Politics and the Vegan Language

One of my favorite essays of all time is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (full version here). It’s one of just a handful of essays that I’ve ever voluntarily read more than once. It’s been very influential to me as someone who writes (I’m reluctant to call myself a writer since I don’t make any money directly by doing it). I read it every year or two just to see what I still like about it (and what I don’t) and every time I read it, I read it a little differently, because my opinions about such things change over time. Despite my ever-changing feelings about it, one thing that always sticks with me is the importance of word choice. There are so many ways to say essentially the same thing, but word choice does have a profound effect on how a reader or listener receives your message.

In sociolinguistics there is a phenomenon called accommodation in which speakers “seek to emphasize or minimize the social differences between themselves and their interlocutors,” which is just a fancy linguistics nerdspeak way to say that people tend to change the way that they talk depending on who they’re talking to. In theory, this accommodation makes the speakers feel like they are more similar, and therefore, mutual trust is built. And if they like the person (and want that person to like them), they usually start to speak more like that person, often in pretty subtle ways, often without even realizing that they’re doing it.

Since we vegans have a lifestyle and views that can be pretty different from non-vegans, I think we can not afford to be lackadaisical about our word choices when it comes to talking about animals and food. Countless bottles of virtual ink have been spilled on such topics as why saying “kill two birds with one stone” or “more than one way to skin a cat” is not vegan. I find some of these essays pretty absurd and some of them pretty insightful and useful.  But my goal here is not to tread old ground. We’ve probably all read similar essays before. My point here, at least in some ways, may run counter to what these essays are saying. Many vegans feel that we should avoid sayings that cast animals in a negative light. Fair enough, I say. I think I make at least a modest attempt to avoid some of these phrases, but I don’t really think it’s all that important.

No, what this post is about is pretty much the opposite: phrases and words that vegans use that are designed to make non-vegans uncomfortable.

Do you want some udder secretions on your carcass?

Many vegans feel that we have a duty to point out, at any given chance, that what people are eating was once alive or inside something that was alive. Therefore, a hamburger is made of ground up carcass and a steak is a corpse. Milk is a secretion or udder secretion (and you get extra vegan street cred if you can mention pus somehow). The logic here is that, through language, we can get people to see that what they’re eating is, well, something that was once alive or inside something that was alive. But is this the actual effect that it has? Is anyone above the age of eight not aware that a chicken McSchnugget was once a chicken? Or that cheese comes from a cow’s udders? Are we really providing Jack with new info when we say “Hey, Jack, do you like udder secretions on your carcass?”

It is my feeling that what we are actually doing is creating divergence between us and our interlocutors (there I go with my nerdspeak again). We are “othering” them. We’re making them feel less like us, not more like us. Consciousness-raising has its time, no doubt, but do we really want to try to start off a conversation with an act of aggression and condescension? And I do think most non-vegans find these words and phrases to be condescending. You’re telling them something that they already know (and they know that you know that they know), but you’re doing it in a way that implies that you feel you’re giving them new information. When people do that to me, I find it condescending. It doesn’t make me like that person more or want to listen to what they have to say. It makes me feel defensive.

When vegans speak like this, it can also give the impression that our thoughts are really no deeper than the little soundbites that we use to convey them. When I heard people chanting “drill, baby, drill!” back in 2008, it made me think that anyone who would say it is a moron. So what do non-vegans think when veg*ans say things like “how does that carcass taste?” They must think that our reasons for being vegan can be summed up in little sayings. It must make them think of veganism as a quasi-religion where we communicate in mantras like “Meat Is Murder” and “eggs are just chicken periods.”

Now let me just clarify what I’m NOT saying. I’m not saying that we need to obscure truth to protect the ignorance that many non-vegans have (and want to keep) about the food they eat. If it’s relevant to something being discussed, I think it’s valid and important to tell people things they may not know about food production, such as the fact that dairy cows are repeatedly forcibly impregnated so that they will produce milk (a lot of omnivores think that cows just “naturally” produce milk – wouldn’t that be convenient?). I am also NOT saying that what vegans are saying is not a fair, accurate description of the thing it denotes. Yes, a hamburger does come from a carcass. It’s true. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to phrase what you’re saying. If we want people to listen to us, we need to make them feel at ease and make them feel that we’re listening to them, not just talking at them. We need to accommodate them and converge with them.

I am going to do a post in the near future that attempts to give a fairly comprehensive list of things that many vegans say that I think fit what I’m discussing here.

But for now, I’m going to go enjoy the world at large. I’ll see you all back in “The Vegan Bubble” later.

– – thanks for reading – –


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4 Responses to Politics and the Vegan Language

  1. you'remom says:

    I loved this post. The aggressive language used by vegans is what turned me off for quite a long time. How can they expect people to be truly open to their message when they immediately come off as condescending? And this is by no means new information.

    This article clearly shows that businesses know of the negative connotation that the term vegan now brings, and that the majority of people avoid anything that’s labeled as such. It’s clear the intentions are good, like what this business owner had to say, “If you’re not making people aware of food choices, you’re not going to change the world around you.” But how do you expect to make people aware if they stop listening and put up a wall as soon as they hear the “V Word?” There are easier, more effective ways to educate people than using scare tactics. Hell, Christians (minus Catholics) learned this well over a hundred years ago, time to catch up Vegans!

  2. Hey, you’remom, thanks for the comment.

    You bring up a really contentious issue for a lot of vegans. Some vegans think that we should use “The V Word” as much as possible in an effort to mainstream it, and thereby make it less “scary” over time. I think this could work, but it might take a while. Others think that we should use the term plant-based diet (or variations on it), thereby avoiding the “scariness” of the v word.

    Part of the problem is that people don’t really understand what “vegan food” is, or the fact that they probably eat something that is fully vegan every week, if not every day. They just don’t think of it as such.

    Another part of the problem is celebrities (like Oprah) that go on 30-day vegan fad diets where they also eschew sugar, alcohol, wheat etc, thereby giving the idea that veganism is more restrictive than it actually is. This makes the word vegan synonymous with deprivation. Who wants that? You might as well call them “No Taste, Cardboard Cupcakes!”

    I can’t say I really fault anyone for using or not using any specific term. Getting more vegan food options out there is a good thing, and if you think you can do it better by calling it “egg, dairy and honey free” then more power to you. I’m not in the business of selling food (yet!), so I still use the term vegan because it’s just the quickest way to explain my diet. There are times, though, that I instead choose to just say “I don’t eat eggs or dairy.”

    Regardless, you confirm my point that vegans need to be mindful of their word choices. We shouldn’t be inadvertently or needlessly angering people that might be open to our message.

    Now I just hope you’redad will weigh in on this issue!

    You can embed links by using this:
    a href=””>WORD</a
    [you just have to put left arrow immediately before it and right arrow immediately after it (no spaces). place the url between the apostrophes and your text where it says WORD] voila!

  3. yourdad says:

    How broadly would you apply the accommodation concept? Would you advise name-brand promoters of atheism to tone down their prosthelytizing in order to avoid driving a wedge between believers and a more secular worldview? Or do we need divergence to make space for people on the bubble to see that the doorway to a new worldview is open to them?

    • Yes! Yourdad DID weigh in!

      Hmmm… well, I’m not sure I understand your question entirely. Specifically, I don’t know how one could drive a wedge between believers (a group of people) and a more secular worldview (a philosophy or way of thinking). If you can clarify that, I’ll try to answer.

      As I’ve noted elsewhere, I find analogies between veganism/omnivorism and theism/atheism to be of limited value. One is about belief (and there truly is a definitive answer – not that we’ll ever have proof of it) while the other is about behavior and values.

      I guess all I can say is (to quote myself) that “We shouldn’t be inadvertently or needlessly angering people that might be open to our message.” Now, if you’re suggesting that having a more in-your-face approach where you more directly challenge people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors might be effective, I’m open to discussing that.

      But my gut feeling is that this approach is just not the right one for this issue. When it comes down to it, the vast majority of people are under no obligation to take any vegan message seriously. They can write us off as ideologues, or as being “too sensitive” or any other thing they want. In the course of their daily life, they really face next to NO challenge of their behavior. So what’s to keep someone like that in conversation with someone that is being a confrontational asshole? Nothing. That’s why I see a nicer approach being more effective. At least with (a)theism, (most) people understand that the burden of proof is on the believer. With the vegan issue, it’s incumbent on vegans to make the case. Omnivores just get to sit back and way “Why should I?”

      I hope this answers your question. If not., I think I’ll need you to clarify what you’re asking/saying.

      Now if you’regrampa will just have something to say!


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