The raising, slaughtering and eating of animals is normalised in our culture.

But not in vegan culture. The safe space we make for ourselves, as witnesses to trauma; where we find comfort, validation and inspiration. (Not separatism, but Sanctuary).

So how do we keep this safe, in light of the news that the founders of a flagship “vegan” restaurant chain have begun to farm beef?

It’s a predicament nailed by Judith Lewis Herman in her book ‘Trauma & Recovery’:

“those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides”.

The cows on one side / Their executioners on the other.

“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator,” continues Herman. For “All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering”

As the chain’s restaurants will continue as vegan (a good thing), it is tempting to “do nothing”.

On the other hand, we could ask Cafe Gratitude not to describe a ‘plant-based’ brand as “vegan”.

Though often confused, these two terms are not interchangeable.

‘Plant-based’ – refers to a dietary regimen with an emphasis on plant foods, which is pursued for health, fitness, or weight related reasons; and can be vegan, vegetarian, or omnivorous. Its origins are unclear, as it seems to have emerged organically, from the wider culture.

Vegan’ – by contrast, is unequivocal, with a documented provenance. Coined in 1944, by a specific group of people, with a specific meaning and purpose (to name a new movement, and a diet with no animal content)

The onus is on us to clarify this. And to consider to what extent vegans may be adding to confusion when using ‘plant-based’ as a euphemism. There’s certainly place for ‘plant-based’ in our vocabulary, but we need to know why we are using it, and not do so flippantly.

The word ‘vegan’ is vulnerable, because it confronts the violence concealed by a complicit culture. It requires bolstering because of the powerful stigma attached (which I’ve also written about here) – manifesting as hostility, and intense pressure to move the goalposts.

We’ve already seen the word ‘vegetarian’ succumb. Apparently it meant vegan (i.e. no animal content) when it was coined in the 1830s, and “only came to indicate a diet that included eggs and dairy products after the formation of The Vegetarian Society in 1847“. (Source: ‘Ripened by Human Determination‘ by Dr Sarah Calvert).

Surely we don’t want to go down that road again. When our predecessors survived World War 2 and food rationing to bring it to us. And the Vegan Society‘s founder Donald Watson, warned of this “strong gravitation the wrong way unless existing standards are guarded”, in his first newsletter.

Where ‘vegan’ not only enters our vocabulary, but is defined for posterity.

As guardians of this brave new word, we need to be vigilant: to ‘keep vigil’ for animals. By remembering, and reinforcing its meaning. By acting, creating, protesting and persuading.

For, as Herman explains, “In the absence of strong political movements”, we are prone to “amnesia”.

“To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim, and joins victim and witness in a common alliance”

That “social context” she says, “is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered”

Which, in a nutshell, folks, means: Get your ‘iron knickers’ on! That movement is you and me.

© Louise Wallis


(Peace, Love, Vegan image by artist Sarah Kiser)

Note: I revised this post as of 18.8.17, in the hope that it is clearer and better written