Giving up the V-card

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It’s been a year since my most successful experiment. I had given up animal-derived foods to find out what it did for my health. After 30 years of indiscriminate eating, I finally gave the ethical issue surrounding animal food some honest thought, and ended up going vegan completely.

It’s been the best year of my life, and I’m convinced veganism is a large part of that. I won’t gush about the details but I’ll say that I felt altogether better physically and emotionally and I’m never going back to the way I used to live.

However, I don’t want to call myself a vegan any more. I’m giving up my V-card.

I’m still off meat and dairy and eggs, I still won’t buy wool or leather, I still won’t use animals for my entertainment, and I wish others would do the same. But my philosophy on it is quite different than it was a year ago and I don’t want to call myself the V-word. I’ll tell you why.

The first thing you notice when you go vegan is that everyone is mad, and they tell you you’re mad. You voluntarily enter the moral Twilight Zone. You discover a grotesque inconsistency between the beliefs people express and their behavior. You realize that we’re all highly irrational, and that it’s emotion that rules culture, and culture rules the behavior of individuals. No matter how much harm it causes, nothing we do needs to be justified as long as it’s popular enough.

Ask ten people on the street if they think it’s wrong to injure or kill animals for one’s amusement or pleasure, and nine or ten will say yes, of course. Chances are all ten of those people freely consume animal products, simply because they like to and they’re used to doing it.

A new vegan also encounters a bizarre compulsion in many otherwise friendly people to talk as loudly to you as possible about how delicious and juicy steak is. A certain contempt for you emerges seemingly from nowhere, and the most polite person can be overtaken by an urge to reiterate to you that they could never give up meat, because they just “love a good steak!”, presumably the way Michael Vick once loved a good dogfight.

For the recently converted, this inexplicable pseudo-hostility from everyday people can be alarming and it often triggers the kind of inadvertently sarcastic tone you saw in the last few paragraphs [Sorry! -D]. The effect is draining and alienating, and it’s hard not to feel a vague resentment for (or at least disappointment in) the ninety-nine percent of people who have no hesitation about exploiting animals if there is something enjoyable to be found in it. 

Tearing down the wall

Sometime last year I was listening to a vegan podcast in which the host announced that after months of examining her philosophies and liefstyle as a vegan activist, she realized she just couldn’t bring herself to dine with non-vegans anymore.

I understood where she was coming from, not that I’d ever do it. Imagine that everyone around you is indulging in something you think is horrible and unnecessary, and you’re supposed to be content to merely abstain from doing it yourself, and enjoy what you can about the surrounding social experience. Imagine realizing you’ll have to do this on a regular basis for the rest of your life. I can understand wanting no part of it.

But it didn’t seem right. Is this where veganism, as a personal commitment, inevitably leads — to a definite social divide between vegans and non-vegans? If so, the only hope for resolution is to nurture the vegan population to grow from the sub-one-per-cent level it is at now, to becoming as normal as being a non-smoker is today.

For most of the last year I felt that divide, not just between me and the omnivores, but the vegetarians too, who abstain from only one kind of animal exploitation. And not just the vegetarians, but the “vegans” who eat fish occasionally, or the ones who eat vegan but wear wool peacoats.

I even felt it between me and other vegans. I was an abolitionist, which basically means zero tolerance for any avoidable use of animals. But on the other side of the fence there were also welfarist vegans, who spent their time campaigning to improve conditions for food animals, encouraging vegetarianism or Meatless Mondays or other “partway” measures that make abolitionists cringe.

This alienation is real and I doubt there’s a single vegan (or vegetarian) reading this who doesn’t experience it. Right from the start it was always the hardest part of being vegan. It wasn’t the food cravings, it wasn’t the reduced clothing selection, it was the social weirdness that emerges when people learn you’re “one of those.”

In social situations — barbecues, parties and dinners out — people are generally polite and accepting, but they still can’t help but treat me as a special case with my special-case food. They probably can’t quite see me as a full participant. They make it clear that they have absolutely no desire to become a special case themselves, who isn’t “allowed” to do what normal people do. They are usually trying to be kind, but it still creates weirdness on both sides of the wall.

Now it’s clear to me that it’s the label that’s the problem. Not the labeling of food, or shoes, but of people. I think it creates animosity on both sides, it defines the wall itself, and that prevents that wall from moving much. It seems that generally, vegans love their label, and love to deny it to non-vegans. If you were to tell a group of vegans that you’re a vegan who enjoys a tiny cube of cheese once every leap year they’ll say, “Oh so you’re not vegan then.” And technically they’re right.

I think how we broach the issue with members of the omnivorous majority is extremely delicate, and most of the time it’s done badly. The word vegan has extremist connotations to most, and no matter how much the vegans think that’s undeserved, it is ultimately the omnivores who decide how quickly veganism is going to grow.

The end of us and them

So I tossed the label. I haven’t changed much about how I live, but I won’t call myself a vegan any more. It’s a handy label for classifying recipes, cookbooks, how certain products were made, but I won’t wear the badge any longer. Technically I don’t reach the bar anyway (as 99.5% of people don’t) because I ate two slices of pizza when I went to New York last month.

There are two main differences in how my new philosophy affects my behavior. They’ve made life so much easier on me, and have made me a better ambassador for the cause of moving away from using animal products.

1) I am careful not to harbor or express disgust for non-vegan food. When you learn about where meat, dairy and eggs come from, it’s hard not to feel disgust, even if you don’t change how you live in response. Most vegans feel some of this disgust whenever they look at those foods. Many won’t even acknowledge that it’s food.

I now see this disgust as a hindrance to the spread of animal-free living. The net effect of that disgust, more than anything, is that omnivores feel judged or dismissed by vegans, and begin to resent them. Staunch vegans might say “Who cares if they’re offended man, I’m doing what’s right.” — forgetting that souring people to veganism who might otherwise have become vegans is effectively erasing all the good they have ever done, and more.

A fellow blogger who calls himself Speciesist Vegan wrote a great piece here on why it’s so important for vegans to get over their disgust for non-vegan food, if they want veganism to grow.

2) I make the occasional exception when it comes to food and I don’t hide it from the omnivores in my life. There are three reasons I do this now. First, it demonstrates to them that I don’t think they’re disgusting or immoral, and that my philosophy on life is not categorically different than theirs. Second, by deliberately indulging in the odd act of exploitation, it eliminates the feeling of being permanently “outside” the world of normal people, by being someone who will die without ever eating ice cream again. And third, it shows them that how I live isn’t difficult, isn’t all or nothing, and is something they might actually do themselves.

I fully understand there are people who want absolutely nothing to do with having an animal food in their mouth again, and see no need to alleviate the social alienation by eating the odd non-vegan item, but I’m no longer one of them and I believe what I do does far more good than harm.

I also don’t go to great lengths to ensure a meal is vegan before I order it in a restaurant anymore. I will eat the free bread, with no investigation. Much more effective, I think, than nitpicking my way around every sprinkle of parmesan and every stick of egg-white-brushed complimentary bread, is to demonstrate that you can be a normal participant in everyday social activities while still avoiding animal products almost all the time.

A new vegan should realize relatively quickly that the vast majority of people alive today have zero interest in veganism and will never do it no matter what you say to them. The single notion of “no more ice cream, ever” is, I’m sure, an utter dealbreaker for the majority of people. Only a small proportion could potentially become strict vegans, and I think our energy is better invested in trying to get the larger proportion to experiment part-time with vegan options, rather than trying to get people to completely defect to the as-yet-tiny “other team.”

Looking at the endless internet banter whenever the issue comes up, what most vegans seem to forget is that for somebody to go vegan, it means an omnivore has to see veganism as something more appealing than what they already do. Yet they insist on driving home how uncompromising and all-or-nothing it must be. If you don’t believe me, go post “I avoid all animal products but honey and silk” on a vegan message board and look at the responses.

I indulged in this smug partisanship too. There is an abolitionist blog I once really enjoyed, even though it consisted almost entirely of ripping into celebrity vegans who go back to eating eggs occasionally.

I believe that in the current social climate there are probably twenty times more people out there who would potentially go 90% of the way to veganism, given the health, environmental and ethical incentives, than there are people who would ever arrive at a day when they declare they’ve had their last ever Ben & Jerry’s. There’s way more ground to be made — which represents many more animals to be spared — influencing the former group than the latter.

Between my abolitionist days and today, the difference in the volume of animal products I consume is pretty small. A few more of my dollars do go to paying people for exploting animals. These changes may represent the difference between say, 99.8% of my total buying power, and 99%. (Despite what some vegans may tell you, it is unlikely anybody is able to live 100% vegan, but you can get really close.)

But if my more relaxed, undogmatic lifestyle convinces even one person that they could live without animal products, even 50% of the time, I’ve already prevented more many times more harm than I’ve caused.

What I want is for the world to move away from using animals for their pleasure or convenience. I no longer believe that growing a small but intense group of zero-tolerance advocates is going to do that. It is easier and mathematically more effective to convince several times the people to go even just halfway.

But more importantly, it invites a culture where a large proportion of people have taken some action to reduce animal use, and have been exposed to the reasons why it might be a good idea. Right now, most people don’t honestly believe it’s possible to even have a delicious vegetarian meal that doesn’t seem like a compromise. I think encouraging them to cook their first enjoyable animal-free meal is more effective than posting abused pigs on their Facebook wall.

The biggest change I want to influence people to make is to find a personal philosophy that resonates with them most, rather than interviewing the various camps and joining one. [This perspective is often cited in positive reviews of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals -- an anti-eating-animals book that's ripped on as often by strict vegans as it is by anti-vegan omnivores. The reviews, generally, are glowing. Foer is not vegan.]

I think we’re better off easing the general population into no-pressure experimentation with animal-free food and clothing than we are insisting you’re either carrying the V-card, or you’re part of the problem.

Vegans, non-vegans, in-betweeners, what do you think?

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Vegan Tikka Masala pic by miikkahoo

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{ 151 Comments }

ellen June 11, 2012 at 1:50 pm

i don’t see why we shouldn’t call ourselves vegan however (not challenging you, you have a right not to use the label, of course). not all vegans are judgmental and/or ‘angry vegans’. it is others who are misjudging us and it is up to them to change their ways.

i am a vegan who does not harrass or police other vegans on whether they are pure enough or not. it is not my place.

veganism is an ethical process, not a code of perfection. this is the wall we need to break – the label is NOT the problem.

i don’t harrass or give non-vegans a hard time either. i have not forgotten that i, too ate meat/dairy/eggs/etc. for most of my life.

point is, not all vegans are angry vegans. i wish people would stop homogenizing vegans as though we are all the same.

Susan June 19, 2012 at 7:57 am

David: if you’re no longer self-identifying as a vegan, but you’re still avoiding animal products and are educating others about the impact of our consumption on the lives of non-humans (which you clearly are), you’re still accomplishing the most important work. I appreciate the measured, informative replies you’ve made in this comment section, and I would like to see them identified as coming from a vegan. I want the idea of veganism to become less marginalized, not more. However, your words retain their value on their own merits. To be honest, they will be more openly considered because they are NOT made by a vegan.

One stereotype I wish you’d help dispel is that of the vegan who is oblivious to the negative environmental and/or social impact of her/his choices. I don’t know any vegans who think they can avoid animal exploitation completely. But for the most part, we try our best. We look for organic, fair-trade, non-GMO, minimally processed foods. We look for CSAs. Want to see a vegan’s face light up? Announce that you’ve found a farmers’ market that is accessible on foot, bike, or public transportation. Seriously, folks, this is what gives us joy! We also work for human social justice causes. I think that veganism is just one facet of a deeply considered life, but it is the most obvious, most comprehensive one.

My personal view is that, in the long run, the most good will come from having more people who look to veganism as their ideal, even if they don’t achieve it. In the short run, perhaps just having a great number of people simply reducing their consumption of animal products will have the most impact. But that doesn’t require a major shift in attitude. I don’t think we’ll be well on our way until more people recognize that the lives of other animals matter to them, and that we should respect their integrity.

Susan June 19, 2012 at 8:00 am

Jackie: I agree that there are parts of human/non-human interactions that are positive for non-humans. I’d love to find ways to have those relationships w/o having them in the context of such an unequal power dynamic. And I don’t doubt that if you were to set them free, they’d stick around anyway. But I don’t think that your conception of “setting them free” is meaningful for them. They don’t know of any option other than what you’ve given them in the past, and they don’t know the price of their staying. If we could be sure that they understood that they could choose between staying there (to be well-fed, sheltered, but then butchered) and leaving, with the actual possibility that they might survive somewhere else, then perhaps such an experiment would have some meaning.

I appreciate your frankness in dealing with ambivalence. May I ask about your reservations in working with horses?

Also, vegans are not responsible for monocrops of soy. Most soy, esp. cheap soy, is fed to animals in industrial agriculture. Therefore, the typical omnivore is responsible for soy monocrops. You’re a thoughtful commenter, so I’d appreciate having your help in dispelling the false notion that vegans are the driving force behind industrial grain production. W/more vegans, we could support the use of more heritage grains, more varied crops of all sorts.

Whoever wrote about bees and pollination: limiting the pollination of crops to captive honeybees is actually harmful to the environment. We should be supporting more natural pollination syndromes, which would safeguard systems from collapsing so easily.

One stereotype I wish you’d help dispel is that of the vegan who is oblivious to the negative environmental and/or social impact of her/his choices. I don’t know any vegans who think they can avoid animal exploitation completely. But for the most part, we try our best. We look for organic, fair-trade, non-GMO, minimally processed foods. We look for CSAs. Want to see a vegan’s face light up? Announce that you’ve found a farmers’ market that is accessible on foot, bike, or public transportation. Seriously, folks, this is what gives us joy! We also work for human social justice causes. I think that veganism is just one facet of a deeply considered life, but it is the most obvious, most comprehensive one.

My personal view is that, in the long run, the most good will come from having more people who look to veganism as their ideal, even if they don’t achieve it. In the short run, perhaps just having a great number of people simply reducing their consumption of animal products will have the most impact. But that doesn’t require a major shift in attitude. I don’t think we’ll be well on our way until more people recognize that the lives of other animals matter to them, and that we should respect their integrity.

Vonnie July 9, 2012 at 8:48 am

Hello to everyone who has made comments on this blog and I hope I’m not too late joining in. I never usually participate in blogs but I do find this topic particularly interesting and have enjoyed reading the comments/thoughts provided. So, many thanks to David who started the whole thing running – you must be delighted at how successful this has been.
I’ve been a vegetarian for approximately 1 1/2 years now. I had a short stint of about 6 months a few years back and then resumed eating meat. This time I’ve been quite determined to change my eating practices. I’ve been a vegetarian for various reasons: I really do love animals – I come from a family of complete carnivores let alone omnivores! So, my decision has been viewed with much apprehension and worry, as to my welfare, by both family and friends! I’ve viewed some PETA footage and was just horrified at what was reported. I understand that this is not always the treatment that animals received in the majority of cases but to think that it is practiced at all makes me very sad indeed. I watched ‘Kill it, cook it, eat it’ where the viewing audience sat behind a glass viewing screen and watched the meat element of their meal being killed in front of them, then cooked before they ate it – a part of the process that we don’t usually see when reaching for our cellophaned future Sunday roast. Although the killing of the animals was very controlled and clinical (viewed by many as a humane slaughter) I still found it difficult to get my head around……..I always stop on my country walks to observe the cows and sheep in the surrounding fields and always feel so privileged when they approach and let me interact with them. A friend of mine has been a vegetarian and on-off vegan for many, many years and was very helpful at answering all my basic questions and opened my eyes to an alternative in my eating practices. I’ve also been diagnosed with Haemochromatosis, where your body absorbs too much heme iron and causes complications in your major organs, if not caught in time or controlled. I would have venesections every week for a while where a pint of blood was removed each time, then it was every couple of weeks and then monthly. Since I have been vegetarian the venesections have been reduced to once every six months and my readings are very much under control! I never thought that would ever happen! It’s great! So, being a vegetarian is a suitable way of eating for this sort of blood disease.

I know that, for me, the change to vegetarian eating occured with information and knowledge. I’ve so much still to learn about a ‘good’ vegetarian diet and any advice or suggestions in that area are very welcome. It’s when you become informed as to the process involved in your ‘steak’, ‘chop’, ‘fillet’, or ‘mince’ being on your plate for a meal, that the big questions start flow. They are words so removed from defining that they were ever animals: cows, calves, pigs, lambs and so on. Thus when the revelation sinks in, you feel somewhat misled through your younger ‘conditioning’ years. I’ve always had a great love for animals from I was very little, always rescuing any sick animal to help make it better and loved our pets beyond measure (more than some relatives….ooops!). I didn’t realise all those times that Mum or Dad served up dinner consisting of meat, spud and two veg that there was an ‘animal’ element there. I don’t think it would have changed my eating habits back then anyhow, as you did what you were told and didn’t leave the table until the plate was cleared…..so to object back then, had I wanted to, would have probably led to much dissension! OK, so for many years I’ve ‘cooked it’ and ‘eaten it’ but could I ‘kill them’? – absolutely not on your nelly!!!! Simply because I just don’t see ‘them’ as ‘its’.

I’ve not made the transition to vegan as yet, however I do try to purchase products that don’t contain any animal element or are a result of any testing ie footwear and body products or make-up. You definitely venture into a different way of living when you start to research for yourself. It’s a daily learning situation if you open up your mind to other options – it’s not the ‘norm’ or indeed always readily accessible (eg restaurants) but life takes on an interesting slant as you really start to think about what you’re going to consume in order to provide the necessary fuel for your body.

So, that’s my contribution to this blog – just adding my personal opinion and experience. I just hope I’ve not missed the boat on this discussion as I’d love to read more regarding same.

Cheers!

Vonnie

Jess July 10, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Hey, thanks for this! I’ve recently decided to trade in the v-card, too. It’s been a few years, and I don’t plan on going back to eating meat, but it’s beginning to feel so stiflingly absolutist. I felt like I have to choose between my ethics and the label, as my ethics are a lot less rigid and might, as you mentioned, include the very occasional slice of pizza or some fish. It’s really refreshing to see someone who feels the same way!

Brad July 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I avoid meat and can relate to the strange attitudes of omnivores – especially the weird compulsion to brag about how much they love steak (really, what are they bragging about???). But I’m very relaxed about it.

Helen White December 29, 2012 at 5:42 am

Great article and, two weeks into vegetarianism and with a toe poised over veganism, just what I needed to hear… as it pretty much echoes what my subconscious was already telling me about how to handle it and ‘balance’ it! Have had relatively few interactions with other people since I made the change but already feel on the defensive in anticipation of their reactions (and because of mine to their continued meat-eating) and am conscious I want to encourage them, to lead them, not to alienate them by me taking ‘a stance’. Already, family members are coming a little part of the way along the road with me….and that wouldn’t a happen if I became a militant vegan or made it look like an all-or-nothing kind of lifestyle where all the good stuff gets sacrificed. Thanks for a very timely article on this, love your blog and have subscribed.

Sophia February 4, 2013 at 7:48 am

You’re one or two steps ahead of me David – I’ve been thinking these issues over for some time. I too dislike what the label does to you. As I mentioned in my blog post on the topic ( http://www.sophiagubb.com/the-vegan-label/ if you’re interested – hope the plug isn’t too forward of me) I think the writer Jonathan Safran Foer is successful with his speeches and writing on the topic because he doesn’t identify as a vegan or even a vegetarian. The reason for this is seemingly because his willpower isn’t strong enough even though he thinks such a diet is best, but the result is that he doesn’t alienate anyone with his writing.

I haven’t given up the vegan label yet. So far, I’ve thought that the convenience of having a word that describes your lifestyle right off the bat outweighed the problems of the label. But, I have had tiny amounts of non vegan items, sometimes in front of omnivores, and once in the last year I had a moderate amount of non vegan food in one sitting.

That is, eggs and milk – somehow I couldn’t bring myself to put the flesh of someone else into my mouth, not even gelatin. That’s one thing I can’t deal with.

I do manage to ignore animal foods when other people are eating them though. I think not thinking about something is easier than some vegans imagine. After all, it’s how most omnivores manage it 8) so I just don’t think about where the animal foods my friends are eating come from, and it works.

I am walking now the thin line of trying to find a form of activism which doesn’t alienate people or make them feel judged. A while back I made a breakthrough with this approach – two people wrote to me about starting a vegan diet after I had made some very considered posts to Facebook about the matter. A lot of people want to hear you out, so long as they don’t feel judged.

It’s something I’m still working out. I’m not sure if I’ll give up the vegan label in the future. I know that I’m in a process of learning to not use it much, in any case. Whenever possible I’d like to say “plant based diet” or talk about the actual conditions in factory farms and what we can do to help rather than leaning on the word “vegan”.

Sometimes, it seems, that word is a crutch for not having to explain ourselves. I’m vegan, deal with it – no wait, what if we actually helped people understand what that meant?

Sophia

CD June 14, 2013 at 1:07 pm

I thought this article might be helpful to people at different stages of their journey in healthy eating.

My Experience With Vegetarianism — Updated With New Reflections
by Chris Masterjohn, PhD, published June 9, 2013

http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com/Vegetarianism.html

J July 12, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Just curious, David…(if you’re still reading comments on this post), when you attend a dinner at someone’s house, since you don’t identify yourself as “vegan,” do you still specify that you prefer to eat “non-animal derived foods”, or some other phrasing? That seems rather clunky, and may be a head-scratcher to people as to where you draw the line….hence, the label vegan does come in handy: for better or worse, it pretty much spells it all out.

Or, do you not say anything, and eat whatever the host is planning on serving?

I’ve gone back and forth about the same issues you raise in this post myself, and I’m curious how you, and/or other folks, handle the “being a guest at someone’s home” situation. It’s the main thing that makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable, even 1 year into being vegan. As you put it, it’s hard to feel like a full participant at social events when you’re the only one eating vastly differently than everyone else, even if the hosts and guests are as gracious and accepting as can be.

David July 14, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Hi J,

Today, when I am a guest I eat what they serve. At home I eat vegan. When I go to a restaurant I’ll order whatever I like. If there’s a good vegan option I might get that. I no longer want to support bad vegan food. I think it does more harm than good. When I was a card-carrying vegan I met a lot of vegans who had lowered their standards for food, making boring recipes and buying overpriced not-very-good vegan fare and I think that’s a mistake. All it does is contributes to the myth that vegan food must be second rate.

I’ve talked more about my transition here: http://letthemeatmeat.com/post/22646330085/david-cain-on-vegan-alienation-and-why-the

Nydia September 17, 2013 at 9:20 pm

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