Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reclaiming "vegetarian"

Why did vegans need to invent a new word when we already had vegetarian?

Elise Shrigley and Donald Watson coined the word vegan in 1944 as "the beginning and end of vegetarian." They had grown frustrated with the fact that vegetarians consumed milk, and founded the Vegan Society to promote "true" vegetarianism, or veganism. A much-loved vegan t-shirt has the word veg(etari)an with the center letters blocked off and a pair of scissors. It reads: cut the crap.

But a funny thing has happened since that time. It is now commonplace to see consumers of milk and eggs to refer to themselves as lacto-, ovo-, or lacto-ovo vegetarians. Implicit in this labeling is the idea that milk and eggs are additions to vegetarianism, which should by default exclude them.

Now it is true that most vegetarians are equally comfortable leaving off such modifiers, confident that the general public knows that vegetarians consume milk and eggs. I do not wish to imply that in contemporary usage vegetarian and vegan are synonyms. My point is the fact these modifiers exist suggests something about the intuition we have concerning the word vegetarian — it ought to mean one who consumes, if not only vegetables, than vegetation broadly construed.

This intuition is why, I suspect, lacto-ovo vegetarians and vegans tend to see each other as being broadly "on the same side" opposed to meat-eaters, sometimes even applying the all-inclusive veg*n label to themselves. But why should this be the case? Lacto-ovo vegetarians are allied with meat-eaters in a way that vegans aren't. Vegans, in rejecting all consumption of animal products, are fundamentally rejecting the use of animals, not merely their suffering (or if done on grounds of eliminating suffering, vegans are at least suggesting there is no practical way to use an animal without causing some level of avoidable suffering). Lacto-ovo vegetarians and meat-eaters, by using animals for food, are in full agreement that animals are resources that can be exploited. Where they differ is in which exploitations are acceptable.

Milk and egg production is often the most cruel use of animals. Meat animals, at least, are generally put out of their misery fairly early in their lives. Milk and egg animals are confined to a much greater extent for extraction, repeatedly impregnated, have their offspring taken away, and ultimately most end up being killed prematurely when they are spent. This is on top of their male offspring being killed as useless to the milk and egg production line.

It is ironic that, if one accepts using animals for food but merely wants to choose the least suffering-inducing use, it might make more sense to eat the meat and cut out the milk and eggs. I dare say "ethical" lacto-ovo vegetarians have it backward.

But of course no use of animals is actually without suffering, and there is fundamentally no moral right to exploit animals for our purposes anyway, given their own basic interests in pursing lives of their own. At least we can say lacto-ovo vegetarians are thinking about these issues and doing what they believe is sufficient, even if they are mistaken.

The title of this post refers to the idea that veganism was meant to be a sort of "back to basics" vegetarianism, and ultimately the "lacto-ovo" phenomenon proves that people unconsciously recognize the contradiction in a vegetarian using animals for food, whether meat or not. So I was wondering what sort of traction a veg*n movement might get in actually trying to promote vegetarianism as veganism, and suggesting that lacto-ovo vegetarians are more like so-called "pesco-vegetarians:" a contradiction in terms.

After I thought about these things, I happened to spot one of PETA's Vegetarian Starter Kits at Spiral Diner. Having never actually looked at one, I picked one up and checked it out. One of my most persistent problems with PETA has been their use of "go vegetarian" or "go veg" as slogans when a group that calls itself the animal rights organization ought to be saying "go vegan." "Go vegetarian" tells people it is acceptable to consume milk and eggs, which entails violating animal rights. I attributed this to a pathological aversion to the word vegan as being too extreme for their target audience, which I argued makes little sense given most of PETA's positions are considered wildly extreme in the first place.

After looking at the Vegetarian Starter Kit, I think I might have to revise my assessment of their use of "go vegetarian" and "go veg" as slogans. Here's why: they're not actually telling people to go vegetarian, they're telling people to go vegan while calling it vegetarian, and they're doing it pretty blatantly. While I already knew that PETA materials only promote vegan foods, however labeled, I did not know that they make it a point to use vegetarian and vegan as synonyms, sometimes in the same paragraph or even sentence. For example, "If you're stuck at a behind-the-times restaurant without much vegan variety, ask if the chef can whip up a vegetarian entree."

While I can see how that might instinctively frustrate vegans, who already have to deal with people not understanding that no animal products actually means no animal products, I think once you think of PETA's target audience with these kits you must admit they're doing something clever. This is not the same as just using the word vegetarian to attract people who are afraid of scary vegans, as I originally thought. PETA knows (to the chagrin of vegans everywhere) it is one of the first stops a great many people make on the road to animal rights and veganism. Whether we agree it ought to be or not, PETA is considered by non-animal rightists an authoritative source on animal rights issues, and it is using that institutional power to redefine the word vegetarian in the minds of visitors to their website and interested parties who obtain Vegetarian Starter Kits. Anyone who wants to try vegetarianism and turns to PETA as an authoritative resource turns vegan without knowing it.

I have to think that combined with the fact that vegetarian is a much more widespread word than vegan (and, yes, much less extreme-sounding), by reclaiming the word PETA just might produce more vegans-in-practice than they would by promoting veganism as veganism. That's not to say that specifically vegan outreach groups would automatically have the same success, or that they should necessarily try. Someone who has an interest in going vegan can just plain go vegan via these groups. But the great mass of people, for good or ill, are afraid of seeming too radical. They might be willing to go vegan in ethical and dietary terms, but not in associational terms. And maybe that's OK. Vegetarianism is mainstream now and, frankly, people not consuming animal products is far more important to me than whether or not they do it while calling themselves vegans.

Vegans have a lot of pride in our veganism, and what we want is to make our movement grow. We like our word. We want vegan to not be the scary and mysterious word that it is to a lot of people. We want veganism to be the new vegetarianism, and ultimately the new way of life. But ultimately veganism is also the old vegetarianism, and as a movement that has only existed for six decades, it remains to be seen what form it takes in the future.

In any case, I think there is little harm that could come from successfully reclaiming vegetarian, and using vegan as a popular shorthand for it. The already-common modifiers lacto- and ovo- make it potentially easy to do so. Real vegetarians don't consume milk and eggs. Real vegetarians are vegans. Remember that.

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