Food for Thought: We get it, you’re vegan

It isn’t often that someone comes out of the ‘vegan closet’ unexpectedly. Sure, you can be a non-vegan and still be really into kale, but eventually the black-bean brownies are going to raise some eyebrows. Other signs include: a man bun, probiotic dirt water and self-deception in the form of “I had no idea that this was vegan cheese!” The only rule about vegan club is that you have to tell everyone about vegan club.

Perhaps you might like to whack the occasional vegan over the head with a bushel of chard, but vegans deserve some credit. The concept of ‘do no harm’ has been adopted by many humanitarian groups, and veganism stands out as one the few reliable ways to a difference. Politics aside, avoiding animal byproducts is logistically challenging. Despite the abundance of organic ‘Whole Paycheck’ markets, committing to veganism is often inconvenient. Thus, it makes sense that vegans are so vocal, because the diet demands a disproportionate attention to food.

Author Angela Davis speaks of her own veganism as the culmination of activism, asserting, “Many of us can assume that we are these radical activists, but we don’t know how to reflect on the food that we put in our own bodies.” Other public figures such as Mayim Bialik claim that veganism is a constant practice of empathy, without which we lose a commitment to people, not just animals.  

Nowadays, though, it appears veganism has more to do with aestheticism than compassion. In her article “Cooperative Engagement,” Sara Cohen of the South Side Weekly explores Qumbya, a vegetarian co-op in Chicago. Cohen explains that while the co-op’s members decry a sense of belonging and anti-conformity, the space shifts from representing compassion to something much more inward and selfish; one member noted, “The [co-op] project is an inward-focused project.” Vegan culture has faced a similar fate: Its intention is more about public self-betterment, which risks becoming self-aggrandizing to accumulate points in the Whole Foods social circle.

Veganism can represent humility and self-sacrifice, but its narrative is now much more boastful. Many modern vegans are quick to tell you how great their bodies feel before they delve into the issues with commercial farming. While it is not wrong to be proud of your diet for physical reasons, it’s problematic when modern vegans use their diet’s inherent politicism to prop up a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude about what is on their plates. Because of its humanitarian roots, veganism gives its followers license to brag about their choices in the name of ethics, even though morality might not be a factor in their choices. The bottom line is that if you see a ‘vegan’ with a leather handbag, that should raise a red flag.

We are entering an era in which everything from our laptop stickers to public transportation has become personal and political. Diet is no exception. Veganism has been used as a self-righteous identity quirk by soul-cyclists. What happens when veganism uses compassion as a prop? You end up seeing a strange paradox — die-hard vegans scouring farmers’ markets and throwing away hash browns because they may have been fried in butter. Who is that helping?