The Imperfect Vegan

by D.R. Hildebrand

Not long ago I wrote an editorial for this site titled “The Meaning of Meat.”  I began by recounting how, at an airport, I had been reminded of the absurd pricing system at restaurants: items that contain no meat or dairy very often cost the exact same as comparable items that do.  The observation was meant merely as a preface to the broader topic of government subsidies, but apparently moved some readers more than the focus itself.  “Fuck that,” one person commented.  “Support 100% vegan establishments and tell your omni ‘friends’ to suck it up.”  Another wrote, “You made that decision alone to live that lifestyle.  Knowing there are minimal vegan options out there, you should have brown bagged it.  Such an entitled attitude…

We could talk for days about how shameful I am for being dropped off at an undersized airport hours before my flight, waiting even longer for an unforeseeable delay, and not having carried nearly enough granola bars—preferably homemade—with me across the country, only to end up getting hungry and—let the flogging begin—ordering a vegan meal from a non-vegan vendor.  Yet perhaps we could ask ourselves why, instead, in the bigger picture of our ailing society and our otherwise mutual goals to heal it, this is such a big deal.

Shortly after I read these responses I was on the subway and found myself listening to one vegan snobbishly correcting another.  “Jason,” the one said, “you’re not a vegan.  You’re just vegan.”  Jason looked dumbfounded.  He hadn’t realized that the vegan elite decree our parts of speech.  It is not acceptable just to be an adjective.  You have to be a noun.  Being vegan must be every molecule of who you are.  It must define you categorically.  If it only describes you—in part—then you can kiss being worthy goodbye.

Hillary Rettig wrote an exceptional piece on an analogous topic for Vegsource last year called “The Rise of the Nonperfectionist Veganism.”  She focused, in great detail, on some vegans’ abrasive treatment of vegetarians and omnivores and on the way they internalize their own flaws.  In adding to Ms. Rettig’s assessment, I say some are no less critical of, and nasty to, each other.  The choice to be judgmental, absolutist, arrogant and unfriendly instead of cordial, encouraging, measured, and kind sets us back, not ahead.  It almost reminds me of a particular political party in the United States right now that is so hell-bent on universal conservativism that anyone within the party who isn’t berating their liberal-leaning colleagues they ostracize.  Last time I checked, this approach was not working.  Voters have stopped listening to anything they say for it is crass, premeditated, and void of any basic individuality.

There is a restaurant in Philadelphia, Govinda’s, that I support just about every time I am there.  The food is delicious and, nearly as important, it attracts one of the most racially, economically, socially diverse groups of patrons possible—a characteristic, true or false, not often associated with the vegan community.  Govinda’s has been around since the 1980’s when veganism was anything but cool, and it is likely due to the restaurant’s presence that Sweet Freedom Bakery opened half a block away in 2010, further strengthening the city’s vegan visibility.  Govinda’s, however, is not strictly vegan.  It offers both a dairy and a non-dairy cheese.  Yet with all that Govinda’s has done to advance veganism, do we spurn it for its one “imperfection?”

Govinda's

Similarly, there is an Italian restaurant in Manhattan that dates back to 1908.  It stands alongside the vegan hot spot Angelica Kitchen, and a few years ago it nearly closed due to weak business.  In an attempt to remake itself, the owner decided to create a complete vegan menu—right down to the homemade seitan and cannolis—to complement the original, failing one.  The restaurant was packed when I ate there last month, and while part of me felt I should be eating elsewhere, another part of me didn’t see anything wrong with walking into a vegan-friendly restaurant and putting my money on the menu that saved it, reminding the management that there was a reason for this revival.

Examples extend beyond just dining and grammar.  “You’re still wearing those leather shoes?”  “How can you call yourself vegan and shop at Whole Foods?”  “Do you have any idea how bad that vegan dessert is for you?”  “I can’t believe you aren’t donating to animal rights groups.”  “What do you mean you’ve never been to a protest?”  “Cheater.”  “You should volunteer more.”  “You should leaflet more.”  “You should speak out more.”  “You’re bad.  You’re a bad vegan.  You’re like, not even a vegan.”

And on.  And on.  And on.

In his conte moral, La Bégueule, Voltaire reminds us, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”  Striving for perfection, albeit naïve, is of course a personal choice, one that does not, in theory, impose on others.  Dismissing or even attacking someone, however, for not being perfect—particularly for not meeting some arbitrarily crafted rubric of perfection—is wrong.  It is narrow, it is divisive, and it is futile.  It is complete nonsense and it in no way advances our education or our enjoyment for the lifestyle we advocate and admire.  Let us be better than this.  Let us find increasingly creative, intelligent, inspiring ways to motivate each other.  Let us be an example, reliable and dignified, for a slap in the face does nothing but sting.

Written by D. R. Hildebrand

David, who models under his middle name, Raphael, is represented by New York Models. His first book, Walking Marina, is an exposé of the male modeling industry, and is a commentary on beauty. David’s websiteFollow David on Facebook and Twitter.


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  • The Tolerant Vegan

    I love this post. I wish that everyone in our community would read it and take it to heart.

  • Dustin

    One of my favorite articles yet! There are always people who want to see me fail at the decision I’ve made to not eat meat, use animal based products, and have minimized my use of dairy. However, I can also catch criticism from some of the vegan community for my use of dairy. There are the great ones though who have adjusted to consuming less meat because of my choices and the ones who support me despite some dairy use.

  • http://xtothequ.tumblr.com xq

    great piece and interesting to think about. although i’m not vegan, as a fan of food with many veg/vegan friends, i am always happy to go to restaurants that cater to them b/c it makes their lives easier and the food is always so innovative/delicious. i’m lucky that my friends understand why i haven’t committed to being vegan, and i think they know how much i respect them for doing so through my support, enthusiasm and eagerness to learn from them.

    this comment is kind of rambly, my apologies, but what i mean to say is we can coexist! thanks for writing this :)

  • Mark

    Thanks for this post. The fact is that it’s the meat-reducers and “flexitarians” who are really driving down the demand for meat. This alone should tell us that we should applaud any small step in the direction of veganism, and we should focus on the big steps, not the tiny ones..

    Also, I think vegans should feel good supporting non-vegan restaurants that have vegan options. If a non-vegan place sells a lot of vegan food, they may expand their vegan options, but may remove them if no one orders them.

  • rea

    Good post!

    I think a background issue here is that many of us has throughout the years gotten comments of the type “oh, come on it is only a little milk/cheese/meat in it” from relatives and others. The carnist world exerts pressure on us to go back to animal exploitation. It is right to react to that but some then extend that reaction to situation where it has little use. I think the right way to deal with that is a nuanced conversation – like the one in the original post here! We should be wary of joining in on the “make fun of the extreme vegan” memes. Because many who emphasize strictness are very likely fellow vegan travellers who, in their own way, grapple with figuring out a way to live a vegan life without being torn apart by despair – when the world you have to live in is a seriously fucked up carnist society addicted to opressing animals.

  • wiltongorske

    Bookmarked.

  • Jenné @ The Nourishing Vegan

    Well said! I’m a vegan chef + health coach, and more and more often I am told that veganism is such a turn off because of the dogma that comes along with it. How sad! I even have friends who have stopped calling themselves vegan for fear of being seen a zealot.

    I’m certainly an “imperfect” vegan. I find that when I encourage my friends and clients to stop striving for perfection, that’s when they feel the most empowered. Fear of failure and judgement dissolves, and everyone is happy : )

  • Heather

    Thank you so much for this! You’ve put down in writing a lot of thoughts I’ve been mulling over these past couple months. It’s amazing–I’ve found that when my family of meat-eaters alerts me to something problematic (“I think those English muffins have dairy in them,” e.g.), it’s because they’re looking out for me and my beliefs. But my fellow veg friends are often condescending vegan police. I’m trying my best–you’ve got the wrong enemy, guys!

    • http://www.drhildebrand.com/ D. R. Hildebrand

      It’s odd how that works, isn’t it? I have no idea what the psychology behind it all is, but don’t be afraid to take a slow, deep breath and politely ask your vegan friends to consider losing the attitude next time they’re intending to be helpful. It’s a valid point to make.

  • BYOL

    couldn’t agree more. Also every time you go to a non-veg place and order veg, you’re creating demand and sending a powerful message.

    • BYOL

      Also doesn’t it seem ridiculous when we divide ranks and attack each other? Personally, I think every time one person chooses not to consume an animal, for whatever reason, it is a victory and should be encouraged.

      • http://www.drhildebrand.com/ D. R. Hildebrand

        That’s certainly my bottom line.

  • Cerise

    David, what an encouragement! I am a transitioning (read: very imperfect) vegan and I often feel caught between the animosity of my omni friends/family and the standards I’m striving for (and sometimes failing at). In addition, I have food allergies to work with, so eating out is almost always extraordinarily challenging. Thanks for the reminder to stay pleasant and accommodating (but resolved in my beliefs) in the face of opposition

    • http://www.drhildebrand.com/ D. R. Hildebrand

      Cerise, you’re absolutely welcome. Sometimes we take one step back before taking two more forward. Sometimes we take two back and only one forward. If you haven’t lost focus of your goal, though, you’ll ultimately move closer toward it than away.

  • mmmike

    A few years back I went to a PETA conference. I think it was called helping animals 101. One of the things said there that really stuck with me was the idea that animals may be better off even if you cut some corners at times. Eating a veggie burger off a grill that had meat on it or what ever could be a positive if it comes across to watching that it isn’t hard to eat less meat or no meat or what ever. If you are out with non vegan friends but you can’t eat anywhere or have to ask a million questions and get the whole kitchen cleaned before you can eat somewhere others will associate being vegan as a pain in the rear. If you can show them that it doesn’t have to be as hard through how you live chances are you will have a better chance of encouraging others to stopping eating meat or eating less or what ever. In total if that helps more animals than you being perfect and pure isn’t that a good trade off? If you are doing it for the animals than you should do what is best for the animals not your own pride or what ever it is.

    • http://www.drhildebrand.com/ D. R. Hildebrand

      This sums it all up perfectly. Thank you!

    • http://veganspin.com/ Nichole

      I couldn’t agree more, mmmike. I follow the same principal in my life, and have inspired many omni friends to love and even seek out vegan food by being cool and making the lifestyle seem approachable. I am as careful as I can be within reason, and I go to vegan establishments as often as I can, of course, but I live in the real world and you can’t control everything all the time.

  • Daniel Charles K

    I’m glad to hear you (and more and more vegans) say this. We are the underdog, the minority. Like all underdogs, we have to prevail through our commitment to justice, not by way of snarkiness. That being said, I Iove me a little snark…..

    • http://www.drhildebrand.com/ D. R. Hildebrand

      Daniel, I couldn’t have said it better: “We have to prevail through our commitment to justice.”

  • gretchen

    THANKS for this piece! Bitter, combative, and/or just plain mean vegans really set us all back. I’m a deeply imperfect vegan, and as such have welcomed in and supported many people as they transition to kinder eating. Those folks who wrote to berate you, and who spend more time doing that kind of thing than berating the real villains, do much less for animals and the environment than we imperfect folks.

    • http://www.drhildebrand.com/ D. R. Hildebrand

      Gretchen, especially when the aim is to move forward does it seem so puerile to get bogged down by all this nonsense. We aren’t abandoning our veganism or the values attached to it, simply by being our (imperfect) selves.

  • Nick

    A wonderful piece! This is a topic I have considered in detail of late. I became vegan to make the world a less cruel place for animals. There is no one who I have met who lives a life who has not in some way contributed to some degree of animal suffering. I view veganism as a mechanism for reducing pain and not as a panacea.

    These days I find absolutism boring and inevitably contradictory. I am comfortable with my sometimes imperfect veganism because as a rational person I understand there is no perfect vegan just as there is no perfect human being. Thanks for sharing your thoughts D.R.!

    • http://www.drhildebrand.com/ D. R. Hildebrand

      Nick, you’re very welcome. Thank you for sharing yours as well. I do think we’re getting better as a community but I think we find it easier sometimes to address each others’ minor flaws than to tackle major, genuine issues. One step at a time I guess…