Veganism is not a personal identity and eating meat is not a personal choice (Or, outing myself as a crazy vegan)

Veganism and the problems with eating animal products have been getting tons of media coverage lately. Jonathan Safran Foer and Alicia Silverstone have both written books about it, and there have been lots of articles including a great one about the environmental impact of animal farming in Forbes. I think this is so great–anything that makes people consider the impact of eating animal products on animals, their body and the whole world is so fantastic.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a ton recently, and it kind of came to a head when posting on a thread on Yelp. (Did you know I’m Yelp Elite? Yeah, I’m a pretty big deal.) The question was, is it ok to give a restaurant a worse review because they don’t have vegetarian or vegan options? There were plenty of people on both side of the debate: people who said that no, restaurants don’t have to accommodate everybody, and people who said that restaurants who accommodate people with special diets should get more stars. And it’s really nice that people who weren’t vegan were saying that vegan options at a restaurant were a good thing because they wanted their vegan friends and girlfriends and moms to be able to eat there too, but there was something that was bothering me a little bit. Being vegan is not like having a gluten allergy or keeping kosher. I’m not saying those things shouldn’t be accommodated at restaurants–I think it’s great when they are. But it’s not that I’m really worried about whether a restaurant has an option to accomodate my “special diet.” It’s that I think vegan food is inherently more sustainable and ethical than nonvegan food so of course I think restaurants should offer it. (And yes, we can discuss the vegetable shipped from across the world and the cow in your back yard if you want, but vegan food can be local just as easily as nonvegan food can so that’s a false dichotomy.)

Sometimes I think that in some ways, the concept of “vegan” as a personal identity, and a subculture, is ultimately harmful. Think about the people who post comments on vegan recipes that say things like “This looks great! I’m not vegan so I would just use regular milk.” They could use soy milk or rice milk or almond milk just that one time and it would be a more sustainable choice. But because they don’t identify as vegan, it seems pointless.

My veganism is not a personal choice. It’s not about my identity. I’m vegan because that’s the word we use to describe waking up every morning and reaching for the choice that’s better for the earth. It’s not who I am, it’s how I live. Eating meat isn’t a personal choice either. If you eat meat, it does not just affect you and your body. It affects animals, it affects the earth, it increases global warming, it changes the world that will exist for your children and my children. We (and by we I mean me and the people I interact with on a daily basis) live in a highly individualistic society where we like to talk about how everyone has personal freedom, which is great sometimes, but I don’t respect someone’s personal choice to inflict violence on another, and so I can never respect someone’s personal choice to eat meat.

I think this might be surprising to people who know me in real life because I do try to come off as an easygoing vegan. I have friends who aren’t vegan and yes, sometimes I watch them eat meat, and no, I don’t grab hamburgers out of their hands and throw them on the floor and call them murderers.

But here’s my big secret. If I thought doing that would make them go vegan, I would. But I know that’s not the way to change minds so I do my best to live as an example and share my knowledge and help people who are considering consuming fewer animal products.

You don’t have to call yourself vegan to live more sustainably. You don’t have to learn a secret handshake, join the Post Punk Kitchen (though it’s really helpful) or ride a fixie. You can do it one step at a time. If you are too attached to cheese, you can give up other things first. You don’t have to ask the question, is it vegan? You can just ask, is it right? What kind of impact is this going to have on the rest of the world? Is it worth it? I think that’s a really good question to ask about anything you’re going to consume.

None of us are perfect. I’m certainly not. I’m not trying to claim that I live my life in the most environmentally-friendly way possible (I use electricity, after all). But not eating animals is an easy step with a big impact.


19 responses to “Veganism is not a personal identity and eating meat is not a personal choice (Or, outing myself as a crazy vegan)

  1. Being vegan myself, of course I agree with you that restaurants should offer vegan options. But barring any debate about sustainability or accommodation, I think that in Portland, it’s a viable economic choice for a restaurant to offer vegan options. There is definitely a vegan consumer group here, and I think clever businesses should recognize that, even if it’s only for the money.

  2. Very well written and all important points! Thanks for sharing.

  3. wow maeve.i’m impressed.
    i mean,yelp elite is HUGE!

  4. oh,and that was kind of an amazing thing you wrote,but w/e.i like anything and everything that is VEGAN afterall…

  5. Great blog post, sugar snap.

    On one hand it’s great that people even know what ‘vegan’ is, but on the other it’s viewed as a dietary limitation, not an ethical way of life.

    Even people who know that being a vegan usually encompasses one’s entire lifestyle sometimes don’t know (or care to know, I guess) the definition of vegan: exclude the most amount of animal exploitation and have a reverence for all life forms.

    This doesn’t mean that you can’t use a computer because the electricity you use is killing salmon (as one eloquent Yelper accused you of). This just means we as vegans try to cause the least amount of harm and the most amount of good.

    Thanks for writing such a beautiful and true post.

  6. First and foremost, I’m right there with you when it comes to being an easy going vegan. I’ll keep my mouth shut while meat is eaten, and secretly hope for indigestion and heartburn.

    The struggle to find and maintain compassion for people is hard–and where I truly struggle. On the one hand I inherently have compassion for all sentient beings (including humans) and desperately work to respect where people are on the Humane Continuum. On the other hand we — as the species that are destroying the Earth — have a responsibility that others do not to sustain and protect this planet, animals and other people.

    This article is well-written and well-voiced. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  7. You have brought up a very important point. All of our choices impact each other, and if we were able to get past doing things because “I like to …” maybe we could move together toward a sustainable future.

  8. Great post Maeve. Let’s all band together a crazy vegan group and steal hamburgers out of the hands of unsuspecting strangers!

    I too am an easy-going vegan but I find it more and more difficult to be around people eating vast amounts of animal products. I avoid the meat areas of the grocery store now, and when I do happen to go down that aisle my mind immediately starts wondering insistently, ‘don’t they know these are all dead animals?!?!’

    Yay for delicious vegan food!

  9. this is awesome, maeve. keep it up! and come to my parties and convert some more people through ethical example and engaging conversation…i’ll keep the b-12 ready.


  10. Great post. I love the “raw” individualism here.

  11. Truthful words, some truthful words man. Thanks for makin my day!!

  12. I just stumbled over your blog. Wow, what a great post. This is my favorite part:

    You don’t have to ask the question, is it vegan? You can just ask, is it right?

    Brilliant. Veganism is not some secret club, where you have to follow the “rules”, but rather a more compassionate way of living – and leading by example.

  13. I agree! The title says it all.

  14. You pretty much took the words right out of my mouth!

  15. As a point of criticism to an otherwise brilliant post, I don’t think veganism should be reduced to singularities such that there is one true reason to live a vegan lifestyle. A person may choose any one single reason, or all of the reasons sans one that exist to adopt such a lifestyle. I’m not into there being a correct way. I think you get that RE: “not a club,” but I’m typically hesitant to project any part of my lifestyle (no matter its impact or in this case lesser impact) onto another person.

    Living vegan was a personal choice for me. I did not do it for anyone else, and if my choice helps the world’s sustainability and health, I don’t think i deserve congratulations either.

  16. I can totally identify with this. About being easy going about people you know eating meat even though deep down you really wish there was anything you could do to stop it. To be honest though what bothers me is not people who can look at animal-horror stories and say they’re okay with it. If you can work in a slaughterhouse, or kill your own animals and eat them with no moral qualms then fair enough. Its people who are scared to see the cruelty that frustrate me. The people who would never be able to kill a rabbit or a pig or cow themselves, skin them and eat them, but they eat meat anyway because they get the finished sanitised product from supermarkets.

    And you know what always gets my goat? When people say “Oh Vegans think they’re better than everyone else.” or “people think being vegan makes you morally superior.”

    Well yeah. I mean if I didn’t think being vegan was morally better than not being vegan, then I wouldn’t BE vegan you know? Obviously I think my moral principles are better than those opposing them. Or I wouldn’t have them. It’s like…an oxymoron or a paradox or a circular argument or…something.

  17. ABSOLUTELY AWESOME! Love the post – great argument. I get offended by people eating meat, only because I know the truth, but I can’t say anything to them of course. Unfortunate how so many people choose to remain ignorant to it.

  18. I found this quote: “It is not a “personal choice” when you are eating my friends and you are ruining my world. When you made your “personal choice” did you ask the animal if you could confine, torture, and murder him or her? When you made your “personal choice” did you ask me if I mind all your pollution and devastation?”
    Dave Warwak (Humane Education Teacher)

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