Damn the Perfectionists! Full Speed Ahead!
How many times have most vegans heard this one? "Well, I would go vegetarian (or vegan), but I don't want to label myself." The answer for me is "too many." Why would people (who are probably wearing at least one visible brand name as they say it) say this? Because they're afraid they'll screw up and be bad veg*ns. I'm not sure their fears are unfounded. It's much easier to attack our own camp, that is, the people who have made some steps towards a compassionate lifestyle, than it is to even think about changing the minds of the omnivorous majority. I know the arguments for keeping the labels "vegan" or "vegetarian" strict and narrow -- I don't want people to think that chicken is a vegetable or that honey is something bees produce for the benefit of humans. My own toes curl when I meet or hear of someone who calls him- or herself a "vegetarian" and still eats fish...or they used to.
I now know that there are no actual "vegan police" out there to lock up the bad vegans, because they would have stormed my house the other night for sure. I was in the middle of a long, emotional phone call to a friend of mine who is vegetarian. I had called her rather than settling for a more economical instant messenger conversation because she was very upset. She'd had one of those awful moments where cruelty to animals (in this case, the horrors of the fur industry) hit her emotionally, rather than occurring to her as an abstract bad thing. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that she eats fish.
It wasn't what I wanted to hear. The time didn't seem right to criticize her, though...and then it hit me: the time is never right to discourage someone from taking steps towards compassion! I knew how hard she had struggled to make this level of vegetarianism work for her, how much soul searching, research, and arguments with her family she had been through. Was I supposed to strip her of her title? I really don't care.
I think that perfectionism, when it comes to veg*nism, is something that is very easy to demand of other people. It can feel like a right and duty to do so, and if I apply certain standards to veganism, it's easy for me to think that other people should, too. Unfortunately, I'm coming to believe that that kind of logic cripples the movement.
On an episode of the Simpsons last season, a character declared, "I'm a level 5 vegan. I don't eat anything that casts a shadow." I still think it's a funny quote, but it also tells of a disturbing mentality. Veganism is often seen by omnivores (and some vegetarians) as a movement of martyrdom and denial. The worst part is, I think a lot of vegans see it that way, too. Worse still is that they don't last as vegans. Why would they? Who would want to live a life where you have to give up all kinds of things you enjoy and untold convenience when you aren't even doing it right? The guilt and frustration that people suffer when they feel like they are working toward an unachievable goal (or a goal that only the truly righteous can achieve) is a horrible feeling, and it does no good for anyone. I don't think that choosing not to label oneself as vegan is the right answer. If one doesn't have the label for a guideline, then it's really easy to slide back into one's old habits. I would also have a hard time feeling a sense of pride and community without the label "vegan." People will always, always, disagree about how vegan one has to be to count. I think it's a bogus, time wasting argument (full disclosure: it's also one I've frequently participated in). If people hold on to the reasons they became vegan in the first place, and try their hardest to achieve harmlessness, then they will have done more good for the animals, the environment, and their own health and well-being than perfectionism can ever accomplish.
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