In the post “Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan,” I wrote that some day “I might get so disappointed with vegans and veganism, that I (a vegan for the animals), would refrain from using the word vegan altogether.” That was in reaction to an article in which the author suggested “health” vegans shouldn’t call themselves vegan. In the meantime, the Bearded Vegan podcast had an episode on the question of if we should stop using the word vegan.
Now, I still think the word vegan is useful, particularly in the sense that it is a name for a concept. When you’re in a restaurant, or anywhere food is served to you, it is easy if you can just explain with one word what you want. The more people who know and understand the word, the easier it gets.
The word is less useful, more controversial, and more prone to cause discussions, disagreements and even nastiness, when it is applied to people. It is much harder for a person to be vegan than for a product or a dish to be vegan. When a product doesn’t have non-vegan ingredients, it’s vegan. You might say: when a person doesn’t eat non-vegan ingredients, they are vegan. But it’s not that simple (no, really). There’s apparently discussion about intentions, which have to be right too (otherwise you’re plant based, according to said article); there’s the matter of the tiny bits and micro-ingredients, there’s even ideological and political issues, etc.
So here’s a subtle yet important note about grammar and how it relates to what I think is the most efficient use of the word vegan. I believe that in the case of the V-word, the nouns (“veganism,” “vegans”) are more problematic than the adjective (as in “a vegan meal”). The words “a vegan/vegans” and “veganism” are black and white or binary terms: you are it, or you’re not (even though there can be discussions about how pure you need to be to carry the label). You may have no interest in going vegan all the way, so the noun may not appeal to you. Also, if you are a vegetarian, or a part time vegan or whatever, you may feel excluded by the noun vegan. You don’t belong to that group, and “veganism” doesn’t apply to you. The nouns are very “exclusive,” they exclude you (if you’re not vegan).
This is completely different from the use of vegan as an adjective in the words “vegan meals” or “vegan products.” If you suggest that a person have a vegan meal or buy a vegan product, you are not asking them to “become a vegan.” Everybody can eat a vegan meal or buy a vegan product. You don’t need to be a vegan for that. It works much more inclusively, it includes non-vegans. Asking people to become a vegan is asking them, or is asking for what sounds like, a change of identity. As Nick Cooney writes: “The public may think of vegetarians as a distinct group of people who are different from normal (!) Americans. That’s not good. We don’t want people to think they need to take on a new identity to cut cruelty out of their diet. Why? Because most people are loath to change their sense of who they are.”
Bottom line, in our communication, let’s invite people to eat vegan, have vegan meals, try vegan products, rather than to become a vegan or adhere to veganism.
PS: apologies to blog subscribers, who got an unfinished draft of this post in their mailbox yesterday