I know someone who was a carnivore until recently but now describes herself as “almost vegan.” It’s a term I’ve seen all over the Internet. And I’m wondering, if your life is 99 percent free of animal products, is that 99 percent as good as being 100 percent free?
I think I can see the arguments lining up. To what I’ll call “hardcore vegans” the answer is no. If you eat a bit of fish now and then, an egg once in a while, some dairy not to make a fuss at someone else’s house, you’re complicit. You don’t get to pick and choose and only do it when it’s most convenient. You’re either in or you’re out and if you’re out you don’t get to call yourself vegan.
On the other side, if the point of going vegan (or the main point, or even a point) is to eliminate animal suffering, then the answer is a resounding yes. For if everyone, or even half or a quarter or a hundredth of everyone, eliminated most animal products from their life, it would greatly diminish the number of animals moving through the gulag. (Isn’t that the hope of Meatless Monday? And is Meatless Monday a bad idea if it just lets people who eat meat the other six days feel better about themselves and less guilty?)
So it becomes a matter of ideology vs practicality. And it’s hard to get righteous about practicality. You also see a lot on the Internet about “abolitionist vegan” being the only acceptable position. For example, I’ve seen Rutgers law professor Gary L. Francione criticize the Humane Society and Peter Singer and others for their “animal welfare” approach, saying it’s not morally justifiable to simply improve the conditions of the animals being killed.
I agree with Francione that we have to stop and that anything short of stopping is immoral — which I guess makes me an “abolitionist vegan” — but I also feel that it’s going to take a long time till we get to that point, and that in the meantime, it’s better if any type of reduction in animal suffering can occur. So am I on both sides then? Am I being a coward and not really choosing either side?
Maybe the idea is that if those on the regulation/Humane Society side came over to the abolitionist side, that animal use would end more quickly. But would it mean that until the day it ended, animals would suffer more than they would without the improvements the regulation side brings about, even if these improvements, when seen on the whole, are small?
I think that ultimately, I am of the belief that both sides can exist. (And of course both sides DO exist.) For example, I don’t agree with everything the ACLU does, but I’m glad they’re around. Similarly, I am glad someone like Francione exists to press his arguments, which I believe in, but I’m also glad for those who can improve the conditions of animals until Francione’s position can win the day. But here’s the hard part: I don’t want to say, “EVEN IF THAT MEANS SLOWING DOWN THE DAY THAT FRANCIONE’S POSITION PREVAILS.” And that’s the rub, right? Justice delayed is justice denied, or something like that?
So I think it ultimately comes down to people who are realists vs the kind of people who wind up changing the world, who are not “realists” because if they were realists they would see others’ reality and not their own and perhaps their own is more real than the realists’. Just because I think that the abandonment of animals as a common food source will take a hundred if not hundreds of years, maybe it will only take twenty years and would never happen at all without people like Francione to push it through. Someone born in 1885 was 19 when the Wright Brothers flew their airplane and 84 when humans reached the moon. One lifetime. Things can happen fast. Opinion is generational and can change suddenly. Most people in their 20s probably know a vegan while most people in their 70s have probably never even heard the word (at least if they never watched Oprah). Who’s to say what can and can’t happen?
I guess I’m giving Francione more than the moral position here, I’m also saying he might have the boots on the ground realistic factual position too, more so than the realists who, if realizing they might not have the moral high ground, certainly feel they are the more realistic of the two sides. Compromise may be simply slowing down the arrival of a time when opinion shifts on this issue. And the tidal wave won’t come without people like Francione anchoring that position, to knot some nautical metaphors.
In other words, maybe practicality is impractical. Maybe incremental improvements make improvements incremental.
And yet I’d still rather someone be “almost vegan” than full-on carny. So is 99 percent vegan — assuming there could even ever be agreement on what 100 percent vegan even is, though for these purposes it’s enough that most of us probably agree what it is not, which is someone who eats meat, fish, dairy or eggs — but is it 99 percent as good, or 20 percent as good, or 99.999 percent as good, and is that last hurdle into 100 percentness all the difference in the world, and representative of the only morally acceptable position, or is it merely one small step away? Is it Manhattan surrounded by water, or Los Angeles where you can simply walk right in with a series of gradual steps (if anyone here walked)?
I’ve now managed to confuse myself, yet again. Though the one thing I feel pretty confident of is that an Almost Vegan is better than me, a full-on vegan who ate meat for almost half a hundred years. Or is it better than I? Sometimes the right things just don’t sound right.