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Veganism as Conscious Harmlessness

In a technical manner, I define veganism as the act of refusing to consume other animals as food, as clothing, as entertainment, as experimental subjects, etc.  In a broader manner, however, I define veganism as an act of consciousness harmlessness.  I encountered the term, conscious harmlessness, in an essay written by Layli Maparyan (formerly Layli Phillips), a scholar-activist with the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College [1].  While I do not embrace the spiritual roots of the term, which, according to Maparyan, is a tenet of ecowomanism, I appreciate the term for its capacity to frame veganism as an act as well as a standard.  We need commonly understood standards of veganism – for instance, we should never consume dairy – but merely meeting such standards should not justify fixing or freezing our veganism; that is, we should constantly and continually seek to maximize our conscious harmlessness toward all sentient beings, humans included.  By we, I mean vegans as well as non-vegans.

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Since embracing veganism more than three years ago, I have not consciously consumed other animals.  However, this does not mean that during the last three-plus years I have been incapable of further maximizing my conscious harmlessness, meaning my veganism.  Earlier this year, a friend shared an article documenting the environmental consequences of bottled water.  For years, I have purchased and consumed bottled water.  Upon learning the extent to which this consumption has been environmentally destructive, I was prompted to make a choice.  I could continue to consciously harm the environment, or I could practice conscious harmlessness by refusing to purchase bottled water.  I opted for the latter and advanced my conscious harmlessness and veganism in the process.

Defining veganism as conscious harmlessness prompts us to recognize that, even if we satisfy commonly understood standards of veganism, we remain ignorant of harm that we continue to exert.  Framed as conscious harmlessness, veganism becomes a reflexive project in which we constantly strive to recognize and eschew our harmful behaviors.  Defining veganism as conscious harmlessness prompts us to resist not only speciesism, but other forms of oppression, such as racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, lookism, and citizenship-ism.  There is nothing vegan about racism if we define veganism as conscious harmlessness.

In my vegan advocacy and in my academic research on veganism, I regularly encounter people who claim that they practice selective veganism, which can mean that they do not practice veganism all of the time, or that they only satisfy particular standards.  Vegan advocates can valorize the initiative of these people to advance toward veganism because research has consistently found that people are more likely to embrace veganism gradually rather than abruptly [2, 3, 4]; that is, most people do not go vegan overnight.  What should be questioned, however, is why people intend to fix or freeze their veganism at a particular point instead of continuing to advance it.

In my research, I have found responses to this question: "I promised myself I wasn't going to feel bad if I slipped up or changed my mind."; "I [...] will have dairy and don't beat myself up over it."; "The great thing with the [Meatless Mondays] campaign is that it only asks people to cut out meat one day a week, so I'm free to eat meat on other days."  These statements reveal a static state, meaning a state in which these people have reduced their consumption of other animals to a particular extent, and have expressed their intent to remain fixed at that particular extent.  "[T]o cut out meat one day a week" is a commendable accomplishment.  However, to practice conscious harmlessness is not to valorize our capacity "to eat meat on other days," but rather to recognize the harm we continue to exert and to then further reduce this harm.

Of course, people who fix or freeze at a particular point may lack resources needed to advance their consciousness harmlessness and veganism.  People embedded in resourceful and supportive vegan advocacy networks are more likely than people who are not embedded in such networks to practice veganism [5, 6, 7].  This finding behooves vegan advocates to establish and maintain these networks, which can function in the form of pledge campaigns, potluck get-togethers, and online interactions.  In these venues, we become more capable of acting on the question, What else can I do to maximize my conscious harmlessness?  What else can I do to maximize my veganism?

Corey_WatersCorey Waters advocates veganism and social justice. He is a graduate student and instructor of sociology at Temple University

References

[1] Phillips, Layli.  2010.  "Veganism and Ecowomanism."  Pp. 8-19 in Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society, edited by A.B. Harper.  Brooklyn, NY: Lantern.

[2] Maurer, Donna.  2002.  Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment?  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University.

[3] Green, Che.  2012.  "How Research Predicted the Popularity of Meatless Mondays."  Humane Research Council, October 2.  Retrieved, October 2.  Retrieved October 2012 (http://www.humanespot.org/content/research-popularity-meatless-mondays).

[4] Haverstock, Katie and Deborah Kirby Forgays.  2012.  "To Eat or Not to Eat: A Comparison of Current and Former Animal Product Limiters."  Appetite 58(3):1030-36.

[5] MacNair, Rachel M.  1998.  "The Psychology of Becoming a Vegetarian."  Vegetarian Nutrition: An International Journal 2(3):96-102.

[6] Cherry, Elizabeth.  2006.  "Veganism as a Cultural Movement: A Relational Approach."  Social Movement Studies 5(2):155-70.

[7] Haverstock and Forgays 2012.

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