I’m a Vegan Omnivore; What Kind of Omnivore Are You?October 11, 2011
Today I’m here to talk about something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and hopefully introduce a new vegan slogan in the process. As you’ll see, my discussion will end up touching on many aspects of vegan ideology and identity, but it starts from this simple though perpetually vexed question, which you have perhaps asked yourself before as well:
Most of the names commonly tossed around are inadequate in various ways: “Carnivore”, for instance, is strictly speaking inaccurate, since non-vegans eat (at least some) plants as well. “Meat-eater”, on the other hand, (in the sense of ‘someone who (also) eats meat’) is more accurate, but usually comes off sounding hostile, as does “carnist”, Melanie Joy’s suggested neologism. Because of this, the most common moniker you hear for non-vegans is “omnivore”—but as I want to argue today, we shouldn’t accept this description, either.
First, a sociological point: When we frame the debate as vegans on one side and omnivores on the other, this can make it look like omnivores are easygoing folk who will eat anything whereas vegans are unaccommodating picky eaters. But of course, vegans are not “picky eaters”. Picky eaters are people who won’t eat certain foods but for completely arbitrary or idiosyncratic reasons—because something smells funny, because it’s not the right color, because the name reminds them of something else. Vegans, on the other hand, abstain from certain foods for principled reasons—be they ethical, environmental, economic, or whatever else. Veganism is not simply an explanation of what one does eat, but more centrally an expression of what one should eat and why. Because of these values, vegans do sometimes need to make special requests or exceptions at meals; yet this is just us being discriminate, not unaccommodating. We need to do what we can to change this misperception.
This leads me to my second, semantic point, and my main reason for opposing the ‘omnivore’ label for non-vegans: In its principal biological use, “omnivore” is a species term—a description we apply to animal species, not to animal individuals. The panda is not a herbivore because it just happens to love.bamboo; it is a herbivore because it can only eat plants. Analogously, humans don’t stop being omnivores when they cut out meat from their diets—an omnivore is a creature who merely can eat both plants and animals, not necessarily one who does. In this way, vegans are just as much omnivores as any other human: we can eat whatever we want; we just choose not to. And in fact (as will be familiar to any reader of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma), this decision of “what should I eat?” is one we all as omnivores are faced with. As creatures who can eat nearly everything nature has to offer, all humans are called on and compelled to make choices about what we will and will not eat.
This is why I believe vegans should embrace the omnivore label, and not let non-vegans keep it for themselves. “Omnivorism” is not in itself a dietary description; it describes merely the dietary freedom that makes meaningful dietary choices possible. Omnivores can be vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, choicetarians, flexitarians, locavores, or countless other sorts of eaters. These are all perfectly legitimate ways to respond to the freedom of choice omnivorism offers us. What is not legitimate is to treat such dietary freedom as a license to be indiscriminate in what we eat. As omnivores, it is our lot to be presented with an overabundance of possible food options; as humans, it is our duty to choose among these options in a meaningful way.
So to return to the question with which I started: What, then, do you call a non-vegan? Given all I’ve said, I believe that that’s exactly what one should call them—”non-vegans”—because until you know more specifically about what anyone does and does not eat and why, there is no label to describe their diet. To have a dietary description, one must deserve a dietary description—that is, to be making conscious and principled dietary decisions.
An unreflective diet is no longer acceptable; there is simply too much at stake not to reflect on what we eat. Vegans recognize this demand for critical reflection and have responded in one particilar way, but I believe there are plenty of other conscionable dietary positions. As much as I’d love to live in a much more vegan world, what I most desire right now is for everyone else simply to care about food in the way I do: to recognize that food choices matter, that what we eat affects so much more than our stomachs, and that our diets are indeed sites of meaningful ethical expression.
In short, I believe that everyone should be giving more thought to what they eat. A key element in promoting this sort of critical reflection is by emphasizing that there is no “default” dietary position, that we are all obliged to decide what we will and will not eat. And we vegans can do our part in encouraging this paradigm shift simply by stating with pride: “I’m a vegan omnivore—What kind of omnivore are you?” Spread the word.
Until we eat again,