The fundamental, underlying tenet of vegan philosophy is “reverence for life." This principle does not confine “reverence" to those with whom we agree or identify, nor does it restrict it to those for whom we feel empathy. It also does not limit reverence to specific life forms. Although this straightforward precept is all-encompassing, do not be fooled by its simplicity. The phrase “reverence for life" is succinct and melodious, but putting it into practice is more complex than may first appear.
When people regard their viewpoints as the sole proper and moral ones, they become critical of and combative toward those who do not see eye to eye with them. Self-righteousness snowballs. It makes us hardhearted and obstinate, and it sabotages any attempt to sway others to our position. It is naive to assume our views will be respected when we are unwilling to hear and respect opposing perspectives.
Acknowledging opinions that are at odds with our own does not indicate approval of them. It merely signifies that we are willing to grant our opposition the same degree of respect we would like to receive. Among the most demanding hurdles for contemporary humans is learning tolerance, understanding, and humility. Knowing how and when to apologize and admit our shortcomings and mistakes is paramount if we are ever to advance as a species.
It is convenient to blame the sorry state of the world on everyone who disagrees with us while denying our own contributions. When we convey an attitude of moral superiority, we add to the pool of cynicism and contempt that marginalizes rather than unites.
As activists, we must consider what it is we want to accomplish and how to best attain these goals. Hostility and hatred breed hostility and hatred. Therefore, it is senseless to perpetuate this type of negativity if our true aim is peace and compassion. Turning opponents into objects of antipathy will not persuade them we are right or draw them to our side.
Compassion is not the exclusive domain of vegans. There are omnivores who are among the most kind and caring people on earth, and there are vegans who are selfish and self-absorbed. If we profess to be compassionate but share our compassion selectively, we in effect are identical to those we condemn. We cannot have it both ways. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world." If we are not charitable toward all life, we have no justification to petition the sympathy and support of others. If we do not exemplify the ideals we claim to embrace, our appeals will be hollow and insincere.
The point of veganism is to epitomize compassion, not to prove ourselves correct. When we are judgmental, we may feel a momentary rush of righteousness, but at what cost? Getting to know, empathize with, and even befriend those whose opinions clash with our own helps foster the peaceful and caring world we envision. Through tolerance we build bridges rather than burn them. By developing an appreciation of the opposition, we learn what is important to them and can recognize the values and hopes we share. Establishing common ground and encouraging mutual respect leads to greater understanding and a willingness to hear what each has to say. We have far more in common with our adversaries than differences. Our humanity alone is an inseparable bond of reciprocal emotions and experiences.
Putting our compassion to the test can be painful and frightening, which is perhaps why so few people have the courage to do it. At the same time, it is heartening and liberating to cease seeing people with divergent views as “the enemy." When we recognize the seamless aspects of life, we can stop hating and start loving. Only when our hearts open fully will the ideals of veganism take hold.