Tyler Durden once said of Project Mayhem, “You decide your own level of involvement.” Though he said it as an accusation, I find it holds a lot of truth, and that this perspective carries over to many, if not most things in life, from citizenship to parenting. Yet, when it comes to veganism, everything is suddenly black-and-white. Either you are a vegan or you aren’t. For example, a “vegan who occasionally eats eggs from backyard chickens” is not a vegan. It’s all or nothing. After all, everything in existence either contains animal parts (or secretions) or it doesn’t, right? Simple.
But then there’s sugar, which sometimes is and sometimes isn’t bleached with animal bones, and isn’t labeled either way. (Oreos) And what about those items that don’t themselves contain animal products, but that come from a company that uses gelatin in all their other products and tests on animals? (Crazy Cores Skittles, owned by Mars) Or items that have been bought out by a company that tests products on animals? (Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, now owned by Colgate Palmolive) Even organically produced veggies probably resulted in masses of killed insects and rodents. It’s enough to make a vegan’s head want to explode, particularly when more experienced, more knowledgeable vegans give them that look. The look you might get if you show up to an animal-rights demonstration in the dead of winter wearing a wool coat. So you say you’re vegan, but that’s a leather-bound book on your bookshelf?! Someone call the Vegan Police!! We have an imposter!
I think I understand the source of the infighting. Vegans tend to have one thing in common: we have questioned the ethical state of our society and found it lacking. We push ourselves to be better people, more conscious and more accountable for the effects of our actions. Perhaps it’s only natural that we take that mentality a bit further and push ourselves, and those around us, to constantly be better, purer, more vegan… But there is a point at which the quest for vegan purity runs the risk of becoming a “more vegan than thou” contest, rather than stemming from true concern about animals. Self-righteousness masked as righteous indignation is as unattractive in vegans as it is in religious zealots, and as off-putting to those considering that lifestyle.
Being vegan is a lot like being environmentally friendly or avoiding slave and sweatshop labor, in that no matter how hard you try, the goal will probably remain over the horizon. Even if every item you put in your body or your home has no animal byproduct, was not tested on animals, and isn’t produced by a company which once used an ingredient formerly tested on an animal… the truck that delivered it to the store where you bought it may have run over a squirrel. Am I getting ridiculous? Yes. This argument nearly always ends with ridiculousness, because we live in a non-vegan world and we interact with non-vegan manufacturers and sellers and people. For now, perfection, vegan purity, is essentially impossible. All vegans are people working toward an ideal world. The critical question is not: How vegan are you? It is this: Are we on the right path, and are we moving in the right direction?
As with any effort toward an ideal, such as environmentalism, or even just being a good person, some basic rules are good to keep in mind:
- You’re going to make mistakes, especially in the beginning. Don’t give up the first (or 41st) time this happens. Learn from your mistakes and continue forward.
- Take the easy and the big steps first (meat, dairy), then work on improving the little areas that are lacking at a pace that doesn’t overwhelm you.
- When it comes to the behavior of others, don’t nitpick and condemn. Share information honestly and openly, but keep in mind that not everyone has reached that “aha” moment yet. (And I’ve never yet encountered a vegan whose “aha” moment consisted of being shouted at and compared to a rapist.)
It’s better to stop eating animals than to continue to eat meat. It’s better still to consume no dairy or eggs, only plants. We’re all at different points along the road to a world in which animals are not treated as objects, but as beings. Yes, you determine your level of involvement on that road. We should never be content with causing harm. But we have to accept our own fallibility, and the fallibility of those around us, and allow ourselves (and others) to progress in stages, as our comprehension grows. Rather than attack our fellow travelers, let’s reach out (with kindness and understanding) to those who haven’t yet found the path, and let’s work to make sure we’re all heading in the same direction.