505 Shares

Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, suggests vegans should reclaim the ‘V sign’ as a symbol for both the vegan movement and the vegan identity.

Symbols matter.

They are powerful forms of communication, and they have a purpose: they can convey a lot of information with minimal effort. Symbols represent something else than what they are and what they look like, and there is no limit on how much value they can carry. Like a bottomless bag, you can pack anything you want into a symbol. The symbols may be small and simple, but they may stand for something huge and complex. They can stand for a simple idea or a basic philosophy. But they can also stand for transformative social movements backed by philosophies based on ideas. They can even stand for revolutions led by such movements which end up creating completely new worlds. You can pack an entire culture or universe into a symbol. 

If that is the case, veganism deserves a universal symbol. I am not talking about only a logo to identify products a vegan can consume. I am not talking about only a mark to tell apart plant-based food on a menu from vegetarian and meat-based food. I am talking about a symbol that represents the entire philosophy, with all its dimensions. A symbol that stands for the vegan identity. A symbol that represents vegan communities and institutions. A symbol that speaks for the vegan movement and its aspirations. A symbol that means the vegan world we are all dreaming about. 

After the Vegan Society was formed from an offshoot of the Vegetarian Society and created the word ‘vegan’ in 1944, you would expect influential vegans would have formulated such a symbol to represent them. However, besides several trademarks used purely for commercial reasons, we haven’t got one yet. Attempts have been made, though. In 2017, the Israeli designer Gad Hakimi created the vegan flag, but not everyone liked it, and it is not universally used by vegans. We need more than a flag or a logo because we are not a nation or a company, we are much more than that. We need a symbol as recognised as the cross is for Christians. As meaningful as the Ying and Yang symbol is for Taoists. As emblematic as the thumb-up sign is for optimists. A symbol that can be used everywhere, by any vegan; that can be shown by anyone without the need of any object or material. One symbol that can be manifested with someone’s hand without much effort.

I have a good one in mind. It would be perfect for veganism — if we can take it, that is. If we can reclaim it from those who are using it for other meanings. If we can make it ours. It’s a very simple and effective hand sign. It’s the ‘V sign’.

The History of the ‘V sign’

Photo By Vidi Studio via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1708875382)

The ‘V sign’ is a hand gesture which consists in raising the index and middle fingers, parting them to form the shape of the letter V, while the other fingers are clenched, but facing the observer (palm outward). It should not be confused with the reverse V sign commonly seen in the UK (and its historically-linked countries), which is a similar gesture where the clenched fingers are not facing the observer but the person using the sign, and the hand moves upwards. This one is an “offensive” insult that means “up yours” (the equivalent of “giving the finger” when only the middle finger is used). There is a legend saying that it comes from a gesture made by longbowmen fighting in the English and Welsh armies at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt. According to the legend, it was used in defiance against the French army, showing how the soldiers still had the fingers the French used to cut off when longbowmen were captured (as they are needed to operate the bows). However, there is no evidence this is true.

The proper ‘V sign’ could simply mean the number two when the observer expects a number. However, it become a much more important symbolic sign to represent the letter “V” as in “victory” on the Allies’ side of World War II, and it became popular with this meaning in 1941. Most people assume Winston Churchill invented it — as we have many photos of him using it — but it did not start with the British. In 1939, the French newspaper Le Monde Quotidien had the headline V pour victoire, and on 14th January 1941, Victor de Laveleye, former Belgian Minister of Justice and director of the Belgian French-language broadcasts on the BBC, suggested on the radio that Belgians should use a V for victoire as a rallying emblem in the territories occupied by Germany. Within weeks, Vs written with chalk began appearing on walls throughout Northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Later, on 19th July, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill talked in a speech about the “V for Victory” campaign and started using it every time he was photographed (initially with the palm in, though, as it seems he was not aware of the insulting meaning — more commonly used by “lower classes” than his). 

Then, since the 1960s, the “V sign” was widely adopted by the counterculture movement to mean a symbol of peace, almost as a reaction against U.S. President Richard Nixon, who, imitating Churchill, used the gesture to signify victory in the Vietnam War. In Poland, during the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, protesters showed the ‘V sign’ meaning they would defeat Communism. In the Dutch-speaking world, the ‘V sign’ means more ‘peace’ rather than ‘victory, as the Dutch ‘vrede‘ means peace.

Throughout history, we see that there is an interesting dynamic regarding the V sign. It has an element of defiance, and also an anti-war element (meaning either directly ‘peace’, or the end of the war by achieving the final ‘victory’). And we can also see it reclaimed by pacifists from warmongers or political leaders who made their names through war conflicts. 

It seems to me that this history legitimises the claim vegans can make of this sign to represent veganism, as veganism is the ultimate ‘peace’ philosophy (peace for all sentient beings), and the vegan movement also started as a contracultural anti-violence movement. Alternatively, if we look at it from the ‘victory’ perspective, we can read it as the hope for victory over animal exploitation that would give us the everlasting peace of the vegan world. As social justice is one of the dimensions of veganism, the victory will be achieved when all oppressed victims of carnism will be liberated — and now that veganism is becoming mainstream it seems fitting we start using the sign optimistically, as the French, Belgians, Dutch, and Britons began using it when gaining the confidence of their future success during WWII. 

I think the ‘V sign’, which happens to also represent the first letter of the word ‘vegan’ in many languages, and is already used in many vegan trademarks, it’s a perfect fit to symbolise veganism, and if the vegan community claimed it, it would not be cultural misappropriation and that would not clash with the history of its use. It would be the natural evolution of the sign. 

The Precursors of the Vegan Symbol 

Photo By Maxim Studio via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 2111292626)

I am not the first one who thought veganism should have a universal symbol, and there are a few precursors out there.

Those who designed the vegan flag in 2017 gave it a lot of thought. They certainly tried to use symbolism to justify their visual choices. The flag consists of two blue and one green triangles that form the letter V, the first letter in the word vegan. The colours of the flag symbolize the connection of humanity to the animals represented by their natural habitats: Sea (blue), Air (blue), Land (green), and White (unity). However, it was precisely the last colour that caused controversy, due to its racial connotations. Because of that, some have suggested an alternative flag where the white was replaced by black — but that version hasn’t been used much either. 

Dr Meneka Repka wrote a “critical race perspective of the vegan flag”. She said, “I contend that the flag covertly upholds Western imperialist and racist ideology through its conceptualization as a flag, its dependence on Western linguistic and alphabetic conventions, and the symbolic associations of its colours.”  The replacement of the colour white with black did not address all these concerns, which may explain why this flag fail short to become the universal symbol of veganism.

Another precursor of a veganism symbol could be the first vegan trademark created by the Vegan Society. It is a sunflower in the shape of a “V”, with one end being the flower and the other a long leaf (the trademark uses the word ‘vegan’ as part of it, but sometimes you only see the V). The concept may have already been discussed as early as 1986 but the trademark was officially announced on 27th February 1990.  The word ‘vegan’ created by the founders of the society is supposed to represent the beginning and end of the word vegetarian, which may have created a problem when designing the trademark as vegetarians also use the letter V to represent vegetarian products. Making the V using a drawing of a sunflower solves the problem as far as trademarks are concerned, but did not make it a universal symbol for veganism. In fact, subsequent vegan trademarks from several countries have used the V without the sunflowers, and this plant by itself is not considered a symbol of veganism. Besides, trademarks are “properties” of companies or organisations, and therefore they cannot be universal symbols used by everyone. 

The vegan outreach group Anonymous for the Voiceless founded in 2016 has been using a hand gesture for the team photos they make at the end of an outreach event. They use two hands for it, with the right-hand index pointing downwards touching the tip of the left-hand middle finger while having the right-hand middle finger and the left-hand index finger extended, so the whole thing kind of spells the initials of the organisation (AV). However, having volunteered with them in the past, I witnessed how many activists got the order wrong, and others did not bother with it (perhaps because they saw this as a brand rather than a symbol for veganism). 

We can see, though, that all these precursors of the veganism symbol have something in common. They are all centred on the letter V. I used it myself as the front cover of my book “Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to save the world” published in January 2020, and I saw that the famous vegan activist Earthlings Ed also used it in the cover of his book titled “This Is Vegan Propaganda: (And Other Lies the Meat Industry Tells You)” published two years later.

I think there is something powerful in this letter, regardless of whether it belongs to any particular alphabet. It’s like an arrow that points to the ground, which could be interpreted as meaning “truth” and grounding. It makes me think about the famous statues of the Buddha pointing to the ground. The Bhumisparsha mudra (mudra is a gesture holding special meanings), is translated as ‘the earth touching gesture’. In Buddhism, this gesture represents the moment of the Buddha’s awakening as he claims the Earth as the witness of his enlightenment. Equally, we, ethical vegans, could claim to have been awakened to the reality of animal exploitation and use the Earth as the witness of that epiphany (without going that far as claiming we are somehow enlightened — because, as far as I am concerned, everyone could become vegan). Alternatively, we could interpret the arrow pointing to the ground meaning pointing toward the Earth and all its inhabitants, as ethical vegans care about all sentient beings on this planet, and the environment that is their home. 

The Evolution of Ahimsa

Photo By galaira via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 2157838235)

There is another precursor of the symbol of veganism. One that is far older than the others, and which carries more gravitas. I am talking about the symbol for the concept of ahimsa, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “do no harm” (sometimes also translated as “non-violence”). This is a very important tenet of many ancient religions (such as Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism), but it is also the most fundamental philosophical principle of veganism. The reason why vegans avoid the exploitation of any other sentient being is because they believe such exploitation harms them, so to follow the ahimsa principle we should stop the exploitation altogether (and not participate in it in any way).  As this principle has been defined for millennia, we can say that veganism is not a modern philosophy, but it is ancient. The term vegan created in the 20th century is simply the latest secular incarnation of the old principle of ahimsa

This concept has a symbol, often seen depicted in Jain objects: an open hand palm-outwards with all fingers straight up, and a wheel drawn on the palm. The hand gesture is similar to what people would instinctively use to mean “stop” (and some stop signs use it), and the wheel represents the dharmachakra, which in Jainism and Hinduism stands for Śramaṇa (one who performs acts of austerity). Therefore, overall, the symbol means “stop harming others to end the circle of suffering.”

If we look at all these precursors together, we can see that the intersection of all of them would be a hand with the palm outwards showing the down arrow created by two fingers depicting the letter V.  In other words, the “V sign” used to represent peace and victory.

Therefore, claiming the ‘V sign’ for veganism seems to be a natural evolution of all the precursors of symbols created to represent veganism and its core philosophical principles, as well as the natural evolution of how this sign has been used through history. And if we interpret the V shape not only as the first letter of the word vegan but as a grounding arrow pointing to Earth, perhaps all the objections from Dr Meneka Repka to the vegan flag as a universally accepted symbol of veganism could be addressed (as we not rooting this sign to imperialist western societies but ancient Eastern philosophies). 

The Vegan Meaning of the ‘V sign’

Dynamic V sign for veganism (c) Jordi Casamitjana

If we accept that the ‘V sign’ should become the symbol of veganism, we should look at it more in detail and see how well it fits the philosophy. Different vegans could have different interpretations of what the components of this symbol may mean, and they could unpack it in different ways. This is my take of it, for what it’s worth:

As veganism is today the secular manifestation of ahimsa, if we “secularise” the symbol of ahimsa by removing the wheel in the palm and we move the fingers to create the arrow that points to the Earth and all its inhabitants, we have “modernised” ahimsa by using the V sign.

But we can extract even more vegan meaning from the sign. The five digits of the hand could represent the five gateways into veganism (animals, the environment, social justice, spirituality and health), but as all of them form part of the same hand, we show that they do not represent different ideologies, but just five dimensions of the same philosophy. If we want to (we don’t’ need to, but someone may find it interesting), we could assign each gateway to a particular digit. 

For instance, the thumb could represent health (often the biggest preoccupation for people, hence the biggest digit — and it could also mean “ego”), the index finger could represent the animals (this finger is used to point directions, showing how important are non-human animals in veganism), the middle finger could represent the environment (which is the centre of everything), the ring finger could represent social justice (which fits the “social” convention of using rings to symbolise union), and the small finger spirituality (which should make us feel humble, therefore “small”). Then, the three human-centric dimensions (health, spirituality, and social justice) embrace each other to protect the other two non-human-centric ones (the animals and the environment) which are creating the arrow. These two stand on their own (as they exist independently of humans). These two fingers join at the bottom where the “Earth” is, showing they are inseparable in Nature. In other words, humanity protecting nature, with all its inhabitants. 

The fact we use a hand as a symbol may also mean that veganism is “natural” and biological. All land vertebrates today are descended from a common ancestor who had five digits in their extremities, which are known as pentadactyl limbs. Some species have subsequently fused these digits into hooves or lost them altogether to become more specialised in their use, but every vertebrate traces its family tree back to a pentadactyl ancestor who lived around 340 million years ago (and often still has some relics of the lost digits). In the same way, some vegans may spend most of their time and effort on one or two of the five dimensions of veganism, but veganism itself has these primordial five gateways, and those who embrace them all can use veganism in all its potential. 

We could even make this gesture dynamic. We could start with the full stop-style palm, and gradually create the ‘V sign’, showing how veganism comes from ahimsa. The act of crossing the fingers and thumb from ahimsa to the vegan sign could represent vegan activism (the action of protecting animals and the environment). 

There are all sorts of additional variations we could add to represent the diverse nature of veganism and vegan identities. For instance, the fact that you can use any hand (and of any skin colour) represents diversity in the movement. An intersectional vegan could use both hands at the same time to emphasise this. Animal rights ethical vegans could perhaps move the index finger once the sign has been formed to show this is the dimension they pay more attention to. Or an eco-vegan could move the middle finger instead. 

The dynamic sign of veganism (gradually moving from open palm to the ‘V sign’) could be made longer by starting with a fist, then the open palm, and then the ‘V sign’. The fist could represent the “revolution” side of veganism (seeing veganism as a transformative social movement), but by transforming it into the ahimsa palm we emphasise this is a “non-violent” revolution. Then transforming it into the ‘V sign’ could mean either that we will win such a revolution (the victory of the vegan world) or that this revolution is not for us only, but to protect the animals and the environment. Altogether, it shows the “transformative” and “enlightening” power of the philosophy — I don’t know if such a combination of three gestures has any specific meaning in any of the existing sign languages, but I hope it is nothing inappropriate. If the long dynamic form of the sign is seen as too complicated, people can stick to the static one — it was just one possible idea.

Reclaiming Veganism

Photo By Nadya Kubik via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 2142478123)

Not long ago I saw somebody posting this on social media: “What is the best way to normalize veganism? It’s unfortunate the word has such a negative connotation. I feel like I can’t even say I’m vegan without people hitting me with a ‘wtfff why,’ ‘ewww how do you survive,’ or ‘oh he is just an annoying vegan trying to control people.’ I now don’t even tell anyone I’m vegan unless I absolutely have to because I feel the majority of the world looks down on us. I feel like we have to normalise the idea before we even try convincing people. Otherwise, we probably just sound crazy (even though we are morally justified).” 

I feel this is sad. This fear of the word ‘vegan’ is sad and unnecessary. If we want to normalise veganism, we cannot run away from it. We cannot hide it. We cannot disguise it. 

I think the best way to normalise veganism is to use the word ‘vegan’ as often as possible to eliminate any stigma associated with it. And to try (without forcing it) to veganise everything — and everyone. Along those lines, I wrote an article titled “Veganising: The Magic of Vegan-Making” and another one titled “50 Tips to Veganise Another Person.” And I think we have to be even more emphatic than we normally are in defending the concept of veganism, as well as the word ‘vegan’ over the term ‘plant-based’ (or any other watered-down variations and euphemisms). We should be clear about what following the philosophy of veganism entails, and if we need to use adjectives such as in the term “ethical vegan” to prevent being confused with others who do not follow the philosophy, then use them rather than stop using the word ‘vegan’ (as I had to do myself during the litigation that led to the legal protection of ethical vegans from discrimination in Great Britain). 

I think we, ethical vegans (as opposed to dietary vegans who eat what vegans eat but do not follow the philosophy) must commit to the vegan ideals openly and frankly, and use the ‘vegan’ word and identity with conviction and pride. And to do that, we may need something more than the word. We may need a symbol inside which we can pack all the meaning of veganism. A simple symbol that we can use at any time anywhere, and when we do everyone looking will immediately know what we stand for.

I know very well most vegans who may come across this article today will not read it (as it is longer than 280 characters), and even those who read it may not care that much about the movement in general and the principles or symbols associated with it. I understand I am just one vegan, no more likely to convince another vegan to adopt a new hand gesture than any other vegan is likely to persuade a carnist to try veganism. I am not an influencer of any sort, so why anyone should take my idea and run with it? But I think it is good to invent new ideas and put them out there, in case they may help the movement, and any vegan organisation may want to develop them further. If nobody likes the concept, well, it was just a bit of fun to write about it. After all, other important movements, like the equality movement or the environmental movement, haven’t got a unifying universal symbol accepted by everyone either — I wonder if that explains their lack of unity.

To be honest, I don’t’ expect to see vegans using the ‘V sign’ to mean veganism within the remaining time I am on this planet — and that’s fine. We may not be ready as a movement for this sort of thing, as we are in an expanding phase of its evolution, rather than in a unifying phase. But perhaps 100 years from now, someone will resurrect this idea and may be able to use my then-old article to support it and give it some “vintage” value. When that happens, if it catches on, I imagine the vegan sign being used when someone enters a bar and wants to see who else is vegan there. Or when going overseas to a restaurant and not speaking the local language. Or when telling others in a vegan meetup that you are an ethical vegan, not a dietary vegan. Or in the group photo of the fully vegan sports team. Or in the dating app photo for quick filtering. Or when greeting strangers during the World’s Vegan Day. Or a subtle way to tell friends and family that you are now vegan. Or when swearing to tell the truth in court. Or when locking gazes with a captive animal still to be liberated.  Or when sharing smiles with someone you like from the other side of the bus. Or when seeing a lorry passing by on the way to the slaughterhouse. When you need to pack everything that veganism means to you in a simple gesture without words, that’s when the ‘V sign for veganism’ symbol may come in handy. 

Therefore, knowing that it is not up to me to tell other vegans what to do, I will nevertheless make the call now for what it might be worth in the future: I call all ethical vegans to take the ‘V sign’ and make it ours

We must reclaim the ‘V sign’ for veganism because, in the 21st century, it should belong to us, ethical vegans. We should reclaim it from vegetarians in menus. We should reclaim it from politicians in their campaigning poses. We should reclaim it from carnist pacifists who never considered humanity’s war on animals. We should reclaim it from tourists and influencers who use it to enhance their selfies. We should reclaim it from those pessimists who don’t believe the vegan world is possible and would settle with a lesser “victory”. 

We should reclaim the ‘V sign’ for veganism.