The “Gotcha!” Vegan

» January 21st, 2013

The Colbert Finger Wag in action

You know them, I know them, you may even be one of them: the “gotcha” vegan. In my mind, there are few characters more annoying than those who troll the vegan world on the lookout for a vegan slip-up. Leather car seats, animal-tested travel toothpaste, beer filtered through isinglass, the wool socks your 90-year-old grandmother knitted you for Christmas, the leather puffs on the inside of your fancy headphones: these are just some of the violations that a “gotcha” vegan will nab you for, administering a moralistic finger-wagging rebuke as they sip their soy lattes and cinch up their pleather belts in smug satisfaction.

Of course, we need to be reminded—constantly—about the relatively hidden places where industrial production secretes animal products. It’s not at all uncommon, after all, for highly intelligent and aware people to remain completely oblivious to the fact that, say, beer might not be vegan or your canvas shoes might have melted horse hooves in them.  But animal exploitation is animal exploitation, so they need to know. We all need to know.  How we are educated on this issue, though, matters as much as the message. And when we fail to live up to an ideal standard, it really sucks to be chastised for it, especially when we’re already trying so hard to do what’s right in a world that generally thinks we’re nuts.

Thus the dilemma: it’s critical to spread the word about vegan responsibility, but nobody likes to be told what to do—or be reminded of their faults—by someone who appears “holier-than-thou.” Adding to this burden is the backfire potential of yelling at someone for their belt when he’s just gone through hell to give up bar-b-que and fried eggs.

I’ve no simple answer to this common problem. Ultimately, though, it comes down to personal qualities: tact and humility stand out in particular. Tact–in that when we do seek to educate potential or practicing vegans we must tread gently in terms of messaging. “Gotcha,” for example, should be replaced with an understanding that there are many levels of awareness, and that different people are in different places. Instead of crying foul, maybe we could say “maybe it’s time to think about taking your activism to the next level by, say, replacing all your leather shoes with non-leather ones.” “Let me know when your ready and I’ll shoot you some links.” Etc.

Humility—in that when you, vegan old-timer, encounter someone who knows better but falls short, just calm down. I recall a seasoned activist once expressing admiration for the fact that I travel with my own soap. I recall thinking “and this person doesn’t?,” but then I also remember feeling a bit relieved by this person’s honesty and willingness to publicly admit imperfection. In no way was this person’s activism diminished for the soap laziness. In my mind, his humanity was enhanced. Plus, I later learned, he later started to carry along his own soap. No proselytizing required.

Ethical veganism is not an all or nothing position. It’s a journey on a long continuum. It’s critical that we never stop articulating the ultimate goal: a world as free of animal exploitation as we can achieve. It’s equally critical that we help make that road as accessible, welcoming, and supportive as possible.  Hence the importance of yesterday’s post: we need leaders who are humble, direct, and tactful.

Oh, and a sense of humor helps, too.





22 Responses to The “Gotcha!” Vegan

  1. I like what you say about ethical veganism being a continuum–a never-ending journey of finding more ways to work toward the end of animal exploitation. That is certainly how I think about veganism, too. As a constant process of BECOMING vegan–we have never really arrived (even for the staunchest, most critical vegans). I would add, too, that this continuum should also include an ever-expanding circle of compassion for other humans and the environment. We have the unique opportunity to engage in constant reflection on how we can live more in line with compassionate values. We can ask ourselves those hard questions, “Yes, my shoes are vegan, but who produced them and where, and with what materials?” Or, “yes, I’ve given up dairy, but where was that vegan cocoa I’m eating produced and was it produced using child slavery?” I know quite a few vegans who put blinders on when it comes to the human and environmental impacts of their animal-friendly choices. I agree with you that this judgement of other vegans is completely unproductive and that a more productive use of our time may be to recognize that none of us is perfect and that we all can do quite a lot to expand our circle of compassion further for the animals and for others (humans and the environment) who suffer because of the choices we make.

  2. Another valuable post — thank you. When I was a brand-new vegan I lived with a constant sense of guilt, and dread that someone would notice my wallet, my shoes, some inconsistency. Because I was lucky enough to be in contact with open and forgiving vegans who had been there themselves, I was easier on myself and am now more generous with others than I might otherwise have been. And yes, a sense of humour really does help!

  3. Sailesh Rao says:

    We must include the Gotcha Vegan in our circle of compassion. After all, he or she grew up in a competitive culture.

  4. John T. Maher says:

    The problem is we do not need leaders at all to raise our consciousness. Leaders created a culture sustained on animal abuse in the first place.

    This column is admirable for its message but easily misinterpreted. I would suggest at one extreme that fur not be worn anytime ever because of its overt symbolism. If you bought a fur coat and later went vegan you should self-edit the message you present in public. On the other hand incidental animal use is something in which we are all complicit, such as grease on public buses, paying taxes, having ever been vaccinated, etc. so the engagement with others on the extent of this complicity and possible alternate choices and changes which James suggests is a message which can not be repeated enough.
    I have heard of Colbert and even met him once but I am not sure what his show is about a
    s I am sort of out of touch with mainstream media. I infer it is a comedy show or something? Does he make fun of vegans? Any doctrinaire and absolutist faction is subject to legitimate parody.

    I like Kathie @ SINTS’s Deleuzian refernce to becoming vegan. However, part of the Deleuzuan rocess is an overexhuberance which leads to a manic desire to contrl others’s choices. Is this always bad?

    • Lori says:

      John, I believe James was using Colbert’s recurring “Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger” segment as a satirical reference to someone who tries to shame others. Colbert uses his character to spoof on conservatives.

  5. Lori says:

    Another nice and important post, James. Thanks.

  6. Dustin Rhodes says:

    Your example of “maybe it’s time to take your activism to the next level…” made me burst out laughing: if anyone ever said something that condescending — which, of course, vegans have done — they would be dead to me.


    I appreciate the spirit of this, however. But I suspect we should invest our time worrying about how we ourselves can do better, rather than worrying about our fellow vegans — however misguided or flawed they are. It’s probably a waste of time to decide whether our vegan allies are doing everything correctly, or are on the exact same page as us. So what?

    In my 13 years as a a vegan (and I’ve made some innocent and not innocent mistakes along the way), it’s other vegans who are the toughest critics. It gets really old, fast. Teaching/sharing by example proves to be, over and over again, the most effective way to lead. Also, I agree with comment above (although I may not understand what he meant): we don’t really need any more so-called leaders, just more vegans.

  7. Sailesh Rao says:

    The Gotcha vegans also perform a useful function since the animal industry is deeply embedded in our system: they raise our awareness of the insidious nature of this industry, change our buying habits and thereby send a message to the industry to change its ways.

    For instance, I had lunch with the CEO of a cosmetics start-up last week and though he’s not vegan, his company’s product line is all organic vegan because “that’s where the market is heading these days”. He said people are getting sensitive to the fact that chemical pollutants accumulate up the food chain and therefore, there’s likely to be more chemical pollutants in a product that contains pesticides or animal matter. The ingredients in his cosmetics lineup read like the contents of our kitchen spice box.

  8. Bea Elliott says:

    Thank you for another valuable post.

  9. Sarah says:

    This was a great post. I’m constantly finding things that have animal products that would have never occurred to me could be non-vegan.

    My philosophy: There is no such thing as a perfect vegan.

    I do my best but I know there are places where I fall short (and surely there are areas I am not even aware of shortcomings or mistakes). I am always trying to do better: for my health, animals, the environment, world hunger and humanity.

    I like to believe that for every “Gotcha Vegan” there are dozens of caring, helpful, considerate vegans who just want to help people learn how to be more aware in a respectful way. Unfortunately, negativity will always be louder than positivity. So, I feel that ignoring the holier-than-thous, is the best way to combat it. We are all doing our best.

  10. Nichole says:

    I see veganism as an onion, always being peeled back, never quite reaching the core.

    I was extremely insecure when I first became vegan but now I ascribed to the ideology of making veganism look approachable, so while I’m careful at restaurants (and try to go to ones that clearly label vegan meals), I don’t give my waiter at Karl Strauss the third-degree on the random occasion that I have to go there for a business lunch. I’d rather people think “Yeah, I could do that!” than “Jeez, that is a ridiculous way to live.”

    Also, if we could get the majority of people not consuming the big ones (meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, leather, fur), THEN we could peel back another layer and start tackling all the sneaky stuff. The sneaky stuff comes from having so many dead animals around. We stop eating the animals, and making wearable products out of them, suddenly we stop having bones and organs and other extra materials that need to be used up. It would be far too costly to continue using animal products, and thus the problem would naturally being to resolve itself.

    I’m not saying I don’t do my best to avoid everything non-vegan when reasonable. I do. Within limits. And yes, I have two pairs of leather boots I bought years ago, and yes, I still wear them. I may eventually get rid of them, and then buy vegan leather boots that look exactly like them. People won’t know that I’m not wearing “real” leather. Will that make me a better vegan? I don’t think so. However, when I pull my amazing lunches out of the fridge every day, my coworkers notice that my food looks different from their food, and it sparks a conversation. They never notice or ask about my boots. The only people who ever have are vegan or dated a vegan.

    So, I guess my long-winded point is: are we just being “perfect” vegans for each other? If so, what’s the point? We can’t change the world by having pissing contests with one another, pointing fingers and demanding a perfection that is contrary to living a life that looks manageable to someone who may be curious but concerned.

    We have to care about what we’re doing, and feel joyous in doing it. That will spread and take hold. Feeling ashamed is no way to feel when you are doing something so amazing for your planet.

  11. ingrid says:

    For better or worse, I’m a ‘gray area’ person — not in my views about non-human animals which remain steadfast since my earliest years, but in the sense that I’ve seen beautiful, well-intentioned souls undermined or discouraged by criticism that, in my view, simply wasn’t warranted. They were doing “good” in the world. They were, as the tag line at my blog says, adding their “light to the sum of light.” It’s the moment in The Year of Living Dangerously where Billy Quan describes how one deals with the overarching misery of the world. I obviously don’t believe intent alone produces positive, tangible results. But, I value even small outcomes that stem from heartfelt intent.

    To me, every move in a direction that values the nonhuman experience rather than exploiting it, is a counterbalance to the acts that don’t. I also find that the stringent expectation to which vegans are held within the ranks, are often the same chinks in the armor, as it were, that animal abusers and users employ in their logically flawed arguments. When I discuss wildlife issues with hunters, invariably, one of the first comments that arises is … if you’re not a vegan you have no right whatsoever to comment on their actions. But then, if you are a vegan, you’re told you’re still culpable for inadvertent, ancillary death in farming, roadways, and high-rise construction. Furthermore, if god forbid, you ever rescued a starving, homeless animal off the street and fed her a can of commercial food, you’re a hypocrite.

    I won’t even let myself get drawn into that black hole of impossibility. I think there’s more power in having imperfection as a baseline, to effectively disarm the idea that these endeavors are all or nothing pursuits. But I do think the key is validating the incremental in a way that produces widespread adoption of those base standards, because large numbers of people taking small measures do, indeed, amount to bigger outcomes.

  12. Sailesh Rao says:

    Great comments in this thread! I feel that going vegan is a journey that doesn’t end even when our consumption is completely plant-based. Going vegan is a never-ending journey to a world without prejudice. Or perhaps, a better word is the one that Philip Wollen uses: Ahimsan.

  13. a says:

    Great article, totally what I needed.

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