As 2016 dawned upon us, a natural time of change and reassessment, I found myself wondering if the time has come to put the term “vegetarian” to bed. Perhaps the word had more meaning in the nineteenth century and was of greater value in terms of sparking dialogue around the role of nonhuman animals in our society and how we choose to live amongst them. I’m not so sure that the term is useful any longer, and in fact, it may do more harm than good.
The word vegetarian has been in use since 1839, and was popularized by the founding of The Vegetarian Society in Manchester, UK in 1847. Back in 1839, the term was used to refer to what was known as a “vegetable diet”— which may or may not have included dairy, eggs, and the like.
In 1944, Donald Watson came along and founded The Vegan Society who defined veganism as an ethic focused on minimizing harm to animals, which of course involved abstention from all use of animals for food or other purposes. Many who became members of the Vegan Society had previously been members of the Vegetarian Society.
Since that time, there has been an increasing recognition that there is fundamentally no ethical difference between consuming the flesh of a slaughtered nonhuman animal versus, for example, the secretions of a cow. In fact, one could easily make the case that dairy is far more cruel since it involves forced impregnation, separation of mother and baby, the killing of baby animals, the hijacking of a cow’s reproductive system that continues her entire shortened life, and in the end, the killing of the animals involved.
So why do vegetarian restaurants exist? Why aren’t they vegan? From a topographical standpoint, animal secretions and other “products” do not resemble plant-based food, and functionally they involve at least as much cruelty as animal flesh.
Similarly, why aren’t vegfests called “vegan fests?” These events typically refer to themselves as “veg” or vegetarian, while most often refusing to allow the serving of dairy, eggs, honey, or any other animal byproducts. Why use labels that reify and support animal exploitation when we can use language that demonstrates that we are committed to ending this exploitation?
Before you say that people are less “put off” by the term “vegetarian” than “vegan,” perhaps we should take a look at ourselves for answers to why that might be the case. If we’re afraid to promote veganism or even use the word, of course it will become a dirty word. If we allow others to quiet our vegan message and use terminology they’re more “comfortable” with, can we really claim to be forthrightly advocating for animals?
Vegetarian played a fundamental role in putting the human/nonhuman relationship on the public agenda, but after a long and illustrious career, I think this term is ready for retirement. Once one decides to eschew violence and suffering as much as possible in nonhuman and human animals, the only way forward is vegan.
Saryta is an editor, social justice advocate, and author of the book Until Every Animal is Free. After working at both David Black Literary Agency and Penguin Group, Saryta headed west and founded her own editing and consulting firm, Brave New Publishing. She enjoys hiking, good music, and warm weather, and is definitely not addicted to the Fallout game series.