Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan!

I felt I needed to write a response to an article on Ecorazzi called “If you are on a plant based diet, stop calling yourself vegan!

The title, and especially the exclamation mark, made me almost physically unwell (I’m only exaggerating a little bit here). As far as titles go, it kind of says it all. Probably the author has the best intentions (though they may be unpure, like with all of us), but this way of thinking and communicating is so unproductive and so damaging, I just don’t know where to start.

The author believes that the health vegans – which obviously she doesn’t want to call vegans but rather plant-based people or something – are “hijacking” the vegan movement. She wants to kind of forbid health vegans to call themselves vegan. Apart from the fact that telling people not to use a word is kind of annoying and nasty, it is also very unproductive to ostracize health vegans from “our club”.

plant based or vegan

I’ve written much more on this, but just very briefly: demand for vegan products, whatever the motivation behind that demand, will raise the choice in vegan products. Vegan eating thus becomes easier, our dependence on animal products decreases, and it becomes way easier to care about ethics when people feel they don’t have much to lose anymore. The health vegans are actually among the people who are the easiest to target with an ethical message. Indeed, many “ethical vegans”(I dislike the term) started out as health vegans.

At the risk of overanalyzing, here’s an explanation for the kind of exclusive behavior and communication that we read in said article. This is from a psychology textbook. I’ll leave it to you to see if it can somehow apply. Keep in mind the “ethical vegans” vs. “health vegans” dichtotomy when you read it.

“People like to be seen in terms of identities important to them. Being seen in terms of other identities, especially erroneous ones, can evoke “categorization threat“. We also do not like it when another group is so similar to ours, because it undermines the very essence of what our group is that makes us different and special. In other words we tend to be most sensitive when the other group actually is similar to our own (…). Groups that are too similar to our own can therefore threaten the unique identity of the group: “distinctiveness threat“. Some have even argued that having a distinctive group identity is even more fundamental than avoiding a negative one.”*

Sound familiar?

I had this thought: in the end, I might get so disappointed with vegans and veganism, that I (a vegan for the animals), would refrain from using it altogether (some people say I should anyway, as I do some unvegan things!). Kind of like The Animalist is saying here. But the problem is, then the only people using the word vegan will be the more fundamentalist ones, and we’d have to start all over again with a new word. So I guess I’m not ready to give up on the word vegan yet, and rather be one more person who uses it in a rational, compassionate, positive and inclusive way. Want to join me?

* Hewstone, M. Stroebe, W. & Jonas, K (2012), An introduction to social psychology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. (5th edn.)


Our language should include, not exclude others

The idea that as a movement we should be open to people who do not share our vegan/animal rights views, is extremely logical. We want others to join us, so we need to be inclusive, not exclusive. We should, I think, do everything to avoid the “us versus them” rethoric that slips all too easily into our language and attitude. And we should try to make everything that we do attractive to outsiders.

Here I think is a case in point where we could do better:

I heard this cookbook contains great recipes, I like the cover and the main title, so it is by no means my intention to put this book down. I am just bringing it up to illustrate a point. What I obviously have a bit of a problem with is the subtitle: “recipes for the new ethical vegan“.

The authors or publishers may have their reasons to choose this phrasing (UPDATE: see comment of coauthor Josh Hooten in the comment section). Maybe they are intentionally targetting a very specific audience and think that with this title they will appeal more to “new ethical vegans”. I think, however, that words like these exclude people. Surely, the recipes in the book are suitable for non-vegans, or “non-ethical” vegans (whatever that may mean) too? Omnivores don’t feel part of the vegan club (yet), so they don’t feel they are being addressed with a subtitle like this. The words exclude them, while they should include them.

A title like that also confirms something what many omnivores still consciously or subconsciously feel: that vegan recipes and vegan meals and vegan products are… for vegans. While more and more people are realizing that (almost) everyone can eat a vegan dish, there are still many who are thinking: I’m not ordering this vegan option because I’m not a vegan. It may be similar to me not ordering a glutenfree option because I have no affiliation with the glutenfree thing.

I find that “vegan” as an adjective is much more useful than as a noun (“a vegan”, “vegans”, “veganism”). The nouns are black and white, binary concepts, while “vegan meals”, “vegan recipes” are things everyone can participate in whenever they want. Many people may not be interested in becoming vegan right away, but they might be interested in trying out vegan meals. If we want to attract, non-binary words and thinking are probably much more efficient.

I also dislike the term “ethical vegan” in general. It may be nice to call ourselves ethical vegans, or we may think that it’s good to show that we are vegans for the animals and not for health reasons, but again this confirms some prejudices: that vegans have a holier-than-thou attitude, a certain self-righteousness over them, which will probably deter many people.

Let our language show people that our doors are wide open.