October marks nine years that I have stuck to veganism, and like many people I reflect on my ‘veganiversary’ every year when it comes up. Why vegan? What’s worthwhile about sticking to it?
I have spent a long time being rather apologetic about my veganism. Trying to not make waves or threaten anyone’s ideologies that tie them to animal products and domination over animals. By nature I’m a shy person – it is difficult for me to speak up for myself or make my opinions known. I’d spent much of my life convinced that my opinions wouldn’t even matter to other people. But that is never true – we all have an influence over others, whether we know it, or admit it. We all make waves, all the time. Everything we choose to do and say and think affects those around us and the world we choose to build together.
I am surprised to find out as I grow older that there are people who look up to me – people who respect me and who hope for my respect and approval. And so to say that my veganism doesn’t matter to other people is a lie. And it doesn’t give those people a chance – the same chance to think, and to change, that I had once had, when a friend gave me a vegan cookbook as a gift. So lately I am really trying to be honest when people ask me about veganism, instead of hiding behind evasive answers that do not leave me exposed.
Here is to speaking up, in real life (not just under the cover of anonymity on the internet!), and voicing with as much compassion and patience for one’s interlocutor as possible, the deepest and most compelling reasons for veganism. There are many other people who have wonderfully articulated these reasons, and I am surely borrowing from them when I say:
Veganism ought first to be defined by what it is not, in this age of hyperinformation and ever more shrill forms of social media. Veganism is not about being trendy. It is not about celebrities who choose to adhere to some form of it. It is not about hippies, though hippies can be vegan. It is not about cupcakes, though cupcakes can be vegan too. Its history in fact stretches back many centuries: in Western civilizations at least back to the time of the ancient Greeks; the first emperor of a united India promoted vegetarianism and compassion towards all beings; while China’s roots in vegetarianism are somewhat less defined but no less persuasive. For a long time, then, humanity has been concerned with the question of consuming animal products, as to whether it is necessary, good, or moral.
Which leads to the central question: is it in fact necessary, good, or moral to consume animal products, to entail captivity, suffering and death, when we can live without these products? I love Henry Salt’s position, which turns the usual questions of the validity of vegetarianism on their heads:
If it can be shown that men can live equally well without flesh-food, or, rather, unless it can be shown that the contrary is the case (for the burden of proof must always rest with those who take on themselves the responsibility of the wholesale slaughter), it must surely seem unjustifiable, on the score of humanity, to breed and kill animals for merely culinary purposes…
And, if we assume for a moment that a fleshless diet is practicable, how cruel to animals, and how degrading to men, is the institution of the slaughter-house! … those good people are mistaken who imagine that the slaughter of animals is painless and merciful…
There is overwhelming proof that Vegetarianism is possible; there is an utter absence of proof that it is in any way detrimental to perfect health.
- H. S. Salt, A Plea for Vegetarianism, and Other Essays, 1886.
This sentiment is echoed by George Bernard Shaw’s retort when asked why he is vegetarian:
Oh, come! That boot is on the other leg. Why should you call me to account for eating decently? If I battened on the scorched corpses of animals, you might well ask me why I did that.
- The Vegetarian, 15 January 1898
Veganism demands that we follow a new ethic – one that turns our accustomed ways of thinking on their heads. Why do we think it’s okay to eat meat? How can we justify the millennia of domesticating other animals to serve for our every whim? Perhaps evocations of our caveman ancestry will be used to respond to such questions – in which case we can get mired in endless discussions about our genetic predispositions and evolutionary biology. To stir the pot, recent evidence suggests that Neanderthals were eating and cooking vegetables much more than previously suspected, while an article from Scientific American discusses at length our evolutionary heritage and the lengths and abilities of our digestive tracts, concluding:
So, what should we eat? The past does not reveal a simple answer, ever. The best we can hope for is that it might shine a useful but flickering light into the darkness of our understanding. Our bodies are filled with layers of evolutionary histories; both recent and ancient adaptations influence how and who you are in every way, including what happens to the food you eat. The recent adaptations of our bodies differ from one person to the next, whether because of unique versions of genes or unique microbes, but our bodies are all fully-equipped to deal with meat (which is relatively easy) and natural sugars (also easy, if not always beneficial), and harder to digest plant material, what often gets called fiber…. Just like us, our ancestors made the best of their circumstances. They were not at one with nature. Nature tried to kill them and starve them out; they survived anyway, sometimes with more meat, sometimes with less, thanks in part to the ancient flexibility of our guts.
“Was ancient man a vegetarian?” Rob Dunn, Scientific American, reprinted on Salon.com
In other words, the choice is up to us. Blame for our current behavior cannot be shifted onto our ancient ancestors; the case for eating animal products cannot be made on the basis of our evolutionary history. We are adaptable to different kinds of diets and it seems we always have been. So then let’s get to the heart of the matter.
If you are like me you have grown up with the idea that animals are like little robots, going through the motions of their pre-programmed imperatives to find food, mate, raise young, and avoid death as long as possible. But we can use them as we want, mate them together and sell the offspring, and kill them when we want to, because they are just … things. They have no personalities, no wants of their own, no hidden lives, no inner grace or appreciation for their existence. We, as humans, are special, and being special are above other animals. That means our needs supersede their own. Right?
Wrong. Just because we grew up with a set of assumptions, doesn’t make those assumptions valid. Science, lately, is turning in favour of the shared life experience we have with other animals, and showing that animals feel, care, choose friends and cherish family in ways very similar to us. And if they can grieve for their children, how cruel we are to separate cow from calf to obtain some milk. If they are individuals experiencing their own lives in a unique moment in the universe, how thoughtless we are to cut those lives short to obtain meat or fur or some further proof about the ways that toxic chemicals in our cosmetics can poison us.
But do we even need an animal to be ‘like’ us in order to accord it respect? Perhaps a spider cannot experience emotion or feel pain in any way that I could recognize, but does it mean that it is ethical for me to crush that spider simply because I feel like it? Can’t life – the wild and wide diversity of species that walk, fly and slime their way through this blue planet – be appreciated for its own sake, and not be interfered with or snuffed out needlessly? Isn’t that the crux of the question – should we harm or kill if we don’t need to, and do we need to harm or kill animals to maintain a decent quality of life?
It is a painful awakening to realize that animals exist for their own reasons and want to continue living their lives with all the pain and pleasure that they are heir to. And that we are responsible for disrupting those lives, whether directly by harming the animals, or indirectly by destroying or poisoning the habitat where they live. At the same time, it is a moment of great opportunity: we can choose to act differently. We are compelled to do so by thinking about other beings as ends-in-themselves and not ends to our own means.
Veganism is an ethic. It is a recognition of the inherent worth and value of other lives. The term ‘vegan’ was coined in 1944 to designate ‘non-dairy vegetarians’, and later in 1951 its definition was expanded to mean “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals” . That’s all that it is – the core and guiding principle. All the other stuff – hippies, cupcakes, celebrities – is fluff. We should, as far as possible, live without exploiting other animals. This can be difficult in a society built upon the exploitation of animals. It does not mean refusing to use public transit to get to your job because the tires of the bus contain animal products. It means examining every choice within your power to make, and making that choice into one that liberates rather than harms.
Puppy mills? Not in my name. Circuses? Not in my name. Slaughterhouses? Not in my name. I reject these things and many others, and I live without the supposed benefits they provide, to live a life that, as far as possible, does not do others harm.
Nine years and stronger than ever.