My New Year's Resolution: No Longer Vegan

by Deborah Mitchell, Vegetarian Resource Group of Tucson (VRGT)

Recently I was privy to a heated discussion over the definition of "vegan." Person #1 insisted that people who said they were vegan but ate honey were not truly vegans. Person #2 said honey wasn't such a big deal, that she considered herself to be vegan but occasionally ate foods that contained honey and that she even ate vegetarian cheese that contained casein on rare occasions.

Person #3 said that Person #2 had no right to call herself a vegan. He absolutely never ate anything that contained animal products--no honey, casein, whey--and even used only raw sugar to avoid sugar that may have been filtered through charred bone. That made him a true vegan, he said. But, pointed out Person #1, you are wearing a leather belt. But, came back Person #3, I got it in a second hand store, which means I didn't contribute to its manufacture, so it's okay. At that point, Person #1 pointed out that nearly everything contains some animal products--film, tires, cars, computers, phones--so it is virtually impossible for ANYONE to be a true vegan. As fate would have it, this conversation happened near the time I was reading a commentary by Matt Ball, who is a co-founder of VEGAN OUTREACH, the nonprofit organization that publishes the exceptional (in my opinion) publication Why Vegan? In his commentary he said, "A friend of mine (and long-time vegan) once wrote to a member of the vegan police: 'I grow weary of the term vegan. It seems to become just a label for moral superiority."

That's what I witnessed in the argument among those three vegans. Moral superiority. The I'm-a-better-vegan-than-you-are attitude, when at the heart of it, all three people are compassionate beings who are taking significant steps to lessen animal suffering in the world. Period.

What is a vegan? It's a label, just like vegetarian, republican, gay, senior citizen, christian, and democrat are labels. We are people; we are not the label we place on ourselves. The boundaries of whatever definition we assign to "vegan" are flexible. For me, it's about compassion. It's about reducing the amount of suffering in the world, especially for those who do not have a voice. I choose to follow this path through my food and product choices.

But if using the label "vegan" to describe myself to others conjures up thoughts of moral superiority in their minds, then I will stop "being" vegan to avoid turning them off. Just like the general public has misconceptions about "animal rights" people--they're all terrorists, aren't they?--vegetarians, but especially vegans, are perceived by many to be morally superior. That's not the image I want to project, and it sure isn't conducive to attracting people to ask questions about a vegan lifestyle.

So my new year's resolution is to stop referring to myself as vegan. When asked about my food choices, I will say that I choose to live a compassionate lifestyle to the best of my ability. There's flexibility in that statement; I'm not confined by the label of "vegan" nor judged by someone's preconceived misconception of what the label conveys. And I believe that such a statement opens up the door to inquiries from other people. I'll let you know.

Copyright © 2001 Deborah Mitchell