I find it frustrating that everyone immediately turns to their sources about the definitions(s) of vegan and veganism during these conversations. The 1979 Vegan Society definition is often wrongly credited to Donald Watson who wasn't exactly on the ball when it came to defining veganism.
Look at any definition of a very big idea and the definition tends to fail to fully capture everything about it. Check out, for example, definitions of Marxism and/or quantum mechanics. Expecting a single definition to explain a complex idea is to expect way too much. Indeed, modern internet definitions of such ideas tend to contain numerous hyperlinks to aspects of the subject not adequately captured in the stark initial definition.
Considering that Donald Watson described veganism as the "greatest cause on earth," it is not surprising that definitions of this big idea tend to be very limited. Watson is obviously a very important person in the history of the vegan social movement, being a prime mover in the formation of The Vegan Society in 1944.
Some overblown statements are made about Watson, though, not least that he was "the father of veganism," or that he "invented veganism." As noted above, the 1979 vegan definition - the one about "as far as is possible and practicable" - is often said to have been written in 1944 by Watson. In 1979, The Vegan Society became a charity and needed to update its memorandum and articles of association. It was at this time that this vegan definition was written
- A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
In October 2015, in a blog entitled, Compassionate Spirit, Keith Akers wrote a "quick history" about the definition of veganism. Akers notes that,
- ...the newsletter [The Vegan News, 1944, by Watson] did not have an official definition of veganism. In fact, there was no formal definition until nearly seven years later, in 1951. Twenty-eight years after that (1979) the definition provided by the Vegan Society had gone through several permutations and had solidified into [the 1979 definition].
According to VeggieVision and Collectively Free, the repeated mistake that Donald Watson wrote the 1979 definition of veganism in the 1940s has tended to make more invisible the role of women in the formation of the vegan social movement. Akers claims that the word "vegan" was coined by Donald Watson and Dorothy Watson, while Collectively Free suggest that Watson and Elsie Shrigley* coined it.
I often tell my sociology students that sociologists are the products of their time, as we all are - even early vegan movement pioneers. There are current claims that veganism is all about, or only about, diet, or only about other animals. Neither claim is true but that is not to say that a lot of what the philosophy of veganism is about is what vegans eat and the avoidance of animal products. The focus of veganism is the relations between human beings and other animals - but that is not the scope of veganism.
However, because the founders of the vegan social movement wrote in a non-polemic style, the wider scope of veganism is not expressed in ways that slap readers around the face, although it's always there, bubbling under, if you like.
This applies to the writings of Donald Watson as much as Leslie Cross, Eva Batt, Kathleen Jannaway, and Arthur Ling. It is quite clear, however, that Donald Watson in particular was virtually forced to concentrate on issues of health in the early years of The Vegan Society.
Writing "The Early History of The Vegan Society" in the 21st birthday edition of The Vegan (Autumn 1965), Watson spells out the situation. Let's mark the radicalism of the vegan pioneers right away. He writes that the first five issues of The Vegan News establishes that veganism was becoming seen as "a philosophy of life" and a "movement is born which in its general application could revolutionise [humanity]."** However, these are the final words in Watson's article - this is not the tub-thumping, headline grabbing, style we are used to in the 21st century.
Watson notes that, long before 1944, some vegetarians had suggested the possibility of living without the consumption of any animal produce, only to be met by charges from within the vegetarian movement that they were "extremists" (yes, there is nothing original about the position of the so-called Vegan Strategist).
According to Watson, even the great Henry Salt said that the position of those later to be called vegans was based on "cock and bull" arguments. In the 1930s, there were claims that human children are better off brought up without consuming calf food, and even some dietitions were considering whether plant protein should be considered superior to animal protein. So, the founders of the vegan social movement settled on something of a single-issue - to establishing a "non-dairy section" in the British Vegetarian Society. They were turned down flat, leading to the meeting in 1944 in London's Attic Club that founded The Vegan Society. By 1945, the vegan movement pioneers declare opposition to the consumption of all animal produce, not just cow milk.
As Akers notes, the American Vegan Society (AVS) came up with arguably a better definition of veganism in 1960, years before the limp British effort of 1979.
- VEGANS (pronounced VEE-guns) Live on products of the plant kingdom. Veganism is compassion in action. It is a philosophy, diet, and lifestyle.
- Veganism is an advanced way of living in accordance with Reverence for Life, recognizing the rights of all living creatures, and extending to them the compassion, kindness, and justice exemplified in the Golden Rule.
- Vegans eat solely from the plant kingdom: vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. Vegans express nonviolence towards animals and the Earth.
- AVS promotes good health practices and harmonious living.
- Vegans exclude flesh, fish, fowl, dairy products (animal milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, etc.), eggs, honey, animal gelatin, and all other foods of animal origin.
- Veganism also excludes animal products such as leather, wool, fur, and silk in clothing, upholstery, etc. Vegans usually make efforts to avoid the less-than-obvious animal oils, secretions, etc., in many products such as soaps, cosmetics, toiletries, household goods and other common commodities.
What's missing from this are these lines from the AVS definition, again pointing towards greater things
- Reasons for Veganism:
- An equitable, ethical relationship between human and other living creatures
- The physiological human design
- An enlightened concept of repairing and maintaining health
- Practical solutions to the population explosion
- Spiritual development
We should remember that the early vegan pioneers were told by virtually everyone - including doctors - that they would die if they did not eat animal produce. In the early years, then, Donald Watson felt the need to focus on health and, as said, rather neglected the formal definition of veganism. Eventually, in the 1950s, Leslie Cross stepped in to point out that a definition should be sorted out.
When Cross talks about veganism, its expansive vision is less submerged. For example, in the 10th anniversary edition of The Vegan (Winter, 1954), the editorial was written by John Heron. The overall piece is a bit hippy trippy but he does state this: veganism is "the doctrine that [humanity] should live without exploiting [other] animals." Cross, in the next article in the edition, entitled "The Surge for Freedom," seeks to elaborate on this idea. It is clear that he's talking about freedom across the board - and even makes a statement we may balk at now - that Britain is composed of "freedom-loving islands."
He states that the grand vision of veganism involves not exploiting other animals and that would be a great benefit to human animals too. He poses a question - why did the doctrine that humans should live without exploiting other animals come into being - and provides the answer
- The final if not the immediate answer is a revealing one, for it demonstrates the truth of the claim that veganism is not a mere side-shoot in human evolution, but a central extending growth of considerable significance (emphasis added).
The early vegan social movement pioneers pointed out fairly regularly that they believed that veganism would lead to the moral evolution of humanity. Cross further outlines a vision of a vegan future - including deliveries of vegan milk!
- When veganism reaches such a stage there will have been an immense change of heart and mind in the majority of men and women. The idea of exploiting animals will be as repugnant then, as the idea of human slavery is to-day. Some of the changes in daily living are obvious. There will, for example, be no butchers' shops and the milkman (if he still goes his rounds) will be delivering vegan milk. The countryside will not be heavy with the anguish of cows crying for their calves. There will be no slaughterhouses, no vivisection laboratories, no-one will hunt animals for fun...
- But some of the changes are not so obvious. The benefits to man himself of living in a kindlier and more enlightened world can be envisaged only in broadest outline. His health, physical and mental, will be vastly improved. Because he will have shed a great deal of the coarser part of his nature, benefits of the spirit will shower upon him — benefits which to-day by his own short-sighted volition he denies himself.
- Such is the stuff of dreams... To make them true requires that we play our part as it comes to us. We are in the very elementary states of the new mutation. We are the pioneers (emphases added).
Focus and Scope
There are many modern-day vegans who want to reduce the meaning of veganism. The reducetarians, vegan and not, seem to think that they need to attack, denigrate, and mock vegans and veganism in order to ask people to eat a few less other animals. There are also people who are wary of pro-intersectionality, so any idea that the founders of their social movement held views that we would probably call intersectional now, scares them.
Some animal advocates want veganism to be only about other animals, full stop, and they are furious when they find out this is not the case. Their only recourse is denial and to keep saying it over and over in the hope that one day it will be true. For example, a YouTubber angrily states
- Let’s get one thing straight here. Veganism is not about humans. You understand that? Veganism is not about people. Veganism is about nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing but nonhumans. Animals!
Unfortunately for such people, wanting something so bad does not make it so. Recently, in a fb exchange, I tried to explain to a "veganism is ONLY about [other] animals!" person that, if he felt that way, fine, so long as he understood that he's out of step with the people who founded the vegan social movement. His response was: "F*ck your founders."
The position Cross outlines above existed in the vegan movement at least four years previously. For example, in the Spring 1951 The Vegan magazine, Cross reported on new rules that were agreed in November 1950 at a special general meeting of The Vegan Society.
Cross said that, apart from the technicalities of being rules and the constitution of the society, they were designed to "enshrine and safeguard our ideals." Essentially, they were a statement of vegan goals, set out in two parts. The first part dealt with the general doctrine of veganism, that humans should not exploit other animals. The aim here to make it clear that this is not just about "food issues" involving the use of other animals, but issues such as vivisection, hunting (in the British sense, hunting is generally not about providing food for humans), and "working" other animals.
Foreseeing developments in the animal movement in decades to come, Cross notes that The Vegan Society of 1950 was declaring itself animal liberators, not welfarists; that the aim wasn't to make animal use more tolerable but to abolish it (yes, folks, there is not much that's original in the position of the Francione countermovement).
The second aim is about the consequent liberation of humans
- The second broad aspect of the vegan aim is its effect upon human evolution. Apart from the abolition of an enormous burden of cruelty which is bound constantly to return like a boomerang upon humanity's own head, it has to be remembered that in any relationship of master and slave, the greatest and deepest harm is suffered not by the slave, but by the master. Until the present relationship between man and his fellow creatures is replaced by one of companionship on a relatively equal footing, the pursuit of happiness by man is foredoomed to a painful and tragic frustration.
There may be misgivings about the mention of slavery here - it was part of vegan claims-making right from the beginning of the society, in 1944. There may also be disagreement with the point that it is the exploiters rather than the exploited who suffer the most. I'm not comfortable with that but the general trust of this passage is to do with the fact that they saw that veganism, and the liberation of other animals brought about by the abolition of animal use, would aid the moral development of humanity as a whole.
I hope that this blog entry goes some way to assist those who engage in "what is veganism?" debates, and I want to underline one final time that a definition cannot capture the big picture of a big idea; that there is an important understanding that we must never forget: yes, veganism has a focus, the relationship between humans and other animals, but the vegan social movement founders never stopped at that limited place - veganism's scope is wider and, indeed, it is true, veganism is about humans too.
* Sometimes known as Sally Shrigley and also Elsie Salling.
** As a product of his time, Watson wrote "mankind" not "humanity."