Monday, 4 June 2012

Tossing the badge

I should preface this by saying that it isn't of any great odds to me whether others call themselves vegan or not. If you are living a vegan life, avoiding animal products and animal-tested products and so on to the best of your ability, then which label you use isn't the main point. Having said that, I still find it interesting why people who for all intents and purposes are vegan choose not to self-define as such. Many are just being realistic about their own ability, temporarily or permanently, to be fully vegan - all they can do is aim for 95% (or less for some) rather than 100. I went through such a phase myself at one point. Some are reflecting a lack of desire to be fully vegan - in particular people who are being 'plant-based' for health reasons and will never want to go beyond the diet. I am delighted when people in that category are reflective enough to not call themselves vegan. Then there are the more complex reasons for avoiding the tag. The experiences of David at Raptitude encapsulate several of these.

David's main point seems to be that the vegan label puts up a barrier between vegans and omnivores.

For most of the last year I felt that divide, not just between me and the omnivores, but the vegetarians too, who abstain from only one kind of animal exploitation. And not just the vegetarians, but the “vegans” who eat fish occasionally, or the ones who eat vegan but wear wool peacoats.
I even felt it between me and other vegans. I was an abolitionist, which basically means zero tolerance for any avoidable use of animals. But on the other side of the fence there were also welfarist vegans, who spent their time campaigning to improve conditions for food animals, encouraging vegetarianism or Meatless Mondays or other “partway” measures that make abolitionists cringe.

He has a point here, but he's aiming at the wrong target. It is difficult to square your knowledge that someone is basically a decent person with the fact that they are doing something in front of you that you find disgusting or morally dubious. That isn't just a vegan/omni divide, it's a divide that affects anyone who is morally opposed to something many people around them are ok with doing in public. I'm not convinced a label makes a huge difference.
In social situations — barbecues, parties and dinners out — people are generally polite and accepting, but they still can’t help but treat me as a special case with my special-case food. They probably can’t quite see me as a full participant. They make it clear that they have absolutely no desire to become a special case themselves, who isn’t “allowed” to do what normal people do. They are usually trying to be kind, but it still creates weirdness on both sides of the wall.

To which I say, dude, you might have the wrong friends. Or they might just need time to adjust and get used to you. Either way, yes you could get around it by dropping the label, but unless you also drop a lot of the practice behind it and start to eat animal products out of convenience or to blend in you will still be doing the things they deem 'weird'. Or of course you could become a recluse or stick to vegan friends. The third alternative is to participate and stay openly vegan. It takes nerve sometimes, sure, but also reduces the barriers more than you think. If you don't like the people concerned, or have serious disgust at seeing what they are eating, then sure you should stay away. But, put it this way, it does veganism no harm if omnis see someone who is very much like them, part of things, able to eat something decent in a range of places (this is mostly true for me and I do not live in the capital of alternative lifestyles!) - and is vegan. They may go vegan themselves. Or they may just be less daunted when one of their children tries it.

Now it’s clear to me that it’s the label that’s the problem. Not the labeling of food, or shoes, but of people. I think it creates animosity on both sides, it defines the wall itself, and that prevents that wall from moving much. It seems that generally, vegans love their label, and love to deny it to non-vegans. If you were to tell a group of vegans that you’re a vegan who enjoys a tiny cube of cheese once every leap year they’ll say, “Oh so you’re not vegan then.” And technically they’re right.

Technically, they are. But technically the person making that claim is being provocative or what we in the business call 'a dick'. I don't take any enjoyment in telling such a person they are not a vegan, that the 99% good they do certainly counts but by the same token so does the 1% harm. Some vegans do. Some even do so unprovoked, looking for opportunities, I don't doubt that. But I do doubt that it is the majority. I am still not clear why there is a 'wall' here, except between those who can dialogue without reverting to the school playground and those who cannot.

Then we get onto David's own exceptions, less rigid eating patterns, and I begin to suspect that he is in the category who would annoy vegans more by self-defining as vegan than by refraining from doing so. It isn't always there, background or foreground, but it often is.

The single notion of “no more ice cream, ever” is, I’m sure, an utter dealbreaker for the majority of people.

Good thing products such as Swedish Glace exist then...

Between my abolitionist days and today, the difference in the volume of animal products I consume is pretty small. A few more of my dollars do go to paying people for exploting animals. These changes may represent the difference between say, 99.8% of my total buying power, and 99%. (Despite what some vegans may tell you, it is unlikely anybody is able to live 100% vegan, but you can get really close.)

Here we agree, although it is a case of drawing different conclusions from the same premises. His - like those of a certain website that was popular last year - seem to be that 100% is impossible so we should aim for 98 or 99. I'm not sure of the logic of that. I often make task lists for the day, week etc and goal lists for a month, semester or year. I used to make these short and simple on the basis that I needed to be 'realistic' about what I could achieve. I felt totally shite if I ever fell short. Now I make them long and ambitious, and am happy if I achieve most of what is on there. My point is, if you aim for 100% you'll often end up somewhere around the high nineties by virtue of things that can't be avoided or which are genuine accidents. 

But if my more relaxed, undogmatic lifestyle convinces even one person that they could live without animal products, even 50% of the time, I’ve already prevented more many times more harm than I’ve caused.

But it doesn't convince people of that, because you aren't living without animal products. If you make exceptions, you're likely to be doing this around the omnis in your life. All they see is another person eating cheese and blustering about why they don't do so the rest of the week. 

Think about it - if you see a friend taking a 'relaxed and undogmatic' approach to adultery or petty theft would it convince you to go any way towards not lying, cheating or stealing? 

In short, David, you did not hand in your v-card by ceasing to call yourself a vegan. You rejected it by ceasing to be a vegan, i.e. by making regular exceptions. You certainly didn't have it taken from you, as you might like to think...

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