I’m a vegetarian. Yet once or twice a year, my friend and I go down to Monterey and I indulge in one of the few things I miss from my omnivore days: decadently creamy, perfectly seasoned clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. This is the only exception I am willing to make to my vegetarianism, but I do make it, without offering excuses, without feeling guilty.
Does it make me a cheater? Instead of calling myself a vegetarian, should I call myself a semiannual bivalverian? Is that really a more accurate description or just a statistically improbable phrase?
In the wake of the recent Alicia Silverstone controversy in which she admitted to eating cheese every now and then, I’ve been thinking about how vegetarianism/veganism mean such different things to different people. And why shouldn’t it? We all have different reasons for not eating animals, some of which allow for more or less flexibility. From reading the comments on the Alicia Silverstone article, I’d like to suggest that we fall into two basic camps (admittedly, the Alicia thing is more complicated because she’s such a prominent and influential figure):
Group 1: People who see a vegetarian diet as a way to reduce, but not eliminate, the impact of their diets on animals and the planet. For this group, total impact matters more than the single action. Alicia Silverstone’s occasional nibble of cheese? Negligible. A diet that occasionally includes fish but no dairy and ends up being lower impact than a dairy-based vegetarian diet? Viable from an environmental standpoint. The label doesn’t matter as much as the end result that more animals and the planet are significantly better off than on a traditional diet.
Group 2: People who see their diet as a solemn commitment to not harming any animals / fighting animal agriculture and see the label as a major part of their identity. If you define yourself around not eating animals or using animal products, then the occasional voluntary cup of clam chowder becomes a — or even the — major infraction.
Not too surprisingly, I belong to the first group. Vegetarian is a convenient and concise label for letting others know what I eat, but I’m not strongly attached to it as a label. I don’t identify with other people solely on the basis of what we both don’t eat, and I’m not going to judge you if your diet is only 95% vegetarian but you still use the label. I’m all for workable solutions for your life that reduce your impact, and if that means compromising for your family and eating turkey once a year, so be it. There are 364 other days each year.
At the same time, while it does sometimes result in snippy one-upping, I see the appeal of the second group’s more black and white attitude and strong sense of righteousness. Moderation is hard. I’ve been cutting down on dairy but find that my ‘cutting down’ attitude doesn’t stand much of a chance against the attraction of things like almond scented white cake. And if friends or family see you making exceptions, they’re more likely to assume you’ll make other ones. Labels give you rules to follow, even if you sometimes fall short. And that’s useful, too.
The first group’s inclusive and flexible attitude might win more converts, but the second group’s zeal is going to push its members into trying harder and doing more for their cause. Luckily, there’s enough room in the world for lots of different kinds of vegetarians. From a pragmatic, results-oriented perspective, however, I’m just going to throw it out there that all of us could be doing more constructive things than criticizing other vegetarians. If you have that much free time or energy, come with me to the cat shelter next time.