There’s a lot of debate going around about what the word “veganism” means exactly, with a special bit of spice reserved for the “-ism” at the end.

Some people say you’re vegan if you just don’t buy animal products – all products, not just food. Others think that’s not enough, that you have to be an activist for animal rights to call yourself vegan. Or that you can’t call yourself vegan unless you’re active in the vegan community, attending events and meetups and things.

This mixed bag of opinions unfortunately leads to a perception – rightly or wrongly – that some people aren’t vegan enough. This is nonsense and does no-one (or the community) any good, so I thought I’d dispel some myths about what veganism means by exploring the word itself.

It’s undeniably a good thing that so many people identify as vegan these days, but it can unfortunately also be the cause of some confusion – and online arguments – because it feels like there are so many different definitions of the word.

Surprisingly, these different definitions of the word “veganism” are locked away in the “-ism” at the end. Originally from the Greek -ισμός (-ismós), the “-ism” suffix can change a word’s meaning in a few different ways:

  1. Action or practice: critic becomes criticism, journalist becomes journalism.
  2. State or condition: alcoholism, autism.
  3. Doctrine, principle, or belief: Buddhism, stoicism.
  4. Trait, usage, or characteristic: heroism, cynicism.

The one common thread amongst all these different meanings is that they describe someone. From the Buddhist to the journalist to the stoic, each use of the “-ism” is used to describe a human being.

It is interesting to view the concept of veganism through the lens of these four related but distinctly different meanings.


1. Doing: Veganism as action or practice

This meaning of the “-ism” applies to those who feel that being vegan is a thing they do.

Doing vegans tend to focus their energy and attention on the practical day-to-day realities of veganism. They are on the lookout for new recipes and cooking techniques and superfoods and strange ingredients.

When focusing too much on this aspect of veganism it can become an unhealthy obsessive game of numbers. Spending hours devising or designing the Perfect Meal Plan that is nutritionally complete, delicious, and environmentally sensitive can be a fun exercise but at some point you have to just say good enough is good enough, right?

Is teff better than spelt? Does it really matter? If you’ve ever eaten half a Brazil nut on a Thursday afternoon because your selenium micro’s been tracking low then you may be overdoing it.


2. Being: Veganism as state or condition

This “-ism” is for those who feel that being vegan is who they are.

It’s not really possible to become vegan without adopting it (to some extent) as a lifestyle. If veganism is anything more than a fad for you then it is certainly normal to make vegan friends, visit vegan markets, and attend vegan meetups.

In fact that’s probably the way it’s supposed to be, because veganism really isn’t only about what you eat or what you buy: it’s about an attitude towards other living things, and the environment – and that attitude is very difficult to maintain in isolation.

The problem arises when this becomes the whole you. 

I have friends who – and I say this with sincere love and respect – friends who have let being vegan take over their personality. They only post vegan stuff on Facebook; they only talk about vegan topics; they only hang out at vegan events.

Just as with any obsession, when it takes over your personality it can be hard for others to enjoy your company unless they also share the same obsession – but then they’re not really enjoying you, they’re just enjoying the opportunity to wallow in their obsession.

This obsessiveness is definitely not a uniquely vegan thing – it applies to pretty much everything people could obsess over: road cycling, powerlifting (or Crossfit!), watching anime, the list is a mile long.

Try not to let it take over who you are, because over-being becomes overbearing.


3. Believing: Veganism as doctrine, principle, or belief

The benefits of veganism are by now pretty uncontroversial.

Personal benefits, societal benefits, environmental benefits – each fundamental benefit of veganism has hundreds, if not thousands, of peer reviewed papers supporting the claim that veganism is a Very Good Thing. The science is settled.

But at the heart of veganism there is a belief.

A belief that your choices affect the world around you, and that by making the right choices you can improve yourself and the world.

Cynics aside, I think all vegans share this belief. But then there are vegans who… shall we say, pull a bit hard in this direction. You know the kind, the “do you have a minute to talk about our lord and saviour Jesus Christ veganism?” types.

Just like a religious fanatic will constantly try to convert people to their belief, vegan true believers will sometimes come across like a preacher screaming from the pulpit. And I get it, they honestly and earnestly believe they are doing a good thing by saving animals and the people they convert. 

If you’ve ever answered a knock at the door and seen a man standing there with a short sleeve shirt and tie, a neatly combed hairdo, and a few pamphlets in his hand then you know how effective this kind of “conversion” is. Preaching to the converted is one thing, but you’re never (or very, very rarely) going to turn people onto veganism purely by preaching the gospel.


4. Veganism as a trait or characteristic

This “-ism” applies to those who identify as vegan. If you call yourself vegan (and mean it), then this one’s for you.

And for the record it doesn’t matter if other people agree, what matters is what you call yourself, not what other people call you.

Odd as it may sound, there are vegans who would answer no when asked whether they’re vegan. There are vegans who are coerced into eating meat – like teenagers who want to go vegan but their parents won’t let them, for example. There are those who feel it isn’t socially acceptable (men whose friends feel it’s “faggy” to not eat meat), so remain in the proverbial “closet”. Others choose keep their veganism private because they prefer not to be associated with so-called loud vegans.

Whatever the reason, I believe it’s important to empathise and respect the decision of those who want to keep veganism a private affair. Maybe at some point in the future they’ll feel that the conditions are right for them to be open about it, but until then they deserve our love and support.


So, Which Is It?

There’s an argument to be made that the true definition of veganism is each one of the four “-isms” laid out above.

Is a vegan someone who simply does it right day by day?

Is a vegan someone who immerses themselves in the vegan lifestyle and community?

Is a vegan someone who truly believes in the righteousness of the movement?

Or is a vegan simply someone who calls themselves vegan (even if they don’t tell anyone)?

Many would disagree, but I say it’s #4: if you say you’re vegan (and you really mean it), then that’s good enough to be vegan – even if you sometimes still eat meat!

Hold up, what?

Hear me out. A Christian doesn’t suddenly become an atheist when they commit a sin, and by that same logic a vegan doesn’t suddenly become a carnist when they eat non-vegan food, or buy leather shoes. A shitty vegan is still a vegan, lol. But if you’re trying to do better then you should also have a place at the table.


The Complete Vegan

So calling yourself a vegan is enough – the minimum barrier to entry – to being vegan. But what does a “real” vegan look like then?

If you consider yourself a “real” vegan then you probably identify most strongly with one of the four “-isms” above. Perhaps you even felt a bit attacked by my tongue-in-cheek examples. The truth is that all vegans exhibit these four “-isms” to some extent, even if only a little bit.

The “complete” vegan is someone who shows a healthy balance of all four “-isms” described above: Do, Be, Believe, Identify. They aren’t lacking in any of these four pillars, and just as importantly they aren’t overdoing any of them either.

It can take some time to get this balancing act right – it can take many years to strike a healthy balance between the four pillars.

For example, when you start out as a vegan it is all too common to not really know what you’re doing – especially from a healthy eating point of view. It takes time to learn how to cook healthy, delicious vegan food.

It can take a long time to find good vegan friends who share other similar interests. Unless you’re incredibly lucky it can take time to find your “tribe”, but be patient and persistent if you haven’t found them yet – they’re out there.

It can take years to mellow out to the point where you’re able to have conversations about food without turning things into an impromptu sermon. It can take a while to learn not to judge people who aren’t there yet.

If you’re aware of these pillars and work at balancing them you will eventually become like the proverbial guru sitting on the mountaintop. And that’s incredibly important, because the world is in dire need of them – vegans with deep empathy, knowledge, and respect for how long and difficult the journey can be.

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