Animal rights and veganism have been gaining more mainstream attention in recent years as part of critical conversations around liberation and climate justice. Movements for liberation are inherently threatening to the dominant culture, which means there will inevitably be pushback from political and social conservatives when these movements gain more traction.

However, not all criticism of veganism comes from conservatives. The increased popularity of veganism and the subsequent co-option by capitalist markets has lead to controversy and confusion around what it means to be vegan. Veganism has been framed and misunderstood as exclusive, expensive and purist, leading some leftists to reject the ideology all together. But consumer-focused and pro-capitalist ‘veganism’ should not be conflated with liberatory veganism, as would stem from a misconception of vegan principles. In order for us to have meaningful and constructive conversations about veganism, we need all parties need to have a clear understanding of veganism and the liberatory politics behind it.

Put simply, veganism is a political stance against the exploitation of animals by humans, and this is NOT the same as a plant-based diet. We should understand that being on a plant-based diet does not automatically make someone vegan, AND not everyone who is vegan is able to be on a fully plant-based diet.

The word ‘vegan’ has existed since 1944, but humans choosing to abstain from animal exploitation on ethical grounds is a concept that has existed in many parts of the world since ancient times (1).

The original definition of veganism was proposed as “the principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man” (2). This was later expanded to describe the actions entailed within the principle.

The Vegan Society currently defines veganism as:

‘Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment.’

One important part of the definition that often gets glossed over is the caveat ‘as far as possible and practicable’. This part of the definition is very important to the disabled vegan community. What is possible and practicable is not the same for every person. Some people may be on animal-derived medications, for example. Similarly, a person could identify as vegan but find themselves in a situation where they lack access to plant-based foods – maybe their financial circumstances mean that they’re eating whatever they find in the bin for subsistence, which may not always be plant-based. People shouldn’t be excluded from veganism and the animal rights movement for things that are out of their control. If a person sincerely believes in the goal of animal liberation, and is abstaining from exploiting animals as far as possible and practicable given their circumstances, then they are still vegan. We run into problems when we define veganism solely as a dietary or consumer choice, because not everyone gets to choose what they consume. Veganism shouldn’t be defined so much by what you eat, but by your position on the ethics of human dominance over other animals.

Language note:

‘Practicable’ is not the same as ‘practical’
Practicable: Possible, feasible
Practical (depending on the context): Useful, convenient

On the other hand, if someone is “against animal cruelty” and has the CHOICE to eat plant-based or to eat animal flesh/secretions and they CHOOSE to go with the option which exploits animals, then by all definitions, that person isn’t vegan. Of course, there are grey areas of veganism and it’s healthy to have discussions about these grey areas, but sometimes it’s pretty clear cut. Choosing animal exploitation when there are other options available is not vegan.

So in isolation, this might seem like a controversial statement, but I hope I’ve made a good case for it at this point:

ANYONE CAN GO VEGAN – because veganism is simply a political stance (and of course, having any political stance usually comes with a set of actions).

However, not everyone can be on a fully plant-based diet (an action that is taken by most vegans) – because there may be factors outside a person’s control that limit their ability to do this.

Veganism, when understood through the lens of anti-oppression politics, isn’t about our personal consumer purity. It’s about understanding that we live within political systems that disproportionally subjugate, exploit and marginalise certain groups, including animals, and doing what we can to push back against those systems. We reject the commodity status of other animals, and we express this on a personal level to the degree that we can. However, the animal rights movement should move beyond individual actions by working to make plant-based diets accessible to more people, and by campaigning and lobbying against industries and systems that engage in large-scale, institutionalised animal exploitation.

By defining veganism as a grocery list, we not only make the movement inaccessible and exclusive to many people, but we obscure that the real fight against speciesism is systemic. Change begins with ourselves, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Only when anti-speciesism is for everyone, can our veganism truly be ‘for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment.’

References:

  1. Vegans In Ancient Times | The History of Veganism Part One, Emily Moran Barwick, 2015.
  2. Definition of Veganism, The Vegan Society.
Author:
Betty Melon

Betty Melon is an Agronomist and student of Persian language, with a passion for forming alliances and community between the animal rights movement and other movements for social and climate justice. She has previously spoken at several animal rights conferences and on podcasts on the topic of building an inclusive animal rights movement based around the politics of total liberation.