In this series, we ask vegans engaged in different kinds of activism a question, and post their responses, to show a diversity of perspectives on the same topic. This is not a forum for ‘professional experts’ and thought leaders, but a space for community voices. Join the discussion below in the comments.
Worry…what a foreign concept to associate with my veganism, a way of life that makes me so utterly happy and proud. I don’t identify with the word whatsoever when it comes to how I eat, how I order, or who I might imagine is judging my requests at a restaurant (human minds tend to overestimate this kind of thing anyway). I’ve chosen this vegan life with intent and purpose and so I live it wholeheartedly – not sometimes, not a little, but always. Committed to the cause in this way, I am more Malcolm X and MLK than Booker T. Washington. As in the aforementioned news, there are enough Booker Ts in the vegan movement already who support people in maintaining, “just a little,” the status quo. This is simply not what I aspire to.
The only times that worry comes into play in this sector of my life is in hindsight of a missed opportunity where I could have spoken up for veganism and animals, could have helped educate someone misinformed or unacquainted with our tenets, could have… but didn’t. We should worry in these cases! I should “worry” (with active concern) about those moments where I am not living according to my own virtues or the courage I seek to possess. By examining those flawed moments, I will grow and they will happen less and less. I will be able to help more animals and open more hearts in the long run.
So in my opinion, Freston and the PETA note are wrong, we should worry. But not in the sense they mean. We shouldn’t worry that restaurants will despise us, that friends will think we’re dogmatic, etc. We should worry if we’re not living according to the virtues we hold dear. We should worry if we’re eating two percent animal products in a restaurant so as to make the host feel comfortable. And we should worry as well if we’re behaving like aggressive idiots towards an unaware waitress instead of politely making a vegan request or offering suggestions for more vegan options (if they can’t meet your request, politely order something else). You never know the kind of seeds your thoughtful words and choices might plant. What makes an effective activist is the ability to read an audience and relate – in an intelligent, tailored way – what you know, so that we are heard, not hidden.
Asking vegans to temporarily betray their ethics and partner with their adversaries in order to avoid being seen as a nuisance is libelous, confusing and damaging to the positive results of the vegan movement. It is not viable to the liberation of animals to willfully consume the products that oppress them. Sensitivity is one thing, but fundamental change is another.
It’s important to understand that the process of change is slow and unpredictable, and that one thing is certain: it will always be met with friction. I refuse to reconcile my desire to change the world with my desire to simply survive it. If you’re concerned with social etiquette when ordering vegan food, I encourage you to try the cruelty-free (and apparently overlooked) approach of simply using your manners; after all, no animals are harmed in the process of using those.
Actress and animal rights activist, Twitter
I think this not only sets a dangerous precedent of a cavalier attitude towards animal-based ingredients, but it also trivializes the essence of veganism. It is more than just a diet, or even a lifestyle; it is the living practice of animal rights, and as such, it is not a mere exercise in purity. Instead, it is a practice of ensuring justice – justice for the animals that are confined, tortured and killed by industries that exploit them.
As in any other justice movement seeking to redress the wrongs of oppression, there is nothing trivial about anything that ultimately denies beings of their inherent rights; it is our responsibility to counter offhand racist remarks, for instance, even if there is no one else around who might be affected by it, because it serves to educate the person that even such seemingly trivial actions serves to normalize oppression. By the same token, insisting a restaurant or a manufacturer ensure that there are no animal ingredients at all will educate them that veganism is a practice of principle. If we don’t insist on strict adherence to a principle, then industry will not take us seriously and not bother to change its practices and methods.
What PETA and Kathy Freston suggest sets a bad precedent; it’s similar to a chef telling you that you should accept a dish that has “just a tiny amount of meat.” It shows a lack of respect for the ethics behind veganism. And while at a personal level it may seem inconsequential, small numbers do add up. If every vegan does as what PETA and Kathy suggests, that will ensure a large steady demand for animal-derived ingredients, with the resulting suffering as the consequence.
Now granted, the price of living in an industrialized society today is that no-one can live entirely completely 100 percent vegan, but again, the point is not about purity, but about justice; we have to strive, as much as we can, to achieve the kind of change to ensure justice for all beings, and if that can include modifying the methods of industry to not have any animal-based ingredients at all, then that is something we have a responsibility to demand.
Elected member of the Board of Directors, Northwest Animal Rights Network
Campaign founder and director of the Vegan Mentor Program
What rescue can suffering animals expect when even “animal rights” organizations and “vegan” authors casually announce that a little bit of cruelty is okay? PETA defines vegans by their intentions, not their actions. You can assert you are vegan as long as you eat animal foods only when it would be inconvenient not to. You make choices based on a terror of what other people will think, rather than on your own principles. You set a role model of “well, I’m vegan, kind of, not really sure why.”
Even if you are focused mostly on your own health, a little bit CAN hurt. Some things are good in moderation, like sunshine, exercise, food, and sleep. Others are best at a zero dose, like smoking, addictive drugs, mercury, asbestos, DDT, diesel exhaust, and animal protein. Even small amounts cause damage.
If you are motivated by kindness to animals and to the earth, the advice to be a casual vegan makes even less sense. Once people tell themselves it’s okay to eat animal foods in restaurants, the tendency is for this state of mind to balloon, until being plant-based becomes a distant memory. The greatest rewards for being vegan are the peace of mind and kinship with animals that spring from NEVER participating in suffering. Even one thoughtless bite of animal ingredients rips a hole in this inner peace that will devastate your world. Is the convenience worth the price? (Explore the joyful inner peace a day with rescued animals brings in this blog post.)
I went out and sat with our three rescued calf boys this morning. I felt at ease with them because since going vegan three years ago, I had done as much as I could to avoid animal products in the things I buy. Beyond not wanting to put even trace amounts of the suffering of these boys’ brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers into my body, I also want to support products that make the effort to not include animal ingredients, and patronize restaurants that provide that with which I want to nourish myself.
Whenever I visit a restaurant, unless I happen to be at one of L.A.’s raw food restaurants, I always have to make substitutions and alterations since I eat predominantly living foods. I apologize in advance to my server for being the difficult one, but I let them know what I really want in my meal, and almost always they are gracious. If not, I will give my money elsewhere. I look at requesting items without animal ingredients as a form of education. Most times I feel that people are surprised at where animal ingredients show up, and in what forms.
I do not think making veganism “easier” will be accomplished by accepting trace amounts of animal products, I think it will make it weaker and less discussed and ultimately remove some demand for products fully without animal ingredients. My calf friends do not want to eat parts of their relatives, and nor do I.
Education & Outreach Liaison, Animal Acres, a farmed animal sanctuary and compassionate living center based north of Los Angeles
As vegans, we unintentionally consume non-vegan things all the time, whether it is parts of dead bugs that end up in cereal from the cereal manufacturing plant, or a dessert a well-meaning non-veg friend made for us that has something in it that they didn’t realize was an animal byproduct. Vegans who dine at non-vegan restaurants should expect animal byproducts in their food. It is done unintentionally when the restaurant kitchen staff get rushed and doesn’t remember to modify the meal, or because the restaurant staff are unaware of what vegan means. We all think everyone knows because we know, but the reality is that a very small number of people truly know what the word vegan means, including some honey-eating vegetarians. I think vegans should try to convey to the waitress and waiter what veganism is, not just for the selfish purpose of getting a vegan meal for themselves, but to help other vegans who will dine there in the future.
I usually say to the waiter or waitress, “I’m going to be trouble, but hope you can help me.” This is said with a smile. I proceed to tell them I’m vegan and explain what that means in one short sentence (they aren’t looking for the history of veganism). I then say, “what would you recommend I order that is vegan?” Reminding them that I’m vegan reinforces the term. When they make a recommendation, they usually say “I really like this item,” and I jokingly say, “well I definitely don’t want it if you like it” (again said with a smile). Then I almost order what they recommend, unless it has things I hate like sprouts. The server always asks later in the meal if I liked what they recommended, and the whole experience is pleasant for everyone. It is a collaborative effort and the server is happy to help the customer find something that works.
I don’t like the idea of vegans ever intentionally eating non-vegan items to please people. Most of us did that when we were first becoming vegetarian; we kept eating meat occasionally just to please our family or our friends. As we become more honest with ourselves about what we care about, we have an obligation to be honest with others. The worst thing is to be viewed as a hypocrite. If you say you care about animals, but go out and buy a nice new car with leather interior or can’t give up your favorite silk tie or leather shoes, that will bother people. Along with that, if you say you love animals, but are mean to most people you interact with, you are similarly doing a large disservice to animals. Deciding to not intentionally participate in a system of oppression is what we are all supposed to do, so baby steps are fine, but going backwards hurts animals and hurts us as individuals.
Vegans shouldn’t listen to PETA, Kathy Freston, or me, they should decide for themselves what makes sense – and what makes sense should always be doing what is in the best interest of the animals for whom we are supposed to be advocating. Exploiting a chicken for an item with a little bit of egg, so our friends can order ten seconds sooner (because we aren’t asking questions) isn’t creating a future vegan at the dinner table and isn’t helping the chicken. I’ve never been at a dinner where the vegan who didn’t ask questions about the bread got their meat-eating friend to give up steak for that meal. The way we get people to give up meat is by educating them about the issues, not by eating a little bit of whey and eggs.
Co-Founder, Los Angeles Veg Society