So a few weeks ago, I noticed on Twitter that someone with the handle "95PercentVegan" was following me. I was sitting at the coffee shop and rolled my eyes a little thinking "not again" and although I hardly ever tweet anymore except to retweet the odd music-related thing, I decided to challenge them on their misuse of the term "vegan". We exchanged a few tweets, mine sort of half-hearted, since this song's just getting so old.
MFIoFV: There is no such thing as being 95% vegan.
95%Vegan: We would respectfully disagree from a nutritional and mathematical viewpoint.I found things to do. I had litter-boxes to clean, rhubarb to pick, friends to hang out with. A few days later, I sent two final tweets.
MFIoFV: Veganism is an ethical lifestyle that rejects animal exploitation. It's not a diet.
95%Vegan: With due respect, you miss the point. Reducing animal exploitation is a vast improvement over what is happening now.
MFIoFV: I am talking about the definition of veganism. You can no more be 95% vegan than you can be 95% celibate.
MFIoFV: In shrugging off some animal use, you're condoning it and communicating that it's sometimes OK to exploit animals.
95%Vegan: As a clinician, I am in the business of helping people reach their nutritional goals; not cater to those with an all or one agenda. We wish you the best. For more information, you can see our blogs at 95perecentvegan.com.
MFIoFV: But slaughtering animals is "all or nothing". Veganism, by definition, rejects all easily avoidable animal exploitation.
MFIoFV: Veganism isn't a health fad or diet. You're grossly misusing the term to cash in on its popularity. That's shameful/misleading.Unsurprisingly, there was no further response to this on Twitter. The folks running the "95% Vegan" site are, of course, promoting a diet that revolves around the nutritional benefits of eating more plant-based foods. They've read their Pollan and their Bittman; they likely have a dog-eared copy of The China Study kicking around somewhere. They've actually trademarked the term "95% Vegan" (no, seriously) and have a book coming out. I say "they" when the two who seem behind it are a Dr. Jamie Knoll and an attorney called Caitlin Herndon. With their matching white-blonde hair, they could easily be mother and daughter.
I was a little surprised to received a brief follow-up to my Twitter exchange from my friend Michael a few days later (check out his great mostly music-related podcast MikeyPod,). He told me that the 95% Vegan folks had apparently written a post on their site to defend their facilitating the continuation of others' animal exploitation. I waited until I'd gotten home and had kicked back with a half-beer before trying to find their site. I suspected there would be more eye-rolling and was right. In their piece, they take issue with my assertion that in promoting their so-called 95% vegan "diet" they are condoning animal exploitation; they then attempt to make a clumsy case that veganism is in fact a diet, and that it is unreasonable to expect people to ever forego more than 95% of the animal products they choose to eat.
In their post, they ask that people (like bona fide vegans?) who disagree with them "respect that there is a difference between ethical vegans and dietary vegans". They elaborate that someone may indeed choose to be a "dietary vegan" for ethical reasons but that their main concerns are ensuring their good health via what they choose to inset into theirs gobs. They then embark on a confusing attempt to co-opt the term "vegan" by starting off with the claim that a vegan diet is indeed a diet as per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics which seems to use "vegan diet" synonymously with "strict vegetarianism".
The thing is that a "vegan" diet is "vegan" in the sense that you can call a bottle of shampoo that's free of animal ingredients and hasn't been tested on animals a bottle of "vegan" shampoo. But using that vegan shampoo no more makes you a vegan than eating a "vegan" diet makes you a vegan. The term has become shorthand to qualify "something which vegans can consume". I usually try to use "vegan-friendly" when I think to do so, but but use the shorthand, too. The thing is that it makes about as much sense to me to talk of "dietary" veganism as it would to talk about "hair-care-atary" veganism.
If the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (or anyone else's) uses the term to denote a mere diet and of whether it (or anyone else) uses the word "vegan" to describe someone who adopts such a diet (while otherwise continuings to provide demand for animal exploitation), so what? The word has actual documented historical origins that show how it was intended to encompass so much more than just diet. At its root was the issue of animal exploitation. It is bizarre to me that two women who seek to start yet another fad diet, one focused strictly on health and with little regard for the question of the ethics of animal use, would so tenaciously cling to their choice to use the word "vegan" to describe any aspect of what it is they are trying to do.
Gimme That Old-Time Non-Violence
One of the arguments they attempt to develop on their article to support their shrugging off some animal use is that, in the history of the world, there has never been a 100% vegan culture. Therefore, they present it as extremist and "radical" that anyone would expect anyone self-describing as a vegan to actually strive reject more than 95% or so of his or her own animal use. Oh, they feel for us kooky radicals with our zany compassionate beliefs, but they make it clear that expecting others to embrace a stance condemning violence towards other beings is no different than pushing religion on someone. In fact, they bring up the American Vegan Society's initial ties to Jainism and state that although they view the concept of promoting non-violence towards others as "beautiful", that, at the end of the day, it's just another "religion".
"Veganism Is Just Too Haaaaaaard!!"
According to the folks at 95% Vegan, expecting others to be willing and able to give up a favourite food forever is prohibitive and mean. They suggest that pointing out that someone shouldn't eat this or that is tantamount to guilt-tripping them and that it sets them up for repeated and certain failure. Basically, they appear to make no distinction between nagging someone on a health or weight-loss diet about eating an off-limits treat and pointing out to someone who wants to self-describe herself as vegan that a certain food contains animal products. In the end, Jamie Knoll's goal is to make sure that her clients enjoy the benefits of a healthier diet that's mostly comprised of plant-based foods, but that they also get to indulge themselves in animal products "without having to be perfect". What she presents as "veganism" is no different to her than absolutely any other fad diet and (regardless of a few token mentions of factory farming), has almost nothing to do with ethics.
"Every Little Bit Counts!!"
The article ends with a finger wag, an assumption and some bad math.
Them: Shouldn't animal rights advocates who want to see an end to the consumption of other animals' flesh and secretions be grateful that she and her partner are pushing a diet that encourages people be "95% vegan"?
Me: This makes the mistaken assumption that someone who consumes a largely plant-based diet and who otherwise continues to participate in the exploitation of others is a "type" of vegan. Although the large majority of animals raised for human use do end up on supermarket shelves, animal ingredients are insidiously found in all kinds of other non-food related items and exploitation may occur in all kinds of other contexts. What they do in advocating a largely plant-based diet for health reasons doesn't address the horrible speciesism which underlies society's belief that other animals are ours to use.
Them: "Do you mean to tell me that cutting out 95% of animal exploitation is still condoning animal exploitation?"
Me: Shrugging off--and even high-fiving, as they seem to do--someone's occasional consumption of animal products because of that person's cravings or taste preferences is indeed condoning continued animal exploitation. Not addressing all of the other non-dietary areas in which folks provide demand for animal products is indeed (albeit less directly) condoning continued animal exploitation. So, yes. Yes, they are condoning animal exploitation. Worse is that they're qualifying their doing so as "vegan". Furthermore, cutting out approximately 95% of the animal products one eats is not cutting out 95% of one's overall animal exploitation.
The piece ends with the lauding of the Whole Foods and Trader Joe's supermarket chains as promoting and providing a plentiful array of vegan options and an assumption is made that because they do so, no vegan would ever criticize them for continuing to sell meat and other animal products. The "95% Vegan" diet promoters lump themselves into this, as if to say that since they promote a 95% plant-based diet, that it follows somehow that no vegan should have the nerve to criticize them for promoting that 5% non-vegan indulgence.
As the "Sender" who triggered this mess of an sad defence of their co-opting the term "vegan", I have to say that they really have no idea of where I was coming from and obviously no clear idea of what an actual vegan abolitionist animal rights advocate would think about Whole Foods or how it placates the general public about its continued consumption of other animals. The one point where a comparison would be apt, though, is this: Neither Whole Foods nor the so-called 95% Vegan website (or forthcoming book) are vegan. The diet's promoters ask whether their pushing the concept of a 95% plant-based diet leaves them condoning animal use, but in their attempts to refutre this, they merely end up reinforcing the obvious.
And they're still following me on Twitter!