Wednesday, April 11, 2012

'Vegan' as a Qualifier

For the past few years, I've been sifting through articles and opinion pieces on the websites of various newspapers and magazines, trying to make sense of how it is that writers have come to so clumsily and conveniently bend--or altogether ignore--the actual definitions of words that have become buzz words. It's as if once a word associated with some sort of popular trend is known to draw a reader in, license is granted to co-opt that word, however its meaning ends up being misrepresented or mangled in the process. Whatever sells, even if that "whatever" gets watered down or redefined, right? Years ago when I'd first started exploring vegetarianism, it was made pretty clear to me that veganism was what the "serious animal rights people did". Veganism meant not just abstaining from eating other animals and their secretions, but also refraining from using them to make clothing or personal care products, for human entertainment and so on. These days, if I use the word "vegan" to describe myself, there's a small (albeit realistic) chance that I'll be asked if I'm doing a cleanse. Worse is when some well-meaning person will pipe up and say: "Oh, my son's girlfriend is a vegan... but she treats herself to turkey at Christmas and will eat fish if her body tells her she needs it." Indeed, it's hard to blame anyone for their confusion, given that with what's being written in mainstream media, folks are being bombarded with increasingly confusing messages daily.

Thanks to
people like Mark Bittman, the word "vegan" has even been downgraded to being used as a qualifier to mean something akin to "that moment you ate something plant-based". In opinion pieces like Mary Schwantes' in Suburban Journals yesterday ("Try 'semi-veganism' to eat healthier"), the term seems presented as meaning that someone, for health reasons, is eating a few more fruits or vegetables than usual. Now, I'm all for people eating more fruits and vegetables (or whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and other plant-based fare). The thing is, though, that when you start calling the slipping in of a few extra bites a day of plant-based food "semi-veganism", you really miss the point altogether of what veganism is about. You might as well call someone who goes an extra few hours between romps in bed "semi-celibate", for all the meaningfulness contained in distorting the term so.

Credentials as Credibility?

According to
Suburban Journals, Schwantes is a "retired professor of dietetics and nutrition", so it's no surprised that the piece misrepresents veganism as merely a diet and focuses on health as an incentive. What's bizarre, however, is how its author presents eating a single dish without animal products as if it were a vegan act in and of itself:

My point here is to make "semi-veganism" work for you. Once a week, let oatmeal burgers stand in for hamburgers, leave the meat out of your pasta sauce and add mushrooms, make a risotto the likes of which you've probably never had with pecans, mushrooms and fresh spinach or butternut squash — and you may just find yourself eating "better".
So if you indulge in Meatless Monday, you're kind of a vegan. Heck, according to Schwantes, if you have a weekly bowl of cereal (with soy milk, one assumes), you could even consider yourself a semi-vegan. It's that easy! I mean, using this logic, every single human on the planet could be considered a vegan while he or she sleeps.

Speaking of Authoritative Voices...

It's so easy, in fact, that an increasing number of people are self-identifying as "vegan" (which given articles like the aforementioned really doesn't bode well for nonhuman animals). Furthermore, many of these people self-identifying as vegan--whether or not they actually are vegan themselves--are offering themselves as authentic and experienced vegan voices and then sputtering into the pre-existing pile of confusion to just gum it all up further. Take for instance an article on "veganism" by Sharon Riley which appeared in Toronto's The Globe and Mail last week ("Why I'm a vegan [and why it's okay that you're not]"): The focus is again on diet alone, with Riley referring to "thoughtful veganism" as "the best approach to food". Where the plight of nonhuman animals is concerned, it's evident that her sole preoccupation is not that they're used, but of how they're used. She also makes it clear that the issue of animal use outside of what she chooses to put in her mouth is is definitely not an issue for her:
Just the other day, my 12-year-old cousin was confused as to why I was wearing socks made from wool from my mom’s sheep. “I thought you didn’t like things that come from animals?” she asked, flummoxed. I had made a tradeoff in my own mind: They are treated like pets, and relieved to be rid of their warm coats every summer. I eventually replied, “Everyone has to make their own decisions about what they think is right.”
In one fell swoop, Riley makes it clear that she's not opposed to the exploitation of nonhuman animals as long as she can convince herself that the animals we call "food" (or in this case "sock providers") are treated in a similar manner to those animals we call "pets". Self-identifying as someone who happily uses animal products, she also makes it clear that she's not vegan. It's also troubling that as she presents herself in this Globe and Mail piece as a vegan and thus attempts to speak with some sort of authoritative voice on behalf of others who are indeed vegan, that she doesn't view veganism as any sort of moral imperative and seems rather unconcerned about whether or not others choose to use animals and the degree to which they might.

And so it goes...

The thing is that if she did actually take the rights and interests of other animals seriously, it wouldn't be much of a leap for her to see it as the minimum standard of decency in terms of what humans owe other animals. It's evident that she does neither, however. In and of itself, this is sad. What's sadder, perhaps is that her views should be shared by a publication such as The Globe and Mail as representative of vegan views. It's sad, but given how widespread the misrepresentation and mangling of the word "vegan" has become, it's certainly no surprise.


Vanilla Rose said...

This is my take on flexitarianism.

Abby Bean said...

Thank you! I'm tired of being accused of being "strict" and "militant" because I actually adhere to the true definition of veganism.

Will D said...

I appreciate the article, but what is the big deal. I just like that people eat less meat for whatever the reason. If they only do it for the diet or cut back, then power to them. To be a "vegan" does not have to raise the true vegans better than the others. Any reduction of meat consumption is great!

JasonLooseArrow said...

Will, it's super-special that someone eats less meat, but that does not make them vegan, which is the point. Words mean things, which is why lying is so frowned upon, just as this article is trying to illustrate.

My being a vegan is simple; I avoid the use of all animal products for the sake of the animals. Anything else is just . . . something else.

Andy Breuer said...

A parent's smile...

To whence are we going together, you know as you have been down that road. Might your road have been a little more slippery? But a slope. To take a child to the bottom of the slide is useless, but to hold their hand at the top and let them fly on the path to freedom?

Hold their hand, so that they too can fly.

Nadine said...

To answer Will - One issue is when the supposed "vegans" decide to identify themselves as omnivores again and then attribute all of their health issues to their "vegan" diets. It creates another mark against actual vegans and veganism in general. It's great when people eat less animals and more fruits and veggies, but why not call it as it is - eating more plants.