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.

21 thoughts on “Are you vegan enough?

  1. It is very hard to imagine that the world wouldn’t be a better place if the word “vegan” was banned. If all our actions, statements, and attitudes would have to be shaped explicitly by what would have the biggest possible impact for animals in the real world.
    But of course, we are social animals much more than rational animals. And when we want “Likes” by our fellows on FB, we are quick to focus more on what the loudest will agree with, rather than what really makes a difference.

  2. Maybe if someone eats chicken or lamb once a week they should still be called a vegan. Seriously if someone wants to be vegan and they lapse..then they can still get back on track. But it could be is a very dangerous thing for animals if you compromise the meaning of veganism. Look what has happened to vegetarian with some ppl thinking fish is vegetarian. Definitions need to be clear.

  3. Vegan means NO use of animal products or their excretions and for valid reasons. All animal agriculture involves extensive exploitation and slaughter. Eating eggs included: All male chicks are destroyed because they cannot produce eggs. Chickens raised for food are a different breed, and called “broilers.’ Hen laying eggs live crammed into cages or crammed onto the warehouse floor, many thousands under one roof, all living among their excrement. They live in horrific conditions, never having the chance to express their natural instincts. Hens have been bred and genetically-modified to lay an egg a day, which is extremely hard on their bodies. causing great pain and stress. In the wild, chickens would lay a few eggs a few times a year. Backyard chickens / hens support the egg industry.Read: How ethical are your eggs? The Guardian.

    1. I am sure that the author of the post knows that. It seems that you have missed the point completely.

  4. When I moved from being vegetarian to vegan, I joined several groups online to find support and ideas and answers to questions. Instead what I found was a bunch of these “real vegans” you speak of who seem to believe that it is much more important to join the “real vegan” club by not lowering oneself to eat meat alternatives than it is to actually prevent the suffering and save the lives of countless animals by not eating ACTUAL meat. Seems their priorities are a little off.

      1. Ha, I don’t know whether to laugh because it’s actually true that some “real vegans” would criticize that… or whether to cry because it’s true.

        I wonder if there is some way that wording (such as your example of “real vegan”) could be promoted that would categorize people in the vegan movement to more accurately reflect what they believe.

        Maybe if those terms could somehow be established, recognized and promoted, it could help the general public more easily see that there are differences, often very substantial, within the belief systems of those in the vegan movement.

        Or maybe it would just confuse the issue even more? I don’t know…I just know that I have personally seen as much harm done to the movement by critical “real vegans” as I have seen done by people who still defend eating meat. My work trying to help factory farmed animals has become that much harder by the negative behavior of criticizing “real vegans”, and I hate that the general public tends to lump us all together.

        I wonder if a more descriptive (but still respectful) term could be formulated for “those who believe purity is more important than effectiveness”, which would allow those us who believe “effectiveness is more important than purity” to distance ourselves from them.

        1. You make a really good point, Christine. There should be a term for them that is respectful but still descriptive to let others know they don’t represent all of us. I personally like to use the meat alternatives (veggie burgers, beefless crumbles, etc.) in my food. It makes it super easy to convert the favorite meals I’ve eaten my entire life into ones I can still enjoy and share with my omni and veg/vegan family members and friends alike. As long as no animals are harmed, isn’t that the point? But I have seen a lot of comments by some stating they don’t understand the point of making a veggie burger look like a burger because the whole point of being vegan is to not eat meat so why would someone want to eat something that looked liked meat? And they are very negative and aggressive toward those that do use them. I just don’t understand it. As vegans, you would think that anything that assists the movement for moving meat-eaters to being non-meat-eaters would be a valuable tool, but that’s not how they see it. They’re too caught up in being “more vegan” than anyone else. They’re sort of ruining the entire movement with their arrogance.

          1. i think the task at hand is somehow finding out what is behind the aggression. it is a very human thing, probably. something about wanting to belong to a club, something about identity… surely someone must have written something about this already 🙂

        2. well, the “real vegans” are probably asking for that same terminological distinction, i bet. many of them would rather not want to be associated with pragmatists. actually, many of them probably would just suggest (and ARE actually suggestion) that people like me do not call themselves vegan (because of what i wrote about the wine, for instance). but like i wrote in this article, i don’t want to give up on the word vegan just yet and have our movement only represented by the “real vegans”.

          Real vegans often are inspired by gary francione and hence often so called “abolitionist vegans”, but that is a confusing term too because we all are abolitionists.

          Francione hemself complains about welfarists having appropriated the term “animal rights”, which is another issue still…

          it’s complicated 🙂

          1. In french speakers “police vegan” groups they call people who are not as pure as they think they should be: the “Vegemous” (mou for “soft” but it’s not such a respectful meaning in this context…)

            And it’s a real “police” as they are tracking down the members and often posting screen shots of quotes outside the group that they find not “acceptable” and asking the members to explain themselves. . (But that’s another sub story….).

  5. “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?”
    You have hit the nail on the head again, Tobias. I think that is perhaps the biggest thing that turns me off to “real vegans”. They expect and are asking people to be compassionate, but then they don’t practice that themselves when they attack or are negative towards others.
    If I needed a dollar and somebody gave me 50 cents, no matter what they wanted to call themselves, I’d thank that person. I wouldn’t attack them for not giving me all that I was asking for.

  6. Yes, it’s very complicated…and confusing…and bewildering…and…and…and… 🙂

    I just feel saddened when I think of the comment by Brendan on a previous post where he mentions “there’s little chance I’d be involved in any of this if it weren’t for vegans willing to accept me as a reducetarian.” Or reading about Cari’s experience when moving from vegetarian to vegan and the negativity she encountered from vegans.

    I feel saddened even further when I think of the animals that could have been saved, but now won’t be, because someone else was trying out the vegan path, but they weren’t “vegan enough” and chastised, and that caused them to reverse the journey they might have taken down that path otherwise.

    When I think of angry/abolitionist/real vegans now, I can’t help but be reminded of all the animals that could have possibly been saved, but no longer will now. How can people so lose sight of things that they engage in behaviors that harm the very beings they started out trying to help in the first place?

    I guess I just wish something better could be out there as far as the labeling of all of us goes… maybe it might help vegan-curious people be better prepared for the negative impacts they may encounter, and they also wouldn’t be so unexpected and surprising when they do occur.

    I dunno…I’m just thinking out loud here I guess. You are very right in that it’s complicated…my head hurts… lol 🙂

    (Thanks for sharing your experience BTW, Cari)

    1. Hi Christine.

      I real use this is an old post.

      I’m confused about why someone who wants to reduce their personal negative impact on animals would change their mind because of other people’s behaviour. surely of they’re doing it for the animals then other people’s opinions wouldn’t matter? I’ve seen others make similar comments and it’s never made sense to me.

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