Cheating, Vegetarianism, and Other Things on My Mind

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.


16 responses to this post.

  1. Hi,

    I love the spirit of this so much! I really dislike the sense of self-righteousness that is found among some vegans. Being vegan doesn’t mean you’ve stopped killing animals. Plenty of sentient beings are killed in the process of growing fruits and vegetables and other non-animal based foods.

    I agree with your concluding thoughts ~ “I’m just going to throw it out there that all of us could be doing more constructive things than criticizing other vegetarians.”

    Let’s celebrate whenever anyone reduces their impact, live according to our own vision, and not criticize others.


    • Thanks, Sandra. I think I’m about to get jumped on for criticizing critical vegans, though. 😦 Can’t win.


  2. I don’t eat animals because animals have a right not to be eaten.


  3. I don’t think it’s a matter of criticizing others… I think it’s a matter of defending victims. Really, in my mind – I agree with Judith that animals have a right not to be killed for their flesh. Any compromise in that… no matter how infrequently opens the door to that injustice which I speak against. If you say at any time that it is okay to kill a creature for the simple occasion of enjoying how his/her flesh tastes – Then anyone at any and all other times may do the same – without condemnation… I think that is the current system of injustice we animal rights activists and vegans are fighting against. I just don’t think “taste buds” trump a life… No matter how infrequently that practice occurs.

    None of us would say that it’s okay to steal… if only once in a blue moon… So why say it’s okay to steal a life – when it’s not necessary to do so?

    Thanks for inviting comment.


    • I think another angle to this discussion is whether your diet is a private or public decision. My own relationship with food and animals is a highly personal one. I don’t eat animals because that’s not the relationship that I, as someone whose closest friends have been animals, want to have with them. I’m all for educating people to be more conscious about what they choose to eat, but I’m not willing to make that decision for them. However, if you view food in the light of animal rights, what you or anyone else chooses to eat is no longer a personal decision, but rather one that violates other creatures’ rights and becomes your business as an animal rights activist. I do think that you will more effectively defend victims by going out and volunteering at an animal sanctuary or educating clueless omnivores than focusing on the minor shortcomings of people who are already doing a lot to prevent cruelty and slaughter.


      • Hi ailanna – I don’t know why you think I already don’t volunteer at shelters and sanctuaries? And volunteer to help humans as well? You presume a great deal about me… In an case as I said, when exceptions are found to kill for the pleasure of taste (occasionally), it leaves the door wide open for society to accept that it must be right at all times. After all, most of society does already think taking sentient life is fine enough already. I think if someone is really interested in educating the clueless they must select standards that are consistent with that message. The blog owner could have very well consumed the animal without the spotlight making it all seem so very normalized and right. Confession is great… But this was not a confession – This was an admission to her idea of the ritual she does to break a “rule” she normally holds dear. I just don’t see what was gained in the promotion of that.


        • Posted by AlexK on 12/01/2010 at 20:27

          I believe one turkey is a huge deal, it’s somebody’s life and I think that their life has as much value as any other. I don’t think in the abstract about greater overall impact, I feel very specific in that I cannot, even once, feel okay about taking a life, and I can’t condone somebody else doing so. The only difference between the animal somebody is eating and the companion animals I live with, is that I know the animals I live with personally. I would protect them from harm and would feel very angry at somebody for trying to harm them (to say the least). I think “what if it were me”, or what if that animal was somebody I knew?

          We wouldn’t think it acceptable to exploit or kill just one human for somebody’s taste, once in awhile. What you are calling black and white vegans are, I believe, people that apply similar value to the lives of animals and if there’s no consistency it’s meaningless and nothing will ever change. That’s the essence of the right to live free of human exploitation across species and where the term “speciesism” derives from. Animal exploitation and suffering will remain until attitudes are changed within our society. We don’t accept the occasional rape or murder do we? No, it’s always wrong. Unfortunately, attitudes won’t change in society when it is deemed no big deal to eat a piece of cheese – where one person sees a piece of cheese, I am seeing a mother cow and her baby, both doomed for a live of slavery and an early, gruesome death.


          • I fully support your right to hold your principles and to disapprove of people who don’t follow them. I’ll even support your right to lecture, criticise, or exclude those people. What you can’t do, however, is make their dietary decisions for them. You can only influence, and how you do it makes a whole lot of difference in whether they are receptive or go running for the nearest cheeseburger. At a guess, lecturing, criticising, and excluding are going to result in the latter.

            Any campaign to wage change has a duty to keep the bottom line, or the overall impact on animal welfare in this case, in mind. If the way in which you are upholding those principles is alienating or otherwise putting off people who are interested in or share some of them, you’re negatively impacting that bottom line. Food is a touchy topic, and vegans and vegetarians already have a significant PR problem: we’re perceived as pushy, fringey, self-righteous, and intolerant. Also, we’re a tiny minority dealing with a majority of Americans who each eat over 200 pounds of meat a year. Baby steps and compromises are inevitable.

            I think it would be possible to disapprove of the occasions when other vegetarians or vegans don’t live up to your principles and still be supportive about the many animals they didn’t kill and encouraging about ways to improve. Sharing recipes, stories, and advice are all more likely to get the results you want than criticizing. You may not persuade them that animals have equal rights as humans, but they’ll still be eating in a way that sharply reduces animal suffering on a measurable scale. All of which is more than can be said for criticizing, nitpicking, excluding, or one-upping.

    • Posted by Colleen on 04/12/2011 at 14:45

      Animals eat other animals that is the way of nature and humans in the big scheme of things are just another animal. Have you seen a lion chase down his kill before eating it, not a pretty sight really. I see no problem with killing and eating animals to me the problem is the inhumane way they are raised before they are killed.

      I have every respect for people’s right to choose what they eat, my son is a vegetarian and even when he woke from a coma after a cycling accident and was incoherent for about three weeks we made sure the hospital respected his lifestyle choice. He lives at home with us and I go out of my way to cook meals that conform to his lifestyle choice even though this adds a degree of difficulty when others in the house are not of the same choosing.

      People are also entitled to their beliefs about taking taking the life of animals. I see no point in hunting for sport, fishing for sport or generally killing for the fun or it. I constantly rescue even little insects from inside my home and carry them out to the garden but I see no problem with killing animals for food. But that is just my opinion and I understand that. Just like my religious beliefs, my parenting style, my preference for cars that aren’t gas guzzlers etc and it is not my place to insist that other people should believe and do everything the same way I do.

      Be passionate about your beliefs by all means but don’t try to make other people feel guilty for not believing in the same things as you do.


      • Hi Colleen,
        It’s wonderful to hear that you support your son’s decision to go vegetarian. My parents were far from supportive when I made the same decision (my mom said, and I quote, “Don’t be silly!”), and it ended up causing a lot of stress and perhaps some permanent damage in our relationship. I’m not an evangelical vegetarian. My form of evangelizing starts and stops at cooking yummy vegetarian food for omnivores, who are often surprised by how much flavor and satisfaction it offers.


  4. Posted by karen on 11/28/2010 at 07:14

    I wrote a post on EatDrinkBetter about being a Pescatarian in a Carnivore’s Household. While doing the research for the article, I came across a very heated debate of a vegan saying how she hates pescatarians on her blog. I cringed. I almost stopped writing my post with fear that she’d come over to EDB and start the debate all over again there. But I wrote it.

    Eating, like everything else, is our right and what we eat is also our right. No one should intimidate you or criticize you for being a vegan or otherwise.


    • Everyone certainly does have a right to ingest whatever into their bodies that they choose… Tree bark, wheat crackers or anything under the sun – It is there body. But people do not have the “right” to take innocent life. I would have no problem if someone were a pescatarian… Who patrolled the river and ocean shore for already dead fishes or other sea creatures. I’d also have no problem with people trolling the interstates at dawn for any carrion to be found – As far as I’m concerned everyone is free to eat what they wish… Providing no lives were stolen to do so. You see it is not the consumption that I speak against… It is the needless harm to the victims of such frivolous choices.


  5. Posted by karen on 11/29/2010 at 11:24

    I hear you about animal rights. I don’t want to get into why a person chooses to be a vegan. The debate is pointless because to a vegan, there’s only one answer. But you have to give some credit to those who are earnestly trying to become a vegetarian after so many years of being an omnivore. It’s not that simple and I, for one, have been trying harder. But to a vegan, having little mis-steps or being a non-vegan are failures. And to non-vegans, eating what they choose to eat are not “frivolous”. It’s their choice, as it’s my choice to not to eat meat but mostly veggies. To me, that’s a step in the right direction after eating meat for so many years.


  6. Hi Karen… In no way am I trying to say that one must be a “perfect” vegan. Or that any mis-haps excludes you from your efforts towards the most compassionate diet as possible. I realize it is an impossible goal to live without any animal products at all… They are in virtually everything… Or we do much harm even in our attempt to sustain ourselves on vegetation alone. My point was not about being 100% “pure”… But rather, the author makes a conscious, deliberate, calculated plan to stray from what her professed commitment is. I have a hard time with the intentional sabotage of one’s intended goal. Especially when doing so causes harm to another.


  7. […] to the idea that making people defensive is a terrible strategy for promoting your cause. (Read the comments on this post for a real life example.) With that in mind, I’m asking for your patience with this post. I […]


  8. […] I have a bone to pick with the word ‘true.’ I’ve seen it slapped on a bunch of different labels recently, and a certain pattern is emerging. I’m not a ‘true’ feminist because I have reservations about Slut Walk as an expression of equality and a demand for respect. Bill Clinton, who chooses not to eat animal products for health reasons, is not a ‘true’ vegan. Hell, I’m not even a ‘true’ vegetarian because I have clam chowder once or twice a year. […]


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