Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

It's been a year since Author, David Cain became vegan, and he's decided not to refer to himself as vegan any longer. What do you think of what he has to say about vegans, vegan alienation, and omnivores and his reasoning for why he has decided to give up his "V Card"? 

Does he make valid points, or is he just looking for excuses? Should vegans dismiss what he has to say, or take his concerns seriously? 


Giving up the V-card 

Written by David Cain

It’s been the best year of my life, and I’m convinced veganism is a large part of that. I won’t gush about the details but I’ll say that I felt altogether better physically and emotionally and I’m never going back to the way I used to live.

I’m still off meat and dairy and eggs, I still won’t buy wool or leather, I still won’t use animals for my entertainment, and I wish others would do the same. But my philosophy on it is quite different than it was a year ago and I don’t want to call myself the V-word. I’ll tell you why.

The first thing you notice when you go vegan is that everyone is mad, and they tell you you’re mad. You voluntarily enter the moral Twilight Zone. You discover a grotesque inconsistency between the beliefs people express and their behavior. You realize that we’re all highly irrational, and that it’s emotion that rules culture, and culture rules the behavior of individuals. No matter how much harm it causes, nothing we do needs to be justified as long as it’s popular enough.

Ask ten people on the street if they think it’s wrong to injure or kill animals for one’s amusement or pleasure, and nine or ten will say yes, of course. Chances are all ten of those people freely consume animal products, simply because they like to and they’re used to doing it.

A new vegan also encounters a bizarre compulsion in many otherwise friendly people to talk as loudly to you as possible about how delicious and juicy steak is. A certain contempt for you emerges seemingly from nowhere, and the most polite person can be overtaken by an urge to reiterate to you that they could never give up meat, because they just “love a good steak!”, presumably the way Michael Vick once loved a good dogfight.

For the recently converted, this inexplicable pseudo-hostility from everyday people can be alarming and it often triggers the kind of inadvertently sarcastic tone you saw in the last few paragraphs [Sorry! -D]. The effect is draining and alienating, and it’s hard not to feel a vague resentment for (or at least disappointment in) the ninety-nine percent of people who have no hesitation about exploiting animals if there is something enjoyable to be found in it. 

Tearing down the wall

Sometime last year I was listening to a vegan podcast in which the host announced that after months of examining her philosophies and liefstyle as a vegan activist, she realized she just couldn’t bring herself to dine with non-vegans anymore.

I understood where she was coming from, not that I’d ever do it. Imagine that everyone around you is indulging in something you think is horrible and unnecessary, and you’re supposed to be content to merely abstain from doing it yourself, and enjoy what you can about the surrounding social experience. Imagine realizing you’ll have to do this on a regular basis for the rest of your life. I can understand wanting no part of it.

But it didn’t seem right. Is this where veganism, as a personal commitment, inevitably leads — to a definite social divide between vegans and non-vegans? If so, the only hope for resolution is to nurture the vegan population to grow from the sub-one-per-cent level it is at now, to becoming as normal as being a non-smoker is today.

For most of the last year I felt that divide, not just between me and the omnivores, but the vegetarians too, who abstain from only one kind of animal exploitation. And not just the vegetarians, but the “vegans” who eat fish occasionally, or the ones who eat vegan but wear wool peacoats.

I even felt it between me and other vegans. I was an abolitionist, which basically means zero tolerance for any avoidable use of animals. But on the other side of the fence there were also welfarist vegans, who spent their time campaigning to improve conditions for food animals, encouraging vegetarianism or Meatless Mondays or other “partway” measures that make abolitionists cringe.

This alienation is real and I doubt there’s a single vegan (or vegetarian) reading this who doesn’t experience it. Right from the start it was always the hardest part of being vegan. It wasn’t the food cravings, it wasn’t the reduced clothing selection, it was the social weirdness that emerges when people learn you’re “one of those.”

In social situations — barbecues, parties and dinners out — people are generally polite and accepting, but they still can’t help but treat me as a special case with my special-case food. They probably can’t quite see me as a full participant. They make it clear that they have absolutely no desire to become a special case themselves, who isn’t “allowed” to do what normal people do. They are usually trying to be kind, but it still creates weirdness on both sides of the wall.

Now it’s clear to me that it’s the label that’s the problem. Not the labeling of food, or shoes, but of people. I think it creates animosity on both sides, it defines the wall itself, and that prevents that wall from moving much. It seems that generally, vegans love their label, and love to deny it to non-vegans. If you were to tell a group of vegans that you’re a vegan who enjoys a tiny cube of cheese once every leap year they’ll say, “Oh so you’re not vegan then.” And technically they’re right.

I think how we broach the issue with members of the omnivorous majority is extremely delicate, and most of the time it’s done badly. The word vegan has extremist connotations to most, and no matter how much the vegans think that’s undeserved, it is ultimately the omnivores who decide how quickly veganism is going to grow.

The end of us and them

So I tossed the label. I haven’t changed much about how I live, but I won’t call myself a vegan any more. It’s a handy label for classifying recipes, cookbooks, how certain products were made, but I won’t wear the badge any longer. Technically I don’t reach the bar anyway (as 99.5% of people don’t) because I ate two slices of pizza when I went to New York last month.

There are two main differences in how my new philosophy affects my behavior. They’ve made life so much easier on me, and have made me a better ambassador for the cause of moving away from using animal products.

1) I am careful not to harbor or express disgust for non-vegan food. When you learn about where meat, dairy and eggs come from, it’s hard not to feel disgust, even if you don’t change how you live in response. Most vegans feel some of this disgust whenever they look at those foods. Many won’t even acknowledge that it’s food.

I now see this disgust as a hindrance to the spread of animal-free living. The net effect of that disgust, more than anything, is that omnivores feel judged or dismissed by vegans, and begin to resent them. Staunch vegans might say “Who cares if they’re offended man, I’m doing what’s right.” — forgetting that souring people to veganism who might otherwise have become vegans is effectively erasing all the good they have ever done, and more.

A fellow blogger who calls himself Speciesist Vegan wrote a great piece here on why it’s so important for vegans to get over their disgust for non-vegan food, if they want veganism to grow.

2) I make the occasional exception when it comes to food and I don’t hide it from the omnivores in my life. There are three reasons I do this now. First, it demonstrates to them that I don’t think they’re disgusting or immoral, and that my philosophy on life is not categorically different than theirs. Second, by deliberately indulging in the odd act of exploitation, it eliminates the feeling of being permanently “outside” the world of normal people, by being someone who will die without ever eating ice cream again. And third, it shows them that how I live isn’t difficult, isn’t all or nothing, and is something they might actually do themselves.

I fully understand there are people who want absolutely nothing to do with having an animal food in their mouth again, and see no need to alleviate the social alienation by eating the odd non-vegan item, but I’m no longer one of them and I believe what I do does far more good than harm.

I also don’t go to great lengths to ensure a meal is vegan before I order it in a restaurant anymore. I will eat the free bread, with no investigation. Much more effective, I think, than nitpicking my way around every sprinkle of parmesan and every stick of egg-white-brushed complimentary bread, is to demonstrate that you can be a normal participant in everyday social activities while still avoiding animal products almost all the time.

A new vegan should realize relatively quickly that the vast majority of people alive today have zero interest in veganism and will never do it no matter what you say to them. The single notion of “no more ice cream, ever” is, I’m sure, an utter dealbreaker for the majority of people. Only a small proportion could potentially become strict vegans, and I think our energy is better invested in trying to get the larger proportion to experiment part-time with vegan options, rather than trying to get people to completely defect to the as-yet-tiny “other team.”

Looking at the endless internet banter whenever the issue comes up, what most vegans seem to forget is that for somebody to go vegan, it means an omnivore has to see veganism as something more appealing than what they already do. Yet they insist on driving home how uncompromising and all-or-nothing it must be. If you don’t believe me, go post “I avoid all animal products but honey and silk” on a vegan message board and look at the responses.

I indulged in this smug partisanship too. There is an abolitionist blog I once really enjoyed, even though it consisted almost entirely of ripping into celebrity vegans who go back to eating eggs occasionally.

I believe that in the current social climate there are probably twenty times more people out there who would potentially go 90% of the way to veganism, given the health, environmental and ethical incentives, than there are people who would ever arrive at a day when they declare they’ve had their last ever Ben & Jerry’s. There’s way more ground to be made — which represents many more animals to be spared — influencing the former group than the latter.

Between my abolitionist days and today, the difference in the volume of animal products I consume is pretty small. A few more of my dollars do go to paying people for exploting animals. These changes may represent the difference between say, 99.8% of my total buying power, and 99%. (Despite what some vegans may tell you, it is unlikely anybody is able to live 100% vegan, but you can get really close.)

But if my more relaxed, undogmatic lifestyle convinces even one person that they could live without animal products, even 50% of the time, I’ve already prevented many times more harm than I’ve caused.

What I want is for the world to move away from using animals for their pleasure or convenience. I no longer believe that growing a small but intense group of zero-tolerance advocates is going to do that. It is easier and mathematically more effective to convince several times the people to go even just halfway.

But more importantly, it invites a culture where a large proportion of people have taken some action to reduce animal use, and have been exposed to the reasons why it might be a good idea. Right now, most people don’t honestly believe it’s possible to even have a delicious vegetarian meal that doesn’t seem like a compromise. I think encouraging them to cook their first enjoyable animal-free meal is more effective than posting abused pigs on their Facebook wall.

I think we’re better off easing the general population into no-pressure experimentation with animal-free food and clothing than we are insisting you’re either carrying the V-card, or you’re part of the problem.

Vegans, non-vegans, in-betweeners, what do you think?


Rhys Southan interviewed David about this essay here:


Author, David Cain writes on his blog at, which is a street-level look at the human experience -- what makes human beings do what they do, and what that means in real life. He writes about how to make sense of the earth's most ridiculous animal, how to get better at being one of them, and how only those two things can save the world.




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Great thoughts here. None of us is perfect. It is technically impossible to be 100% Vegan all the time. If I walk on a grass lawn, I'm going to unknowingly crush some bugs, and some will die slowly and horribly. Do I stop walking on grass? Of course not. We cannot eliminate all harm to sentient beings from our lives. And even if someone is Vegan-er than me, are they living 100% sustainably? Is every product they buy/use/own made from renewable resources using Fairtrade/Union labour? is everything they do causing no harm to anyone anywhere? I'd be astonished if one single human anywhere can make this claim. I decided a while back that my goal is not to eliminate all harm from my life. That is not possible. I have decided to eliminate as much harm as I can, and to increase the good I do in the world. I am doing better now than I used to only a year or two ago. But I am not currently doing as good as I will be one or two two years from now (hopefully). Perfection is impossible. It's the journey that is important. If someone goes from eating cage eggs to eating free range they have made an improvement. They can then be encouraged to take another step towards the better end of the spectrum of compassion. I agree that being purist, alienates people. It's hard to watch the suffering and do nothing. But if we want to save the animals, we need to advance people at their own pace, and in the most positive ways possible. We need to get people excited about being Vegan, not criticise them for not being Vegan.

I feel that the article doesn't talk at all about veganism as an anti-oppression movement. It is not only about turning people vegan. Avoiding products of animal abuse completely is impossible in our present system and everyone, including vegans, benefit from this system which is based on human privilege. Veganism is a movement where we question that privilege. Our goal should be to abandon that privilege which makes animal oppression appear normal and natural. I personally try my hardest not to consume animal products, but I understand that it isn't the worst thing ever for a vegan to not strive to be a purist. The level of violence and death of animals in the world is only increasing even with the increase in vegans. The present capitalistic system will not allow the oppression to end. Our efforts need to be to first question and abandon our human privilege and fight to end the current system that allows oppression to continue. Personal purity, how other perceive us and even attempting to inspire others to take on a vegan diet are secondary in my opinion.

I think there is a lot of criticism of vegans in general in the article. I think you can be a vegan and use the title without seeming to sneer at non-vegans.

I think the title is really improtant. For me anyway. We put titles on attitudes so that we present a basis for who we are. Titles don't suit everyone but most people take advantage of them.

I say 'I'm a vegan'. People inviting me to dinner then know how to cater for that. Restaurants know what to offer. Friends know not to invite me to the Zoo.

But more importantly its a conversation opener. The word vegan comes up and a group can discuss the area. It can be contentious. It can be heated. But its communication. And if we don't communicate then how will anything change. In any area of life.

I am a vegan because I think all species are equal, not the same, just equal. So there aren't really any circumstances for me to be able to taste a bit of 'someone' else here and there. If its an error I'm not going to get upset but it can only be an error.

I can't agree with the idea that the rules be relaxed as it were. Not for me anyway. I'm not a welfarest or a vegetarian though I think they're coming from a good place. I think they don't believe that the species are equal. That's a debate that has to keep happening.

I think that the triggers for debate are words like vegan etc. The more it is bandied about the more normal it becomes.

So I'll continue to use the title vegan to make the issue clearer, easier and 'out there'.

I used to call myself an "abolitionist" until I realized that the only people who cared that I did were the other "abolitionists" who continually told me I wasn't doing it right.  Lately, I've been told that I shouldn't call myself an "animal rights advocate" because I don't agree with what one person thinks animal rights are or where they come from. I've also been told that some people think that I'm an "anti-vegan" {gasp} because of what I think and write about.  I've also been accused of ignoring the "spirit of veganism" and it's not too much of a speculation for me the say that some people think that I've disrespected the sacred memory of Donald Watson (original vegan).  Whatever.  If labels are so important to people, they can have them.  I'm sure that other animals don't care.

I have to say I think this is a really important topic. How we use language and terms can lead to change. it doesn't always just reflect it.

I understand what Tim is saying (I hope!!). I agree that if it becomes just about the label and its perfection then all meaning is lost. Labels can become sticks to beat others with. But if you can use the labels and not fight all the infights (and there's in an unbelievable amount of them.....) then it allows starting points for discussion. If we do away with the label / titles such as vegan then surely debate would become more intangled as basic starting points would have to be outlined.

For example: There is a huge difference between animal welfare and animal rights. I don't think they should be enemies but I think the differences should be outlined.

I think the 'rights' element of the argument might be in danger of fading if the word vegan disappeared. I don't think there's enough of us to start trying to blend in as the article suggests (if I not totally misinterpreting it).

Hi Rachel, I believe you do understand what I am saying!! :)

Hi David - I think you may well be right. I've only been a vegan for a few weeks and already I've encountered all the 'problems' with non-vegans that you talk about. Not to mention the abyss between abolitionists and new welfarists - all stuff your average omnivore  knows nothing about - me included until I decided to give up, not just meat, but dairy. Of course I couldn't give up meat and dairy without giving up fish (and honey) or I couldn't justify my position as anti-animal cruelty with any vegan, even though my main concern is with domesticated animal farming. As I've had breast cancer I'm trying to avoid soya because of it's phytoestrogen content; this makes my food choices as a vegan more difficult, but what if I ate some fish occasionally? - I couldn't hold my head up in the vegan groups I have joined!  On the other hand, the pure abolitionist approach is perhaps the logical conclusion of  anti-speciesism, and might it be a slippery slope for a vegan to eat animals occasionally so they can 'fit in 'with omnivores? I'm already sensing that I am alienating all but my most ethically-minded friends and family with my 'extremist' position - but should I make that my problem? Thank you for your thought-provoking aticle :)

because there's clearly no such thing as delicious non-dairy ice cream, and there certainly isn't any delicious animal-free pizza anywhere in nyc...


It must be nice to be so certain of how interested "the vast majority of people alive today" will be in veganism, and what proportion of people could become "strict" vegans, especially after only one year being vegan and exploring the issue. I've been vegan and talking to folks about it for 6 years, and I still rarely can tell how receptive any given person will be to it.


If I label myself an anti-racist in a racist society or a feminist in a decidedly patriarchal society, is it really the labels "anti-racist" and "feminist" that are the problem? Or is the label "vegan" the only label that's a problem because of a need to accomodate the pro-animal exploitation status quo?

Or is part of the problem that many vegans think that it's more important to examine under a microscope the behavior of every declared vegan than it is to get more non-vegans to begin to think differently about other animals?

I agree and came here to say the exact same thing, Lucas.

I'm not understanding the connections between social discomfort, a dearth of humility amidst particular vegans, and the deliberate partaking of animal exploitation as mitigation of the former.

One of the great challenges for vegan pioneers is to exemplify the feasibility of living vegan across the world's social strata. 

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