I thought my previous piece, Why being vegan is not an all or nothing thing, was a pretty straightforward, rational and compassionately written article. I wrote it from the same angle from which I write everything: to get as many people as possible to join us in the direction of a more compassionate world.
Still (apart from the many positive comments and shares), the article managed to arouse a lot of anger in certain vegans – to an extent that was surprising and even shocking to me. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say I’ve been called quite some names (some examples here, in case you don’t believe me).
Apart from finding all of this quite sad, I also find it fascinating. How can people on the same side fight so much and so intensely? How can some people so easily find proof of betrayal in other people who share their cause?
So I tried to put myself in these angry vegans’ shoes and tried to imagine what it could be that angered them so much in what I wrote.
First of all, it seems some people misunderstand my intentions. Like I said, I always write with the purpose to help this movement be more effective at reaching its aim of “animal liberation” (or however you want to define the goal). I may fail at this, but at least this remains my intention. My first concern is definitely not to spare omnivores’ feelings, or to give people reasons or excuses to continue using animal products. Nor would I ever be happy with partial animal liberation or partial veganism (on the contrary: I want to go much further than most vegans want to go, and I’m also concerned, for instance, about the suffering of animals in the wild – suffering is suffering, whether inflicted by humans or not).
Now, here are some of the fears that I notice in people’s reactions to my suggestion to be pragmatic and a bit flexible in our defining of the term vegan.
1. The fear that the concept of veganism will be watered down.
Vegans understandably wouldn’t want to undermine the idea of “being vegan” or “veganism.” They wouldn’t want it to mean anything else than what it means (or what they believe it means): products, food, consumption, a lifestyle… without the involvement of animals. I think the fear is to end up with a watered down version of this concept, where vegan would mean something like “almost free of animal use or suffering.”
Two answers to this. First of all, like I wrote, it is an illusion to think that a vegan lifestyle is a lifestyle that doesn’t inflict any suffering on human or non-human animals (that this argument is also used by meat eaters against vegans doesn’t make it any less true). Secondly, we have to help people take the first step, rather than the last. The last steps, the details, will be taken care of automatically, as a consequence of animal byproducts becoming more and more expensive and hard to come by. If we get to a 95% (or even a 75%) vegan society, then there is no reason we can not bridge the remaining gap. It is not productive to worry about the tiny bits now and make it all too difficult, because that may easily prevent people from moving at all.
2. The fear that people may get confused about what is vegan and what is not, or who is vegan and who isn’t.
If a vegan makes an exception (e.g. eats a non-vegan cookie), they are making other people – so the argument goes – confused and these people will end up not knowing what veganism is. Or they will – God forbid – serve us something non-vegan! All I can say is that if this is what we worry about at this stage of the movement, when 65 billion land animals are killed for food yearly, then we have to re-check our priorities. We have to think a lot more strategically than this.
3. The fear that vegans will be seen as inconsistent if they ever do an unvegan thing.
When I make e.g. my lasagne argument, saying that in order to make the idea of veganism more accessible I would make tiny exceptions here and there in special cases, some vegans think this will be interpreted as inconsistency (worst case: hypocrisy). Let me tell you: the concern for inconsistency is mainly in our own heads, not in the meat-eaters’. What other people see is something that is really really difficult. Showing that in, whatever special cases, exceptions can be made, would make us and veganism seem more attractive rather than less. Consistency is, in my humble opinion, often overrated. That doesn’t mean we should just do whatever. But 99% consistency will be perfectly fine.
The question is whether fears like these are enough to explain the angry reactions to the post. I feel there’s something much more threatening going on for some vegans when the definition of vegan is being questioned. What I feel is going on is that on some level, some people experience that a very important part of their identity is being questioned. I’ll write about that some other time.
What was also quite interesting to notice was how people, who kept repeating “you are either vegan or you’re not!”, referred to other domains, issues, identities, personas… that were supposedly also black or white. In every single case though, I could see a lot of gray. One person said a Christian or a Muslim is not like 95% Christian or Muslim. My thought was exactly the opposite: both in terms of their (mental) faith and their (outward) behavior, people have different degrees of being religious. The same for having racist thoughts or exhibiting racist behavior: we seem to all do it to some extent.
The often mean reactions made me realize more than ever that being vegan is not an end point, and that as vegans we generally should not claim to be better than others. All of us can still grow in compassion. If we can’t open our minds to ideas that don’t coincide with our own, if we can’t even listen, read, talk or discuss compassionately, then there’s still a long way to go.
And rest assured, I count myself among the ones who still have a lot to learn.
Let’s keep an open mind and believe in each other’s good intentions.