Conspicuous Consumption

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The only real vegan is a dead vegan

If veganism were a religion, ex-vegans would be the unpardonable sinners. Unlike the ex-vegan, who may have given animals a break for years or decades, nonvegans might live their entire lives without having so much as a single meal free from the products of torture and death, yet there is honor and possibly salvation in their consistency. Never-vegans are like people who sin only because they haven’t heard of Jesus. If they only knew what the vegans know, they too would presumably give up animal exploitation for good. But the ex-vegans are beyond redemption. It’s always worse to see the truth and turn away than it is to be born blind.

That was the idea behind the (now defunct) vegan-run website, which listed ex-vegans by state, with snide comments about their Judas-like betrayals of the animals, and their weakness for flesh. If we never plan to return to veganism, requested that we please kill ourselves.

In one respect, there was something for ex-vegans to like about the site: it acknowledged that we exist. Consider this letter I recently received:

Hi Rhys,

Just came across your blog and noticed that you refer to yourself as an “ex-vegan”.

Just wanted to point out to you that there is no such thing as an “ex-vegan”. If you see yourself this way, you never were a vegan. If you had been, the change in awareness and consciousness you would have experienced would have remained. Once you open your eyes to the suffering, exploitation and injustice, you cannot close them again.

Please stop referring your self as an “ex-vegan” and call your self what you really are, a "never was a vegan”. Be honest with your self and everybody else.



Tim is not the only vegan who can’t accept this controversial premise that one can abandon veganism.

First of all, if you had a friend who went vegan and stopped, she was never really vegan in the first place. Being vegan is staying vegan, ipso facto. You can’t ‘stop’ being a vegan any more than you can ‘stop’ being a feminist or anti-racist. That’s because veganism isn’t about food, it’s about empathy. Once you’ve made the conscious connection between human and animal suffering, there’s no going back. —The Veganomoly

If someone considered themselves a vegan for a number of hours, days, weeks, months, or even years and then went back to consuming and using products made from animals then they were never vegan to begin with.  How is this so?  Because there is a very big difference between eating like a vegan and being a vegan.  —Vegan Rabbit

People who are really, truly and fully vegan for the one, core reason of “animals rights” will NEVER go back to being non-vegan. Never, ever. It simply can’t happen. —Freeheel Vegan

As absurd as this view now seems to me, I can relate to it. When I was a vegan living in a vegetarian co-op, I interviewed one of my nonvegan housemates for a documentary project, and he surprised me with a reference to his past veganism. I remember thinking that someone who now eats eggs and cheese and was planning on eating fish when he moved to Seattle could never have been a vegan. I didn’t think he was lying exactly, but his past veganism seemed unreal to me, and I figured that he couldn’t have ever felt as strongly about his veganism as I did about my own. Around that time, a student journalist writing a story about veganism asked me if I might ever stop being vegan. “No,” I said. “I would have to unlearn too much.”

Well, it wasn’t too much to unlearn after all. Is this because I never really internalized the truths about cruelty, exploitation and speciesist injustice?

In a recent article, vegan dietitian Ed Coffin argued along those lines in asserting that Super Size Me co-star Alex Jamieson was mistaken in her belief that she was vegan for 13 years.

This woman was all about fad dieting and putting unnecessary and extreme restrictions on a plant-based diet and wanted to call it “vegan.”

She is now joining the growing group of so-called “ex-vegans,” which are really nothing more than people who were never vegan in the first place. …

We need to stop letting these fad dieters get away with calling themselves vegan in the first place. They’re not. Either they get the big picture or they don’t. No matter what their bodies are “telling them,” these people just don’t care about the fact that animals are exploited and treated as property.

According to Coffin, anyone who goes “vegan” for health is an imposter. This is apparently the case even if – as Jamieson wrote – she eventually came to embrace the environmental and ethical justifications for veganism. If vegans had done a better job of policing and discrediting Jamieson’s claims to veganness earlier, maybe this controversy might never have erupted and tarnished veganism’s prestige.

Tim’s initial e-mail to me left his own defining characteristics of a vegan poseur shrouded in mystery, except that the fakers are the ones who eventually drop out. I wrote to Tim and asked him to elaborate. Here is a summary of the criteria he gave (some direct and some implied) that separates Fake Vegans from True Vegans:

Fake Vegans

  • Don’t fully comprehend the injustice of animal exploitation and speciesism.
  • Are too selfish for veganism to have any real meaning for them.
  • Might not oppose human reproduction and might have children themselves, despite the fact that every new human harms animals just by existing and competing for space and resources.
  • Possibly see a difference between cannibalism and eating nonhuman animals.
  • Could kill a nonhuman animal in desperate survival circumstances.
  • May eventually go back to eating animal products.

True Vegans

  • See veganism as a journey of no return toward increased awareness, compassion, empathy and justice.
  • Detect no difference between raising humans for food and raising nonhuman animals for food.
  • Would never kill a healthy nonhuman animal under any circumstance – not even for survival. They would only kill a sick or hopelessly injured animal for the sole purpose of ending the animal’s suffering.
  • Are against human reproduction because even vegans can’t help but harm animals throughout the course of their lives.
  • Stay alive despite the suffering this imposes on the world because committing suicide would create more suffering overall to family and friends and ultimately to the nonhuman animals who would lose an active ally.
  • Would never go back to supporting a culture of exploitation and violence by eating animal products again.

Tim believes that people are always on a march from selfishness toward altruism, or at worst are marching in place, but the only supporting evidence he could give me for this was that he couldn’t understand how someone would regress from less selfishness to more. But Tim’s lack of understanding does not mean that such a shift is impossible. In fact, his inability to grasp the perspective of ex-vegans only proves that the march toward empathy certainly has its limits.

For instance, what if a serious, committed ethical vegan suffered from major brain degeneration or trauma that made her forget what veganism was? If she started eating animal products again in her confusion, would this retroactively reveal the chicanery of her former vegan identity?

This isn’t a hypothetical. Something like this happened with Serena Coles, one of the first members of the Vegan Society in 1944 and named Honorary Vice President of the Vegan Society Committee for life in 1987. On its “Hall of Fame” page, the Vegan Society explains how Serna Coles inadvertently broke her vegan vow:

In her latter years, Serena had to be looked after in a care home. Her care home was changed several times, and the Society lost touch with her. It was through the detective work of her friend, Kirsten Jungsberg, that she was finally located in a care home in Croydon. Her friends were dismayed to discover that she had withdrawn into herself and was no longer being given vegan food. However, the Croydon vegans “adopted” her, made sure that she received vegan food and visited regularly, drawing out some of the old cheery personality, so Serena's last months were happy ones.

If the Society hadn’t found Coles, she would have died a nonvegan. Would this have made her a “never was a vegan,” despite being one of history’s very first and most active official vegans?

To be fair, Serena Coles didn’t ever fit what either Tim or Coffin believes a vegan should be. In this 1976 BBC special about veganism, Coles admitted to having a child — disqualifying her as a vegan by Tim’s standards — and she credited her vegan diet with giving her the health and fertility to conceive that child, obliterating her vegan credibility though health faddism in Coffin’s eyes.

But is the traumatic brain change scenario an exception? Shouldn’t the former vegan whose amnesia is to blame get a special pass? Is someone who has lost touch with so much of her past even the same person she was as a vegan?

It is a major concession to the “ex-vegans are real” brigade to concede that memory loss can sever the continuity of a supposedly seamless inner monologue and leave a new personality in its wake, one that is too distinct from the earlier incarnation to annul its ethical achievements.

Sudden transformation makes an identity shift harder to miss, but our brains are always in flux. We forget things, learn things, our thoughts adapt to new circumstances or randomly twist into new forms. If sudden memory loss can mark the beginning of a new self, couldn’t subtle changes accumulate over time to do the same? It wouldn’t take a total neurological restart for someone to go from anti-exploitation vegan (as Tim and Ed see it) to nonvegan. All you need is for degeneration, disuse, internal revisionism, or new external influences to erase, replace or reinterpret enough of the memories and thoughts that sustained your veganism. But maybe a True Vegan takes measures to ensure that never happens.

I think we can now formulate a definition of veganism that might really preclude the possibility of ex-vegan betrayal: You are only a true vegan when you die. No more “veganniversaries” or living vegans; only after death will your veganism of x number of years be legit. “If you’re not now, you never were” implies “If you’re not in the future, you’re not now.” During life, then, veganism is potential, not actual. Death is the only assurance that you’ll never turn your back on the animals, not even when you get pregnant (“Oh, my doctor says I need more protein and iron, so…”) or develop a disease or cluster of allergies that make living as a vegan more challenging (“Gee, I’m allergic to soy, gluten, nuts, legumes and fructose now, so…”). Living like a vegan in a particular moment might still count for something, but it wouldn’t amount to a stable identity – it would always be in question, never secure. At best, those currently abstaining from animal exploitation could say something like, “We adhere to ahisma and abstain from the exploitation of other beings as much as humanly possible, and aspire toward veganism.”

The overall impression I gleaned from Tim’s characterization of True Vegans vs. Fake Vegans is that the phonies lacked real commitment. Coffin, too, believes Fake Vegans don’t care enough about justice for animals, they mostly care about themselves. Their failure is that they consumed veganism instead of allowing veganism to consume them.

What does a real commitment to a certain way of thinking, speaking and behaving look like? Internally it means the idea gets such a hold on your brain that it would be impossible to abandon it without tearing apart the fabric of your being. You must tie yourself to the mast and make it neurologically impossible to change your mind on this one issue. You must be equivalent to your veganism such that to end your veganism would be to end yourself.

So how does one externally manifest this and, short of dying, authenticate a lifelong commitment to veganism? Some suggestions:

  • Refer to meat eaters as “carnists” and “corpse munchers.”
  • Address nonhuman animals in an inclusive manner that doesn’t obscure our own animality. Nonhuman animals are “other animals” or “animal others,” not “beasts” or “it.”
  • Get a visible and potentially career-undermining vegan tattoo.
  • Include a reference to anti-speciesism or sentience in your email address.
  • Bring most IRL conversations back around to the oppression of nonhuman animals.
  • Get a vasectomy, if a man, and an IUD if a woman.
  • Write a living will in which you ask to be euthanized if your memory degrades to the point that you don’t remember what veganism is.
  • Denounce so-called former vegans and call ex-veganism impossible.
  • And most important: Don’t stop believing.