Q. Am I any less vegan if I slip a piece of Swiss cheese into my diet?
A. Here’s a puzzler for you: If a person is 15/16ths Native American, but had one great-great-grandparent who was European, do they have the right to call themselves Native American? What if the numbers were reversed? If a person is 1/16th Native American, do they have the right to the name?
The answer to the question is that it depends on the purpose for which they are identifying themselves that way. If they are attempting to register as Native American for scholarships or other financial benefits, a person must generally be at least 3/4 Native American to qualify. However, if they are simply trying to describe the culture they identify with, the label they use is a personal decision.
Labeling is a complex issue, but it’s generally accepted in Western society that people have the right to self-identify. For example, while modern convention tells us that African-American is the correct term to identify an American person of color who is of African descent, if a person preferred to refer to themselves as “black,” would we correct them? Of course not. Whether a person is “African-American” or “black”, “learning-impaired” or “dyslexic”, “Mrs.” or “Ms.” after marriage, “disabled” or “differently-abled” or even “crippled” is their choice. In our culture, we allow people to select the label that’s comfortable for them when the purpose is self-identification.
Interestingly, however, this attitude hasn’t carried over to the vegan community. It seems many people want to tell you whether you’re vegan enough. Two notable cases involve authors of vegan cookbooks, Alicia Silverstone and Lindsay S. Nixon, and both had different outcomes.
Silverstone - actress, author, and vegan activist - admitted to US Magazine that she occasionally cheats on her vegan diet with a piece of cheese at a party. The vegan blogosphere exploded with criticism, anger, and even sadness. Many declared that a person who occasionally eats cheese was simply not vegan, and that the actress should refer to herself as a “strict vegetarian” instead. Silverstone went about her business, continued to promote veganism, and eventually vegan bloggers went back to referring to her as “vegan.”
Lindsay Nixon, the author of several vegan cookbooks and the popular blog Happy Herbivore, faced an even more extreme example. After being called out, not for “cheating” but for failing to question the source of the sugar in cotton candy she ate at a baseball game, Nixon gave up the term vegan altogether, preferring to be referred to as “an herbivore.” [*See correction at the end of this article.]
Why are we as vegans so protective of the term? Why are we policing its use so carefully? Because it’s human nature to be protective of something you care about that is frequently maligned and misunderstood.
Let’s be plain: veganism is not a diet. It’s not a fad, a trend, a religion, a cult, or even a lifestyle. Veganism is an ideology. It’s an shared belief system with defined tenets and principles. The basic tenets (or beliefs) of veganism are:
1. Animals are sentient and can experience pain.
2. As sentient beings, animals deserve our care and compassion.
3. We must seek to avoid animal exploitation or suffering in all its forms.
Whatever other reasons a vegan has for not eating animal products - be they health, environment, religious, or based on anti-speciest ideals - are secondary to these essential beliefs. A person may choose a plant-based diet for other reasons without having moral or ethical objection to eating animal products; that person is a strict vegetarian, not a vegan.
It’s for this reason that “cheating” throws so many vegans into a tizzy. If even those people calling themselves vegan don’t understand the difference between a vegan and a strict vegetarian, how can we expect anyone else to get the distinction?
However, the simple fact that veganism is a belief system is the reason why we can’t decide whether someone is vegan by their actions alone. Who among us hasn’t, at one time or another, taken an action that is not in line with some belief we hold? Maybe we believe lying is wrong, but find ourselves saying, “Gee, Mom, dinner was great!” in appreciation for Mom’s first attempt at a vegan meal. Maybe we find ourselves saying, “No, Officer, I didn’t see the speed limit sign,” as we rush home to get some antacids after Mom’s “great” dinner.
If veganism is a belief system, then what is required to be called a vegan is simply to believe. Technically, you could eat cheese every day and still be vegan. (A very bad vegan, but a vegan all the same.) It is for no one but you to decide what it is you really believe.
However, if you were a vegan who found yourself eating cheese every day - or more realistically, every once in awhile - there would come a time when you would have to question what beliefs you really hold. Do you really believe that we must avoid animal exploitation in all its forms if your conscience allows you to consume the products of that exploitation with any regularity? Or is it that, deep down, you feel it’s okay if it’s not an everyday thing? If that’s the case, then stop and think about whether it’s fair to call yourself a vegan, or whether you’re contributing to the misconceptions about veganism that so many vegans are fighting against.
Even some people who hold to the vegan ideology and practice those beliefs to the letter choose not to label themselves as vegan. For a number of reasons, they may prefer to be called vegetarian, strict vegetarian, an herbivore, a plant-based eater, a raw foodist, and so on and so on.
Self-labeling is a highly personal issue. How you identify is up to you. But consider how the choice you make affects the efforts of others to erase misconceptions and share their vegan beliefs. It’s your choice, but please make it responsibly.
* Correction: While Nixon did receive criticism for not sourcing the sugar, that was one of several incidents leading up to her decision, which culminated with criticism for her stance on the controversial issue of honey.