Connie Thomas took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘veganism’ as a keyword in philosophy, ethics, and celebrity culture.
It was the day after the 2013 Super Bowl when my 26-year-old steak-loving, Mulberry-wearing sister declared she was embracing Veganism at the family dinner table. To say we were all shocked would certainly be an understatement. While she has never shown any particular dislike of animals, it seemed unlikely to me that she’d ever be willing to give up her leather handbag collection in their cause. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t. Instead, when I asked her what her motivations were for undertaking such a massive change, expecting a barrage of moral and ethical arguments in return, her response was simply, “because, Beyoncé!”. Indeed, it was not an adoration of animals, but a 15-minute Super Bowl half-time performance by her favourite vegan celebrity which drew my sister to Veganism. Though this example of Veganism seems somewhat unconventional, it is certainly not exceptional in modern society. Indeed, despite most -isms existing primarily within the realms of philosophy and ethics, Veganism has made an interesting transition through to popular culture and lifestyle, greatly influencing its perception as both a word and a concept.
Originally, the term Veganism was first created in 1944 by Donald Watson, an English animal rights activist, to make the distinction between normal vegetarians and non-dairy vegetarians. Following a lengthy discussion of other possible words to describe this, Watson settled on the word Veganism as a contraction of the term Vegetarianism. Using solely the first and last letters of Vegetarianism, according to Watson, the syntax of Veganism matched its definition, “the beginning and end of vegetarianism”.  The first written use of the word was in Watson’s newsletter, ‘The Vegan News’, also published in 1944, in conjunction with the creation of the Vegan Society in England. However, the initial definition of the word, simply a concise form of ‘non-dairy vegetarian’, was revised in 1949 by the Vegan society into a more explicit form. It rejected the definition of Veganism as just an abstinence of animal produce within food, but instead, “to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man”.  This distinction is very significant as it sees the initial use of Veganism to define a philosophical principle. From this point, Veganism became more than just avoiding types of food and instead about animal conservation and protection as a concept.
Whilst this definition of Veganism provided by the Vegan Society in 1949 remains the sole ‘official’ one, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term has since been interpreted in several different ways, both in theory and in practice. One of the most notable philosophers to wade in on the debate is Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher. Though Singer specializes in applied ethics across a broad spectrum of social issues, his written work on animal rights in the 1970’s is off particular note, and has been widely regarded as the central ideology behind Veganism. In his renowned book, Animal Liberation
(1975), Singer bases his philosophy of Veganism upon the concept of ‘speciesism’; human prejudice and discrimination of an animal due to it’s species.  As a species who often fall foul of this, humans frequently criticize and treat other animals based solely on intelligence, according to Singer, which acts as an arbitrary scale and initiates inequality. Thus, in this case, Veganism denotes more than just avoidance of animal produce, considering the entire ethos surrounding human interaction with other animals.
Whilst these uses of the term Veganism seem relatively moderate, not all interpretations of the word are quite so peaceful. Radical animal rights activist Gary Yourofsky has more recently acted as a proponent of Veganism, working frequently with PETA to give lectures promoting the cause, such as his viral “Best Speech You Will Ever Hear”.  Although Yourofsky shares similar sentiments of Veganism with Singer, particularly that of speciesism, he places far more emphasis of Veganism on active protest, controversially linking the term to ‘eco-terrorism’.  Despite the vast majority of philosophers and activists undertake Veganism as a means of passively protesting animal rights, violent action is deemed a necessary connotation of the term according to Yourofsky. In his mission to promote Veganism, he has famously expressed ‘unequivocal support’ for the deaths of medical researchers via arson attacks, and once declared that, “Every woman ensconced in fur deserves a rape so vicious that it scars her forever”. Such radical opinions, whilst only existing in a tiny minority of Vegan activists, have generated a significant discussion surrounding Veganism, attaching several negative connotations to it.
Since the turn of the 21st Century, the term Veganism has exploded in the English vocabulary, increasingly rapidly in use despite the relative decline of the term vegetarianism. Significantly, the term has expanded not only in frequency of use, but also in context and content. Although philosophical links of animal rights remain attached to Veganism, the word is now associated with a broader cultural movement and lifestyle. The adoption of Veganism by famous figures, possibly in conjunction with the rise of modern celebrity culture, has generated mass discussion of the term and seen the number of people ascribing to it grow. In an article of reasons to convert to Veganism, PETA includes at number 8, “All the cool kids are doing it!”, before listing vegan celebrities to whom the public should aspire.  Whilst this probably tells us more about celebrity culture than it does Veganism, the effect of popular culture on the ‘fashionable’ use of the term is undeniable, even when dissociated with its original philosophy. For example, Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus, both incredibly influential celebrity figures and self proclaimed followers of Veganism, controversially released lipstick collections with the make-up company M.A.C. despite its renowned reputation for abusing animal rights. This exemplifies the place of Veganism in modern culture as a tool to gain popularity and seem ‘fashionable’, as opposed to an intellectual movement.
While Veganism as a term has existed philosophically for decades, its evolution into both a tool for violent activism and celebrity culture has dominated its use in modern society. Indeed, as my sister has so aptly illustrated, association with Veganism doesn’t necessarily equate to an association with animal rights or even food avoidance, but rather a particular celebrity or fan base. Although we can safely assume the majority of people link Veganism to its philosophical roots in theory, it would be misguided to assume those undertaking it in practice do the same. In the 2010’s, it now appears the term Veganism says more about one’s popularity and culture than it does their morality and ethics.