“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women for men.” – Alice Walker
Veganism is currently one of the fastest growing movements. As its population rapidly expands and diversifies, so does its public image – evolving from cheesecloth draped lentil enthusiasts to an active and innovative global community. Today’s advocates of veganism include street activists of varied ages and backgrounds, admired celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman, environmental advocates such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, athletes such as world log-lift champion Patrik Baboumian (deemed Germany’s strongest man) and one of the world’s leading female climbers Steph Davis, and even those who are yet to put into practice their own sentiments, such as renowned science authors and philosophers Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
Despite the shifting attitudes however, veganism today is as misunderstood as it is admired. Many people perceive veganism as a strict form of sacrifice, where individuals abstain from all animal-derived ‘products’ such as meat, dairy, eggs, leather, honey or wool. A quick google search will lead to some definitions that support this idea. Although true in practice, this interpretation misses the core component of veganism, leading many to beg the question –
Why live in such a way?
Veganism is a philosophy which asserts that all animals with the ability to suffer have a basic right to not be considered as objects or the property of humans. By extension, veganism is applied in practice in two ways – through the rejection of the use of animals as commodities, whether that be for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation or any other purpose, and the rejection of causing unnecessary harm to animals where possible. Veganism is also a social justice movement, one which calls for freedom of all species. A movement that I believe sits at the root of all justice movements; Once you extend your respect to all beings with the ability to suffer, discrimination of any kind (whether by race, gender, or sexuality) is easily recognised as unjust.
The term ‘vegan’ was initially coined in 1944 by co-founder of the Vegan Society Donald Watson in an attempt to deviate from the dietary behaviours of vegetarianism, and encompass a wider ethical ideology. It was later adapted to represent the doctrine that ‘man should live without exploiting animals’ and has since rapidly gained momentum as a philosophy and justice movement.
Regardless of its expanding influence, misinformation, confusion, and contentious dinner-table conversations still surround veganism.
So let’s discuss what veganism is and isn’t.
- Veganism is not a religion or cult – there is no religious agenda, faith in the supernatural, nor worshipped deity. Rather, reasoning in veganism is more aligned with that of secularism as moral behaviour is encouraged on the basis of empathy, moral intuition, and logic, rather than supernatural guidance or scripture.
- It is not a diet. Food choice is just an example of one of the ways veganism is applied. It is the rejection of causing unnecessary harm for pleasure (palette, or otherwise). As a result of applying the philosophy, a large demand for foods that contain no animal ‘products’ has rapidly grown worldwide. Despite the array of both vegan nutritional and junk foods now being popularly consumed by vegans and non-vegans alike, veganism is not simply about food.
- Veganism is not a health movement. There are indeed recognised health benefits associated with vegan diets, and as a result, healthy eating trends have coincided with an increase in vegan food consumption. Greater wellbeing may be a driving force for many to adopt a vegan diet, but a health focus relates specifically to personal wellbeing, rather than an overall ethical concern for animals.
- It is not about kindness; to be kind is to offer a friend money when they’re struggling, to pull over when you spot a driver having car troubles. Altruism. Good will. These are acts of kindness and generosity. Veganism is about affording others the basic right to freedom from intentional harm. Accordingly, an oppressor who stops oppressing is not practicing kindness. Vegan advocacy is predominantly a plea for individuals to stop inflicting this harm on the victims, not a call for acts of kindness or heroism.
- Veganism is not about identity. It is easy to deflect the message of an important movement onto the merit of its messengers. But vegan individuals are not always representative of the cause, and its population remains vast and varied. Veganism is both entirely about us and simultaneously not about us at all. It relies on us – as we are the agents of potential change, but veganism is not egocentric. It is the opposite; it requires us to put ego aside – considering external consequences, others, and the wider reactions to our actions.
- Veganism is not about purity or perfection. By simply existing, we are harming other life on this planet. Consider the many insects that come under our feet when walking down the street, or the animals killed incidentally due to harvesting of crops. Suffering and harm is inevitable and this is not something that can be avoided. But veganism does take out the intentionality behind this harm and aims to reduce it where feasible. Our perception of animals as objects is what enables the suffering of others ten-fold.If you agree that animals deserve freedom from unnecessary harm, and need not be used as commodities, then you already carry a vegan philosophy. Many people may follow a vegan philosophy before even realising it. The actions that result from this philosophy (e.g. abstaining from buying leather, or switching to dairy alternatives) tend to follow with increased learning of how animal use is relevant in our daily lives, and where it is possible to make alternative choices. This learning can be endless and opportunities for reducing harm will not all come to our awareness at once. When actions begin to align with the philosophy however, it is important to remember that there is no perfect vegan person or vegan end-goal, there is only the person who adapts and considers as they learn.
- Veganism is not a trend. It is no coincidence that the last decade of technological advancement and social media engagement has also seen a surge in vegetarianism and veganism. Information is spreading, and with this has come the increasing difficulty for animal agriculture industries to hide their practices from consumers. People are becoming aware of what eating and using animals looks like at every stage, from ‘farm’ to plate. And this awareness is instigating widespread and exponential change in consumer habits.
Animal Rights South Australia demonstration, 2017
- Veganism is not extremism. Though it does not fit into the mainstream ideology, veganism is not extreme in nature. Extremism – to hold an extreme political or religious view, can also imply extreme acts. Veganism is sometimes incorrectly considered extreme because a vegan person will abstain from all animal product use where possible. Given how common animal products are in our society, avoiding them sometimes requires deliberation and vigilance. What this highlights is not that veganism is finicky or outrageous, but rather that animal exploitation surrounds us. Animal exploitation has seeped into every facet of our daily functioning to such an extent that to question it is to go against the norm and appear rebellious. If we consider the above definition of veganism however – in short, a rejection to injustice – then rejecting animal use where possible is an attempt to make actions align with the ethical values of veganism
- It is not about loving animals. We would be living in a strange world if the only time we afforded respect to others’ basic needs was if we also loved them. You do not need to love animals to respect their agency. Vegans may love animals, they also may not have any particular fondness for them. It doesn’t matter.
So, really, why live in such a way?
Currently it is estimated that more than 250 000 animals are killed daily for human consumption. Not due to necessity, but due to desire. Animals are killed for food, despite it being widely understood that vegan diets are more than sufficient for our health (World Health Organisation), animals are being killed for their skin despite there being various fabric fashion alternatives, and animals are being tested on for cosmetics and other purposes despite the questionable reliability of animal models and availability of alternative methods. Animals in these industries are bred into existence, often living a life of crowded and unhygienic confinement, forced reproductive labour, painful surgical procedures, starvation, and psychological despair. From a moral standpoint, creating sentient lives in order to take them away makes little sense, particularly when those lives have no freedom to choose otherwise.
With the ‘othering’ of species so deeply embedded in our daily lifestyles, it is easy to overlook the process involved in commodifying a living being. There are three key parts to this process: the exploitation and violence required to profit from animals in farming and slaughter practices, the psychological disconnect that allows humans to view animals as products, and the industrial, cultural, and legal systems that sustain this disconnect.
Through years of institutional conditioning, we have been taught to disassociate the pig from the bacon on our plates, or the cow from the skin that adorns our couches and clothes. Every step in the chain, from cage to store and life to package, endeavours to strip away any connection we, the consumer, may feel with these animals – reducing living creatures to units, batch numbers and profit margins. And although we consume them on a daily basis, our understanding of these animals has also become tragically limited to how they benefit us.
This objectification has resulted in a denigrated view of animals, and poor knowledge of the complexity of species other than our own.
Veganism is not the end of a road to ethical awareness, nor is it a claim to moral perfection. In fact, to do so would be to practice ignorance. After several years of identifying as vegan, I have found that my worldview and moral philosophy continues to morph and be challenged. Our current use of animals contradicts the very relationship we often wish to share with animals, a relationship of compassion and nurturing that we so easily embrace with them if they stand before us, but quickly disregard when they are shredded on our forks. In veganism, learning to navigate and shift the current dominant culture of animal consumption will be an ever-unfolding process requiring humility and openness.
“If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?” – Pam Ahern
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