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On Keeping “Vegan” Pure

Kelly wondered whether the term "vegan" is "worth fighting for" given the latest trend of seemingly oxymoronish (waiting for that one to hit Webster's) terminology from the mouths of people who want to find a way to use animals, yet make it appear that they're not. Okay, that's not what she wrote, but that does seem to be what's occurring. A while back I tweeted that Bittman's VB6 (Vegan Before 6) should be called CB6, or Conscience Before 6, but VB6 does describe what he's doing in a sense. Before 6pm, he doesn't eat animals. Meanwhile the average omnivore across the street from me could call herself VBM, Vegan Between Meals. What about Bittman's shoes and suits and household products, not to mention those of the woman across the street? Is vegan a diet?

People who don't understand what veganism is should, in my mind, be corrected when the opportunity arises. In restaurants, when shopping for clothing or shoes or cars (and during Triple Crown season), I do think that's all worthwhile. Although as we all must realize, that shopping and dining you're doing is dicey, as you'll never be completely vegan. There will always be something, and we cannot control everything. But I hope you will agree that by not eating or wearing animals or products that use or were tested on sentient nonhumans that you know of, and by not participating in or promoting events that use animals as entertainment, you are doing a world of good for the planet and the creatures who live here.

The comments about the things I might not have known about, or cannot avoid, thereby making me not vegan, are usually made in an attempt to start an argument and reveal me as a hypocrite. I don't personally believe that if you can't do something one-hundred percent, you shouldn't try at all, but there are certainly things we all can do if we believe animals aren't ours to use. And they're all pretty obvious. As for the less obvious (gelatin in tires? didn't know that), there's only so much you can do, and each person has to draw their own line in the sand. Maybe sugar processed with bone char isn't worth boycotting a restaurant over. Maybe it is. Arguing about that line with other vegans, though, doesn't interest me. I'd rather trap a feral cat and have her spayed. Or educate my neighbors about the alternatives to poker at the dog track (and of course, about dog racing). Or bake some vegan cookies for a vegetarian friend who's convinced that she cannot survive without eggs and butter.

I think that vegan is worth fighting for as a word. What I'm worried about are the words and phrases that are causing problems among vegans, not between us and non-vegans (like VB6), because I fear these arguments are taking valuable time from important advocates for sentient nonhumans.

I'm not saying give up on "animal rights," either. I'm merely saying you can't tell someone they're wrong when "correct at the moment" is the best you can ever shoot for when it comes to language because correct is defined by a majority. It's not a judgment or an accusation, it's just an explanation. I'm not talking about morality here, I'm talking about language. And the real question is, is there thought–or is there morality-without language?

But enough of that, where do you stand on the sugar/restaurant issue?

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. "where do you stand on the sugar/restaurant issue?"

    I don't buy sugar that's been refined through bone for home use, but I accept the possibility that it might be a part of restaurant meals that I consume. That is, I never ask my server, "What kind of sugar do you use?" I only ask about the more obvious things like meat, dairy, eggs, and honey.

    "I'm worried about are the words and phrases that are causing problems among vegans, not between us and non-vegans (like VB6), because I fear these arguments are taking valuable time from important advocates for sentient nonhumans."

    I think that's a reasonable fear. I worry about that, too.

    July 22, 2009
  2. Great post, as always, Mary. No, I don't ask about sugar at restaurants and I don't worry about it very much. Don't worry about the wine, either. And yes, I would rather trap a feral cat than argue these fine points with other vegans, too!

    July 22, 2009
  3. On the 'purity' of language, the example here is about the word 'natural' and placing humans within it:

    "From Aristotle to the French Revolution, the good republic has been thought to require fraternite, which is idealized as a natural blood tie making separate individuals somehow one. But there is no such thing as natural fraternity, Derrida asserts, just as there is no natural maternity .All such natural categories, as well as the derivative concepts of community, culture, nation, and borders, are dependent on language and therefore are conventions. The problem with these conventions is not simply that they cover up differences within the presumably identical entities. It is that they also establish hierarchies among them: between brothers and sisters, citizens and foreigners, and eventually friends and enemies."

    And might I (john) add, species. So perhaps it is also with the (written) word vegan, that hierarchies are developed amongst vegans based on conventional uses of the word at any given point in time by any given collective interpretation.

    Derrida goes on to say that seperating humans by calling/placing all 'others' under the heading 'animal' is to deny the plurality amongst these other sentient beings as well as to place our 'species' outside of this realm, resulting in two homogenous, yet seperate groups.
    So i say that inner homogenous (purist) applications of the word vegan can result in hierarchies and infighting.

    Derrida – The animal,that therefore I am"

    "There is no animal in the general singular, separated from man by a single indivisible limit. We have to envisage the existence of "living creatures" whose plurality cannot be assembled within the single figure of an animality that is simply opposed to humanity. This does not of course mean ignoring or effacing everything that separates humankind from the other animals, creating a single large set, a single great, fundamentally homogenous and continuous family tree going from the animot to the homo (faber, sapiends, or whatever else). I repeat that it is rather a matter of taking into account a multiplicity of heterogeneous structures and limits. Among non-humans and separate from nonhumans there is an immense multiplicity of other living things that cannot in any way be homogenized, except by means of violence and willful ignorance, within the category of what is called the animal or animality in general. The confusion of all nonhuman living creatures within the general and common category of the animal is not simply a sin against rigorous thinking, vigilance, lucidity, or empirical authority; it is also a crime".

    Another good reference :

    "The question of the animal'

    "The name of man, and the logic of the proper by which it functions, works to exclude many human others as well, by locating them on the side of these non-human others. Thus, Wolfe argues that a critical analysis of the logic of "speciesism" has implications for non-human animals and humans alike"

    Would we go as far as to say that the label 'non-vegan' or 'non pure vegan' divides (and thus makes) certain people into a *less-than*- catagory of human?

    July 22, 2009
  4. Yes! Vegan is a word worth fighting for. I do gently correct people who eat fish and call themselves "vegetarian" … I tell them being a pescetarian or flexitarian is a great thing, but not the same as being vegetarian or vegan.

    There is a valid need to keep "vegan" pure… as the movement grows, we want people to know what the word means. If someone claims to be vegan but regularly eats dairy and eggs, everyone will naturally think that vegans eat dairy and eggs. Then they will be dismayed when they go out of their way to prepare egg salad as a meatless alternative, only to find that their vegan friend won't eat it.

    I do also think that there are a variety of reasons why people are going vegan… some for the environment, some for health, some for animals, some for humanitarian reasons (world hunger). They are all valid reasons… we should support each other's decision and not judge the inevitable lapse (like the small leather tag on the second hand jeans they're wearing – IMO recycling those jeans is a good, "green" thing, and does not create demand for more small leather tags on new jeans). I think we all do the best we can. I'm with the rest of you on white sugar – I avoid buying it, but sometimes you have to adopt a somewhat "don't ask, don't tell" policy when eating out.

    Dissent among vegans will ultimately hurt us more than help us.

    July 23, 2009
  5. My mother used to say she was an ovo-lacto-beefo-porko-lambo-cheeso vegetarian. I don't know how original she was with that terminology.

    I wonder if the VB6 break out their leather purses, shoes and belts in the evening when they have dinner? and when does "before 6" end? Sun up? midnight? after brunch?

    July 23, 2009
  6. Heh, Zucchini Breath's post reminded me of this thread i created:

    Veg*n Definitions:

    I think "vegan" is well worth not only defining but defending as well. I fear the same thing is happening to the word "vegan" that happened to "vegetarian". It's getting watered down and co-opted by a variety of diet and eco faddists.
    ( see: Veganism Co-Opted by New Age-ism: )

    In all my advocacy work i strive to use "vegan" strictly and never "vegetarian" or shorts like "veg" or "veggie". That sounds pretty curmudgeonly for most people but i think it's important to keep the meaning intact to communicate the idea. I'm all about mangling language for fun, art and color but "vegan" was created for a reason and it's backsliding to a meaning blob of a word. Please forgive the following link dump but we've explored this subject in detail over at the Vegan Represent ThinkTank. It might be interesting to some readers.

    Here's how the term started for the record:
    Vegan Defined:

    How many people say "I'm a vegan" versus "I'm vegan"? Does it matter?
    Usage of the Word "Vegan" (noun vs adjective):

    What's with all the "veggie" and "veg" usage?
    I Can Haz Veggie Veg Speak:

    A pet peeve of mine is when vegans police each other. It's the whole reason i created Vegan Represent in the first place and i keep a tight lid on such behavior. That being said i don't mind a little internal critique to keep us on our toes when it’s done appropriately. Also "time wasted" or "opportunity cost" is a fallacious argument so saying "X is wrong because i could be doing X" is a copout IMHO.

    Veganism has little to do with diet and with the American culture's obsession with food, diet and weight it's not surprising that this aspect of it has been so mangled. Still i think it's best we mitigate the damage and avoid the temptation to ride that wave.

    As for sugar I had to draw a line and this is my rule of thumb:
    I don't eat anything that contains an animal ingredient.

    Bone charcoal filtered sugar has no animal ingredients in it. Also isinglass filtered booze has no animal ingredients left in it. Sure they might have used animal ingredients in the production of such but if that’s the criteria NO product you buy off the shelf can be considered vegan for the packaging, glues, transportation etc ad nauseam used to create and get the product to you. That kind of lifestyle is well beyond my capacity to sustain and also would make it that much more out of reach for people exploring veganism.

    Also when enough people go vegan the cost of using incidental animal ingredients will become impracticable and alternative will be sought.

    Anyway, thanks for the blog, great stuff!

    July 23, 2009
  7. Nathan Schneider wrote a helpful blog post on this topic earlier this year:

    "Veganism: Sui Generis + Language Recommendations"

    July 23, 2009
  8. I've had to distinguish "animal product" with the further clarification of: "*intentionally* consumed". A woman insisted I could not be vegan because my foods contained trace amounts of insects and rodent hair – Whatever.

    On keeping things pure, and picking your battles… If I'm with a group, and manage to find a resturant we can all eat at – I'll be darned if I make a fuss if I find out the dressing contains honey. That would just give "them" a reason to dismiss all vegans as "radical". Better, (for me) to eat what I can, and tell the resturant (another time) advising them of what is and isn't "vegan"… But, that's me, and some might find that a compromise… so be it.

    But the VBM! – Now that's funny! 🙂

    July 25, 2009

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