The Imperfect Vegan

by D.R. Hildebrand

Not long ago I wrote an editorial for this site titled “The Meaning of Meat.”  I began by recounting how, at an airport, I had been reminded of the absurd pricing system at restaurants: items that contain no meat or dairy very often cost the exact same as comparable items that do.  The observation was meant merely as a preface to the broader topic of government subsidies, but apparently moved some readers more than the focus itself.  “Fuck that,” one person commented.  “Support 100% vegan establishments and tell your omni ‘friends’ to suck it up.”  Another wrote, “You made that decision alone to live that lifestyle.  Knowing there are minimal vegan options out there, you should have brown bagged it.  Such an entitled attitude…

We could talk for days about how shameful I am for being dropped off at an undersized airport hours before my flight, waiting even longer for an unforeseeable delay, and not having carried nearly enough granola bars—preferably homemade—with me across the country, only to end up getting hungry and—let the flogging begin—ordering a vegan meal from a non-vegan vendor.  Yet perhaps we could ask ourselves why, instead, in the bigger picture of our ailing society and our otherwise mutual goals to heal it, this is such a big deal.

Shortly after I read these responses I was on the subway and found myself listening to one vegan snobbishly correcting another.  “Jason,” the one said, “you’re not a vegan.  You’re just vegan.”  Jason looked dumbfounded.  He hadn’t realized that the vegan elite decree our parts of speech.  It is not acceptable just to be an adjective.  You have to be a noun.  Being vegan must be every molecule of who you are.  It must define you categorically.  If it only describes you—in part—then you can kiss being worthy goodbye.

Hillary Rettig wrote an exceptional piece on an analogous topic for Vegsource last year called “The Rise of the Nonperfectionist Veganism.”  She focused, in great detail, on some vegans’ abrasive treatment of vegetarians and omnivores and on the way they internalize their own flaws.  In adding to Ms. Rettig’s assessment, I say some are no less critical of, and nasty to, each other.  The choice to be judgmental, absolutist, arrogant and unfriendly instead of cordial, encouraging, measured, and kind sets us back, not ahead.  It almost reminds me of a particular political party in the United States right now that is so hell-bent on universal conservativism that anyone within the party who isn’t berating their liberal-leaning colleagues they ostracize.  Last time I checked, this approach was not working.  Voters have stopped listening to anything they say for it is crass, premeditated, and void of any basic individuality.

There is a restaurant in Philadelphia, Govinda’s, that I support just about every time I am there.  The food is delicious and, nearly as important, it attracts one of the most racially, economically, socially diverse groups of patrons possible—a characteristic, true or false, not often associated with the vegan community.  Govinda’s has been around since the 1980’s when veganism was anything but cool, and it is likely due to the restaurant’s presence that Sweet Freedom Bakery opened half a block away in 2010, further strengthening the city’s vegan visibility.  Govinda’s, however, is not strictly vegan.  It offers both a dairy and a non-dairy cheese.  Yet with all that Govinda’s has done to advance veganism, do we spurn it for its one “imperfection?”


Similarly, there is an Italian restaurant in Manhattan that dates back to 1908.  It stands alongside the vegan hot spot Angelica Kitchen, and a few years ago it nearly closed due to weak business.  In an attempt to remake itself, the owner decided to create a complete vegan menu—right down to the homemade seitan and cannolis—to complement the original, failing one.  The restaurant was packed when I ate there last month, and while part of me felt I should be eating elsewhere, another part of me didn’t see anything wrong with walking into a vegan-friendly restaurant and putting my money on the menu that saved it, reminding the management that there was a reason for this revival.

Examples extend beyond just dining and grammar.  “You’re still wearing those leather shoes?”  “How can you call yourself vegan and shop at Whole Foods?”  “Do you have any idea how bad that vegan dessert is for you?”  “I can’t believe you aren’t donating to animal rights groups.”  “What do you mean you’ve never been to a protest?”  “Cheater.”  “You should volunteer more.”  “You should leaflet more.”  “You should speak out more.”  “You’re bad.  You’re a bad vegan.  You’re like, not even a vegan.”

And on.  And on.  And on.

In his conte moral, La Bégueule, Voltaire reminds us, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”  Striving for perfection, albeit naïve, is of course a personal choice, one that does not, in theory, impose on others.  Dismissing or even attacking someone, however, for not being perfect—particularly for not meeting some arbitrarily crafted rubric of perfection—is wrong.  It is narrow, it is divisive, and it is futile.  It is complete nonsense and it in no way advances our education or our enjoyment for the lifestyle we advocate and admire.  Let us be better than this.  Let us find increasingly creative, intelligent, inspiring ways to motivate each other.  Let us be an example, reliable and dignified, for a slap in the face does nothing but sting.

Kantianism and the Futility Worry

We welcome back philosophy contributor Eliot Michelson whose controversial first post stirred things up a bit. In his promised follow-up, Michaelson continues searching for solutions to the worries presented over the summer. I hope you’ll continue to share you thoughts below as we develop more sound arguments for ethical veganism.

– Joshua Katcher, Editor

By Eliot Michaelson, Ph.D. Candidate

After my last post, several of my friends in philosophy started pushing on me the thought that perhaps we have a duty not to eat animals — a duty stemming from the fact that animals exhibit certain qualities (sentience, an ability to feel pain, or whatever) that suffice to grant them moral significance.  (Interestingly, some of the most adamant proponents of this line of thought have been non-vegetarians, which has started to make me feel like I’m inhabiting a strange inverted world.)  These discussions got me thinking: might we have such a duty?  I should preface my remarks by saying that I’m very sympathetic to the idea that we have lots of duties to each other, and to animals.  I have a duty not to kill other people, for instance, nor should I kill animals.  In fact, I think I should also help people (and animals) out where I can, when I can.  And I don’t mean that I just think it’s nice for us to do these things if we feel like it.  No, I actually think it’s mandatory to help people out where you can.  And I think that ‘where you can’ is a lot more inclusive than just about any of us are living up to.  All that is to say, I’ve got nothing against duties; I think there are lots and lots of them.  And I think that recognizing these duties is an important part of coming to better understand our moral lives.  Still, I wondered, do we have a duty to be vegetarian?

Continue reading “Kantianism and the Futility Worry”

The Vegan Fallacy

By D. R. Hildebrand

Not too long ago I was in LA for work.  I arrived in the evening, starving, of course, and as soon as I reached my hotel I headed across Sunset Boulevard to the closest Veggie Grill I could find.  There are no fewer than ten of these godsends on the West Coast, and along with Loving Hut they comprise the closest thing I can think of to a vegan fast-food chain.

The Sunset Boulevard location is huge, though at 9:00 at night just about every table was taken.  I ordered the Papa’s Portobello with the Soup of the Day and sat down next to an energetic group of three, twenty-something surfer guys who couldn’t stop talking about the one thing they were all eating: carrot cake.

“Dude, holy shit, this stuff rocks!”

“I know, man.  We keep telling you, it’s incredible.”

They carried on until it became apparent that two were vegan, educating their non-vegan friend in the joys of, as one said, “actually eating real food.”  I sat there with little else to do but listen and try to pace my own consumption—the Papa’s Portobello was fantastic—when one of them made a comment that caught my attention.

“Dude,” he said (to his not-yet-vegan dude friend), “it’s good and it’s good for you!”

Oh geez, I thought, the ultimate vegan fallacy.

At first I wanted to laugh.  Then I glanced at them and realized they were each ordering seconds, and in all likelihood really believed what they were telling themselves.

To be clear, I’ve never studied nutrition.  I can’t explain why it is that some foods are good for us and others are not.  In general though, I think it’s safe to say that the carrots, walnuts, coconut, and perhaps a few other ingredients in this particular delicacy fall on the healthy, beneficial side of the nutritional spectrum.  I think it’s just safe to say, however, that non-dairy cream cheese, non-dairy margarine, a cup or two of cane sugar, and any sort of oil undoubtedly do not.

It seems a number of vegans equate cruelty-free for animals with cruelty-free for themselves, forgetting—or ignoring—that what isn’t the devil isn’t consequently a saint.  This is not to say we should all eat three salads a day with nothing but whole fruit and nuts for snacks in between.  It is simply to say that we should educate ourselves about the products we most often consume, and remember to be as kind to our own bodies as we strive to be others’.

We often hear non-vegans tell us about all the foods of which we supposedly deprive ourselves.  And it is tempting to shove the delicious vegan options of those foods straight down their throats.  It’s tempting to shove them down our own as well, but we would be wise to do so in moderation.  For cake will always be cake, junk food will always be junk, and at the end of the day a treat should remain just that—a treat—not the foundation of a meal, and never the basis of one’s diet.

O! The Sacrifices

• “Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world’s population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages,” according to a new article in the Guardian. While this dire news is certainly good motivation, I simply prefer bragging about what I eat. Gosh, being vegan is (excuse me while I shove this chocolate chip cookie, coconut-cream ice-cream sandwich into my face) so hard. It’ll be (sorry, just let me take one more bite of this grilled wild mushroom paté burger with heirloom tomato, basil leaves and rosemary aioli) such an exercise in deprivation and sacrifice. I just don’t know how we’ll do it (pass the aged cashew cheese platter, please… Oh wait, the tapioca cheese gravy fries…. No! NYC’s best doughnuts, which happen to be vegan).

The United Nations Urges Veganism (again).

a cattle farm at Estancia Bahia, Mato Grosso in Brazil

A new UN report clarifies the  message that slowing global warming requires a shift towards a plant-based diet for humans. “A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change,” explained the UK’s Guardian today, but this will probably, again,  fall on deaf (or greedy, stubborn, infantile) ears. Just read the comments! Something tells me we’re doomed; when faced with hard facts people are still willing to sacrifice the planet for their palate.

The recommendation follows advice last year that a vegetarian diet was better for the planet from Lord Nicholas Stern, former adviser to the Labour government on the economics of climate change. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has also urged people to observe one meat-free day a week to curb carbon emissions.