Is “almost vegan” almost as good?

25 Dec

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.

Gary L. Francione

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?

The Lunar Module and the Wright military plane being prepared to be moved out of the Arts and Industries Building, August 1975. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

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.

11 Responses to “Is “almost vegan” almost as good?”

  1. ecoethicalvegan December 25, 2011 at 5:45 am #

    If ‘meatless mondays’ are better than eating meat every day then 99% vegan is better still. So really there is no confusion. I even try promoting meatless mornings for 5 days a week, it’s all good if the people that are ‘willing to listen’ listen because it’s a win/win for everyone including food animals. Thanx for taking the time to provoke vegan thought.

    • insufferablevegan December 25, 2011 at 10:41 am #

      Thanks for reading. Yes, 99 percent vegan is better than Meatless Mondays but is it 99 percent as good as Meatless Everydays? And what gives 100 percenters the right to judge, especially since there is no doubt that some 100 percenters could find ways to feel that other 100 percenters are lesser percentages of themselves. In some ways it reminds me of people outside a fancy club being given the once-over for an admission decision: hmm… are you worthy enough to enter this club? I think many vegans would turn up their nose/look down their nose at someone who eats meat once a month and insist they’re not vegan, but how much more good is the vegan doing than the 99 percenter? Vague — or at least less concrete — notions start to come into play.

  2. ecoethicalvegan December 25, 2011 at 11:40 am #

    This… “especially since there is no doubt that some 100 percenters could find ways to feel that other 100 percenters are lesser percentages of themselves”… would mean that there is an infinitesimal sliding scale of perfection and would just end up stifling and using up energies better used to do what we can do in the ‘real world’ to stop animal abuse.

    Also 100 percenters have the right to judge to the extent that you give them that right….I don’t :)

    As for …”but how much more good is the vegan doing than the 99 percenter? “…it’s only relevent to their impact on others, for instance the 100 percenter may be a nasty SOB and not influnetial at all but the amiable 99er may have a positive effect on several other people. So in other words it depends on more variables than just the degree to which someone is ‘vegan’.

    • insufferablevegan December 25, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

      I completely agree with your last paragraph. In fact, it was just such a thing that made me start this blog, after I saw a big New York vegan website attack Jonathan Safran Foer for being a vegetarian who dares to attack factory farming since that is apparently deemed by some higher authority to be work that only vegans are allowed to do, not vegetarians. Ditto Bill Clinton, who describes himself as “close to a vegan” and talks about the health benefits not the animal cruelty. But he certainly brings more attention to veganism and does way more to increase people’s awareness than my stupid little blog will ever do.

  3. Josh Latham December 28, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    I have a problem with the term 100% vegan. Because I don’t feel like there is such a thing. I know it ruffles the feathers of vegans who think they are. But can someone who carries a cell phone call themselves 100% vegan, when birds die from cell phone towers? Can a vegan who eats rice justify the frogs killed in the harvesting of that rice? If they truly wanted to be 100% vegan, they would stop eating rice and throw out the cell phone. So 100% is hard to achieve. How many vegans are so principled they don’t carry cell phones? I only know of 1 and that’s me. But I eat rice. If it requires 100% devotion to be called vegan then there really aren’t that many vegans walking around.

    • insufferablevegan December 28, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

      And the ones that ARE walking around are stepping on bugs! Thanks for reading, Josh. I agree with what you’re saying. Everyone has a different definition — or at least there are many definitions — of what a vegan is. I saw someone say, “Being vegan is like being pregnant, you either are or you aren’t” — but I think that’s wrong. I don’t eat honey but if someone does and refrains from other animal products I don’t have a problem with them calling themselves vegan. I’ve seen people say, “I’m vegan but I cheat and eat meat and cheese once in a while.” So much of this gets caught up in the issue of identity. I think it’s great if people are eliminating the use of animal products as much as they can. It is AMAZING that you are doing without a cellphone for this reason. I feel bad driving at night when a bug hits my windshield. I don’t know if they are sentient or not, but I also am not convinced that I have any more “right” to exist than they do.

      • Have Gone Vegan January 22, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

        Plus there are different definitions of abolitionist as well. Not all abolitionists are Francione-style abolitionists, although some Francionists would have you believe that only their brand of abolitionism counts. I’m one of those abolitionists who doesn’t believe that abolition and regulation are necessarily mutually exclusive, and while I want animal use to stop, refusing to improve treatment until we can reach that goal is just another form of use in my opinion. Ideological use if you will.

        So is “almost vegan” almost as good? Well, if the total actual number of animals used is lower, then I’d say that maybe it’s even better. :)

      • Alexandra Strain July 25, 2012 at 10:44 am #

        Huge difference between accidentally stepping on a bug and intentionally consuming a part of a murdered cow. We’re supposed to do the best we can to avoid hurting anyone. No one needs honey. No one needs a burger. Some people, however, need certain medications. Some people need to use a car. Some things are unavoidable but the things that are avoidable, if you’re an ethical vegan, then you should not partake. It is impossible to be 100% vegan but that should not stop someone from doing the best they can do. However, doing the best you can does not mean it’s cool to cheat or whatever. I mean, hell, how hard is it to stick to your own set of values and ethics. That’s what I don’t get with some people, vegan or not.

  4. Alexandra Strain July 25, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    I actually was very recently assailed by an “almost vegan” and her followers on her Almost Vegan page. I wish these people would not attach the label of vegan to themselves because veganism is not a diet and being on the path (assuming you are) you’re still not a vegan. People who are okay with making exceptions, making excuses are not, and maybe never will be, vegans. Also, as educated vegans we all know that many animal products are co-products of the various industries. Vegetarians, for example, are not saving any lives if they are still consuming dairy and eggs. Cows still suffer and die for that cheese.

    But also, I can be happy someone has reduced their impact while still asking them to not refer to themselves as a vegan anything. Why is it so wrong for us “hardcore vegans” to want people to be factual? Generally, I am not keen on labels but I am keen on being accurate and factual. I also believe they do damage to our cause.

    How are we wrong for telling people, that it is great that you’re doing x, y, z, but call yourself something else because veganism is not a diet. It is not something you try out. It is about your impact against other humans, the environment, and not being a speciesist. It is not just about animals. It is not just about the consumption of animal products. We also oppose exploitation and killing of animals for testing, sport and entertainment. To me, being a vegan means being a Feminist and an Environmentalist. It means being opposed to and taking a stand against racism, homophobia, sexism and poverty. Veganism is a lifestyle and decision to not tread on the rights any other beings. Contrary to what some think, vegans are not elitists. We’re vegan BECAUSE we don’t think we’re better than anyone else from a mouse to another human. Being a vegan affects every decision I make every second, hour, day of my life.

    • insufferablevegan July 25, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

      While I get what you’re saying, I also think that most of us didn’t go from 0 to 100 overnight, and that it was an evolution. For me the food came first, then the clothing followed a few months later when it didn’t feel “right” anymore. While people who eat eggs or dairy are definitely wrong to call themselves vegan, I think it’s different to say that people who don’t eat animal products but do wear them are not vegan, and a different matter altogether to say that people who neither eat nor wear animal products but who also don’t boycott companies that test on animals aren’t vegan either. I’m not saying that’s your position, I’m just giving hypotheticals. As with most words, “vegan” can mean different things to different people, and unless some governmental agency defines it — as with “organic” — the meaning can vary and be subject to disagreement.

      I enjoyed your comments; thanks for reading!

      • Alexandra Strain July 26, 2012 at 9:07 am #

        Your points are exactly why I now refer to myself as an ethical vegan even though in my mind, that is (or should be) an oxymoron. :)

        And thank you for being another insufferable vegan!

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