The Vegan Identity

» July 14th, 2014

After years of this kind of writing, the kind of writing I do here, I’m starting to see my name preceded by “vegan author.” Naturally. I identify as a vegan and thus am happy to embrace the qualification. That said, I don’t really put it out there myself. When people ask for a bio, I send them a description that fails to note that I’m a vegan. I’m wondering what’s up with this hesitancy.

I suppose part of it has to do with the fact that, technically speaking, I’m not a vegan. I ride in vehicles with leather seats when I could opt out. I drive a car and have run over squirrels and birds and snakes and not really cared too much about it. I’m certain I’d have no qualms eating insects and am even more certain that I already have, although inadvertently, eaten insects—just this morning, in fact, on a gorgeous ten-mile run down some winding streets in Maine (several gnats in my craw). Insofar as veganism is living in a way “that does not exploit animals,” according to the Vegan Society, I fail on more accounts than I care to mention. Moreover—key point to note—I could change my actions to reduce that exploitation: but I don’t. Too damn inconvenient.

Another reason that I’m ambivalent about shouting my vegan status from the moutaintops is that I’ve noticed over the years how, for those who aggressively identify as vegan, their veganism is primarily about the depth of their personal loyalty (and the inadequacy of others’) rather than on reducing animal suffering. By giving the habit we hope to prevail a Name, by tattooing it on our arms and celebrating as the numbers joining the club grow, and touting that Name above all else, we forget that social change does not happen when everyone joins in and gets stamped with a V. There’s something possibly cultish-smelling here that, however right it might be, grates against my sense of radical individualism, not to mention that this “us and them” way to see the world seems misguided and alienating to a lot of people.

Here’s something I think about a lot: before I became vegan—or, stopped eating animal products (I recall being impressed with a person) a really charismatic person—asking that his pizza come without cheese or meat. He did this without hesitation in front of a dozen hipster meat eaters. When I asked him why, he said animals were treated terribly to bring food to the plate and he wanted to minimize his role in that suffering. He never said he was a vegan and he never proselytized. At that point in my life, if he had done either, I would have thought “extreme” and ordered the jambon. Instead, he quietly and unknowingly pushed me in the direction of where I am now—a vegan in name, albeit a hesitant one rather comfortable with ambiguity and uncomfortable with a label.

34 Responses to The Vegan Identity

  1. John t maher says:

    Identity politics are boring and the issues discussed at the pitchfork seek discussion of the issues which are intractable. Better to keep it interesting instead of promoting dogma.

  2. Sailesh Rao says:

    Going vegan is a journey, not a destination, because the reduction in exploitation of other life-forms is a never-ending process. Ultimately, sustainability will not be reached until our exploitation of other life-forms is less than our contribution to ecosystems and we all have a long way to go to achieve that.

    At its core, sustainability is very simple: kindness to all life is infinitely sustainable, while cruelty to any life-form is unsustainable, meaning it will stop at some point in time, either as that life-form goes extinct or we go extinct.

    It looks as if you’re taking a breather and have paused on your journey, but here’s wishing you the best on your continued journey…

  3. Dachia says:

    I had been labeled vegan or vegetarian some years ago (by people who just saw me as alien) and I blogged about “Why I am no longer a vegetarian.” They flocked to it. Ready to jump for joy that I had finally come to my senses. Instead they learned that I referred to myself now as Nutritarian, because at least then people might ask instead of assuming they knew all there was to know about me. I still do not refer to myself as a vegetarian… it just shuts down communication with people who could really use some education.

    • Meat eaters love to read articles about vegetarian and vegan recidivism. In their minds it affirms their beliefs that we can’t go without meat and that it’s part of our “primal” instinct.

  4. Steven van Staden says:

    I believe most of us can identify with what James is saying about our imperfect veganism or vegetarianism (perhaps you’re still sitting on a leather seat or standing in leather shoes, and maybe you trod on a few insects last time you strolled through your garden), but while we keep striving for better, we aren’t gods. I owned a swimming pool and spent hours recuing insects that had fallen in. It’s rather important that we stay sane and just do our best.
    I was once told in a nasty way by a vegan that by being just a vegetarian I was worse than a meat-eater. That’s no way to persuade someone. As your other commentators say, it’s a journey and we can only hope we won’t forever be regarded as aliens.
    By the way, is it true that vegetarians and/or vegans are a dwindling number in the US? I was hoping people were becoming increasingly aware of animal suffering. I am under the impression that vegetarians are rising in number in the UK. It’d be nice to have some reliable stats if any are available.

  5. Cody Jordan says:

    I totally know what you mean about being stereotyped if we use the V word. I’m a biologist and in all the academic circles I’ve experienced, it’s an unpopular term. We tend to get all lumped together as being pseudoscience-embracing wacko hippies. But at the end of the day, I just try to combat that stereotype by not being a “weirdo.”

    Regarding your accidentally hitting an animal with your vehicle, etc., I think that you’re still a vegan. The thing about veganism is that it isn’t about being perfect– because none of us can be. Period. Yes, there are a few people who like to be the vegan police, but they are misguided. Biologically speaking, just by existing, we are using space and resources that can’t be used by some other creature. However, let’s remember the simple and original definition: “veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” It isn’t practical (or probably even possible) for us to avoid driving/riding in vehicles that inadvertently kill animals. It isn’t possible for us to raise plants for consumption in such a way that animals are never harmed. Instead, it’s about minimization. Yes, we can debate how far people should go, but I think we all agree on the basics. At some level, you can’t be a perfectionist.

    For example, I study bats. By catching, handling, measuring, and even being around them, I disturb them. My very presence causes them to expend more energy than they otherwise would. One bat that I caught had an injured wing– an injury that I probably inadvertently caused. This bat had to be humanely euthanized because recovery wasn’t possible. It was a sad day and if I didn’t do my research, that bat would probably still be alive. A few radical people might suggest that we never interact with wild animals because this would disturb them. But I believe that this is more than offset by the knowledge gained, which garners not only respect for the oft-maligned animals, but also provides real information than can be used in their conservation. In the end, it’s about what’s possible and practical.

    • Sailesh Rao says:

      Yes, I’ve found that academics tend to be some of the most stubborn exploiters of animals on the planet, thus setting poor examples for the general public. I have yet to find a single IPCC climate scientist who’s on a plant-based diet, even though animal agriculture is one of the primary causes of climate change. And yet, they seem genuinely shocked, shocked, that the general public is not taking their dire predictions on climate change too seriously…

      • Dachia says:

        “I have yet to find a single IPCC climate scientist who’s on a plant-based diet, even though animal agriculture is one of the primary causes of climate change.” Nodding along with you as I roll my eyes. ;-) I come from a horse background and LOTS of my friends have and love horses. And several of them support the wild mustang and want them to be safe and to let them live their majestic lives… and they are beef eaters. I shrug and say, “if you were serious about wanting the mustang to be safe on public lands… you’d stop eating beef.” Of the MANY times I have said, I had one person stop and think and cut down on her beef consumption. I take victory any place I can. ;-)

    • Steven van Staden says:

      Hello Cody, I am interested in your study of bats. I know about their “sonar system” and acute hearing and during the Diwali Festival my neighbours discharge the most violently loud ‘big bang’ fire rockets, repelling the hundreds of bats from the indigenous forest I live in (near Durban, S Africa). The bats are only returning now, and I suspect the next Diwali bombastics are due quite soon again, to repeat the cycle. We lost owls and birds too, but I worry so much about what these big bang rockets (sound like 44 mag gunshots) are doing to the bats’ hearing. I realise I’m far from the discussion at hand here, sorry, but this is a concern. Thanks for any info you may be able to pass on.

      • Cody Jordan says:

        Hi Steven,

        I’m happy to give you my thoughts. Send me an email at codysjordan [at] gmail [dot] com

    • Tracy says:

      I worked in conservation for several years and was so disappointed in the lack of awareness about animal rights and meat-eating. In fact people who study biology/ecology seem more likely to buy into the philosophy that eating animals is natural, which therefore supposedly makes it ethically neutral.

      About your research, I’m not sure that it’s ok to inadvertently cause death to a subject of research even if it supports knowledge generation and possibly conservation. We would not accept such standards for human research. For my MSc I did research on grizzly bears and was deeply disturbed when I discovered that grizzly bear trapping and darting had resulted in the death of both grizzly bears and black bears. Although accidental, it was foreseeable and considered an acceptable risk to the lead researchers. I started to question the ethics and validity of our research. The fact is that we already know a great deal about grizzly bears and their threats, but there is no political will and little public pressure to reduce land use change, habitat fragmentation and resource extraction which is affecting grizzly bear population viability in the region. How much more research do we need to do before we start tackling the big issues that are really driving species extinction?

      • Cody Jordan says:

        I’m not saying that it’s “ok” per se, but that at some level it is unavoidable. Just like how by doing research we inevitably disturb the animals on some level. When I catch bats, there is a tiny risk of injury regardless of how careful I am. Do I not research bats because < 0.5% of them may be injured? Of course, I do my very best to minimize stress and ris of injury when working with wild animals, but some risk is inherent. Just like how when we drive cars– we do our very best to not hit animals, but at some point in their lifetime nearly everyone accidentally hits an animal with their vehicle.

  6. I’ve been criticized as a vegan since my veganism is more “fluid” that most others. For instance, I easily eat vegan at home, but when I’m out at a restaurant or cafe, I’ll sometimes have some pasta that I’m sure is made with eggs, or I’ll have a “cafe con leche” or similar. I live with a meat eater (although he eats a lot less meat in recent years) and this works for me. It doesn’t stress me out and I don’t proselytize. I don’t really tell others that I’m vegan since too many vegans have glommed onto conspiracy theories, and I don’t want any part of that.

    But many vegans have gone the way of this blogger, and “righteous eating” is a turn off. According to Veganomics, we are far better off encouraging people to strive only for vegetarianism, since vegetarians might save an average of 30 animals per year, while vegans could save as many as 33. There is not much of a difference, and vegetarians are seen as a lot less strident than vegans.

    http://www.theblondevegan.com/2014/06/23/why-im-transitioning-away-from-veganism/

    • Sailesh Rao says:

      I’m not comfortable with that quantification of animals “saved” by vegetarians vs. vegans. First of all, the number 33 likely comes from the 10 billion land animals killed for food in the US. That doesn’t take into account sea animals killed for food, sea animals killed as by catch, land animals displaced and killed on forests converted into grazing land, etc. Besides, when vegetarians deliberately exploit cows for milk and chickens for eggs, the accounting of the veal calves, the spent dairy cows, the male chicks, and the retired egg-laying chickens towards so-called meat eaters is just a shell game.

      The concept of veganism, “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose,” is something that will be universally embraced for the alternative is extinction. It makes no sense to stop trying just because it is impossible to achieve perfection, for the trying is the best part!

  7. Whatever numbers are arrived at, I suspect the greatest gains are those made by vegetarians, and veganism is the “icing on the cake.”

    Myself I would have to disagree though that the “trying is the best part.” We live in a non-vegan world and it’s difficult to remove animal exploitation from our lives.

    I also don’t have any impulse to try to be perfect as I believe it sets us up for failure – “blonde vegan” is a good example. Furthermore, she falls into the trap of believing that the human body needs cleanses of any sort – our bodies function best when we eat regularly. Cleansing is akin to the alt-med “detox” which is only a medical necessity in rare circumstances, such as a legitimate (as opposed to imaginary) heavy metals exposure.

    Vegans just don’t understand how their often cult-like behaviour damages the movement! That said, I don’t understand why she doesn’t just transition to vegetarianism instead of sliding back into eating animals.

    • Sailesh Rao says:

      I was vegetarian for the first 48 years of my life and I too believed that the greatest gains in harm reduction are those made by vegetarians.

      And then discovered that I was dead wrong and went vegan, almost instantly, about six years ago. India has a substantial population of ethical vegetarians (about 600M) who consider the cow to be sacred, and not enough beef-eaters, with the result that the cows are constantly impregnated to promote lactation, but they and their babies are not killed, leading to a massive bovine population explosion. India has over 320M heads of cattle, far more than the US with 90M heads of cattle, on about half the land area. The net result is that the tiger habitat is now down to less than 2% of India when it used to be 90% just 100 years ago. The forest is dying, the sambar deer is dying, the elephant is dying, the tiger is dying, etc., just to support all those cows.

      That was the first slap in my face. The second slap was when I realized that the dairy industry is perhaps the cruelest industry in the world, where mothers are torn apart from their children at delivery, tortured three times daily with their udders sucked out in 1 minute flat, kept forcibly impregnated and then ground up into hamburgers in their youth when they are about 5 years old, just because they had become too “spent” from all that constant overproduction of milk.

      Therefore, I now believe that avoiding animal foods is a minimum for harm reduction, but we need to go further for sustainability by supporting herbicide-free, pesticide-free, agro-ecological food production so that we are not unnecessarily killing the soil, killing insects, killing the birds that feed on insects, etc., etc., up the food chain. Ultimately, our journey must not stop until we reach sustainability, for what good is all this discussion, not to mention all our prodigious knowledge production, if we, as a species, are going to be extinct in the not too distant future?

  8. Martin says:

    Interesting article and good discussion. I agree that being vegan is not being perfect, it’s about minimizing the exploitation of other species. The article did get me thinking. I have some vegan shirts and I wear them proudly, mostly just to get others thinking. I don’t proselytize and I’m “normal” and not angry. However, I’m also atheist and I don’t wear atheist shirts. Why not? I’m not sure. I guess because I feel that there is a morality issue with choosing to eat meat, particularly factory-farmed meat and I don’t really think there is a moral issue with being religious. I’m enjoying the discussion since it is making me slightly uncomfortable which is a sign that I’m learning something. By the way, James, did you mean “jamon”?

  9. Pauline says:

    I’m not unremittingly preoccupied with the label, the word itself, which I may use by way of a quick description, but if I have more than ten seconds to talk to someone, I may simply say that I’m attempting to minimise my participation in violence and suffering (with a qualification if asked). Veganism, or avoiding consuming animal products as far as is practicably possible, would be the moral imperative for those who care about not participating in violence and suffering. If people believe that animal lives are of inherent (as opposed to instrumental) value – or, as opposed to what they can offer us – that their lives are worth living, that they have a right to live, as we do, then we should try to avoid unnecessarily depriving them of their lives. Consumption of eggs and dairy involves death and suffering, with these industries inextricably twined with the meat industry (I’m sure no one here needs pointing out what happens to male calves and chicks), so, regardless of any sort of quantification, it is morally wrong to do so for those who care about these things and believe that nonhumans are worthy of moral consideration.

    It is reflective of our moral relativism and differential attitudes to humans and nonhumans that we may think (as utilitarians) of it as a virtue to slightly reduce the harm we cause, rather than to cut it out as much as possible. To read here the description of those who are trying to minimise the harm they cause as displaying “cult-like behaviour”is rather depressing, doing other animals few favours. Simply because some people find it difficult to relinquish consuming animal products doesn’t mean we can’t lead by example and also advocating for animals.

    As nonhuman animals are unable to defend or speak for themselves, I do, *where and when appropriate*, feel it incumbent on myself to speak up for them – but tailoring my approach in accordance with the situation and who I’m speaking to, employing tact and subtlety, as required (which may on many occasions mean using something like the sentence quoted above “… animals were treated terribly to bring food to the plate and [I] wanted to minimize [my] role in that suffering”. I’ve spoken like this many a time. During more in-depth discussion, I may proselytise and employ more reasoning, but if we don’t do it, who will? How will we ever get a culture-shift if the issues are never addressed, if awareness is never heightened?

    “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do”. Edmond Hale

    As has been mentioned, the fact that we can never attain 100% moral purity in the world we occupy (without committing suicide) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do our best. With the advent of the internet, relaying of quick and extensive information, the ever-expanding range of alternatives, it has never been easier to choose different ways of sustaining ourselves.

  10. Karen Harris says:

    James
    I am not sure why saying that you are a vegan is at odds with a sense of individualism. For example, if I said I am female, artistic, Jewish, introverted or any of the other adjectives I could use to describe myself, I don’t think that my individualism, which I too prize, would be called into question. I wonder if your unwillingness to describe yourself – not DEFINE – yourself as a vegan has more to do with negative associations you personally have with the word. (By the way, find it hard to believe that you don’t feel bad when you run over a creature on the road?)
    Anyway, with regards to many previous comments, most of which I strongly disagree with, bear with me while I include a rather lengthy quote from Gary Francione, who I think is the clearest thinker on the subject. Francione received this email:
    ” I really like your abolitionist position but I think you are too judgmental. I am a vegetarian and I know that going vegan is the right thing to do. I am on the journey towards being a vegan. I think it’s wrong that you don’t give positive reinforcement to people like me and I think it ultimately hurts the cause.”

    His reply:
    “Going vegan is not about anyone’s journey. It is remarkable how, in 2014, the observation of the most fundamental moral principles gets presented as a matter of narcissistic autobiography.
    Not exploiting other sentient beings – not treating them exclusively as resources … is a matter of fundamental obligation….Telling yourself it is a matter of a “journey” is just a way of excusing yourself from doing something you know is wrong….If you think I am being judgmental you are right. I judge the exploitation of the vulnerable – be they human or non – to represent a profound sense of immorality.”
    His full response is at is website:
    http://www.abolitionistapproach.com

    • Sailesh Rao says:

      To achieve moral absolutism, Gary Francione draws the line at “sentience,” which is a line that’s being constantly redrawn backwards, as more and more so-called “non-sentient” creatures are being shown to have sentience after all. In a recent paper authored by French scientists, it was demonstrated that crayfish exhibit a form of anxiety similar to that described in vertebrates, despite their lack of central nervous systems, suggesting the conservation of several underlying mechanisms during evolution.

      http://www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6189/1293

      As this “sentience” line is truly blurry, I begin with the presumption that all Life is sentient and therefore, minimization of my impact is my ultimate goal. This requires minimizing consumption of all material goods and going with a simple, organic, whole-foods, plant-based diet. At the same time, I’m working to regenerate forests and greenery so that my net “give” to ecosystems is greater than my net “take”.

      Given our dire environmental situation, I feel that is the least that I should be doing to leave a thriving planet for my children and my granddaughter.

      • Karen Harris says:

        Well said. For the record, Francione also operates with the presumption that all life is sentient unless proven otherwise. He would agree with you.

        • Taylor says:

          Unless he’s changed his mind quite recently, Gary Francione does not believe that all life is sentient.
          http://www.cup.columbia.edu/static/marder-francione-debate

          Here’s a nice short talk by Gary Steiner explaining the meaning(s) of “sentience”.
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8-OLU83R6A

          If think we can seriously entertain the idea that consciousness may be a fundamental aspect of the universe, one associated with all information-processing systems,
          [ http://consc.net/papers/puzzle.html ]
          and still hold that it is only at a certain level of complexity that sentience appears — that is, a type of consciousness experienced by a “someone”, a being with at least a minimal sense of self, such that what happens to them matters to them.

          • Sailesh Rao says:

            Thank you for those links! I was fascinated by the Marder/Francione debate. The trouble with drawing lines on “sentience” and wagging fingers at those on the other side of the line as Gary Francione does is that the line gets redrawn over time and therefore, a little humility is in order. Just a few hundred years ago, that line had all colored people, laborers and women on the other side, with propertied white males on this side. Most of us consider that to be utterly unconscionable today.

            In contrast, the Jain ethic that Gary Francione refers to, presumably Ahimsa, eliminates that line altogether and aspires to do no harm to all life. Ahimsa comes from a place of humility, acknowledging that we can’t presume to know where to draw lines on concepts like sentience. This is an ideal that we will eventually embrace universally in order to become sustainable. For wanton cruelty on so-called non-sentient creatures is unsustainable as well.

            Clearly in Ahimsa, perfection is an unreachable ideal, but perfectibility is a never-ending journey.

      • unethical_vegan says:

        Oh please. Gary Francione does not give a flying @#$% about indirect harm. As long as Gary does not directly harm animals it’s A OK to fully participate in the 6th mass extinction. Moreover, GF has bent over backwards to excuse people who feed 1 animal many dead animals (e.g. vegans who live with obligate carnivores).

  11. Karen Harris says:

    One more thing.
    Just now, as I was making a vegan pizza (or should I say pizza without cheese OR vegetarian pizza so as not to appear self righteous and offend anyone) I had a further thought. Here goes:
    If I said, for example, that rape is wrong,or if I said anti-Semitism is wrong, or that racism is wrong, would that be considered judgmental? Why then, is saying that exploiting sentient beings for food is wrong, and therefore insisting on veganism as a moral baseline, judgmental and self righteous. I would really like to know.

    • Dachia says:

      To answer your question- yes, it is judgmental. It just happens to be a judgment that more and more people share.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      Is it judgmental for me to point out that vegans who drive their cars to a vegan grocery/restaurant are really not that different form a veganish flexitarian who eats some meat every now and again?

  12. Pauline says:

    I agree with you, Karen: complete double standards in the way humans and non-humans are regarded. I also read Gary Francione’s post yesterday, which I too agree with. People too often make the issues all about us, whilst forgetting the victims. I also agree that our concern should be for those we understand to be sentient, even if our knowledge of which creatures are so isn’t static.

    Gary Steiner wrote in Animals and the Moral Community: “Sentience, particularly the capacity to suffer, is perhaps the most conspicuous indication of a being’s subjective involvement in the struggle for life and well-being. Just as we consider ourselves to be owed duties of non-interference by other human beings in our endeavour to cultivate our own life projects, we must recognise that we owe comparable duties of non-interference to animals, at least sentient ones, as they pursue their life projects. The refusal to recognise these obligations constitutes ‘human chauvinism’, a form of group selfishness pure and simple.”

    • unethical_vegan says:

      And what about the victims of your consumer-oriented vegan lifestyle? There are plenty of 1st world vegans that contribute to more animal suffering than many non-vegans who live in less-developed nations.

      How dare you claim moral superiority!

      • Pauline says:

        Can you please point out to me where I claimed moral superiority over anyone else. I merely observed that we tend to view the suffering of humans and nonhumans differently, taking the latter less seriously.

        In my previous post, I said: “… the fact that we can never attain 100% moral purity in the world we occupy (without committing suicide) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do our best”.

        You do not know me, nor how I lead my life, nor the number of different ways I try to reduce the harm I cause, my impact on the world, trying to keep my consumption down, recycling goods, etc. – although it is true that I do not live in a cave, scavenging for scraps to eat.

        Regarding your previous comment about people driving: I do not own a car and walk to destinations as much as possible, but then I expect I kill a number of ants in the process here.

        I really don’t understand the point you are making. Are you saying that those who live in “the first world” may as well consume animals because we can’t attain complete ethical purity in causing no harm in the world? Which would seem to be a logical fallicy.

        When you don’t know people, I would suggest it is better to stick to making generalised points.

        • unethical_vegan says:

          “People too often make the issues all about us, whilst forgetting the victims.”

          ” The refusal to recognise these obligations constitutes ‘human chauvinism’, a form of group selfishness pure and simple.”

          If these are not a claims to moral superiority than I’m a bloody omnivore.

          “I really don’t understand the point you are making.”

          Since you acknowledge that you contribute to animal suffering and exploitation you might consider being a little more empathetic to your fellow human animals who are not vegan with a capital “V”.

  13. JB says:

    awesome piece. I love the ambiguity and I must agree that the label can bring connotations and scrupulous interrogation and observation that can really discourage and belittle someone simply trying to be them. It was very encouraging to read this today and high five* to giving a voice to those who are ambiguously swimming in a label that has perhaps grown a little too small.

  14. michele says:

    Virtuous Vegans don’t seem so horrified when animals are tortured and executed to feed their pets .

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