The Power of Discomfort


My partner and I sat opposite two acquaintances and Facebook friends, enjoying pleasant company and discussing travel, cats, and work. And then, the demeanour of one of our companions changed as he asked “What made you vegan?”

The question seemed to have been brewing in the air all evening, as it often does, but we were happy to answer, each with our personal narratives of the moment when we decided we couldn’t justify using animals anymore.

After we had each replied, the conversation took a turn that I have only seen in online interactions: we were interrogated (the next question came before we had the opportunity to answer the last) about plant sentience, about why vegans think animals are more important than humans (let me be clear: those who follow the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights don’t think that at all), about tradition, and various other objections to veganism with which most experienced advocates will be familiar. Our interlocutor showed no sign, at this point, of considering, or wanting to respond substantively to, our position.

It was clear that our acquaintance had planned to ask us about veganism in advance of our meeting, as he lined up, with some prompting from his wife (who otherwise remained silent), which question to ask us next. We were eager to dispel any myths about veganism and to help them understand, so we explained our position. Yet, for answering the questions that were put to us, we were derided as religious zealots, and made to feel like we were on trial. This was not an advocacy opportunity; this was an insistence that we defend our ethical standpoint. And although we were polite, and although the conversation took a different trajectory after a while, and although the evening ended amicably, we returned home to discover that we had been unfriended on Facebook.

For those who are new to advocacy, let me reassure you that such situations are extremely rare. Most conversations about veganism–especially those started by nonvegans–arise from genuine curiosity and interest, and the interlocutor will most often end the conversation by acknowledging that the information they sought has been provided, or by asking for some material they can peruse in their own time.

As with every discussion I have about veganism, I reflected on the process, and asked myself what we could have done differently, but eventually concluded that whatever we had done, the situation would have ended up with the same result. We tried asking questions instead of repeatedly defending our position in order to elicit some understanding of our interlocutor’s view of animals, but he was not interested in answering; the purpose of the exercise, it seemed, was to try to find some hole in our ethical position, and when that couldn’t be found, our interlocutor exclaimed “you win”, as though this had been a competition rather than a discussion of ethical issues.

And this discussion, strange though it was, confirmed for me how powerful vegan advocacy can be, even when it is polarising, or when it is uncomfortable for our interlocutor.


When we, as vegans, talk about veganism, we generally have a number of goals in mind: to attempt to persuade others, to effect change, to advocate for justice and fairness. But we tend to focus on these as our end goals and forget the transformative power of the vegan message as an end in itself.

When we talk about veganism, our conversation points to seldom-aired issues about our relationship with our fellow animals, about the chasm between our moral intuition about animals and how we treat them, about the nature of speciesism. It makes the often-ignored victims of our participation in animal use present merely by speaking of them as beings rather than disembodied objects. Not only are we questioning the status quo, but we are demonstrating that the alternative is better for all concerned, and, most importantly, the only manifestation of justice for other animals.

Being vegan is disruptive. Speaking the word “vegan” is disruptive. Advocating veganism is disruptive. To create something new, we have to deconstruct the old; this will invariably cause discomfort to some, and at times it may even cause discomfort to us.  But, since we are not the victims of the injustice inflicted on our fellow animals, we must accept, if we commit to advocacy, that this occasional discomfort is part of the process of speaking for those who are.

As for our acquaintance, even though it seems as though he has retreated from our discussion of veganism by his unfriending, our conversation will not be so easy for him to shake off. He may remember that encounter with irritation, but his emotions will be accompanied by the triggers for those emotions–points of the discussion that particularly irked him. If something reminds him of us, or if our names are mentioned, that conversation will return. And he may reflect on his own defensiveness and work through his thinking about animals. But even if he doesn’t, as my partner notes, he cannot unlearn what he has learned. We have, nonviolently, disrupted his thinking about animals, and we cannot tell where that will lead.

As long as we talk to others about veganism in a nonviolent way, and without equivocation, no advocacy encounter is ever wasted. There will always be those few who respond unfavourably to our message, but we can never tell what happens as they process it. The stakes are so high for nonhuman animals if we don’t advocate for veganism that to do anything else is just unthinkable.

12 thoughts on “The Power of Discomfort

    1. Thank you, Tracy. It’s interesting to hear people’s responses to this; I was unsure about sharing the story, but I’m glad I did.


  1. Beautifully said and projected Frances. I hear it daily from my clients. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable – this refers to cognitive dissonance. Because it is important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with their core belief. Vegan advocacy – love it and you. Marlene x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Marlene. Yes, cognitive dissonance is powerful. This took on a particularly interesting form, though, as our interlocutor was reluctant to answer any of my questions about animals, as though he grasped the logic behind veganism already and was afraid that responding to questioning would commit him to the position. But the most striking thing about it is that he raised the subject in the first place. We’d have had an evening talking about trivialities if he hadn’t. I wonder where that urge came from.


      1. Perhaps he had looked in the mirror!! I know Frances when teaching I can ‘feel’ the discomfort from some students (when Bill and I present the vegan message) during our course… many tell us that they know, they just hadn’t connected the dots!! My friend Dr. Michael Klaper explains it beautifully in my interview on Marlene & Friends…. (and btw, I have been unfriended by many on social media sites too.) xx

        Liked by 1 person

  2. How bizarre that they both unfriended you, even though the evening ended amicably. I guess that some people simply don’t want to face the mirror that’s held up to them.

    It never ceases to amaze me the way some folk react to other people’s ethical choices (although like you, for me, veganism is less of a choice, and more a moral imperative). I’d understand it more if someone were saying, “This is how I live, and you should too” but when what you’re saying is, “This is how I choose to live *my* life because it’s right for *me*”, then, no, I really don’t understand why some people choose to behave irrationally.

    Unless of course, it’s because they feel guilt… in which case, isn’t it better to address why they feel like that? Isn’t it better to self-reflect than smash the mirror?


    1. Thanks for reading, and for your comment, Nicole. I do agree that veganism is a moral imperative, and I never equivocate in my advocacy. I make it clear that I believe that animal use is morally unjustifiable, but these people knew that: they’ve been Facebook friends with me for two years, and you’ve seen that I post about our moral obligation to nonhumans on my timeline every so often; he has also had this discussion with me in person before, and a couple of discussions about it on Facebook.

      Often, such unfriendings can be a way of trying to retreat from the truth. But no conversation about animal use can be erased from the nonvegan listener’s mind; the smashed mirror will continue to reflect, and each piece will reveal the same image we’ve tried to destroy.


  3. A friend of mine took unkindly to my veganism. I met her again and she dismissed it again saying we all have these phases I said well I don’t see myself going back. She said but what happened to trying everything in life. I didn’t think quick enough to say that I don’t want to try things that cause suffering. Then again she wanted an argument on a cognitive level. In the end she walked off and I let her. In hindsight I think she is mourning a loss of a connection that we had around cooking a fun approach to trying everything it won’t harm. I have let her go and I don’t mind. I hold no grudge. I am going to live my vegan lifestyle and work more like the sun than the wind.x x Thank you for sharing. Every tale has the potential to resonate even those you think will not. Friday


  4. Thank you for sharing this. I find it really encouraging to read about other people’s experiences talking to people about veganism. It’s great to be reminded that, even conversations that don’t seem to “go anywhere” can nevertheless leave a mark on people and over time perhaps make them think about things differently. My own experience was that a switch flicked in my brain in a fairly sudden way; but looking back, lots of little experiences and thoughts and things people had said to me had been brewing away, leading up to this “mental tipping point”, when I just decided: I simply cannot consume animal products any more, ever. Thanks again, I’m really looking forward to future posts!


    1. Thanks, Matt! Yes, a lot of our advocacy continues ticking over after the conversation has ended, so we don’t always see the results. 🙂


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