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Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, looks at whether there is a phenomenon that can be called ‘Vegan Sticking’ we all should be avoiding.

I bet you never have heard this term before.

We are seeing the adjective ‘vegan’ being used in more diverse and innovative ways than in the past (veganising, veganphobes, vegantinatalist, etc.), but I bet you never heard of “Vegan Sticking”. If you have, you may be a person of the future. I mean that you may be reading this article many years after it was first published, and by them, this term may have become popular. But if you read this in the summer months of 2022, the chances are that you never heard about this idiom. 

I cannot blame you, because I have invented this term, and as far as I am aware nobody has been using it before — I googled it, and nothing came out. Can you guess what is it? I did not want to spell it out straight away in the title to give you a chance to guess. It has to do, obviously, with veganism, but also with ‘sticking’. Push a sharp or pointed object into or through something? No, that’s not it. Being fixed in a particular position or unable to move or be moved? A little bit, but not quite. Cause to adhere something to something else or somebody? Yes, that’s the main meaning I was thinking of. Am I talking about adhering a vegan person to something? Not really. What I mean is attaching the “vegan label” to someone. To put the label of “vegan” to people as to say “they are vegan.” But labelling things with names that describe them is not a thing that deserves a specific term, you may say. You are right, but this is not all. Vegan Sticking may become a phenomenon worth looking into when we attach the “vegan” label to people that are not vegan, even when we know that is the case. In other words, purposely mislabelling someone as a vegan. 

I don’t see Vegan Sticking as a simple mistake. I don’t see it as just saying that something is vegan when it is not, but you honestly thought it was. It can be something more than just an error. It can be a psychological or sociological phenomenon. It could be part of vegan propaganda. It could be a type of veganwashing. It could be a tribal manifestation. It could be cultural misappropriation. It could be something innocent with no consequence whatsoever or something dangerous we must avoid.

In this article, I will explore whether “Vegan Sticking” deserves a term.

The Vegan Tennis Final that Was Never Vegan

Wimbledon poster crossing the additions that were added in social media during vegan sticking

Something happened recently that made me consider writing this article: the 2022 men’s final of the Wimbledon tennis tournament — arguably one of the most important competitive tennis matches in the world. This year, it was between the Serbian Novak Djokovic and the Australian Nick Kyrgios, on 10th July 2022. Who won is irrelevant here, but a few days before the match, I began seeing many posts in the vegan echo chambers, some by even reputable vegan organisations, celebrating the encounter between these “two vegans”. 

I knew right away this was inaccurate. What I did not know is that it was plain wrong. Neither of the players was vegan, and yet, many vegans were quite happy to stick to them the label of vegan, even when information was shared that proved that was the case. I knew that the final itself (a top match between two vegan players in Wimbledon) could not be labelled as a “vegan final”, as I had already written a long article about how high-level competitive tennis is not a vegan sport as it uses balls made of wool. But I knew that Novak Djokovic was not vegan, and he had never been.

I know that to be able to say that someone who says is vegan is not really vegan you need to use a particular definition, and not everyone may agree with it. But this is not the case here. It was Djokovic himself who said that he is not vegan. He just eats a plant-based diet, but he does not identify as vegan. In my book “Ethical Vegan”, I added the quote he gave to the press answering the question of whether he was vegan after winning the 2019 Wimbledon tournament: “I don’t like the labels, to be honest. I do eat plantbased, for quite a few years already, but because of the misinterpretations of labels and misuse of labels, I just don’t like that kind of name. I do eat plantbased. I think that’s one of the reasons why I recover well. I don’t have allergies that I used to have anymore. And I like it.”

We know that, regardless of how it is precisely defined, veganism is a philosophy, and as such you are vegan if you adhere to it — not if you behave in a particular manner, as an actor would do. Therefore, although we can argue about whether a person claiming to be vegan really is, we can know for certain that a person who claims not to be a vegan cannot be one. If you do not voluntarily adhere with conviction to the philosophy of veganism and you do not identify yourself as vegan, you are not a vegan. So, unless he now has changed his mind and has decided to embrace veganism, Djokovic is not a vegan — at the most, he may be a plant-based person.

This is what I knew at the time I saw all those social media posts, but then, when people commented, I discovered something else. I thought Nick Kyrgios could indeed be vegan because when it was reported he had become vegan in the last couple of years or so, he seemed genuinely distressed about the loss of all the animals in the wildfires in Australia. But then, I saw a clip of him eating sushi during a recent press conference. Was it sushi with the flesh of fishes, or a vegan version? I dug a bit more, and first I found that the original reports about him being vegan did not show him saying that he was vegan, only that he stopped eating meat and dairy. And then I found an interview in which he described his favourite food. In an article published on 27th January 2022 in atptour.com, he said, “I’m a big fan of stir-fry noodles, they’re like my staple diet. I would probably buy some fresh Atlantic salmon and cut it into slices, maybe for some sashimi or chuck it on the grill… I like a good piece of salmon, cooked medium-rare, maybe some asparagus on the side, just a nice clean meal. And I love oysters, oysters are like my thing.”  Therefore, depending on how we define plant-based people, he may not even be plant-based — at the most, pescatarian.

The interesting thing was that, when I share the links with this sort of information in the comments of the posts where they were described as vegan, instead of removing the posts or editing them with the right information, some vegans were defending them as “correct”. I then realised that something more than a mistake was happening here. Vegans were sticking the label ‘vegan’ to people, claiming that they had seen it assigned to these athletes in many other posts and publications, even from prominent vegan organisations, and therefore they believed it was right. Even when I show them the evidence “from the players’ mouths” and they realised that the labeling was a mistake, some stuck to it nevertheless — another suitable use of the verb ‘sticking’. Was this a thing we should be worried about?

History Will Judge Us

Vegan sticking historical figures

Labelling a tennis final as “vegan” when the balls used were not vegan and one player was only plant-based and the other pescatarian would be an archetypal case of Vegan Sticking. Were there others? Yes, indeed. In fact, I found another example just a few weeks ago. I saw a post on social media with a photo of the faces of 30 historical people, under the label “famous vegans”. The trouble is that, of all those, only one (Steve Jobs) was ever confirmed to have been vegan for a considerable period of their adult life — and most of them had been confirmed that were not vegans. 

Many were known to have been vegetarian for some time (but not vegan), but for the rest, there is no evidence that they were anything more than just carnist omnivores. And not because they predate the invention of the word ‘vegan’ in 1944, but because it is reliably believed they consumed animal products in food (such as dairy and eggs) and in clothes (such as leather and wool). True vegans (ethical vegans) as we define them today existed before 1944, such as Abul ‘ala Al-Ma’arri from the 11th century or Roger Crab from the 17th century, but none of these was shown in the photo. I know this as I researched this issue for the history section of my book Ethical Vegan (which shows that the philosophy of veganism has been evolving for millennia, and there have been ethical vegans around the world for centuries, but many historical figures who may have advanced this philosophy forward were not vegan themselves).

Someone stuck the label vegan to most of those non-vegans in an act of “Vegan Sticking”, and it was done literally, as I later found an earlier version of the image that had been titled “The Great Vegans & Vegetarians” — but that title had been replaced with “Famous vegans!” I wonder if the original version may not even have had the word vegan at all. I have seen this post repeated, shared, and modified many times, still with the wrong labeling, reinforcing the error. 

As in the case of the tennis posts, when in the comments the fact that most of the people shown were not vegan was pointed out, some of the posts were not removed and several vegans “stuck” to their position that this was not an error. They somehow must have assumed that, in the past, vegetarianism and veganism were the same, or that we should accept vegetarians as part of the “vegan family” as long as they were famous people (but the same welcoming attitude would not be granted to any vegetarian they may found in the street today). Again, something is going on here. 

You don’t only see posts with Vegan Sticking of historical figures, but also of current celebrities. I remember seeing one titled “Famous Vegans” with a photo of Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron, and Michelle Pfeiffer — none of them vegan as far as I know — together with actual vegan celebrities. Keanu Reeves said in an interview that he does eat meat and loves steak. It has been reported that Theron is not even a vegetarian, and Michelle Pfeiffer had been plant-based before but in 2020 she said in an interview that she had switched her “vegan phase” for a “paleoish” diet. Although all of these could, of course, become vegan in the end (and perhaps it happened yesterday), the thing about celebrities is that, firstly, they may never have been vegan but only experimented with plant-based food for a while, and secondary, they are celebrities, so people make up all sorts of things about them that are not true, and they do not even bother to deny them (there may even be fake Twitter accounts pretending to be them). And if someone sticks the vegan label to them sometime in the past, you will see this circulating for centuries — it may have been the case of some historical “vegetarians” who never had even tried to be vegetarian once, but the label got stuck to them somehow.  

Possible Explanations for the Vegan Sticking Phenomenon 

Vegan sticking celebrities

Whether Vegan Sticking is a phenomenon or not would depend on how common it is and whether we have any valid hypothesis about why it happens. To be honest, I don’t know. I guess proper research may be needed to find out. However, every time that the question “is this a thing?” is asked, the first thing to do is to give a name to “this”, so people know what we are asking, and it can be studied. This is what I have done here so far. I have given it a name. But, for what it may be worth, I will go a bit further and give it a definition too.

Vegan Sticking: attaching the descriptive label of “vegan”, physically or otherwise, to someone who is not vegan, and insisting that this label is adequate even when it has been questioned.

Therefore, this definition excludes the cases where the wrong labeling is caused by an honest mistake, and it is immediately corrected when discovered. For Vegan Sticking to be a thing, the label must have got “stuck” to the wrong subject, even when those who know best try to remove it. It became kind of super-glued to it. Why does this happen? Here are a few potential hypotheses:

  1. Semantic hypothesis. The entire phenomenon of Vegan Sticking may be simply explained by different people having different interpretations of what being vegan is (regardless of the existence of an official definition). Some may consider that being plant-based and being a dietary vegan are synonymous, and they may think a plant-based person is a type of vegan. Others may even interpret ‘vegan’ as meaning ‘veggie’ (vegetarians and vegans lumped together). Some do not accept the term ethical vegan to distinguish them from dietary vegans. They all may have joined the same “club” (such as a particular Facebook group) but they still keep different interpretations of what veganism is, and only reveal this difference when challenged about the wrong labeling of something or someone. The increase in diversity within the vegan movement may explain why we may see a rise in Vegan Sticking episodes (which, under this hypothesis, the issue is not that someone has been wrongly labeled, but that different people interpret the label differently).
  1. Validation hypothesis. For some vegans, especially new ones, Vegan Sticking may be a form of seeking validation. If important people are vegan, the philosophy they share with them may indeed be right. If sports people are vegan, it may indeed be healthy. If people of different cultures are vegan, it may indeed be universal. Making this philosophy — and its associated lifestyle — mainstream removes the feeling of isolation, and for that to be convincing, we need to see it in many famous people. Some vegans manifest this wishful thinking by projecting it on others, because they still feel insecure about the philosophy, and seek reassurance. The last thing they want to do is to check that those important people labelled as vegan are really vegan, as they “needed them to be.” Then, if, unfortunately, someone exposes the error, they may feel insecure again, so they choose denial rather than correction.  
  1. Psychological hypothesis. Naturally, vegans like it when important people are also vegan, so their hopes that they indeed are vegan override any skepticism. And people don’t like to admit that they have made a mistake, so they rather build a false justification for the error and stick to the mistake as it was not wrong. This may be a common psychological issue that has to do with insecurity, self-esteem, cognitive dissonance, and confirmation bias. However, when you add to it uncontrolled social media, wild echo chambers, and the post-truth era, this may cause the multiplication of false memes (false pieces of information) which reinforce the error (the more copies of the wrong labeling we see, the more people assume it is the right labeling). Perhaps this phenomenon is not exclusive to veganism, and we could see it everywhere else (Atheist sticking, Queer sticking, Feminist sticking, Democrat sticking, American sticking, etc.).
  1. Sociological hypothesis. As veganism has become a socio-political movement, there are now tribal and identity forces operating within it, which make people see the world as “them and us.” To reinforce our tribe, we may be tempted to “inflate” the number of members of the tribe by adding more people who have not joined the tribe by themselves, especially if they are talented and recognised as “skillful” in their fields — which could be seen as “cultural misappropriation”, appropriating iconic members of another tribe. When challenged about this inflation, vegans may widen their definitions (for instance, even if you are plant-based only, or only vegetarian, you can join us) or temporarily relax the rules of membership (if you once tried the plant-based diet you are still “one of us”). Even the Vegan Society allows people who do not follow their definition of veganism to the full — but only follow a plant-based diet — to become voting members (and in doing so, they can have a bigger membership). And when, to show “strength”, vegans describe how big their tribe is (some say about 79 million), they are happy to accept the stats that lump dietary vegans with ethical vegans.  
  1. Narrative hypothesis. Humans being what they are, they run their societies mostly by building myths under particular narratives which create simple landmarks to navigate civilization’s progress. As the vegan author Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind”, many important things in society are presented as mythical stories, with protagonists, antagonists, challenges, quests, and narrative devices like this that allow everyone to “buy in” symbolic entities and abstract concepts as if they were real. Veganism is not an exception, and for the “story” of the vegan quest to work, we need heroes. Sometimes you find them in real life, but sometimes you create them from less real people (such as idealised historical figures or glamorised celebrity personalities — not quite identical to the people behind them). For the sake of the narrative, sometimes the truth is bent, and this is what may happen with the veganised heroes the vegan community may create. Like in any story, to engage the audience the disbelief must be temporarily suspended (which is easier to do when many copies of the fictional information are circulating). Perhaps social media is just a big stage where the vegan narrative is told, rather than a reflection of reality.
  1. Public Relation hypothesis. In the case of celebrities, the phenomenon may have been caused by vegan organisations developing relationships with celebrities, using them to promote their campaigns, and later discovering that they are not vegan anymore, or never were. From a PR point of view, these organisations may prefer not to “disown” them and keep using them — as this may improve their image and get more support. As there is a lot of competition between organisations in terms of supporters and donors, having achieved a relationship with a celebrity is an asset that an organisation may be fighting to keep, and in consequence, they may give a blind eye to any transgression from veganism and treat them almost as “honorary vegans” if they are no longer vegan. Regarding historical figures, if an organisation did vegan stick any, they would be less likely to correct the error because accepting they made a mistake may damage their professional image — or their PR people may think so.
  1. Political hypothesis. The vegan movement is run by “communities” of vegans, so politics (how communities decide things and deal with power) play a role in many decisions, including what to post on social media and what to remove (in Facebook groups, this is often an issue of contention). As part of it, vegans, often only subconsciously, look up to “leaders” who would “direct” the “tribe”. As the movement does not have any actual leaders, vegans could see in great historical figures, or successful current celebrities, archetypes of such leaders, so if they learn that they share the values of their tribe, they may adopt them as symbolical leaders, and defend their “integrity” when challenged. 
  1. Veganwashing hypothesis. As there is an increasing recognition that the vegan movement is growing, and joining it (or supporting it) may bring economic benefits (thinking about vegan consumers) or political benefits (thinking about vegan voters), veganwashing appeared — as greenwashing did a few decades ago with the rise of the environmental movement. This means institutions, companies or people pretending to be closer to vegan values than they actually are and selling themselves as vegan-friendly when they are not. In this attempt to jump into the bandwagon of veganism, veganwashers may exaggerate their vegan-friendliness and project this onto people close to them — including those close only by profession. They may create memes expressing their “wishful thinking” with their labelling, which then spread beyond their control.
  1. Historical hypothesis.  We may be living in a time in history that could be labeled as the “post-truth era” when, after years of false realities being spread by right-wing politicians (the likes of Putin, Trump, Johnson, or Bolsonaro), humanity may be experiencing a second “dark ages” state where the truth does not matter anymore. In this era, you would expect to see many “false news” on social media not being removed even when challenged with evidence. The vital idea that “evidence proves things” has been gradually extirped from people’s brains, and this includes the brains of some vegans. Although vegans have managed to remove some of the lies of carnist indoctrination from their minds, they are still vulnerable to mass misinformation, so some may fall for other lies, especially if they come from people they trust. In this unsettling climate, you should expect to find Vegan Sticking as much as any other type of “sticking” to any mislabelling.
  1. Generational hypothesis. The entire phenomenon could be an expression of a generation clash. It could be that Millennials and Generation X, the youngest members of today’s societies, don’t see a problem at all in sticking the label of vegans to non-vegans on social media, because they think this is what social media is primarily for. Especially since the spectacular boom of the video app TikTok — I think we could already be talking about the TikTok generation. This video-sharing app is characterized by people pretending to be someone else, using filters to change their appearance, lip-syncing with someone else’s voice, dressing up as fictional characters, copying other users’ videos, etc. It may be that the TikTok generation thinks that playing with identities is what social media is for, and only those of Generation X and Boomers like myself see Vegan Sticking as a problem (because we came from an earlier time when YouTube and websites were used to debunk falsehoods and bypass the distorted news of conventional media — until conspiracy theorists ruined this for all). 
  1. Propaganda hypothesis. Propaganda is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a cause or point of view, and as there is carnist propaganda, there is also vegan propaganda. If someone, deliberately and with full knowledge, creates a false social media post claiming that someone who is not vegan is vegan, and this is done to deceive people into believing that vegans are somehow intellectually or physically “superior” to other humans, this would be vegan propaganda — which would cause more harm than good to the vegan movement, even at short term. If such propaganda enters the vegan echo chambers, it may multiply, and many vegans may end up believing that it is true — these may even become defensive and consider those who challenge the false information as a threat to veganism.

Should we care about it?

Photo By metamorworks via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 701349271)

If any of these hypotheses are true, and they, alone or combined with others, have caused the phenomenon of Vegan Sticking, should we care about it? I think we should because anything that moves us away from the truth will damage our movement in the long run. The vegan world we desperately need to build so it can solve the real problems of animals, the environment, and people, will never be stable if we build it with lies. Even just a few small lies here and there may threaten its foundations, so I truly believe that we should do as much as we can to move away from conspiracy theories, propaganda, superstition, exaggerated health claims, and Vegan Sticking. 

If other movements in the past have been successful in building empires with lies, they all ended up crumbling after a while. The future vegan world cannot afford to be temporary. It cannot just be a transient state of human society. It must be our final destination, and therefore, it must be built with the strongest foundations humanity has ever mastered. Lies, deception and misinformation could be cracks in such foundations, and we should avoid them at all costs, even if now they appear small — like a micro fissure in an aeroplane engine’s blade that ends up being the cause of its future crashing.

I don’t think that Vegan Sticking is a very big problem right now — and I believe that the examples I provided come from carelessness, not malice — but in a post-truth world with rampant uncontrolled echo chambers and an explosion of information replication, it may become a problem. It may be an early symptom of something worse, and if we can tackle it now, we may prevent it. 

What can we do about it? Firstly, remove any post in which we Vegan Stuck anyone, or correct them. In the future, assume that celebs are not vegan even if others say they are, and look for confirmed quotes from them using the term “vegan” to verify — I would not even trust reputable animal rights or vegan organisations without seeing such “direct” quotes. I personally would give new celebrity vegans five years to see if they are still vegan before describing them as vegans instead of “reported vegan”, “assumed vegan”, “possible vegan”, or the safer “plant-based”.  I would also refrain to describe historical figures as vegan unless there is some agreement among historians that statements describing their vegan behaviour or beliefs are genuine. Another thing to do could be using inverted commas to describe someone as vegan if you are not entirely sure if they are ethical vegans. And if someone challenges us for Vegan Sticking someone, then remove the post or article, check it out, and repost if necessary, with a correction if the challenge was right. 

I must confess I have not done all this in the past (so, I may have contributed to the problem), but I endeavor to do it in the future. For instance, I did not remove an article I wrote about Eric Adams being the first vegan mayor of New York until recently. When I wrote it, we all thought (and assumed) he was vegan, but then he was seen eating fish (and he admitted he does eat fish regularly), so I should have removed the article then (or replaced “vegan” for “pescatarian”), which I did not do until now.

Am I exaggerating? Am I overthinking it? Perhaps, but just think about this: we are currently creating our future with many Artificial Intelligence systems (AI) that are learning from “what is out there” right now. By observing the world and learning from it without human direction (what is called machine learning), these systems already can caption videos automatically, detect diseases without doctors, and drive cars by themselves. If what is “out there” is not entirely true now, AI will not know and may be fooled. AI systems often make decisions based on “quantity” of information, not “quality”, and if misinformation spreads above the truth, the new systems may not know the difference. 

If we aspire to get to the vegan world where all the major global problems (animal exploitation, deforestation, mass extinction, global heating, world hunger, racism, food injustice, pandemics, etc.) should be solved forever, allowing AI to learn in a world with many lies is far too dangerous. We should make veganism a sanctuary for the truth

The stakes are far too high to ignore any little lie.