Archive | June, 2012

Is it a thing or the absence of a thing?

23 Jun

This odd thought occurred to me as I was driving my car the other day. Yeah, sometimes I think about vegan stuff while I’m driving. Sometimes while I’m running. It doesn’t strike me as that big a deal that I think about it a lot — what strikes me is that almost everybody else never thinks about it.

But for some reason this thought stuck in my head: Is veganism a thing or the absence of a thing? Of course one of the things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that words are not always a perfect match with ideas. Words can be arranged to create parallels that might not exist in the real world. (Sure, put “real world” in quotes if you want.) Words can obviously sometimes be inadequate to describe something we experience, or at best can be an approximation. Sometimes, like with wine, it can get downright silly: “Hints of licorice and doormat.”

And so you can posit words in a certain way to frame an argument or win debate points, but if you’re willing to move past point-scoring, do they help our understanding of a topic? Which brings me to my headline.

Let me start by breaking it in two. First, is veganism a thing. On second thought, I’ll think about the second part first: is veganism the absence of a thing? This seems obvious to me: Yes. It is the absence of animal products from our diet, and life. Of course this absence can be a moving target: some are vegans who wear leather, some who eat honey, some who don’t worry about refined sugar (like me) and so on. But I’ve written about that before and I think there’s a sniff test involved that all but the sniffiest can more or less agree on.

So veganism is about removing things from your life. About avoiding them so they don’t enter it in certain ways. The stream of items that enters your body, the array of things that enters your closet and takes turns covering your body. There’s an ascetic quality to it, certainly. And if you don’t feel that, think back to when you started. Do you remember that feeling of deprivation? If not from missing food, then at least deprivation from ease in arranging social situations and navigating menus?

But unlike the asceticism of a monk, a nun, or someone else who’s taken vows to abstain from this or that, veganism has also been turned into a thing. Maybe it always was a thing. After all, the name started with the creation of a “society” I suppose. And there’s value in veganism as a movement. The reason we’re doing it individually, ultimately, is to reduce the suffering of other living creatures. It can only do so much as the actions of one person. As a movement, it cascades and brings change.

But that’s not the only way veganism is a thing. It’s also a fashion. A status symbol. A mark of enlightenment to be revered or mocked. A challenge, a gauntlet, a threat. When I started 21 months ago it wasn’t what it is now. Of course I can’t pull back and completely see it through my two-years-ago eyes but I’m not a complete hermit and I didn’t see it mentioned, adhered to, debated the way it is now. And while some of that is annoying, it’s pretty ridiculous to rue its spread, since the whole point is for it to spread. Were the people who were marching for civil rights in 1958 disappointed at least partially that their movement had become so ubiquitous and less special by 1964?

And again, like I said above, positing it this way: as a thing or the absence of a thing, is a construct of language, of syntax. And is that the only way we can think? I imagine part of our thinking occurs outside of language. How would people listen to jazz otherwise? So maybe this thing-absenceofathing is a manufactured conflict that doesn’t exist. Or maybe it’s so obvious as to not even be worth writing about. The old, “Not deciding is still a decision” point. “Doing nothing is still a choice.”

So where am I going with this? Well, I’m not sure. But I think it’s to: is a vegan someone who does something or who doesn’t do something? Are we doing something by not doing something? Are we not doing something in order to do something? Is it one giant collective hunger strike where we can still eat plenty of really good food?

And what if we became a society where people didn’t eat or use animal products. It could happen. And fast. Like in your lifetime fast. Then veganism would be nothing, right? The doing wouldn’t be the not doing, the doing would be sneaking off to eat a steak. A black market steak.

You don’t hear too much about the suffrage movement anymore. We’re all suffragettes, we’re all abolitionists. Soon veganism will be a thing that is absent.

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