Sunday, July 11, 2010

Veganism, Purity, and Human Nature

Veganism, Purity, and Human Nature

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article on its website by Harold Fromm titled “Vegans and the Quest for Purity.” It was a poorly argued, logically flawed diatribe against vegans and veganism—which were criticized for being foolishly extremist, self-contradictory, impossible, and utterly valueless. The article touched off a large debate in the comments and on various other websites. In taking part in the discussion myself, I did a lot of thinking about issues that were raised, which speak to many of my core principles and, I think, also touch on some key questions of modern culture and human nature.

Whatever valid points Fromm might be making about purist veganism in his article, he is in fact writing in such a way to discredit ALL veganism—in contradistinction to “looser” (and so more acceptable) vegetarianism. What this essentially does is to put things in an all-or-nothing light, so that veganism in any form is cast as foolish and worthless. If we only think in ideal and absolutist terms, then yes, veganism becomes untenable. It would be impossible to draw absolute lines between what things could be eaten/used by us and what not, and it would sacrifice practical efficacy for unwavering rigidity.

But to portray any and all veganism as priggishly absolutist ignores the very real good that we can do by trying, as much as possible, to reduce the harm we cause for other beings through a vegan lifestyle. Why is this somehow foolish or worthy of ridicule? By adopting a vegan lifestyle, even without worrying about bacteria and insects but just the more obvious living creatures, vegans still do a great amount of good in the world (for animals, for the environment, for themselves...).

It makes me sad to have these efforts and intentions dismissed out of hand or mocked. I fear that Fromm may lead many people to disregard veganism completely rather than see what aspects of it actually are worthwhile and doable.

And yet, Fromm does actually get at a serious issue in criticizing self-righteous vegans who try to preach to the world and who cast critical judgment on anyone not as pure as themselves. But the root problem in this case is not veganism in the extreme, nor any particular “-ism.” The real problem is NOT one particular ideology or lifestyle choice…but the human tendency to get fundamental about our cherished beliefs. Be it religion, political ideology, racial identity, or even tastes in art, I cannot help but see a common underlying thread: Humans just love to get fanatical. The sad thing is that the minority of fanatics get noticed, while the majority of reasonable people in any “group” get lumped in with the extreme ends of their particular spectrum (e.g., “all Muslims are militant terrorists”).

This only shows me the need for all of us to work on tolerance, pure and simple, with a good dose of compassion and humility, not that any particular belief/lifestyle in itself is flawed (though surely SOME are…like slavery). We must never lose sight of tolerance (that is, respecting that other people will believe different things, not just dismissing them out of hand without any consideration), compassion, and being realistic while remaining true to one’s conviction.

I am a fruitarian and eat organic, both by principle more than anything. But it is not about purity or trying to feel superior to non-vegans, nor about giving myself a soapbox to stand upon and cast down judgments. Not at all. I am also skeptical of everything, including myself, enough that I recognize my way may not be the “right” way—for others, for the world, for the universe...

It all comes down to what my heart and my reason lead me to believe is important, then living my life consistently with that. Once you truly accept something as meaningful, then it is not about being “pure” or “impure,” or about struggling to stay on the path, but simply following the is not an effort, but a way of being. I do not have to struggle with being a strict vegan because it harmonizes with every fiber of my being. It makes sense to me rationally, it fits my moral/ethical principles, it keeps me feeling physically healthy enough as I need, and it makes me feel more in-tune with nature.

I would love to see the world go vegan, simply because it would (I think) have such positive effects for EVERYONE...but it is not about making myself feel self-righteous or victorious, and I really do not need the world to go vegan to still feel at peace, at the end of the day, in knowing that I am doing everything that I can to follow my principles and act with compassion for other beings.

For me at least, it really boils down to an underlying intentionality: the intentionality to reduce the suffering of animals through humans’ lifestyle choices. If you have that core compassion and concern, then veganism is not about purity or perfection, but about considering the welfare of nonhumans as well as humans and striving to act appropriately.

I always think of the Buddha’s teachings on killing in this respect. He made clear that killing other life-forms is inevitable in our lives: just breathing air or drinking water or walking down the street; and today we know about the immune system, we have vaccines, and so forth. But the key factor, he taught, that determined if a word or thought or deed was a karma-creating one, was the intention behind it. I consider this a good way to think about mature veganism: trying as much as possible to do no intentional harm to other beings, not adding unnecessary suffering to their lives (or one’s own).

Where there is fundamentalism there is imbalance, and where there is imbalance there is no peace. I am at peace with my choices, even if that makes me an “army of one.” Luckily, I am not...and being a pacifist, I will try to let others do the fighting if they feel like it. I will work against injustice and speak out against cruelty, trying to do what I believe is right while also respecting the right for others to have differing opinions. And ultimately, I will strive to manage any anger and desire to be a savior (or martyr) that arises within me…and focus on living a compassionate, conscious, cruelty-free life.

Image credits: The Animal Liberation Front, Public Domain image from Wikimedia Commons. Michael Tracey, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License. Brocco, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.Chris 192, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.