50 years of professional life -- as a scientist, a teacher and a
clinician -- I have been deeply concerned with three domains of
human experience and their inter-relationships: Language,
behavior and ethics. What I have to say this evening
conjoins all three fields to focus on something that has informed
my life and enriched it with added purpose, understanding, energy
and commitment: vegetarianism.
My title promises a linguistic and psychological appraisal of the
future of the vegetarian movement and how that future relates to
"names" -- their definition, their use and their effects.
We will focus on two words: "vegetarian" and "vegan"
and how they impact on the future of our movement.
It is becoming more and more apparent that there is a growing element
of tension, with strong emotional overtones, between vegetarians
who accept only plant-based foods, and those who reject animal flesh
, but accept the use of products derived from living animals. The
tension is manifested in a number of ways... some overt, others
Keith Akers and Kate Lawrence, in the newsletter of the Veg. Soc.
of Colorado, write of their concern about friction between vegans
and ovo-lacto vegetarians. They are troubled by a growing perception
that "people think of veganism and vegetarianism as two similar
but opposed ideas - or even opposed movements," and are perturbed
by expressions of annoyance, irritation and resentment between members
of both groups. Their concern is neither exaggerated nor premature.
Sharp feelings of difference, divergence, dissonance and discord
between two subsets of a group are common antecedents of a split
into two discrete groups, each one following what its members believe
to be the best goals and the best strategies to achieve those goals.
Without a doubt, the fragmentation of vegetarian organizations would
seriously diminish the power to effect social change that a single,
large, unified organization can exert.
Although they deny that there is a problem, insisting that "Veganism
is not opposed to vegetarianism, it is a form of vegetarianism,"
they nevertheless felt the need to quiet the rustlings of discord
with the following strong admonition: "To these and all others
who think of separating veganism from vegetarianism, we have formulated
the following piece of advice: LIGHTEN UP, GUYS!"
While these condescending and patronizing words are more likely
to fuel hard feelings than to extinguish them, they nevertheless
confirm a perception of troubled waters within the movement.
If some ovo-lacto vegetarians feel disparaged or looked down upon
by vegans for their continued acceptance of dairy and eggs, they
can at least take comfort from the status the ovo-lacto diet enjoys
as the recognized Standard Vegetarian diet. Unfortunately this same
official recognition generates feelings of isolation and resentment
in vegans, who do not appreciate being a minority within a minority.
The roots of our difficulties lie in our definitions.
There is a "World Standard Definition of vegetarianism"
given by almost every local, national or international Vegetarian
Society in the world: it defines a vegetarian as a person who lives
on a diet free of meat , fish or fowl in any form, "with
or without the addition of dairy products and eggs."
What, precisely, does that phrase ...with or without the
addition of dairy products and eggs mean? From a straightforward
linguistic analysis it says that the presence or absence of the
named items has no bearing on the use of the appellation "vegetarian."
From a behavioral perspective, a definition of vegetarianism is
a statement of contingencies. If being a vegetarian is seen as desirable,
then the privilege of calling oneself a vegetarian is contingent
upon meeting the terms of the definition. The qualifying phrase
in question declares that use of dairy and eggs falls outside the
contingencies. From the point of view of discourse, it means that
the use of dairy and eggs merits mention, but that this use is neither
relevant nor significant in the dietary practice referred to.
What we have is an organizationally sanctioned definition of vegetarianism
that makes abstention from flesh THE vital, central component, and
leaves as an option the movement toward a completely plant-based
diet.... an option, not a target.
Contrast this with a different, more inclusive, formulation. The
Rochester Area Veg. Soc. defines vegetarianism as "the practice
of living without the use of flesh, fish or fowl, and the ideal
of complete independence from animal products." The
definition has its flaws, but it holds out a goal to reach for,
in positive terms, that has been acceptable to all our vegetarian
members. A half-dozen other vegetarian societies in the country
have already adopted, or adapted, this definition.
The " old standard" definition of a vegetarian not only
identifies the parameters of vegetarianism... it fixes
them. It says more than "this is how far you must go"
-- it defines the boundaries of propriety. If you go beyond what
is required of you, are walking out near the periphery, you are
out at the edges, the extremes. Setting the properties of the vegetarian
diet in terms of "NO to flesh, YES to eggs, YES to cows' milk"
has a further, long-lasting and pernicious effect on the achievement
of dietary change; the definition as given actually predetermines
the process of change -- establishing a "standard
strategy for becoming a vegetarian." It prescribes the process
of becoming a vegetarian as a sequence of "abstentions".
By putting meat as the first condition, it automatically
relegates milk and eggs to later consideration. This fixed,
"orthodox" sequence of dietary changes is responsible
for several outcomes.
- It establishes a hierarchy of difficulty of change. Naming
flesh as the "first abstention" marks this as the most
accessible behavior. By extension, then, subsequent abstentions
are acknowledged - and presented- as more difficult to achieve.
- The existence of a hierarchy of difficulty of change has its
own behavioral and emotional by-products. It assumes that "Giving
up meat may be hard, but giving up milk and eggs is "even
harder." Ranking people along a continuum of the difficulty
of tasks accomplished, establishes yet another hierarchy... a
hierarchy of value.
- The stage is set for ranked comparisons of individuals along
this hierarchy of value. Phrases employing comparative
terms cannot be avoided ..."more advanced," "more
rigorous," "stricter" in one direction, and in
the other, "not so strict," "more easy-going"
"more lenient," and finally, with a tinge of irritation,
"not so compulsive about my diet."
- In this verbal climate it is impossible to avoid the implication
that vegan is higher on the scale ..better, and ovo-lacto is lower
and not as good. At this point the notion of "holier than
Thou" makes its appearance, and an inevitable foundation
of discordant -- sometimes corrosive -- divisiveness is laid down.
Looked at from this perspective, what seemed like a simple "definition"
turns out to be a prime antecedent -- a cause -- of a number of
problems that beset the movement.
By establishing -- and insisting on -- dairy and eggs as acceptable
foods for vegetarians, the definition serves to increase the probability
of their consumption. Foods that are eaten frequently, become foods
that acquire a steady and secure place on one's table and in one's
shopping basket. The behavioral Law of Strength confirms what we
already know: the longer you hold on to something, the harder it
is to let it go.
But why should one let it go? and when? If you have
already made a challenging commitment to a change in lifestyle,
and met the Basic Criteria, and what remains is not presented as
urgent -- then the "extras" are things to be addressed
later -- somewhere down the line. No hurry. But you will not be
eager to spend time with someone who threatens your contentment
with tales of "What's wrong with milk" or "the horrors
of egg production."
In a word, the hierarchy of difficulty sets the schedule, the perceptions
and the expectations of beginning vegetarians..." Easy stuff
first, hard stuff later."
If it is common experience for vegetarians who begin as ovo-lacto
vegetarians to face a struggle to change to a vegan diet, all that
is empirically confirmed is that this is indeed what happens when
the "Standard Definitions" define the "Standard Strategy"
and the "Standard Schedule for Change." Since this seems
to have been inscribed in granite, we have no data on alternative
strategies. There is a universe of strategies waiting to be explored.
My title promised a view of vegetarianism's past and its future.
Let's look at both.
In 1847, in London, a movement was born out a conviction that the
killing of living, feeling creatures was neither biologically necessary
nor morally acceptable for human survival and well-being. Factory
farming had not yet been invented, chickens pecked away in open
barnyards, cows had not yet been genetically engineered to have
grotesquely distorted udders, and the veal crate of today was unknown.
There was no genetic engineering, no hormones, no massive doses
of antibiotics, no battery cages of egg-laying hens, no "processing
plants" for the assembly line slaughter of chickens, no epidemic
salmonella & campylobacter in eggs and poultry, no Mad Cow disease,
no Bovine Growth Hormone.
And in 1847 the simple rejection of flesh is what defined a vegetarian.
Now , almost 150 years later, we are still working with the same
definition. An obsolete definition, by which a plant-based diet
remains an option -- not even an ideal.
The passage of years has seen the word "vegetarian" acquire
a gloss of attractiveness that has led to an overgrowth of "hyphenated
varieties" of vegetarianism. The mores of the last decades
have encouraged a stance of non-judgmental all-inclusiveness, that
is willing to respectfully acknowledge definitions of vegetarianism
that range from the logical to the loony.
Classifying vegetarians by what they do not eat is neither
enlightening nor productive. People who consider their vegetarianism
to be more than a dietary fling or an exploratory excursion into
novel ways of eating -- people who have a sense of purpose
in their vegetarian commitments -- need to come together around
a definition of vegetarianism that meets several, literally vital
We must have a working definition of vegetarianism that describes
-- IN POSITIVE TERMS -- WHAT VEGETARIANS DO.
It needs to be made clear that vegetarians are committed to doing
something other than "not eating meat."
We must present a CORE OF COMMON VALUES and AN IMAGE
OF SOME IDEAL THAT MAKES CLEAR WHY VEGETARIANS DO WHAT THEY
If we continue to insist that an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet is the
capstone of vegetarian ideals, we enshrine an anachronism and carry
it into the next century.
Given what we now know about the health hazards of dairy products,it
would be deceitful, dishonest - or both - to do anything that encourages
the consumption of dairy foods. Regardless of one's personal dietary
custom, given what we know about the way milk is produced, it is
a frank breach of ethics to suggest to the uninformed that while
the flesh of a cow is unacceptable as human food, the milk of that
If we continue to mark the achievement of a plant-based lifestyle
as either irrelevant , "optional" or extreme, we will
ultimately succeed in isolating and alienating from the movement
precisely those people who have taken the whole message to heart.
There needs to be ONE vegetarian movement with a coherent
vision of a world of peace, plenty, health, dignity and compassion
for our planet and ALL the sentient creatures it supports --
ALL CREATURES ... without exemptions, without exceptions based on
race, gender, nationality OR species. We cannot afford to risk
or provoke a split into two camps. Two camps - of people with similar
practice, but whose values... and goals differ in such vital ways
that they become competitors, rather than collaborators in the struggle
to "humanize" the world.
We need to be sufficiently confident of our values to ask for what
we know to be necessary, recognizing the principle of "You
will get no more than you ask for, and no less than you will settle
It makes a difference whether vegetarianism is a "diet"
or a "philosophy." A diet is a list of the foods you choose
-- a philosophy is a set of coherent REASONS for making those choices.
You cannot build a movement around a "diet." To have a
movement you have to have people believing, living and working in
concert to realize an ideal.
We need to reset our compasses to set our sights in accord with
the realities of today and tomorrow. It is our urgent task to enter
the 21st century with a definition of our movement that not only
legitimizes and validates the vegan perspective, but broadens our
global objectives to uncompromisingly identify a plant-based diet
as the hope of the future.
We need to have the wit and the courage to speak out honestly and
unambiguously to unify our movement with a definition that is positive
and simple, a definition that is both inclusive and inspiring...
a definition that will help us cultivate and nourish a globally
life-sparing vegetarianism. To that end, I earnestly offer for your
consideration -- and hopefully, your acceptance -- this definition:
"Vegetarianism is a philosophy that manifests its reverence
and respect for the well-being of all sentient life by advocating
and striving for the ultimate adoption of a plant-based diet."
This view of vegetarianism permits us to characterize vegetarians
behavior in positive terms. Instead of classifying vegetarians
by what they reject, we describe them in terms of what
"Vegetarians are people who have made a conscientious and
principled commitment to achieve a lifestyle in which they consistently
choose their food solely from the Plant Kingdom."
I make an urgent appeal to each and every one of you -- members,
board members and officers of vegetarian societies -- local, national
and international -- to take this proposed definition to heart and
to mind -- to begin NOW the task of reconceptualizing
the meaning and the mission of vegetarianism.