I wanted to revisit a topic that seems to remain timely as veganism becomes more mainstream: what the word means.
Donald Watson defined veganism seventy years ago as follows:
Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
It seems that as veganism becomes more mainstream, that definition has been interpreted, rewritten, shaped and molded according to countless different motives and goals. Veganism isn’t a diet. It’s not about health or the environment, though those are certainly incidental benefits. Veganism is about the animals, and were it not for the misrepresentation of what veganism means, the word “ethical” that many of us qualify it with would be redundant.
I am not being difficult when I say that we need to inform people that veganism is being misunderstood. Do you go to the supermarket and find that “gluten free” and “vegan” are part of the same mishmash of shelves? How about “organic” and “vegan”? Don’t think that’s a problem? What about when you’re eating chips and salsa, and someone looks at you in disbelief and says, “But… you’re vegan!”
The definition of veganism as coined by Watson doesn’t mention processed food, or chemicals, or genetically modified tomatoes. It doesn’t come with a warning label: “Veganism requires strict rules and an encyclopedia of do’s and don’t.” Veganism is a philosophy you can subscribe to whether you are fat or thin, black or white, couch potato or ultra marathoner.
The Vegan Police
There’s a term used for a certain type of vegan… a type that I think I’d be labeled as. This type of vegan might use the following line of questioning:
Are you for the exclusion of animal exploitation and animal cruelty? Great! Stop selling leather shoes in your new clothing line!
Did you go vegan for health? If so, can you stop describing your vegan diet as restrictive? Oh, you cheat every now and then? How is that vegan?
These examples might get you labeled as “the vegan police,” and people don’t like being policed. After all, there’s no way you can force people to be vegan according to how you want them to be, so it’s foolish to try.
I’d like to clarify something. I’m not trying to police anyone, and I’m not out to put them in vegan jail and take away their license to practice veganism. I understand the position that calling someone out doesn’t help, but I like to make my point with examples. I am willing to assess this tactic, but I am not willing to sit down and accept that “veganism” is becoming a catch-all for whoever wants to use it in whatever way they choose to.
I’m not trying to be judgy when I say that a behavior or choice isn’t vegan. I’m not trying to be exclusive. Don’t you think I want people to “join our club”? I would argue that clarifying what veganism means is an attempt to be inclusive; you can eat salad or tater tots, shop the luxury brands or Payless, love animals or don’t love animals… you simply have to not exploit or use them.
“Veganish” Doesn’t Exist
In 2011, Oprah Winfrey covered veganism on an episode of her talk show. Those who worked on The Oprah Winfrey Show went vegan for a week, Lisa Ling visited a meat-packing plant, and Michael Pollan spouted some trite declaration about how “animals lead very happy lives and have one bad day.” Kathy Freston mentioned that her husband is “veganish” and Oprah said that may be something she could be.
Nearly five years later, my iPad alerted me that the latest issue of O: The Oprah Magazine was ready for download. As I pulled up my digital description, I was met with a cover that suggested Oprah wasn’t feeling very veganish that day – she was holding the centerpiece of thousands of Thanksgiving tables – a turkey carcass.
I was sad, but not surprised. I quickly flipped through the digital pages, and the teaser text for a feature article caught my eye:
Some of our most human relationships are the ones we have with animals. We may be their caretakers, but they take care of us too, inspiring us to be our better selves.
The disconnect is so obvious to me, but I understand how someone who isn’t vegan might not even pick up on it. And I think it’s an important example of why “veganish” doesn’t exist.
Someone once used this example, and I think it works here – can you call yourself straight-edge but still have the occasional beer? No? Then how can you call yourself vegan and exploit the occasional animal? You can’t. How can we advocate for a philosophy, a lifestyle, an ethical stance if we can’t even agree on what the word we use to identify it means?
Advocates Without a Cause
There is no “right way” to be an activist. A movement is made up of many kinds of people: introverts and extroverts, writers and artists, public speakers and silent watchers, lawyers and politicians, sanctuary directors and vegan chefs. It’s important that what makes us all uniquely us isn’t lost to some notion of how we “should be” advocating for those without a voice.
That said, it’s important that we don’t forget why we call ourselves activists or advocates, or why we simply identify as vegan. As far as is possible, we don’t want to exploit animals. It’s a simple philosophy to strive towards, when you tune out all the noise and magazine articles, all the celebrity detox plans and Saturday Night Live skits. Defining veganism doesn’t have to be about being difficult. All it has to be is a way to unite us in a cause that needs unity.
If we can’t stand together, what progress will we make?