If you've ever met a vegan, you have heard of at least one vegan documentary. It doesn't matter what angle your new acquaintance takes; animal rights, environmental sustainability, overall health; generally speaking, they're not going to be wrong. The problem with speaking so generally is that it tends to only be applicable in a very generalized way, and it overlooks some things that are very fundamental simply because they're parts of a whole.
This is not an argument against being vegan, or for it for that matter. This is my effort at reconciliation and awareness. If you're a vegan, go be vegan; maybe this will help you understand why people shut down so completely when you talk to them. If you're not vegan, then fine, maybe this will help you figure out why these people keep climbing on some moral high horse just because they eat tofu. Either side tends to make argumentum ad absurdum because they are taking two very correct positions that are in direct opposition to one another. It sucks to say, "You're both right," but only because if you do, it's unlikely that anything gets done.
As an aside, the best demonstration of vegan initiative that I know of was this bakery I used to work at, who were pretty "live by example" in their practices. They were great people; they donated to social causes, they were great to their employees, and while there was literature all over the place, no one was "in your face" about being vegan. You could ask for info, no one would force it on you. You walked in because it was a vegan joint, and they were basically showing you how that worked. Once in awhile someone would go in and try and bully the people who worked there about how dumb it was to be vegan, which was usually met with, "Well ... why did you come here, then?" They still make damn good cake, if you go by.
Just the word vegan has a lot of stigma to it; I was vegan for 5 years and when I'm living most ideally I tend to trend that way (I'm not currently. I eat like garbage because I mostly eat what's free). I still avoid meat when possible, but that's a decision I make and I have no real issue with eating it. This isn't an attack on vegans, but it isn't condoning our modern food system either. In that sense, vegans are completely right; we've fucked up.
The failure of the argument that I have seen many vegans seem to make is one of moral superiority that could only come with an ignorance, willful or not, to two major concerns; social class and its impact on food systems, and the fact that our physiology has evolved to be omnivorous. There's actually a pretty great vegetarian website that lays out most of these points. In short, we don't have the jaws, guts or brains to be strict vegetarians. To get the amount of nutrition through vegetables alone would be a herculean effort for your body. To many strict vegans I know, that's why their diet takes up so much of their life; if they want to survive it kind of has to.
That being said, no one that I knew stipulated that our bodies weren't omnivorous. That concession has to be made unless you're a fantastically stupid person; human body is what it is. The distinction that is made, however, is that what we eat is a choice, and that is not entirely untrue. We are opportunistic omnivores by definition, so we are welcome to eat pretty much whatever is available to us. We may not have been built to be vegetarian (or vegan), but we have the ability to see how our diet impacts our environment, and opt to survive using different means that are less detrimental to life/universe/everything. We have the luxury of eating with compassion, which is one of the least natural things I can think of.
The distinction that our diet is a choice, which is not entirely untrue, creates a paradox for a lot of people. The way that argument is framed means the only ethical choice for your diet is the one that is counter to how your digestive system works. Effectively, what you are, as a human being, is wrong. The signals in your guts that you receive nutrition, the seratonin release associated with most of your food, the way you feel more alive after eating, those are all destroying the world. All you did was eat, the thing most animals do because like you, they have to survive, and by doing that, you're killing the planet.
Again, that's an absurd argument, but I think that tends to be the pathos most people consciously or not tend to shift into when someone attacks their dietary decisions. The same argument applies to the people arguing with vegans, too. What you are doing to save the planet, to alleviate suffering and make the world better, is physiologically bad for you. That's why there's a perception of moral superiority, because that kind of altruism has to be backed by some sort of egoism in order to justify the self harm. Vegans get to be part of the greater good because they suffer. Omnivores that take care of their body to their best ability are going to suck the resources out of the planet because of the catastrophic side effects of factory farming.
This leads to the other flaw in the vegan argument, and it's one that's a lot harder to talk about because it is a knotted, hairy beast known as social class. To be blunt, in order to feed a human body effectively using a vegan diet requires a lot of money and resources, not to mention education and time (this especially) that a huge swath of the population is not privy to. People who have been vegan long enough can make counters to this argument; there are a lot of brown-rice-and-lentils impoverished people that I know that argue they can survive well off of strictly vegan means, but none of those people work in construction, or anything else that requires physical demands beyond their dietary method. That argument, and the social argument as a whole I hope to address later. This is an introduction to the food system.
What I would advocate for, regardless of your inclination, is to eat sustainably, but that's admittedly kind of a fuzzy word. You also have to be aware of the stratification that exists in terms of distribution of food; it's not just Whole Foods vs. Food Banks. The very fact that there are food deserts, ethical concerns for farm workers and so on means that eating healthy is not currently a reasonable expectation for everyone. People who are figuring out how to make rent every month, battling addiction, homelessness, even basic hunger, are not privy to eating well. It's strange that we live in a social machine so complex that the very fundamental issue of eating is less of a crisis for many people than other aspects of their survival.
I have been looking a lot at the social fringe because I live there, currently. I spend a lot of time thinking about how these people function based on what's immediately around them. I have every intention of leaving, but there's a chance I won't be able to, that this is just as much my future as my present. That's what shows me how lucky people who are concerned with their diet (or the diets of others) can be, and I'm not far off from that. Whenever I am part of a conversation of how people are eating, I'm inevitably driven back to the question of how are they being, and at that, how are they doing?
The thing that frustrates me with this argument is that eating is such a huge part of making your little-human-guinea-pig run well. We know diet links to better overall mental health, life span and so on, but that quality of life shit is secondary to the social flaws; we can only better individual lives by making the overall social system more efficient. The only reason the social system will become more efficient is by making it more beneficial to benefit individuals, which is extremely dense and confusing logic. I'm still pondering that. The only truly way to eat ethically is to eat in a way that isn't just environmentally sustainable, but socially sustainable and ethical as well. Doing those things requires some other alterations, not just on the general social infrastructure but in the very basic way we approach social problems as though they can be fixed without acknowledging the way our society works as a whole, but that's another very, very long article.
I have to do a lot more research before I can say anything more concretely about what exactly that statement entails. A few subjects of sustainability that I hope to touch on include perennial agriculture, grass fed livestock, eating locally, less packaged and more communal food, among other things. This is one of those big meatballs (HA. Laugh at that, I dare you.) that I have trouble digging into with one sitting; writing about food systems will probably be an off and on hobby of this site for the coming year. Food systems are just a core of our social complex. Figuring out how to integrate it better involves figuring out how to fix other issues in order to have it become better integrated.
Trying to convince someone to go vegan (or stop) is trying to convince them to stop being human the way they perceive to be correct. Again, nobody is wrong, it just depends by which system you're measuring their decision. Any argument about diet is kind of secondary to an argument about human nature and what kind of human you choose to be. That choice is made based off of the situation you're placed in, and while we share the planetary one, we vary greatly on the social scale. If you really cared about the well being of someone based on their dietary choice, the most sound option would be to work within their constraints. If you're a vegan, instead of screaming about meat as the downfall of the environment, offer meat-friendly alternatives that are more environmentally viable (this link is a very small example because I've spent too long on this already). No, it doesn't make them stop eating meat, but it may help someone make less of a contribution to abusive factory farms that you're really against. If you're not a vegan, learning about how moral implications of diet aren't necessarily the deciding factors.
This isn't exactly about finding middle ground, it's more about playing devil's advocate to your own beliefs. If you really want to elicit change in other people, you first have to truly figure out why they disagree with you.
Looking at how groups work as a whole rather than as individuals. Or something like that.