I couldn’t help thinking about the promotion of vegetarianism, instead of veganism, when I met L., my former landlady in Boston and a long-time vegetarian. I used to think of vegetarianism diet-wise as eating mostly vegetables, fruits, and nuts while not refusing the offer of a cheese pizza or ice cream at times. However, this turned out to be stereotypical, and not true of L. at all. L. likes cheese and ice cream, or rather, is crazy about the two. Her vegetarianism is defined as cheese X (pizza, burger…) + ice cream + skimmed milk + a negligible amount of fruits and vegetables, from time to time. Yes, L.’s diet is meat-free. But she ends up with an excessive intake of eggs and dairy products, which, together, are likely to involve greater suffering on the part of non-human animals.
Perhaps L. just has a special liking for cheese and ice cream; or she’s a “tired” vegetarian seeking to release and enjoy herself a little bit; or she sees no problem with her diet as long as it’s meat-free and is thus “justified.”
Meat, eggs, and dairy products represent animal cruelty in different forms. Giving up meat is never the justification of the random consumption of eggs and dairy products. I recall advocating veganism back in the university in Beijing. I was constantly asked, “what can a vegan eat?” “Vegetables, fruits, nuts, soymilk” was never a fully satisfactory answer. “But,” I often added when my audience was about to be “scared away”, “You might take steps by following a vegetarian diet first. You can still enjoy eggs and dairy products.” Now I regret the “incremental” strategy, but at that time I saw the eyes of my audience shining.
Those shining eyes delivered two messages: first, that a vegetarian diet is compensated for with eggs, dairy, and a variety of fancy products with egg and dairy ingredients; and second, that following a vegetarian diet can protect animals and the environment without sacrificing refined, sensuous enjoyment. As enticing as they may sound, such messages are, in my experience, untrue and misleading. Such an understanding of vegetarianism is far less likely to lead to veganism (though it’s possible) than to a lacto-ovo “spree,” that helps the animal agriculture industry and makes an abolitionist effort more difficult.
Second, such “dabbling” understanding might check deeper and more thorough learning. This is especially true when the information is obtained at second hand from vegetarian advocacy. It makes one feel that he or she is already doing a good job by eating meat-free and supporting the advocacy effort. I suspect (though it might not be the real case) that most people are too busy or uninterested to learn the complexities of industrialized animal agriculture. They simply want guidelines for action. In that case, vegetarian as opposed to vegan advocacy can be most misleading.
It also leaves room for attacks from non-vegetarians. It’s not rare to hear meat-eaters accusing animal welfare advocates of hypocrisy or lacto-ovo vegetarians of complicity. And, it doesn’t help to build a united and consistent vegan culture, which, in my humble opinion, is a must to abolish industrialized animal agriculture.
What, really, is vegetarianism or veganism? It’s a kind of diet, a lifestyle, a spiritual practice, a value system. To me, it’s a value system that symbolizes simple elegancy: no meat, no eggs or dairy, no smoking, no drinking, no exorbitance, but rather natural taste, frugality, balance, peace, and moderation. But now I’m wondering: are humans hedonists by nature?