With Veganuary in full swing, the vegan groups on Facebook are full of curious people asking questions about veganism. I empathise and welcome this curiosity; I too was there a few years ago. I am always happy to support new or transitioning vegans and, well, mistakes do happen (especially when animal products are hidden in the most seemingly innocuous of places).
What does frustrate me are the questions that ask: "Am I still vegan if...?", as if using the label vegan is the ultimate goal. Generally this sentence is completed with: "if I eat eggs from backyard hens," or, "if I drink organic milk," or, "if I eat honey." What frustrates me even more though, are the replies from other group members: "Oh of course you are," or, "Honey can be vegan!"
Let's be clear here, without malice or personal agenda. As trendy as it's becoming, veganism is not an exclusive club with membership rights. It is not a cult or a diet. It is a very clearly defined social justice movement that puts animal rights at its core.
"Vegan" is not a label that an individual should choose flippantly. Indeed, it is action-driven. It took me a long while to use it to describe myself.
I hear you cry: "Vegan police! Militant!" Feel free to name call, but please hear me out...
Justifying your own or others' actions - perhaps by condoning eating backyard eggs or drinking organic milk - means that you are championing animal welfare. Veganism is an animal rights movement. I believe that using the word 'vegan' incorrectly, to justify welfarism over rights, does damage to the movement as a whole. I will reluctantly take on those heavy, judgement-laden labels of 'militant' or 'vegan police' from the majority if it means that someone else understands this difference. For the sake of the rights of the animals I care about I want my stance to be clear, not watered down by the sentence: "I'm vegan, but..."
It also leads to misunderstandings. When going out for a meal, it would be helpful if your server understands, clearly and concisely, what it means when you say, "I am vegan." To save food wastage, time, embarrassment and annoyance, you want him to understand that this means you do not want to be offered cheese on your pasta, you do not want honey in your dressing and you do not want your fries cooked in the same fryer as the fish.
There are plenty of labels that you can choose to use (or not) to describe your choices. All I ask - on behalf of the animals - is that you pick and use the correct one: the one that accurately describes your lifestyle choices, diet or ethical stance.
Here are some of the most common ones:
A vegan* chooses to live a life "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." This includes eggs, even if they come from a backyard hen. And organic milk. And honey.
A plant-based eater* chooses to exclude animal products (meat, fish, dairy, honey) from their diet.
A vegetarian* "does not eat food that consists of, or has been produced with the aid of products consisting of or created from, any part of a living or dead animal. This includes meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, insects, by-products of slaughter, or any food made with processing aids created from these."
A pescetarian* chooses a diet that is "mostly vegetarian but includes fish and seafood".
A nonvegan* eats "food of both plant and animal origin,"
A carnist* belongs to the "invisible belief system or ideology that conditions people to eat certain animals."
There is a word to describe every possible combination of dietary and lifestyle choice and the more often these are used correctly, the more they will be taken seriously.
I would guess that many people misuse the words vegan or vegetarian because they do not know the correct terminology for what they are. I also know that some people don't hold weight with labels, choosing to "interpret" them individually, yet use them anyway. I ask, with the aims of animals' rights in mind, for you to spend the time to understand where you fit and use the correct word. If you do not, please do not be affronted when someone politely corrects you.
But I do wonder if some people choose to use the word vegan, instead of the one that correctly identifies their choice, for fear of being judged by others. If this were the case, I would implore you to change your actions, not your words.
*It is worth noting that each sub-group belongs to the wider classification of 'Human animal - "A bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens); a person."
** Sarah from the Vegan Society: "Our definition of veganism absolutely indicates that veganism is about more than [diet], however we use 'as far as is possible and practicable' to remind people that we still sadly live in a non-vegan world and that the extent to which you can be 100% vegan is sometimes limited by practicalities."