Hypocrisy as a tool to engage

Off the high horse

One of the challenges I have found since becoming a vegetarian has been the automatic hostility I receive from many people when they find out about me dietary choices. Being a vegetarian and a conservationist, I imagine most people want to avoid being lectured at all costs by what they think is just another self-righteous environmentalist.

After I stopped eating seafood in 2009, my family have become well accustomed to some of my rants about how the personal choices we make affect the planet. These monologues however, are only subjected to my family (and close friends), who kindly put up with me. It wouldn’t be fair to make other people feel bad about their own personal choices, because as someone from the West, even my best attempts to practise what I preach will fall short, unless of course I decide to go live off the grid or something. So how can we talk to others about their own choices without making them feel bad, and avoid being accused of imposing double standards?

Vegetarianism as a European

My journey towards vegetarianism didn’t happen overnight. Having grown up in southern Europe and then later moving north, the diet I received when I was younger was deeply rooted in European culinary tradition. Whether using cows, pigs, chickens or goats, European cooking draws a lot flavour from animals. We use animal fats to add depth to sauces, use bones to add richness to pies, eat different meats prepared in different ways for different occasions, and this doesn’t even begin to describe what we do with animals from the sea.

A meal for many people in Europe isn’t a proper meal unless it includes a piece of meat on the plate. So transitioning into a meat free world was difficult, and painfully slow. After two years I have now gotten to a stage where I don’t buy meat anymore. I will however eat meat in particular social settings or when I get the occasional relapse and binge on a delicious packet of Parma ham.

Lucas the hypocrite

It was during one of these relapses that I noticed something interesting. Having returned home to my friend Samantha’s house after celebrating her birthday, waiting for us was her husband who had kindly bought some Southern Fried Chicken from a local deli to help us satisfy our late night hunger. Just as Samantha was apologising to me for how inconsiderate her husband had been for not getting something to cater to my vegetarian inclinations, I’d already dug in, holding one drum stick in each hand.

Samantha was surprised, “but…aren’t you a vegetarian?”

“Um….yeah no I am! Honest! Umm….I just sometimes eat meat” I said with a cheeky smile, mouth full of chicken and face covered in gravy.

And this is how I realised the key to talking about vegetarianism, use hypocrisy. You need to be open about it, and about your own limitations as a human being, because no one is perfect. What ensued was a long semi-inebriated conversation about the impact of our dietary choices on the planet.

“So you don’t eat meat for animal welfare reasons?”…

“Well no not particularly, that is important, but I’m more motivated by the conservation reasons, you know, the impacts of agricultural meat production on deforestation and climate change, that sort of thing”.

Both of us went to sleep feeling content. Samantha was able to explore her own personal choices without feeling judged by me because she now realised I was a hypocrite, and I was happy because I got to promote vegetarianism as a way forward without coming across as self-righteous and arrogant, a win-win.

Some will argue that I am simply trying to promote this level of hypocrisy as a way of justifying my own relapses in meat consumption, which I am totally fine with. But what I have genuinely observed (after a few more trials, most recently with friends during the SCCS conference  is that people, even within our own environmentally-minded community, respond much more positively to being challenged about their choices, when the person who is challenging them is very open about their hypocrisy first.

[Some] hypocrisy as a force for good

Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. We have to come to terms with the fact that most people will never aspire to live in a way that will have a meaningful effect on reducing their environmental impact on the planet. As a conservationist, I would always rather have high environmental aspirations and fail a little, than embrace cynicism and not try at all. Perhaps we can engage more people positively if we first disarmed them by talking about our own shortcomings, would more people listen?