10/26/2011 12:35 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2011

Communicating Compassionately About Veganism

Mark Bittman is quoted as saying, "Eating less meat and dairy doesn't require any additional time of effort. Calling your Congressman does. I'd say start with the first: with the energy you gain from eating a plant-based diet, you might be ready to lobby til the cows come home."

Vegans are always ready to fight for their ideals it seems. We are activists; we call on our government to do better by animals and us; we work for the world to be a better, cleaner, saner, more compassionate place.

We are not the only ones who work for the good of man, but veganism gets a really bad rap out there in the world. And at one point, it was well-deserved. As a long time vegan, I can tell you that the movement has evolved quite a bit in the last years. We have come a long way from spray painting people who wore fur to the compassionate health-conscious movement that has attracted luminaries like former President Bill Clinton.

From Martha Stewart to "Cupcake Wars," it seems that the word "vegan" is on the tips of everyone's tongues. Plant-based eating is finally coming into its own. It has taken something of a minor revolution for that to happen; a lot of activists doing a lot of yelling and demonstrating.

We have come a long way, baby, but there's still a long road ahead. In our modern times, it seems that everyone is screaming about something, so how do vegans and their compassionate lifestyle stand apart from all the other causes marching in the streets?

Most of us who live this gorgeous lifestyle can tell stories that would curl your hair: conversation abruptly ending when we walked into a room; meals fraught with tension because we chose not to eat the meat offered; dramatic family incidents; friends lost. A history of biting remarks and "Meat is Murder" T-shirts has left some people bereft of the exact emotion we want associated with us... compassion. Instead, the mere mention of plant-based eating in some circles incites anger like I have not seen, except in political debate. And while there is a definite political edge to some of the issues we vegans work on, like animal cruelty in lab testing, factory farming, the rapidly degenerating quality of our food supply, the enforcement of labeling genetically modified foods -- most of us are just so damn passionate about stopping cruelty, violence and pollution, as well as celebrating our way of life, we want to shout from the rooftops.

But I think it's the shouting that's the problem.

In our modern world, people have an almost rabid desire to be right on any issue in which they are engaged. We see it all the time in political debate. There are no polite exchanges; instead opponents shout each other down, point the finger or try to shame them so they 'win' the argument.

With compassionate living, there can be no shame. We must learn to convey the meaning and impact of plant-based eating in a way that disarms the emotional war zones it seems to create. How can we entice people to try this lifestyle for themselves when we adopt a "seek and destroy" attitude? That thinking creates and perpetuates the idea of good guys and bad guys.

And there are no good guys and bad guys in this debate. There are only, in my view, those of us who have experienced, firsthand, the benefits of plant-based eating and those who have yet to experience those benefits. Here's the funny thing I have seen. The moment we make a conscious decision to drop the antagonistic chip on our shoulder, listen to what people are saying, realize that everyone is where they are in life and speak honestly and considerately, people stop running from the room screaming when we approach. They listen and engage in discussion. Imagine that!

When people do not feel like they are being attacked for their lifestyles (this includes you carnivores who deride vegans, too), they feel more relaxed and open to hearing new ideas, things they may not have considered. We can come together and actually hear what people are saying.

The way I see it, we can preach to an audience who is rolling their eyes; we can lecture and argue and leave a bad taste for vegan living in our path of destruction. We can create even more anger, emotional upset and violence in this world.

Or we can work peacefully toward creating the world we hold in our hearts... one of love, understanding and compassion for all living beings.