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.