Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
Psychologist Melanie Joy, over at James McWilliams' blog, shares her thoughts on communicating effectively with meat-eaters (or carnists) about veganism, particularly on the use of the word "vegan" during debates/discussions.
As a psychologist and activist whose work has centered around naming and reframing some core vegan concepts, I couldn’t agree more about the need to choose what we say wisely and appropriately. But what I think is missing in this conversation is the appreciation that language is not just historically, but socially contextual.
The insistence on using only the term “vegan,” all the time, seems an oversimplification at best, and at worst even counterproductive to our goal of creating a vegan world. I would argue that we would do well to select our words based not simply on linguistic accuracy, but on communicative efficacy. Sometimes these are synonymous — sometimes the most accurate word is also the most effective. Often, they are not. For instance, I believe “carnist” is a more accurate term to refer to non-vegans than, say, meat eater — which reinforces the myth that animals are meat, and that eating them is an ideologically neutral behavior. But do I use “carnist” when talking with a….carnist? Never; “carnist” is too triggering (though, as an aside, “carnism” is not). Our goal must not be to be “right” but to connect with the other. Change occurs when people are open to what we have to say, and connection is a prerequisite for openness.
We can meet people where they are at — we can respect who they are, with all the inaccurate stereotypes they may be harboring about veganism — or we can meet them where we wish they were, and pretend such assumptions they have won’t create a barrier to connecting with them. Just because we know what vegan means, and we have embraced the term, this doesn’t mean everyone else has as well.
So “vegan” can “other” us. Think about it: if, in the “carnist’s” mind a vegan is radical, extremist, anti-food, anti-human, holier than thou, etc., then the minute this term is used such a stereotype is conjured and the minute this happens common ground is lost and the opportunity to speak authentically and openly about a profoundly sensitive subject becomes that much more difficult. Am I saying we should never use “vegan”? Of course not. But as someone who has traveled fairly extensively talking about just this issue, having paid close attention to the reactions of people to the words I use, I can say with some conviction that, at this point in the evolution of the vegan movement, we cannot afford a one-size-fits-all approach to our word choice. Context is everything. I share my veganism every chance I get — and there are plenty of times when the chances I get are the result of a conversation that began with discussing “plant-based” or “vegetarian” diets.
I agree that proclaiming and reclaiming and wearing with pride our veganism is essential, and that we should push the movement forward by making it visible through words whenever doing so is what’s best for the movement. And I appreciate you raising this important point, because it needs to be examined and it needs to be pushed forward. But I think it’s a risky and at times counterproductive approach if we end up putting linguistic purity above strategic activism. Because in the end, what’s most important is not being right, but being effective.
The above prompted a thought about "Meatless Mondays," which has been criticized because the campaign makes a distinction between animal flesh and animal byproducts. Why not "Vegan Mondays?" Very true. But suppose all dishes with animal byproducts were eventually eliminated from "Meatless Mondays" such that the campaign promoted only vegan dishes. In substance, "Meatless Mondays" would then be "Vegan Mondays" except for the word "Vegan," and I would see that as a positive development. So perhaps those opposed to the idea of "Meatless Mondays" could embrace it after all, for there is great potential to "veganize" it -- in effect if not in name.