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.