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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