Does someone need to be ‘perfect’ at veganism before they call themselves a vegan? What if calling yourself vegan leads to learning more about it? Or motivates you to do more to help animals? Or makes you take pride in the title and spread it positively, encouraging more people to look into this whole ‘vegan’ thing? And really, what is a ‘perfect vegan’ anyway?
If you are against animal cruelty, if you think that animals shouldn’t be killed or harmed unnecessarily, and if you think that animals shouldn’t be enslaved or treated like objects, then you are, philosophically speaking, already vegan. If you still use animal products, then the only difference between you and me, is that I’ve done a lot of learning along the way and changed some things about my behaviour to align my actions with these values. You may still be learning, and you may have not even realised that eating certain animal products or wearing animal products goes hand in hand with animal cruelty. But if you want a world where animals are treated fairly, then you and the animals may benefit from identifying with the vegan movement.
To put what I’m saying in another context – I call myself a feminist because I believe in gender equality and that women have had to work really hard to gain some of the basic rights that men have been afforded for a long time. But I don’t by any means think I know the ins and outs of feminism, and I get things wrong at times. I’m okay with that, because I know I’m still learning. I’m also aware that maybe I’ll never know feminism inside out but my intention will always be to bring equality to how we treat genders, and to be open to new information about gender inequality when it comes my way.
This is also how I conceptualise veganism. When I went vegan, I didn’t know veganism inside out. All I knew was that it was a movement that aimed to not contribute to animal suffering. I wanted to get behind such a movement. So I changed the basics i.e. I stopped eating animal products. But I was still using animal-tested cosmetics for some time, and I still bought shoes that had leather in them. I was still engaging in behaviours that contributed to animal exploitation. Should I have not called myself a vegan? I don’t think so. I had all the intention in the world to not contribute to animal suffering – I just didn’t really know the extent of how to help, nor that some of my behaviours still contributed to exploitative industries. So, I learned more as I went. I called myself a vegan but my understanding of that title continued to change and evolve. But because I took a lot of pride and ownership in the title from the get go (i.e. I took pride in associating with something that was against the oppression of animals), I was exposed to learning so much more, and I was exposed to a whole lot of people who helped me learn more. And not buying animal-tested products or leather-lined shoes became an easy and logical next step in that process.
I know there are many people in this boat – who want to help animals and who care about animals, but don’t know the many facets to how the vegan philosophy applies in our daily behaviour, or who are just struggling to change a particular aspect of their diet or behaviour. They might think – “I can’t call myself a vegan” or they might have others say to them “you’re not really a vegan”. But I want these people to be able to call themselves vegan even if they don’t have it exactly as they think it should be. If they are striving for a world where animals are not oppressed, then they deserve to identify with the movement that encourages this. And this movement needs all the members it can possibly get. Perfectionism, whether it’s in ourselves or what we expect in others, does a huge disservice to making any progress. Because perfectionism tells us – you either reach this standard, or you fail. So what happens when someone doesn’t reach that standard, and are judged for it (either from themselves or others)? Often, they abandon the idea, and choose to do nothing. Sometimes it’s easier to not try, than to be reminded of your failure or to be judged, discriminated or outcast for not ‘getting it right’.
The real downside to people abandoning the title ‘vegan’ is that they’re also often abandoning any pro-animal behaviour associated with veganism. I have met countless people who have said “I wish I had the willpower to be a vegan” or “I just can’t imagine giving up cheese”, and I think to myself, well why not start there? Have the willpower to do something, if not go vegan right now. Give up everything but cheese if that’s the one barrier holding you back; leave cheese for later. Why continue to consume animals in every other way, just because cheese was too difficult to cut out? In other words, Why go ‘all or nothing’ and choose nothing when there is so much to be done in between? I’ve also witnessed times when eating out and people have avoided the vegan items on the menu, because they are “for the vegans” (though this is changing with the rapid rise of plantbased options at eateries), which is a shame because again – imagine how much impact one could have if they replaced even 50% of their animal based meals with vegan meals.
So the word vegan doesn’t necessarily need to be reserved for those who know everything about veganism and who are doing every possible thing in their knowledge to help animals. I have so much admiration for these people, they have the passion, the desire, and the many personal or environmental factors that allow them to do this – whether it’s social support, access to education, personality factors, and a myriad of other things. But not everyone can, nor needs to do this, to make a difference to the lives of animals. I know the ins & outs of veganism because it’s an interest area of mine, and I do animal advocacy, so it makes sense I spend so much time learning about it. But helping animals doesn’t require this amount of time studying something in depth, you also don’t have to call yourself an activist to help animals, and most importantly, you don’t have to be ‘perfect’.
But what if people confuse others about what veganism is by calling themselves vegan when they’re not?
This is a common concern. I think one of the key considerations here is a) what makes them not vegan? and b) what is the reason behind why they do those non-vegan behaviours? I think there’s valuable information to be found here when someone calls themselves vegan and still do behaviours that are, in obvious ways, not vegan. Why do they want to call themselves vegan? What values are they really identifying with here? If there is something appealing about veganism that is drawing someone in, then we ought to find out what that is. In most cases, if they don’t have the correct information (e.g. they still wear wool because they don’t believe it causes animals harm) – then we have an opportunity for education. So rather than encouraging them to denounce their vegan title, it might be better to educate them about what they’re missing and encourage them to try those things, further evolving their understanding of veganism. When we identify as vegan with little intention as to its values, I can see this being problematic. It’s like if I said I was a feminist but had little intention to know what that term actually means. Some people who call themselves vegan may be doing it to look trendy or some other unrelated reason. But I don’t believe this would be the most common issue, the major issue here is that we want more people calling themselves vegan who shy away from it. This is a much larger number of people who could be spreading veganism further and having a greater impact.
If your intention is to help protect animals from harm and you’re interested in veganism, please let yourself be! Don’t be put off by thinking you either have to ‘have it right’ or ‘it’s nothing’. That becomes ‘all or nothing’ thinking which is rarely helpful. Veganism is a constantly unfolding process, and often, when people discover veganism, they can’t help but keep learning (either actively or just by proxy). Call yourself a vegan, a vegan in training, a learning vegan, or whatever you like. If you want to drop the title altogether, then you can drop it too. But don’t let the absence or presence of a title stop you from making meaningful efforts to helping animals. We are all capable of helping animals. We are all capable of making an impact through our lifestyle choices. So start now or start tomorrow; go all out, or just start with the first step you know you can take (e.g. try a vegan meal every day, replace your dairy milk with plant milk, save a list of vegan recipes online etc), with a plan for the next.
The world is rapidly going vegan, but it will be quicker if we encourage more people to jump on board and guide them along the way, than if we push people off board because they’re not up to standard.
Author: Apoorva Madan
Apoorva is a clinical psychologist and animal rights advocate
Read more at http://www.animalandmind.com