Animal Rights Zone

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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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If the rule is "never deliberately take part in any activity or practice that causes harm to others" then no one can always live up to that rule.  If one wants to hold to that rule anyway, the only sensible way to do so would be to take it as a prima facie rule, which means that, "at first notice" one would take that rule as a starting place, while realizing that it is an ideal that is actually impossible to follow as a practical matter.  This isn't as strange as it may first sound and, indeed, the rules that most of us follow are of this sort.  

For example, one rule might be "Never lie".  Now, we know that there are times when we will choose to lie, because some lies are "little white lies" or the harm that there may be in telling a lie is outweighed by the good brought about by telling it and so on.  The rule "Never lie" isn't absolute, but rather stands at first notice as a heuristic or "rule of thumb" by which we can assess actual situations and from which we can then make our first approximation of what would be our best behavior in an ideal world.  From that first approximation of what our best behavior would be in an ideal world we then choose how to act in the actual non-ideal world.  While it would ideal (!!) for our behavior to always be in concert with our prima facie rules, it's not possible that it always will be.  

"Never kill another human being" is another of the same sort of prima facie rule, and it would be one even if re-formulated as "Never deliberately kill an innocent human being".  That is to say, while the prescription against deliberately killing innocent human beings might ought to be absolute, in the real world (as opposed to the ideal one) there are cases in which innocent human beings will be deliberately killed and such killing will be excused, if not justified.  "Never eat other animals or the products produced by or derived from them" is also the same sort of rule: it only applies in an ideal (i.e. actually non-existent) world.  To insist that finite and fallible creatures such as human beings could ever live up to idealized absolute rules would be mistaken.  To castigate others who recognize all these things would also be mistaken.  

Some people want to say that we must not admit of these distinctions to the general public lest we make it more difficult to defend veganism: Why complicate matters when so many people are looking for (or will gladly adopt) any excuse that will serve as justification for their continued participation in the exploitation of other animals?  There are at least two responses to this.  First, there are some very smart and well-informed people who don't accept that human beings have compelling reasons to not consume other animals.  These people are more than capable of understanding the truth about prima facie rules and what that truth entails.  Those of us who do think that other animals ought not to be unjustly harmed and killed ought not to ignore the good arguments that those opposed to our views will make.  Second, to act in ways that would deny information to or withhold information from others, simply to facilitate the accomplishment of our goals, would be to treat similarly situated others as less than our equals - it would be to use others as a means to our ends.  Anyone serious about animal rights, especially from a deontological perspective, should be loathe to do such a thing.

In the end, how any one person chooses to use a particular prima facie rule as a guide to her behavior will ultimately have to be up to her: the situations she finds herself will, in large part, determine how she applies the rule.  This is not, as some might think, an endorsement of "moral relativism".  Prima facie rules are rules that all moral agents ought to be guided by, even if those rules can only ever be idealized first approximations.  If David Cain has realized that, in some cases, his actions in keeping with the prima facie rules that he acknowledges are actions that some won't consider "vegan", then he is right to drop the label.  

Finally, what David is saying in his post is that, in his experience, it is more effective for him - in terms of helping to make others aware of the need to give full consideration to the lives of other animals - that he not label himself as vegan and not overly concern himself with trying to live up to a rule that no one can possibly  live up to.  That means that he is doing what he believes will make the feasibility of living as he has chosen to live easier for others to accept.  If he's right then he's meeting, and not avoiding, "one of the great challenges for vegan pioneers".  

I've always called for vegans to acknowledge the difficulties, especially in relation to socioeconomics and cultural tradition (i.e. "beasts of burden" in "developing" nations, time poverty, geographic availability of vegan staples, etc.). Openly recognizing and addressing these contradictions is paramount to demonstrating the practicality of veganism and the acceptance of the idea that animal use is unnecessary, in my opinion. I've even called myself "99% vegan" in the past, to show my awareness of my own imperfection up front, and stave off Vegan Police surveillance, or at the very least, disarm the scrutiny of prevegans long enough to show them how veganism works in everyday life for me, and hopefully for them. I try my best to operate by the principle of "don't do nothing because you can't do everything perfectly" (awkward as the syntax may be).

Cain's solution, as I see it, is to stop using the word vegan altogether around others so he won't feel uncomfortable, and to eat animal flesh and secretions in front of prevegans (or whenever he prefers) so as to coax them into reducing their own animal use even just a small fraction of the time (in case they happen to feel so inclined). 

Thanks Billy, I think it's very important not to lose sight of the difficulties you mention. Coincidentally, I saw one of those travel shows on public TV last night; the host was in India and as he was walking through the city, on dirt streets, a donkey or a large goat ran through the street around him.  The ways in which the lives of other animals are intertwined with ours are innumerable. 

This was a comment from ARZone Live Chat Guest, Louise Wallis in Facebook in regard to this essay: 

 i think it can be helpful to think of what has happened to the word 'feminist' - now often thought of in a pejorative (negative) way. Many women actively distance themselves from the word, even though it simply means a person who supports equality for women.

Wouldn't a better idea be be and call oneself a vegan but not pick at other vegans and condemn imperfections but to declare what you think SHOULD be the way to behave especially at the dinner table. Act like being vegan is the normal way to be and just keep pushing on through :))

I thoroughly agree with the previous comment regarding feminist. That's a word that seemed to disappear along with anyone willing to discuss it. I've been 'bandying' it about lately in the hopes that it might get into general conversation.

I like the word vegan, and do use it, but these days I'm trying not to be such an ass about it ... and I have been an ass about it in the past. There are a couple ways to deliver the vegan message, as far as I can see ... There's the positive "look how wonderful and cool and fabulous veganism is ... come join us!" message. And then there's the "you cow murdering waste of air ... stop doing killing animals!" message. I try to use the positive message more often than the negative. I think it's the only message that's effective. And I think the negative message runs people off from even considering veganism and does enormous harm all round.

I saw an expression the other day that I really liked, even though I'm not religious. It was "don't tell me you're a christian, let me guess." Maybe it doesn't apply entirely to being vegan, but I do think that how we are ourselves ... how we live and how we relate to others ... is going to be far more important and influential than how well we sit back and point fingers at where other vegans - or even other people in general - are falling short.

Anyway .... check out this video. I love this girl's message and positivity. She also runs a huge vegan co op in Houston, which also has a vegan composting place. Really encouraging stuff. When I see this kind of thing, I feel hopeful that a vegan world is actually possible.

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