In the animal activist community, a lot of energy is spent to try to persuade activists to do this or do that, act like this or act like that, identify as this or identify as that.
For example, this post at the Vegan Outreach blog implies that vegans should stop calling themselves vegan:
“For 2.5 years I had been telling people I was vegan if the subject came up. Now if people ask I say I’m vegetarian, and it makes a world of a difference. When I used to say I was vegan, people would immediately say some kind of variation of, ‘That’s awesome, but I could never do that myself.’ Now when I say I’m vegetarian, people become more open and tell me about other vegetarians they know, vegetarian foods they’ve tried, how they’ve considered going vegetarian, or they had been vegetarian in the past and want to get back into it.”
Even here at the Soapbox, we had a post on the same topic that said:
“One of the better things we could do for animals is to stop being vegans. Maybe instead we should simply stop participating in animal exploitation. Actions speak louder than words, and they also reduce us to inflammatory labels. And, let’s face it, the word ‘vegan’ doesn’t have a lot of positive connotations in the non-vegan world.”
I’m not going to argue against the idea that nonvegans respond less defensively to vegetarianism than to veganism. I think that’s a valid point. But I don’t think the key to successfully nudging mainstream society towards veganism is for vegans to call themselves vegetarian. I think the key is to encourage vegetarians to speak up. Instead of pushing the vegans to act more mainstream, why not push the mainstream vegetarians to be more active?
After spending decades calling myself vegetarian (because that’s what I was, I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian) I’m not sure that the label is all that important. Call yourself what you want, but don’t be afraid of the vegan label. I, personally, haven’t experienced any more criticism calling myself vegan than I did when I called myself vegetarian. And as a vegan, I’ve been a far more effective animal advocate, simply because as a vegan I feel more “allowed” to advocate on behalf of animals. I’m expected to do so!
Don’t worry that identifying as a vegan will make people defensive or make you less effective. It may or it may not; it really all depends on the context and on your reaction. In certain contexts, a heated debate will be more effective than a soft sell. In other contexts, gentle and supportive encouragement is more effective. Think first about who you’re trying to convince and then determine what they need to be convinced. And always, always, always forgive yourself when you screw it up. Doing something is virtually always better than doing nothing. Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.
I have had much more success in convincing people to eat fewer animal products by simply getting out there and trying to convince people to eat fewer animal products than by any label I’ve worn. Whatever you call yourself – vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, veg*n – just get out there and get active. You don’t have to be perfect to make a huge difference for animals.