Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On Owning Language

Some people really hate labels. I am not one of those people. 

I know that I should shun labels. I am an open-minded, artistic, rebellious type. (Oh wait, those are actually more labels.) But labels are for cans of soup, right? On the surface, yes, but on a level  deeper than that, labels can actually help people to flesh out what was once two-dimensional and inaccessible to them. If you are “out” as someone who identifies with certain so-called labels, it helps those who meet you to understand the richness and complexities of human nature more, not less, and actually see you in a much more expansive way than it would seem that a label would allow.

At a university surrounded by cornfields, I was happy and honored to be able to embrace the label of feminist. Why wouldn’t I be? Feminists were powerful and independent and not taking any nonsense from anyone. It wasn’t long, though, before I learned that it was not so cut-and-dried for the many other young women who made it crystal clear that they did not self-identify as feminists. Even if they were going to college to develop marketable skills and knowledge for professional careers upon graduation, or as a stepping stone to the advanced degrees denied their female forebears, they weren’t feminists, no way, no how. In talking with people, what I learned was largely that they had conflicts with the image and perception of what they thought it meant to be a feminist. To many who disassociated themselves from feminism, it often seemed motivated by a conflict between the image of themselves they were trying to project and feminism.

The same outdated notions prevalent in 1970 were still alarmingly entrenched in 1990. This was what I learned: Feminists don’t shave. Feminists hate men. Feminists don’t wear bras. Feminists are ugly. Sadly, in 2013, all these years later, there is still such a powerful grip the negative associations of feminism has on the word that many women continue to reject the word even as they personally benefit from the advances early feminists fought for years before. In thinking about it, I have to conclude that the universal cultural pressure to be considered attractive might be as powerfully motivating as they come. 

Over the years, I have noticed a growing reticence around the word “vegan” by my fellow herbivores and it also seems to be largely motivated by some similar negative perceptions the dominant culture has attached to us. Vegans are angry. Vegans are busybodies. Vegans are judgmental. Vegans hate people. It’s disappointing to me, as someone who is a proud vegan, to see so many who could be out there creating positive change and challenging perceptions in the world remove their association with the word altogether. I fear that feminism is so full of baggage at this point that I don’t know if we’ll ever rid ourselves of the negative associations attached to it, and I don’t want to see the same thing happen to veganism.

Given the pressing importance of spreading our message of compassionate living, I have to ask this: Whom do we want to control the language and messaging around veganism? Do we want to hand it over to big advertising? Do we want the media to dictate it? Do we want the powers that be, the ones who have everything to lose if veganism takes hold, to control the terms and messaging of it?

I embrace the label “vegan” partly because I am so very grateful to be living at a time and in a place where I can live by my values. This is an extraordinary privilege and it is unique to our age. In embracing the label, we humanize it and then, paradoxically, it becomes less of a label and more of a simple descriptor. If we can live as complex, individual, dynamic and creative vegans, we take the one-size-fits-all label off of us and we create something altogether new and real out of it. This more fleshed out understanding of who vegans are then flows out when we interact in the world so the public will have a more complete understanding, which will help them to reject the shallow clichés that have been tacked onto us. Further, when we take an active role in broaden the public perception of veganism, the people we interact with can begin to imagine themselves as vegans.

I believe that we need to own the language and, yes, the label, because through that, we will expand perceptions and I believe that this will ultimately ripple out to have a positive net effect for the animals. We can’t give up the messaging around veganism to those who barely understand it or want to see it fail: we need to be out there as individuals, showing the world what it means to us to live as vegans. Our beliefs about equality and justice spring from something much richer and more deep than the lazy cultural identifiers the people who don’t understand veganism assign to it so we need to own the word. Allowing others to define who we are will be our ruin and it will ultimately lead to the continued dismissal of the vegan message.

So here is my challenge to you if you don’t like the public perception of veganism: Practice owning the word. Be an out and proud and unapologetically fabulous vegan. Society being able to see us - as artists, entrepreneurs, students, grandparents, scientists, activists, neighbors and everything in between - as unique representatives of veganism is what is going to be the game changer here.

Are you ready?


  1. The word "vegan" has a concrete meaning, one which is very useful not just on an ideological level but also a practical one. The latter is one of the reasons why I will fight so strongly to preserve the word vegan and not let it be diluted by egg-eating pseudo-vegans, flexitarians and so on.

    "Feminism" is less useful to me as an actual term.

  2. I'm a proud vegan and a feminist too! Thanks for an important post which really sums up how I feel about this subject.

  3. "Our beliefs about equality and justice spring from something much richer and more deep than the lazy cultural identifiers the people who don’t understand veganism assign to it so we need to own the word. Allowing others to define who we are will be our ruin and it will ultimately lead to the continued dismissal of the vegan message." Yes!

    I, a proud out feminist and vegan, found myself nodding all through reading this post.

  4. Vanilla Bean's comment is exactly why people don't like to use the term "vegan", including myself. There is always someone more "vegan" than you are. As we all know, we can't be perfect. Your car isn't vegan, your house wasn't built vegan. I am guessing at some point in everyone's life you've eaten dairy by accident (vegan from birth is rare) or worn some sort of leather. How far do you exactly have to go until you've earned the title? It is very subjective. I am with you, I think more people should be vegan/feminist and proud, and with out fear of judgement from their own kind.

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  6. Labels can increase visibity so we can evaluate the presence of something. Labels that make things invisible and inacessible are more difficult. I like the word "othering" because it can be used to acknowledge someone, not deny or marginalize them. Its about the intent behind it all.

  7. A super-inspirational post! I don't worry too much about someone being more vegan than me... That's bound to happen. I think if we each individually did the best we could in our own lives and in our own circumstances there never be need to fear the "more vegan" police.

    Because of the reasons stated i dis-owned the word feminist for nearly 30 years of my life. Yet, I lived as a productive, proud and independent woman. I allowed myself to be robbed of a good, hard-earned label. One I had a right to wear without shame. Not gonna let that happen twice. ;)

  8. i'm a proud vegan - and a proud womyn's liberationist...

    i understand where vanilla rose is coming from...

    as far as i'm concerned, you're either vegan or not - but i certainly don't confuse vegetarianism with veganism as some do...

    as for feminist - that became the acceptable term when the label i was proud to carry - womyn's liberationist - was marginalised many years ago by those who feared strong, independent womyn...

    language certainly is a powerful, political tool...

  9. I agree that a person is either vegan or they're not. I agree that we all make compromises. The difference is that a vegan will take reasonable opportunities to become "more vegan"; if they can replace a product related to animals with a vegan one they will do so if they can afford it. How do I define "afford it" (assuming the vegan product is more expensive which will not necessarily be the case)? That's where every vegan has to make their own decisions. But someone who is vegan at heart will try to change themselves and their lives to become less dependent on animal products.

    Whereas a fake vegan will not try to improve themselves. Instead, they will try to stretch the definition of vegan to include themselves.

  10. Great post! I've been a vegan for a little over a year. After considering it for a month and then reading your post "The Persistence of Fairy Tales", I stood up in my living room and said, "I AM A VEGAN". It was a profound moment for me, as I think self-naming always is.

    Since then, I love using the word vegan. It makes me feel strong and happy. You once wrote that for many people, we will (each) be the only vegans they'll ever meet. And that's an important reason to "own" this label. I want people to become accustomed to the word, to begin to view it as ordinary — to see a pleasant, smart, non-scarey, gray-haired woman who identifies as vegan.

    For my close friends, the vegan label is now connected to someone they love and trust. And they know that I would be happy to be introduced as their vegan friend.

    As always, thank you for everything you do for this important cause.

  11. I love all the thoughts shared here. I agree with you, Vanilla Rose, that the definition of feminist is much, much harder to pin down.

  12. Thank you, Imogen! And I am happy to be a proud and out vegan feminist alongside you. :)

  13. Thank you, Tina! Happy to be your ally. :)

  14. Exactly, Rachel. We live in a flawed, violent world build upon the oppression of animals. It is impossible to be a "pure vegan" but that is not the point anyway. The point is to live as closely with our values as we can and work towards eradicating violence and exploitation.

  15. Thank you, John. The concept of "othering" is very useful to understand and share with the world.

  16. Yes, it is, proud womon. I couldn't agree more. Let's take ownership of it!

  17. Thank you, beautiful spirit shelties 11, and you have officially made my day. I am so glad that you are out there, demystifying veganism and building positive associations through your wonderful example. Thank you for being you!

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