A few weeks ago, when I was having a rant on the bus into work – as many vegans and animal rights activists did, judging by my Instagram feed – about the hypocrisy that was the outcry over the Yulin dog slaughter from many of the same people who accept and support the routine slaughter of millions of animals every month without batting an eyelid, Ben asked me if something had gone out on social media asking vegans to become more vocal about their ethical choices.
I don’t know if it was the whole Yulin debacle – and now, the Cecil the Lion fury – that brought many of us out of our politely quiet shells, but those sorts of double standards have always frustrated me. I actually find it quite alarming how easily most humans can switch empathy and compassion on and off, turning away from footage of the brutality with which animals are treated in the food industry before tucking into animal products with a shrug, “It just tastes good!“.
I have never been the sort of vegan who shows people videos of animal cruelty, or who feels the need to explain to fellow diners just what the animal on their plate had to endure. I just don’t find that useful or beneficial, and only serves to alienate people who could be tempted into trying a vegan meal here and there.
Just the other week, however, I struck up a conversation with a person I knew to be vegan, in the interests of bonding. Almost immediately they “admitted” to being a “bad vegan” because they just couldn’t resist the non-vegan cake that surrounded them at work. I tried to offer compassionate advice and encouragement but, the truth is, I find it hard to have much sympathy for that sort of predicament.*
*Since initially drafting this post, the person has decided no longer to use the term “vegan”, but they still eat plant-based most of the time. This, I met with heartfelt encouragement and support (and my top-secret tips to make sure you’re not ripped off in mainstream restaurants – i.e. always ask for substitutions rather than omissions, and avocado > cheese), and advised them to seek out and attend vegan meet-up events. Community is key!
After all, anyone who has been consistently vegan for any length of time has been faced with times when making animal-friendly choices has been harder than they are accustomed to. But the way I see it, we have two choices: we either make the vegan choice, or we don’t. And if we don’t make the vegan choice, then we are not vegan. Simple.
However, I don’t think the all-or-nothing approach is useful to encourage more people to transition towards a more ethical lifestyle. Fact: there is no vegan police. The only person we have to answer to is ourself: have we made a choice that we are comfortable with?
I am vegan for ethical reasons. My choices are based on what I think causes the least harm to other beings, be they human, non-human, whether we think in the short-term, or the long-term. So I don’t care if that egg is from your happy chicken in your backyard; if I eat that egg, I am promoting the idea that eggs are delicious and/or necessary for health, and that could encourage others to continue eating eggs (also, it can confuse or upset the hen who will keep laying more eggs, which is no easy feat). That’s not something I want to be a part of.
But if I don’t know the impact of a product, I can’t choose to avoid it. For a long time, for whatever reason, as meticulous as I was about animal ingredients in my food, I didn’t really think about the impact of the ingredients in my cosmetics. But when it finally sunk in, I couldn’t ignore my responsibility to make the right choice. I didn’t collapse in a heap berating myself as a bad vegan, I didn’t renounce the whole thing because I had been doing it wrong; I just accepted the new information and plugged that into any future choices I would have to make. You can only ever make the choice that seems right at the time.
But by extension, if you consciously make choices that you know not to be vegan, then please don’t call yourself vegan. The label “vegan” carries responsibility. Responsibility to the animals and to everyone else calling themselves vegan. You are most likely the only vegan that many people know, and if anyone is the vegan police, ironically, it is them. They will scrutinise and they will critique and they will debate and pick holes. You are a representative of the vegan movement if you choose to use the term, so be prepared to stand up for it.
I have every bit as much respect for the meat-eater who takes part in Meat Free Mondays, or who replaces cow’s milk in their coffee with non-dairy milk, as I do for the fully-fledged vegan animal rights activist. I really, honestly, do. And perhaps more surprisingly, I can also deal with the devout meat eater who will look an animal in the eye before eating it, and doesn’t turn their nose up at eating certain body parts. They might not be the person I would invite to try out the latest vegan hotspot with me, but we can agree to disagree and stick to a coffee and other topics of conversation. Vegan means compassion and respect for all animals, and that includes humans too (oh, it doesn’t mean you have to like them; I don’t particularly enjoy spiders crawling around me, but I can stay out of their space and they are generally happy to give me a wide berth too – and the same applies to many humans).
The truth about being vegan is that is it not easy. But that’s OK. Is life easy, every day? Is getting out of bed earlier than you’d like to easy? Is running that marathon easy? Is making that phone call easy? No – but sometimes you know that it is the right thing to do.