or Why vegans should come out of the “veg” closet and stop claiming parity with vegetarians.
When I was a child, I loved animals and dreamed of becoming vegetarian, though my parents forbade it. I knew that vegetarians were peaceful folks who lived in harmony with animals. Eventually, I was able to realize this dream, at 16 (on my first day of college). I was a typical lacto-ovo-vegetarian (I ate milk, egg and plant products, but no “meat”), thought nothing of animal parts used in non-food materials. Gradually, my childhood dream dissipated as I began to realize that my limited steps did not entirely coincide with a peaceful world.
While shopping one school break, I bought a real pair of blue suede shoes at a thrift store, but my middle sister pointed out that leather, like beef, comes from slaughtered cows (and I sadly returned them). Not long after, I asked a vegan friend in college why she didn’t eat eggs or dairy & she patiently explained her reasons. This got me to thinking, but I wasn’t sure I could make such radical changes; I did some experimenting and ended up going vegan some time later. Yet I still considered myself vegetarian, albeit a “pure” or “100%” vegetarian. I felt myself to be part of the larger family of vegetarians, including all who declined to eat animal flesh.
Being a vegan in not particularly veg-friendly circumstances and knowing almost exclusively meat-eaters (other than my siblings) was an isolating experience. I had many friends and family who I loved, but felt did not “get” me. Social events with food were difficult – I either smiled and suffered hunger pains in silence (with only animal-infused foods that I found repellant) or I avoided social events entirely. Conversely, I felt a special kinship with vegetarians, even when they were near-strangers; at least they “got” it – they understood the pain of animals killed for food and declined to eat them, despite the social inconvenience. I started an “Integrated Vegetarian” social club in 2006, to meet more “vegetarians” (meaning both lacto-ovo vegetarians and vegans), which I considered very successful.
So it was that when I heard a local vegan in a radio interview refer to vegetarianism as a “knee-jerk reaction,” I found myself rather offended and upset. After all, hadn’t I been a vegetarian, wasn’t I still technically vegetarian? And weren’t some of my friends and family vegetarians and very compassionate people? How could their dedication to animals, their significant difference from the mainstream and dietary dedication be naught but “knee-jerk”?
Subsequently, I enrolled in an “Intro to Animal Rights” class by a local vegan group, as I hadn’t ever learned about animal rights theory. During and after the class, I began to really think about veganism in a more rigorous way. Why was I vegan? Why was the term veganism invented*? What did the early animal rights philosophers have to say? What do the modern philosophers have to say? Should other people go vegan and if so, for what reason(s)? What are the moral differences between veganism and lacto-ovo-vegetarianism? What are the moral differences between lacto-ovo-vegetarianism and omnivorism (or “carnism”)?
It’s that last question that knocked the wind out of my sails. I can’t find any moral difference between vegetarianism and omnivorism. There’s a psychological difference, of course, a difference in compassion towards our fellow animals, but there isn’t a significant intellectual difference between them, not when you know the truth about the animal-agriculture industry (that harm and slaughter befall all animals used thusly). Ultimately, vegetarianism, when undertaken for any sort of “benefit” to the animals is a sort of hasty reaction against the idea of animals killed for “meat” that did not stop to consider what else is done to animals in the name of human profit, pleasure and convenience.
The vast majority of vegetarians I’ve met, like my pre-vegan self, seem to care about animals and wish to undertake a compassionate, peaceful diet that they believe does not harm animals. Some vegetarians believe that “meat” is bad for the environment and so that’s another reason to go vegetarian. The problem with those mindsets is that they don’t account for the facts about “products” made from animals’ reproductive secretions (e.g., eggs & dairy).
Animals used for their reproductive secretions fare no better than those used for their flesh. In fact, all are slaughtered well before their natural lifespan, but lactating and egg-laying animals arguably live more difficult lives as they are burdened with “producing” for a longer period under equally horrific circumstances (e.g, rape racks, having their families torn apart, “forced molting” starvation or non-anesthetized mutilations like seared-off beaks and branding).
Animals used for their reproductive secretions are no better for the environment than those used for their flesh. In fact, lactating and egg-laying animals require more land (for their feed crops, plus housing) and account for more grain, water and transportation use as they live longer and “produce” more than those who are quickly slaughtered for their flesh.
Animals used for their reproductive secretions are not better for human health those used for their flesh. Bird eggs and mammal milk are animal baby foods and contain too much cholesterol, fat and animal protein for human beings to consume on a regular basis, leading to a variety of animal-food-induced health problems (e.g., heart disease).
In my observation, many lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat primarily meals containing animal foods; they do not seek out a wide range of plant foods, as one might logically expect (given the plethora of edible plants and the relatively few sources of bird eggs and mammal milk). Additionally, some vegetarians seem especially hostile to information on the reality of conditions for lactating and egg-laying animals, even more so than some meat-eaters are. Perhaps it is because they have more invested in the myths of happy cows and hens.
Even though typical vegetarians may have good intentions, they are still participating (albeit unintentionally) in harming animals. As vegans, fully aware of the deleterious impacts of animals used for their reproductive secretions, we should not ignore the inconsistencies of those who are vegetarian-identified. I don’t think we should pretend that eating cow-cheese is somehow “better” than eating beef, that the cow isn’t harmed and killed in both cases. Instead, we should be patiently, but persistently guiding them towards a vegan lifestyle.
I don’t think vegans should use the “veg” label (or worse, “veg*n”, totally reversing the intent of the word “vegan”*) in the name of inclusiveness. I think vegans should be out about it. Not aggressively, but unapologetically – yes, we are vegan, we have chosen to avoid consuming animals as “products”; we recognize them as sentient beings.
I think we should be compassionate towards our non-vegan brethren, but obfuscating the “vegan” concept is a disservice to ourselves and the animals. As forthright vegans, we can potentially help educate people and introduce them to new plant foods (reducing their dependence on animal foods), but at the least, we can be living examples of thriving vegan beings. Even just the latter will help dissolve one of the most tenacious cultural myths (i.e., that eating animal foods is “necessary”).
Forget veg & veg*n, just go vegan.
*The term vegan was invented (in 1944) specifically to distinguish animal-free folks from typical lacto-ovo-vegetarians.