By James McWilliams
Vegans can be an excessively cantankerous lot. One context in which the crankiness is especially acerbic is in our highly critical responses to the increasing proliferation of “Veg Fests.” These are events that promote vegetarian and vegan options (sometimes only vegan), accompanied by workshops and presentations. I spoke at several last year and, generally speaking, found them to be mostly worthwhile experiences. Many of my vegan friends, though, are rightly dubious.
Criticisms range the gamut–and most of them are perfectly correct. True, many of these festivals fail to focus on the ethical implications of eating animals, fearful I suppose of alienating curious omnivores looking to lower their cholesterol count. True, display tables at these events can be sagging with junk—faux chicken wings and such nonsense. And true, entrance fees can limit attendance to, as one of my less diplomatic friends put it, “rich assholes.” Rudeness withstanding, these assessments strike me as valid to at least some extent.
In no way, however, should they dampen our efforts to promote and participate in these veggie-themed ho-downs. The reason why I think veg fests are a lot more than a waste of time has to do with a new theory of broad social change that I’ve been slowly thinking about. The source of my intellectual inspiration on this point is Max Planck, whom I learned once said that, “a new truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Sort of funny and, I think, more than sort of true.
This is the kind of remark that can, if you’re listening, stop you in your tracks, make you tilt your head, and permanently shift your angle of perspective on the world. What it says to ethical vegan activists is, in a way, chill out. Yes, ideas are critical and, yes, hammer away at them. But what’s just as important—if not more so—is the mere usage and promotion of the term: vegan. I know this might sound terribly superficial, but have you looked at the world around you lately?
Words breed the kind of cultural familiarity that Planck is espousing. William Lloyd Garrison promoted the word “abolitionism” before abolitionists took its underlying principles to the streets. Frederick Douglass saw–and was moved by–the word “abolitionism” before he fully understood what it meant. It is likewise through the promotion of the word “vegan” (better than “plant based”) that advocates will help ensure that when the opponents of veganism die—of clogged arteries of course—a new generation will grow up familiar with the term and, as a result, will be more likely to live by its innermost meaning.
So, next time you, cranky vegan, sneer at a vegan cupcake, or even vegan chicken wings, sitting on the table at a Veg Fest, take stock. There could very well be room to seek solace in the fact the word “vegan” is out there. It may have far more power in the long run than the food item it modifies.