Tuesday 25th February 2020

What is Vegan

Robin Lane, co-founder of London Vegan FestivalWe continue our introduction to understand what is vegan through the second part of a conversation between Enza Ferreri of Human Health and Animal Ethics and Robin Lane, long-standing vegan, animal activist and co-founder of the London Vegan Festival.

A vegetarian is a person who does not eat any kind of meat or fish.

There are two fundamental types of vegetarian:

In what follows, we use the term "vegetarian" to mean "ovo-lacto vegetarian".


Conversation with Robin Lane, co-founder of London Vegan Festival - part II

Enza: Sometimes a gradual approach is best. If someone cuts meat consumption or, even better, has, say, 1 vegan day a week, maybe increasing it to 2 or 3 vegan days a week, I think s/he should be encouraged and praised rather than chastised. A bit like in the education of children.

There is a risk for vegans of coming across as described in this post I found as a comment on a website. Although it is not a very clever site, the comment may be shared by many people: "And unfortunately, my dealings with vegans (other than a select few) have left me with severely questioning whether it does help with spirituality to go meat free. I've yet to see anything that provides this to be the case, and have found the movement, and the people involved in it, at least the ones that I've met to be rather dogmatic and pushy about their beliefs. That seems completely lacking in spirituality even though I constantly see and hear them claiming that veganism is healthier and more spiritual. It seems almost the exact opposite of how a truly spiritual person would be, or so I think."

Robin: Yes, I know of vegans who could be described as pushy and dogmatic, but I believe it is because they are passionate about the issue. I agree that some vegans can be 'holier than thou' and I find this arrogant. However, I disagree that these vegans are lacking spirituality. Jesus was also considered pushy and dogmatic.

Enza: There are two possible goals for the Festival, and I don't know if you can achieve both at the same time.

If it is, as you say, a day out for vegans in which they feel they don't have to check ingredients, then your policy is fine (although still excessive, because I'm not suggesting that you allow the sale of non-vegan food, just that you relax some rigidities), but at the same time you can't expect the audience to grow in number once it's reached its full potential of vegans or mostly vegans. Advertising in the mainstream media is then pointless, because, whereas advertising is relatively easier, the marketing that follows is more difficult: you have to follow up with something to interest the general, nonvegan public, and that will be hard if the whole event will revolve around the vegan world only, or hippy or punk or chanting worlds and so on.

If, on the other hand, your objective is to have as many and diverse attendees as possible, as is indicated by your advertising campaigns outside the animal rights and vegan circles, then you should think of catering for this wider audience and think outside the box from their own viewpoint, in which case you can't look at this event as a vegan day out. It's not just a question of attracting the general public with ads, it's also a question of interesting them enough shoud they come there.

I'd like to talk about final goals. I'll tell you what my final goal is. It is a world in which not only other animals are not exploited by humans, but also they are actively helped by humans and at the same time they are free. It's imilar to the way I can feed squirrels and pigeons in my garden, although I stopped doing that to prevent cats from killing the pigeons. Think of, for instance, acquiring a great piece of land and have various animals live there, say cats and dogs: they can sleep in sheltered places, they are fed, watered and treated for illness but they can roam wherever they like. So they are protected but free. Not only that. We should try to make carnivorous species vegetarian or vegan without affecting their health - as it's been done for dogs and cats - so that herbivores do not have to suffer painful and premature death at the hands of predators. We'll have to shelter the latter from the former. Now what's your goal?

Robin: I don't agree with this scenario. This is what I call paternalism towards animals. I like Lee Hall's book On their own Terms which speaks of animals being entirely free from all human intervention. Animals in human-created reserves are subject to human actions, and so are not free.

Enza: Animals don't care what other people call it, 'paternalism' or something else, as long as they are benefited by it and happy with it; and neither do I. There is nothing wrong with human intervention if it creates good rather than bad things. I also think that 'abolitionism' is a misnomer, because it seems to imply that only self-proclaimed abolitionists want the abolition of experiments on animals, meat production or similar, whereas many others in the animal movement want the same. We all have the same objectives, 'abolitionists' and many others, but we think of achieving them through different strategies.

Robin: An example is the Animal Aid campaign to install CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses, to inspect how staff slaughter the animals. Abolitionists are opposed to it and argue that if the cameras prevent the worst of the abuse, then meat eaters may believe that there are higher welfare standards and feel justified in continuing to eat meat. They also question who will actually be viewing the footage: Government inspectors or slaughterhouse owners, and what is deemed acceptable?

Enza: First of all there is a contradiction in these two arguments. Some abolitionists say, as Roger Yates did in the podcast interview the Animal Rights Zone website had with you, that we don't know who's going to watch the videos: it could be speciesists who don't find anything wrong with the way animals are treated no matter how badly they are treated. Roger Yates' objection is an objection to the predicted effectiveness of the cameras: he's basically saying that he is not sure they will be effective in preventing animal suffering. This is a practical argument that should not stop us from trying this method and, if necessary, improving it. But you - not you personally, it's an impersonal 'you' - can't on one hand say you don't believe in cameras' effectiveness and at the same time say that they will be so effective as to abolish all suffering of slaughtered animals to the point that meat eaters will have no more reason, from their viewpoint, to stop eating meat. The two statements are contradicting each other.

Secondly, there is no evidence, no rational reason to believe, that meat eaters will be deterred from becoming vegetarian by CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses. At the moment there are no cameras and I don't hear any meat eaters say 'I'm thnking of becoming vegetarian because the lack of cameras in abattoirs means animals will suffer terribly'. Likewise, if people don't use this as an argument to become vegetarian now, there is no reason to believe that they'll use it as an argument not to become vegetarian then, after the introduction of cameras in slaughterhouses.

To object to a potentially positive development for animals, that might stop them from being kicked around minutes before their slaughter, and might spare them some agonizing fear even in the last moments preceding their deaths, on such thin grounds seems irrational to me.

Robin: Although I am ambivalent about the CCTV cameras, I sent the Animal Aid postcards to the major supermarkets calling for the introduction of CCTV. I agree that it is better for the animals that the worst abuses are stopped, though all animal slaughter is abuse, and it just amounts to different degrees of suffering.

Enza: Talking about that interview, I like it when you said that you will never give up campaigning against animal cruelty. Same as me. We are optimists, and we have great reasons to be optimistic.

In the same interview, you also say that people who keep hens rescued, for instance, from battery cages sometimes eat their eggs but you disagree or anyway you wouldn't do that because, even if there is no cruelty involved, "It's not vegan". This reminds me of Linda McCartney in an interview she gave several years ago to The Vegetarian magazine, organ of the Vegetarian Society of the UK, in which she said that she and Paul McCartney kept many animals, including hens: if they sat on an egg, they would leave it alone but, if they didn't, they would eat it.

I wonder about the literal approach to veganism: on one hand I understand it, both because it's simple and because I can see the desire for purity in it (after all, do the test of speciesism: we don't eat aborted human embryos if they are healthy and edible, for instance); on the other hand, I wonder if it's such a useful thing to look at things in such a black and white way when we know that the world is full of nuances.

Peter Singer famously said in Animal Liberation: don't worry about the egg trace in the cake you were given and ate at a party. That per se does not mean anything to me, partly because no-one is infallible and I would not subscribe to a diktat, an ipse dixit authoritarian attitude or principle, and partly because Peter Singer is certainly NOT infallible and I disagree with him on many things, especially on vivisection. Anyway, there's some truth in what he said on this: we must not lose sight of the aim and not lose our sense of perspective. After all, veganism is a form of boycot, not a set of rituals. And then again, there is an attraction in this strictness, in that maybe it keeps us all more on the right track. I tend to believe that we need both approaches in the movement, because maybe they both fulfill certain roles and different requirements of future goals and trends.

However, there are some literality and strictness on the part of vegans, which, if subject to scrutiny, don't stand up very well: if we wish to be literal, our mother's milk is not vegan - and I could add sperm swallowed during oral sex, or blood swallowed from a wound or a bleeding gum, intentionally, are not vegan.

Robin: A vegan would not eat an egg as it is an animal product.

I do not see things in a black and white way. Although certain people choose to call themselves vegan, there is no absolute. Modern food production encroaches upon the natural world, often destructively. However, a vegan causes less harm to the natural world.

When Donald Watson founded the Vegan Society in 1944, his intention was that, where possible, non-human animals would no longer be exploited by humans. Therefore, it is nonsense to describe human mother's milk as 'non-vegan' to a human infant. To argue that the ingestion of human sperm and blood from a wound by a fellow human is non-vegan shows a lack of understanding of the true intentions of the word vegan (being the first three and last two letters of vegetarian).

Enza: That a baby fed its mother's milk is not vegan is an inescapable logical conclusion stemming from premises that you accept and, if the premises are true, so is the conclusion.

The premises are:

1) a vegan diet and vegan food are defined as "not containing any animal products"

2) a woman is an animal, and her milk is her product.

The conclusion is: therefore, a woman's milk makes the person who drinks it non vegan in the strict sense of the word.

The main point here is that mine is an ad absurdum argument, namely a way to show the irrationality of an assertion by taking it to its logical extreme consequences. I am not saying that the correct way of being vegan from an ethical viewpoint is not to drink one mother's milk and the other (human) animal products I mentioned, but likewise, the correct way of being an ethical vegan is not to be obsessed with the avoidance of any microscopic trace of animal products, and for very much the same reason, i.e. because being vegan is an ethical stance and a form of boycott, not a static frame of non-contamination rules.

Remember that this discussion started from your objection to eating an egg of a hen kept as a pet even when there is no cruelty involved. So you see that this latter, much like the examples in my ad absurdum argument, is not an ethical vegan stance.

A human baby drinking its mother's milk can be accepted as vegan only if you abandon this literality about veganism which, as you also seem to recognize, was not part of the original intentions and ethical thinking of the founders of veganism.

Robin: There is a risk that by consuming a piece of cake containing egg, a vegan may be tempted to consume something else containing an animal product. I know of several former vegans who now consume vegetarian foods. For some it can be a slippery slope with alcohol for instance. I formerly drank an excessive amount, but have not consumed any alcohol for three years. However, I believe that if I did, it is likely that I would resume drinking.

Enza: I don't think that the comparison is appropriate. Alcoholism is an addiction, and therefore an alcoholic or someone with drinking problems doesn't always have control on him/herself and what s/he does. This is not the case with veganism or vegetarianism. I am not as strict as you are and I occasionally have small amounts of animal products, but I haven't touched meat in decades now.


Back to Top


THIS ARTICLE IS IN 3 PARTS: → Part 1 Vegan Part 1 of conversation with co-founder of London Vegan Festival Robin Lane | → Part 3 How to Be Vegan Part 3 of conversation with co-founder of London Vegan Festival Robin Lane