Veganism without Vegetarianism: On Guilt, Disability, and Ex-Vegans

Veganism without Vegetarianism: On Guilt, Disability, and Ex-Vegans

While attending theThinking About Animals conference in the spring 2011, I stumbled upon an odd and heretical questions: Could someone practice veganism without being vegetarian?

The question is intended to be provocative in order to challenge vegans’ complicity or even dogmatic adherence to a particular understanding of veganism. That veganism is becoming mainstream through its assimilation into the capitalist economy as a lifestyle choice or a fashionable diet leaves a stale taste in my mouth. Veganism should be revolutionary, not marketable. This question also enabled me to experiment with creating a more productive tension between veganism and vegetarianism.*

So could someone practice veganism without being vegetarian? My answer is yes, or so I think. “[W]e must understand veganism as something more and less than (vegetarian) consumption.”

There were several discomforting aspects of mainstream veganism that turned my thoughts toward what was at first the more discomforting question of whether veganism always required vegegtarian consumption.

First, after reading The Vegan Ideal, I became dissatisfied by people who identified as “vegan” who were not allies in ending the institution of speciesism or even advocating for animal rights. The original meaning of veganism has been lost and emptied of all its historical and revolutionary significance as vegan is increasingly appropriated by yuppies and youth subcultures. My friend Anastasia reports that she has increasingly become alienated from

[v]eganism [which] is becoming more and more a subculture to pre-existing subcultures or scenes (i.e. straight-edge punk, anarchist, afrocentric—to name a few). As a result, the emphasis in veganism as a whole has been to focus on the lives and identities of these self-proclaimed vegans… vegan proponents have become so involved in identity politics to the point where the ultimate concern is being vegan. We’re at the point where you can talk about veganism and make no mention of animals or being animal at all. Veganism in the United States has successfully booted nonhuman animals out of the picture and once again focused majority of our attention on human experience.

As I discussed in my critique of consumption-centered veganism, I’m fearful of the consequences of veganism being reduced to merely a vegetarian diet on philosophical, social, and pragmatic grounds.

Second, I’ve grown tired of  the identity politics that surround the “vegan” label. Under the label “vegan,” people have “policed” the bodies of their allies, have instigated moral superiority campaigns, and have played the victim when it is not them who are oppressed and it is not them who should take pride. I don’t think of veganism as a noun to be identified with, purchased, consumed, and secured, but as a relationship with others that is never yet complete. By labeling goods, organizations, or oneself “vegan,” people additionally become complacent that they are doing enough through their purchasing power and by addressing animal exploitation as a single-issue divorced from social and ecological reality. In his analysis of vegetarianism through Slavoj Zizek’s critique of charity-that “a genuine moral impulse to combat a real problem can be displaced towards an action which,… fails to combat the problem which gave rise to the impulse”-, Northern Song writes:

[V]egetarianism – is there not a tendency to see your decision to stop your own consumption of animals as a personal sacrifice, as “doing your part”, and when you’ve succeeded in cutting yourself off from the omnipresent luxury of meat, you are “doing your part”? When of course, if one actually holds to the principle of ending the suffering and slaughter of animals to serve a contingent human need, the only value in becoming vegetarian is the value it derives from being effective towards that end. And yet – how many vegetarians are capable of imagining a world without meat production?… if one’s moral impulse is satisfied, or satiated by the activity one takes up on the basis of it, then one is entrapped in an ideology of personal goodness

As long as the majority of self-identified vegans are complacent in their ideas and within socially unjust institutions, I have little confidence we will make much progress. Veganism must go beyond vegetarian consumption.

Third, as I became more cognizant of food allergies and abelism, I was less confident that there was an optimal diet universal to all human bodies. Given that bodies vary in their ability to digest certain foods, it would be pretty cruel for one to judge someone for eating animal products if they were, say, “digestively disabled.” Take for instance Tasha’s experience struggling to maintain her health on a diet she firmly and morally believed in. After Tasha had bravely “came-out” as an ex-vegetarian on her popular blog Voracious Vegan, which had just won an award fromVegNews in 2010, she reported the following treatment by her (former?) allies:

My personal accounts and those of my family were repeatedly hacked, fake twitter and blog accounts were created posing as me and background checks were done on me and my web designer and his family. Someone even tried to contact my doctor to have my medical records released! Other people insisted that I was a fictional creation of the meat industry, fabricated to make veganism look bad … The most frequent theme of the many death threats I received was that my family members and my companion animals should be killed in front of me in the way that factory farmed animals are killed. There were also threats of sexual violence made against me, which is a common silencing tactic used against women… [F]ollowing the dogma behind the vegan label [had become] more important than actually living the ideals [i.e. compassion] of veganism

Although it may be possible that Tasha could have found some vegetarian diet that would have sustained her health, she seems to be a case that supports Kathryn Paxton George’s critique of vegetarianism’s “physiological norm.” Nonetheless, my informed intuition is that the great majority of humans can maintain at least satisfactory health if not flourish on a fully vegetarian diet, even if many people may be incapable of doing so. Regardless, my objective is simply not to see difference (where it truly exists) as a moral failure or exception to “the vegan ideal.” One can theoretically inhabit veganism without being able to be vegetarian.

One of my major concerns is—especially after every time I read a post on Let Them Eat Meat—that people simply give up on veganism because vegetarianism didn’t work for them for (presumably for reasons beyond their control). The fallacy is that if there is something wrong with vegetarianism (i.e. that it cannot be universalized to all human bodies, cultures, and ecologies), then the animal etiquette of veganism must be wrong as well. Thus, ex-vegans rationalize speciesism, adopting often an entirely new worldview and an instrumental, biological relationship to animal others. Chloë Taylor describes this phenomenon well:

It is not the case that we first determine that we are superior to non-human animals and then we conclude that we have the moral license to eat them. Rather, it is through our very eating of other animals that we constitute our superiority… Human superiority is not a fact from which the permissibility of our practices is deduced; on the contrary, human superiority is something which we construct through our instrumentalization of other species… (2010: 75)

Taylor’s assertion is not mere philosophical drivel. Just last year, research psychologists Steve Loughan and others found evidence that eating animals

appears to both narrow the breadth of moral consideration (fewer animals deserve it) and lessen the extent of moral concern (cows deserve less moral consideration)… eating meat might lead people to withdraw moral concern from animals, which they then rationalize via a perceived reduction in animals’ capacity to suffer. (2000: 158)

Jonathon Haidt and other’s work in the field of moral psychology provides some explanation for Taylor and Loughan’s conclusions. They argue moral reasoning is most often post-hoc, after-the-fact. In other words, people assign reasons to their (socialized and habitualized) moral intuitions in an attempt to understand and defend their feelings and actions as reasonable. People like to feel like they are in control of themselves, like they act for good reason (especially in modern “enlightened” societies), but the reality is that people are normally rationalizing the feeling and social structure that they find themselves “thrown” into by circumstances outside of their control.

When people find themselves in a circumstance where applying their vegan etiquette by consuming a strict vegetarian diet isn’t an option for their physiological well-being, or if they find themselves in an embarrassing slip-up (i.e. eating and taking pleasure in a burger on a drunken dare), it is disheartening that they throw the baby out with the bathwater. That is, they are so quick to rationalize their behavior in order to secure their self-esteem in a unified sense of self consistent with their practices—they disavow their own difference. They lose focus on the animal other and the open social relationship they have to them, and withdraw back into self-interest. Perhaps this is something out of people’s control. Nonetheless, what is so sad is that to alleviate their guilt of transgressing their values, they abandon said values rather than simply forgiving themselves for being imperfect in an imperfect world.

Although so-called “ex-vegans” like might cleverly expose thedeconstruction of vegan logic and critique its failure to come to terms with its inability to be at all times consistent in a violent world, my suspicion is that they do so in part because they are unable to deal with the irreconcilable imperfection with themselves and their former vegan worldview. Perhaps they feelmore consistent in supporting “humane” animal agribusiness and DIY slaughter. However, this sense of consistency comes at the expense of foreclosing one’s previous social sympathy for animal others. Perceiving oneself as failing the all-or-nothing “vegan ideal,” one’s moral commitment to animal others, is like a second trauma—the first perhaps being a video that catalyzed their coming into veganism. One’s existence becomes a wound. One is compelled to sew it up, to not be tormented by the specter of care. However, one does so in bad faith.

Rhys’s post, “Why Ex-Vegans Eat More Meat than They Must,” really demonstrates this moment of bad faith and validated my effort to re-understand veganism’s relationship to vegetarianism:

[I]t isn’t easy to recalibrate your internal guilt alarm to permit some animal products but then go off whenever you exceed a limit determined to be the minimal amount needed for health. Few ex-vegans are willing to venture back into eating animal products with guilt still being an issue, so they find a way to lose the guilt entirely…[A]s long as most vegans see veganism [what I call vegetarianism] as an all-or-nothing thing, most ex-vegans are going to have to agree with them. Why should ex-vegans bother trying to get close to the vegan ideal when most vegans despise ex-vegans more than any other group and disbelieve them. [my emphasis]

By privileging the feeling of guilt for being a hypocrite over empowering people to exercise their care for oneself and animal others as participants in our social and agroecological communities, vegans set themselves and others up for abandoning their values and the veganism movement entirely so that they can live a life without self-contempt. Creating a gap in meaning between vegetarianism and veganism, consumption and social practice, has enabled an articulation of veganism in which people who are active and sincere anti-speciesists are accepted in their imperfection-a state that no self-identified vegan has or will probably ever escape to some degree.

My past reflections on the transformational and social nature of veganism seem to be equally relevant, if not more so, for those whose bodies resist the perfect vegan practice in vegetarianism. Veganism, I wrote, is rooted in one’s “love” for animal others, and that this love ought to serve as a point of departure, a point of arrival, and a means of transportation. In order to practice such care, one must care for oneself sufficiently enough to forgive oneself for imperfection.** Accordingly,

vegans have more to struggle with emotionally than they do nutritionally. To recognize the need or urgency to become vegan, to be true to oneself and animal others, is a recognition of one’s own history of hypocrisy and vice. When people are unable to accept themselves (their history of supporting mass violence against the most vulnerable), they forget it and project their anxiety and self-contempt onto others-they wage war.

Forgiveness is perhaps one of the most crucial needs of vegans (or anyone trying to recover from an abject autobiographical guilt). Forgiveness opens a society to being renewed, not reproduced, but born of new values, meanings, purposes, and goals… Rather than being paralyzed by guilt and shame, willing oneself into submission, or fleeing in the face from ourselves in guilt, forgiveness brings us face to face with an-other… The failed project of perfection should not result in resignation or punishment-lashing ourselves for the sake of our superegos-, but rather bring us deeper into appreciation of our own finitude…

Forgiving, however, is not the same as forgetting. By forgiving and advocating that ex-vegans forgive themselves is not to leave them morally unaccountable, but to hold them to greater accountability without suffering from guilt. Nor does this position trivialize the power of vegetarian consumption as contingent. As I wrote recently:

I am not saying vegetarian consumption is impractical or supererogatory. Rather, vegetarainism consumption ought to be seen as distinguished from veganism… because vegetarian consumption and vegan social modality are in a dialectical relationship. In other words, a vegan modality motivates vegetarian practice and vegetarian practice facilitates a maturer veganism. Vegetarianism is a means to the transformative practice that is veganism.

[V]egetarianism is an invaluable performance especially as a critical praxis. If morality is post-hoc-“after the fact,” a response to cognitive dissonance-, then a diet free of the consumption of animal bodies, their labor, their products, and products tested on them is less likely to facilitate our rationalization of their exploitation. Vegetarian consumption practice facilitates a de-subjectification of a human identity based upon an opposition, negation, and domination of animality and animal others… [P]rivileging vegetarian consumption over animal-based consumption enables the positive re-construction of our world away from one in which speciesism is institutionalized

* See my abstract for the Thinking about Animals conference for the history of this thought process, my critique of (consumer and)consumption-centered veganism, and my advocacy of a socially-centered veganism to replace the previous consumption-centered paradigm. In this essay, I’ve tried to address the difficult relationship between vegetarian consumption and vegan social praxis to offer a more forgiving and less metaphysical position on veganism. In a future post, I will describe veganism as a radical mode of social responsibility. Previous versions of all these essays were written for interview questions by Rhys Southan. In a couple weeks, the full interview should be posted on Let Them Eat Meat.

** Some may object that by forgiving and advocating forgiveness, people would be subjecting others to a “slave morality” to which they must hegemonically conform. Would veganism, then, not be anything more than a form of social power? Perhaps there is a power relationship at play here, however, if veganism is not rooted in a metaphysics of “good and evil,” but a series of phenomenological events of care, veganism is not simply an imposition from the outside in, but a disruptive imposition form the inside out. Further, if resistance to veganism is an attempt to evade the responsibility to recognize Others as social and sentient beings to secure one’s material, social, and existential privilege over others, and veganism is fundamentally a sincere and more consistent practice of social responsibility-a proto-ethic that all ethics must presuppose to be possible-, then the trasnformative potential of forgiveness opens the future to responsibility and not merely control and revenge.