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November 1996
What's in a Name? Defining Vegetarianism

By Stanley Sapon


In London in 1847, a movement was born out of 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 manipulated to have grotesquely distorted udders, and the veal crate was unknown. There was no genetic engineering, no hormones, no massive dose of antibiotics, no battery cages of egg-laying hens, no "processing plants" for the assembly line slaughter of chickens, no epidemic salmonella and camphylobacter in eggs and poultry, as far as we know no Mad Cow Disease, and no Bovine Growth Hormone. In 1847, the simple rejection of flesh is what defined a vegetarian.

Now, almost 150 years later, we are still working with the same 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, such as lacto- or lacto-ovo. The attitudes of the last decades have encouraged a stance of non-judgmental all-inclusiveness that is willing respectfully to 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.


First, 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." Secondly, we must present a core of common values and an image of some ideal that makes clear why vegetarians do what they do. Thirdly, 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 habits, 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.

Finally, 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.

This article is excerpted from a speech given by Stanley Sapon at the World Vegetarian Congress and North American Vegetarian Society's Summerfest in August 1996.


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