Veganism’s onward march

9 Nov

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Peta India recently came out with an ad that had the social media networks, even among its supporters, in turmoil; “Don’t eat eggs.Period”.

They had been telling people for years that eggs, even unfertilized ones, were the result of much cruelty to battery hens but many people seemed to be ignoring them. A number of vegetarians consume eggs and dairy products like milk and butter on the basis that their production does not involve active killing of animals.

To people who argued that eating eggs was akin to killing embryos, the counter-argument was that farm eggs were not the result of fertilization. Battery hens even without benefit of roosters regularly lay eggs. The only difference is they won’t hatch as they essentially don’t have potential life.

Since that argument swayed a lot of otherwise committed vegetarians into eating eggs, Peta India took some dramatic action to gross them out of it; by letting them know exactly what they were consuming – the equivalent of the hen’s menstruation.

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Shock tactics and gimmicks aside, this could be used as a textbook case of what sets the vegans apart from the vegetarians – their unwillingness to compromise when it comes to the eating and/or use of animal products.

Although ‘vegan’ as a term was coined only in the middle of the last century, the idea and principle of veganism itself has been around far longer. There have been people all over the world throughout the centuries who have followed a vegan way of life, due to their own individual principles. The Medieval Arab poet, Al Ma’arri wrote the following in the ninth century:

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I No Longer Steal from Nature

You are diseased in understanding and religion.
Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught
for their young, not noble ladies.
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;
for injustice is the worst of crimes.
And spare the honey which the bees get industriously
from the flowers of fragrant plants;
For they did not store it that it might belong to others,
Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.
I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I
Perceived my way before my hair went gray!

In nineteenth century USA, Amos Bronson Alcott, father of the famous novelist Louisa May Alcott started a vegan movement (even though the term was not yet known) and even started a community based on its principles called ‘Fruitlands.’

Vegetarian societies have existed in some cultures, notably India for millennia. In western countries, the UK has been known to have vegetarian societies for at least two centuries. Unlike in India and other parts of South Asia where the cultural heritage of Buddhism, Hinduism or Jainism hold sway, these societies were mostly formed by people who opted to become vegetarians /vegans in mid life due to the ethics of animal cruelty.

And therein started the old feud; where does one draw the line? There were some who said it was OK to consume eggs and wear leather, those who said leave the eggs out but consume milk and yet  others who advocated against any animal products or use whatsoever, including vivisection – animal testing in the name of science.

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In 1944, a few members of the main Vegetarian Society in the UK, felt out of sorts enough with the main branch to ask for a special branch dedicated to ‘non- dairy vegetarians.’ When their call was rejected, they split off and decided to found a society of their own. Although they and their ilk had been around for a while, being known by the added adjective of ‘strict vegetarians,’ they felt themselves a breed apart and thus wanted a name to go along with it.

Several potential names were considered, including ‘dairyban’, ‘vitan’, ‘benevore’ and ‘sanivore’. Donald Watson, one of the founding fathers of the new society eventually settled on ‘vegan’ – a deliberate condensation of ‘vegetarian’ using the first three and last two letters, because as he explained it, ‘vegan is the beginning and end of vegetarian’.

Since then the vegan movement has taken huge strides worldwide. They are uncompromising in their refusal to bow to the rest of the world’s attitudes on animal rights as subject to human needs – and if they have earned a name for themselves as extremists, they have also gained mass respect and admiration for the strides they have taken around the world, regarding animal welfare.

To the animal species apart from human that are sentient but do not have voices, they have taken it upon themselves to be that voice – and the cry they have raised is not only being heard and listened to worldwide – but addressed as well.

It has also given rise to another well known word and idea: speciesism! The idea that human beings as a species are not necessarily superior and that even if they are, it doesn’t give them any right to exploit other sentient beings, either for food and material products or for science. As far as most vegans are concerned, speciesism is as bad as other rights abuses such as racism or sexism. Just because a sentient being is not human, they cannot be exploited or slaughtered for human use.

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They even have an annual worldwide day now; November 1. Vegans around the world felt the need to mark their progress, and in 1994 on the 5oth anniversary of the founding of the first official vegan society in the UK, they started celebrating world vegan day.

They are viewed as pests by some, unrealistic by others and extremely ethical and principled by yet others, but most vegans are not concerned with the labels. They are just on an onward march that humanists throughout millennia have been marching on. Before, they might have individually marched to lonely drums like Al Ma’arri but now their numbers, organizational skills and ability to connect and advocate using technology are stronger than ever before – and the world is noticing the difference.

Happy Belated Vegan’s Day to all the vegans out there!

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