Why There’s No Such Thing As “Levels of Veganism”

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When I first published this article in June 2015, I was ten months into my vegan journey and believed that we should celebrate any progress to reduce animal oppression. I still feel the same; however, my perspective has shifted immensely.

Around the same time, mega-celebrity Beyoncé revealed to her fans that the vegan diet was responsible for her weight loss and proceeded to promote her plant-based meal service, 22 Days of Nutrition

I thought this was welcome news. She had influenced millions of her followers to look at their lifestyles and consume fewer animal products.

However, as expected, Beyoncé’s announcement came with backlash. First from her fans, who, quite frankly, couldn’t care less about her diet and were more interested to hear about an upcoming tour or new album. Then the vegan community, who thought she was a fraud and isn’t a “true vegan”. Instead, turning veganism into a trendy business opportunity.

I came across this interesting article on Medium Beyoncé: This “vegan” wears furs by talented writer Carole Raphaelle Davis. She made a convincing case against the celebration of Beyoncé’s announcement.

“Beyoncé is a businesswoman callously draped in dead foxes, minks and lynxes, expanding her and her husband’s billion-dollar empire by masquerading as a vegan.”

This brings me to the next point.

Levels of veganism

I used to think there was a hierarchy of veganism. An unspoken vegan rating system where some vegans had an all-or-nothing approach, while others tried to educate themselves and change their behaviour gradually. 

I wrote about how there were three vegan levels:

  1. Level one vegan: typically vegan for the health benefits but aren’t necessarily motivated by the ethical and environmental impacts (or unaware). They’re interested in healthy foods like green smoothies, veggie bowls and salads. They may occasionally eat animal products like backyard eggs or local honey, making them vegan 95% of the time. They claim to have a good nutritional balance and don’t pressure themselves for being strict with their diet.
  2. Level two vegan: vegans at this level are influenced to change their behaviour after watching documentaries such as Earthlings, Dominion and Cowspiracy. They have mixed emotions, feel immense social pressure, and are pretty overwhelmed with finding and cooking tasty plant-based food. They’re passionate about animal liberation and sustainable living and simply cannot support animal agriculture. Level two vegans may feel okay drinking a coffee that was mistakenly made with cows milk or wearing second-hand clothing made from animal skins. 
  3. Level three vegan: these vegans are your prototypical “hardcore” advocates fully committed to veganism. They have experience living a plant-based lifestyle and don’t feel like there’s a trade-off in what they consume. They care deeply about the treatment of animals and the environment and generally have no problem educating others on the impacts of consuming animals and their by-products. 

There’s been discussion of a level five vegan, a satirical reference from a Simpsons episode, where Lisa’s friend describes himself as someone who doesn’t eat anything that casts a shadow.

Based on these levels, it was evident that Beyoncé was a level one vegan as she made the switch (at the time) purely for health benefits. As Carole clearly articulates in her article, Beyoncé was still wearing animal skins and willingly supporting conventional zoos. Other reports suggested that she was still eating red meat occasionally.

Should we be celebrating the progress of any vegan-friendly acts?

My position in 2015 was that it was wrong for the vegan community to criticise Beyoncé for sending mixed messages to her fans. 

I thought it’s a net, net game—meaning that her positive influence ultimately outweighed her negative impact. So why not be happy for any animal lives saved through her business campaign? So I thought…

I still believe this is true to an extent— after all, progress is progress. 

However, after many years of reflection, feedback from readers, and truly digging into what it means to be vegan, I’m walking back my argument.

That’s right. I’m about to go level three vegan on you! Well, actually, I’m not. And that’s the point. 

There are no levels to veganism

I believe that veganism extends to how we treat humans as well as animals. It’s a fundamental way of thinking and acting to reduce as much harm as practically possible to sentient beings. 

Read more: Extending The Definition of Veganism

From that perspective, oppression is oppression, whether it’s race, gender, ability, age, sexuality, religion or animal cruelty. Call it sentientism

Yet, when we refer to social justice issues, we don’t see them as levels. 

There are no levels to racism. Your behaviour was racist, or it wasn’t. 

There aren’t any levels to committing rape. You either committed sexual assault, or you didn’t. 

Of course, there are grey areas of every offence which we don’t always get right, but we try our best to make the fairest judgements. And just as important, we culturally and socially hold each other accountable to do better. 

We feel shame and guilt when we unknowingly or unwillingly oppress another human.

However, we hide behind sliding scales regarding animal justice—turning the conversation into positive encouragement, healthy eating habits, cultural traditions, lifestyle choices, and personal belief systems.

The narrative becomes about the nuances about how we should act amongst our peers, and we routinely turn a blind eye to the suffering of animals. 

We make it about us while marginalising them (the animals).

This might be hard to hear, but we need to do better. Needlessly breeding, exploiting and slaughtering animals is the greatest slave trade in history. We should feel uncomfortable supporting such an atrocity. 

I hope in my lifetime people feel shame eating lamb in public. Just like how many folks feel uncomfortable smoking in front of others today.

So this tension we feel when consuming animals is there for a reason. Our defensiveness, combativeness, discomfort, and lack of accountability are because we know deep down inside that what we’re doing is wrong and we can do better.

I’m not diminishing the value of positive encouragement. Inspiring and supporting others to make incremental changes is incredibly powerful. However, like any progress, it’s crucial to find the balance between encouragement and accountability.

It’s okay to sit in the mud

Doing better is hard. Despite being a person of colour of West African descent, I still have much to learn about racial injustice, especially here in Australia. 

I feel shame for living in this country my whole life not taking the time to educate myself on the history of the original Australians.

I’m currently reading about the challenges Aboriginals have faced. I’m sitting in the mud, in discomfort, frankly overwhelmed. But I ain’t running away from the issues—just like I didn’t run away from animal cruelty in 2014.

Take Pamela Hays Addressing Model Framework, which shows the cultural influences and their relationship with power and privilege in the United States. Unsurprisingly, the framework fails to mention animals—so below is a modified version.

Social Group Categorisation Privileged or Dominant Groups Oppressed or Marginalized Groups
Age Early and middle adulthood Children, adolescents, and elders
Disability Temporarily able-bodies People with disabilities
Religion Christians Muslims, Jews, other non-Christians, agnostics, atheists
Ethnicity or race European or White Americans People of colour
Sexual orientation Heterosexual people Lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual people
Social class Middle and upper class Poor and working-class
Indigenous heritage Nonnative or non-indigenous Native, indigenous, aboriginal people
National origin U.S. born Immigrants, refugees, asylees
Gender or sex Male Female, transgender people, intersex
Species Humans Animals
Adapted from The Psychology of Oppression

Many of us are trying to educate ourselves about the many injustices of our time. We still have a long way to go across all marginalised communities. All I’m suggesting is the same consideration should be extended to animals. 

It’s okay to sit in the mud as you’re learning about animal cruelty. But instead of protecting ourselves from changing our ways through narratives like “different types of veganism”, let’s challenge ourselves to be better. 

If oppression is all the same to you, acquiring knowledge in one area of injustice will undoubtedly reinforce the same values in another type of injustice.

By the time you’ve read this article, hundreds of thousands of animals have been slaughtered for human consumption. This scale of oppression is as direct as they come. 

If it helps, forget the labels and instead, let’s roll up our sleeves and bring urgency to anti-oppression, including animals. 

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