Thursday, August 13, 2009

More on becoming-vegan vs. becoming-vegetarian

Craig recently had an excellent post up about the distinction between veganism and vegetarianism, please take the time to read it, if you haven't already. This has inspired me to return to my earlier posts on becoming-vegan vs. becoming-vegetarian.

One of the reasons I have liked to stick with vegetarian is simply I enjoy the history of the word. That means I enjoy the putative etymology of the word, but I also enjoy the way the word was early used. The Vegetarian Society was notorious for their political involvements in anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles. They were fiercely anti-racist and anti-sexist. Furthermore, vegetarian meant the same as vegan does now. That means they did not eat any animal products. Now, clearly that is not how the word vegetarian is used these days. Not only does vegetarian seem to have little clear indications of what these people eat (Fish? Chicken? Eggs? Dairy? What?), but also tends to only indicate a dietary movement rather than a political movement (though, I have to say that the term veganism is slowly moving in the same direction). The word vegan was created because vegetarian had stopped meaning, well, vegetarian. I recognize that, but I still like the history of the word.

Though obviously another reason was rhetorical. Veganism has a much stronger stigma in our culture than vegetarian. If I want to address my work to those that aren't even vegetarian, and break the relatively strong taboo among continental animal ethicists and suggest that if you care about critical animal arguments than you should, you know, probably withdraw yourself from the wholesale slaughter of other animals in our culture, than having a little less stigma seems like a good idea. Furthermore, while there aren't many vegans in the academy, vegetarians are far more common (even if not as common as some people seem to think). I have often thought about the becoming-vegetarian terminology as a way of making alliance with those vegetarians, and having them see that choice in political, ethical, and ontopoetic terms. With the twinned aspirations of having more support out there, and of course of convincing vegetarians to take more steps in animal liberation and abolition. Hopefully also by becoming vegan.

Though another fear is that while vegetarian may carry less of a stigma than vegan with the non-vegan population, among vegans vegetarianism often carries a pretty high stigma. When I want my work to be taken seriously by other vegans, the last thing I want is for my work to be dismissed for being dilettantish and fundamentally unserious to a commitment to radically transforming our relationships with other animals.

So, rhetorically I have felt somewhat trapped. Though, there is another whole level of this debate I had not really foreseen until some recent arguments from Gary L. Francione. If you check his blog, you can hear a podcast and read some follow-up comments to his belief that vegetarianism should never be advocated, not even as a gateway to veganism. Francione argues that vegetarianism (as is currently understood) is ethically meaningless. And if you accept that proposition, than vegetarianism is becomes misleading and confusing, allowing people to feel they have made a significant change while doing nothing. I really don't know yet how I feel about these arguments. I think they have some merit, but I have all my hesitant feelings. I'll have to give it more thought. Anyone that wants to suggest more thoughts for me to have, please sound off in comments (as always).