It’s today! Plenty of delicious vegan dinners are about to begin; at 7 o’clock tonight I’ll be at SuTao in Malvern, Pennsylvania, joining a celebration buffet with the house full of vegans, aspiring vegans, and potential vegans of the Delaware Valley.
Isn’t it great how the vegan word is getting out? Next year, the vegan movement turns 70. In the span of a human lifetime, much has been accomplished.
During November especially, I like to appreciate the people who started things off.
They were a small, focused group. Originally they’d called themselves the non-dairy vegetarians. They weren’t breaking away from the vegetarian movement that (drawing on a much longer history spanning Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Asian, and African regions) arose in Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century; they were the ones, rather, taking its mission most seriously.
John Davis, historian for the International Vegetarian Union, writes of the first vegetarian society in England: “In the early 1850s the magazine representing the Society had quite clearly defined it as: ‘Vegetarian: one who lives on the products of the vegetable kingdom.’” In the early 1900s, the Vegetarian Society’s Vegetarian Messenger, citing ethics and human health, reaffirmed its support for a diet free of eggs and dairy.
In the 1940s, the vegans emerged to underscore the “non-dairy” aspect of the vegetarian platform. Nor was free-range farming a step in the right direction in the vegan paradigm; in fact, it was the free-range farms of England that the founding members had found unacceptable. In the Vegan Society’s first newsletter, Donald Watson wrote: “We can see quite plainly that our present civilization is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilizations were built on the exploitation of slaves…”
Defining veganism in 1951, Vegan Society VP Leslie Cross wrote that the concept “possesses historical continuity” with the anti-slavery movement, and further explained:
…veganism is not so much welfare as liberation, for the creatures and for the mind and heart of man; not so much an effort to make the present relationship bearable, as an uncompromising recognition that because it is in the main one of master and slave, it has to be abolished before something better and finer can be built.
And so began a movement, explicitly connecting vegetarianism with a liberation call, based on a stated conviction that humanity has no right to exploit other creatures for our own ends. The vegan’s diet—which can be absolutely exquisite as chefs will reaffirm tonight at SuTao and many other restaurants and kitchens worldwide—would come entirely from “fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains and other wholesome, non-animal products” and exclude “flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey and animal milk and its derivatives.” Encompassing the diet is the principle. The early vegans took the war-resister’s principle of conscientious objection and expanded it to encompass all conscious life.
Essentially, some two dozen people set out to activate a paradigm shift in the human identity. Donald Watson, who pointed to the Essenes as one example of a group that had conscientiously avoided animal exploitation, was doubtless also inspired by the uncompromising opposition to vivisection demonstrated by Frances Power Cobbe, founder of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Also present at the time of the Vegan Society’s formation were opponents of “cruel sport”; the vegans merged the separate anti-exploitation movements together into comprehensive animal-rights advocacy with personal commitment as its basis, and an emphasis on continuous public outreach to raise awareness of, and challenge, humanity’s ordinary uses of animals, whether for human food, work, “sportsmanlike” pursuits, product testing, or any other reason.
“If the vegan ideal of non-exploitation were generally adopted it would be the greatest peaceful revolution ever known,” said Donald Watson, “abolishing vast industries and establishing new ones” in the better interest of human and non-human animals alike. This is a simple ideal, but it is far from easy, for in order to emancipate other animals, vegans “renounce absolutely their traditional and conceited attitude that they had the right to use them to serve their needs.”
No revolutionary idea appears, of course, without attracting people who’d like to blend it into something else. The humane charities’ Big Tent prefers not to see veganism as a movement, instead referring to it as a “tool” for opposing the “horrors of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses”—although veganism came not to challenge factory farms, but to challenge animal farms.
Admittedly, the vast scale of animal use and the ubiquity of animal products can be overwhelming. Anxiety, driven by the thought that assaults on animals won’t end in our lifetimes, might lead us to ask whether pressing for industry reforms is the best we can do. Reforms or no reforms, suffering isn’t reduced when animals are unnecessarily bred or brought into an exploitive system.
The call for animal-husbandry reform, “compassionate standards” for agribusiness, etc. is an appeal to politicians and the owners of animal enterprises to do something helpful for a principle. Ordinary people who sit down to our dinners, not these authorities, have the real power. Veganism is both direct action and a genuinely humane agriculture.
There’s something noteworthy about the designation of this day and month itself. When people at the Vegan Society resolved to set a special time to celebrate the movement, they first considered September. The 2nd of September was the birthday of Donald Watson, who put together and sent out the first copy of Vegan News—and many copies to follow. But Donald said the day shouldn’t be focused on any particular person; so rather than Donald’s birthday, the members agreed to pick November—anniversary of the first issue of the Vegan News.
I thought of this recently, when Natasha Lennard in Salon discussed a political commentary made on television by Russell Brand. Brand called for political change at a deeper level than our prevailing voting system can reach. Lennard agreed, but rightly pointed out that people were, maybe a little absurdly, making Brand into an idol for saying it. Weary of Brand’s “famous-person” stature, Lennard explained: “I love much of what the boisterous comedian says, but this Great Man narrative lets sexism slide and has to go.” Lennard then asked:
Would he be willing to destroy himself — as celebrity, as leader, as `Russell Brand`?
Evident in the vegan scene today are efforts by some self-styled leaders to develop specific approaches to ending animal exploitation or spreading vegan ideas. We do, I’d say, have to deal with the Great Man narrative in the vegan movement. (That narrative is not the same thing as outright misogyny, which Lennard also discusses—but the narrative is both a facilitator and a result of the gender-infused hierarchy within which all of us are obliged to live and work.)
Anyone turned off by famous-person figures in the vegan sphere can take heart, knowing that the vegan principle has a long history, in no need of reinvention, in no need, even, of leading spokespersons. There’s no reason to throw the bathwater out with the babies. The idea that we need to follow any person’s “abolitionist animal-rights” or “ethical vegan” approach is redundant: those concepts are the core of veganism and have defined it from the start. This is not about advancing a personality. This is about advancing a social movement. Every vegan is this movement’s representative.
Next thing for today: Not only did Donald Watson eschew the famous-person mantle, but Donald actually did not take credit (sorry, Wikipedia) for coining the word vegan.
How did they get the word vegan?
The term vegan was adopted in 1944 by Vegan Society founding members Donald Watson and Elsie Shrigley. Dorothy (Morgan) Watson thought up the term and offered it to Donald—at a dance they both attended. (I thank Patricia Tricker and George D. Rodger of the Vegan Society in Birmingham, England for this intriguing piece of information.) The word came from the first three and last two letters of vegetarian—because veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion.
To be a vegan is to adopt a revolutionary worldview. We have found that that egg, flesh, and dairy production and consumption can be hazardous to the planet and our bodies; and that animal husbandry, whether pasture-based or assembly-line, involves exploitive treatment of other conscious beings. We don’t want to play a role in that; nor do we wish to be at war with free-living animals. As vegans, we strive to live harmoniously with the planet and all its inhabitants.
Some of those inhabitants, of course, are other humans. And in the year ahead, in addition to noticing the word “vegan” all over and maybe getting a slideshow or two done on this blog that others can use, I hope to be engaged in discussion of the meaning of veganism as a movement, and also the way it encompasses kindness, solidarity, and respect. People who become vegan don’t all embark on this journey from the same starting point, and are not always going to agree with each other as we proceed along the path; but we can strive with integrity to work through things. It’s really important that we figure out how to disagree without hurting, and to agree without competing. I welcome further dialogue here on all of the above thoughts.
Love and liberation,