Can’t, Won’t, or Don’t?

January 13, 2010

Alternatively: Can, will, or do?

Alternatively: Can, will, or do?

One of the things that’s fascinated me over the years is the reaction I hear from vegans when they scan an ingredients list on a new product and find an animal product.  It might just be an innocent choice of words, but I always think there’s something more going on:

“I can’t eat that”: this is the most common, and I think the most limiting of the responses.  “Can’t” is a limit, imposed by a rule.  It’s arbitrary.  Sure, you could finish the sentence with “…without violating my core beliefs,” and when used in other contexts it makes sense (such as “I can’t stand burnt toast,”) but generally “can’t” works globally when it’s a situation accepted or understood by the majority of society, which, sadly, veganism really isn’t.

“Can’t” also implies lacking, sacrifice, or regret, and that’s why I always cringe when I hear it.

“I won’t eat that”: here, it’s more of a statement of will, and I waver between this and the next one.  To me, veganism is more than a choice; it’s an expression of my core values, so “won’t” is acknowledging that while I could eat something, I’ve made a deeper decision not to.

“I don’t eat that”: this is a statement of self.  There are things you do, and things you do not do.  It’s binary, it’s universal, and generally when you don’t do something it’s because it’s not part of your identity.

There are contextual differences, of course, but I think I’m about 60% won’t and 40% don’t, on average. What about you?  Can’t, won’t, or don’t?

(Photo by Arenamontanus)

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

angela January 13, 2010 at 6:52 pm

My mom says to me, “oh, you can't eat xxx” … and reply, “that is correct, I don't eat xxx”. and I *try* and say “don't”

“Won't” makes me feel like a snob or something, like “No I won't eat at any veg restaurant north of Bloor” 🙂

jasondoucette January 13, 2010 at 7:19 pm

But North of Bloor is so very very far. I question the commitment to veganism of any restaurant that won't move to within 10 minutes of my belly.

Kc January 13, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Whenever people ask me if I can eat something I always say, “Yes, I can eat anything I want. However, I am choosing not to”. I have gotten really good responses from this.

PonderingWillow January 13, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Pardon me, but I think my vegan-fu might be off. What on that ingredient list isn't vegan?


stephie137 January 13, 2010 at 11:52 pm

I like don't. Try to make an effort to avoid using can't, but it's a default. My old sensai said never use “can't” – it is limiting. He said other things, too.

beforewisdom January 14, 2010 at 2:20 am

Good thoughts. I'm going to make an effort to use “I won't…” much more often. Has a much stronger sound to it.

jasondoucette January 14, 2010 at 3:49 am

I'm pretty sure it's OK, hence the caption, but note also the wonderful sublistings for flour. I think that list makes a lousy soup mix though. Just sayin'.

Jayme January 14, 2010 at 5:15 am

Don't! I love don't, and I totally agree that can't is cringe worthy, but I ignore it when other people say that I can't eat something. What an interesting topic.

Jonah January 14, 2010 at 9:30 am

What do you think about a fourth alternative: “I CAN eat that but it is WRONG to do so”? That's clearly more combative. Might get you an argument or a some hostility pie. But it is bugging me that the can't won't don't trio all still signal that not eating the victim of slaying is somehow mostly about me, not about the victim. It still invites the “well you're OF COURSE allowed to eat whatever YOU want…” kind of thinking. An inbetween stop might be: “I CAN eat that but I find no way to defend it morally”. This retains the you part. And it doesn't just state a position. But it still flags the moral issue and invites the person you're talking to to consider it: “If this person can't find a way to defend it, do I have one?”. You might get a good conversation about the issue as a result.

jasondoucette January 14, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Hi Jonah! I sometimes make the “CAN but WON'T” (or don't) distinction, but it's usually when someone says “oh, but you can't eat that.” Nobody tells me what I can't do!

That's a whole other scenario that I haven't gotten into yet (dealing with how other people perceive your choices as limitations,) thanks for the reminder!

aks69 January 14, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I'm a don't person. But no matter what my answer is, it is usually followed by a why, even amongst people who are well aware of my Veganism.

wigglewyrm January 15, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Your post was very inspiring. For a while I tried cutting out refined sugars because I KNEW how bad they were (first of all) and second of all, I didn't even like the taste much, but once I started eating couldn't stop because they are so darn ADDICTING.
So let's say I encountered a sugary cupcake…one that would make my ears ring, tongue quiver, blood freak out, etc…I would say to myself – no CAN'T EAT IT…and the CAN'T would trip me up. Now I'm most certain of it! Because then I would want to rebel against myself. Oh, one bite. No DON'T. CAN'T. Which leads to…miserable me. :S
But now, now I have embodied (more or less) the I /don't/ eat junkfood. It's just not on my list of 'edible foods' and so…nothing. No twinge or pang of longing.
But I never saw this decision, this distinguishing factor between can't, don't, won't before…Thank you.

jasondoucette January 16, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Thanks wigglewyrm! The sugar addiction is a whole other thing, but I agree, it gets a lot easier at the store if you say to youself, “that's not who I am.”

So many great responses to this post, I've got to get a followup started!

Lisa February 5, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Great post! I actually read this a while ago, but keep thinking about it. I'm going to focus more on saying “won't” (I usually say “don't”). Like another commenter mentioned, many of my family members say, “oh, you can't eat that, right?” and I respond similarly, “I can eat anything I want to, but no – I don't eat that.” I like how “won't” is a statement of will.

Anyway, I enjoy your site (and have for years), and found this post particularly thought-provoking. Keep up the great work!

jasondoucette February 6, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Thanks Lisa! This post is on my mind this weekend as we visit inlaws – they say “can't” a lot, and it doesn't help that I just saw the Lost recap with the part where John Locke shouts “don't ever tell me what I can't do!” 🙂

HIIII March 29, 2010 at 1:48 am

i just say “i'm a vegetairian” and that pretty much explains it

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