On Variety in Meaning
As the word “vegan” has fully entered mainstream media during the past five years, it has come to have many different meanings for many different people. For some of us, “vegan” means a strong, lifelong, and morally internalized commitment to avoiding the use of animals and animal products as much as is reasonably possible in an extremely speciesist society that uses animal products ubiquitously. For others, “vegan” might mean avoiding animal products only in one’s diet for some period of time ranging from hours (“vegan before 6pm”) to days (“a vegan cleanse”) to a few months or a few years (a vegan fad diet). So, when someone says “I am vegan”, the statement by itself means virtually nothing without adequate definition provided explicitly or in context.
Likewise, the standalone term “animal rights” has become virtually meaningless, unless specifically defined or used in a well-defined context. To get an idea of just how meaningless the term “animal rights” has become, consider a quote in the recent book authored by Professors Gary L. Francione and Robert Garner entitled The Animal Rights Debate. On page 2 of the book, Professor Francione quotes Randy Strauss, President and CEO of Strauss Veal and Lamb International, Inc. a large American meat processor saying, in an effort to increase veal and lamb consumption, “Animal rights are important.” Animal rights has come to meaning everything from the right not to be tortured over and above the routine processing torture endured in a slaughterhouse (traditionally known as “animal welfare”) to the right not to be the property of another. Like the word “vegan”, when such a term has come to mean virtually everything, it has also come to mean virtually nothing, unless adequately defined explicitly or in context.
The point of addressing the variety in meaning of the terms “animal rights” and “vegan” is that when people claim they are no longer vegan or animal rights vegan, it has very little meaning outside of the context in which those terms are used. There may be a lot of “ex-vegans”, but when they were “vegans”, what did that mean? Did they go without animal products for several hours daily (“vegan before 6pm”)? Did they go on a “vegan health diet” for a few weeks, months, or years only as a fad diet right after their Atkins diet? If they were vegan for “animal rights” reasons, what did they mean by that? Are they referring to a concern about animal welfare?
We should be careful about the claims of people who currently call themselves “vegan” and those who call themselves “ex-vegans”.
On Variety in Character
Just as there is extensive variety in the interpretations of the terms “animal rights” and “vegan”, so is there at least as broad a variety in the character and type of people who identify themselves as “animal rights advocates”, “vegans”, and “animal rights vegans”. Indeed, they are likely as varied in character as the public-at-large: from moral exemplars and unsung heroes; to hard workers and good Samaritans; to moral cowards and liars; to attention-seekers and megalomaniacs; to criminals and con artists; and everywhere in between.
So although we might expect to find the majority of people we meet who self-identify as “animal rights vegans” to be good, honest, conscientious people – solid, reliable, and stable people – we should also expect to find a minority who self-identify as such to be flaky, unreliable, dishonest (intellectually or otherwise), and self-absorbed. And so it should not surprise us that some people go “vegan”, but eventually succumb to weak character traits and become “ex-vegans”.
The point here is that ex-vegans are at least partly a reflection of their own character traits at this point in their lives (character can be built and improved upon or diminish throughout life), not a reflection of veganism.
On Variety in Reasons
Although we might expect to find the majority of self-identified “animal rights vegans” to be vegans for good reasons, we should also expect to find a minority who go “vegan” for poor reasons or who lack a sufficient understanding of good reasons to be vegan (and perhaps never were vegans), and then become “ex-vegans”.
The point here is that vegans often become ex-vegans at least partly due to the poverty of their reasons for previously being vegan, which is no reflection of veganism or the many excellent reasons for being vegan.
On Variety in Egos
Regardless of whether the fall from veganism was a matter of poor reasons, a character flaw, or both, if ex-vegans liked a lot of attention when they were “vegan” (whatever that might have meant), chances are great that they’ll like a lot of attention when they go “ex-vegan”, so we shouldn’t be surprised when such people publicly showcase – often quite dramatically – their “justifications” for consuming animal products, often including “confessions” about how awful and intolerable it was to be vegan, how “self-righteous” they were as vegans, and how “relieved” they are to “come back home” to where they belong. As drama queens and kings are common in life generally, so are they common among self-identified “animal rights vegans” and “ex-vegans”.
Again, the negative grandstanding is a reflection of the ex-vegan’s ego and character at this time in life, not a reflection of veganism.
When we combine the above varieties in meaning, character, reasons, and egos, as well as the individual anecdotes and tales of drama, we see that the stories of ex-vegans can tell us nothing of significance or of any reliability about veganism, what vegans are like, what being vegan is like, or what good reasons there are for going vegan. For that kind of information, we should consult longtime vegans, unbiased dietetic professionals and vegan nutritional books and materials, abolitionist animal rights books and education materials, and most importantly, commit to veganism and vegan education ourselves.
“Failure to Thrive”
Since animal product consumption and use is virtually always unnecessary for humans and harmful to nonhuman animals, and unnecessary harm is wrong, it’s impossible to justify or even excuse animal product consumption outside of genuine need, such as survival. Because of this, one of the most common excuses for not being vegan or becoming an ex-vegan is that the individual needs animal products either to thrive or for a minimum standard of health.
This excuse plays on the problem of induction in science where we cannot “prove” that X is the case for 100% of a large population, even though all scientific reasoning and evidence to date on less than the entire population has show that X is extraordinarily likely the case for the entire population. Combine such doubt-from-inductive-reasoning with pseudo-science, false or mistaken inferences, anecdotal claims and exaggerations, drama and ego, and you have a recipe for the chaos of anything-goes regarding personal health claims. A recent rebuttal written by a registered dietitian of ex-vegans’ common claim that “vegan diets are not for everyone” displays the typical unscientific nonsense that is put forth as “evidence” by ex-vegans and non-vegans to “support” their claim. It is also worth noting here that the mainstream American Dietetic Association’s position paper on vegan diets concludes that well-planned vegan diets are appropriate for people of all ages and all stages of life.
Bad health is unfortunate, but what is much more unfortunate is blaming the bad health on the wrong cause, which is almost certainly the case when people blame it on being vegan rather than looking for the real reason (perhaps unrelated to diet) or the specific nutrients they’re lacking and can obtain from non-animal sources, if only they would conduct proper investigation and research into their particular case.
Failure to Justify
As a way to activate the smoke alarm on the “failure to thrive” health nonsense, ask ex-vegans and non-vegans if they are still vegan except for the particular animal product(s) in the particular quantity that they cannot thrive without. I have asked this question to many who plea “failure to thrive”, and while I have received many different responses (usually some version of avoidance or silence), I have not yet received the response “Yes, I’m vegan except for that.”
If such ex-vegans are serious and genuine about a “failure to thrive”, we should expect them to continue veganism in every other way they are reasonably able, and to continue to fully support the ethical reasons and environmental benefits they previously did. If they do, and they are genuine and sincere about their health issues, and consume limited, prescribed quantities of animal products with the strong reservation that a person who was prescribed a highly undesirable medicine took the medicine, I see no reason why they should announce that they are no longer vegan. Inherent in the concept of veganism – the way genuine abolitionist vegans define it – is reasonableness: Vegans avoid using or consuming animal products to the greatest extent reasonably possible.
While I’m almost certain that, based on significant reading of materials written by experts in nutrition science, absolutely no animal products are necessary for any human to thrive, I could believe in the sincerity of someone who embraces veganism in their lives as much as they believe they possibly can, even if they consume some “limited, prescriptive amount of certain animal products” with the regret and reservation of someone who undergoes a painful treatment to maintain their health. Sadly, I have yet to see one case among ex-vegans that would even remotely fit this description. What we have is not a failure to thrive, but a failure to justify.
Go vegan; learn what you need to learn about nutrition from reliable dietetic professionals; learn the best reasons for being vegan as a minimum standard of ethical behavior (i.e. reasons set forth in the abolitionist approach to animal rights); and stay vegan for life.