Better to locate your identity elsewhere
There is considerable disagreement, if not sheer confusion, about the signification of the ism of veganism. What does it signify? Or better said, what can it, or perhaps should it, signify? Isms form abstract nouns of various sorts, but which sort is it with veganism?
Sara Thorne helpfully identifies four broad senses in which an X-ism can be understood:
- The practice of X (plagarism, heroism, bicyclism, hooliganism)
- The condition of X (autism, albinism, alcoholism)
- The belief in X (Protestantism, Humanism, liberalism, feminism)
- Discrimination based on X (racism, ableism, heterosexism)
Narrowing the Field
The first sense — the practice of X — is discussed in greater detail below, but Thorne notably includes “noun[s] of action (often linked to –ise/-ize verbs)” under the entry. These “nouns of action” — such as baptism from baptize and magnetism from magnetize — do not refer to “practices” in the sense of action patterns of groups of people, but rather specific phenomena or processes. Veganism is clearly no such noun.
The second sense — the condition of X — dominantly refers to medical conditions such as albinism, and therefore is also inapplicable to veganism. Under “the condition of X,” Thorne also includes “conditions” of language, that is, peculiarities, such as archaism, Americanism, and colloquialism. However so classified, this sense too is inappropriate.
The fourth sense — discrimination based on X — refers to discriminative ideologies, systems, and practices, such as racism, ableism, and heterosexism, which is also obviously inapplicable to veganism.
The first and third senses, however, are both common to conventional deployments and understandings of veganism. The not infrequent assertion that veganism is fundamentally an ideology dubs “being vegan” as essentially an ideological identity position rather than a descriptive term for a pattern of action. Elsewhere I have contended that this ideological framing of veganism is both untenable and counterproductive. In this essay I simply hope to indicate both the terminological site of disagreement and how veganism clearly satisfies as a “practice ism” rather than a “belief ism.”
Veganism as “the practice of X”
The first sense — the practice of X — “describ[es] the action of a group of people.” As with heroism, hooliganism, and even bicyclism, we admit collections of people known as heroes, hooligans, and bicyclists. Yet despite their ability to be collectivized into a group based on generally consistent action, their unity as a group beyond those actions — such as through ideological unity — is both uncertain and unnecessary for the isms to survive. One is a hero by virtue of what they do and not what they believe, just as a bicyclist is a bicyclist so long as they consistently ride a bicycle, no matter why they do it.
Under this sense, veganism describes a type of action undertaken by a person, conceivably collectivized into a group of persons known as vegans. The generally consistent action vegans engage in is the refusal to use and consume animals and animal products. Regardless of why vegans engage in this refusal, veganism is indispensably a description of that particular form of action. The application of this sense captures veganism quite well and with little confusion, even if the questions of which animals and which products are included under the consumer refusal remain debatable.
Veganism as “the belief in X”
The third sense — the belief in X — can refer to a “system or theory” (e.g., Lutheranism, Humanism) or simply a “particular doctrine or principle” (e.g., feminism, jingoism). This sense marks a pivot from action to ideology. Systems, theories, doctrines, and principles all insinuate “believers,” or those adhering to those systems or principles. Lutherans believe in the doctrines of Lutheranism and feminists believe in the principles of feminism. Here I use “belief” and “believe” very loosely, including any ideological position, religious or secular.
Two points clearly distinguish a “belief ism” from a “practice ism” :
1. Generally consistent action is inessential. Humanism, for example, does not pinpoint specific actions a humanist must undertake. Adherents of Humanism or any other “belief ism” will predictably discuss and debate the list of implied corresponding actions, but the ism itself is not grounded in a generally consistent action itself.
2. Belief is essential. There is an implied ideological identity position in “being a Lutheran” or “being a feminist.” This ideological identity position is absent in “being a hooligan” or “being a bicyclist,” with these phrases denoting action patterns (perhaps even action identity positions) deriving from, or even in the absence, one of innumerable possible beliefs.
Veganism is often assumed, and claimed, to involve a common, core ideological identity position. “Being a vegan” implies that one accepts a set of ideological principles, which are shared with other vegans, and this is what makes one a vegan. According to this interpretation, the ism of veganism denotes a belief in X much more so, or even in place of, a practice of X. Veganism describes the ideological commitments of vegans, and only secondarily what those commitments demand in practice.
This perspective is immediately problematic because, if nothing else, veganism must refer to a generally consistent action–– a refusal––for the term sustain any conceptual, historical, and popular consistency and clarity. In short, veganism can successfully survive as a “practice ism” without an underlying and unifying doctrine or principle; however, it cannot successfully survive as a “belief ism” without an underlying and unifying practice. No matter how one believes or self-identifies, they will not be convincingly recognizable or recognized as vegan or a vegan if they do not abstain from animal use and consumption. The precise demands and limits of this practice will forever remain bones of contention, but veganism is irreducibly something one does, not is.
Not a Good New Identity
Given the widespread human tendency, if not need, to establish an ideological identity position––consciously or not–– it is unsurprising that both vegans and nonvegans have assumed veganism as a “belief ism.” Many vegans adopted veganism after admitting the anthropocentric errors of their former worldviews, religious or secular. They were left without an ideological anchor, no longer comfortable as a Humanist, or a Jew, or adherent of whatever belief system previously grounded them in a world of constant flux. Yet adopting veganism as a new alternative identity position suffers in both principle and strategy. If one needs, for whatever reason, an ideological identity position that centers animals and implies an abstention from animal consumption, they should stick with total liberationism and anti-speciesism, not veganism.
Not only does veganism fail to convey a coherent, consistent, and plausible theory or doctrine, but it crowds-out individuals interested in adopting the consumer refusal as a practice even if derived from dissimilar ideological commitments. A bicyclist who rides to be physically attractive is no less a bicyclist than one who rides for fitness or spiritual clarity. Being a bicyclist means riding a bicycle. Being vegan can certainly mean abstaining from animal use and consumption, no matter the motivation.
Taking offense to that last claim reveals more about one’s relationship to ideological identity formation than about the term veganism itself. If the existence of ‘racist vegans’ worries you primarily because it taints vegan identity (your vegan identity), and not because of the existence and effects of racism and racists themselves, I strongly suggest reconsidering your relationship to both veganism and anti-racism.