Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Of Babies and Bath Water: Insistence on Another's Purity is a Losing Battle

I’ll admit it.

A most fervent wish of mine is that one bright morning, everyone will wake up refreshed, take a nice stretch, and right before breakfast, have a sort of mass epiphany. We could be in the shower, we could be walking the dog, we could be reading our morning affirmation, but in that singular, crystallized moment of our epiphany, people will recognize the fundamental injustice of deciding that we will use others as we wish because we can. We will understand that there’s really not any difference between a human and a fish when it comes to a desire to live free from harm. We will finally know deep in our marrow that because we legally can do something we desire, it does not confer a moral license to do it. Immediately after this epiphany, humanity will shake off our privileges of entitlement as if it were all just a bad dream and with a resolute clap of the hands a la Mary Poppins - “Chop chop!” - we would all move on. From that point on, we would all be vegan.

In this fantasy of mine, the human race would evolve in one giant, collective leap toward a consciousness of expansiveness and connection that would cut out all that unnecessary suffering that occurs before everyone’s fully on board. We could all go to the deli at the grocery store and not have to ask what’s in anything and we could buy birthday presents for each other without ever having to check for wool, leather or silk. We wouldn’t have to look for the rabbit symbol on shampoo or be ill at ease when we don’t know if the glycerine is of animal or plant origin. Everything would be easy, so free of stress. Our children wouldn’t have to avoid the McDonald’s Playland and they could keep all of their Halloween candy. There would be no need to stand outside shivering in the cold as we protest the circus in November. There would be no more time wasted giving dirty looks to people in fur coats. Life would be so easy.

God, just imagine what Thanksgiving would be like.

As much as I want people to adopt a new way of living because it is deeply wrong to ruin or take another’s life to indulge our fleeting, random pleasures, I have been vegan for long enough to realize that this wish is a luxury that is quite outside of my control. It is also rather, well, dictatorial for me to insist that unless others are motivated by my very same values, their reasons are unworthy. It is not enough that the rest of the world go vegan: they must do it for reasons that I approve of, damn it, or else it doesn’t count.

I have noticed a grumbling resentment and condescension towards those who “just” follow a vegan diet, even though that influences the most animals’ lives by far. Speaking hypothetically, what if a very influential person, say a former president of the United States, publicly credits a vegan diet with saving his life? Should we yell and scream and stomp our feet because he’s not vegan enough? Should we stare at his shoes, the same way people check out our shoes when they first hear that we’re vegan? Should we insist upon inspecting his medicine cabinet before we are willing to sign off on it? Or should we be damn grateful and elated for the fact that someone so prominent is normalizing a subject that many feel is inaccessible and beyond their reach? While we need that outer edge to be pushing society toward a new consciousness, we also need these people, human breadcrumbs in a sense, who draw others in and show them a path. Shouting on street corners or demanding personal purity as we sit on our self-built mountaintops of piety may feel good but if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that it’s not going to help the animals. If people think that giving up all animal products and familiar foods sounds radically unsettling – and it does to the vast majority - should we keep judging and nitpicking until they have given up on the notion altogether?

This has been a gradual evolution toward a middle path for me. For years I towed the party line that unless people adopted a vegan diet due to deep ethical convictions, that it was superficial, that it would never stick. I have also seen the contradiction of this idealistic notion many times. (To be fair, I have also seen it reinforced many times.) I have seen people come to veganism through the doorway of environmentalism and I have seen the lifestyle stick. I have seen others motivated primarily by their health, something ethical vegans look especially down upon probably because it smacks of flaky narcissism, but I have seen these same people become the most ardent, most persuasive and unequivocal advocates for vegan living over time.

I have also seen people become vegan for “the right reasons” – people I have felt a deep kinship with, people I have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with at protests - decide over time that they really miss cheese. Like really miss it a lot even though they know about dairy cows and veal calves and the whole bleak picture. They know it. They have read the books, they have watched the movies, and most important, they have felt it in their hearts. One day or over time, though, something just changes. They think, Is a little organic cheese so awful? Oh, and since they’re eating a little cheese anyway, would it be so terrible if they ate some free-range eggs, too? And if they’re already doing that, is it the worst thing in the world to eat a little wild-caught salmon? With the slippery slope fully rolled out before them, they then realize that consuming one is not much more or less justifiable than the rest and these once-ethical vegans become fully omnivorous.  I have heard and read the assertion many times that former vegans who start eating animal foods were probably never really committed to begin with and that is true sometimes but not always. Somewhere along the line, they switch off or detour. I have seen it with my own eyes. It threatens us to think that someone who has had a consciousness shift could renounce that and go more or less back to where they were before but it does happen.

While we need to unapologetically reinforce the very core ethical conviction of compassionate living that is at the root of veganism, I think we need to make space at the party for those who came in through a side door. We don’t have the luxury of veganism being an exclusive, members only club, not if we really want there to be less suffering in the world. We can create our little islands of vegan purity where only those with what we deem to possess the right attitudes can dwell, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that this kind of moral turf patrolling is really going to result in less suffering in the world. If someone is getting a foot in the door through the gateway of health, should we push them back out because we have taken out our moral checklists and they do not meet our standards? No, not unless we want to be isolated islands of angry but righteous vegan separatists. Instead, we should encourage people who are trying to get a foot in the door. We should support them. We should share our knowledge.

Ethics provide the strongest foundation of veganism, I have no doubt about that. While we are continually hacking away at the webs of disconnection humanity weaves, the stories people repeat to justify their privileges, we must keep the door open. The apple cart we are upsetting is a massive one culturally and historically but it is also a very personal inner-shift, one after the next, that is going to create the sea change. It is going to take time and it is going to take patience but we are well on our way: progress is happening every day in deep-seated and lasting ways. Until people are fully on board then, let’s throw out some lifelines.

I am going to hold on to my fantasy for now. It comforts me, makes me smile. It is just a fantasy, though. The real change will come from challenging our comfort zones, digging our hands into the mucky mess of it, being creative and giving up the notion that we can make others think the way we want them to think. The core convictions behind veganism are powerful beyond description. Let’s keep chipping away at the lies humanity tells and, most important, let’s keep the door open while we’re doing it.  


  1. Word up. It's safe and quiet on Vegan Separatist Island (and we have cookies!) but it gets lonely pretty fast.

    Still...Thanksgiving. God, I dream of the day I have an all-vegan Thanksgiving.

  2. Good think for humanity your not just dreaming!
    Thank you and "keep chipping away at the lies humanity tells"!!!
    Viva la Vegans!

  3. Thank you for this Marla. The whole judgmental "vegan is my religion" attitude that some adopt is off putting and defeats the whole purpose of education and outreach.

  4. In a country with a new fad diet every week, there is no doubt that the ethical reasons will keep more people on the path to a less cruel lifestyle, but we must do everything we can to get everyone to not go backwards.

  5. Let's see...If I were a chicken being I don't think I would be too concerned about the reason(s) that someone didn't imprison and then kill me. Only that they didn't do it.

  6. Lots to think about. I am happy for anyone to take to veganism, although it is always hard to see people who only embrace the diet still wear leather shoes or products tested on animals. I can talk about my frustrations with my ethically committed vegan friends, but to someone who is moving to a more compassionate lifestyle, I try to be supportive and celebrate where they are and hopefully provide direction for even better choices.

  7. I am supportive of people who make changes on the way to veganism and am glad it is getting more attention. BUT many people who say they follow a plant based diet make exceptions, like a former president eating turkey on Thanksgiving and that confuses the issue for people who don't understand veganism.

    I wonder how many vegans will be asked if Bill Clinton can eat turkey at Thanksgiving, why can't they?

  8. Shannon, I started having vegan Thanksgiving meals with my friends years ago as a supplement to the "other" one and eventually just phased that one out. I couldn't take it anymore and since then, we've all been happy. The omnivores don't want the buzz-kill of vegans at their bacchanal and I don't want the serious sadness of a dead turkey (and various other dead and abused animal products) at dinner. I highly, highly recommend vegan Thanksgiving with friends. Thanksgiving used to be my most dreaded holiday: now I LOVE it.

  9. Thank you, JD Mumma, Ami, and I could certainly say the same thing to you. Thanks for all you do!

  10. Thanks, Laviyah. You are the perfect example of attracting with your beautiful spirit (not to mention your phenomenal food). :)

  11. You know I am right there with you, Mikael. This is why building that ethical foundation is always necessary. But let's not pull the rug out from under us as we move forward. You are one of the most dedicated vegans I know and I am always inspired by your friendly, welcoming spirit when I am angry at the rest of the world. I appreciate you so much!

  12. I agree, veganelder. I would hope that people would eventually, like, care for deeper reasons but for the immediate now, yes, I would just not want to be killed.

  13. I hear you, Bitt, I really do. I think that as long as people differentiate and says that they are dietary vegans, there is no deception there. Although, damn, I just wish it weren't so hard for people to make the connections. Your method is pretty much the same as mine. :) Thanks for sharing.

  14. I understand, Francesca, and I do want to be clear that I do not support using dreadful words like "veganish" or shying away from using the word. I agree that this confuses people, and rightfully so! I do expect that if people are going to call themselves vegan that they maintain the integrity of the word and live honestly. This is more written about people who are exploring veganism, getting their feet in the door, are excited by it but not fully there yet. We need to extend a hand. Thanks so much for your thoughts. I agree with you.

    About the turkey on Thanksgiving - something Dr. John McDougall does, too - there was some nuance there. When questioned if he was fully vegan, Clinton said, kind of shrugging that he had a little turkey on Thanksgiving, not much. What I read from his response was that it didn't have much appeal to him anymore. Maybe he's been eating a vegan diet ever since? In any case, he reaction was kind of perfect for our cause.

    I am totally understanding where you are coming from, though, Francesca. We just need to be a little more welcoming when people are interested, that's my main point. Watering it down to something I think might be more palatable, like referring to myself as "veganish" doesn't do it for me. :)

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  15. Gosh, thank you for this. I am one who turned to veganism for my IBS (and help from Skinny Bitch), but I have the worst time finding shoes to fit my feet.

    I know, right - shoes?! I mean, what the heck, right? They're just SHOES. Well, not for people like me, people with horribly narrow feet that live in CHICAGO, where I can't even find leather shoes in my width that FIT, and where I can't afford some $400 shoes that are likely not narrow enough (we're talking AAAA here).

    This includes winter boots, something I'm sure fellow Chicagoans can relate to. What of a vegan to do with this? Do I grit my teeth, buy alpaca socks in the hope that the web site I buy from treat their furry "friends" as members of their families and then hope my rubber boots help keep my uber narrow feet warm and dry???

    It doesn't come easy.

  16. Even I don't like to label myself a "vegan" because it makes me appear to be sure about it all.

    I still think about the right and wrongs of consuming/using animals humanely. Is it wrong or is it just nature?

    Right and wrong, good and evil are such relative things that people/culture assign values to.

    But, if we can decide as a whole to be compassionate beings, I think the right thing is to be vegan. The thing is, it's not everyone's aspiration to be a compassionate human being. *sigh*

  17. Sandy, I hear you. I've been vegan for 10 years and have tried many, many shoes, and almost all of them hurt in one way or another, sooner or later. And I don't even wear a hard-to-fit size. I really don't know what to do; I'm getting to an age where, if I wear the wrong kind of shoes too often, I get pains further up my body (back, hips). I feel that many vegan shoes out there are made for looks, not function. (Like Alternative Outfitters with their endless parade of cutesy, kicky flats.) I'm in Chicago, too, by the way. Every year I think it's going to be the year I find warm, waterproof snow boots (I like the short kind that are like shoes with a high collar) that won't give me foot cramps, but it never works out unless you spend $90 - $100, which I can't. Sorry I have no solution, though.

  18. I do agree we need to be welcomingyand encouraging and I know people who became vegan for health and stayed for the ethics. And even if internally I sigh at my friend who's "vegan" except for eggs, I don't say that to her. I encourage her to learn more about it. And vent the frustrations on vegan message boards that are not public.

  19. Oh, Sandy and Raine!

    I do not have difficult feet to find shoes for and they don't cause me pain but I do know that I also don't have lots and lots of money to spend on them as well. I wish I had some advise for you. As it is, I wear sweatshop constructed shoes that kill my soul a little every time I think about them. Until the world catches up with us, I guess this is what we're stuck with...

    Thanks for sharing.


  20. Mary - "The thing is, it's not everyone's aspiration to be a compassionate human being." I share your sigh. This about sums it up.

  21. Ugh, Francesca. That is so hard. I wish I had a magic wand sometimes. Alas.

  22. Hi :)
    I found your blog by using the "Next Blog" feature. I normally would not give anything about Veganism a second look, but something about your writing caught my attention.

    I cannot even begin to claim to be anywhere close to Vegan. In fact, I am fully Omnivore. That said, I gotta say I admire your view. I like the way you write, and even voice your views. You are passionate, committed, and fully stand behind your views. I find that admirable.

    I read the entire post, and would not for one second discount your views. They are valid. I enjoy the way you present the case of those who become Vegan, then again stray a bit (or a lot). I enjoy the way you present your "fantasy" (as you called it). I suppose if we all took the same approach to the things we were passionate about, we would all be a little more forgiving, and even possibly more loving. Your writing is an inspiration in human-acceptance... even toward those we strongly disagree with. You voice disagreement, yet acceptance. You explain quite well how you understand how any other approach would create an isolation, instead of an inclusion.

    I cannot claim to agree with a Vegan lifestyle, but I can appreciate you. I can appreciate veganism. I am sure you do not receive Kudos from a committed Omnivore often. But My Kudos, AND Support to you.

    (No, I am not mocking you. I truly admire, and respect your passionate view.)

    Thanks for helping me to understand a little bit more about the Vegan Life-style, and what it is truly rooted in. JOn~=:-)

  23. Regarding comfy Vegan shoes: Both Dansko and Sanito offer Vegan Clogs that run about $75 (and up) but last for years. The patent leather are also water proof (at least in my experience). You can find them at Zappo's.

  24. Sorry, that is Sanita not Sanito!

  25. JOn, thank you so much for your very thoughtful and generous words. I really appreciate it. What you wrote was very meaningful to me. Thank you.

  26. Thanks, Anonymous. I really need to look into Dansko. People love those!


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