The Vegan Police
from No Compromise Issue 5

By Elaine Budlong

The Vegan Police is a phrase that I have heard thrown about for the last few years, usually used to criticize those that make others feel bad for not living a life that is as cruelty-free as possible. While taking a workshop from Rae Sikora of AAVS, I recall feeling alienated when she spoke of the "little Gandhis" within the animal rights movement who think that they alone have truly found ahimsa by practicing a vegan lifestyle. As several of us stood on a spectrum indicating our consumption patterns from carnivore to vegan, one who rides a bike or drives a car, recycles scrap paper and uses cloth shopping bags to those that eat vegetarian when it is convenient, I remember questioning why I should feel guilty for trying to live as pure of a life as possible. Then I remembered attending a vegan potluck dinner one time where I felt completely ostracized because a woman that I was with had brought cookies to the gathering that contained refined sugar. At that time I had never heard of the processing involved in refining or pasteurization and frankly felt like a completely incompetent activist even though I had spent several years organizing a college animal rights group and participating in demonstrations.

Since then I have found myself on both ends of the vegan police scheme. I have ridiculed people for not being vegan and I have been ridiculed for not being vegan enough. To tell you the truth, neither position feels very good. Sure, when I'm doing the accusing I get the rush of superiority but that soon subsides to the feeling of regret as I alienate yet another one of my fellow activists. It goes without saying that being accused of contributing to the culture of animal exploitation is not exactly a vacation, particularly when those judging you are people you admire or are friends with.

Therefore, I want to suggest that we consider carefully how we address the actions of each other. None of us are capable of living a completely vegan life, in order to survive we need to breathe and in order to breathe we must consume organisms. Granted, this may be over-simplifying things but, hopefully, you get my point. As Don Barnes from NAVS states in his paper, The Dangers of Elitism, "The Vegan Police do more harm than good, for they seek to shame rather than inspire, to coerce rather than convince and to mock rather than act as a model for others". I do not entirely agree with Don, in that I don't think the intentions of those deputies in the vegan police are always to shame, coerce and mock. Mostly, I think it is outrage that causes activists to ridicule the actions of others. I certainly can appreciate that a grassroots activist, who lives in a shabby house and rides public transportation in order to allow time to work for animal liberation, is frustrated to hear when mainstream activists, who are paid to work full time for an animal rights organization, are not vegan. Does their outrage warrant criticizing the other activist? No. Is their outcry effective in changing the other activist's behavior? Probably not. But by the same means, what is the "Reverse Vegan Police" (those who criticize vegan activists for being too uptight and overly proud of their actions) accomplishing by returning the ridicule? Again, nothing productive.

We could all improve our lifestyles in consideration of the suffering of others. Even the most extreme vegans I know are still contributing to the suffering of animals by driving cars, using paper with dioxins that pollute the water, living in houses made of wood from trees that were once homes to wildlife. When feeling superior to the rest of your fellow activists, consider how an activist from a different social cause would evaluate your consumption habits... Do you buy products from mainstream companies that have poor labor practices? Do you only buy 100% post-consumer recycled paper? Do you recycle every item of trash? Do you live completely off the grid?

My point is that none of us are perfect. We could all improve our lifestyles, certainly some more than others, but all of us nonetheless. I don't think we should use the vegan police as a way to make ourselves feel superior to others. Rather, I would suggest that we empower ourselves and each other by educating one another about the cruelty and wastefulness that we are educated about and ask others to educate us about things they have knowledge of. In the same manner, I don't think we should use the vegan police as an excuse to not address our lifestyles or consider how our actions effect all of those that share this planet with us. We should all strive to be as vegan as possible and we should all work to encourage others to be vegan as well.

At that same workshop with Rae Sikora, I remember learning that people don't learn when they feel attacked - if anything, they hold tighter to their convictions. This could work two ways in reference to the vegan police issue: activists that aren't vegan will never open themselves up to the option of becoming vegans because they do not feel any sense of camaraderie with those that are. Additionally, those that are vegans who are ridiculed for their dedication and so-called fanaticism will remain steadfast and reluctant to empower others.

Don't fall into the trap of the vegan police - empower yourselves and those that need empowering. Being vegan should include compassion to human animals as well as non-human animals.