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Defining Vegan

Some opinions on what the term “vegan” means.


One Thing

Jack Norris

Being vegan means one thing to me: an attempt to reduce the intense suffering of nonhuman animals. To me, saying “I’m vegan” is synonymous with saying, “I have decided to live a lifestyle that does not support animal exploitation.”

The great majority of animal suffering in the United States is a direct result of people buying animal products for food. I think it is important that vegans make the meaning of the word “vegan” focus on avoiding the products that obviously/reasonably lead to animal suffering, so that people will understand that it is not about personal purity but rather reducing suffering. If we could eliminate the animal agriculture industry, billions of beings would be spared miserable lives of suffering, pain, and slaughter.


What Veganism Means to Me

Slaughterhouses are perhaps the most violent places on the planet. Animals are routinely sent kicking and screaming through the skinning and dismemberment process, every one bleeding and dying exactly like they would if they were human beings. Farms today treat animals like so many boxes in a warehouse, chopping off beaks and tails and genitals with no painkillers at all, inflicting third degree burns (branding), ripping out teeth, and hunks of flesh. Animals transported to slaughter routinely die from the heat or the cold, or freeze to the sides of the transport trucks or to the bottom in their own excrement. Dairy cows and egg laying hens endure the same living nightmare as their brethren who are raised for their flesh, except that their time on the “farm” is longer. They are still shipped to the slaughterhouse and killed, at a fraction of their natural life span.

Bruce Friedrich and Peter Singer
Bruce (left) with Peter Singer.

There is simply no excuse for anyone who considers herself or himself to be an ethical human being, let alone an “animal lover,” to be supporting these kinds of practices, all of which are routine and universal throughout the industries which turn animals into meat products.

If I can’t watch it happening, I want no part of it. I enjoy watching fields tilled and love picking apples and tomatoes and carrots and other vegetarian products. If slaughterhouses had glass walls, as Paul McCartney is so fond of saying, we would all be vegetarians.

Every time I sit down to eat, I make a decision about who I am in the world: Do I want to add to the level of violence, misery, and bloodshed in the world? Or, do I want to make a compassionate and merciful choice? There is so much violence in the world, from war torn regions of Africa and Europe, to our own inner cities. Most of this violence is difficult to understand, let alone influence. Veganism is one area where each and every one of us can make a difference, every time we sit down to eat. I find it empowering that I can make an option for peace and compassion every time I eat, simply by not encouraging violence and misery against animals.


Define Yourself

When the term “vegan” was coined, times were different, and animal products weren’t in almost everything. You could eliminate all animal products and still live a relatively normal life. Nowadays you’d have to eliminate the use of phones, books, computers, cars, bicycles, planes, etc. (all of which contain some elements of animal products) to be “vegan” by the original definition. So, since I’m assuming you’re not willing to do that, you’ll have to define your own version of veganism, and live your life accordingly.


Forget Vegan

Matt Ball

As anyone perusing the internet will see, there are no shortages of opinions about the definition of “vegan.” A common thread seems to be that each person’s definition of vegan is: “What I am.” If a person eats sugar (or drinks water) that was filtered with charred bone, then sugar is vegan. If they don’t, it isn’t. Honey, whey, film, old baseball gloves, beer, smoking, medicine, a restaurant's veggie burger flipped with a non-sterilized spatula, etc.

A friend of mine (and long-time vegan) once wrote to a member of the vegan police: “I grow weary of the term ‘vegan.’ It seems to become just a label for moral superiority.”

This may sound odd coming from a cofounder of Vegan Outreach, but it doesn’t matter what label anyone places on me, or what label anyone places on themselves. For example, if Peter Singer (author of Animal Liberation) were to eat a dish that contains hidden dairy when at a colleague’s house, or if Carole Morton (who ran Green Acres Farm Sanctuary and was a humane agent in a rural PA county) ate eggs laid by the hens she has rescued, should our limited time and resources go to judging / labeling them?

Being vegan, for me, isn’t about any definition. Rather, what is important is lessening suffering and working for animal liberation as efficiently as possible. It has nothing to do with personal purity or my ego. If, by some bizarre twist, eating a burger (or, better yet, a triple-cheese Uno’s pizza) were to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, then I would do it.

It took me time to realize this, but semantics and labels and words are irrelevant. There is so much unnecessary and preventable suffering in the world that we should strenuously avoid anything that distracts from getting actual results for the animals.


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