The fetish of being vegan

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The longer I live in the vegan movement, the more I have the impression that most of us have a kind of vegan fetish, believing that eating one hundred percent vegan is more important than anything else, either in life in general, or in animal rights activism. It seems that many vegans, consciously or not, believe something like this:

A vegan can do nothing wrong, 
a non-vegan can do nothing right, 
and a vegan is always better than a non-vegan.

But of course, when you think about it, what you put in your mouth is of relatively minor importance compared to other things. And I’m not talking about children dying of hunger in Africa or whatever – let’s not have that argument. I’m talking about other things within the animal rights/vegan movement. 

First of all, any person can have a big impact on other people surrounding them, with their communication, their behaviour, their example, their cooking. This impact is much more important, because potentially much bigger, than what they eat themselves. Personally, when I believe I will have a bigger impact by making an exception, I will do so (unfortunately, I have limits, and I’m very easily put off and disgusted, so this only goes for microbits of animal foods).


Secondly, there’s not just communication, but there’s also the question what we do with our time, and with our money. Some non-vegans may donate a lot of money to animal rights causes, or may invest a lot of time in them. And of course they may invest time and money in other causes than animal rights. You can fault them for not being vegan if you want, but you have to realize that their impact might be way bigger than yours. 

By all means, be vegan (like I have been for 17 years), but let’s not make a fetish out of our personal consumption, at the cost of our attention to other things that may impact the lives of animals much, much more.

And no, of course it’s not an either/or thing, and we can be vegan consumers while doing all this other great stuff. But in practise, as we all know, a lot of energy – way too much of it – goes to that focus on personal consumption. We worry about micro-ingredients like e-numbers, and we lose sight of the bigger picture. We focus on these things for the sake of “guarding the line”, to protect ourselves and our movement against the great big scary nightmare of “sliding back” and watering down veganism. But that great big scary nightmare is a fiction, and is nothing that should concern us right now. If we ever get people to avoid meat, dairy and eggs (and we will), I’m sure we’ll also be able to outphase e-numbers, honey, and other bits of animal product from our food system.

Let’s focus on what’s really important. Let’s put the biggest part of our energy in where we can reduce the most suffering.

52 thoughts on “The fetish of being vegan

  1. Being vegan is not about being perfect, it’s about always making the choice that reduces exploitation of animals. The easiest choice for any of us to make is to stop eating them. I am vegan. I shall remain vegan until the day I die. I shall be able to disprove the defense of meat-eaters that meat, eggs, fish and and dairy are necessary for human health because I’ll be able to say that not one morsel of any of those things has passed my lips in decades.

    As you’ve admitted that you will eat animal products when it suits you will you be changing your blog name to not-veganstrategist?

  2. I’m not sure I entirely follow you. Suppose the subject of this blog wasn’t about the most effect way to advance the cause of veganism, but was about the most effective way to advance the cause of anti-racism.

    Would the parallel – that a little bit of casual racism every now and again represents a more effective way of converting racists to the anti-racist cause than adhering to the principle of anti-racism 100% of the time – still ring true?

    How seriously would a racist take seriously an anti-racist who said: “I unequivocally believe in equality and fairness for all, but just occasionally, because no-one is truly perfect, my resolve weakens and I find myself racially stereotyping black people. I’m not really a racist, honest.”

    Such a notion seems preposterous. So why should it be any different when it come to opposing speciesism?

      1. I might say the same thing about you…

        I read that post and commented at the time, and I’m still confused by it.

        I suppose what most irritates me about your pejorative use of the word ‘fetish’ to describe any resolute vegan who sticks to their principles, is the insinuation that diluting one’s vegan principles sets a better example to non-vegans who have no principles whatsoever when it comes to causing irreparable harm to others, than sticking resolutely to one’s vegan principles.

        1. Yes, I’m sure we disagree 🙂
          You are illustrating my point. Seeing what i write as non vegan or not sticking to principles is exactly party of the problem, IMHO. There’s more posts on that on this blog, and i realize not everyone is a fan of that viewpoint but it’s the point i want and feel i need to make.

    1. No, what the honest antiracist would say is, “I do my best never to be racist, but sometimes I make a mistake or otherwise can’t help it due to many factors, including my own cognitive or emotional blind spots, and the pervasiveness of racism in our society.”

      What’s preposterous is to think that either humans or human societies are perfectable. Tobias is 100% right here, and he’s also right when he says we shouldn’t let the fact that we can’t be 100% vegan keep us from doing our best.

    2. Oh dear…the slavery word again.
      And they wonder why the number of vegans remains around 2%.
      Sometimes I think people who equate human atrocities with the death of a chicken are subsidized by the livestock cartel.
      Because really, how can you make veganism seem any more disreputable?
      One can revile the abuse of a hen without comparing it to the Bosnian genocide.

      1. I see what you’re doing. First, advance a straw man argument and, second, hope no one spots some good, old-fashioned speciesism thrown in for good measure. Very clever.

        1. In all seriousness dean, the concern for speciesism is a new and still very marginal thing. I’m sure that at the beginning of the fight against slavery it wasn’t all that clear cut either. Of course you can stick to moral theory and principles to prescribe how people should think and behave, but i don’t think that’s the fastest way to make progress for animals. The advantage of course is that there is no way to make your hands dirty

        2. the name of the blog is “vegan strategist,” and that’s what I think Tobias is doing. you and I may consider animal agriculture a form of slavery, but it’s poor strategy to throw concepts that shame and confuse in the faces of people you’re trying to influence – it usually will backfire and influence them *against* you. good activism starts with respecting your audience and especially his/her language. this is pretty well known throughout all activist movements, and veganism is no exception to the rule.

  3. Yes, I agree! Excellent post. And because of this, I like to call myself and think of myself as an animal activist, and not a vegan activist. And I’m a part of the animal advocacy movement, not a vegan movement.

  4. I’m a big fan of much of your writing on here, Tobias, and would get behind what I see as the spirit of this piece, too: ie. being vegan does not automatically make you ‘enlightened’ or ‘morally superior’ to non-vegans. But I do feel a line like ‘By all means, be vegan (like I have been for 17 years)’ comes off a little on the flippant side. For me (and I’ve only been vegan for 17 months), it’s much more important than that and while I’m not going to laud my veganism as some sort of trophy over non-vegans, neither do I feel the need to dilute it or shrug it off as just something that I do.

    I guess it’s the tone of this piece I’m confused by. But maybe I’m reading it wrong?

    PS (I hope) I’m making this comment in the spirit of friendship and with respect 🙂

      1. To me, it reads like ‘if you want to be vegan, go for it, but it’s not that important.’ To me, it’s very important to be vegan and we should be encouraging it. Not in a fundamentalist way, shouting at people who are not vegans. But veganism, at least for me, is a very important part of animal activism.

        But as I said, I could be misreading or misunderstanding the post.

        1. Why do you believe its important to be vegan? That is to say, why is it important that someone follows all of the rules created by the Vegan Society?

        2. falsealarmboy,

          If you don’t want to answer that’s fine, but the thread you referenced didn’t answer my question. Namely, why is being vegan important?

    1. My short answer is this: I’m vegan because I don’t think another sentient being should suffer and die just to allow me a little more choice in my diet.

      But, really, if Gary couldn’t answer the question to your satisfaction with multiple, detailed posts over a holiday weekend, Monsieur Toad, I’m quite sure I won’t be able to either 🙂

      1. Falsealamboy,

        Thanks for the answer, but I’m not sure how “I don’t think another sentient being should suffer…in my diet.” relates to veganism. Is the tacit premise that all animals are sentient?

        Gary didn’t attempt to answer the question (I didn’t ask him it) , so I’m a bit unclear why you’re referencing that conversation. You seem to be trying to be cheeky? If you’re not interested in a discussion, that’s perfectly okay.

  5. Tobias’ tone is right, there is nothing offensive or off-putting in this post. And even if people disagree that it is more important what comes out of their mouth than what you put in your mouth, i think a person’s mannerism would be as equally important as what the person decides to put in his mouth and stomach.

    When vegans say mean things to hurt another with no rhyme or reason, it won’t reflect well on them. It goes the same for non-vegans. If one must “insult”, it must be for the right reasons. I usually “insult” with questions as I know the other party has no answers for them or it’s a case of double standards. I admit I am no saint.

  6. “If we ever get people to avoid meat, dairy and eggs (and we will), I’m sure we’ll also be able to outphase e-numbers, honey, and other bits of animal product from our food system.”

    To me this is a counter-factual, people aren’t going to entirely give up animal foods, but why would avoiding some animal products lead to the avoidance of others? This seems to assume that the arguments are equally compelling, but they aren’t, and if we wrote down a list from strongest to weakest (in terms of the supporting arguments) each person is going to stop at a different point on the list. One of the things that bothers me about veganism is that it picks a really low point on this list, in fact, so low that it goes off the chart and insists that you avoid things that there is no good reason to avoid (e.g., honey).

    In any case, what you are calling “fetish” here I think is just a byproduct of vegan propaganda. When you get people thinking that vegan lifestyle is “cruelty-free”, that avoiding animal products “saves animals” and so on….I think its only natural for people to start to behave this way. Its only when you consider the reality, that the “fetish” makes less sense…..but when you consider the reality the case for veganism isn’t compelling.

    Lastly, I think your position is a bit confusing. At the end of the day, you’re vegan and so I assume you think there is some compelling reason to be vegan. So this just seems to be a disagreement about how one gets others to be vegan, rather than an underlying philosophic difference.

    1. Just to address your first question here, I don’t think the point is that avoiding some animal products will lead to the avoidance of others, but that a lot of animal-based food additives are by-products of the meat and dairy industries. They’re a way to make profit off of their waste. Once those larger industries are themselves no longer profitable, there’s no economic point in continuing to manufacture and sell the waste products, and it would just be cheaper and easier to use plant-based alternatives (e.g. pectin or agar-agar instead of pig’s gelatin, or the elimination of whey as a filler).

      I disagree that honey belongs on that list, however, since honey is not a by-product of animal agriculture. Rather, it’s an (in my opinion) unnecessary by-product of plant agriculture (I mean, it’s unnecessary for us to consume, not unnecessary for bees to make). So I don’t think the elimination of animal agriculture would really have an effect on whether honey continues to be produced/sold.

      1. While I’m doubtful all the byproducts have plant-based alternatives, I get what you are saying but I interpreted the comment differently I guess the mention of honey threw me off, but I was speaking about people’s ethical motivations. For example, being motivated to avoid the flesh of mammals doesn’t necessitate a motivation to avoid every product derived from animals.

  7. ‘Lastly, I think your position is a bit confusing. At the end of the day, you’re vegan and so I assume you think there is some compelling reason to be vegan.’

    I think that’s similar to the confusion I have.

  8. Sorry, posted this before seeing your answer, Tobias. You’ve cleared up my confusion. I think I was misreading it, as suspected.

  9. yes, we have to do other things as well as just not eat animal products. As much as i am vegan and for me it’s the right way to live, it doesn’t make us heroes. We mustn’ make out that it’s a chore, either

  10. I have been vegan for many years and I think your analysis is totally right – as far as it goes. However it seems you are talking of individuals, not vegans as a whole compared to meat-eaters as a whole?
    I think most vegans I know would also agree with you. I am sure there are a few vegans who think being a vegan is just about what a person eats but to me & in my experience over more than 20 years, also to most vegans, it is about compassion for everything, all living things & obvioulsy that includes other humans. I have pointed out in discussions many times that just because I am a vegan I realise that doesn’t mean I am necessarily a better person than someone who eats meat – after all being judgemental of others is not compassionate & I am a vegan because it is obvious to me that it is the most compassionate diet. You are correct when you say that a particular vegan’s overall impact for good in the world could well be less than a particular meat-eaters but I would say it’s also obvious that as a group, people who can make a commitment to changing their diet for the sake of compassion are on average much more likely to be more involved in other beneficial activities for the world, other human beings & animals than people who eat meat because that’s the way they were brought up/ they like the taste/ they can’t see anything wrong with the meat industry. So as much as I agree with what you say, I think you may have been playing Devil’s Advocate in appearing to target all vegans – after all most of us are vegan because we have empathy and are sensitive so maybe we are an easy group to goad? 😀

    1. chrissy, this post was not so much about comparing vegans to non vegans in terms of impact or “goodness”, but about vegans thinking about their own ambitions and bottom line (which i think is the suffering of animals) and what else they can do, regarding alleviating the suffering of animals, besides paying attention to what they put in their mouth 🙂

      1. Yes, I realised that, my point was only that you stated that –

        “many vegans think …..A vegan can do nothing wrong,
        a non-vegan can do nothing right,
        and a vegan is always better than a non-vegan”

        & I think your point would have been better made if you had only changed ‘many’ to ‘some’ since I know there are some who think this but IME as a vegan and previously vegetarian since the early 70s, most vegans/vegetarians are more enlightened than to think that way at all, most vegans are not idiots 🙂

        It would appear that your experience has been different and it could be that new vegans are more likely to come into the ‘fold’ with a more extreme POV – I’ve certainly seen a few people in forums get into arguments with other vegans about what being ‘vegan’ means, & I’m fairly sure those people would have even argued with Donald Watson himself.

  11. I’ve made this same (similar) argument in my book. Matt Ball has written extensively about it.

    Another way to explain it:
    (letter = certain number; x = times)
    – A vegan can save X animals.
    – A vegan activist can save X x Y animals.
    – A nonvegan meat reducer can save Z animals.
    – A nonvegan “activist” who promotes, for example eating less chicken/vegetarianism … can save Z x A animals.
    –> and Z x A can be a much much greater number than X x Y

    … maybe too mathematical haha 😀 😀 😀
    Remember, whatever you do, don’t eat chicken. 😛

    1. I’ve always found this sort of arithmetic strange. Why would one count all animals equally when they clearly don’t have equal capacities? And how do humans figure in such an equation? Do they get the same count as other animals? I think the underlying ideas here are utilitarian in nature, but the arithmetic being done is just very crude.

      Advocating for chickens (and dramatically more so for fish) is more problematic than mammals.

  12. I think a lot of the disagreement here would come down to the question of ‘what do you value?’. If you value maximising wellbeing and minimising suffering (some form of utilitarianism), you would probably be comfortable with straying slightly from a strict vegan lifestyle in order to maximise wellbeing. If what you value is animal ‘rights’ not wellbeing per se, that’s another question. I think a lot of the comments on this post are talking past each other for this reason – they haven’t agreed on what they’re trying to optimise for.

    As an example, let’s say you are a vegan and you are presented with an opportunity to save 1,000,000 animals from a life of suffering, but in order to do so, you have to eat a steak.* It seems a little perverse to say that you would let 1,000,000 animals die in order to avoid the discomfort of eating that steak. Even if what you’re looking to optimise is not wellbeing but some form of ‘rights’ (in which case I would argue you’re probably wrong – I’m a moral realist), you might still like to consider eating the steak, because it could maximise rights too.

    Some of the comments are of a more scientific question, for example, is being flexitarian better than being strictly vegan to minimise animal suffering in the long run? There is an objective answer to this question, even if we don’t know what the answer is yet. Given enough research, we should be able to objectively determine whether or not this is the case. I’m of the mind that there is insufficient evidence at this point, but I’m certainly open to the possibility.

    *I like using unrealistic numbers in analogies to prove a point, but this should still hold with rather smaller numbers.

    1. thanks michael. i plan to write a piece on this sometime, because it is indeed at the heart of the debate (although it’s not the complete answer, i think).
      also, i think that no one of is is 100% a deonotologist or 100% a consequentialist. all of us have things, i think, that we wouldn’t do for results (i assume you wouldn’t kill a person to save a hundred in most circumstances), or principles that we would break for results (i assume that most rights people would squat a mosquito to save a couple of dogs) (just a silly example).

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