14 March 2011

Ruminations on the word 'veganish' aka someone who leans toward vegan

On February 1, 2011, Oprah Winfrey’s television show highlighted veganism. The week before taping, she had challenged her staff to go vegan for 7 days. More than three hundred staffers signed up to take Oprah’s challenge, and the resulting program introduced the vegan lifestyle to millions of viewers. Flanked by luminaries in the vegan and food world, Kathy Freston and Michael Pollan, Oprah taped her results show and gave millions of viewers a glimpse into what we vegans already know: our lifestyle rocks!

While the show presented the vegan lifestyle and how the lifestyle can be followed and pursued in a not-so-difficult manner, it was, in some vegan circles, overshadowed by one word uttered by Freston: veganish. (Well, to be honest, Michael Pollan’s appearance on the show caused a goodly amount of chatter, some good, and a lot bad! Stop apologizing for the meat industry, Michael!). But this word "veganish," that Freston defined as when someone “leans toward vegan,” poses a perplexing issue to vegans and non-vegans alike.

First, let me share some of my story. On July 20, 2009, I decided I would finally get control of my health and weight. Mind you, I had been a runner for more than 2 years and had finished a marathon. But my eating was typically American and quite deadly: fast food, lots of meat and cheese, very few vegetables. I counted calories at first, discovering that eating less high calorie meat and cheese helped me cut more calories and lose more weight. Eventually, I transitioned to vegetarianism, and for a few weeks struggled with whether to go vegan or not. But one thing was clear to me. I dared not call myself vegan until is was living the vegan lifestyle. That word, to me, signified a commitment to my self and fellow creatures, a promise to myself and to other vegans, and a loyalty to a lifestyle that has come to mean so much to me. I joked with friends that I was “veganarian,” a vegetarian with vegan tendencies. I promised that I would not dishonor their lifestyle and commitment by pretending to be or calling myself a vegan.

So I can totally understand the outrage behind hearing the word "veganish." My mind wants to urge folks to find another term (Vegetarian maybe? Veganarian? Something other than vegan!). But when I look at the use of the term, I have to remind myself that we vegans are compassionate folks. We extend compassion to our fiercest critics in the same way we do the animals. Colleen Patrick Goudreau made a great point recently that when we are asked those same questions that we ALWAYS seem to get from people, such as “Where do you get your protein?” we should remember that while it may be our millionth time to hear it, it is likely their first to ask it. So in that same way of thinking, I will try not to get too bent out of shape by the co-opting of a word I prize highly in order for someone to “test the waters” of veganism.

The way I look at it, even if someone follows the vegan lifestyle only 10 percent of the time, then during that time, lives are preserved, resources are protected, and someone lives a bit healthier than before. What’s to say that the 10 percent doesn’t become 50 percent, and then perhaps a full embrace of veganism? This, to me, can be only good for the movement, the lifestyle, the cause we all follow and embrace.

But let’s be clear. While it is technically impossible to be a true vegan in the purest sense of the term (total independence of any animal products or exploitation at all), it is also disingenuous to call oneself a vegan if you are not pursuing it full-time. One cannot consume an occasional cheese pizza and wear the “I’m a Vegan” t-shirt. Likewise, being "veganish" is no different than a consumer of animal products who eats fruits and veggies on the side. To be sure, while I very much want to extend compassion and a helping hand to those “testing the waters,” I still bristle at the use of this word in a way that dilutes the definition of my lifestyle and what I believe.

Over the past few weeks the word “veganish” has become more prevalent on health-related websites. It has, sadly, become a descriptor for a partial vegan diet, where plant-based foods are embraced in the name of health, but where those who call themselves “veganish” continue to partake of animal products, specifically the big three: meat, cheese and eggs. It’s as if this word has opened the door for many people to pursue only those parts of veganism that they like, while holding onto an emotional or gastric attachment to animal products. It makes the continuance of an animal-based diet too convenient; something akin to drinking a diet soda with your bag of potato chips and thinking you are doing something healthy.

Vegan. This word means so much to me now. It describes compassion, commitment, concern for all beings, concern for my health, for my future and that of my children on this fragile blue ball on which we reside. It has now been co-opted and diluted in such a way that what we believe as vegans has been reduced to a nutritional strategy and not a way of life, a way of thought, a way of being. This is the tragedy of language and words. Unlike sticks and stones, they may not break my bones, but they sure can sting and hurt, and reduce what I hold dear to a mere “diet” plan. And that saddens me.

Gordon Harvey | @VeganG26_2
Gordon is a college professor, marathoner, and vegan. He is a strong believer in the power of exercise and smart food choices for healthy and compassionate living, and in education for enlightening us as a society. Gordon hosts "This Running Life" podcast and co-hosts "The Country Vegan, City Vegan" podcast. He also publishes the "Vegan in the South" blog.

Photo credit: TDIV