Is being vegan just a label or a stereotype? No - veganism is a mindset and a shift in beliefs.
The Vegan Movement has a common creed - to do the least harm possible while doing the most good. And it has done a world of good things. Many people have aligned themselves with a vegan lifestyle for personal health, animal welfare, and environmental conservation.
Veganism may begin as a dietary choice, but it is much more than that. It is a shift in perspective. We begin to see all animals the same way that we see dogs and cats, and the idea of eating a cow or pig becomes unthinkable. Vegans believe that animals - beings with a brain, heart, and central nervous system - have the inherent right to life.
The original ideas of the Vegan Movement have a basis in altruism and respect for all animals.
Donald Watson was one of the earliest proponents of the vegan movement in 1924. He became a vegetarian after witnessing that his uncle's farm was a "death row where every creature's days were numbered by the point at which it was no longer of service to human beings." He became involved with the Vegetarian Society in Leicester, England, and in 1943 started speaking out about vegetarians avoiding dairy products. He made the point that "the cow feels the loss of her calf in much the same way that a human mother would feel the loss of her child."
He helped to form the Vegan Society in 1947, which rejected the use of animals for any purpose, not only in the diet. Watson wrote, "The vegan renounces it as superstitious that human life depends upon the exploitation of these creatures whose feelings are much the same as our own." In 1951 the Vegan Society published its definition of veganism as "the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals”.
Simply put, vegans believe that animals are not ours to exploit for food, fashion, or any other reason.
By now, it is common knowledge that animal factory farming is one of the top contributors to environmental devastation across the globe. There is a long list of problems inherent in industrial animal farming - from animal abuse to out-of-control water pollution to antibiotic resistance.
Vegans know the facts and are devoted to the cause. But veganism is a mindset, not a club, and not a cult. Striving towards a clean vegan diet is our goal, but the vegan mindset is the most important internal change that we can make. For me, it even raises our energy on a vibrational level.
The vegan mindset is a belief that goes above anything else and isn't null and void if we take a mistaken bite of food. Yes, of course, we should avoid animal products in food and fashion to align our values with our actions. But our values start with a shift in belief and perspective that goes like this, "animals deserve to live, and from THEIR point of view, they don't want to be killed." It's not about us and how people see us or what labels we base our identity on.
Recently I came across the Instagram account of Ryuji Chua, @peacebyvegan. He speaks about exactly these things in a way that opens the door for people of different perspectives to understand the vegan movement, with clarity and compassion. He explains many concepts about why animal activism is at the root of our values with a refreshing and philosophical take.
First, he explains how often we find ourselves getting into arguments with those who say that the ethics of veganism are just a question of our viewpoint. That is to say, "your viewpoint is that eating animals is bad, mine is that eating animals is not bad, so there is no ethical dilemma as we both have different ideas of the ethics involved." But he then explains the shift in perspective that puts this type of argument to rest. It's not about how we feel about eating animals - it's about how the animal feels. It's about taking things from the perspective of an animal. Animals are sentient beings just like us. Animals have emotions, they feel joy and pain, and fear. No animal with an evolved brain to think and a heart just like ours to feel is a material item worth no more than being reduced to a meal on a plate, or a jacket or pair of shoes. Animals are our friends, and we wouldn't kill our friends for any of those things. Take it from the animal's viewpoint - no animal walks willingly into a slaughterhouse. No animal wants to lose their life. They, like us, just want to live with freedom and in peace. When we can see the soul in their eyes, and the fear that comes from what we are doing to them, we can start to see that this isn't about us, it's about them. We can start to see that we have a duty to do better.
A shift in beliefs - animals as individuals
Chua makes another interesting point - too many of us make being vegan a huge part of our identity, but is it superficial? What does "I'm vegan" really mean to us? Is it just because we buy soy or almond milk over cow's milk? Are we too focused on ourselves and our label identity as a vegan? Just because we make certain dietary shifts doesn't necessarily mean that we have made the most important mental shift, which is to see animals as individuals deserving of life, not material products or commodities. It's not enough to just buy soy, nut, oat, or rice milk, because someone can do that just for personal preference. It's not about our identity as a vegan. It's about recognizing the dignity and the right to life of all living creatures. Rather than making it known that we are vegan, the focus should be on making it known that we are fighting for the animals. Some affirmations regarding placing our values around the animals are, "I am someone who creates justice for animals. I am an ally to the animals."
Pushing how to get to the destination before the why
It's always "that annoying vegan" that people talk about, right? We have been stereotyped as "annoying and preachy" to the point that some of us are afraid to open our mouths about it and dread the question about why we aren't eating meat, while some of us have had enough of "people making fun of vegans" and aggressively defend ourselves right away. Maybe the resentment that some have towards vegans is because we are shining a light on a truth that those who don't embrace veganism don't want to see, as it would make them question their own choices. Nonetheless, a good way to avoid arguing with others would be to show others what the result looks and feels like, instead of shaming meat-eaters and pointing out that what they are doing is wrong, or off the bat trying to convince others to go vegan. Chua makes a great analogy that it is like pushing someone to buy a plane ticket that they don't see the need for, simply by telling them that they need it. Instead, he suggests first showing some photos of the destination and how beautiful it is, making them want to go, and then showing them the way to get there (in this example, by buying the plane ticket). We should emphasize the shift in belief to understand that animals deserve justice and freedom from slavery and slaughter, without focusing on ourselves and guilt for our past actions, and without making people feel like they need to be perfect to start. No one is perfect, but we can start by shifting our mindset toward animals as individuals to stop seeing them as material products or food. When we help people understand how peace begins on our plate, how violence towards animals creates a violent culture, and how animals are our friends and deserve better, we can start to help them envision a kinder world with us. With this vision in mind, it becomes easier to feed the fire in others to become vegan.
"Choosing animals over humans"
Another example that Chua gives is a question that he says was posed to him by an entire class of students in college. That question was, "who would you save, a drowning human or a drowning dog?" I think this is meant to be a "got you!" question from non-vegans trying to poke holes in the vegan argument. But besides being a pointless question to debate from a vegan ethics standpoint, it's the wrong question to ask because veganism is not "choosing" animals over humans. Veganism holds that a human does not need to kill animals to be healthy or thrive, and not killing animals does not harm humans - it helps humans. It helps us in terms of the negative effects of factory farming on our shared environment, and it helps us avoid cardiovascular health problems. It helps reduce the amount of starving human children in the world, as the grain dedicated to feeding cows could instead be directly fed to humans, reducing the wealth gap between wealthy and poor countries. Veganism goes against both human and animal suffering. The real question is, "what would you do, kill an animal or save an animal if you had the choice?"
The point of this article is for us to remember that being vegan isn't about us, or about being the perfect vegan to show off how great we are, or for loyalty to other vegans. It's about doing the most good that we can do, even if it isn't perfect, and even if it is small steps. And more importantly, it's about the animals and their viewpoint. It's about valuing all living creatures and not thinking that only humans are deserving of life and dignity. It's about justice and advocating for the animals.