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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sorry to Burst Your Vegan Bubble!

The Vegan Vine
Okay, so picture it. I'm in a bookstore (remember those?) thumbing through the magazines. I spot a new vegan magazine and excitedly reach up to retrieve it. As I do this, another customer sees this and stops me.

“Are you vegan?” he asks. I tell the stranger in the magazine aisle that I am vegan and ask him the same question, to which he also responds affirmatively! I flash him a great big smile and express how wonderful it is to meet another vegan. We share how long we've each been vegan and briefly discuss local vegan restaurants. I reach for my wallet to hand him my personal card with my blog’s information, but before I can even get it out of my purse, he divulges to me that he still eats fish . . . and eggs . . .

Pop!

Fast forward a few weeks later. I'm at a liquor store looking for an organic, vegan wine and am having trouble finding it, so I ask a woman working there for help. When she finds out that I'm vegan, she tells me that she, too, is vegan. (Insert my aforementioned reaction here.) Alas, "But I mostly eat vegetarian," she says, "and cheese, I just love cheese."

I realize vegans are few and far between so casually meeting another vegan is always a personal thrill for me, but rarely does this seem to actually happen. Americans are consuming the least amount of meat since 1973 and the number of people Googling the word vegan has increased exponentially, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a rise in the number of people adhering to a daily vegan diet. Varying polls substantiate this inconsistency, showing vegans making up anywhere between one and seven percent of the U.S. population.

Recently, I coined the term veganwashing to describe efforts to water down a steadfast vegan diet. Books like Vegan Before Six by Mark Bittman and self-identifying labels like pseudo-vegan ignore the ethical foundation and magnitude of maintaining an unwavering vegan diet—the animals. As a result, people will often call themselves vegans even though they continue to eat meat, dairy and eggs. To bring home this point, a vegan friend of mine recently received the following reply on a dating website: “I was born in Iowa and can milk a cow. I am vegan as well, I only eat beef that has been fed on grass!”

Is it too much to ask that when someone calls himself or herself a vegan that he or she actually be vegan in practice?

Many may think my focus on strict observance is petty. What I find distressing, however, is the inability of people to put the lives of other sentient beings above the interests of their own gustatory desires and frivolous appetites, particularly when they make a point of identifying themselves as vegans. What’s more, cynical nonvegans are constantly looking for any opportunity to draw attention to inconsistencies or hypocrisies in vegan diets in order to back their false assertions that veganism is arduous and impractical. The man in the bookstore and the women in the liquor store unwittingly feed this fallacy.

I'm aware that no one can be one hundred percent vegan since animal byproducts are surreptitiously used to make roads, tires, fertilizers, plywood, television screens, and myriad of other things that are virtually incapable to avoid. Nevertheless, it is the demand for animal foods that directly creates a surplus of excrement, blood, bones and other animal parts used to make these and other imperishable items. In her book, Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, Sherry Colb explains that only by eliminating the demand for food products that come directly from animal-farming and slaughter will we be able to simultaneously eliminate the demand for the fungible byproducts that are part of so many consumer items. Basically, if there weren’t a market for animal flesh, there wouldn’t be a market for other animal byproducts like leather jackets and cowhide footballs. Therefore, vegans are continually undermined by the choices made by those who continue to devour animal foodstuffs, whether they be nonvegans, vegetarians or half-hearted vegans.

My aim is not to belittle the efforts of those trying to reduce animal suffering, but to champion the ethical importance of strict vegan diets. In order to stay focused on animals, we must continually educate ourselves and stay socially connected with other vegans and animal rights activists. Moreover, we must remain disciplined, willing, and committed to the abolitionist principle, which rejects all animal use and establishes that all sentient beings (human and nonhuman) have one fundamental right: the right not to be treated as the property of others. To participate in anything less or to make any personal distinction between species of animals like chickens and fish; between flesh and other animal products, such as dairy, eggs, cheese, or honey; or between animal foods and other products or services that exploit animals, is disingenuous to the lives of animals, the foundation of veganism, and the cause of justice.

Rutgers University Animal Law Professor Gary L. Francione explains why veganism is the moral baseline: There is no coherent distinction between flesh and other animal products. They are all the same and we cannot justify consuming any of them. To say that you do not eat flesh but that you eat dairy or eggs or whatever, or that you don’t wear fur but you wear leather or wool, is like saying that you eat the meat from spotted cows but not from brown cows; it makes no sense whatsoever. The supposed “line” between meat and everything else is just a fantasy–an arbitrary distinction that is made to enable some exploitation to be segmented off and regarded as “better” or as morally acceptable. . . . all animal products are the result of imposing suffering and death on sentient beings. It is not a matter of judging individuals; it is, however, a matter of judging practices and institutions. And that is a necessary component of ethical living.

I'm always happy to engage with nonvegans. They are often unaware of what is actually going on, so the bar begins low and has nowhere to go but up! I've met inspiring people who want to help, they just need to know how. On the other hand, my expectations are much higher for those who label themselves as vegans, who have some idea of what's really happening to farmed animals, and who are potential role models for others. The vegan community naturally holds those who describe themselves as vegans to a higher standard because it assumes that their practices are in line with their knowledge and principles. How often do we hear people say that they “love animals”? If you then ask them if they eat animals, they say they do. We expect this inconsistency and hypocrisy from the majority of people, but vegans are supposed to be wiser, therefore, more is expected of them. It may be an unfair yardstick, but we mean to model a higher standard and a better way to live by embracing a vegan way of life.

If we're going to call ourselves vegans, we need to emulate veganism in all aspects of our lives as best we can, but especially with regard to the foods we purchase and consume as it is the central and fundamental component of what it means to be vegan. If we aren't going to be honest with ourselves about why we want to be vegan or why we call ourselves vegans, how then are we going to maintain our veganism in a hostile, nonvegan world? Moreover, how can we hold out any hope for others or for the billions of animals who are counting on us every single day?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article Bethany.
I am a relatively new vegan and I too have come across this. On my journey to veganism, whenever I met someone who said they were vegan or vegetarian I would ask them as many questions as they would let me. Many of the questions centered on the difference between veganism and vegetarianism. To my surprise I got quite a lot of wrong information, from people who practiced, or at least claimed to practice this lifestyle I wanted to learn more about. The part of your article that struck me the most powerfully was “we must stay socially connected to other vegans”. I think this is especially important to newer vegans and also to people considering this wonderful lifestyle. It will not only help get the correct information into your hands but it will give you a great support network of new friends, making it much more likely that you will continue your journey.
Bethany, thank you so much for all of your inspiration and insight. You are a light in the darkness.
Rich