This blog post does an absolutely spot-on job of criticizing what is often referred to as the 'vegan police'--in other words, the nitpicking vegans who vigorously assert that their very particular and specific and personal approach to veganism is the only valid form of the lifestyle and call out other vegans who may be less strict or, more often than not, just different in their approach, in addition to vegetarians and omnivores for their choices. While I'm obviously all in favour of strictness when it comes to abstention from animal products, as with any growing community, there is bound to be a diversity of opinions, just as we see in any religion and ideology. And this should be embraced rather than denigrated, since that's what makes a movement vibrant and strong, and since we share more values than we don't. And when it comes to the most important things, we are all in agreement.
Let's go back to the definition of veganism from the man who invented the word, Donald Watson. Veganism is "a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals." Surely, this definition is much broader and more inclusive than what many of the vegan police would have us believe.
Two of the most inspiring vegan role models I've come across in my own personal journey down this road emphasize community and compassion as absolutely essential building blocks of veganism. I recently attended a talk delivered by Dr. Will Tuttle at the University of Calgary, and one of the most resonant points for me was his emphasis on community in terms of shaping his own ideologies. He described finding himself in a large commune of vegetarians and how their sharing of their beliefs finally made something click in his mind and led him to stop eating animals. My own personal journey towards a vegan lifestyle (I still have a long way to go, and I still feel very new to it all) would probably never have happened if I hadn't spent time with a few new vegetarian friends whose beliefs rubbed off on me, and allowed me to finally make the connection between my choices of food and clothes and the very real, violent consequences those decisions had on the animals with whom we share the planet. Simply knowing people who are vegetarians or vegans and their presence in your life can allow you to see that lifestyle as something possible and achievable, as well as logical and good. Community is of the utmost importance in forming our beliefs--not just about animal rights issues, but about everything.
Compassion is an essential element in the philosophy of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, another vegan educator whose tireless work I greatly admire. While compassion for animals is obviously highly emphasized in her podcasts, she also goes to great lengths to encourage us to have compassion for humans, even humans with whom we disagree--even hunters! Her message goes: we all share this planet, both human and non-human animals, and we have to keep compassion in our hearts even in situations that might seem hopeless and discouraging (she speaks powerfully of a group of men hunting birds in a field beside an animal sanctuary at which she was working and trying to keep calm even in the face of the extreme brutality they were inflicting on the birds) in order to truly make a difference for the animals and the planet. If we express compassion towards everyone, even our opponents, there is a possibility of open dialogue and growth. Otherwise, minds will never change and only become more entrenched and closed.
When the 'vegan police' are out there on the enforcement trail, they break down this essential sense of community and compassion by guilt-tripping and belittling fellow vegans. This can really only cause feelings of hopelessness in new vegans or vegetarians, which can have the exact opposite effect of what we should be striving for. They may give up their journey and go back to the butcher in defeat. And if an omnivore is considering this lifestyle but sees such internal division and bitterness as happens when the 'vegan police' are out there, they're not very likely to want to associate with a group fraught with such petty in-fighting and might even run full-speed in the opposite direction. Every vegan has their own approach (some may only eat raw, for example, or organic, or gluten-free, but these approaches may not work for people in every geographical area or class or health situation), but since we are all working towards the same goal, since we are all human and not perfect, we are all still allowed to wear the label 'vegan.' Indeed, anyone working toward eliminating products of animal slaughter and exploitation from their diet and their lifestyle, in any capacity, for health or any other reason, should be encouraged in that goal... cheered on, rather than finger-wagged at for not 'doing' veganism right or not doing enough or not going fast enough. That is the best way to foster a warm sense of community, which is so crucial in any movement, and the best way to assert and reflect the compassion rightfully associated with veganism in our day-to-day dealings with others.