The term “vegan” has received criticism and debate abounds about whether we should even be using the term. Today Vegan Publishers’ own Casey Taft discusses why we need to embrace the “V” word.
In Defense of the Word “Vegan”
It seems that these days, the term “vegan” is under constant attack from those both within and outside the animal rights community. This is an issue of critical importance because it has implications for how we define ourselves, what our goals are as a movement, and how we can work together to end all animal use.
Below are the most common criticisms of the term and my counter-points:
- Some view veganism as a diet only.
There should be only one definition of veganism. The Vegan Society defined the term clearly and unambiguously in 1944, and through the years this definition has not changed:
“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
This definition couldn’t be any clearer. While it’s true that some incorrectly view veganism as a diet, this does not mean we need to eliminate the word. Rather, we need to consistently emphasize what veganism truly means and educate others. Our avoidance of using the term only serves to increase confusion about what it means. From the beginning, veganism has been an issue of social justice and we should educate others so that they understand what it means to be vegan.
- Many non-vegans view “veganism” as a derogatory term. There is a negative connotation that goes along with this word.
“Feminism” is a derogatory term to many as well. Does that mean we should eliminate the word? Of course not! As with any social justice issue, there will be those who vehemently disagree with the end goals and will therefore characterize the movement in various negative ways. If we feel ashamed to call ourselves “vegan,” we internalize the dialogue used by those who would like us to fail. This is the exact opposite of what we should be doing! We should be proud to call ourselves vegans and we should always emphasize that veganism is about justice and kindness towards others.
- Using any kind of label naturally splits people up into groups and serves to divide us.
By this logic, we should also not use the term “vegetarian.” We have terms to define everything. Words are the foundation that makes language possible. As a social scientist, I recognize the value of clearly defining our constructs and belief systems or else we will not be able to communicate about them.
There is no better word than “veganism” to describe what veganism actually means. The word conveys that we attempt to avoid doing harm to animals as much as is possible. I’m not aware of any other term that captures that same definition. If we ditch “vegan,” we would suffer from a lack of clarity in our communication around animal rights issues to those whose behavior we most want to impact.
For this very reason, we are more likely to be divided as a movement if some proudly wear the vegan label and others reject it. There are enough barriers that separate those who advocate for animals; how we describe ourselves need not be one of them.
- Being vegan is not enough. Some animal rights activists believe that to simply be vegan does not capture the actions necessary to truly achieve an end to all animal use. In other words, to be “vegan” means to abstain from consuming certain “products” or services, and is largely passive rather than active.
It is undoubtedly true that the degree to which animal abuse is embedded in our societal structures makes it imperative to actively advocate for others and speak out against entrenched oppressive systems. This requires an active, energized movement of individuals who not only abstain from harming animals, but also actively work to end animal use and abuse in all ways.
That said, the term “vegan” does not become obsolete when one espouses this view. Rather, it can simply be said that we need to promote veganism, but it is not enough for us to simply live vegan without engaging in other animal advocacy.
The end goal of veganism is entirely consistent with the view that we need to end speciesism and all animal use, or achieve “animal liberation.” These terms and concepts are compatible, not mutually exclusive.
Here again is why it’s important to have common language and consistent terminology across individuals and organizations who all want the same thing. When animal rights groups reject or distance themselves from veganism, others may not understand what they stand for, or else assume that the end of all animal use is not an explicit goal. Misunderstandings can divide those who are otherwise on the same page just because of a lack of clarity and consistency.
Casey is co-owner of Vegan Publishers and Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.