Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, considers whether all vegans should become activists, or whether it is OK not to be one.
I am a vegan activist, no question about it.
Not only I have been an ethical vegan for several decades, but I have also spent a considerable time being active for the veganism cause. At this moment, almost in my 60s, I can say that over 80% of my waking hours I spend doing some sort of vegan activism (as I have been lucky enough to manage to make this a profession). Have I been a vegan activist since I became a vegan on the 1st of January 2002? Have I been an activist every day since? It very much depends on what we consider an activist is, as this is a label that defines an identity, not simply describes the subject of an action.
I have done many types of vegan activism, and one of the types I have enjoyed the most has been writing books about veganism. In my 2020 book “Ethical Vegan; A Personal and Political Journey to Change the World”, I wrote this at the beginning of a chapter about activism and campaigning:
“In August 2018, Ronnie Lee, one of the founders of the ALF, gave a talk at the Vegan Campout festival in Newark Showground, Nottinghamshire. In it, he proposed a new definition of veganism he created with the campaigner Tony Harris. It was similar to the definition of the Vegan Society, but with two key additions. A more explicit commitment to the environment by adding ‘natural habitats’ (‘seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation of non-human animals, which extends beyond dietary considerations to the avoidance of all forms of animal abuse, including harm to their natural habitats’), and a commitment to do what we generally consider activism and campaigning (‘It includes a moral duty to actively oppose all forms of animal exploitation and to encourage and educate others to become vegan, with the core aim being the eradication of speciesism’). The Vegan Society ‘rejected’ this proposal and decided to keep its agreed definition, but some supported the idea. Nevertheless, this opened the debate about whether genuine vegans need to also be activists or campaign to promote veganism and animal protection.”
I thought I would expand further on the question of whether all vegans should become activists, so this blog will lay out my thoughts about it — answering the question in the end.
What Does it Mean to Be an “Activist”?
At its most basic level, an activist is a person who “acts” as a way to address an injustice or a social problem (a problem caused by the dominant society or those in power). Therefore, the “action” the activist performs is “reactive”, and it does not really originate in the person who acts but in the problem that needs to be addressed. The action may vary in its form and effectiveness, but what makes it defining of activism is that it was performed with the intention to address the problem, either by raising awareness of it, complaining to those responsible, challenging it, disrupting it, reducing it (in intensity or frequency), or stopping it altogether (i,e, solving the problem). Activists are, therefore, basic human tools of socio-political change, the foot soldiers of revolutions, and the grassroots agents of social progress. The modern world we live in was built from the groundwork of activists who challenged the “status quo” of previous worlds, and thanks to activists women can now vote, ecosystems were saved, human slavery was abolished, and discrimination against LGBT+ people ended (at least in some countries).
However, performing an activism act does not make you an activist. To become an activist, your activism has to become an important part of your identity (so, you must be happy in defining yourself as such), and you must do it often enough so you become proficient in it (and that is relative to experience, skill, and knowledge). Many ethical vegans (those who follow the official definition of veganism of the Vegan Society which created the term in 1944, not just those having the diets of vegans — i.e., dietary vegans) are indeed vegan activists because they fulfill both criteria.
What happens is that many ethical vegans, at some point during their development, will often start thinking about which way they can contribute positively to the world beyond getting better at avoiding harming anyone. They may realise being passive is no longer enough for them, and they may feel that in addition to stopping harming others, they should begin actively helping those in need. They may feel the next step for them is being more proactive, and they may decide to become activists for the causes of veganism, the environment, social justice, and animal rights (all part of veganism’s scope). In most cases, once they become activists and experiment with different forms of activism, they choose the one that works for them and satisfies their urge to do more.
The forms in which they could become more active vary, but broadly speaking they would fit two basic concepts: grassroots activism and campaigning activism. The former will normally be a grassroots unpaid activity, often undertaken during your spare time out in the world with the general public or where animals are exploited, while the latter would normally be working with an established campaigning organisation in a paid job done in offices or political institutions. I make a distinction between grassroots activism and campaigning based on whether your activism is an important part of your main “job” (what you do most of the working hours of the working week, and what you would write in any form under “occupation”) or is done outside of it normally as a voluntary activity. Therefore, my distinction is mostly based on time and identity, not on being paid or being considered “professional”.
Those vegans who regularly undertake either of these (or both) may be vegan activists if they are happy to use this label to define themselves. However, I would add another condition. Their activism must be “vegan activism”, and therefore it must advance the veganism cause, must help in building the vegan world of the future, and must be done in a “vegan way”. With this I mean that, from a vegan perspective, any activism done by an ethical vegan should be consistent with the philosophy of veganism, and one of its major tenets, ahimsa, which means “do no harm” or “non-violence”, the first axiom of the philosophy. Therefore, vegan activism, or animal rights activism performed by vegans, should always be non-violent, and in this article, every time I mention activism, I mean non-violent activism. Vegan activists should be using “ethically acceptable tactics” which are non-violent tactics that do not involve exploiting or deliberately harming sentient beings and are not based on deception (in other words, vegan activism must be based on compassion, justice and truth, as the vegan author Kim Stallwood wrote in his book “Growl: Life Lessons, Hard Truths, and Bold Strategies from an Animal Advocate”).
Types of Vegan Activism
There are many types of vegan activism (I have written an article about them titled “Which Type of Animal and Vegan Activism Is the Most Effective?”): Letter-writing, boycotting, online activism, corporate campaigning, lobbying, legal advocacy, research and investigation, pressure campaigning, animal care, vegan outreach, leafleting, tabling, chalking, T-shirting, making activism art, protesting, demonstrating, filmmaking, book writing, disrupting, resistance activism, animal liberation, etc. Disruptions, resistance activism, sabing, open rescues and animal liberation operations are generally lumped together under the term “Direct Action”
I am definitively happy to be labelled an activist as I tried most of these. In my first years as a vegan, as I worked on animal protection (even before I went vegan I was already an animal protectionist) I felt that my work was already contributing to activism, so I did not do much classical vegan outreach with strangers in my spare time. I was still learning, you see, so I did not feel confident enough. But I did lots of “commercial vegan activism”, such as constantly going to cafes or shops that had no vegan options (and I already knew this) and then leaving after asking if they had any (in the early 2000s that was effective as most cafes would not have vegan options, not even soya milk, so this kind of “walking out” send them a strong message about losing customers).
Then, I became a freelance undercover investigator and I felt I found the perfect way for me to be an activist, drawing from all my skills and expertise as a zoologist. I became a scientific investigator, someone who researches and gathers evidence through undercover investigations and reports the evidence in a quantitative way for publication so that campaigners acting on the information can challenge harmful practices using credible reports (it’s like investigative journalism but has a scientific bearing). Even a book titled “How to Do Animal Rights” by Ben Isacat mentions me as the archetypical animal rights scientific investigator.
Later, when I was employed again by animal welfare organisations, I did a lot of subtle internal activism, helping to veganise them. Every time I went to a vegan fair I bought lots of vegan chocolates and I gave them to my colleagues when I went back to the office to work. On the 1st of November of every year (World’s Vegan Day) I would order many vegan cupcakes and hide them throughout the office for people to find, I wore many different T-shirts with vegan messages, (nothing too pushy or aggressive but unequivocally vegan stuff) and I often made demands to managers for more vegan options in their catering). It worked, as serval colleagues of mine went vegan and some of the organisations became more vegan-friendly (at least when I was there).
I also did a lot of what I call personal “corporate vegan activism”, which essentially is part of “letter-writing campaigning”. This is writing to companies either complaining about something related to their products or trying to persuade them to become more vegan-friendly. For instance, in 2012, I corresponded with Virgin Atlantic complaining about the existence of non-vegan items in some of the inflight vegan meals, and the next time I flew with them this had been corrected. I also boycotted for five years the UK coffee chain Costa for having used primates in their adverts and let them know about it.
At one point I felt that all that was too easy for me and I needed to do more, so I began doing vegan outreach on the streets. I volunteered for several grassroots groups in London, and for several years I would go out to do outreach two or three days a week until the pandemic struck. Then, providence put me in a position to advance the vegan cause through litigation, and I managed to secure the legal protection of ethical vegans in Great Britain when I won an Employment Tribunal case I initiated after I was fired for being vegan, which made a judge rule that ethical veganism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.
As a consequence of my legal victory, my activism shifted to writing. I wrote my book Ethical Vegan, and now most of my activism is done through writing for vegan publications (like this article) and producing online audiovisual content. So, as you can see, there are many ways in which one can be a vegan activist, and after some trial and error, any vegan can find the type of activism they feel more comfortable with.
Active and Passive Activism
Considering the many types of vegan activism that exist, are not all vegans activists in one way or another then? Well, I don’t think so. It’s true that all activism is active by definition, but I guess we can see some forms more active than others — and label “passive activism” the least active ones. All vegans may be activists in the passive activism sense by the mere fact that they are not giving money to animal exploitation industries by the purchasing choices they make (or at least they should, because unfortunately many “new vegans” still give them money in exchange for “plant-based products” when they could have bought them from vegan companies).
At the moment you decide you are now vegan you stop consuming animal products, but performing passive activism does not make you an activist in the most common interpretation of the word. You need to do something more to be seen as an activist. You need to do “active activism” that goes beyond passively not buying animal products, and more explicitly promoting the philosophy of veganism, supporting the vegan movement, advancing the vegan cause, building the vegan world, challenging animal exploitation, helping others to become vegan, or helping individual animals in need. Something that you purposely and consciously do by putting some effort into making a difference, and those who witness you doing it understand that you intend to correct a wrong. “Active activism” stands out from mainstream life as something extraordinary, something special, something that requires motivation and certain “bravery” to do as it may not be easy or it may produce a negative reaction as it may inconvenience those who feel challenged by your actions.
You can still be a vegan if you have not done any active vegan activism yet because veganism is defined as a philosophy, not a behavior, so you can acquire the philosophy before you start manifesting it in your life. Even if you do your first act of active activism the first day you become a vegan (the days you decide to hold the philosophy), there would be a gap between the instance of becoming vegan and becoming a vegan activist, so it is possible to be vegan without being an activist. However, the interesting question is whether it is possible to be a long-term senior vegan without being an activist after some time has passed.
Look at it this way. Veganism could be seen as having three non-hierarchical complexity levels. It’s a philosophy that develops into a lifestyle that develops into a social movement, and these three concepts grow one from the other, as veganism itself, or your own veganism, matures with time. You may opt out of the two more evolved levels, on purpose or because you do not have any choice. You may be a child who adopted the philosophy but whose guardians make all decisions for you and they do not allow you to follow the other two levels, or you may be the only vegan in a community so you cannot meaningfully engage in the social movement for being isolated from it. However, all these limitations may be temporary and after a few years, things could improve. With time, vegans should be able to reach the other two levels, and when they reach the “social movement” level, is when they use active activism to contribute to such movement.
Therefore, I think it is possible to be a vegan without being an “actual” activist because veganising yourself is a process and it may take some time to get to the activism stage. I guess that, theoretically, you could be a non-activist vegan who kept your philosophy secret all your life, and who did not even change your purchasing patterns (you just did not consume the non-vegan products you publicly bought not to reveal your hidden identity) but I have never met one of these (I would not if they were good at hiding it). In most cases, though, at some time vegans will feel the need to do more than just passive activism. However, what happens if you do not? What happens if, after years, the only activism you do is passive activism? Is that OK too?
Should Vegans Be Activists?
Here is my answer: In my opinion, you don’t have to be an activist to be vegan, but if you are vegan you should become an activist. Why? because there is great urgency in building the vegan world (trillions of animals are suffering every year while we are slowly building it, the environment desperately needs it right now, and many marginalised humans would benefit from it). We need to build the vegan world fast but there are not enough vegans to build it yet. In other words, challenging animal exploitation and saving the world is a monumental task, and as a vegan, you are expected to help, not just accept the help of other vegans who are building a more convenient world for you for free. If you are a new vegan, you are now part of the vegan community that forms a transformative socio-political movement that could save the world and all its inhabitants, and you should share both the work and responsibility of keeping it alive and growing, as it faces a very hostile environment and many carnists (the majority of the population) want to either destroy it or dilute it beyond recognition.
It may take you some time, even years, to realise this, but this is part of what being vegan is about. The process of veganisation does not stop the day you decide to call yourself a vegan. It continues, so you will be a different vegan in the future. And the more time you allow such veganisation to operate on you, the higher the chances you will become a vegan activist, as this is the natural way this process develops. You don’t have to rush it, and you don’t have to choose a common type of activism. You can find your own way to be an activist and start when you feel you can. But if you are a relatively new vegan and begin to ask yourself, “Should I become a vegan activist?”, the answer is, “Yes, you should, sooner or later, when you are ready.” You don’t have to become a militant activist or even attempt to do any direct action, but you should become an activist nonetheless who does some form of active activism within your possibilities, skills, and preferences (and there are plenty of “indirect action” types to suit anyone).
I do not think there is a need to change the official definition of veganism of the Vegan Society because the fact that it has been the same since 1988 helps the movement. I think this gives it stability and continuity, and I think the definition is clear enough regarding involving more than just a diet and flexible enough to encourage prevegans to take the step toward veganhood. I don’t think we should change the definition to legitimise the “expulsion” from veganism of those vegans who have not begun their activism phase yet (and in doing so make our vegan community smaller).
However, perhaps we could do something better. Perhaps we could build on top of that definition a type of guidance (a sort of aspirational “standards of practice”, if you will) to inspire vegans to progress faster through their veganisation process. A guidance with the points Robbie Lee and Tony Harris wanted to add to the definition, and more. Some of the guidance could be extracted from the five main axioms of veganism I identified (about ahimsa, animal sentience, anti-exploitation, anti-speciesism, and vicariousness), but others to address specifically the instances when we see groups of people defining themselves as vegans when in clear violation of the definition (the so-called beegans who consume honey, the veggans who consume eggs, the ostrovegans who consume bivalves, the entovegans who consume insects, or those “vegans” who ride horses, visit zoos for pleasure, or breed “exotic pets”).
I think it’s good to use the current official definition as a baseline, and then keep building from it new communities with their additional values (the different types of ethical vegans I often refer to, such as social justice vegans, eco-vegans, spiritual vegans, animal rights vegans, and health vegans) and new strategic and tactical avenues for vegans to adopt. When we say that veganism is the moral baseline it implies it is the minimum that one should do, but there is no reason to stop there and we should encourage people to do more by giving them sound guidance if something more formal than the compendium of all books, videos, and blogs about veganism is required (perhaps something for the vegan Society to think about).
I don’t think we should shun those vegans who, after years, are stuck without progressing. Instead, we should help them to move along the veganism path. We should help them become activists and join the vegan community. We should encourage them to make the step and make it easier for them if they are uneasy with the idea. We should show them how to do effectively all the types of activism there are, so they can choose the ones that work best for them and feel fulfilled when undertaking them. And we should encourage them to invent new types as the more types there are, the more vegans will become active activists.
We should be patient and not rush anyone, but we should proactively help out those who seem stuck because it may not be where they want to be. We will build the vegan world with or without them, but it would be nice if they helped a little bit along the way.
Any action can help, and any help will be welcomed (even just sharing this article on social media may be a form of activism you can do). There is something very selfless in veganism that becomes fully realised when you enter the activism phase.
We should help everyone become vegan activists.