What Does Vegan Mean?
Vegans! We’ve all heard about them, and seen the word “vegan” (standardly pronounced VEE-guhn) in news articles or on menus. But what do vegans do? What do they eat? Is it hard to be vegan? Is it safe for everyone, including kids, to be vegans?
These are questions you’ll probably be asking yourself if you’re curious about this way of life - and if you already are a vegan, you’ve likely been posed questions of this variety -- some curious, some confrontational. That’s normal when something is out of the norm. But there are wonderful reasons why vegan can and should be considered quite normal.
Let’s start first with the vegan movement, and then move to the individual.
Vegan: The Movement
This term was coined in 1944 by a group that included Donald Watson, and was adopted later that same year by The Vegan Society, which was co-founded by Watson. According to a Memorandum of the Association of the Vegan Society, the group defined veganism as:
“A way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.”
Donald Watson had a good reason for deciding to present a new word. For the past century, people who avoided animal products, particularly flesh, had called themselves vegetarians. The founders of the Vegetarian Society of Great Britain applied this word in 1847 to describe a certain kind of diet people adopted, but the word did not always mean a commitment to avoid all forms of violence against other conscious beings. In the 1900s, vegetarianism commonly described a person who does not eat the flesh of mammals, fish, or birds, but whether to avoid eggs, dairy products, honey, wool, leather and so forth was not always clear. Watson wanted to make it clear.
The word “vegan” took “vegetarian” to its logical conclusion: the conscientious avoidance of all exploitation of animals. Thus, while vegetarianism describes a diet, veganism signifies the avoidance, as far as possible, of harm to animals in the cultivation of crops, using them in research, wearing their skins or fur -- that is vegans simply commit to withdraw from the traditions that rely on dominating other animals.
So, a modern vegan life would go something like this. Marco eats and wears no animal products because of a desire to avoid living a life based on dominating other conscious beings. Marco does this in spite of his dear grandmother insisting that he needs to eat more chicken flesh if he wants to live past 30, and even though his classmates all wear the trendiest leather Nikes.
Marco doesn’t drink his partner’s special honey-lemon remedy for colds. (Actually, like many vegans, since he started eating a balanced diet with a lot of fresh vegetables, the colds are infrequent now, and pass in a day or so.) Marco has read up on supplements, and found out that fortified vegan products contain D2 (ergocalciferol). Vegans are careful about their source of Vitamin D, because D3 (cholecalciferol) is animal-derived. So Marco’s source always includes D2. When asked, Marco is ready and willing to describe these decisions and the philosophy behind them.
People sometimes use the terms ‘strict vegetarian’ or ‘pure vegetarian’ as synonymous with vegan. These terms convey the important decision not to consume any animal products, including dairy, eggs and honey. Yet they don’t convey the commitment to a conscientious objection to animal exploitation in the same way Donald Watson meant for ‘vegan’ to do.
Aren’t There Vegans Just for Health Reasons?
Veganism has always been based on a clear, unifying philosophy. There are no ‘fish-eating vegans’ or ‘vegans who once in a while eat yogurt for health reasons’ because inherent in the word is a way of living which seeks to exclude - as far as is possible and practical - all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.
Thus, one who eats a pure vegetarian diet purely for health reasons -- as some raw food aficionados do, or Oprah did as a cleanse -– would not truly be considered vegan unless and until such people commit to reverence for all conscious life. That ‘reverence’ component means violent activism is also not vegan.
In veganism, health benefits don’t take precedence over respect for other animals or environmental awareness, or caring about humanity. All are of equal and interconnected importance.
Are There Perfect Vegans?
To perpetually avoid conflicting interests with other conscious beings is an impossible task. Simply living means that we will affect the lives of other creatures, from those at the microscopic level to those who are larger than we are. With every breath and every step, we might unintentionally inhale, crush, displace or alter the living conditions of some being. Some critics will use this reality as an argument against veganism, stating what they believe to be hypocrisy in which lives we protect and which ones we destroy.
The Vegan Society took this into consideration by adding a phrase to their definition which addresses the reality and practicality of one’s actions in the modern world. Thus:
“Veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude - as far as is possible and practical - all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment.”
Vegans know we don’t live in a black and white world. But we do care about ingredients, even in small amounts, because it’s entirely within our control to do so.
Vegans cultivate a conscious awareness of how one’s actions affect others. That awareness brings up some difficult decisions. Some vegans have managed to avoid using the more environmentally damaging modes of transport. Some vegans have been able to avoid drugs that were tested on animals. Donald Watson gardened with a fork, to avoid harming earthworms. Such individuals might seem extreme to some, but in our society, their uncommon care and commitment is to be treasured.
The term vegan is a unifying word, to identify people who share a key value. It allows someone to enter a restaurant and simply say, “What vegan offerings do you have?” rather than explain the details of what they eat and why. It fosters community and creates support networks.
The term is not intended as a label of exclusion or moral superiority. Anyone who commits to a vegan philosophy is a vegan, regardless of ancestry, religion, shape, age, or hat size, or how cool or uncool one is deemed to look. There is no vegan music or dress style. Being vegan does not make a person better or put anyone into an exclusive club. Most vegans, rather, respect all animals, including humans, and view everyone with equal respect, and cultivate the attitude that would make anyone feel welcome to sit down at a table with them.