Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan!

I felt I needed to write a response to an article on Ecorazzi called “If you are on a plant based diet, stop calling yourself vegan!

The title, and especially the exclamation mark, made me almost physically unwell (I’m only exaggerating a little bit here). As far as titles go, it kind of says it all. Probably the author has the best intentions (though they may be unpure, like with all of us), but this way of thinking and communicating is so unproductive and so damaging, I just don’t know where to start.

The author believes that the health vegans – which obviously she doesn’t want to call vegans but rather plant-based people or something – are “hijacking” the vegan movement. She wants to kind of forbid health vegans to call themselves vegan. Apart from the fact that telling people not to use a word is kind of annoying and nasty, it is also very unproductive to ostracize health vegans from “our club”.

plant based or vegan

I’ve written much more on this, but just very briefly: demand for vegan products, whatever the motivation behind that demand, will raise the choice in vegan products. Vegan eating thus becomes easier, our dependence on animal products decreases, and it becomes way easier to care about ethics when people feel they don’t have much to lose anymore. The health vegans are actually among the people who are the easiest to target with an ethical message. Indeed, many “ethical vegans”(I dislike the term) started out as health vegans.

At the risk of overanalyzing, here’s an explanation for the kind of exclusive behavior and communication that we read in said article. This is from a psychology textbook. I’ll leave it to you to see if it can somehow apply. Keep in mind the “ethical vegans” vs. “health vegans” dichtotomy when you read it.

“People like to be seen in terms of identities important to them. Being seen in terms of other identities, especially erroneous ones, can evoke “categorization threat“. We also do not like it when another group is so similar to ours, because it undermines the very essence of what our group is that makes us different and special. In other words we tend to be most sensitive when the other group actually is similar to our own (…). Groups that are too similar to our own can therefore threaten the unique identity of the group: “distinctiveness threat“. Some have even argued that having a distinctive group identity is even more fundamental than avoiding a negative one.”*

Sound familiar?

I had this thought: in the end, I might get so disappointed with vegans and veganism, that I (a vegan for the animals), would refrain from using it altogether (some people say I should anyway, as I do some unvegan things!). Kind of like The Animalist is saying here. But the problem is, then the only people using the word vegan will be the more fundamentalist ones, and we’d have to start all over again with a new word. So I guess I’m not ready to give up on the word vegan yet, and rather be one more person who uses it in a rational, compassionate, positive and inclusive way. Want to join me?

Update: this topic was discussed on this Bearded Vegans podcast

* Hewstone, M. Stroebe, W. & Jonas, K (2012), An introduction to social psychology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. (5th edn.)


32 thoughts on “Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan!

    1. Animals used for clothing, experiments, entertainment, etc. certainly give more than a fuck when people eating a plant-based diet refer to themselves as vegans, which is an ethical stance where people recognize and respect an animal’s inherent interest in his or her own life and refuse to exploit them.

      1. I do agree with you, but I think it’s an idealistic view that doesn’t accomplish the change we want to see.

        What about the human “animal’s inherent interest in his or her own life”? What if there is conflict between veganism and a human who believes it’s in their inherent interest to eat whatever they want?

        I’m not trying at all to defend a person like that, but it’s unfortunately how things work and people are in the real world.

        I’m personally more interested in seeing tangible improvements for the animals than that if the word “vegan” remains “pure”.

        I also agree with this, “Animals used for clothing, experiments, entertainment, etc. certainly give more than a fuck when people eating a plant-based diet refer to themselves as vegans…”

        But what is the better choice?
        1) Being pragmatic and understanding that by giving people permission to be where they are now, but helping them along the way towards full veganism, there is a much better chance of actually helping those animals initially left out.

        2) Writing people off until they are a “pure vegan”.

        How does choice #2 help in creating a path for change for the animals left out of a “plant based diet”?

        Maybe choice #1 isn’t ideal, but it at least it holds more possibility for the animals down the road.

        Being pragmatic really does suck sometimes. It’s hard to understand why we even need a “Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals” or “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” in the first place. To me, this speaks volumes about the true nature of homo sapiens. Why aren’t people just ethical to animals? Why do we have to prevent cruelty to them in the first place?

        But those questions are philosophical and not pragmatic in the real world.

        If I want to help the animals, I have no choice but to work with society, because I need all of society’s help in order to accomplish this, even the ones I don’t like and I’m frustrated with over and over again.

        As much as I’d like to scream at these people and ask them WTF is wrong with them, I have to bite my tongue and work with them. If I want to help the animals, I have to utilize methods that reach them, even if I don’t like doing it.

        But I do do it, because otherwise, veganism is just going to become more and more a fringe movement in society’s eyes. The idealism may remain pure, but it will be at the animals’ expense. Not because it’s “right” or “wrong”, but because of how things work in the real world.

  1. Most people will do nothing and the Ecorazzi author is upset some people are doing something (something very significant for animals) and not using the right word for it. Good grief.

    Spot on as always Tobias.

  2. It’s human nature to.distort. and adapt. Love the meme and the pig’s sentiment whose only wish is to live free from human harm. Please understand that any additional form of animal commoditization is inherently animal abuse. So any other ‘unvegan’ behavior that CAN be avoided also falls undee the context of granring an animal their inherent right to live free from human harm. Vegan ethics are not arbitrary or emotionally-based; they are grounded in fact and nonviolence. That said I am grateful for anyone making the effort to be vegan and continuing to learn and grow as a nonviolent human. for more info. Peace. Compassion. Justice.

  3. These labels and categorizations help no one, much less our cause. As vegans, we’re all looking for a crew: birds of a feather flock together. But turning veganism into a purity contest will only serve to alienate us further from the mainstream (and vice versa). This will inevitably hurt our veganization efforts and may even lead us down the path of becoming a cult. Bad idea. Promoting veganism is a numbers game. Veganism is not and should not be for an elite. We have to be open to and embrace the plant-based eaters if we want to become a mass movement.

  4. I agree with Andrew….spot on, Tobias.

    The Ecorazzi article states, “Eating a plant-based diet has many benefits, but switching to veganism has the ability to make a difference in more than just your own life”.

    However, eating a plant-based diet does make a difference in more than your own life.

    I’d also argue that if you’re interested in persuading others to make the switch to veganism, rather than criticize people for what you see that you don’t like, if you instead offer support & encouragement for what they’re doing that you do like, you’ll most likely have much better results.

  5. As much as I agree with the main sentiment of what you’re saying I think sometimes people go shouting about oh I’m vegan now and then 6 months later when a new diet comes out they stop. And then we get all the articles and comments about how people don’t stick to veganism coz it’s too hard or some crap.

    1. Hmm…I think the fashionableness of a vegan diet probably does more to improve the percentage of vegans in the population than any amount of vegan education. As for the health vegans falling by the wayside, how long is it before most ethical vegans do the same? I read that most people last as vegans for seven or eight years. It may seem inconceivable that animal-focused ethical vegans could end up ex-vegans, but many do. And I wouldn’t put it all down to how hard it is to be vegan in a non-vegan world – some people develop concerns about their health, and, I think, some simply start questioning veganism.

  6. Some people just love the security of having a label or a group identity and get very upset if they see any threat to that security. I say get a life, not a label!
    Great article as always Tobias,
    Cheers, David

    1. Please Anitavpagan use whatever you want.
      I don’t think we should ever stop using the term vegan that would really confuse people, its so well established. What does it matter if folks become vegan for health reasons the more the merrier is my motto. If you know in your own heart why you take up a particular diet or lifestyle you should not be threatened just because someone else adopts that lifestyle for a different reason. Thanks Tobias for getting us all to think deeply about these issues, David

  7. Okay, I’m actually in agreement over not policing the use of the word, mostly, but I don’t think the concern people have is primarily over “identity threat”. Maybe that’s part of it, but I think it’s mostly that they’re afraid the focus on animals is disappearing entirely, or that the animals are becoming secondary. They’re afraid that the ethical message is being erased, and that we’re going to wind up with “vegans” being people that cut down on animal exploitation, not people that reject it altogether. If the word meant that, we could have a vegan world, theoretically, where animals are still being harmed. So the main opposition, I think, is to people “not getting it”. Not getting that the animals matter, in their own right, that veganism is not about how it benefits us, but about not harming them.

    In addition, I agree with so much of what you say on this blog, although I have issues with some of the wording often used. For example, with regards to reducetarianism: it’s great that people are cutting down, but instead of talking about what people “can do”, I find it better to talk about what people are “willing to do”, which is far more honest. Most of the people we’re dealing with can go vegan, but don’t want to (yet anyway); they’re not willing to. I can stomach putting it like this, whereas the inner conflict is too great with uttering words like “do what you can”.

    I can say “do what you think you can do”, though, haha. Honesty’s important to me, basically. 🙂

  8. I think a big issue behind all this is that nobody owns the worldwide rights to the definition or meaning of the word “vegan”.

    I things would be a lot simpler if instead of arguing and alienating others, the “pure vegans” could recognize this.

    Not to add to the confusion surrounding the issue by adding even more labels and definitions that are already out there under the “vegan” umbrella…but maybe the time has come for vegan subcategories, if only to keep the peace about what this word or that word actually means.

    If “pure vegans” want to keep their definition of veganism and what it means to them, and keep others out who don’t feel & behave exactly the same way, I think the task falls upon them to think of a new term to call themselves that more narrowly reflects those ideals.

    Then they can claim ownership to a word.

    It’s very strange when you realize that by having such a rigid definition of what constitutes being vegan, the “pure vegans” are having the exact opposite effect of creating the vegan world they claim to want.

    1. Problem is, you can apply the same logic to keeping the original definition. The word “vegan” was created by a specific group of people to mean a specific thing. You’re saying it’s okay for that word to evolve to mean something else, and if vegans (i.e. ethical vegans) have a problem with that they should create their own new word… but that’s precisely what the word “vegan” was! So if it’s okay for “vegan” to evolve, presumably whatever new word we come up with now will also be allowed to evolve at some point, whether we want it to or not.

      I don’t particularly mind that the word vegan is evolving, so long as people understand the original concept, and that this understanding is involved in research (such as stats on how many people ditch “veganism”: the number of ethical vegans that give up veganism is likely very, very low, whereas the number of “health vegans” that give it up is presumably much higher – these two groups should not get lumped together). Many words evolve over time. We can also reclaim words and their original meanings as well, like with meat, milk, etc. which have always referred to both plant and animal foods. Then there’s things like mayonnaise and cheese; we want these words to evolve to mean, for the time being, both animal and plant-based versions. I’d say they already have evolved in this way, despite the denial of some people. In future, they’ll hopefully only refer to plant-based foods, because no one will be consuming the animal versions anymore (unless they consume in vitro animal meat, milk, etc.).

  9. I somewhat agree; anytime someone stops eating animal products means less death and violence towards animals. The only issue I take with the “vegan for health” vegans is that they often abandon it once something else comes along and it also often doesn’t extend into other areas such as clothing, shoes, furniture, lifestyle, etc. I’ve seen people call themselves vegan or tell me how much they love plant-based food while wearing a Canada Goose jacket filled with goose feathers and coyote fur. It’s good news for the pig they didn’t eat at lunch but bad news for the dead cow used for their shoes or the dead goose and coyote used for their coat.

    The hope (or at least my hope) is that people adopt a “plant-based diet” and then learn more about the reasons people choose to eat plants over animals and then increase their compassion past their plate and into other areas of their lives.

    Sure, it’s annoying and I’m not going to pretend I haven’t gone off on people wearing fur at a vegan restaurant (one of my pet peeves) or telling me they’re vegetarian but sometimes eat fish and chicken, etc., but it’s also a teaching moment sometimes if we can learn to set aside our anger.

  10. Fantastic post, I could not agree more 🙂

    The conduct of the average animal rights advocate is considerably slowing progress, for the very cause that we all so outwardly support.

    As Tobias and Leone (and possibly others) mentioned, the health-focused vegans do wonders for the movement and hating on them is ludicrous for so many reasons:

    Not only do they raise awareness of veganism (what could be more important when a significant portion of society doesn’t even understand the term), they raise its respectability (normalizing what for the average person is a seemingly extreme diet), they contribute to increased consumer choice and marketplace visibility, and they increase the likelihood of food companies to make their products more vegetarian/vegan friendly – all of which are great incremental steps of progress.

    Keep up the great work!

  11. I’m just starting off on the vegetarian/vegan train and I want to go slowly through, but I have a mind to be full blown vegan one day. So I’m stocking up on good cookbooks and guidebooks that will help me along the way. And I’m finding MORE and more of these books are ‘plant-based’, usually followed by ‘gluten-free’ giving in to the current pop-culture anti-gluten frenzy. But if plant-based is a term that seems more popular these days than veganism, which is often associated with PETA and animal activism, how will the two halfs ever emerge? Perhaps there’s room for both plant-based and vegan as two separate ideas, and as two-halfs of the same whole?

    I’m just starting the journey, but I am happy to call myself by whatever term the community deems fit for me if it makes things fine. But I call myself vegetarian even though I just started. Maybe the moment you ‘decide’ you are vegetarian/vegan and start calling yourself that is when you become that, because once you are fully eating vegan there’s always a chance of making a mistake, or switching back, or wearing a sweater your mom gave you even though its wool, etc.

    Also, maybe vegan is the lifestyle you wish to follow, become, and plant-based is just the diet you follow as a part of that particular lifestyle? Again, I’m new, what do you think?

  12. Hmmm… those useful health vegans. I’ve been thinking about those stats on veg*n recidivism that people were talking about early last year and before. Didn’t they say that people who went veg*n for health reasons were less likely to stay veg*n than those who went veg*n for ethical reasons? Tobias suggests health vegans can be hit later with the ethics, but how well would that work in terms of significant growth when most vegans lapse (even if the ethical ones are less likely to)? I read something about exponential growth, and that recidivism is a serious issue if you want to achieve this. If reducetarianism is promoted, on the grounds that it increases product choice, makes it easier for ethics to follow behaviour and helps create a culture more accepting of veganism, couldn’t reducetarianism actually work with recidivism – making it easier to fall off the vegan wagon because the reducetarian wagon is an ok place? It seems to me that the real issue here is tying political action with consumption practices. Ultimately the objective is political action, isn’t it? The only way consumption practices influence politics is as boycott, but the only effective boycotts are very specific – a particular company, a particular product – and the vegan goal is nothing like this. I am not aware of any major political change achieved by boycott. As for critical mass, that assumes that (ethical) vegans share a clear political agenda. What is the vegan agenda – welfare or abolition? Making conditions much better or abolishing all animal use? Is there any shared agenda? I think when it comes to abolition and what that would really entail most vegans would edge towards something less. And what sort of politics is founded on consumption practices – in C19th US anti-slavery abolitionism, the strategy of not consuming slave products was manifested in the Free Produce Movement but that was eventually rejected as a condition for the movement. I have to say that I think veganism sells as a mirage of politics because it focuses on the individual and allows people to feel good about themselves and because it fits into the dominant culture of consumerism.

  13. Don’t give up on the word! We need to meet people where they are. The fundamentalist vegans, well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish (oops!). Since I’m new to writing about veganism, I wonder sometimes if I’ll raise the ire of other vegans by misusing a label here or there.

    For example, I thought I was an ethical vegan – but apparently I am an animal rights vegan and you can’t be an ethical vegan unless you are basically a PETA-hating saint with a zero-carbon footprint and Gary Francione on speed-dial. It’s a bit confusing. Hopefully, as you say, we can focus on the real matter at hand, which is eliminating animal abuse and suffering, and plant-based vegans are at least well on the way.

  14. I think its just about using the right term, thats all, nothing more nothing less.

    If you make an effort for the benefit of animals and earth to not use animal products and eat a vegetarian diet you are a Vegan. If you eat a vegetarian diet for health reasons but still decide to buy those leather shoes or belt etc well thats a Vegetarian.

    I say Vegetarian because the Terms have been miss-used and distorted. Originally Vegetarian is used to describe some one who eats only a vegetarian diet not Lacto or Ovarian(eggs and dairy) but does not make an effort to stop using animal products, so its really not that complicated….

    Vegetarian is eating like a Vegan but not being one, Ovo-Lacto-vegetarian is some one who eats ovo-lacto while being vegetarian, saying your vegan but are vegetarian is misleading because vegetarian is a term used only for the diet purposes weather it is health or ethical.

    Now a Vegan is a Vegan for by the term because they are ethical about their life not just what they eat but what they use as well, taking care not to support the industry that exploits animals. People are just trying to correct these terms, the only push back that is happening is when some one who starts eating vegetarian and calls them selves a health vegan doesn’t accept that they are wrong, there is no such thing as a health vegan, unless by health they mean the mental-physical health of the whole planet and the beings around them, which is ethical isnt it?….so no matter which way you turn being vegan is ethical, of course their might be some exceptions like doing it to fit in but not really caring for the animals etc but even then their actions are ethical.

    So basically there should be no quarrel, we should start to just use the right terms

    No such thing as a non-ethical vegan, no such thing as a health vegan they are both misleading…
    some one will start eating like a vegetarian and say im vegan for health reasons but goes out and buys the leather belt, or fur or animal products in make-up etc, which has nothing to do with being vegan and also nothing to do with your health,

    I think this would solve a lot of the issues, if we just use the right terms wouldn’t it?

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