A guest blog by James McWilliams

You know them, I know them, you may even be one of them: the “gotcha” vegan. In my mind, there are few characters more annoying than those who troll the vegan world on the lookout for a vegan slip-up. Leather car seats, animal-tested travel toothpaste, beer filtered through isinglass, the wool socks your 90-year-old grandmother knitted you for Christmas, the leather puffs on the inside of your fancy headphones: these are just some of the violations that a “gotcha” vegan will nab you for, administering a moralistic finger-wagging rebuke as they sip their soy lattes and cinch up their pleather belts in smug satisfaction.

Of course, we need to be reminded—constantly—about the relatively hidden places where industrial production secretes animal products. It’s not at all uncommon, after all, for highly intelligent and aware people to remain completely oblivious to the fact that, say, beer might not be vegan or your canvas shoes might have melted horse hooves in them.  But animal exploitation is animal exploitation, so they need to know. We all need to know.  How we are educated on this issue, though, matters as much as the message. And when we fail to live up to an ideal standard, it really sucks to be chastised for it, especially when we’re already trying so hard to do what’s right in a world that generally thinks we’re nuts.

Thus the dilemma: it’s critical to spread the word about vegan responsibility, but nobody likes to be told what to do—or be reminded of their faults—by someone who appears “holier-than-thou.” Adding to this burden is the backfire potential of yelling at someone for their belt when he’s just gone through hell to give up bar-b-que and fried eggs.

I’ve no simple answer to this common problem. Ultimately, though, it comes down to personal qualities: tact and humility stand out in particular. Tact–in that when we do seek to educate potential or practicing vegans we must tread gently in terms of messaging. “Gotcha,” for example, should be replaced with an understanding that there are many levels of awareness, and that different people are in different places. Instead of crying foul, maybe we could say “maybe it’s time to think about taking your activism to the next level by, say, replacing all your leather shoes with non-leather ones.” “Let me know when your ready and I’ll shoot you some links.” Etc.

Humility—in that when you, vegan old-timer, encounter someone who knows better but falls short, just calm down. I recall a seasoned activist once expressing admiration for the fact that I travel with my own soap. I recall thinking “and this person doesn’t?,” but then I also remember feeling a bit relieved by this person’s honesty and willingness to publicly admit imperfection. In no way was this person’s activism diminished for the soap laziness. In my mind, his humanity was enhanced. Plus, I later learned, he later started to carry along his own soap. No proselytizing required.

Ethical veganism is not an all or nothing position. It’s a journey on a long continuum. It’s critical that we never stop articulating the ultimate goal: a world as free of animal exploitation as we can achieve. It’s equally critical that we help make that road as accessible, welcoming, and supportive as possible.  Hence the importance of yesterday’s post: we need leaders who are humble, direct, and tactful.

Oh, and a sense of humor helps, too.


James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of four books on food and agriculture, including Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We can Truly Eat Responsibly. His work appears regularly in Slate, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, and  the Atlantic.com. He blogs at his Eating Plants Blog and lives in Austin.