Darky from VP sent me a link that’s been going around the internets about, in one person’s opinion, why vegans should consider it acceptable to eat oysters. And let’s get two quick things out of the way first: oysters aren’t vegan, simply by virtue of their position in the “animal, vegetable, mineral” taxonomy, and yes, there are times where the best answer I have for “why vegan” is that it’s a classification that makes life really simple.
I know I’ll invite flames if I use the word “arbitrary” to describe this classification, and it’s not quite the word that I’m looking for anyway, but as a holder of a science degree I’m attracted to simple things that encompass large truths. There are always outliers, and I’m not saying oysters are one of them, but “no animals or animal derived foods,” for me, covers the biggest spectrum of health, environment, and animal benefits in the simplest way possible, much like how I can get through most of my days with Newtonian physics and not having to know what Planck’s constant does.
So are oysters vegan? After all, Some Guy on the Internet says they are, so it’s clearly worth some discussion, right? I’m going to break this into two types of conversation that you can interact with here as well as use in your daily lives:
From a vegan to another vegan: first of all, outside of the internet, I don’t think there are a lot of vegans talking with each other about this. This is simply because most vegans don’t know enough vegans to even have this conversation. We number somewhere around 1% of the North American population. Around the water cooler, more people talk about the latest episode of Lost than about veganism because there are more people watching Lost than practicing a vegan diet. (Also, an hour long TV show is less of a commitment – even on a show where you have to watch the whole frigging series and it still doesn’t make sense – than, you know, changing your diet for the rest of your life.)
Of the population of vegans that have regular conversations with other vegans, most of those conversations are not about oysters, even if Some Guy on the Internet wrote something about the topic. There are other things to discuss, most of which having nothing to do with food. Lost ain’t gonna talk about itself, and all that.
But of course, there’s the internet, and larger cities where more vegans are likely to gather, and what have you, so some vegans are talking to each other about oysters, either in person or online, like you and I are right now. My advice to those of you in this situation: don’t stress out over it. If someone wants to call themselves vegan but eats oysters, I can’t do much to stop them. Maybe you can, but if you’re dealing with someone who’s been waiting their whole life for Some Guy on the Internet to give them permission to do something that they otherwise wouldn’t have done, “Bill won’t let me” probably isn’t going to make the cut on their list of reasons to stay vegan. Or maybe it will. Knock yourself out if you’re so inclined. (And yes, I have other things to say later in this piece, so stay tuned, step away from the “Leave Angry Comment” button for a few more minutes, etc…)
But wait! What about brand dilution? If we let vegans eat oysters, doesn’t that confuse the general public and make it harder to get a vegan meal, just like “vegans eat chicken,” “vegans eat fish,” and other tragic misunderstandings that ruin formal dinners?
I’m willing to bet that you’re not going to be served a platter of raw oysters the next time you go to Aunt Trudy’s for dinner, because she heard about That Guy from the Internet. Oysters aren’t for everyone to begin with, and you’re much more likely to be served any of a hundred different foods that already exit which many people don’t realize contain animal products.
No, I think vegans considering eating oysters are going to fall into two camps: those who need That Internet Guy to give them the OK, and those who’ve given the matter careful additional thought and come to their own conclusions. Does this make them ex-vegans? By definition, yes, but as I pointed out above, while I’m happy to live a life by a dictionary definition, it’s not for everyone, and I’m not going to stress over those who don’t, at least not over the oyster bit: it doesn’t cause me any hardship (see the brand dilution bit above,) and more importantly, it’s a distraction. Here’s why:
From a vegan to a non-vegan: when you’re talking with meat eaters, does it really matter if some people calling themselves vegan eat oysters? It’s another meaningless conversation. I’d love, love, love to talk with someone who’s willing to give up all animal products except oysters, but the fact of the matter is that most discussions about veganism and oysters are going to be from people who just like to talk. They still eat their meat, dairy, and eggs, and possibly oysters, and there may be people out there who think they’d go vegan but they’d miss oysters too much, but then why haven’t they dropped the non-oyster foods already? Because they were waiting for That Guy on the Internet to suggest it?
And that’s where the eye opening comes in, for me. For some reason, the vegan world, when it comes to animals, has been divided into two camps: the abolitionists, who want to stop animal agriculture, 100%, right now, and the welfarists, who favour incremental change like larger cages that still results in animals being killed for food. I’m oversimplifying here, but the two sides tend to differ in their opinions of how much progress is made when, say, a major fast food company adopts higher standards of care for the animals they kill.
For the record, I’ve never really self-identified in either “camp,” preferring instead to do the best I can with whatever information I’ve got handy at the time. This has caused problems in the past when doing stuff like tabling at a veg event with people asking me about free range organic eggs, for instance, and I’ll say right now that I don’t know what that means, but I’d end up in a talk with someone where I’m trying to give reasons why that might be a bad thing to someone who’s only listening for reasons to keep doing what they’re doing, and it ends up being a big waste of time for both of us.
So here’s my new stance on “progress:” I’m happy when animals get treated better before they’re killed for food, but I think these are improvements for people who aren’t ready for lasting, sustainable changes both in their lives and in their communities. I’ll continue to lobby for the incremental changes, because the world isn’t going to wake up overnight, lots of animals are suffering in the meantime, and I also think there are some economic issues that put pressure on the system, but I’m spending most of my efforts on promoting massive individual change.
Just like with the oyster, if someone was actually willing to eat free range organic eggs and zero other animal products, I think it’d be an interesting conversation, but there aren’t many people like that. I’m grateful for those that are, but I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep worrying about scenarios that get in the way of lasting reductions in the number of animals killed in the name of convenience, taste, and simple ignorance.
And to think, I have a Guy on the Internet to thank for my perspective!
(P.S.: I’m another Internet Guy, and you’re an Internet Guy or Gal, so let’s irritate the heck out of each other in the comments!)