Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Myth of Semi-Vegan and Why Vegans Should Embrace It

Today, an article in the New York Times by Mark Bittman (who should know better) encourages people to go semi-vegan. "Semi-vegan?" Isn't that a bit like "semi-pregnant?"

Let's clear this up right now. Veganism is not a type of diet; it's an ideology. It's entirely possible to consume no animal products and not be vegan; people who do so usually refer to themselves as strict vegetarians. Sometimes they may call themselves herbivores or plant-based eaters. What's the difference?

Veganism is a belief system - albeit a highly individualized and variable one - wherein the vegan person makes a choice to live compassionately, eschewing all use of animals. The consistent tenets of veganism are:

1. Animals are sentient and can experience pain.
2. As sentient beings, animals deserve our care and compassion.
3. We must seek to avoid animal exploitation or suffering in all its forms.

Whatever other reasons a vegan has for not eating animal products - be they health, environment, religious, or based on anti-speciest ideals - are secondary to these essential beliefs. A person may choose a plant-based diet, and still have no ideological issue with cosmetics being tested on animals; that person is a strict vegetarian, not a vegan. Nor is the person who eats plant-based meals a few days a week a "semi-vegan." (Despite what Beyonce and Jay-Z are telling you, there's no such thing as a "partially vegan" diet.) That person is flexitarian.

But does it follow that vegans should reject these erroneous terms? Should we be upset about this corruption of the word? On the contrary, we should embrace it.

Most vegans, with the possible exception of the strictest abolitionists, would agree that each plant-based meal a person eats is a positive step for animals. If Bittman's readers begin to incorporate more cruelty-free fare into their diets, that's automatically a win for animal welfare.

But imagine this: you're a carnist who is intrigued by Bittman's article. You try a recipe or two, and find you enjoy them. You know from a snippet you read about Beyonce or that article in the latest issue of Glamour that everyone is giving this vegan thing a try nowadays. So what do you do? What does anyone do when they need information? They turn to Google. They buy a book. And that's where they'll find out more about the ideology of veganism. That's where they'll find the truth about food production today. That's where they'll be introduced to something other than the ideology of carnism that's ingrained in most of us from birth.

As Marina Bolotnikova pointed out in her excellent article on the false dichotomy between vegan welfarists and abolitionists on TDIV, people tend to arrive at a vegan ideology incrementally. In order to do that, isn't it helpful to first know such an ideology exists? By introducing people to the word 'vegan', even misapplied, the door is opened for them to learn more.

So while I won't be describing anyone as a semi-vegan any time soon (and the editor in me will always find the misnomer somewhat irksome), I'm more than happy to see Bittman or Beyonce nudging the idea of veganism into the public consciousness.

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