Why It’s Time to End the “Purity Myth” of Ethical Living

Why It’s Time to End the “Purity Myth” of Ethical Living

In the beginning of 2020, there was a subtle revolution on the menu at one of the best-known fast-food burger chains in the world; the Rebel Whopper entered the Burger King line-up of greasy treats. This wholly plant-based creation was what many vegetarians and vegans, along with quite a few flexitarians, had been anxiously waiting for. It would allow new vegans to transition more seamlessly, and for veg-curious people to dip their toe into the world of plant-based foods. So why did the chain market it as “not suitable for vegans?”

Disclaimer: the burger came with mayonnaise – but a simple tweak to hold the mayo would indeed make the Rebel Whopper vegan. What got under the skin of some purists was the fact that it was cooked on the same grill as the meat. What may seem to you as an insignificant detail (and it does to me, an eight-year vegan) caused uproar in thankfully smaller parts of the vegan community. Cries that the burger was a ploy to capitalise on the vegan “trend” dismissed any real positives that it could bring, such as making life easier for transitioning vegans and provide vegan options for many communities, and any animal lives it might save when restaurant-goers chose it over the meat option. What avid critics of the Rebel Whopper failed to take into consideration was that avoiding things that have been cooked near meat does nothing to help animals – which is the entire mission of vegan living.

Credit: Burger King.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time when appeals to personal purity over actual progress have gotten in the way of the development of a social justice movement. Today’s “call-out culture” wastes no time when it comes to unleashing hate storms on those who are not vegan enough, not feminist enough, not environmentalist enough. In this finger-pointing climate, it’s easy to lose sight of the true goal of our activism, which will certainly not be helped by alienating potential advocates for being imperfect.

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And what does “perfect” mean anyway, when it comes to social justice and environmental activism? Spoiler alert: pretty much nothing. There is no way to be 100% perfectly vegan, or perfectly sustainable, or a perfect feminist, as well as a perfect anti-racist, because we live in a non-vegan, unsustainable, patriarchal, racist world. In her book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, author (and vegan) Alexis Shotwell makes the case that there is simply no way to choose a way of eating, shopping or living that is not connected to some form of suffering.

She also makes the point that focusing on our individual purity removes focus from the urgent issues that we should be working to solve on a systemic, political, and societal level. “It doesn’t do us any good to aim for individual purity,” Shotwell told The Atlantic. “When we start doing that, we become solipsistic, we become narcissistic, we become very focused on our own personal little thingy and that means that we don’t aim to make systemic, bigger changes. Aiming for that kind of individual absolution—as soon as we mess up, and as soon as someone points out that we’re actually still connected and implicated, we might be tempted to give up at that point.”

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The sustainable living community, unfortunately, presents several examples of this. One of the most notable ones is the mass “unwrapping” anti-plastic action that took part last year, which saw people take the plastic off newly bought food and leaving it at the tills for staff to deal with. While this sort of action did absolutely nothing to minimise plastic use (except for making the participants feel better about themselves for not bringing home any plastic), it also created more work for already underpaid, often struggling staff to deal with.

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Botanist and TV presenter James Wong also brought attention to how this action hinders responsible disposal of the plastic and reminded that plastic wrapping helps minimise food waste, which is a huge issue in our current food system. So, no plastic means food waste, and using plastic means you’re harming the environment. What are we to do? The answer is, there is no perfect answer – and that is why aiming for 100% perfection and purity is harmful and ineffective.

Another reason why this militant approach to purity is damaging is that it might put people off participating in a movement for fear of “getting it wrong” and being called out. Just try googling “I don’t call myself vegan” or “I don’t identify as feminist” and pages and pages of results come up with testimonials from people who by any definition walk the walk – but because they aren’t 100% perfectly pure, they don’t talk the talk. Increasingly, social justice activists are worried that using the label will garner criticism. “I don’t call myself vegan,” says actor Maggie Q. “People feel very judged by it. I like ‘plant-based’, it’s friendlier and more inclusive.”

Credit: John Fornander.

Personally I dislike the term ‘plant-based’ and proudly call myself vegan despite throwing label-reading out the window when it comes to wine (seriously, whatcha got? I’ll drink it) and not even knowing what E numbers are animal-derived. But I get where Maggie is coming from. Anxiously policing what terms like vegan, feminist, environmentalist should mean and cutting out anyone who isn’t considered perfect is judgemental, divisive, and a serious disservice to these movements. Vegans not wanting to call themselves vegan is the last thing the vegan movement needs.

PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk put it brilliantly in a recent interview: “I think one of the most important things is to feed people. If because, if people taste vegan food and they like it, they’ll overcome any worries or hesitation and if they like it, they’ll carry on eating it.

“So I advocate that you pay it forward, if you go to a fast food place that has beef and bean tacos for example, like Taco Bell; buy yours and then tell the cashier, ‘I want to buy some for whoever is behind me.’”

Couldn’t have said it better. And by the way, the Rebel Whopper is absolutely damn delicious.

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Cover image by Karolina Grabowska.

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