Defining Vegan

What does it mean to be vegan?  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines vegan as, “a strict vegetarian who consumes no animal food or dairy products; also: one who abstains from using animal products (as leather).” The Oxford English dictionary defines vegan as, “a person who does not eat or use animal products.”  Technically correct, yes; but yet they seem to miss the point and paint a picture of restriction.  I get that they’re working with a limited amount of space, but I think vegan can be defined in as little as one word:  compassion.

Being vegan isn’t about restriction.  It may seem that way to someone unfamiliar with veganism, but I can tell you that my world of options and choices has been expanded in ways I could have never imagined.  And it’s not about saying no.  Unless you are talking about saying no to cruelty, suffering and exploitation.

My favorite definition of the term vegan comes from Donald Watson (1910-2005).  Watson was born in England and was raised in a mining and farming community where vegetarianism was unheard of.  Speaking of his family’s farm, he would say that, as a child, “I was surrounded by interesting animals.  They all “gave” something:  the farm horse pulled the plow, the lighter horse pulled the trap, the cows “gave” milk, the hens “gave” eggs and the cockerel was a useful “alarm clock”–I didn’t realize at that time that he had another function, too.  The sheep “gave” wool.  I could never understand what the pigs “gave,” but they seemed such friendly creatures–always glad to see me.”  After learning–and witnessing–what the pigs “gave,” he became vegetarian at the age of 14.

In 1944, Watson was part of a growing number of vegetarians frustrated that vegetarianism included products such as milk.  Watson, who would go on to found the Vegan Society,  coined the term “vegan” because “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion.”  This is how Watson defined veganism:

a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude–as far as is possible and practical–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.

Isn’t that beautiful!?  There are two things I love about this definition.  The first is that it includes all animals–both human and nonhuman–in its scope.  The other is that it makes it clear that it isn’t about me or you, and it isn’t about perfection or some unobtainable level of purity.  It’s simply about doing what you can to reduce unnecessary suffering.

If you’re interested in a bit of extra history, check out this newsletter from November 1944.  It is the first ever edition of “The Vegan News” and was written by Watson.