Monday, July 27, 2009

Some Musings on Veganism, “Finikiness,” and Indulging in Omnivory

In the kitchen of my shared apartment in Leipzig, I was forced to behold a disgusting sight and smell. A tomato, a half-eaten container of blueberry yogurt, more yogurt in a glass dish, and a few unopened snacks had been sitting on the countertop for the last four days, apparently left there by a flatmate who had gone on vacation. The tomato and yogurt had of course become moldy and attracted numerous fruit flies, so I grudgingly threw them in the dumpster outside. The remaining question was what to do with the unopened (and therefore unspoiled) items: berry-flavored applesauce, vanilla pudding with whipped topping, and another container of yogurt. I knew that the owner had probably forgotten their existence entirely and might never eat them—after all, they were put there at the same time as all the foul-smelling, spoiled food which was left out so carelessly. Therefore, there seemed to be only two possible courses of action: put them in the refrigerator and hope that the owner would find them eventually, or eat them myself. I did the former with the applesauce and unopened yogurt, which didn’t look that interesting. But the vanilla pudding looked like the ultimate creamy perfection, so I couldn’t resist indulging.

This instance is part of an unfortunate pattern that’s been plaguing me for the past few months: I see an animal-based food, decide that eating it won’t affect the demand much because it’s a small amount and/or I didn’t buy it myself, and my willpower breaks; or I order something at a restaurant which may or may not be vegan, but am too lazy to ask, and it ends up being non-vegan. Thankfully, the pudding incident is the worst of the sins I’ve engaged in, other than a time when I started nibbling some fancy cheese someone had brought to a picnic and ended up eating an amount half the size of a tennis ball. I also admit that part of my lazyness with asking about ingredients at restaurants has to do with being in Germany for the summer, where I don’t speak the language fluently. Yet still I worry that if I don’t bring these habits under control, they will escalate until I find myself knowingly purchasing animal products on my own.

Fortunately, the animal agriculture industry is at least partially right when it condemns small welfare improvements as the beginning of a “slippery slope” toward the banning of animal agriculture, but unfortunately it works the other way too: as soon as a vegan starts eating small amounts of animal products, they’ve put themselves on a dangerous path toward losing their veganism entirely. While I don’t think this will happen to me anytime soon (banning myself from buying animal products, even if I eat things that other people buy, seems straightforward enough), even this prohibition has its gray areas. For example, am I purchasing animal products if I buy a lunch at an all-you-can-eat buffet that contains both vegan and non-vegan items, and then put some non-vegan things on my plate at the last minute?

Calling oneself a vegan, while not being very strict, can also have its public relations problems. Anyone who’s a freegan or a not-so-strict vegan is undoubtedly familiar with the awkward situation that arises when you taste small amounts of animal products in front of people who know you’re vegan. Someone says, “But I thought you were a vegan!” and you’re forced to give a response like, “Well, I’m not always that strict” or “I’m just having a small taste, so it's not really feeding into the demand.” While this may make some almost-ready-to-be-vegans lose some of their fear of commitment, it can make others perceive you as weak-willed, and we don’t want to give omnivores that satisfaction. Not to mention that over time, our small forays into omnivory add up, so it’s not quite true that they have no affect on supply and demand—it’s just a very small effect compared to that of full-fledged omnivores.

Then again, being too strict a vegan can have its drawbacks too. The more “finicky” you are, the more people are going to perceive you as “unreasonable,” and this does not help the public’s perception of an already “fringe” lifestyle. I once made this mistake when I ordered some pasta at an Italian restaurant which wasn’t described on the menu as containing cheese, but it ended up having some sprinkled on top. This was in addition to a salad I had gotten, which automatically came with some milk-based dressing that wasn’t mentioned on the menu. I don’t remember whether the waitress was within earshot, but I do remember expressing my displeasure, and some others at the table immediately accused me of being “ungreatful” for what the cook must have meant as a nice garnish. While I still think my complaint was justified, no one else perceived it that way, so unfortunately I think my cause was hindered rather than helped. This was especially true since the damage, in terms of animal products used, could no longer be undone.

So for all you fellow vegans out there, my advice is this: try to keep your small indulgences in meat, eggs, and dairy to a minimum, but don't make so big a deal about it that the legitimacy of your position is undermined. If you ever get the sense that you’re at the beginning of a “slippery slope” toward non-veganism, that means it’s time to reaffirm where your boundaries are, before it’s too late. But meanwhile, don’t be so dogmatic you turn into a fussy person whom no one wants to emulate.


  1. Great insights. I think you hit the nail on the head. If only vegans took the time and energy spent trying to go from 99.5% vegan to 99.9% vegan and redirected it toward activism and outreach and toward thinking more critically about how our food choices affect human laborers and the environment, as well as animals, we'd be doing a lot more good.

  2. Suzannium, I don't see how your post is helping the vegan movement. 1) There is no evidence that "small welfare improvements" will do anything for veganism. 2) There is no reason why small indulgences should lead anyone to stop being vegan who seriously felt they should be vegan. Why would eating some yoghurt no one else is going to eat make you believe that buying/demanding yoghurt is just as harmless? I just realized a few days ago that my jacket is made of "genuine leather." There is a huge difference between me wearing that jacket around the house since I already have it and going out and creating demand for more leather jackets.

    And finally, I don't understand why you are worried about "finicky" vegans. One time I was in a worker justice program, and the group was going to eat at a place called Ben's Chili Bowl, which had no vegan options. I told my vegetarian student coordinator I didn't want to eat there, so he suggested we stop and get me some vegan food I could eat there. I had some delicious, healthy Chinese food while they gorged on chili-cheese fries and hot dogs. You call that being finicky; I call it being resourceful. I loved the vegetarian guy because he was very disciplined about not eating meat, which encouraged me. He thought I was just being very disciplined and told me he admired that. On the other hand was a girl who wanted to be vegetarian but was too scared to even say so (all she said to our vegetarian coordinator was that she'd "prefer vegetarian if it's available") - it sounded kind of debilitating. I'd rather spend my time trying to give strength to people like that (they always think veganism is hard, but I tell them it's easy and fun) than start agreeing with them that being disciplined makes one "difficult to please" or requires one to be "finicky." I feel like veganism is being marginalized even further when vegans start saying that hanging out AND fitting in with their friends at some lame restaurant is more important than living up to their principles. Some people think that having a little extra muscle or indulging their taste-buds is more important than caring about animals - I'd rather not go down that same mental path. It's really not that hard to avoid.

    Bottom line: Be resourceful. Unless you are dependent on a family that is anti-vegan, there is always a way to fit in. If you have to, bring your own meal to the restaurant, or help the restaurant add vegan options. Here is a great talk on how to get restaurants to veganize their menu:

  3. Luella,

    Thank you for your comments. However, I want to make a few points.

    First, even if small welfare improvements do nothing to promote veganism, I disagree that this makes them unnecessary. We are a long way from converting everyone to being vegan, so the least we can do now is make sure the animals who are suffering now suffer less. Also, even if some people think that eating animal products is "justified" given that the animals are "treated well," I'm sure there are many others who will hear arguments for animal welfare and start thinking about these issues for the first time. Maybe some of these people will begin to question what is "humane," and this will direct them toward veganism. I don't know if any research has been done that supports or refutes the idea that welfare campaigns encourage veganism, but my initial decision to become vegan was from a welfare standpoint, so it isn't a stretch to imagine someone else taking the same path.

    Second, when I said that small indulgences could lead one down a path toward non-veganism, I was making a purely subjective comment about how my own psychology works, and was extending it to anyone else who has a similar psychology (which isn't necessarily everyone). As my title suggests, this posting was more a mixture of subjective musings with some philosophical ideas thrown in, than a prescription for how others should manage their veganism. If my language sounded prescriptive, I apologize for this. I suppose a better way to open my post would have been to describe the picnic cheese-eating act referred to in the second paragraph, or to mention my failure to ask about ingredients in restaurants, both of which arguably had more impact on the demand and SHOULD be stopped. But the point still stands that depending on the person, these types of acts lead one to feel less bad about slightly larger sins (which then lead to even larger ones) if one isn't careful.

    I guess one other thing I should have mentioned is the importance of periodically reminding yourself why you became vegan in the first place. Even if you set very straightforward boundaries for yourself, you are more likely to fail if your actions aren't backed up by strong beliefs. I meet many people who say that they'd NEVER be able to go vegan despite agreeing with its aims, and I was once the same way, until I forced myself to confront the reality of factory farming and this gave me the resolve to do something about it.

  4. The website will only let me post a certain number of characters in one comment, so here's the rest of what I wanted to say:

    I think you misunderstood what I meant by finicky." I did not mean that one should eat non-vegan food to fit in, or that one shouldn't express one's beliefs in front of others. This is in fact one of the things I was warning against by my mention of asking about ingredients in restaurants; when I don't ask, it's mainly to avoid awkwardness, and I need to break this habit. What I perhaps didn't make clear about the Italian restaurant incident was that I'd gone way overboard with my complaints about the cheesy pasta, to the point where people were genuinely getting angry at me: rather than simply express my disappointment and leave it at that, I continued by saying, "Just think how you'd feel if you lived in the 19th century and were told to be polite at a place that employed slaves." While this was a legitimate thing to say, I don't think I said it tactfully, and I believe this hurt my cause more than it helped. So I guess what I meant to say is that if you push social boundaries to advocate for animal rights, you need to be careful with your choice of words, the circumstances in which you say them, and whether they will do anything to improve the situation at hand.
    I see the same problem in PETA's campaigns that compare factory farming to slavery or the holocaust. While such comparisons are thought-provoking, I've heard far more people say they were offensive than that they convinced them to go vegan. Factory farming has enough horrors that one need not offend people in order to take a stand against it.