For how long have I been vegan?
For me, this can be a fraught question. My girlfriend (now fiancee) and I first began making a concerted effort to eat vegan about a year and a half ago, in July 2017. The last time I knowingly ate something with animal products in it was last night. For most people, this fact means I’m not a vegan, or have only been one for about 16 hours. Part of me wants to say it’s more complicated than that – to wrap last night up in addiction-related words, like I relapsed or fell off the (vegan) wagon, or to use religious metaphors, like I sinned against Veganism, but like a recovering addict or a Christian, still get to keep that betrayed identifier: I’m still vegan, I just messed up last night.
I think this is further complicated by my (for me, shameful) history of small betrayals. At work, I’ll eat a fun-size Butterfinger if I walk past, because it’s already been requisitioned, i.e., I won’t save an animal by not eating it because the animal’s already been harmed, and not by my hand. At a friend’s house a few weeks ago, they served cookies and little spinach-artichoke puff pastries (we’d forgotten to mention we were vegan, or to think that usually hosts serve food to guests) and I surprised myself with how quickly, how easily, I popped them into my mouth without so much as a “well, I try to be vegan, but…”. There have been times I’ve ordered food that I thought to be vegan, but due to a misunderstanding or to my false assumption, it hasn’t been (usually cheese is the culprit), and I’ve eaten it because I feel that it’s better to eat it than to throw it out, that at least the animal will have suffered for something.
All these instances dilute my claim that I am vegan; rhetorically speaking, they work against my vegan ethos because they’re times I was objectively not vegan, at least as interpreted by multiple popular definitions. But even that’s complicated by the Vegan Society’s definition, which I read as giving a bit more leeway to faltering from the ideal of complete abstention from any animal products (emphasis mine):
Veganism is a 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.
So the question becomes, is the definition of vegan descriptive, or aspirational? That is, is vegan a term that describes a person’s adherence to a strict moral code (the complete abstention from exploiting animals in any way) or does it define an ideal that we can work toward, while admitting that fully realizing that ideal is hard, and in some instances, impossible?
If vegan is descriptive, then is it binary (someone either is or is not vegan, depending on whether they engage in animal exploitation at all), or are there gradations? Can someone be 90% vegan, or 70%? What does that mean? Do they need to be 100% vegetarian first, or does eating flesh count more? What’s the rubric for figuring out how vegan someone is?
It’s easier, in the descriptive scheme, to make vegan binary, but I don’t think it’s very satisfactory, because it leaves out a large amount of people who can’t be vegan, but try to minimize their exploitation, and it increases the pressure on those who can manage to be vegan, since they lose the designation as soon as they even accidentally or unknowingly participate in animal exploitation. And the percentage method, as recounted above, is overly complex and bound to lead to disagreement on a rubric, so I’d rather use the aspirational definition of vegan.
Of course, the aspirational reading of the term has its own issues, mainly, that it’s unfair. Many vegans take pride in their continued ability to refuse food, clothing, and lifestyles that lead to animal harm, and I think their feelings, if they have them, of indignation when encountering a “vegan” that claims to care about the issues that they do, but still relapses frequently, are completely valid. (Of course, I’m including myself in the “relapsers” camp.)
I guess this is all to say that ethics surrounding food are complicated, and when they intersect with deeply-held cultural mores about community, politeness, and ethics, it can be hard to parse the proper course of action. I’m fully expecting full vegans to be mad at the previous sentence because it’s really not that hard, especially in a first-world country (such as I live in) and in 2019, when there are more options than ever to abstain from animal exploitation. I don’t know what to say to them, except that I see it as a journey where I’m working my way to truly being free of exploitation in my actions and my choices.
To that end, I’m taking the season of Lent (even though I do not consider myself a Christian, or even religious) to do a hard vegan reset and only eat things I know for a fact to be vegan. I hope to continue the trend after Easter, so that the next time someone asks how long have you been vegan? I can answer, “However many days it’s been since March 6, 2019,” and know that by whatever rubric they grade veganism, I’ll be telling the truth.