Veganism is not a black or white concept

It can be easy to see things in black or white – that something is good or bad, right or wrong, perfect or a failure. Termed as ‘polarised thinking’ in psychology, this type of thought pattern is recognised as unhelpful due to its irrational and simplistic approach. Most of us think in this way from time to time, often because we’re taught at an early age to understand things in a more digestible way. For example, we might teach children that ‘stealing is bad’ in order to help them make a quick analysis about certain behaviours and how we want them to relate to those behaviours. But teaching such a notion misses the finer details of a more layered concept – that stealing for example, can be an act of desperation in a time of need, it can be driven by survival, or that for many people it is a result of unfortunate environmental or social circumstances.

Placing complex ideas into black or white categories gives us a relatively simple way of understanding the world around us. In reality however, thinking in absolutes doesn’t help us to see the nuance and detail in situations, and can limit our cognitive flexibility. Inevitably, the world is a little more ‘grey’ than this, and being open to more than two opposing options can help as better understand it and work with it.

Veganism is no different. Veganism is often seen as an ‘all or nothing’ concept – you’re either vegan or you’re not, or, you’re either 100% vegan or you’re not. But there are a few issues with this.

The first problem with this is that if our definition of veganism is to not harm animals – that’s near impossible. Consider, for example, the many insects we accidentally step on day to day. Veganism isn’t a way of completely eradicating animal suffering, it is only an attempt at drastically reducing it. To some degree, we will always cause harm to others around us simply because we exist.

The second problem with an ‘all or none’ approach to veganism is that it becomes exclusive, and pushes out many potential supporters. If someone is ‘somewhat vegan’ or ‘mostly vegan’, this is more effective in reducing the number of animals eaten than if they weren’t vegan at all (and remember, behaviour can change more once it’s already changed some!).

The third problem is that if we equate veganism with being perfect, then it can be an unappealing invitation to the person we’re trying to influence. They might be more inclined to avoid veganism altogether, seeing it as too hard. Or they may avoid identifying as vegan because some of their behaviours are considered non-vegan, preferring to put themselves in the ‘non-vegan’ basket out of fear of not meeting the expectations of the in-group. Or, they might choose to not attempt any vegan behaviours because those behaviours are only associated with ‘vegans’. We don’t want people to see only one of two options (vegan or non-vegan), we want them to see a scale that they can climb.

As stated by Henry Spira –
“if you ask for all or nothing, usually you end up with nothing”

More importantly, most people who identify as vegan fit onto a multidimensional scale of veganism themselves. Which means their behaviour doesn’t fit a linear scale of 0% vegan to 100%. For example, there may the vegan who eats no packaged food whatsoever in order to prevent contributing to plastic pollution that harms wildlife or marine life. Or there may be the vegan who only eats plastic-packaged food because they’re always on the go but assures not to buy any animal products with obscure numerical animal additives in the ingredients list. There is the vegan who chooses to throw away all their old leather shoes to symbolise that he will no longer perceive animals as products, and the vegan who will continue to wear her old leather items because she considers it more environmentally resourceful than buying new materials. There may be the vegan who eats a dairy cake once a year and donates hundreds of dollars to vegan charities, or the vegan who never eats animal products but donates no money or does no advocacy. There is no universal representation of a vegan. There is instead diversity; a range of behaviours that are executed in an attempt to align with the one thing that is [largely] consistent among vegan activists – a philosophy of perceiving animals as sentient with a right to freedom from harm. Current self-identified vegans won’t be ‘perfect’, instead they will most likely be trying their best in a complex world of animal use.

Does this mean we shouldn’t call anything right or wrong, good or bad – what about harming animals? Harming people? Prejudice? Enslavement?

polarised thinking

Of course it’s useful to have measures in society that help guide more beneficial and altruistic behaviours. This can aid in our communities striving, both human and animals, and bringing more justice into the world. Seeing the ‘grey area’ is not a matter of seeing everything as subjective, but rather as working out what dimensions are involved when we measure these concepts – as almost everything has multidimensional layers to it. 

So if veganism isn’t black or white, what is it?

It’s an attempt at reducing as much suffering of other animals as possible. For many people, that means making adjustments to their lifestyle behaviours that although may be quite different to the norm, are also realistic and achievable. For example, eating plant-based food, using cosmetics that aren’t tested on animals, wearing clothes that aren’t made from the skin of animals, and avoiding activities that represent the exploitation of animals (e.g. animal circuses). But for many people, these behaviours would have happened over time as they learned more and more about which products are linked to animal harm – as they climbed that scale. It wouldn’t happen immediately. As I always say, veganism is a process and an endless philosophical journey. So when you’re encouraging veganism among others, don’t forget to encourage others regardless of where they sit on the spectrum, and remind yourself – veganism as a practice is not all or nothing, like most things, it is dynamic and complex, with room for constant change.


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