What are vegans so afraid of?

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?

b-w

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.

 

Why being vegan is NOT an all-or-nothing thing

Here’s another one of those things I come across now and then:

Being vegan is like being pregnant. you are it, or you are not.

Makes sense, when you don’t think about it for too long. As soon as you do (think about it, that is), this stops making sense, in more ways than one.

There are two issues with this kind of black and white interpretation of veganism. One is strategic, the other is conceptual.

First, presenting being vegan as something that are or you aren’t, without anything in between, is not strategic. I have written about this before: don’t present being vegan as something binary, because that way we will exclude everyone who wants to join us for part or even most of the way. Technically it is correct to classify someone who is a 99.5% vegan (let’s say they eat a piece of non-vegan pie once a year at their grandmother’s) as a non-vegan. But obviously this person is much closer to being vegan than to not being vegan (or being an omnivore or a vegetarian).

Secondly, there is a gray area, where it’s not clear whether the use or consumption of some products or ingredients actually excludes someone from being called a vegan. That’s right, what is vegan and what is not is not entirely clear cut, and it’s probably more of a scale than anything else.

Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society in the UK defined veganism as a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

pregnant

The “as far as is possible and practical” is an important qualification. It leaves some room for gray areas and subjectivity. Some vegans think that what is “possible and practical” is very clear. Avoiding that once-a-year piece of pie is definitely possible and practical: just tell Granny no, right?

But what is possible and practical for one person may not always be so for another. And we shouldn’t try to determine for others what is possible and practical for them. If you disagree and believe that what you experience as possible and practical, should be so for everyone, then let’s imagine a person who studied and actively applies the 320 pages of the book Veganissimo. What if they tell you they find avoiding all those hundreds of pages of problematic ingredients quite practical and possible?

So no, being vegan is not like being pregnant. Just like the rawfoodies tell each other they are 70 or 80% raw, the same is possible with being vegan.

Some will point out that veganism (unlike being raw) is about more than diet, which of course it is (though diet covers the biggest part of it). In the sense that veganism is not a diet but a philosophy, an ethos, a way of life, those people might object, it is an all or nothing thing. Either you respect the rights of animals, or you don’t, they may say.

But is it like that, really? Look at our attitude and behavior towards people. Probably none of us, always and everywhere, perfectly respects the rights of all people. Most of us are only kind and compassionate some (hopefully most) of the time. We often slip and fall.

Saying that being vegan or respecting the rights of animals in your consumption and behavior is a black and white thing is asking for a kind of perfection that is alien to us humans. We can only strive to be ever better. There is no there, there is no point of arrival. There is only all of us, moving in a certain direction, and hopefully taking as many other people with us along the way.

See also my response to reactions on this article: What are vegans so afraid of?

Veganism: ideology versus results

(trigger warning: contains interesting thought experiments! :-))

As readers of this blog may know, I like to challenge the cherished and well established vegan concept now and again. Why? Because 1) I think everything – everything – should be questioned, again and again, not for the sake of questioning itself, but to make our thinking, or ideologies, our dreams, our tactics better, sharper, and more effective. 2) Because I think there is so much more to helping animals than just being a consistent vegan.

Obviously, not everyone appreciates this questioning of veganism, as a concept, as a practise, as a strategy. Many people believe they know exactly what veganism is, what role it plays, how necessary it is, and who is a vegan and who isn’t. For those people, everything is simple: veganism has been defined, some decades ago, by Donald Watson (as the avoidance of animal products in as far as practical and possible). You just do as he says. Never mind that that is quite a vague, subjective phrasing. Never mind that Watson and his friends at the early UK Vegan Society welcomed everyone who agreed with the objectives, independent of whether they practised veganism or not.

Like I have stated before, I have been vegan for 17 years, so my critical comments on vegans and veganism are to be read in a different way than those of your average omnivore. I make them, like I said, in the hope of making us more effective. What I want to do here is take a brief, closer look at why people are vegan, what the impact of it is, and what some of the issues that I have with it are.

ideology vs results

Let’s start with a very simple question: Why do vegans eat only vegan food? Why, in other words, are they vegan?

Most of us vegans may think they have a definitive answer to this, but let’s investigate.

When we judge the morality of an action, we can judge it in terms of 1) its results and 2) whether it is right for wrong for a person to do that action. These are two different things. To see this more clearly, imagine that for every person who becomes vegan, an imaginary, quite mean omnivore commits to eating twice as many animal products, thus neutralizing any effect vegans may have. The vegans’ action thus has no results (point 1 above). Being vegan in this case seems to become much less important or urgent, but most of us – including myself – would still do it, simply because we find it wrong to eat animals (and there may also be disgust or health concerns, but these are another matter).

Reason number one (the results) is my main reason for being vegan. I believe that enough vegans, together with the bigger group of vegetarians and the much bigger group of reducetarians, are slowly but surely changing demand, and thus production (stimulating the development of good alternatives and lowering the demand for animal products). Thus, we save animals from a life of suffering (by them not needing to be born). When a life is more misery than happiness, it is better that that life was never there.

Reason number two, the morality of an act, is important to me but is secondary. If one agrees that eating animals is wrong, it seems that it is always a wrong thing to do, independent of the circumstances and consequences. It is easy to imagine situations where whether you eat or don’t eat a product with animal ingredients makes no difference whatsoever in terms of results. When something is offered to you (i.e. when you don’t intentionally buy a piece of meat, for instance) your refusal to eat that product will have no impact on demand itself. Of course, with your behavior you can still show others that you don’t eat animal products, which is about raising awareness. But let’s say that there is no such awareness-raising factor involved. Let’s say there’s some leftover piece of meat somewhere, and no one sees you eat it. What exactly is the problem with eating it? There’s no impact on anyone, and no impact on demand. It is a piece of meat that would be thrown away. Foods thrown away by supermarkets would be a case in point.

I am not saying there is nothing wrong with eating thrown away animal products, but if there is, it will not be in terms of results. In the above case, whether you are consistent or not is neutral in terms of results. I, for one, can imagine circumstances in which being consistent results in a net negative effect. I have previously posited the thought experiment of whether you would eat a steak that was about to be thrown away, if you were offered 100.000 dollars for it, given that you could help a lot of animals with that money. People who would say no to this money, are attaching a lot of importance to reason number two, more so than to reason number one. Or imagine that someone tells you they’ll go vegan if you eat a steak.

Of course you can just not play along and hate thought experiments like these (though I would have hoped you wouldn’t still be reading after the “trigger warning”). But if you take them seriously, as I think you should, you can see that consistency doesn’t automatically deliver the best results for animals.

Apparently – judging by some of the criticism I get for these posts – it is necessary for me to point out that I’m not advocating vegans to make exceptions for no reason. And if vegans don’t want to make any exception, in no matter what circumstances and for no matter what consequences, who am I to fault them for doing so? Maybe their 100% consistent behaviour has some possible benefits or consequences too. It’s just not the approach that I would choose. It would be nice though, if conversely, someone like me, making these pragmatic considerations for the benefit of animals, would not be accused of all kinds of things (like not being a vegan or even an anti-vegan – even though I’m only talking about micro-incredients, and not even about a small bite or slice of cheese).

I am not attacking people who want to be entirely consistent and pure (most people would call me pretty consistent and pure, by the way). What I am saying is that sometimes, in some situations, it is worth considering an alternative to being entirely consistent. Or rather, one can consider being consistent with the aim of veganism (reducing suffering) rather than the definition of veganism.

All of this may seem trivial and unimportant, but it’s not. What I’m talking about – and will write about more in the future – is the difference between ideology and concrete impact. Far too often, I think, we follow ideology for ideology’s sake, without having much attention for the actual effect of following that ideology. It is, in the end, results that we are about. Or at least, it is what I am about. 

Are you vegan enough?

I’ve written before that sometimes I have the impression that veganism was invented when someone wanted to found the world’s smallest club. It seems that some people (let us call them the real vegans here, for the sake of convenience – the term in itself is not used in a derogatory way) desperately want to keep out as many others as possible and keep the vegan movement small.

Whenever someone is discovered to do or to believe something “unorthodox”, the real vegans are quick to point it out, and to say that person x or y is clearly not a vegan. If the real vegans owned the copyrights for the terms “vegan” and “veganism”, they would forever forbid those unorthodox people from ever calling themselves vegan again. The real vegans seem to think that the biggest threat to animal rights is that the concept of veganism gets watered down.

Take what happened to Ellen Degeneres a few years ago, when she said something about her household getting their eggs from the neighbor’s chickens. Let’s forget for a moment that it wasn’t clear at all that Ellen herself was eating these eggs. The real vegan outcry over it was immediate. Look at this reaction, for instance, which denounces Ellen’s veganism rather bluntly, and says she was never a vegan in the first place.

Apart from being blunt, I find such an attitude stupendously unstrategic. Why on earth would someone alienate one of the world’s most outspoken supporters of veganism on the suspicion that she eats eggs from her neighbor’s happy* chickens?

I’ve had similar personal experiences. I have found my own veganism (or lack thereof, in real vegans‘ eyes) discredited after admitting that I am not picky about wine (giving wine the benefit of the doubt when the clarifying agent is not mentioned on the label). Also, stating that I hypothetically *would* eat a steak for million dollars, so that I could give that money to a vegan organisation, is enough to be not considered a vegan, apparently. I know active members in the vegan community who think like me, but who know that saying it out loud causes too many problems. Confessing one is only 99.9% vegan is enough to be enitirely discredited, apparently. The value of one’s opinions is then null and void in real vegans‘ eyes.

How big then, is the contrast between the castigation of Ellen and the openness of the original Vegan Society UK, where veganism was conceived! In the 1951 version of its rules, those vegan pioneers say:

(describing the people who will be most helpful in assisting the Society in achieving its objectives:) “An Associate makes no promise as to behaviour but declares himself in agreement with the object. The door is thus widely opened, and the Society welcomes all who feel able to support it.”

To focus on agreement with the objectives, rather than on strict adherence to the (dietary and other) prescriptions seems to me not an unwise move. Maybe we should shift our focus more on veganism as a tool for achieving the goal of improving the lives of animals and substantially reducing animal abuse & suffering. Not on veganism itself as a goal, but as a means to getting closer to the goal. 1951-style thinking seems to be much more sensible than a lot of today’s thinking and communication by real vegans.

What is behind veganism is compassion. If consistency is important, then surely the most important consistency is consistency with that very compassion that is veganism’s underlying principle.

If anyone is not a real vegan, maybe it is rather the real vegans uncompassionately calling out the vegans who in their view are not going far enough? In any case, I hope no vegan, who for pragmatic, compassionate reasons may think or do things that some consider unorthodox, will let themselves be bullied away from calling themselves vegan. The worst that could happen is that our vegan movement would in the end be represented only by those who believe purity is more important than effectiveness.

(this article has been slightly edited since the original version)

* I know the use of the word “happy” in this context is debatable, but I consciously chose not to put it in square quotes, as I think that sends a wrong message also.

Thinking is vegan

Reading Facebook comments about Beyonce’s announcement about her food choices made me think that a big part of our movement has lost it. I read hundreds of vegans complaining about Beyonce and criticizing her. This great videoblog by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, in which she refutes the criticsm, makes you see the craziness with which some of us approach all things (non) vegan all the more clearly. I urge you to watch it. It’s a breath of fresh air.Thinking is vegan

I think some of us have stopped thinking. Having an ideology, even if it’s a nice one, can be damaging for one’s ability to think. Veganism seems pretty clear cut in many ways. It seems straightforward, there’s few real counterarguments one might bring in against it, it seems consistent, etcetera. So we’re tempted to think the thinking is done. That it has been done for us, already decades ago.

Maybe that’s the case. Maybe we have some sort of complete and clear definition of what is and what is not vegan, what is and what is not vegan, etcetera (even though I doubt it). But surely, we are not done thinking about the best way to bring veganism to the masses. The way we define veganism and the way we try to mainstream it are intertwined. We need to think about both. We need, above all, to be strategic and not dogmatic about being vegan and about communicating about veganism.

Yes, you can be a meat eating environmentalist

In the post being vegan doesn’t trump everything, I wrote that it’s not necessary to be vegan in order to do good for animals. In other words, you can be an animal activist (at least of sorts) without being vegan.

You can also be other things without being vegan:

You can be an animal lover without being vegan.
(I read somewhere: “The privilege of being able to identify oneself as an ”animal lover” belongs only to vegans.” Ouch.)

You can be an environmentalist without being vegan.
(I often read: “You can’t be a meat eating environmentalist.)

In fact, you can be a lot of things without being vegan.

Think about the absurdity of the last claim, for instance. Say a non vegan person consciously never takes a plane for environmental reasons. Compare them to a vegan who flies five times a year. The carbon footprint of the vegan will be a lot bigger (all else being equal). (One could comment here that “you can’t be a meat eating environmentalist” doesn’t imply that you are an environmentalist when you don’t eat meat, but this is often what is implicitly communicated or understood).

But I want to make a bigger point here. When people identify as something (an environmentalist, an animal lover, a vegan, a writer… whatever…) it is probably detrimental in most cases when someone else says they are NOT that. I get it, I get it: we can identify factual mistakes (they’re not a vegetarian if they eat fish, for instance). But mostly, by saying they are NOT this or that (while we ARE) we will often probably only widen the gap between them and us. It could very well alienate them from whatever we want to get them closer to. I’m especially talking about situations where a person identifies as a vegan, while we spot him eating or using this or that, which we consider or know is not vegan.

I have been considering myself a vegan since 17 years, but one thing I’m not picky about is wine. Usually I can’t find the needed information on the bottle, so in this case, I give that wine the benefit of the doubt and I drink it (also because, frankly, I think drinking wine as a vegan helps to dispel the austere image of veganism that some have). Now, if you, True Vegan, would tell me I’m not a real vegan because of that, it wouldn’t help anything, I think – even though I’m more prone to feelings of guilt than most people. It would alienate me from you and from part of the vegan movement, and I would probably be irritated with what I would perceive (maybe incorrectly) as a holier-than-thou attitude.

I think big factual mistakes (like fish eating vegetarianism) can be corrected, but it can always be done in a non confrontational way (and best in private).
Debunking non vegan animal activists, animal lovers or environmentalists (saying that they are a contradiction in terms) should, I think, be avoided, if only because these are unclear terms anyway for which we often have no waterproof definition.  Of course, subtle, gentle, humorous hints never harm anybody.