Sunday, December 23, 2007

Getting Past "Can't"

While I'd like to humor myself and think that this blog is read by individuals with a wide swathe of dietary preferences, I think it's safe to say that in reality almost anyone reading this is probably already a vegan or vegetarian. That means that, invariably, each of us has had the experience of being offered a delicious looking, but not animal-friendly dish, and responded "I'm sorry, I can't eat that." In my opinion, as soon as the word "can't" leaves our lips, we, as vegetarians, have done a great disservice to our cause.

I'll admit that we as a society spend far too much time talking about labels and semantics, and not enough time engaging in actual action. Hillary Clinton waffles about whether she is a "liberal" or a "progressive." The Bush administration feuds with the UN over whether Sudan is a "genocide" or simply a "mass killing." And thousands of people are riled up because well-meaning multi-culturalists prefer "Happy Holidays" to "Merry Christmas." But in this case, I think it's worth examining the impact that a simple word choice can have.

Stating that we "can't" eat meat, eggs, or dairy turns our dietary choices - which we all adopted for the positive reasons of protecting our health, preserving the environment, and helping animals - into something negative. "Can't" makes me think of overbearing parents or traffic regulations. People who are lactose intolerant can't drink milk; people on diets can't eat fatty food. But almost all of us can eat whatever we want - the point is that we don't. That's a distinction worth paying attention to. At the risk of sounding too corny, I believe that being a vegetarian or vegan should be a joy, not an onus. None of us has been coerced into being a vegetarian - so let's stop acting like it.

When we choose to say "can't" instead of "don't," we set up barriers between ourselves and the meat eaters - and let them off the hook. As soon as you say you can't eat something, the first thing going through the carnivore's head is "well, I can - I've got perfectly good canine teeth and a perfectly functioning digestive system." The discussion ends - there's no reason for them to learn more about the reasons behind your dietary choices, because evidently it's some kind of pathology. In contrast, saying that you "don't" eat something immediately prompts the question "why" - a perfect opportunity for vegetarians to cite the multitude of excellent reasons for their decision not to consume animal products.

Saying "Can't"? Just don't do it.


  1. Whenever someone offers me any animal product and a third party says, "Oh-he can't eat that." I interrupt and say "I can, but I choose not to."

  2. good point…it's interesting to see how often religious/ritualistic language slips into discussion about vegetarianism, with people sometimes claiming that we're trying to "convert people to vegetarianism" or are that we're "cleansing" ourselves with our diet. A friend recently told me to "just cheat and eat some chocolate," as if I was performing veganism for a God that was keeping track of my purity. It is important, whenever possible, to assert that this moral decision operates independently of unexplainable spiritual rituals.