I’ve been vegan 18 years, most of my life. But like most of us, I was born and raised as an omnivore. My journey toward veganism began with a whole year where I quit eating most animals, but sometimes ate chicken and crustaceans. I wasn’t a vegetarian, but I was close. There wasn’t a word for it back then, but we’ve got one now: flexitarian.
Flexitarians eat mostly meatless meals, but aren’t 100 percent vegan or vegetarian. The connotation is that vegans are strict, and flexitarians are, well, flexible.
Flexitarianism is not new. Way back in 2003, flexitarian was voted the Most Useful Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society, though it didn’t make it into Webster’s until 2012. Meanwhile, Medium’s spellcheck still doesn’t believe it’s a word.
And today, my own mom, who I’ve tried to convert to veganism for almost 20 years now, told me, “I saw the word flexitarian in something you wrote. I think that’s what I am.”
My mom’s not vegan. Maybe she will be someday. Maybe not. But she’s right: she’s come a long way. She eats a whole lot more plants and less animal products than when I was little.
It seems like everyone I know eats less animal products than they used to. I admit it — I dream of a vegan world. But in the meantime, I would rather all my friends become flexitarian than just one of my friends go full-on vegan.
A lot of vegans would agree with me. But many are angry at the mere existence of the word flexitarian. “Just call it what you are — a meat-eater, an omnivore. If you want a fancy label, then quit eating animals.” I’ve heard this many times before, usually from vegans who identify strongly with the abolitionist approach.
I greatly respect the vegan abolitionist approach, but I don’t think it’s always the best tactic to create a better world faster.
Vegan abolitionism seeks complete animal liberation, and rejects the idea that we should, in the meantime, make animal agriculture more humane. Here’s the mission statement for the vegan abolitionist approach, popularized by Gary L. Francione:
“…an approach to animal rights that (1) promotes the abolition of animal exploitation and rejects the regulation of animal exploitation; (2) is based only on animal sentience and no other cognitive characteristic, (3) regards veganism as the moral baseline of the animal rights position; and (4) rejects all violence and promotes activism in the form of creative, non-violent vegan education.”
Vegan abolitionism is an ideal I can get behind. I personally agree with it. But tactically?
Some abolitionists support The Liberation Pledge, a movement to get people not just to go vegan, but to pledge not to sit anywhere where animals are being eaten. (To be clear, Francione does not recommend The Liberation Pledge.)
When I first read about The Liberation Pledge, years ago, it felt morally correct, so I felt weak for not pledging.
I have to swallow my emotions when I’m in the presence of animal consumption.
In a perfect world, I would never dine with someone as they ate an animal. So why am I settling for an imperfect world? I guess because how perfect the world is isn’t totally up to me. My home, with my vegan spouse and our vegan child, is our vegan sanctuary. We don’t allow anyone to bring/eat animal products in our home. (Luckily, we love cooking for guests.)
But when we go out into the greater world, my tactic is not to be absent from meals, but rather to be present, eating plants and satisfying omnivores’ curiosities. How many opinions will I affect if I quite literally don’t have a seat at the table?
There’s a time and place for vegan abolitionism.
When I lived in Seattle and surrounded myself with vegans, the abolitionist approach sounded more practical. There, I volunteered with a vegan mentorship program, to help people make the switch. I lived in a house with all vegan roommates — including my vegan partner, with whom I co-owned a vegan pizzeria.
Next door to the pizzeria sits Vegan Haven, a nonprofit vegan grocery store that funds an animal sanctuary. I volunteered there, stocking shelves with vegan Twinkies and tiramisu, vegan marshmallows, vegan white chocolate chips, vegan “ribs,” vegan “shrimp.” And of course, an ever-growing supply of vegan cheeses. Anything you can imagine, you can find there. There were even cans of vegan haggis, which mostly remained on the shelves, untouched.
Seattle also has organic, vegan doughnuts, a vegan Vietnamese buffet, multiple vegan ice cream shops, multiple vegan Thai restaurants. All-day vegan brunch. Fancy, impress-your-parents vegan. A vegan dive bar with metal shows and vegan Bingo nights. Even a vegan tiki bar. And that’s not even half of it.
In that environment of options and ease, yeah, I felt impatient. It was so easy — so fun — to be vegan. What was taking everyone so long?
Okay, I still get impatient sometimes, but I left Seattle five years ago and moved out to the country. Here, many of my friends hunt, raise animals to eat, and/or eat roadkill.
Props to the roadkill-eaters, by the way. If you’re going to eat animals, why not eat the ones who are already dead?
I would rather all my friends become flexitarian than just one of my friends go full-on vegan.
So my perspectives have changed. I still completely believe vegan is the best way to eat, in terms of reducing cruelty, environmental stewardship, and human health. (Again, freegans and roadkill enthusiasts, I like your style too.) But, as many longtime vegans do, I’ve softened in my approach.
There’s plenty of room for all the tactics.
Neither Martin Luther King Jr. nor Malcolm X fought the good fight alone. They used separate tactics, side-by-side, in the service of the same struggle, and I believe we can and should do the same when it comes to animal liberation and the defense of our planet.
I’m glad there are vegans talking about the abolitionist approach, reminding everyone that there is no humane way to kill a young, healthy animal. There is no humane way to kill a baby calf so humans can drink his mother’s breast milk.
I’m also glad other vegans are spotlighting the health benefits of plant-based eating. Here’s a trailer for Forks Over Knives, a documentary on the power of a plant-based diet to prevent many chronic diseases.
I’m glad The Guardian is reporting the research on the ecological benefits of plant-based eating:
“Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.
The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% — an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined — and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.”
I’m even glad for much of the advocacy PETA is doing, although some of their tactics are cringey at best. Their factory farm footage Meet Your Meat inspired me to go vegan almost 20 years ago, so I know there’s a place for some of their advocacy too.
And I’m glad I’ve found a form of advocacy that works for me right now: personally living my values, passing them on to my daughter, offering to make vegan cupcakes for my friends’ birthday parties, honestly answering questions about veganism whenever I’m asked, and celebrating every little move toward plant-based eating, rather than telling my friends it’s not enough.
I want to be clear: I am definitely not suggesting vegans should start being flexitarian instead. If you’re already vegan, thank you! Keep up the good work. And please invite me to your potluck.
But, with a goal to quit harming our fellow Earthlings and to have an ecological future — and to secure healthier human lives while we’re at it — we need a variety of tactics that work. And right now, I’m concentrating on meeting people where they’re at.
How many opinions will I affect if I quite literally don’t have a seat at the table?
I respect my omnivorous friends, and I love hearing how they ordered a veggie burger at a restaurant or they’re trying out Meatless Mondays. How they’re giving up dairy, even though they still eat fish. Or they’re experimenting with making waffles with ground flax seeds or chickpea aquafaba, instead of eggs.
When I was a new vegan I might have replied, “But that’s not enough. Seriously, going vegan isn’t that hard.”
But I get it now. We’re all on our journeys. Right now, veganism feels like too big a leap to many people. Some of you don’t even know why you would consider it.
I want a vegan world; I really do. But I can’t will that into being through desperate pleas, no matter how intense my feelings are.
I think being vegan and willing to discuss it honestly when people ask — and they certainly ask, way more than I bring it up myself — is effective vegan advocacy.
Our actions speak louder than our words, so the way I live my life communicates loudly my belief that veganism is the best choice. But the more I say that out loud, the more defensive omnivores get. And what’s the use in that?
So I’m happy to hear if you’re trying to be flexitarian. Maybe it’s an endgame; maybe it’s a step toward something else. For me, all those years ago, flexitarianism was just a first step; as I learned more, I knew in my heart I needed to go vegan.
Either way, the more people interested in eating plants, the more yummy plant-based offerings we’ll find at restaurants and grocery stores. The more plant-based offerings, the easier it is for all of us to skip animal products. The easier it is to skip animal products, the more people will go vegan, because, like my Seattle experience, it won’t even seem hard anymore. It can feel easy, delicious, and fun.
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