I Was A Vegan Until I Ate An Egg
Values are more important than labels
Who would have thought a video about an egg would go viral on social media? To be fair, a picture of an egg did go viral a few years back and became the most liked photo on Instagram, but this scenario was a bit different. Let me explain.
Two months ago I visited a non-profit community garden in southern California called Valmonte Farm and Garden. Valmonte works with disabled adults to teach them gardening skills, and their staff was giving me a tour of the garden and explaining their different growing practices. While on the tour, I saw that they had a chicken coop and sold eggs from the chickens. There are many issues with traditional backyard egg setups (ie. malnourished chickens, hens are purchased from factory farms, male chicks are killed, hens are slaughtered after they stop producing, etc.) but this situation was unlike anything I had ever seen.
All of the hens were rescues, there were no roosters in the yard (no roosters means no fertilized eggs and no fertilized eggs means no male chicks), they were given proper nutrition, they had free range of the garden and they were allowed to live out their days even after their egg-laying stopped.
Prior to this visit I had been a strict vegan for two years and had not consumed a single animal product, but seeing how the animals were cared for, I decided to buy a half dozen. I planned to share the story of this garden, showcase the amazing care the chickens received and explain why I was going to break my vegan streak. It was meant to be educational and show people that purchase commercial eggs from factory farms that there are better alternatives for the chickens and the environment.
Little did I know that this video would spark a viral and heated controversy in the vegan community.
After posting it to Instagram, I began receiving thousands of comments and messages from angry vegans. The vegan community can be intense, and many of these vegans were taking an aggressive approach to their "activism" by posting hateful and spiteful comments. I won't share them all here, but I've shared a few of the edited sentiments below:
Those eggs don't belong to you
You're exploiting the chickens for your own selfish gain
You're murdering baby chicks
You're eating a menstrual cycle
You don't care about animals
You're a fraud and can't call yourself a vegan
Coping with the hateful tone and language of these messages was mentally and physically debilitating, and it bothered me that so few commenters were actually reading about the garden to learn how the chickens were raised and treated. They simply made assumptions and piled on to the trolling snowball. To be fair, I learned a lot more about backyard eggs from some of the comments and why they may not be as good as people make them out to be (Earthling Ed has a great video about this) but I still felt confident in my decision based on my lived experience. My values are more important than my labels.
It was a rough couple of weeks, and I was incredibly frustrated because these vegans were reinforcing all of the negative stereotypes. They were militant, hateful and unwilling to compromise and it is those attitudes that drive the average person away from the plant-based world. Are they actually helping the vegan movement and the welfare of animals if the people they are talking to feel polarized and attacked? If someone is slowly transitioning to a plant-based diet, shouldn't they be encouraged to keep going and not criticized for not being imperfect? Living in absolutes will do little for the environment or animal rights, and we need 100 million imperfect vegans more than we need 100 perfect vegans.
I've learned so much about veganism and advocacy through this experience, and it prompted me to write the Values > Labels post which I've shared below. I may not eat an egg for another two years, but I won't let a label define who I want to be and what values I stand for.
1. My values are more important than my labels
The "vegan" label is not what matters to me because my values and goals have remained the same: Eliminate animal death + harm and reduce the carbon footprint created by agriculture. If people feel pressured to be 100% perfect vegans, fewer people are likely to try it. The world needs 100 million imperfect vegans more than 100 perfect vegans.
2. What is the end goal?
If the end goal is to save and protect the animals, shouldn't we be encouraging others who aren't there yet to join us on the journey? The intent of the post was to influence others who will NEVER NOT eat eggs to source their eggs from a local provider that does not kill or abuse their chickens. We are on the same team, but instead of focusing our efforts on fighting small farms that aren't killing or abusing their animals, why not focus our advocacy and anger towards the commercial farms that are doing it at scale?
3. Rhetoric matters
The rhetoric of hardcore activists (across many causes) has the opposite effect than that is intended. Combative language centered on absolutes does little for the cause, and actually makes people more polarized and set in their ways. Adam Grant talks about this in his New York Times op ed and you should all read about his work. As an example, what did Gordon Ramsey do when the Vegan Teacher called him out on Tiktok? He filmed himself eating a burger and it went viral.
Using Grant's suggestion of motivational interviewing, I have some questions for the vegans out there:
What is your ultimate goal?
To end animal suffering right? Mine too, but do you think the way you communicate is effective in achieving that goal?
Do you voice your beliefs in a way that is approachable to people outside the vegan community?
Where is your energy best put to use in advocacy?
Here's a hypothetical scenario using environmental activism as an example:
If you rode your bike for years but one day decided to take the bus to encourage more drivers to use public transportation, how would you respond if someone called you out for promoting the oil and gas industry?
If that person used the same tone and language towards you and said you are destroying the planet, how would you respond?
We wouldn't think this person isn't a supporter of bikes and the environment just because they modeled a better behavior for gas-powered drivers.
Food for thought
To all the vegans that saw and commented on my egg post, thank you for what you do. I admire the passion you have for animal rights and only seek to reach a wider audience of non-vegans with a different perspective and approach. If saving animals is the goal, then we are aligned despite our disagreements.
No matter what your form of activism is, I hope you ask more questions and truly seek to listen. It takes a ton of self-control and patience, but it is worth it in the end.