kidney disease, Parkinson’s disease, Osteoporosis, hot flushes, hypertensive disorders during pregnancy, etc.). However, if they claim their doctor told them they have a condition incompatible with veganism (that may not be true but you can’t really challenge it or give medical advice — unless you are a physician), then I would ask, “Did the doctor tell you that you must wear leather, wool, or silk, or that you must go to zoos, ride horses, or keep exotic pets?” As veganism affects all aspects of someone’s life, one could still be vegan following medical advice in terms of food if they apply veganism in all other aspects of their life and have requested vegan versions of treatments, but if they have not done any of that this reveals that the health reason may not be a genuine reason, but an excuse.
- I love meat too much
When someone tells me that they eat meat I always ask for details. Which animals do you eat? Do you prefer meat from female or male animals? Which is your favourite age of the animals you eat? Which muscle is your favourite to eat? Do you prefer eating baby animals to old animals? Do you have any preference about how much pain or fear the animal you are eating should experience to end up on your plate? All these questions have two functions. One is to connect meat to sentient beings (the concept of meat tries to erase this connection, which is the phenomenon of “absent referent” first described by Carol J. Adams). The second is to make the person explain that what she likes about meat is the texture and taste, not its connection to animals. Once they have done that, I can then talk about the fake meats that reproduce such tastes and textures, which allow people obsessed with meat to become vegan. And I can always finish with, “If you don’t like the vegan food you have tried, how do you know that some vegan food you have not tried yet will not become your favourite food in the future if you have not tried it yet?”
- I could not live without cheese
This one is easier for me as this is the excuse I used to give before going vegan, so I can talk with personal experience and make the other person relate to me, which is always the best way to do vegan outreach. After introducing the fact that this “was me 25 years ago”, I then use this very useful question: Do you know what casein is? More often than not people do not know, so I can then “be helpful” in explaining it to them. It is the protein that makes people addicted to cheese, as this is present in the milk of mammals to ensure their babies, who often can move about after birth, always return to get some milk from their mothers. Once you explain that cheese lovers are addicts as you were, you can then tell them how easy is to get sober (abstaining from dairy for about a month or so usually does the trick). You can go through the route that there are many good vegan cheeses these days, but I prefer to go through the addiction route, as casein is what makes cheese addicts unsatisfied with vegan cheeses. You should also mention that most addicts get rid of their addictions at one point, and this should be a reassuring statement.
There are some people who, despite travelling through any of the dialectical avenues shown above, insist that they could never go vegan. If that is the case, there is not much point in trying to overcome the barrier because, let’s face it, there may no longer be anybody on the other side — they might have already left the conversation even if their body is still there. However, I sometimes make a last attempt to plant the vegan seed in their mind. I try some hypothetical questions.
I would tell them something like this. Are you sure that you could never go vegan, even if all your friends and family became vegan? Even if the world becomes mostly vegan and you have to travel miles to find the last remaining restaurant that serves a cheeseburger? Even if the world becomes vegan and you will be forced to live in exile on an island with the remaining rebel carnists? If all animal products were banned, would you be prepared to break the law to obtain them illegally even when everyone else is perfectly happy and healthy without them? If they say yes to all these questions, you know two things: they have not been honest with their answers to save face, and the conversation has now ended (with your vegan seed already planted as deep as you could realistically do it in that conversation).
So, what is the ultimate vegan answer to the assertion “I could never go vegan”? Well, as you can see, there are many answers, and it is always best to tailor them to each conversation depending on the person and how the conversation has gone so far, but if I had to conjure an ultimate answer from all the ones that could work in most situations, one that I could cast out there in the world as if putting a message in a bottle for anyone to find and read, which one would that be?
When anyone tells you “I could never go vegan” you can always preface what you are going to say with “Most vegans I know used to say that”, because it’s true in many cases and sounds clever, but this is not enough as it’s just a statement that does not lead to a conversation and may not necessarily change the mind of the person who may be thinking, “as a vegan, you would say that.” We need something more. One answer that covers all the dialectic avenues we discussed, in the hope that one of them may strike a chord. One that does it in a kind and compassionate way, not in a confrontational way. One that is positive and empowering. Something like this:
“How can you be so certain? I don’t think anybody can be certain about what they will do or not do in a few years. You are young enough, so you could go vegan at one point in the future if you want to, like anyone else. People get wiser with time, and, although I do not know you, I don’t think there is anything wrong with you that will make you an exception. Some may take longer than others, and that’s OK.
I get it, you don’t want to be vegan right now, and this is understandable as you were indoctrinated all your life into believing that exploiting animals is necessary. You may be afraid that it may not be healthier or that any health issue you may experience makes it impossible for you to be vegan, but you will learn that in most cases this is not true and that often you can find a way around it. You may be afraid that your religion or culture does not allow it but when you will look deeper you will probably find that the contrary is true. You may be afraid that if you become vegan you will not be able to eat food that you love and crave, but you will learn that your favourite food already exists in vegan form, and you can now get it.
Don’t be afraid, many vegans thought they couldn’t go vegan, and they learnt that they could, their only regret being that they did not try it sooner. You can do it. You have the power to become vegan, and one day, when you are ready, you will use that power.”
I think people who tell you emphatically that they could never go vegan are subconsciously crying for help because they may be insecure and afraid of change. We should see them as pre-vegans trapped in a carnist world, and we should be kind to them and help them if we can. Not everyone knows that they can change. Not everyone knows that they can learn. Not everyone knows what veganism is and how good adopting this philosophy will be for them, their friends, the other sentient beings they share the world with, and the planet they will leave behind for the next generations. It’s best to be kind to them than fight them. Is best to help them progress than to just demolish their barriers and defences for the sake of winning the argument.
They build such barriers because they are afraid. They sound so certain because they are insecure. They are so defensive because they suspect you are right.
You can help them to go vegan.