Why I’m Leaving ‘Veganism’ Behind

by L Matthews on December 31, 2012

veganism is a cageFellow kale-lovers don’t fear. I have every intention of maintaining a plant-based diet and lifestyle free of animal products. My issue is semantic not practical. I have not jumped the fence, instead I am concerned over the fence’s very existence.

Veganism – what is it? What does it mean to you, to me, to vegans and nonvegans alike?

As well as being a way of telling those in the know what kind of food you eat, or why you are not interested in their animal-based products, veganism is an ideology.

Veganism is a term on which to hang your morals and beliefs, oftentimes carefully thought out attitudes but ones which, once pinned to veganism become arbitrarily policed somehow both by others and oneself. As with my thoughts on religious fervour and moral imperatives derived from religious teachings I feel that to place myself in the vegan fold is to somehow abdicate from mindfulness over my actions. It feels, to me, perhaps not to others identifying as vegan, that it is like saying that the work is done, that I have sufficiently exhausted the arguments and have a final answer. I don’t, but the fold of veganism allows me to pretend that I am fully formed. If I am an ‘out’ vegan, a proud vegan then it increasingly feels that everything I do is seen in the light of my veganism rather than in terms of awareness, kindness, practicality and sustainability. Veganism is not the endgame and, increasingly, it feels to me that that is what it is being lauded as, to the detriment of its original aims.

As a younger vegan I admit to a degree of embarrassment when I would announce my status to new friends, restaurant staff, shopworkers, family and so forth. I felt immediately other, awkward, as if the mere fact of my taking time to think was somehow an affront to those who had either not considered their everyday actions as part of a system of exploitation, or as an invitation to argument to those who had and who had reached a different conclusion. I did not want, and do not want, to stand out and appear to be proclaiming that there is anything special or extraordinary about myself, especially when all I am is hungry and desirous of some houmous and broccoli crudites.

My saying ‘I am vegan’ is not the same as saying ‘you are an idiot if you are not vegan,’ nor is it saying ‘vegans are morally superior,’ ‘I am judging you, and have no interest in nonvegan opinions’ or ‘I would like to argue now because I am always right.’ When I say I am vegan it is a statement of facts – that I do not include certain dietary items, that I avoid certain fabrics and goods, that I have some cause to do so. A dietary vegan, an ethical vegan, an environmental vegan, these could all be ways I describe myself but I do not. Instead, I would like not to have to identify as vegan at all, for the eradication of exploitation of nonhuman animals to be so ubiquitous that to not be an adherent of vegan principles would be the anomaly worthy of its own moniker. I appreciate that the word ‘vegan’ is useful in some respects, that it can act as a way of bringing people together for a common aim and can make dinnertime considerably easier. My views on the future of the word are, admittedly, idealistic and, for now, I am simply concentrating on my own connection with the word rather than joining any vegan abolition (i.e. abolish all vegans) movement.

Unlike in my early twenties, as a young vegan, the embarrassment I have felt lately in identifying as a vegan is of a different kind, more of a cognitive dissonance than simple social awkwardness. This is a dysphoria that stems from the need to identify as a vegan at all and the resulting feeling that, when I do proclaim such an identity, I am merely reducing myself to a set of stock and concrete beliefs that can appear fundamentalist and unquestioning. My worry is that, by identifying as vegan, I allow myself to become casual, absent from the actuality of life and the questions it throws at me.

My veganism is a shield which I picked up eight or so years ago and which I am happy to pass on to any newcomers in need of it. This new year may not see me unpinning vegan badges from my person or changing the title of this blog and its content but when I use the word vegan I will be mindful of how it is not everything about me, nor should it be. Perhaps some of you worked this out years ago and more power to you if that is the case. For me, however, the word ‘vegan’ is a safe I put myself in all those years ago which allowed me to grow and learn within its boundaries; now it feels more like a cage. While I am not leaving veganism I am collapsing that cage.

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