Vegetarian vs. Vegan? Some Sense 'Holier than Thou' Condescension

Some sense vegan "holier-than-thou" attitude toward dairy-eating vegetarians.


May 18, 2007 — -- For centuries, people have been crowing about the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. While it's not for everyone, more and more folks want to reap the green goodness sown by means of a vegetable-dominated diet.

Traditionally, vegetarians have stood together as a group, but there is evidence of a growing rift among those who say "no" to meat. Why? It just may be that some noncarnivores think they are better than others.

"It is really a matter of great distress," says Dr. Stanley Sapon, professor emeritus of psycholinguistics at the University of Rochester.

Sapon, a long-time vegetarian crusader, is concerned about the effect of a division among the flock, which he says "would seriously diminish the power to effect social change that a single, large, unified organization can exert."

By definition, all vegetarians are not created equal.

Most dictionaries describe them in general as people who do not eat meat or fish but instead eat vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds and sometimes eggs and dairy products.

It's that last bit that sticks in the craw of many a hardcore noncarnivore. The problem is most people have very different ideas about the word and the lifestyle.

"I know people who eat fish and call themselves vegetarians," says Hyland Fisher, 33, an 11-year vegan and an apprentice architect from Nevada City, Calif. "I wouldn't consider them vegetarians."

While there are numerous variations, the meat-free family tree is made up of two main branches.

On one side is ovo-lacto vegetarians, who swear off the consumption of flesh but will readily partake of animal products such as eggs, milk, cheese and honey.

This is thought to be the most common type of vegetarian. A 2006 national poll conducted by Harris interactive bears that out. Of 1,000 adults surveyed, 2.3 percent counted themselves in the ovo-lacto category.

On the other side and in the minority are the vegans, those who claim to shy away from animal products of any kind. Just 1.4 percent of those asked in the Harris poll said they were vegans.

It seems it's the ovo-lacto addendum that has scattered the herd, with all sides clinging tenaciously to the central "vegetarian" moniker.

"It's a small part of the language that causes division," Fisher says.

"Vegans do try to separate themselves, but we don't look down on vegetarians," he adds. "Vegan people have a religious verve, always encouraging people to go further with their faith."

Jason Atkins, 29, a Web reporter for SuperVegan.Com, agrees.

"I know people who are pretty militant about it," he says, "but most of them would not condemn anyone for not being a vegan."

The biting question: If one consumes some animal products, are they really a vegetarian?

"Eating cheese is not the same as killing an animal," says Eric Johnson, a 34-year-old vegetarian and ad agency music supervisor from Portland, Ore., who has come across a "holier than thou attitude" from some vegans.

"I've heard people say, 'If you eat dairy, you contribute to the problem as much as any meat eater,'" he says, adding that such a line of thinking puzzles him.

"It's like, 'Hey, I'm trying to do something good, and then you come across a jerk with an attitude,'" he says. "And you're just like, 'Come on.'"

While few vegans will admit to a full-on bias, most do say they wish more people would see it their way.

"Anyone who chooses not to eat meat should be applauded," says Fisher, known to friends as "the vegan." "But it's perplexing to me that someone who chooses a vegetarian lifestyle wouldn't go vegan."

Atkins believes "naming is counterproductive because it causes division." With celebrity news and eco-fashion as his beat and New York City as his home, Atkins meets all kinds of people. He says he "hasn't had any real problems with vegetarians, but there certainly is a gap."

Atkins, who gave up animal products eight years ago, says, "I would like it personally if everyone were vegans, but that's not very realistic."

It took just two months of being a vegetarian before he went vegan.

"I told myself, 'If I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do it right,'" he says.

Sapon, a "vehement vegan" since 1975, thinks those butting heads over which way is best miss the point.

"It makes a difference whether vegetarianism is a diet or a philosophy," he says. "A diet is a list of the foods you choose. A philosophy is a set of coherent reasons for making those choices."

Sapon's mantra implores more humane dealings across the board.

"The ethics of vegan philosophy calls for a gentle, respectful, benevolent and compassionate treatment of all life forms -- human and animal," he says.

Basically, for Sapon and many other vegans, the act of trying to live "animal-free" is the important part; the degree to which one chooses to do so is a personal formality.

Atkins, another "vehement vegan" puts it this way: "Some people consider veganism giving something up," he says. "I don't see it that way; I just don't want to purchase or contribute to anything that hurts animals."

People have to eat to live, and some argue virtually everything consumed by humans, including nonmeat eaters, can be tracked back to a dead animal. Vegetables, for example, must be farmed, according to the argument. Farms need land, and countless animals perish when that land is tilled and occupied. So is it really even possible to survive without causing harm to another living creature in some way?

Fisher says he's "not sure living without impacting animals is possible, but that would be my goal."

Johnson on the other hand, takes another tack.

"I try not to wear leather, for example, but I have leather shoes on right now," he says. "You try to do your best, but sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. Every once in a while, you come across a preachy vegan," he says, but he calls that the exception, not the rule.

Johnson's girlfriend is a meat-eater, but he says their different tastes don't get in the way.

"I make my evaluations based on what's right for me," he says.

As for those who dine on fish or poultry, Johnson agrees with Fisher. "That's cute and all," he says, "but someone who eats fish is not a vegetarian."

Matt Prescott, director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' factory farming and vegan campaigns, follows along with Sapon's thinking that "some cruelty is unavoidable; PETA's message is that when a harmless option is present, people should make the choice that does not support cruelty. And eating meat, eggs or dairy supports cruelty."

PETA, the world's largest vegan advocacy organization, uses its Web site,, as the main platform for its campaign. There, visitors can find advice on how to eliminate animal products from their lives.

Prescott, who has been "animal-free" for eight years and a vegetarian for 10, believes most vegans are supportive of ovo-lacto vegetarians, "but while supportive, we still urge everyone to do their best to stay away from all animal products."

And what do the meat-people say? While you might expect them to be licking their chops over the idea of dissent among flora-feeders, a spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association bit her tongue when asked to comment.

"The association has no point of view on how vegetarians perceive each other," she says.

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