A Vegan Thought Thread

Watering Down the Vegan Definition

As I’m sure everyone in the Vegan YouTube community will have seen, Kalel recently uploaded a video titled “I’m not really vegan?” which I feel highlighted a big split of opinions amongst vegans. She admitted to having indulged in some non-vegan candy bars (about one a year) and having non-vegan popcorn when she goes to the theatre every now and then. The essence of the opinion she expressed in the video was that having such a strict definition of veganism puts people off from wanting to try the lifestyle due to the risk of being attacked by any ‘militant’ vegans for making mistakes. I want to start off by saying that I completely agree with the fundamental point of her video in that the goal is to make the lifestyle look as accessible and inviting as possible and hence entice more people to try being vegan, however what I don’t agree with is the technicalities.

Encouraging as many people as possible to go vegan is the ultimate goal of most vegans and hence making the lifestyle appealing is a huge component of that, however that doesn’t mean that the vegan ‘title’ should be handed to anyone who makes mostly vegan choices. The most widely used definition of veganism (created by The Vegan Society) is: “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” The word ‘vegan’ is, in and of itself, a definition – giving identification to a particular lifestyle which seeks to eliminate animal exploitation and cruelty as far as reasonably possible. Being vegan isn’t about a certain elite deeming some people worthy of this so-called ‘title’ and others not, or about bashing those who are working towards becoming vegan but aren’t quite there yet; you quite simply either meet the definition or you don’t. The key words that should always be highlighted in this definition are “practicable” and “possible” – this is what makes this lifestyle accessible to anyone, no matter how far your true and honest utmost efforts can get you.

Kalel indulging in those few non-vegan bits of food is a great example of this: she could’ve easily gone for a vegan alternative (from her videos we can obviously see she has access to these), yet she consciously chose to make these decisions knowing the cruelty her money is supporting. I don’t want to discredit kalel in any way because I 100% believe she has done more for the vegan movement than so many of us and I admire that, but these actions we’re discussing just do not meet the definition of veganism – that’s not me passing judgement or belittling the work for veganism she has done, it’s just fact. On the contrary there are people who really don’t have access to vegan alternatives and/or can’t afford them. For example, the majority of cars come upholstered with leather and finding a vegan alternative in this category can require a much larger budget – there will be many people who genuinely don’t have the resources to invest in a ‘vegan car’. This doesn’t mean they’re not vegan: they may still be doing everything else in their power to avoid animal exploitation and cruelty and that is all the definition asks.

Furthermore, intertwined with this discussion it has been claimed that those contending that ‘you’re not vegan if you don’t meet the definition’ see veganism as a ‘title’. I would like to suggest an opposite view: if people don’t meet the definition but are primarily focused on being able to call themselves vegan, I would assert that this insinuates more of a desire to deem veganism a title than the alternate view, given the focus should be on helping the animals not what we can label ourselves as as a result. But regardless of whether that is the case or the opposite is true, this whole debate about titles itself indicates towards veganism being about our egos which couldn’t be further from the true intention of the lifestyle. Veganism is a moral stance: it is a statement that you do not condone the needless exploitation of or cruelty to animals. As soon as the movement drifts more towards being about ourselves and what we identify as, we’ve lost its true meaning. Moreover, if people are being attacked for moving towards veganism but not being quite there yet, the problem isn’t with veganism and some title fixation, it’s with the people making the criticism who clearly haven’t grasped the wider picture of the movement.

I almost think this whole debate is too simple of a thing for us to even feel the need to discuss (nonetheless it is interesting to think about): we should really be focusing on what’s putting people off the vegan lifestyle and addressing that, rather than arguing over something as straightforward as a definition. Besides, by warping the current definition so that it includes people who occasionally eat animal products all we’d have done is created a new concept but labelled it with an already existing term. There would still be people who don’t harm or exploit animals to the full extent of what is practicable and possible and who now wouldn’t fit under this new umbrella – we would then need a new term for what is currently defined as vegan which seems rather pointless. In a subsequent video Kalel did actually mention the need for a term that equates to transitioning to a vegan lifestyle and I completely agree: this would make much more sense.

Being more lenient with acts that are ‘permitted’ to be vegan does not make the vegan lifestyle itself  easier, all this does is water down the true meaning of veganism. If we start accepting that small but conscious contributions to animal suffering that could be avoided can still amount to reducing it as far as is “possible and practicable”, in essence what is really being portrayed is that if you avoid contributing to animal suffering most of the time, it is okay to contribute to it some of the time. The aim of this lifestyle is to eliminate animal suffering as much as possible so you can see how this outlook would be problematic. Doing some good deeds does not cancel out any bad deeds: the harm is still done and the pain still felt. Another issue that I’ve seen people mention is that if the definition did get watered down, this may confuse restaurants etc and run the risk of animal products being used in vegan-labelled food: this is not only an obvious issue for the movement, but could be a serious issue for people with allergies for example. I’m not sure how likely this scenario would be, however I’ve already witnessed confusion over honey within the vegan community itself so perhaps it isn’t actually too far-fetched.

So really what I’m trying to say is that the definition of veganism is not the problem; the problem is that we need to make the lifestyle more inviting and ensure that those making the transition feel like the vegan community is a source of aid to them rather than criticism. Personally the vegan community I’ve witnessed is extremely helpful with aspiring vegans, but many have claimed to feel judged or attacked so there is evidently a contrasting side that needs sorting if we really want the movement to grow (which presumably any true vegan should want.)

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