Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Very Bad Vegan

Apparently, my last post about Guinness Ice Cream has alienated about half my blog readers, who are convinced that I am a VERY BAD VEGAN.

They are so very right. I am a terrible vegan. Once I bought fortified juice that contained vitamin D3. I eat in restaurants that serve meat, and I don't harangue the staff about whether my food is cooked on the same grill as animal products. I have accidentally purchased cereal that contained honey--and then ate it anyway. I don't own a copy of Animal Ingredients A to Z.

Actually, I did own a copy once, shortly after becoming vegan. I remember flipping through the pages and feeling overwhelmed that I would have to memorize this long list of often obscure ingredients and contact each company from whom I purchased food or other products to ask if they used, at any point, any one of thousands of animal-derived ingredients. Part of me thought that this would make me way hard core, the baddest-ass vegan on the block. The rest of me thought that maybe this vegan thing was, like all my friends kept telling me, way too extreme and difficult and not at all practical.

Since then, I've come to realize that obsessing over minute traces of hidden ingredients (or accidental "contamination" in restaurants) makes veganism look like it's not very much fun and takes way too much work. I'd much rather people spend time with me and come away with the impression that veganism isn't a militant all-or-nothing battle to prove my street cred, but rather a way to reduce the suffering of animals. I personally agree with Matt Ball, co-founder of Vegan Outreach and generally supernice guy,

Conversely, for every person we convince that veganism is overly-demanding by obsessing with an ever-increasing list of ingredients, we do worse than nothing: we turn someone away who could have made a real difference for animals if they hadn't met us! Currently the vast majority of people in our society have no problem eating the actual leg of a chicken. It is not surprising that many people dismiss vegans as unreasonable and irrational when our example includes interrogating waiters, not eating veggie burgers cooked on the same grill with meat, not taking photographs or using medicines, etc.

Instead of spending our limited time and resources worrying about the margins (cane sugar, film, medicine, etc.), our focus should be on increasing our impact every day. Helping just one person change leads to hundreds fewer animals suffering in factory farms. By choosing to promote compassionate eating, every person we meet is a potential major victory.

Admittedly, this results-based view of veganism is not as straightforward as consulting a list. Areas of concern range from the example we set to the allocation of resources, asking questions such as: Do I bother asking for an ingredient list when with non-veg friends and family, perhaps not eating anything, and risk making veganism appear petty and impossible? How should I spend or donate my limited money and time?

Situations are subtle and opportunities unique, thus there can be no set answers. But if our decisions are guided by a desire to accomplish the most good, we each have enormous potential to create change. (link)

That said, if you don't want to use Guinness in your ice cream because it might contain isinglass, I'm sure you can find a different beer. I don't know of one, because I don't drink beer. I couldn't tell you the difference between a pale ale and a stout. When I do buy beer for my husband, it's almost always from one of our local microbrews and I have no idea if they use isinglass or not. Because, as we have established, I am a very bad vegan.

I'm OK with being a bad vegan. You can stop reading my blog if you want, as some have threatened. You can even modify my recipes to your standard of veganism. That's cool with me.

I'm more concerned with making veganism fun and accessible, and in pursuit of that goal I play around with ice cream, write this blog, and do a lot of volunteering for Vegan Outreach, handing out thousands of copies of "Why Vegan" and "Even If You Like Meat" on college campuses, at festivals, and outside of concerts. Is that enough to let me into the vegan club?


  1. Anonymous12:45 PM

    I'm with you, better to be the best vegan you can be without obsessing and driving away possible converts who care. It's about compassion, empathy and no one can ever be 100% positive they don't ingest some animal related byproduct at some point in time, don't care what they say. That's life, don't sweat the small stuff.

  2. I totally agree with you. The whole point of veganism to me is to eliminate as much animal suffering as possible. The easier I make it look, the more likely people around me are going to try it. (Or at least not call me crazy.) I do my best, reading ingredients, etc., but I'm not going to refuse to eat the vegetables my mom cooked on the grill just because they touched my dad's pork chops. And I'm not going to refuse to eat a pizza slice offered to me when all I need to do to make it vegan is to scrape the cheese off the top (and yes, I do mean pizza from the places where there's no whey in the dough). If that makes me a "bad" vegan, so be it. Making veganism look easy makes me feel good.

  3. Anonymous1:00 PM

    I think your comments are spot-on. As I mature as a vegan (14 years +), I am becoming less picky and more accepting. I don't knowingly pay for animal exploitation, but I might accidentally eat a little ghee now and then at my local vegetarian Indian restaurants. I think this non-freak-out attitude makes me a much more pleasant person to be around and a much better vegan "missionary".

  4. While i do not share your convictions i understand that there are many different ways to ascribe to the vegan lifestyle. Often times we get too caught up in identification that we can somehow see others not choosing the level we wish to take veganism to as anathema. i think this recent blog post can be seen as a disclaimer to all. I generally read quite a few sites when i comes to cooking and preparing food. taking what i like from each. To threaten quitting something that is voluntary at best is ridiculous so i do not understand your detractors. Good luck in your quest of veganism it is after all a personal as well as public journey.

    btw i am one of those extremists you spoke of in the blog ;)

  5. Anonymous2:04 PM

    I think you need to show your commitment to others instead of showing that you can slack off on being compassionate. It really annoys me when people call themselves vegan and don't strive to be an example.

  6. Anonymous2:38 PM

    Thanks for writing this! I too am a bad vegan - I do my best and consult the A-Z list as much as possible. But, I find that with veganism and other issues I'm passionate about - I would rather meet people where they are. Immediately, without having seen how I eat or what I eat people say "I could never..." I don't want to tote out a huge list of ingredients or make it seem like it's not even worth considering. If someone is willing to give up meat once a week, twice a week, etc. - I'm willing to celebrate with them and as they become comfortable, challenge them a little bit more. If someone already is aware of animal cruelty, I want to challenge them to go vegetarian. But drastic changes usually don't work for people...

  7. Sigh. BIG SIGH.

    When I first posted this back in February, I didn't allow comments because I didn't want to deal with the Vegan Police BS like in the "anonymous" comment above. (Not talking about Phil...he explains his disagreement thoughtfully and I respect his willingness to identify himself.) But I decided to turn comments back on. Maybe it was a mistake.

    It's so sad that whenever my blog gets just a teensy bit of publicity (I was once a "Blog of Note," and now have been mentioned in the Vegan Outreach newsletter), I get all sorts of nasty comments. When I was a blog of note, the nastiness came mostly from the non-vegan community--the "you're stupid, I like meat LOL" kind of thing.

    Now that this post was listed in the VO newsletter, the nastiness is coming from fellow vegans and (I assume) activists. Ironically, I've gotten tons of positive emails over the months about this post--not a single negative remark. But now that it's easier to leave a comment, especially without any identification, the attacks begin. With the election only a few weeks away, I'm beginning to understand what it must be like to have attack ads running against you.

    Anyway. Althouth anonymous isn't brave enough to identify him/herself, I'll respond to this: "I think you need to show your commitment to others instead of showing that you can slack off on being compassionate. It really annoys me when people call themselves vegan and don't strive to be an example.."

    How am I not showing a commitment? How am I slacking off? I just don't see it. I recently got an email from a woman who told me that "Some of my friends have started eating less meat - my boyfriend is now vegetarian and some friends are considering veganism," in great part because she's also a "bad vegan" who presents veganism as something fun and laid-back.

    Several of my friends have warmed up to veg*nism because I've presented it to them in a "hey, why don't you try some of my yummy food" manner, rather than a "omg, I think my pickle touched your ham sandwich and now I can't eat it" manner.

    Yes, I am vegan for ethical reasons. I oppose speciesism, and I don't believe that animals exist for us to use. They exist for their own purposes, and they have their own desires that should be respected.

    I am also an AR activist. As an activist, I must ask myself, "What is the most effective thing I can do to help animals?" Not "What can I do that will make me feel good?"

    Because, trust me, standing outside the circus with a bullhorn and a TV showing graphic footage...that makes me feel really, really good.

    And volunteering to play with the kittens at the animal shelter? That is so much fun and I'd LOVE it.

    But it's not about me. I can't do just what makes me feel good. So I have to ask myself--Do I want to spend one hour at the circus with a bullhorn, or an hour playing with kittens, or do I want to spend one hour leafleting for Vegan Outreach?

    Leafleting can be pretty boring at times. It's way less fun than yelling at people with a bullhorn. It's not sexy. My feet hurt and I get hot or cold or sunburned. I don't get lots of attention. I don't look like a superstar.

    But I choose to leaflet anyway. Because I believe that it's the most effective use of my time. I can't do everything. My time and money are limited. So I've got to do what WORKS, not what makes me feel good.

    And, yep, it felt pretty awesome to read through Animal Ingredients A to Z and refuse to eat my friend's cooking because they used a suspect brand of wine in the sauce. I felt really cool when I pestered the waitstaff about making sure that my veggie burger was cooked so that it couldn't possibly ever touch an animal product. And when the waitress brought a little pitcher of cream with my coffee once, well, yelling at her would have felt REALLY GOOD because, dammit, why did she assume that I was one of those horrible people who would want dairy in my coffee? Why didn't she ask me if I wanted it? Or offer me soy creamer? What's her freaking problem???

    It's totally not as fun to be polite. To accept that I'm not perfect. To accept that my veganism doesn't make me cool. Doesn't make me bad-ass.

    But I've accepted that veganism is merely a tool I use to reduce suffering. Couple that with activism for Vegan Outreach, and I think I've got a pretty good tool. Maybe it's not as fun. Maybe it's not sexy. But it's not for me. It's for the animals.

    So--again--I'm going to quote Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach:

    "Society’s stereotype of animal advocates and vegans is a significant roadblock to widespread change. “Vegan” no longer needs to be explained when referenced. But unfortunately, the word is often used as shorthand for someone young, fanatical, and antisocial. This caricature guarantees that veganism won’t be considered – let alone adopted – on a wide scale.

    "Regrettably, the “angry vegan” image has some basis in reality. Not only have I known many obsessive, misanthropic vegans, I was one myself. My anger and self-righteousness gave many people a lifetime excuse to ignore the realities hidden behind their food choices.

    "As a reaction to what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, very strong feelings, such as revulsion and outrage, are understandable and entirely justified. The question, though, isn’t what is warranted, but rather, what helps animals. I have known hundreds of outraged activists who insisted, “Animal liberation by any means necessary! I’m willing to do anything!” Yet few of these people are still active, and animal liberation remains in the future.

    "If we truly want to have a fundamental, lasting impact on the world, we must deal with our anger in a constructive way. We need to ask ourselves:

    * Are we willing to direct our passion, rather than have it rule us?
    * Are we willing to put the animals’ interests before our personal desires?
    * Are we willing to focus seriously and systematically on effective advocacy?

    "It is not enough to be a vegan, or even a dedicated vegan advocate. We must remember the bottom line – reducing suffering – and actively be the opposite of the vegan stereotype. Just as we need everyone to look beyond the short-term satisfaction of following habits and traditions, we need to move past our sorrow and anger to optimal advocacy. We must learn “how to win friends and influence people,” so that we leave everyone we meet with the impression of a joyful individual leading a fulfilling and meaningful life."

    So, jeez, stop hatin' on me and go read A Meaningful Life. Then I won't have to explain myself over and over again.

  8. You have made some very good points that I agree with. It doesn't make any sense to adhere to every single little by-product at the cost of alienating future vegans. It should look (and isn't) hard or "un-doable".

    I think we're all "vegan by degrees". And trying as best we can to eliminate as much suffering as we can seems to be the message we want to get out.

    I wouldn't worry so much about the A to Z ingredient "vegan police" so much... They actually do more harm than good in showing others that elimating animal products (as much as possible) is fun, rewarding and easy.

  9. Faith Marie3:00 PM

    I've been Vegetarian for 22 years, and 2 months ago upgraded myself to Vegan. For me being Vegan is all about compassion & ethics: to animals, to our spiritual/physical health, and to the environment. Right now I can't afford to replace my 2 pairs of leather shoes, my down jacket & down coat; but I mostly certainly *will* do this! I am slowly, but surely, turning myself into a hardcore Vegan! I agree pretty much with all the above comments...I won't beat myself up for not being "perfect" nor will I make excuses for knowingly consuming foods containing animal ingredients. (What's the Vegan verdict on honey???) VEGANS RULE!! :-D

  10. Carrie3:12 PM

    I don't know if you've deleted other negative/nasty comments, but all I see here are 6 supportive comments, 1 thoughtful critique and 1 negative/nasty comment. Why should you try to justify yourself again to the one person who obviously did not understand your original post? Why bother? Focus on the comments from those of us who DO support your view. I totally agree with you, your approach definitely makes veganism look possible to those who might initially think it's just too hard. Thanks for your great post on this issue.

  11. This is Nick, Agnes's husband. Thanks everyone for leaving your messages of support for the imperfect-but-effective-school of thought. However, I asked Agnes to turn comments off now. You see, this little blog gets a few thousand visitors a month, and she feels very strongly about what gets posted here. At the same time she's exhausted and out of energy from her recent illness, and the sudden popularity of this post has quite drained her. I'd rather have my princess freezing me delicious ice cream, batting her eyelashes at me, or recovering for her triumphant return to leafleting. So if you like, you can send her an email of support, or if you'd like to present your own point of view, please post it to your own blog and link to Vegan Ice Cream Paradise. I won't repeat Agnes's and Matt's arguments, but I do think they're true, and they form the basis of my activism as well. Signing off for now.