I have long wondered why hearing someone — such as myself — referred to as “a vegan” is a pet peeve of mine. Every time I’ve heard it over the past six years, though, it’s bothered me, and I think I’ve figured out why.
Language matters. The words we use can reflect or diminish agency, convey respect or disrepute, and clarify or confuse. Let me explain further.
As vegans who wish others to become the same, it is helpful to remind people that every time they have a seat at the dinner table, they are making a choice to consume (or not consume) foods that are inseparable from animal suffering and exploitation. One can change their mind at any time.
This is why it’s so bothersome to hear the following, for example: “Oh, you can’t eat this, it contains eggs.” Actually, unless I happen to have a fatal allergy, I can eat it, I just don’t want to.
It’s subtle, but the terminology of “can/can’t,” rather than simply “do/don’t,” obfuscates the aforementioned choice we make at every meal. And not only does it remove autonomy from the individual choosing to abstain, but it effectively separates the speaker from the choice at hand. It is more appropriate to say that a Muslim can’t eat a hotdog than it is to say that someone who is vegan can’t drink cow’s milk. A Muslim can’t; a vegan doesn’t.
This may seem pedantic, but I firmly believe that the more veganism is seen as a movement whole and apart from religion, the better. Far more people change their diet than their religion, so we want to keep veganism in the former category.
The reason that describing someone as “a vegan” rather than “vegan” bothers me is similar. It sounds like a profession, a core part of one’s identity, rather than an adjective. Someone is a lawyer, but anyone can be lawyer-like at virtually any moment. If someone is a vegan, there is an implied barrier to entry — a club one must join. But if someone is vegan, then one can more easily imagine a choice being made at every meal, even if the choice is an easy one.
We want people to see that they can give veganism a try — dip their toes in, if you will — without joining the previously mentioned Cult of Nutritional Yeast. People can try an animal-free meal without joining PETA. The more people that give it a try, the more people will stick with it.
And only then can they join our Cult…
I know this looks like I’m talking to myself, but this is from Mike to Evan: There’s research to back up your “dont” versus “can’t” distinction. People that say “I can’t…” fail far more often, than the “I don’t…” crowd. https://www.forbes.com/sites/heidigranthalvorson/2013/03/14/the-amazing-power-of-i-dont-vs-i-cant/#6c9c157d0372