On Being Vegan
an essay from Vegan Outreach
Why, What, and How
People are interested in veganism for many reasons. These include reducing suffering, helping the environment, and improving their health.
Regardless of why you are exploring veganism, your example and your choices are the most important things you can do to help make the world a better place. By not buying meat, eggs, and dairy, each individual is making a statement against cruelty to animals, undertaking an economic boycott, supporting the production of non-animal products, and supporting more sustainable agricultural practices. These decisions, and the message they send to others, help make society more humane.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The time is always ripe to do right.”
With so many reasons to become vegan, it’s not surprising there are many views of what veganism means. Beyond not buying the products for which animals are raised and slaughtered, each individual has different opinions about being vegan. Everyone takes their own path.
Once you make the decision to oppose factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses, you will face a number of questions. There are two particularly difficult questions that you’ll need to ask yourself:
1. What exactly is a “vegan”?
2. How should I deal with other people who aren’t vegan?
The Impossible Quest for Purity
When you first discover the reality of modern animal agriculture, you might feel compelled to try to root out every single product associated with animal suffering. Unfortunately, personal purity is impossible. All around us are items connected in some way to animal exploitation: organic foods (animal manure used as fertilizer), cotton (animal products in the bleaching process), bicycles (animal fat used in the vulcanization of tires), books (hooves and bones in binding glue), roads and buildings (animal products used in curing concrete), water (tested with animal products, often filtered through bone char), etc. Even many vegan foods result in killing some animals during planting and harvesting.
Vegan Outreach’s View: A Results-Based Approach
We believe that framing veganism as the avoidance of a specific list of “bad” ingredients is not the best way to achieve results. When looked at closely, any ingredients-based definition of vegan collapses into inconsistencies. This is why we stress that the essence of being vegan is working to end cruelty to animals.
Working to end cruelty to animals is a clear motivation that can be easily comprehended by others. When discussing veganism, we admit there are not always clear-cut answers and explain that it’s not a matter of making the “right” or “wrong” choice in every situation. This practical, goal-oriented approach shows that being vegan is an active, progressive means by which we make the world a better place.
Although all views of vegan include not supporting factory farms and slaughterhouses, there are many instances where a results-based approach can help animals more than the ingredients-based approach. For example, a consistent vegan dedicated to an ingredients-based view of veganism wouldn’t use film (which contains gelatin) under any circumstances. Yet how many animals have been saved from great suffering, because of the visual impact of the pictures and films that have documented so many abuses?
Not Just What We Avoid
Some would argue that vegans should replace their current cameras with digital ones. However, we have to ask if spending money replacing a functional object with a new one is the best way to oppose cruelty to animals. (This is also an issue with leather and wool goods we had purchased before becoming vegan.) Might the extra money be better spent creating resources to spread vegetarianism, such as printing literature?
We believe that being vegan isn’t simply avoiding a list of products. We seek to maximize the good we accomplish with our decisions. As vegans, what we do is as important as what we don’t do.
Some vegans and non-vegans alike are quick to call others “hypocrites” if they don’t avoid a certain hidden ingredient. But if your goal is to alleviate suffering, it isn’t hypocritical to believe that avoiding all hidden ingredients can be prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, and make veganism appear impossible to others. It is also worth noting that animal byproducts will disappear as the meat, dairy, and egg industries fade. Spending our time and energy focused on minor ingredients rather than on spreading vegetarianism may not be the best use of time.
Dealing with Others
Choosing to stop eating animals not only says that past actions were “wrong,” it also implicitly communicates to family, friends, and colleagues that their continued eating of animals is wrong.
When vegans share their new ideas, some family and friends not only show resistance, but can even react with mockery or anger. Combine this with the fact that vegans naturally view meat eaters as supporting cruelty and causing suffering, and it is not surprising that some vegans can develop a near hatred of them.
In order to prevent and alleviate suffering, however, we must let the compassion we feel for animals shine through the pain and anger we feel about their exploitation. Unless nonvegans can respect us—as opposed to finding us cold and judgmental—they will have little interest in veganism.
Instead of expecting others to go vegan immediately, we need to offer understanding and give them time to deal with their unique situations. Burning bridges with anger only serves to create enemies and feed the stereotype of vegans as hostile, isolated misanthropes. As long as you remain respectful, your positive example of veganism, as well as the information you provide, will ultimately be the best voice for the animals.
Although some of the information regarding vegetarianism is outdated or biased, there is a lot of solid information available to help us educate ourselves about the issues. (Here is a list of sources of good information.) However, we needn’t be encyclopedias of facts. The simplest reasons for being vegan can be the most powerful: “I know that I don’t want to suffer. Therefore, I don’t want to cause others to suffer.”
On Being Vegan
The most important tool we have in our efforts against cruelty to animals is our positive, sincere, thoughtful example. Looking at the long-term changes in society, we can know that each of us, in our example, actions, attitude—our entire existence—is changing the world. If we could focus all our energies on understanding and outreach, rather than on anger, the world would be significantly better. Living honestly and compassionately as a vegan is an affirmation of life, a means to fulfillment and joy. These positive aspects of veganism are what we must embrace for ourselves and communicate to others.