My husband and I often joke that we’re the most “hetero-normative” people that we know. Despite our liberal values and our acceptance of difference, we somehow manage, without great effort, to fulfill traditional gender roles. I’m not bothered by it because it doesn’t get in the way of our shared feminism, and, well, we’re happy!
But “hetero-normative” may not be the most accurate phrase. “Hetero-normalized” may be more apt. Instead of acting in such a way that assumes our lifestyle is more moral or somehow better, we just kind of act how we act, and our behavior happens to fall into “normal” gender roles. (I place “normal” in quotation marks because I understand that the loose use of words like normal, typical, and standard may constitute microaggressions, i.e. unintended discrimination against those who identify differently).
The first definition and original usage of the adjective “normative” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “prescriptive,” relating to the enforcement of a rule or standard. My husband and I don’t try to enforce our gender characteristics because we don’t think they are better than anyone else’s—and it’s just not our place.
I’ve been thinking about the semantics of the term in relation to veganism ever since I began reading The Vegan Studies Project by Laura Wright, a collection of scholarly essays on contemporary vegan issues, including veganism in popular entertainment (like Twilight), veganism in a post-9/11 country, and veganism and disordered eating. What got me thinking about veganism and normativity was the forward by The Sexual Politics of Meat author Carol J. Adams.
Adams writes: “Laura [the author] presumes the normativeness of veganism. She trusts her own experience and knows its joyful, delicious, and healthy nature, as well as its refusal of an ethic of killing and using animals” (xii).
In my first read of this passage, it seemed like “normativeness” was being used to mean “normalness,” more or less. Granted, the New Oxford American Dictionary defines “normative” as of or relating to something “derived” from a standard—in other words, something normal.
Perhaps for some vegans, their veganism is normative in the traditional sense of the word. This essay is not to argue that the way any particular person manifests their veganism is wrong or right.
Still, it’s worth thinking about the words we use to describe such an important part of our lives (or someone else’s!). Since there are many ways that people come to veganism–as Wright acknowledges, “vegans tend not to constitute a unified group in possession of a cohesive ideological mandate” (22)–it’s important to recognize that veganism itself is neither normative nor non-normative in the original definition of the word. Essentially, it’s the eschewing of animal products and usage. The rest is what the individual vegan makes it.
To unwittingly misrepresent a lifestyle that takes a multitude of shapes (and therefore really isn’t a single lifestyle) and convey that it’s driven by a particular purpose when it’s sometimes not—lands us in the exact spot many of us are trying to avoid as vegans. Through veganism, we resist one normative lifestyle: the Standard American Diet (SAD). It’s easy to find ways in which SAD is normative: dairy and certain meats are promoted equally for their supposed health-giving nutrients and ability to comfort the soul. Most vegans know what it feels like to decline the SAD Kool-Aid in the presence of those who might question us for it or imply that we’re making the wrong choice for our own bodies. We certainly don’t want to suggest that veganism, as a whole, puts people in a similar, uncomfortable spot.
In other words, when we say to others that “veganism is normative”—or act in such a way the renders general practice momentarily normative, we risk obscuring the fact that’s is naturally “joyful, delicious, and healthy,” that it’s inclusive, that it’s peaceful.
The oft-imitated 20th-century American novelist Ernest Hemingway is credited with the advice to write as simply as possibly. We should be careful about the way we interpret this advice, however. Hanging on to the nuance of language helps us distinguish subtle meanings, keep it real, and, in some cases, even keep it simple.
More in Op-Ed: Ethical Vegan v. Health Vegan – Does It Matter?
Get more like this–sign up for our newsletter for exclusive inspirational content!
Photo: Steve Rotman via Flickr