A basic misunderstanding
People often ask me if it is hard to be a vegan. They ask me as though I daily have to strive to live up to the vegan ideal. As if it is a sort of condition that I lose if I don’t practice it, and that it is something I must diligently work on in order to reap its merits. But this is a skew view, and a complete up-side-down thinking of what veganism really is about. What people fail to see is that veganism is not something that I strive for, rather it is the basis from which all my actions stem from. Veganism is not my goal, it is the road I am traveling, or rather the name of the road that I am traveling. It is not some vague description of moral conduct. Quite the contrary: it is a set of values which are rather easy to follow in our modern society, both in mind and in matter.
To be in and not outside of «it», whatever that «it» may be, is fundamental for any life-view, and it is important that veganism is understood as such. It is not just a diet, nor is it only having empathy for animals. To be a vegan means to make a connection with all living things, and to clearly see our place in this system, and what we must do in order to make this system as harmonious as possible. Then your choices is reduced to reason. Not a type of reason which is deducted from any sociological norm or doctrine, but one which stems from your own insight in how things, animals and humans relate. This is the compassion that veganism talks about. But the compassion came before the concept! Veganism is simply a term which expresses a set of guidelines on how to execute this compassion in the world.
It might seem obvious, but I feel that few people — even many vegans — see it this way. And I think this is one of the reasons why many vegetarians and vegans go back to consume animal products. They haven’t made this connection thoroughly. If you are not firm in your belief, other sociological or economical mechanisms are likely to override. As long as we limit our understanding of veganism to the concept of veganism it becomes hard to stay vegan in the long run.
So my answer is alway «no». It is not hard to be a vegan. You just have to allow yourself to feel deep enough. Then all it takes is a little effort to stay true to your ideals.
The (necessary?) death of veganism
One of my favorite quotes is one by Joseph Campbell, and it goes as following: «Religion short-circuits the religious experience». What is meant by this is that the original function of religion is lost in all the norms and doctrines that religion represents itself in. In our modern times these wrappings have become so tainted with actions that have resulted in the contrary of what the content of this wrapping are trying to convey, and because their metaphors cannot compete with today’s scientific understanding of how the world works, religion has become its own worst enemy. As soon as you hear Catholic church, Shia-muslim, Zen-buddhist etc. we are instantly filled with all sorts of ideas and consumptions about how these religions work.
So where am I going with this? Well, let us pretend I was asked why I don’t eat meat. And let’s say that I would give my answer without mentioning the words vegan or veganism. Would the arguments I presented resonate more with the person I was talking to? I think so. If we stay clear of concepts, we avoid putting ourselves in a situation where we have to break through a wall of prejudice. Even when the person has never heard of veganism, staying clear of terms whatsoever will make it easier for the person to make something out of it, and maybe even adopt some of those views. Without the concept, the person can still be whatever that person is. There is no wrapping that forces itself around the listener, only content, free of charge and without strings attached.
A similar example: From my own experience I have noticed that people don’t eat pig or chicken because the meat that tastes like pig or chicken comes from an actual living animal (that would actually be insane if you think about it). «Pig» and «chicken» have become terms to describe taste and texture, and it is taste and texture that people want. Nowadays you can find plant-based products that give the exact same taste and texture as their animal-derived counterparts and which score the same or even higher in blind tests. I would propose that taste and texture are trivial things compared to life and death. And if plants can provide these trivial things, is it not reasonable to favor the use of them instead of the abuse of animals? I think so - both on an ecological, political, nutritional and ethical level. But although all sensible criteria for the product are met, people are still reluctant to try something which is labeled as vegan, the normal excuse being that it tries to resemble the original (although it’s not like a sausage ever resembles what it is made of) or that it is too expensive. If the animal based product does not taste like its animal-based relative, the consumer will likely get an idea about vegan food in general. This is a problem. «Yeah, I tried vegan food once. I didn’t like it. Won’t try it again.» Does that mean that the person will never eat an apple again? No, of course not! But it is likely that the person will avoid anything labeled vegan. Vegan food, just like organic food, is not something special. It’s just food. But we make it into something special and something different from the norm when we label it.
In both these examples, the term veganism is counterproductive. I am not saying we should abandon the term. In many cases it is practical. But we should be aware of the fact that the concept, the wrapping, might end up undermining the content. Then all we have got is just a new religion fighting all the others. To be vegan does not mean that you want everybody else to call themselves vegan. You want justice for all living things. If abandoning the term veganism will help veganism achieve this goal, it should be done.
Veganism - a rational religion?
I really don’t see veganism as a religion, or that it in any way can function as other religions do. But as far as religions are concerned about how we humans can save ourselves from misery, I think veganism offers a rational solution, or at least a part of the solution. In short: veganism asks us to save EVERYTHING and EVERYONE through saving those who cannot be saved by others than us. Compared to humans, animals are in lesser power, and the vast majority of them live (and die) because we allow them to. How can we ever prevent wars or conflicts, racism, sexism or ageism, lest save ourselves, if we fail to save those who are utterly powerless against us? Veganism offers a chance for us to prove that we are worthy a projection of anything we could call God, namely because in relation to animals, we are literally sitting in the seat of God.
Gandhi said: «you can’t have religion without sacrifice». Many religions ask us to sacrifice our own will for God’s will. Veganism, on the other hand, asks us, as do Gandhi, to sacrifice our own ego. Yes, we want meat, or a leather- or a skin jacket, or we want to attend an animal show, or use that lotion even though it is tested on animals. But we want it for trivial reasons. We don’t want it because we need it, we want it because we crave it (or because we don’t know better). To let go of those cravings is to sacrifice the ego, and maybe discover that we never needed these things in the first place.
I feel that in our culture, desires are often disguised as free will, or freedom of choice. But wanting freedom of choice is just another way of saying that we are a slave to our desires. Besides, every time we make a choice to eat meat or buy a skin jacket, we have already made a choice for someone else, so how can we really speak about freedom in this sense? Ultimately, freedom of choice is a limiting view where we end up throwing others and ultimately ourselves into a loop of suffering. Instead, true freedom comes from not having the need to choose. By adopting vegan values, we limit our choices. If we can stick to the values, the only sacrifice we make is our own ego, which really isn’t a sacrifice, but a liberation.
Veganism, like any religion, does not make life easier for us per se. We’re all standing in the same pile of shit, and no religion will ever clean it up for us. It won’t solve our problems for us, and the best thing it can do is give us aid to solve the problems ourselves. However, depending on the cultural context we live in, religion can make things run more smoothly. But shopping religion for the sake of things to run smoothly is really not a sacrifice, it’s just spiritual materialism, and it might end up feeding our ego rather than starving it.
Sometimes I feel people go vegan as a sort of remedy for their problems, or use it as wrapping to create a new external self, just like a substitute for any other religion or lifestyle. It’s not bad or wrong, but in the long run, I don’t think it will work. You only bypass your problems, which will come back sooner or later, and because veganism didn’t help you solve them, why stick to being vegan? In our modern world of abundant offers, it’s kind of restricting, thus many people tend to go back to a lifestyle which runs more smoothly within their cultural context
The way I see it, the goal of any humanistic belief system, including veganism, is just to make us less assholes than what we already are. It helps us come to terms with the fabric of human nature, and to cope with its destructive forces, the demons and devils, or whatever name they may be given. The function is for us to be less self-oriented and less egocentric. Its function is for us to become more compassionate towards every sentient being in the entire universe, including ourselves. And as far as veganism is concerned, let us base our actions not on belief or superstition, but on knowledge and actual experience.