Thursday, January 28, 2010

On Labels, Sarma Has it Right

I mentioned Sarma Melngailis' brilliant blog post, I'm Not a Vegetarian, briefly before, but wanted to devote a proper post to an important topic: absolutism, and how nearly impossible it is to achieve, even when trying.

When I started on a vegan path, I was not expecting to encounter a bullying force that brought me back to the fifth grade playground: the label police.

Who and who cannot call themself 'vegan' is a slippery slope. When you start factoring in vegan sugar, wine and beer, and clothes and other items you owned pre-vegan but don't want to give away, almost no one's going to be able to call themself a vegan. I have a down couch from IKEA I bought a decade ago for my first apartment. Am I not a vegan because I still sit on it?

Alicia Silverstone said of her husband, Christopher Jarecki, "He's a vegan who flirts with fish. Sometimes he gets naughty and has a little fish here or there." Some would start griping over "he's not really a vegan then but a pescatarian" and his intentions are misunderstood and dilutes the term. I love Alicia's friendly, accessible approach at promoting a vegan lifestyle, and the way she phrased it.

I consider myself a vegan who flirts with cheese, among other indulgences. I no longer want the weight of being the ambassador to veganism 24/7. If I want a piece of my dad's non-vegan birthday cake, a cookie at a picnic in the park, or other occasional treats, I don't feel like I owe anyone an explanation, nor do others. This is the vegan good life - not the vegan perfect life. Anyone's path is riddled with challenges, temptations and imperfections, as is mine. I still strive for and embrace the vegan life as much as possible.

One blog commenter on another site stated "Molly [Katzen, author of the Moosewood Cookbook]...said...she ate "vegan 95% of the time for 15 years." Well if she was eating dairy, beef, chicken and fish for the other 5%, then she wasn't vegan or vegetarian!" Note the exclamation point. I think 95% is pretty astounding! Exclamation point. Most people I know won't even consider a vegetarian option for a single meal! Exclamation point.

I read a fairly ludicrous post criticizing PETA's I Can't Believe It's Vegan site for listing products that are a mere 99.99% vegan. Much like people who tune in regularly to MTV's Jersey Shore, I thought, "Don't people have better things to do than waste energy on that?"

One reader, Brad, chimed in, and there are millions of Brads out there. "These comments are actually my greatest enemy in my attempt to be vegan...If there is a term for a person who avoids animal products as much as he can but doesn't look for trace ingredients or throw out the leather gloves he bought before he became vegan, let me know. For me, veganism (or whatever I am, you can have your word) is about working to minimize suffering by your lifestyle choices."

Brad is a smart man. The person who immediately took it upon themself to label Brad an omnivore and lecture him is not. I am so disheartened by the people the label police alienate. How can you tell people 'all or nothing'? Isn't this encouraging failure? People are hesitant to explore veganism for that very reason - because of restrictive rules they don't want to live up to. So eat mostly vegan, then.

Our society often roots for failure. Instead of celebrating the growing numbers of those identifying with the vegan lifestyle, purists want to jump on any slip anyone has. Food is emotional, and what's easy for you isn't easy for someone else. This is not a competition to out-vegan each other.

Rights movements have powers in numbers, and millions of people embracing a vegan and vegetarian lifestyle the best they can is more formidable a force to legislators and marketers than thousands of strict practicing vegans. So I'm standing up the the label fanatics once and for all. I'm with Sarma. Let's skip the labels, and rally on in our beautiful, if not flawed, journey.


ConsciouslyFrugal said...

This is purely my theory (and therefore absolute fact, of course. ha!), but I believe that folks who embrace fundamentalism in anything are usually covering up for some perceived guilt or shame. The closeted gay man who violently opposes equal rights in marriage. The pastor who rages about the sins of fornication who's sleeping with his secretary. The lesbian who rails about how you're not a "real" lesbian if you ever dated men who sleeps with men regularly (all folks I've known). Blah blah blah.

I'm convinced that anytime I see someone railing in a fundamentalist fashion, they're usually just trying to hide shame about something. I try to morph my sense of irritation into compassion. It rarely works.

MaddyG said...

Thanks for your post! Aren't people bizarre and fascinating?!! It always astounds me (and breaks my heart a little) when people are more invested in fragmenting than unifying.

Cate said...

This is a great post! I really liked where you talked about how you should be able to eat a piece of birthday cake if you want. When I was vegan, I found the absolutism really stifling, to the point where I would turn down altoids (gelatin) even if the other person had no idea they weren't vegan, just so that they couldn't lord it over me if they found out. In hindsight, I wish I'd cared less about other people. At this point in my life I'm a mostly-vegetarian who eats meat occasionally, though I strive for that meat to be humane, as with eggs and dairy. However, I sometimes slip chicken broth into my "vegetarian" soups (though never for vegetarian guests! That would just be mean). Sometimes people really go overboard with the labeling.

Vegan Good Life said...

Thank you all so much for your supportive comments.

I read a criticism of Alicia Silverstone for admitting on Oprah she slips with cheese. The person referred to Alicia as the "poster child for celebrity veganism," and her slip "makes all vegans that stick to their ethical values look wishy washy." I think of a line in Joan Harris' Five Quarters of the Orange, "That's the trouble with heroes. They never quite live up to expectations, do they?" People are looking for perfect role models, but life isn't perfect.

To me, she's more relatable, and will draw many more to exploring veganism than the purists who worry about every scoop of sugar or glass of wine. Veganism can feel stifling to most people when we worry about the labels. I think it should be okay for people to talk about the challenges and temptations, and not be discouraged on their path.

Chessbuff said...

Labels tend to put people in molds that, more often than not, aren't a perfect fit. You know how it is, conservative, liberal, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, lacto-ovo vegetarian, and so on. I find labeling as a lazy way out of critical thinking, very much like how propaganda seeks to short circuit your reasoning. If you don't fit perfectly, you're a fraud. I've had an easier time by being specific, like " I am against factory farming. " Obviously, this doesn't deny that seafood is still part of my diet. I didn't say I was vegetarian. Another one of these faulty correlations, one that gets my goat, is that I must be a member of PETA if I have compassion for animals, like PETA is the conduit through which all compassion flows.

ConsciouslyFrugal said...

Chessbuff--what a fabulous comment! I'm going to steal your line of "against factory farming." (Um, I'm not a vegetarian, I should add, but I'm open to learning more and reading The Vegan Good Life is part o' that process for me.) I'm not a member of PETA. In fact, I freakin' loathe (deeply, deeply loathe) PETA, particularly because of how they promote misogyny and the marginalization of fat folks. To be honest, PETA is one of the primary reasons I have dismissed vegetarianism and veganism as lifestyle options for years. Unfortunately, I'm not at all alone in that sentiment.

Um, how was that for a non-sequitor?!

Cate said...

ConsciouslyFrugal, I'm so glad to hear that someone else loathes PETA for their misogyny and fat-shaming! They don't make me dismiss vegetarianism/veganism as options (though I'm neither--like Chessbuff, I describe myself as "against factory farming"), but when I was vegan a few years ago, people often met that information by talking about PETA. Drove me nuts!

Cate said...

I gave you a blog award--you should head over to my site!

Elaine said...

LOve you blog and appreciate your support of my points over at GGA. Elaine

Catherine @ The Vegan Good Life said...

You're very welcome Elaine! Sadly, there's not only a vegan 'label police', but a vegan 'thought police.' roaming on the internet, often unchecked. I encourage independent thinking here.

Sadly, people are trying to prey and capitalize on people's emotions. When I started pursuing a vegan path, I was hoping for a warm, welcoming community - not a judgmental, 'my way or the highway' one. The latter attitude will have veg-hopefuls running for the hills. I strive for the former.