International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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32nd World Vegetarian Congress 1996
[Vegetarian Summerfest '96: A World Vegetarian Congress]

What's In A Name: Vegetarianism's Past, Present and Future
A linguistic and behavioral appraisal
from EVU News, Issue 3 / 1996

image: Stanley Sapon
Stanley Sapon PhD, Co-founder of the Rochester Area Vegetarian Society, hunger activist, Professor emeritus of psycholinguistics..

Throughout almost 50 years of professional life - as a scientist, a teacher and a clinician - I have been deeply concerned with three domains of human experience and their inter-relationships: Language, behavior and ethics. What I have to say this evening conjoins all three fields to focus on something that has informed my life and enriched it with added purpose, understanding, energy and commitment: vegetarianism.

My title promises a linguistic and psychological appraisal of the future of the vegetarian movement and how that future relates to "names" - their definition, their use and their effects. We will focus on two words: "vegetarian" and "vegan" and how they impact on the future of our movement.

It is becoming more and more apparent that there is a growing element of tension, with strong emotional overtones, between vegetarians who accept only plant-based foods, and those who reject animal flesh , but accept the use of products derived from living animals. The tension is manifested in a number of ways... some overt, others more subtle.

Keith Akers and Kate Lawrence, in the newsletter of the VegSoc. of Colorado, write of their concern about friction between vegans and ovo-lacto vegetarians. They are troubled by a growing perception that "people think of veganism and vegetarianism as two similar but opposed ideas - or even opposed movements," and are perturbed by expressions of annoyance, irritation and resentment between members of both groups. Their concern is neither exaggerated nor premature. Sharp feelings of difference, divergence, dissonance and discord between two subsets of a group are common antecedents of a split into two discrete groups, each one following what its members believe to be the best goals and the best strategies to achieve those goals. Without a doubt, the fragmentation of vegetarian organizations would seriously diminish the power to effect social change that a single, large, unified organization can exert.

Although they deny that there is a problem, insisting that "Veganism is not opposed to vegetarianism, it is a form of vegetarianism," they nevertheless felt the need to quiet the rustlings of discord with the following strong admonition: "To these and all others who think of separating veganism from vegetarianism, we have formulated the following piece of advice: LIGHTEN UP, GUYS!"

While these condescending and patronizing words are more likely to fuel hard feelings than to extinguish them, they nevertheless confirm a perception of troubled waters within the movement.

If some ovo-lacto vegetarians feel disparaged or looked down upon by vegans for their continued acceptance of dairy and eggs, they can at least take comfort from the status the ovo-lacto diet enjoys as the recognized Standard Vegetarian diet. Unfortunately this same official recognition generates feelings of isolation and resentment in vegans, who do not appreciate being a minority within a minority.

The roots of our difficulties lie in our definitions.

There is a "World Standard Definition of vegetarianism" given by almost every local, national or international Vegetarian Society in the world: it defines a vegetarian as a person who lives on a diet free of meat , fish or fowl in any form, "with or without the addition of dairy products and eggs."

What, precisely, does that phrase ...with or without the addition of dairy products and eggs mean? From a straightforward linguistic analysis it says that the presence or absence of the named items has no bearing on the use of the appellation "vegetarian." From a behavioral perspective, a definition of vegetarianism is a statement of contingencies. If being a vegetarian is seen as desirable, then the privilege of calling oneself a vegetarian is contingent upon meeting the terms of the definition. The qualifying phrase in question declares that use of dairy and eggs falls outside the contingencies. From the point of view of discourse, it means that the use of dairy and eggs merits mention, but that this use is neither relevant nor significant in the dietary practice referred to.

What we have is an organizationally sanctioned definition of vegetarianism that makes abstention from flesh THE vital, central component, and leaves as an option the movement toward a completely plant-based diet.... an option, not a target.

Contrast this with a different, more inclusive, formulation. The Rochester Area Veg. Soc. defines vegetarianism as "the practice of living without the use of flesh, fish or fowl, and the ideal of complete independence from animal products." The definition has its flaws, but it holds out a goal to reach for, in positive terms, that has been acceptable to all our vegetarian members. A half-dozen other vegetarian societies in the country have already adopted, or adapted, this definition.

The "old standard" definition of a vegetarian not only identifies the parameters of vegetarianism... it fixes them. It says more than "this is how far you must go" -- it defines the boundaries of propriety. If you go beyond what is required of you, are walking out near the periphery, you are out at the edges, the extremes. Setting the properties of the vegetarian diet in terms of "NO to flesh, YES to eggs, YES to cows' milk" has a further, long-lasting and pernicious effect on the achievement of dietary change; the definition as given actually predetermines the process of change - establishing a "standard strategy for becoming a vegetarian." It prescribes the process of becoming a vegetarian as a sequence of "abstentions". By putting meat as the first condition, it automatically relegates milk and eggs to later consideration. This fixed, "orthodox" sequence of dietary changes is responsible for several outcomes.

  • It establishes a hierarchy of difficulty of change. Naming flesh as the "first abstention" marks this as the most accessible behavior. By extension, then, subsequent abstentions are acknowledged - and presented- as more difficult to achieve.
  • The existence of a hierarchy of difficulty of change has its own behavioral and emotional by-products. It assumes that "Giving up meat may be hard, but giving up milk and eggs is "even harder." Ranking people along a continuum of the difficulty of tasks accomplished, establishes yet another hierarchy... a hierarchy of value.
  • The stage is set for ranked comparisons of individuals along this hierarchy of value. Phrases employing comparative terms cannot be avoided ..."more advanced," "more rigorous," "stricter" in one direction, and in the other, "not so strict," "more easy-going" "more lenient," and finally, with a tinge of irritation, "not so compulsive about my diet."
  • In this verbal climate it is impossible to avoid the implication that vegan is higher on the scale ..better, and ovo-lacto is lower and not as good. At this point the notion of "holier than Thou" makes its appearance, and an inevitable foundation of discordant - sometimes corrosive - divisiveness is laid down.

Looked at from this perspective, what seemed like a simple "definition" turns out to be a prime antecedent - a cause - of a number of problems that beset the movement.

By establishing - and insisting on - dairy and eggs as acceptable foods for vegetarians, the definition serves to increase the probability of their consumption. Foods that are eaten frequently, become foods that acquire a steady and secure place on one's table and in one's shopping basket. The behavioral Law of Strength confirms what we already know: the longer you hold on to something, the harder it is to let it go.

But why should one let it go? and when? If you have already made a challenging commitment to a change in lifestyle, and met the Basic Criteria, and what remains is not presented as urgent - then the "extras" are things to be addressed later - somewhere down the line. No hurry. But you will not be eager to spend time with someone who threatens your contentment with tales of "What's wrong with milk" or "the horrors of egg production."

In a word, the hierarchy of difficulty sets the schedule, the perceptions and the expectations of beginning vegetarians..." Easy stuff first, hard stuff later."

If it is common experience for vegetarians who begin as ovo-lacto vegetarians to face a struggle to change to a vegan diet, all that is empirically confirmed is that this is indeed what happens when the "Standard Definitions" define the "Standard Strategy" and the "Standard Schedule for Change." Since this seems to have been inscribed in granite, we have no data on alternative strategies. There is a universe of strategies waiting to be explored.

My title promised a view of vegetarianism's past and its future. Let's look at both.

In 1847, in London, a movement was born out a conviction that the killing of living, feeling creatures was neither biologically necessary nor morally acceptable for human survival and well-being. Factory farming had not yet been invented, chickens pecked away in open barnyards, cows had not yet been genetically engineered to have grotesquely distorted udders, and the veal crate of today was unknown. There was no genetic engineering, no hormones, no massive doses of antibiotics, no battery cages of egg-laying hens, no "processing plants" for the assembly line slaughter of chickens, no epidemic salmonella & campylobacter in eggs and poultry, no Mad Cow disease, no Bovine Growth Hormone.

And in 1847 the simple rejection of flesh is what defined a vegetarian.

Now , almost 150 years later, we are still working with the same definition. An obsolete definition, by which a plant-based diet remains an option - not even an ideal.

The passage of years has seen the word "vegetarian" acquire a gloss of attractiveness that has led to an overgrowth of "hyphenated varieties" of vegetarianism. The mores of the last decades have encouraged a stance of non-judgmental all-inclusiveness, that is willing to respectfully acknowledge definitions of vegetarianism that range from the logical to the loony.

Classifying vegetarians by what they do not eat is neither enlightening nor productive. People who consider their vegetarianism to be more than a dietary fling or an exploratory excursion into novel ways of eating -- people who have a sense of purpose in their vegetarian commitments -- need to come together around a definition of vegetarianism that meets several, literally vital criteria:

We must have a working definition of vegetarianism that describes -- IN POSITIVE TERMS - WHAT VEGETARIANS DO. It needs to be made clear that vegetarians are committed to doing something other than "not eating meat."


If we continue to insist that an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet is the capstone of vegetarian ideals, we enshrine an anachronism and carry it into the next century.

Given what we now know about the health hazards of dairy products,it would be deceitful, dishonest - or both - to do anything that encourages the consumption of dairy foods. Regardless of one's personal dietary custom, given what we know about the way milk is produced, it is a frank breach of ethics to suggest to the uninformed that while the flesh of a cow is unacceptable as human food, the milk of that cow is.

If we continue to mark the achievement of a plant-based lifestyle as either irrelevant , "optional" or extreme, we will ultimately succeed in isolating and alienating from the movement precisely those people who have taken the whole message to heart.

There needs to be ONE vegetarian movement with a coherent vision of a world of peace, plenty, health, dignity and compassion for our planet and ALL the sentient creatures it supports -- ALL CREATURES ... without exemptions, without exceptions based on race, gender, nationality OR species. We cannot afford to risk or provoke a split into two camps. Two camps - of people with similar practice, but whose values... and goals differ in such vital ways that they become competitors, rather than collaborators in the struggle to "humanize" the world.

We need to be sufficiently confident of our values to ask for what we know to be necessary, recognizing the principle of "You will get no more than you ask for, and no less than you will settle for."

It makes a difference whether vegetarianism is a "diet" or a "philosophy." A diet is a list of the foods you choose -- a philosophy is a set of coherent REASONS for making those choices. You cannot build a movement around a "diet." To have a movement you have to have people believing, living and working in concert to realize an ideal.

We need to reset our compasses to set our sights in accord with the realities of today and tomorrow. It is our urgent task to enter the 21st century with a definition of our movement that not only legitimizes and validates the vegan perspective, but broadens our global objectives to uncompromisingly identify a plant-based diet as the hope of the future.

We need to have the wit and the courage to speak out honestly and unambiguously to unify our movement with a definition that is positive and simple, a definition that is both inclusive and inspiring... a definition that will help us cultivate and nourish a globally life-sparing vegetarianism. To that end, I earnestly offer for your consideration - and hopefully, your acceptance - this definition:

"Vegetarianism is a philosophy that manifests its reverence and respect for the well-being of all sentient life by advocating and striving for the ultimate adoption of a plant-based diet."

This view of vegetarianism permits us to characterize vegetarians behavior in positive terms. Instead of classifying vegetarians by what they reject, we describe them in terms of what they choose:

"Vegetarians are people who have made a conscientious and principled commitment to achieve a lifestyle in which they consistently choose their food solely from the Plant Kingdom."

I make an urgent appeal to each and every one of you -- members, board members and officers of vegetarian societies -- local, national and international -- to take this proposed definition to heart and to mind -- to begin NOW the task of reconceptualizing the meaning and the mission of vegetarianism.

Dr. Stanley M. Sapon, 62 Sturbridge Lane, Pittsford, NY, 14534, USA