This is my boring story about why I renounced veganism, for the record.
Years ago I ran a vegan message board called Vegan Represent. For you kids out there, we didn’t have Facebook or much of any social media to so casually chat and meet people of like minds. We had to scratch by on independently run message boards, it was a frigid place.
Long story longer, I became disillusioned with veganism for a few reasons.
1) I discovered critical thinking, became a “skeptic” and was perturbed by all the pseudoscience in the vegan movement.
2) Around the same time I read an essay called “Boycott Veganism” by a local vegan animal rights activist, Wayne Hsiung.
I scoffed a bit reading it that article at the time but it worked its way into my head and lead me down this path where I questioned the meaning of veganism. I polled the members of Vegan Represent relentlessly looking for an answer. What does veganism mean? Is it making a meaningful change?
PythagoreanCrank was born from that chaos. Ex-vegan and writer, Rhys Southern runs an excellent blog called Let Them Eat Meat about his and other’s vegan experiences. He interviewed me in 2011 for the also excellent Carpe Vegan where Jed Gillan features snarky astute vegan commentary.
They both gave me permission to crosspost that original interview here. While it’s dated and my views may have more nuance on this issue these days, it’s still an important part of my history. I hope it will provide some context and maybe help others who find themselves in similar quandaries.
Why Veganism Must Be Abolished: an Interview with Vegan Represent Founder Dave D
Dave D went vegan in 1999 for ethical reasons, and was a good obedient vegan for about a decade. He volunteered for EarthSave and several animal interest organizations, founded one of the first and consequently biggest vegan group on Meetup.com, and created one of the original vegan message boards — “Vegan Represent”.
I would have included a hyperlink to Vegan Represent, except it no longer exists. That’s because Dave D started to question veganism last year; after announcing this to the disappointment and confusion of his forum members, he started the vegan heretic blog Pythagorean Crank, and then took down Vegan Represent to make room for a new pro-animal message board, Plant-Based People.
Dave D still doesn’t eat animal products and continues to fight for animal liberation. Just don’t call him vegan.
What led to your break with veganism last year?
The break was instigated by my discovery of critical thinking. As a vegan activist I was a cohort of a lot of pseudoscientific propagation. Once I realized that, I had to resolve the cognitive dissonance of being associated with a movement that was mired in so much nonsense. At first I had a sense that I could fix things and re-own the word but that seemed too fundamentalist and caused too much strife. I decided to leave and find my own path.
Something that influenced you was comparing the Vegan Society’s more recent definition of veganism to its original definition. Why did that have such an impact?
Well, as I was struggling with the definition of what vegan meant, I got all prescriptivist and went back to the original source of the term. It was some nutty British dude named Donald Watson and with it he founded the Vegan Society. This it how he defined it:
A way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.
35 years later they updated the definition like so:
Veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practical – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment.
Basically they watered down the animal justice aspects with anthropocentric appeals. I originally signed on for the aspects of peace and reverence like Watson originally describes but I never could wrap my head around the other two “pillars”. For a while I was bashing away at these arguments, claiming the righteousness of my own interpretation. When I stopped and looked at the originating point of contention, I realized it was codified in the revamped definition all along. Before that, I felt betrayed and exploited by leaders in the movement or gurus co-opting the term. It turned into embarrassment though when I had to accept that, no, this is what veganism is. I was the one who was wrong.
Do you no longer believe in veganism?
I’m not sure what there is to believe in veganism exactly. I don’t believe it will make me skinny, solve global climate change, or even instill an idea of animal rights. My whole activist career I used “veganism” as my softball cause but there really is no -ism there. I was denying the scary implications that this might be something deeper than I was ready to confront. Now that I’ve exhausted my search for meaning in veganism and come up empty-handed, I’m ready to explore the depths of these implications.
You still don’t consume animal products. How do you explain to people that despite this, you’re not a vegan?
It’s a lot harder to get into the vegan club than it is to get out. All I have to do is admit to drinking any beer (regardless of the blessing from Barnivore) with reckless abandon or not-checking the SKU of the bag of Skittles I’ve been eating that indicates the factory’s use of bone char sugar, etc. Recently, for example, I was just at a conference in Vegas and ate my fill of a vegetable stir-fry buffet made on the same grill with animal flesh. What vegan would do that?
I think it’s silly for people to judge me according to the animal molecules I do or do not ingest instead of the thoughts I posses. This focus on consumption quickly reaches absurd levels of obsessive compulsiveness and becomes this dogmatic thing.
The tagline of Pythagorean Crank is “By vegan abolition we mean abolishing veganism.” Great line — one I wish I thought of! Since you still have vegan habits, there must be something else about veganism that you don’t like. Why does veganism, or at least certain aspects of it, need to be abolished?
Oh thanks! BTW that’s just one of my taglines for Pythagorean Crank, they rotate.
So, my not-using-animals is part of how I put my beliefs into action. If there is a situation where using animal products becomes more of a hassle than an infraction of my ideology, I’ll bend and use that product. Peter Singer said something to this effect and was ruthlessly chastised, so I feel I’m in good company. I can still have my ideology intact. Bending the praxis doesn’t change that.
Veganism is a boycott without a campaign, relegated to a lifestyle. The word vegan is helpful for eating lunch, but as one of my other rotating taglines goes: “Animal liberation is not found on a menu.”
You still want animal liberation. Why isn’t veganism the way to achieve it?
Yes I do believe in animal liberation and it’s still a priority of my current activist work. It’s why I’m leaving veganism behind in the first place, really. When the practice of being vegan is the goal, it becomes a slippery slope where vegan activists are tempted to employ spurious arguments. While we may see a short-term growth in vegans via questionable means, all it really does is create a bubble. Vegans who are duped by bad arguments will eventually figure that out and leave, making it that much harder to reach back out to them.
For the vegans who still hang in there, they are left scrambling on their own to find some validity. All they know is “go vegan”. They don’t have the tools themselves to make informed decisions or constructive forays into animal liberation. So what they do is improve upon what they’ve been given. They try to be more vegan. This shoves them into the arms of new age cults like raw food. Veganism becomes a rung on the ladder to climb upon a higher horse.
If veganism can’t achieve animal liberation, what can?
Animal liberation will achieve animal liberation. That is, we need compelling arguments to explain why animals deserve consideration. We should allow people to figure out what that means in their own lives. There are people working for animal liberation who eat animal products! This may seem irrational and counterintuitive, but that’s a fancy monkey for you. Should their efforts be dismissed because they haven’t personally reached a certain level of veganositude? Veganism has its part to play in the right context but its significance is being exaggerated.
You had an argument with Vegan Outreach co-founder and VeganHealth.org founder Jack Norris in the comments of your blog. Where do you disagree with Vegan Outreach’s mission?
Vegan Outreach’s mission is just that of their namesake, getting people to go vegan. Their mantra is: veganism is a “tool to reduce suffering”… but it’s a really dumb tool. Veganism used that way is cargo cult activism. The only way veganism will achieve animal liberation is in spite of itself. I argued we should talk more about animal rights but he balked at the idea, saying the general public wasn’t ready for that. That’s a pretty patronizing and pessimistic attitude to apply to a method of advocacy.
Hey, but more power to them if that’s what they wanna do. That doesn’t mean I can’t dissent. It took me years to absorb a critique of veganism I read on Vegan Represent that played a part in my new direction. Similarly I hope others are inspired to think critically about their own veganism and blaze new paths of change. We need a better foundation upon which to build a movement.
You once wrote to me that you thought I was helping with veganism with my blog Let Them Eat Meat. How so?
You are helping because you are spotlighting the weaknesses of veganism. You are putting real names and faces to apostates and exploring the nooks and crannies of this thing that’s interpreted in so many different ways. It needs to be weeded and as an ex-vegan yourself you are familiar with your part of the story that you can leverage to dig up the dirt. You may be trying to justify your paleo diet or looking at the pieces for what went wrong with your veganism but ultimately I think you’re helping to evolve veganism by pointing out the weak arguments. I’m just sick of hearing the same tired fallacious arguments on both sides. We need more insiders like you to speak out and say “veganism failed me and here’s why”.
I do something similar with Pythagorean Crank. When vegans deride me for the critique, I wonder if they really believe their own arguments. I mean, if I were to be proved wrong about something, then shouldn’t I accept and adopt it? Shouldn’t vegans want to hone their arguments? Wouldn’t it be dishonest otherwise? When I criticize vegans, many rebuke me by saying “we’re all not like that” or “STFU meanie!!!”. Instead of arguing with me about that, though, how about speaking out, with me? How about recognizing that weakness of our supposed movement, and strive to change it? When I criticize non-vegans, though, in the same voice, all-a-sudden I’m one righteous dude. I’m not going to accept the tone argument. They can dish it, but they can’t take it.
So yeah, I think your criticisms of veganism are constructive. Your writing isn’t mean-spirited or malicious but you don’t pull punches either. I may still be in catharsis mode on PCrank but I’m looking for my voice. Let Them Eat Meat is an inspiration for me… I hope you don’t take that the wrong way. Heh.
How is your new message board, “Plant-Based People,” different than your previous one, “Vegan Represent”?
Plant-Based People ditched the word vegan because it was too restrictive and meaningless at the same time. Vegan Represent had a strict policy about being vegan. We even made you declare your “Vegan Story” at the door! PBP would be for everybody to talk in a constructive manner without the vague dogmatic qualifiers. It’s an attempt to bypass the preconceptions and seek, explore and share ideas, solutions and experiences. Isn’t that how rational people should commune?