Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why I Obsess over Veganism


A vegan messaged me this morning to say that she thinks that by "obsessing over veganism", abolitionists are apparently doing animals a "disservice". She asserted (the tired old): "Not everybody will go vegan for the animals, so you should at least try to convince them to eat less meat or to do Meatless Mondays. Every little bit helps and telling them it's not enough unless they go vegan just alienates them and leaves them doing nothing at all."

So here's the thing… If I was against wife beating and advocated against wife beating, would someone else who was against wife beating actually say the following to me?

"Not everybody will stop beating their wives, so you should at least try to convince them to hit them a little less hard or to hit them a little less often. Every little bit helps and telling them that it's not enough unless they stop beating their wives altogether just alienates them and leaves them doing nothing at all."
Sounds ludicrous, right? The person who sent me the message thought so and reminded me that we were discussing "animals and not humans". I reminded her that humans are animals and that it's precisely this "us vs. them" mentality–of deeming them inferior because they're of a different species–that's used an excuse for the atrocities we inflict upon them.

We're already overrun with advocates from large welfarist groups telling the public that "every little bit counts" and that it's alright for them to keep using animals as long as they use them a little less often or a "little less cruelly". These large animal welfarist groups are generally well-funded by non-vegans who cherry-pick animal causes because they sometimes view some species (e.g. dolphins, seal pups, dogs, etc.) as more worthy of moral consideration than others (e.g. cows, chickens, pigs, fishes, etc.). These large welfarist groups are already effectively promoting this backwards "less is more" message to non-vegans while catering to their speciesism.

I have no interest in reinforcing someone’s belief that other animals are in any way whatsoever ours to use. They're not ours to use if we use them a little bit less often. They’re not ours to use if we give them slightly bigger cages. They’re not ours to use if PETA or HSUS give someone wet sloppy kisses for finding a way to steal their lives that is 10% less horrific than it would otherwise be. They're not ours to use, period. Giving them any less consideration is speciesist. You know what else? Giving them any less consideration as a vegan doesn't somehow cancel out speciesism. Yes, even vegans have a long way to go in identifying and addressing our own speciesism. The evidence for this is most obvious to me when fellow vegans suggest that we should accept their continued use and wrap our advocacy around this acceptance, rather than educating the public to stop using them and to go vegan.

As long as we condone and applaud half-hearted measures where other animals continue to be used, we merely reinforce the speciesist status quo, when it's speciesism itself that we truly and desperately need to eradicate. We owe animals more than to contribute to what we already know is the problem, no?

Monday, June 16, 2014

On Speciesism and Token Gestures


The bottom line is that for any animal advocacy to bring about meaningful long term change for the billions killed each and every year for human pleasure, it needs to address speciesism. Convincing someone to give up beef for climate change, fishes to save the oceans or meat on one day a week for personal health? It merely persuades people to make token gestures for themselves -- often just temporarily -- rather than to initiate meaningful permanent change for other animals. People are left feeling better about choosing the other animal products they'll invariably choose to replace the ones they may omit or use less often. They become convinced that those other options are better or more ethical choices. They’re left feeling good that they’ve done “enough” – and hey, if animal advocates are patting them on the back for it, then surely they’re doing enough, right?

Some animal advocates argue that "something is better than nothing", assuming that getting non-vegans to shuffle animal products around is actually "something" in the first place. How is it "something" if instead of having a burger for lunch on Meatless Monday, someone instead has an omelette? How is it "something" if someone decides to stop consuming beef, but instead chooses to eat chickens or fishes? And why this false dichotomy, as if the only two options available in animal advocacy result in varying degrees of the continued deliberate exploitation of others? Is it not incredibly arrogant for us to think that although a message got through to us and we went vegan that the same could not possibly occur with others?

Those advocates insist that getting non-vegans to "lower" their animal consumption is some sort of "step in the right direction", when the truth is that unless that direction is towards veganism, there are no actual "steps" being taken. When we try to persuade non-vegans to make small token gestures for themselves – for their health, their environment – rather than attempt to persuade them to make meaningful changes for the sake of those billions of others whose lives we steal each and every year, we are bargaining away the lives of innocents. Without addressing the underlying problem of speciesism and turning people’s focus to those others, we have no hope of seriously shifting the status quo.

Worse is that when animal advocates convey to the public that veganism is "too hard" and applaud token gestures, they actually leave the general public less willing to hear and weigh animal rights advocacy and an actual vegan message. After all, why would they listen when they’ve been told that they’ve already done enough? This is the horrible damage caused by groups like Vegan Outreach and all of the other large welfarist groups who pump their fists in the air over false victories. This is the horrible damage which we’re left to undo.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Time Magazine Takes the Low Road


I missed this article by Jeffrey Kluger a few weeks ago. I figure that it's because the writing at Time Magazine has been generally unimpressive over the years and that even if the piece had shown up in my news feed, my eyes may have glazed over a little and I may have moved on to the next item. It caught my attention this morning on the Gary Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Facebook page, where Prof. Francione had included a link and brief commentary in response to it. The general consensus by all, myself included, was that it's garbage journalism at its worst.

According to the Wikipedia entry on him, Kluger is a senior writer with Time. He's taught journalism at New York University, he's written for magazines like Science Digest and he's written several science-related books, including one eventually used by Ron Howard to form the basis for his Apollo 13 film. A bit more digging, however, brings up that he was lambasted just two years ago when he wrote a piece on the Higgs Boson discovery and several science writers immediately fingered it as being "riddled" with errors.

Knowing this makes the poor quality of "Don't Feel Guilty About Eating Animals" a bit more understandable, if not more acceptable. On his Facebook page, Francione summed it up by saying that Kluger "argues that we are hardwired to justify immoral behavior and, therefore, we should feel free to engage in immoral behavior". Basically, Kluger's piece is about a study showing that if people do things that make them uncomfortable (e.g. things which they feel or know are wrong to do), they will try to justify it. According to Kluger, this fact in turn warrants that they continue to engage in the behaviour they've attempted to justify.

Kluger's opening sentence itself is scientifically wrong. He writes: "Like it or not, you're a carnivore." Ask any nutritionist or dietitian, general practitioner or high school biology teacher and they'll set you straight: Humans are omnivores. This trendy use of "carnivore" as a buzzword in mainstream media articles ranting against veganism or animal rights has really gotten old. Kluger then goes on to say that if a cow wanted to -- and could -- eat you, she would, as if the fact that if a cow suddenly became a carnivore and might eat you is justification right off the bat for the continued human consumption of cows. (It's basically a spin on the whole "Lions eat other animals, therefore we should do what lions do" line of reasoning.)

How many logical fallacies and falsehoods can one man stuff into a single paragraph, you've always wondered? Now you know:
The hard truth is, we eat meat, we love meat, and our bodies are built to digest meat. It would be nice if we could pick the stuff off the trees, but we can’t. So apologies to goats and pigs and cows and chickens and fish and lobster and shrimp and all the other scrumptious stuff that flies and walks and swims, but you’re goin’ down.
Just because we do something doesn't justify continuing to do it. "Loving" the taste of something (e.g. cigars, handfuls of sugar, antifreeze, etc.) doesn't justify continuing to consume it. As for picking the stuff on trees? I'm guessing that Kluger has never eaten a fruit or nut in his life.

Kluger basically says that in response to the guilt humans may feel as the result of their consuming animal products that they have two options: He mocks the first, which he says is to go vegan ("try that for a week") and suggests that the second is to morally absolve ourselves of wrongdoing -- to convince ourselves that we're still nice folks even if we continue to engage in behaviour we know is unethical. He brings up animal intelligence as a means to shrug off our exploitation, citing the deadbeat dad of the animal rights movement, Peter Singer, as having told him that "there’s very little likelihood that oysters, mussels and clams have any consciousness, so it’s defensible to eat them.” History has shown, however, that Singer is no advocate for other animals. For Kluger to cite him as a sort of authoritative voice to add weight to his own argument that it's alright to eat some of them? It's sort of laughable. At least it's laughable to anyone who has kept up with reactions in animal rights circles to Singer's blatherings in recent years.

Kluger uses this as a springboard to further discuss animal intelligence (calling the chicken "as sublimely dumb an animal as ever lived") and uses the terms "intelligent", "mindful" and "conscious" interchangeably. He writes that most people agree that "the more mindful an animal is, the less defensible it is to eat it" and that, the more one tends to eat a certain species, the lower one tends to rate that species' "consciousness". Basically, our perceptions alter -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- so that we are able to shrug off what we might otherwise deem wrongful behaviour. This isn't really rocket science, though. It's hardly ground-breaking news. Anyone who's ever interacted with a child who's done something bad and who attempts to make excuses for it gets this. Heck, anyone who works in addiction counseling sure as heck gets it, too. It's cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization at its finest. We try to save face. We try to make ourselves feel better about the things we may say or do which we know we shouldn't say or do. Nobody wants to feel guilty and we scramble to alleviate our guilt.

Kluger ends his article saying that however we feel about what we inflict upon others, that it's ultimately up to us to "make our own peace in our own way with what's on our plates". In response to this, your average abolitionist animal advocate would say: "Y'know what? I have an easy solution for you that will allow you to live with yourself in an authentic and meaningful way without the self-deception and without exploiting others." Kluger, on the other hand, gets it backwards and views this self-deception -- this compartmentalization -- as a "necessary skill for a species with a conscience like ours trying to make its way in a morally ambiguous world". So rather than sit back and suss things out and consider not participating in the exploitation, Kluger opts for the self-deception, calling it "ethical expedience" and attempting to prop it up with relativism. "Pay your own check and the meal is up to you."

This is what Time Magazine calls journalism, just when I thought that popular mainstream media couldn't possibly become more disgraceful.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Foer and Chipotle Partner to Make Eating Animals a More Pleasurable Experience


It's been a while since I've thought of Jonathan Safran Foer. He last came up in a discussion a few years ago when I had been corresponding about animal ethics with a Jewish cultural anthropologist. My acquaintance had expressed that as long as 1) he "knew" that another animal had received periodic chin scritches while being raised for slaughter, and that 2) as long as most of his dining on animal products revolved around "parts otherwise wasted" (e.g. he would go to pricey restaurants to feast upon a pig's roasted tail or on calf brains, for instance), he felt that he was doing his "bit" to be an ethical eater. He was a huge fan of Michael Pollan's and of the whole "nose-to-tail" part of the slow food movement. He was also a lover of Jonathan Safran Foer's work, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Though always respectful, our discussions became increasingly heated as we spun around in circles. He would rehash the same old, same old arguments commonly raised by "happy meat" proponents; I would volley back with the actual facts concerning other animals' treatment outside of factory farms and would redirect to emphasize sentience and the ethics of use. I teased this Ivy League educated and tenured professor that he couldn't argue his way out of a paper lunch bag when it came to ethics.

Our ethics debates aside, we discussed a variety of other things and he ended up sharing quite a bit with me about Jewish culture and identity. It was Passover and our conversation had shifted to focus on Pesach traditions revolving around food. He was planning to host a Seder for his adult children and his daughter's new boyfriend, as it turns out, was a vegetarian. We discussed the symbolism of the foods served on the traditional Passover Seder Plate and I shared with him the changes some Jewish vegan friends had incorporated into their own annual traditions. My acquaintance taught me about the Haggadah used at Passover Seder and -- see, it really does all tie together -- brought up that Jonathan Safran Foer had just written The New American Haggadah. He forwarded me links to reviews, which helped further explain what the Haggadah means and what it is. (Along with Pollan and Bittman, Foer was also one of my acquaintances ethical food-related inspirational figures. His Haggadah was apparently generally received with a bit of "meh".)

I'd written about Jonathan Safran Foer a few years prior to all of that. When Eating Animals had been released, I had been sent a review copy and after scanning a dozen pages of it, had balked at putting myself through reading a single page more. A few months later on a nearly 24-hour bus trip to Pennsylvania (don't ask), I brought the book to read. I figured that somewhere between snoozing and staring out the window, I could force myself to work through the welfarist text. On the way back, I spent almost 16 hours stranded in a Montreal bus station in a snowstorm, took all of the notes I'd tucked into the book and wrote a lengthy blog post I've never published. Over the years, I've thought of finishing it up to publish it, but all it would point out is how Foer's just one of these sorry excuses for an animal advocate that I'd like to see slip into obscurity. He's non-vegan and has promoted animal exploitation. He has described veganism as an "end goal" rather than a starting point and has publicly dismissed abolitionists as absolutists.

He has come up less and less often in online discussions in recent years, which has left me pleased. His name popped up in my newsfeed today, though, in an article on a restaurant trends site I follow. It seems that Foer has decided to partner up with the welfarist-beloved Chipotle fast-food chain to spearhead a new project intending to feature the words of popular authors on its bags and beverage cups -- Foer's words, as well. I traced a link back to a Vanity Fair article about it.

Foer apparently found himself sitting in a Chipotle restaurant by himself one day, bored. "Why not offer something interesting to Chipotle's overwhelmingly non-vegan customers -- like my non-vegan self -- to look at as they sit eating their animal products? Why not attempt to enhance their experience as they sit and dine upon the parts and secretions of others?" Foer seems to have thought to himself. He soon wrote to Chipotle CEO Steve Ells:
I said, 'I bet a shitload of people go into your restaurants every day, and I bet some of them have very similar experiences, and even if they didn’t have that negative experience, they could have a positive experience if they had access to some kind of interesting text,'" Foer recalled. [...] I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to just put some interesting stuff on [your cups and bags]? Get really high-quality writers of different kinds, creating texts of different kinds that you just give to your customers as a service.’”
Chipotle thought his proposed project, called "Cultivating Thought" was a fabulous idea. Anything to enrich its customers' experience, to make them happy -- to potentially boost sales! And organized and endorsed by none-other than "happy meat" supposed maker-of-vegans Jonathan Safran Foer? How could they refuse. When Vanity Fair questioned Foer concerning whether he, a vegetarian, might have had apprehensions about getting into a business relationship with a company that sells meat?.
“There were things that I had to at least think about, like the fact that they serve meat, and I don’t eat meat,” Foer said. “And the fact that they’re a sizable corporation, and that I don’t tend to get involved with sizable corporations any more than I have to, and the fact that I have no interest in marketing for anyone or endorsing anything.
Oh, where to begin? Maybe with his passing reference to having had an issue with the "meat" Chipotle serves? Foer is, of course, a non-vegan. I don't remember if he addressed this directly in Eating Animals. I don't think so. His focus in the book was mostly on animals raised for their flesh and I seem to recall Foer suggesting (whether in the book or in interviews concerning it) that he would have less of an issue consuming animal flesh if he was 100% certain that the animal had not been factory farmed. So the fact that Chipotle also serves animal products other than meat seems irrelevant to Foer and, given his decision to go ahead with his project, the fact that Chipotle serves meat isn't a serious issue for him, either. (It's still so bizarre to me that so many have credited him with being such a great voice for veganism or animal rights.)

As for his having no interest in marketing for anyone or endorsing anything? His initiating and leading this campaign, in and of itself, is an endorsement of Chipotle. In turn, endorsing Chipotle means endorsing animal exploitation. That's fairly clear. But you see, Foer sits on the Board of Directors of Farm Forward, welfarist animal agriculture facilitators extraordinaire. Farm Forward's mission is to mobilize the general public against factory farming and to promote more sustainable animal agriculture.

Its staff is mostly comprised of overpaid professional welfarists -- a few who have been hands on involved in helping "happy meat" farms become hugely successful. Its Board of Directors includes an academic whose life's work revolved around welfare reform. According to his Farm Forward bio: "In his research, he is developing methods of 'asking' farm animals what they feel about the conditions in which they are kept and the procedures to which they are subjected." It also includes John Mackey, who is Chairman of the Board and co-CEO of "happy meat" market Whole Foods. Chipotle is praised several times on the Farm Forward website for its more "humane" animal product sourcing practices. In fact, Farm Forward's Board of Directors also includes Frank Reese, who owns and operates Good Shepherd Ranch, which according to Farm Forward itself has been a chicken supplier for Chipotle.

No endorsing? No marketing? Albert Camus once wrote: “When silence or verbal trickery helps to maintain an abuse that needs to be ended or suffering that needs to be soothed, there is no choice but to speak out and show the obscenity disguised by a cloak of words.” It's unfortunate that with all of the research Foer completed to write Eating Animals that he was unable to recognize the extent of his own speciesism. Given that it was written in close collaboration with Farm Forward and that it's now more or less treated as Farm Forward's bible, it's not altogether surprising.

It's mostly sad to me that as gifted a wordsmith as he is, he uses his talent again and again to both facilitate and promote animal exploitation. Whether he does so by spreading and sustaining the "humane myth" that there could ever be an acceptable and ethical manner in which to enslave and slaughter others to serve them up at a fast-food joint, or whether he partners up with Chipotle to enrich the experience of those who provide demand for this continued enslavement and slaughter, his writing becomes no more than a weapon used against other animals. "What's the kindest thing you ever did?" begins Foer's own writing piece contributed for Chipotle's "Cultivating Thought" campaign.

What's the kindest thing, indeed, Jonathan?

Monday, May 12, 2014

I Am Not a Vegetarian


I remember with perfect clarity the day it finally clicked for me just how completely meaningless the word "vegetarian" is. It was around six years ago and a friend and I had decided to have a bite and a beer at his favourite restaurant, something we used to do a few times a month. He had been a longtime vegetarian and was a fan of this particular place because it had over a dozen vegetarian appetizers and entrees on its large menu. Also, it was licensed -- thus, there was beer -- and stayed open a little later than most downtown eating establishments. The numerous vegetarian dishes ranged from cheesy artichoke dip to quesadillas. The only two vegan-friendly edibles were the overpriced processed sweet potato fries (hold the pesto mayo dip) and a bland tofu coconut curry dish (hold the buttered piece of ciabatta strangely ordinarily served on the side). I went for the company and nothing else.

My friend was a regular there and the staff was aware of his dietary preferences, so we would ordinarily go and be greeted by a server carrying menus and his favourite beer, and we would be left to suss out what we wanted. (I rarely cracked the menu open, usually resigned to getting the usual plateful of sweet potato fries.) This particular evening, a new server showed up and started rattling off the list of dinner specials, first describing some sort of beef platter . My friend interrupted her politely.

"We don't need to hear the specials," he told her. "We're both vegetarians."

"Oh," she said, looking unsure of what to do.

"Well, I eat fish, but my friend doesn't eat any animal products at all."

The server smiled and looked confused, then left to get our beers.

"I guess you're probably not happy that I'm eating fish again," my friend said, not looking up from the menu. "I'm doing it for health reasons."

"Why would I not be happy?"

"Well, because you think it's wrong."

"I don't control your choices. Besides, there's no real ethical difference between eating meat and eating other animal products."
At this, my friend looked up, frowning. "So you think that just because I'm not vegan, I'm no different from anyone else who eats meat?"

"I know that you mean well, but there really is no difference. Animals are still used and animals still die and end up served to others as meat in the dairy and egg industries. We've talked about this before. Why don't we talk about something else?"

"So you don't think that it matters that in the 20 or more years I've been vegetarian, I've saved lives by not eating meat? How many lives have you saved in the less than a year you've been vegan?"

"It's not a contest," I told him, uncomfortable with how the conversation was going. "Let's just talk about something else for now," I again suggested.

"At least I'm not eating meat. That may not matter to you, but it does matter and it matters to me."

I couldn't help it and asked, gingerly, whether he thought it mattered to the fish.

"Fish can't feel pain. They're not the same as cows."

Quietly, I said: "They can and they are."

"Well, not all vegetarians agree with that."

"Neither of us is really a vegetarian," I offered, thinking back to his earlier assertion to the server.

"We both don't eat meat," he said to me. "That makes us vegetarian. Would you rather I call myself a pescetarian? That's still a type of vegetarian, just like a vegan is a type of vegetarian."

"I don't see veganism as a subset of vegetarianism," I told him.

I explained to him that "vegetarian" is a blanket term for various degrees of animal use restricted to diet. These days, in mainstream media, those various degrees of animal use have been expanded to loosely include eating fish, but an overwhelming majority of vegetarians disagree with this and see it as a watering down of a term whose original definition clearly excludes eating animal flesh. They disagree with it for two obvious reasons. The first is that it confuses things when they use the term to try to explain what they won't eat (i.e. meat). The second is that many view eating meat as somehow being morally different from consuming other animal products.

"But you don't think there's a difference between eating meat or cheese, so why do you care?"

"I don't, really. I just found it sort of funny that you told the waitress that we were both vegetarians.

"Well, you don't eat meat, so how are you not a vegetarian?"

I explained that since vegetarianism is strictly about diet and since the term is understood to include animal use, even in one's diet, that it has nothing to do with veganism. It has more in common with regular old eating-of-everything-ism, which is also understood to include animal use.I explained that the only morally relevant distinction concerns whether someone is vegan or non-vegan.

"So you think that you're better than vegetarians, then?" he asked.

"I don't think that I'm better than anybody. You know that. But veganism is the rejection of all animal exploitation. It involves avoiding all avoidable animal use and it isn't restricted to diet. To call me a vegetarian would suggest that I might eat eggs or dairy and that it's highly possible that I would -- or at least could -- wear wool, leather and so on. It's a completely useless label for me to use practically, plus it has nothing to do with what I believe in. I don't see veganism as a subset of a diet that involves various degrees of animal exploitation while involving likely animal use in other areas. Veganism is no more a specific subset of vegetarianism than it is a subset of eating-everything-ism."

By this time, our server had returned to take our order.

"So, I guess that you don't care, then, if I order the fried clams and chips?" my friend asked.

"Actually, if you did, I might have to leave."

"Aha! So even with all of this talk, you really do think that eating meat is worse than eating other animal products! I knew it!"

"No," I half-smiled, sadly. "It would just really, really smell."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Another Underhugged Non-Vegan Takes a Few Digs



Oh, PeTA!

Some fellow vegans and I were mocking PeTA yesterday. You know the old saying: Sometimes you either have to laugh or cry? Genuine and clear-thinking animal rights advocates know the harms caused by sexist, sensationalist and wishy-washy supersized animal advocacy groups like PeTA. Each and every one of its campaigns and the mainstream public's response to all of them are seemingly never-ending reminders of just how effectively PeTA manages to leave the general public more and more convinced that anyone standing up for the rights of other animals must be missing a few marbles or hopped up on hallucinogens. If I seem to be straying a little into hyperbolic assertions, you really need to forfeit a few minutes of your life sometime to deconstruct one of PeTA's single-issue campaigns. At the very least, it will put things into perspective for you.

It was during this mostly tongue-in-cheek exchange that someone posted a link to a recent article in the UK's Telegraph by someone called Hannah Betts. In response to one of PeTA's ongoing and annoying "sexiest vegan" contets and described as a "vegetarian for some 30 years", Betts purports to answer the question: "Can a Vegan Ever be Sexy?" with a long rant filled with stereotypes, inaccuracies and a sort of rather obvious hatemongering subjectivity which leaves one hoping for the sake of her friends and family that her diatribe was at least somewhat therapeutic for her. (Sometimes it's good to just let it all out, y'know?)

It's no suprise that non-vegans would find it just as easy as vegans do to pick apart PeTA's campaigns -- particular its more sexist and fatphobic ones. Betts starts off by quoting from a PeTA press release:
“People go vegan for a variety of reasons, including the fact that vegans tend to be fitter and trimmer than meat-eaters, which makes them more attractive.”
It's unfortunate that rather than just dissect PeTA's equating a person's thinness with sexiness and pointing out the problems inherent in this, and that rather than attempt to bust the whole stereotype of the lean health-nut vegan ('cause we should all be aware that there are vegans of each and every size) and to perhaps write something meaningful, Betts decides to keep her argument superficial. She attempts to establish that vegans are all, in fact, unattractive and undesirable creatures.

They Say Hate Is Blind

Betts suggests that "the notion of a 'sexy vegan'" is "an oxymoron" and then begans a series of snide deprecatory claims that are as much in need of a decent fact-checking assistant as they are just mean-spirited and, in some cases, just sort of bizarre.
Society may have got beyond the stereotype of the vegan as a flaky-skinned, flatulent tree-hugger to the point where it can imagine a flaky-skinned, flatulent tree-hugger wearing Stella McCartney. However, vegans are still not necessarily the individuals one would most want to make eyes at.
So, whether or not they're dressed up in a trendy vegan-friendly fashion designer's clothing: vegans smell, have bad skin and are all hippies. This could have been something lifted from one of the Pork Network's badly-written anti-vegan articles. Betts continues by stating that going "plant" is, in fact, a pretty much guaranteed way to shed "one's sex appeal". But then she goes on to rattle off bits about celebrities -- many of whom aren't even vegan -- to try to prove this.

She describes Bill Clinton from his younger and more unhealthy years as "hot stuff" and refers to him now, much older and in less danger of keeling over from a heart attack as "skeletal". She says "[v]eganism has aged him 20 zombieish years" while altogether discounting that perhaps getting older has aged him. Clinton was president a decade and a half ago. The man's he's pushing 70. The fact that he's never been a vegan and now even eats fish and eggs also makes him a weird example with which to begin, never mind that his mug -- regardless of its age -- is likely not the go-to image most conjure up when they hear the word sexy. But the thing is that Clinton's dietary changes were made specifically to facilitate weight loss. He was in bad shape. To say "veganism" made him skeletal and purportedly unsexy is erroneous whichever way you look at it.

Another non-vegan, Beyoncé Knowles, is singled out next. Betts describes her as having become "unrecognisably gaunt, her hair and skin lack lustre" and compared her to a "malnourished waif" following a three week plant-based cleanse she did, designed in part for weight loss. Betts' description of Knowles refers specifically to her most recent appearance on the Grammys, where according to the pictures I've seen on the internet, her skin was glowing, her curves still curvy and her hair looked no different than it has in the past although minus her usual hair extensions. Again, any way you approach them, Betts' claims are bunk.

Natalie Portman (who went back to eating animal products while pregnant a few years back and who was quoted a few months back as anticipating that her forthcoming move to Paris would compromise any attempts at being vegan) is the next celebrity brought up. Betts pulls a big word out of the ether and describes her as "pulchritudinous" (i.e. a word used to describe someone of breathtaking beauty) but unsexy. She then rattles off a bunch of other celebrities (including non-vegan Ellen DeGeneres and some Hollywood starlets I'm certain anyone would deem quite fetching) as further examples. Her list made no sense. I mean, she even disses Brad Pitt. Now, I'm am most definitely not a celebrity worshipping fan-girl, but at this point it becomes obvious that Betts could be presented with a handful of the most universally agreed upon aesthetically pleasing individuals in the world and, upon finding out that they were rumoured to be vegan, would spit on the ground and mutter the words "you're disgusting".

In indulging herself in this diatribe, though, Betts does no better than PeTA. She basically takes a list of successful and (mostly) incredibly talented people, some of them non-vegan and the majority of them women, and belittles them according to her really warped perception of their beauty and sex appeal... and she blames this lacking sex appeal on their purported veganism. It's sexist, sensationalist gibberish not worth the bandwidth used to read the article.

On Attempting to Establish Credibility

Betts tries to build herself as some sort of credible authority on the nasties inherent in veganism by asserting that she has not "eaten meat for 30 years, apart from once" and that she "became a vegetarian for precisely the macroeconomic/ecological reasons that Peta [sic] and its furry friends so admire". She rattles off some stuff about how she became aware, as a teenager, that eating grain-fed animals was stealing grain from "the world's poor [humans]" and that this prompted her to go meatless.

To her credit, unlike most of the large welfarist animal organisations, she does not attempt to feign any sort of interest in animal rights. However, her set-up certainly leaves her with no more credibility to critique veganism. Yet, critique it, she does:
[A] diet confined to plants is an asceticism too far: denying the body, as it denies the life – social and otherwise; facilitating animal existence by curtailing human.
She then lists off a bunch of food items as prohibited:
They are obliged to renounce: sugar (coloured with bone char), honey (the toil of bees), red foods (cochineal, made from insects), sweets, mousses, margarines, peanuts and crisps (gelatin, made from animal waste), soy cheeses (the milk protein casein), many breads (butter, whey), beer and wine (tropical fish bladders), even orange juice (often omega-3 enhanced) and the medicinal Bloody Mary (Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies).
It's incredibly misleading, of course. I've been told that most white sugar in the UK is vegan (and even if it wasn't, it's not difficult to find sweetener produced without bone char filtration). Apples are red foods. Not all sweets are made with animal products (and -- gasp! -- you can even make your own without animal ingredients), peanuts and crisps are not all made with gelatin and soy cheeses are not all made with casein. Beer and wine are not all filtered with animal products. Not all orange juice is enhanced with animal-derived omega-3. The way Betts describes it, these things are all off-limits across the board. That's deception, plain and simple: "The life one subscribes to under such circumstances is not only obsessional, it is profoundly boring – for oneself and others. (Who could possibly envision a life without Bloody Marys, after all? The horror!)

It's all downhill from there. Betts goes on to refer to vegans as having the "neurotic cast of mind" apparently required to go vegan when, for instance, hypothetically being presented with an otherwise meatless dish with a "thimbleful of chicken stock" in it at a dinner party and lacking the "compassion" to oblige the host by gobbling it up. (Did you think there'd be no shaming vegans for not eating animal products in this article? Honestly? Scroll down and you'll even find the obligatory "holier-than-thou" reference) Betts continues:

[M]ost of us do not have a problem with the notion of animal needs being subservient to human ones. And, while many avoid the foie gras and veal crate extremes, a jar of honey, or a round of goat’s cheese, do not seem especially savage.
So there we have it. No surprise that she lumps herself in with an "us" that condones animal use. Some may express shock that someone who self-identifies as a vegetarian would seem so callous about exploiting others, but this is where it's useful to point out that vegetarianism is all about continuing to exploit others. There's no ethical significance between drinking a glass of milk, devouring a pork chop or donning a fur coat. Speaking of fur coats, vegan-hating Betts is a fan.

But hey, just to make sure that her readers realize that she really is a voice of authority on all things "veg" and that she's done her time, self-flagellating with the most pesky of unsexy vegans, Betts spells details the horror of her own self-deprivation:
[M]y own periods of even non-fish consuming vegetarianism have also coincided with anaemia, vitamin B and D deficiency, inability to recover from illness, exhaustion and hair loss. “Trimmer” vegans may be, but the ability to bruise while resting my chin on my hand and the sight of hairballs around my flat did not immediately imply “fitter”.
Because, well, nutrition... it's all in the meat, obviously. "Nutritional advice is nothing if contradictory," Betts tells her readers, but then informs them that it's nonetheless generally agreed upon that the healthiest diets in the world include at least some animal products. So it's contradictory if it's pro-vegan, but crystal-clear common sense if it ain't. Got it! It looks as if the diet which I follow while being vegan hasn't yet started to dim my intelligence so much that I can't follow Betts' brilliantly executed and flawless arguments.

Why Dontcha Tell Us How You Really Feel, Sweetheart?

But then again, I have some other issues with which to deal. You see, according to Betts, a vegan like me indulges in "[po]-faced extremes of behaviour" which automatically render me "unsexy". In fact, we vegans are all unsexy "[e]vangelists" and "zealots" and thus "seldom the coolest people in the room". As per Betts, incorporating animal exploitation into our lives would strike a greater balance in terms of "health, planetary preservation [and our] sanity". Hell, it would even finally leave us able to socialise with anyone other than our cats, she says, chuckling to herself over the "gotcha" that the cats eat meat.

Me? I think that given the chance between hanging out with Hannah Betts and a furry feline that I'd take the obligate carnivore's company over the obligate hate mongering idiot's. I get the sense that 99% of the people who left comments in response to her article would agree. Now can someone pass me some alfalfa sprouts? I'm feeling a little faint.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Home as a Safe Zone



Transition and Compromise


Before learning about abolitionist animal rights, I spent many years as a vegetarian, slowly shuffling around animal products, but for the longest time with no actual end goal to go vegan. Veganism was a final step, I'd heard over and over again. Any steps taken towards minimizing my use of animal products were great, I told myself. Veganism was for those nutty pro-violence animal rights activists, I told myself.  I was doing "enough".

For several years, I lived with a non-vegan. He was a non-vegetarian who had suggested to me early on in our relationship -- since I did most of the cooking and thus orchestrated most of our shopping -- that he'd be happy keeping our kitchen meat-free, and to continue sampling the variety of other plant-based products I had begun selecting to bring home home. I was snapping up animal-free alternatives to many familiar food products, curious to try them out. I had replaced our dairy milk with rice and soy. I had traded in our household products for more simple things like baking soda and vinegar. Our scrambled egg or omelet brunches soon revolved around tofu and our morning coffee became whitened with Silk creamer.

My partner even agreed to avoid meat when we ate out together. I don't remember how it came up, but he seemed happy with it. However, although he avoided meat, he leaned heavily on other animal products while I found myself shifting more and more towards vegan options. For a long while, even as I found myself transitioning, I was "alright" with his consuming other animal products. It wasn't so much that I still thought that (not) eating meat was any more ethically significant than (not) using other products, but just that I had continued to consume cheese for years after I had stopped eating meat, myself, so the sight and smell weren't viscerally offensive to me. It was ultimately a compromise, although my own consumption habits were obviously changing.

The reality was that he didn't share my evolving views. It may have been convenient for him to just eat and use whatever was around in our home, but if he ever chose to avoid animal products outside of our home, it was mostly out of deference to me. His going through those motions made our cohabitation less inharmonious than it could have been, but convenience and deference don't build an ethical framework. Eventually, when I was not around, he would "treat" himself to burgers, cheese, eggs and ice cream, sneaking them into our apartment when I was out of town, the wrappers and containers in the trash the only evidence left behind of their consumption. The bottom line was that he did not see anything wrong with using others. Me? All I needed at this point was a small push. The chasm between us was about to get much wider.

A "Liberated" Kitchen

It was not long after we parted ways and I had settled in to living by myself that I made the conscious decision to go -- and to stay -- vegan. I had begun listening to the (now defunct) Vegan Freak Radio podcast hosted by Bob and Jenna Torres. I had decided to join its associated online community. I had also started reading Gary Francione's work. Everything became clear to me: How could I not go vegan? Living alone and being the only person filling or emptying my fridge, my closets and medicine cabinet made it incredibly uncomplicated. There would be no more cheeseburger wrappers, empty egg cartons or chocolate milk containers in the garbage can when I returned from a weekend away. There would be no more uneasy feeling that I was sharing space with someone who obviously just wasn't "getting it" and just going through the motions -- someone who had come to regard animal products as treats of which he was being deprived.

From then on, my kitchen was mine. I might find myself sitting across tables from friends, family, acquaintances and others who would chow down on animal parts, but I would no longer have to do so in the space I chose to call 'home'. It had become my "safe zone" -- the one spot in my immediate life in which I would not be expected to regularly observe and ignore others' animal use from across a table. I swore that it would remain so.  No, veganism isn't just a diet, but drawing the line at food felt reasonable to me.

On Defending My Wee Vegan Space

Over the next year or so, I found myself in a couple of situations with guests where I needed to restate and to re-defend my boundaries. The first such occasion involved friends who had come over for a beer and movie night. At one point after we had all had a few, interest was expressed in getting Chinese takeout. "As long as it's vegan," I reminded my friends. I also pointed out that we could easily, easily walk a few blocks to any number of other eating venues if they wanted something else. We decided on some dishes and I went to return some empty bottles to the kitchen as one friend called in our order. When the food arrived, two of the dishes were meat-based -- they had ordered them anyway. "Lighten up!" I was told. I let it go at the time. It was awkward and new to me to assert myself about my veganism, particularly in a sense that didn't specifically involve my own consumption. I vowed, though, that the experience would never be repeated. I felt disrespected.

Over the subsequent few years, I settled into my decision comfortably. The truth is that I don't often have guests and that most of my socializing involving meals revolves around eating out. Exceptions to this have arisen when I've had friends visit from out of town and/or when I've had company stay overnight. I posted on the My Face Is on Fire Facebook page a few weeks ago to ask about others' experience with maintaining vegan homes, and this was brought up a few times by vegans as sometimes leading to awkwardness, particularly when there are young children involved or guests with their own dietary restrictions.

For me, either friends have shown up with food partially-consumed during their trip, or if we have gone out to eat, the issue of what to do with doggie bags has arisen. A scenario that came up for me recently involved a day-trip into another city with someone I had recently begun dating. Our plan had been to head back to my place to watch movies upon our return. We had dinner before heading back and my friend had his Thai chicken dish boxed up to bring with him. Since we had not yet had a conversation about my house rules, I winced and found myself tucking an unwanted bag into my fridge for several hours. I tried to tell myself that it wasn't a big deal, but the truth is that this was the first time in several years that I found myself with someone bringing non-vegan food into my place when I was able to say something about it.

From Single to Not-so-Single

I ended up having "the talk" with the new dating interest, not thinking that it would be a big issue. The result was that he told me that my rule overly-complicated things and that it imposed restrictions upon him that he felt would make our interaction a pain in the ass for him. What if he stayed over and wanted something specific to eat? Did I really expect him to read the ingredients on every single food item he brought into my home? He claimed that he respected the reasons behind my rule and respected my ethical choices, but said that he nonetheless felt that it was "unfair" to him. Very briefly, I considered telling him not to worry about it -- to forget I had said anything. As soon as I found myself thinking it, I became disappointed in myself and never uttered the words. We rarely ate out together after that and things (very, very) soon fizzled as I found myself unhappy that I had allowed myself to be made to feel guilty about having set such a simple boundary in my own home.

Since finding myself going vegan, only two relationships I've had have progressed to a point where cohabitation was discussed as an eventuality. One was with a vegan while the other had been with a non-vegan who'd expressed willingness to compromise and to keep all products used or consumed at home vegan-friendly. With the latter, I felt as if I was revisiting my vegetarian past, setting myself up to deal with trying to pretend that someone who thought that animal exploitation was alright wouldn't merely end up behaving out of deference to me, but we went off on our separate paths for altogether unrelated reasons before we got to dabble. But how would this work moving forward? What about the next relationship?

Many vegans who live in more densely-populated areas than I do have told me that they refuse to date non-vegans. They do so to avoid any of the aforementioned issues. Many cite the difficulty posed in needing to compartmentalize another's speciesism when you find yourself getting up close and personal with that "other". Some go through the motions and get involved with non-vegans, but then come to this decision after finding themselves in increasingly serious relationships and then left faced with irresolvable ethical differences and the ensuing heartache. When I asked about it on the MFIoF Facebook page, the majority of the respondents to my post expressed that they were happily and harmoniously sharing their homes with other vegans. A few expressed satisfaction with situations involving non-vegan partners or roommates, where compromise of some sort had been reached. Some of the respondents were crossing their fingers that their loved ones would eventually "come around".

The thing is that even though sometimes -- not often -- our non-vegan friends, family or romantic interests do come around, but there's never a guarantee. It's incredibly wrongheaded, I think, to try to build a romantic elationship on the hope that the other person will "eventually" change such a significant aspect of his or her own belief system. I received a surprising number of disheartening private messages from individuals expressing sadness and frustration with their own situations. A few were vegans whose relationships with their respective non-vegan partners either were disintegrating or had disintegrated after compartmentalization or compromise had proved to be too difficult.

Would this too, then, be my fate? Is it really that unrealistic to hope that I may one day get to share my "safe zone" -- my home and the kitchen in it -- with someone whose views on speciesism might actually reflect my own? Is it really so unreasonable to think that in this world, where speciesism permeates each and every aspect of our daily lives, there could be a second human can-opener for Eli-cat and Minou-cat who might not balk at having almond milk with his cereal? Someone who might actually insist on it and also insist on his or her no longer participating in the exploitation of others? I guess we'll see.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why Speciesism Should be Our Focus



The Buzz


There's been a lot of buzz this past week about an article by Victoria Dawson Hoff, published on Elle magazine's website. Hoff's article on Elle is called  "On Being a Vegan Who Wears Fur and Leather".  She also writes articles for One Green Planet and has a blog called The Pursuit of Hippieness, which her One Green Planet bio describes as being "devoted to vegan recipes, a healthy lifestyle, and daily inspiration". What it leaves out is mentioning the number of posts on her blog devoted to promoting animal-derived clothing. Most My Face Is on Fire readers would roll their eyes and shake their heads at this point, not even needing to click on the link to read Hoff's article. I could probably stop right here and not write another single word.

All Roads Don't Lead to Rome

I say "most" readers because when I posted a link to the article on the "My Face Is on Fire" Facebook page, it became apparent to me that some -- too many -- vegans conflate the shuffling out of this or that animal product with being just-around-the-corner-from-going-vegan. This confusion occurs even if the subject of the speculation states clearly that he or she is only on a short-term plant-based diet, is personally satisfied with "being 95% vegan [sic]"or is "OMG-too-in-love-with-cute-purses" to ever be able to give up using the skin of a slaughtered being as a fashion accessory. It seems that this is the case with Hoff. What complicates things, however, is that she insists on continuing to refer to herself as a vegan even while admitting that her pride in her wardrobe justifies the use and killing of others.

"Mother Theresa to the Animal Kingdom"

It seems that Hoff was recently taken to task by a few of her own readers for having used a photo of herself in a fashion-related article in which she wore silk and fur. She was called a hypocrite for doing so, self-described "vegan" that she is. This purportedly hurt her, she claims in this piece for Elle, since it's a criticism she "struggles [s] with every day -- from  [her]self". She then proceeds to provide her back-story, asserting that she's "been vegan for more than three years" and that part of the reasons for her supposedly being so are ethical. She then explains that it was the horrors of factory farming and food production that led her to change her diet. Then a few years into her so-called "veganism", Hoff claims that she also decided to overhaul her assortment of  beauty products to eliminate those which aren't "cruelty-free", but she goes on to talk about animal testing and doesn't really specify that her beauty products are in fact free of animal ingredients.  All this seems done to build an image of her  -- of her intentions -- with which her readers might sympathize, but it then leads up to the real focus of her article, which is her bizarre attempt to defend her continued participation in animal exploitation.

Excuses, Excuses, Oh My!

Hoff is fairly clear in stating her position when it comes to her own use and exploitation of other animals. Ain't nothin' cryptic to decipher here.
"Full disclosure: I love leather. I like fur, too. I have no good reasons or justifications other than the fact that I think they look good. It sucks that I think this; I get it. Trust me. I am lucky to have evaded face-to-face criticism (aside from teasing jibes from my brothers), simply because I really have no way to defend myself other than an embarrassed shrug."
There's no reading between the lines to be done. She fetishizes the skin and hair of others and feels that they accentuate her own attractiveness and this fetishism trumps all else. She tries to make light of it by referring to the "teasing jibes" of loved ones, but in the end? A shrug. Her vanity, she admits, trumps the interests of others.

"I'm a Good Girl, I Am!"

And so she side-steps having to make an actual case to defend her actions. Instead, she shifts the focus back to building up her persona -- to convincing her readers that she's a "good person" and so should be absolved of what she seems to view as a harshly-judged indiscretion. Taking her to task for her wearing silk, fur and leather is unfair, she suggests. It's "not an accurate reflection of [her] character", she insists. It's a deflecting tactic, plain and simple. It misses the point. To say "Hey, wearing silk, leather and fur isn't vegan" isn't tantamount to saying: "You're a bad, bad girl!" but is simply pointing out the fact that she isn't vegan. As for cruelty and hypocrisy? She readily admits to both, herself.  Self-identifying as a hypocrite doesn't change the fact that you're a hypocrite. It's not a "get out of jail free" card to absolve you of actually having to take steps to correct what you're doing. 

On Conflating Shrugs with Steps

A few My Face Is on Fire readers who read Hoff's article argued that her admitting that she's a hypocrite -- that she's engaging in behaviour she admits is problematic -- is a sign that she's ready to change that behaviour. The thing is that this isn't AA, folks. Admitting that you have a problem may indeed be a first step in your resolution of a problem if denial has been an obstacle, but in Hoff's case, she tosses the word hypocrite out with a shrug, as if to do so shields her from further criticism. That said, she sandwiches the word between building herself up to be a Compassionate and Concerned Consumer and then proceeding to try to defend why she has no intention of actually taking other animals' rights seriously enough to stop providing demand for their exploitation.

She does use the word "transition" at one point, but seems more interested in clinging to her label than she is in actually completing any sort of transition to veganism in earnest. She brings up her "progress" by identifying how many articles of vintage fur clothing she owns and how she beautiful she finds it draped on a human animal's body, but that she won't buy any "new" fur and then mentions the positive sustainable aspects of thrifting, leaving one to speculate that she's not opposed to buying used fur clothing. Whether old or new, demand is still generated as she continues to consume it. As for leather? Although she gushes over some of the new vegan-friendly fashion designers who are currently trendy, her emphasis seems to be that fake leather isn't realistic enough for her to give up wearing the actual skin of another animal. It's the fashion industry's fault for not giving her options that satisfy her fetish.

The Emphatic Parting Raspberry

It's this mention of apparently improving fake leather design which, I think, left a very few of the people with whom I've discussed this article "hopeful" that she was communicating some sort of interest in walking away from using the real thing. She yanks a "holier-than-thou" comment about judging out of the ether, though, saying that just as she doesn't judge vegans or non-vegans for whatever they choose to eat (this extends, presumably, to those who choose to eat animals), she expects not to be judged for whom she chooses to wear. She ends with the following parting "nyah-nyah" (which also includes a link to an article on leather boots for good measure):
"at the end of the day, I will be the first to tell you that I am wrong, a hypocrite—
and yes, even cruel. But I’ll do it while wearing my favorite pair of leather boots."
Although I've not read more than a few of the comments left in response to her article, her first reply to a reader was to assert that same old "veganism isn't perfection" bunk, comparing herself to "vegans who eat honey" and insisting that it's a label she wants. She claims to be a "work in progress" even though throughout the latter part of her article, she makes it quite clear that she's happy with her continued animal use and doesn't care that this use involves the torture and slaughter of others. Like the overwhelming majority of those around us, Hoff is speciesist and is confused about what it is that we owe other animals.

Speciesism Is Speciesism

To Hoff, the word "vegan" is as much a fashion accessory as are her leather boots or her fur fringe. To talk to her about "going vegan" is pointless, since to her, "vegan" means following a strict vegetarian diet (plus or minus honey) and otherwise doing your own thing. This is why in all of our advocacy, we need to be wary of promoting and applauding token gestures involving the shuffling out of this or that animal product -- Meatless Monday, for example. We need to shift our focus to addressing the underlying issue in all of this, which is speciesism. We need to be unequivocal when we explain that other animals aren't ours to use, whether we want to eat them, wear them, watch them skip and dance or languish behind bars. There's no such thing as ''95% vegan''. That 5% of deliberate self-indulgent and easily avoidable animal exploitation is as unethical as the the other 95%. By promoting half-hearted measures which fall short of of clarifying to others that using other animals for our selfish pleasure is wrong  and that there are lives at stake with each and every incidence of use, we create more confusion. In applauding measures which promote the shuffling out of this or that animal product but which fall short of emphasizing that veganism needs to be the moral baseline? We create more Hoffs.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Flexible" for Whom?


A conversation with a new friend a few weeks ago led to her mentioning a vegetarian she knows. She suggested to me that she views vegetarianism in a more positive light because it is "more flexible" than veganism. It wasn't a casually tossed off comment; she acknowledged that she realized it might be an offensive thing to say to me. I wasn't offended. I lumped it into a general category with some of the other related comments and criticisms I've received over the years, whether directly from friends, family and strangers, or indirectly in articles written by complete strangers (often, but not always, non-vegans) and purported animal advocacy groups.

In all cases, the suggestion is made that it would somehow be "better" if I consumed animal products. The comments from people I know may range from suggestions of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge variety ("Oh c'mon! Can't you just have a piece of this delicious cheesecake? It's sooo good and I won't tell anyone that you had any.") and those simply suggesting that in being unequivocal about rejecting animal exploitation, I am somehow being too rigid or narrow-minded ("Moderation is reasonable. Everything in moderation." "Vegetarianism is more flexible.").

This always leaves me with two questions. The obvious one is something I wish to address in a forthcoming blog post: What does it mean to be "flexible" about an ethical choice like veganism? Perhaps the most important one in terms of understanding why someone would say this to a vegan, however, is to ask: Flexible for whom?


On (Not) Being a Pain in the Ass

Whenever it's been suggested to me that my veganism is too rigid or inflexible, I have always questioned the motive behind the statement. It's significant in terms of how or whether you want to respond to it. For instance, I have had non-vegans bring it up to me when eating arrangements are being planned and negotiated. In those cases, what they've often meant to say is: "Your being vegan inconveniences me."

A few years ago, a former boyfriend and I were on a road-trip through New England, aiming to close the gap between Belfast, ME and Fleetwood, PA within 12 hours. We had a great late breakfast at the Belfast Co-op, but somewhere outside of Boston we got hungry. Without a handy GPS gadget, we crossed our fingers and took an off-ramp and stopped at the first place we encountered. It was a busy and surprisingly vegan-unfriendly soup and sandwich place.  I questioned a cashier briefly about customizing a sandwich, only to find out that none of the bread was vegan. I shook my head in frustration and my ex muttered something along the lines of "this wouldn't be so difficult if you weren't vegan".

I glanced out the window and noticed a supermarket across the parking lot. "Order your food and I'll meet you at the car in twenty minutes," I told him. I brightened up immediately when I spotted a salad bar in the store. I loaded up on vegetables and chickpea salad, then grabbed some chocolate organic soy milk and snacks for the road. "All set," I grinned, sliding into the passenger seat."Easy peasy!"

Of course, it's important to note that all of this -- relatively hassle-free as it was -- could have been so easily avoided had we just brought a small cooler and packed some food to bring along. You see, "Be Prepared" should really be a vegan's motto rather than a boy scout's. A little advance planning takes care of the overwhelming majority of ordinary social situations involving meals.

Have an upcoming date at a restaurant? Have a look at the place's menu on its website and if needed, call ahead. Better yet, suggest a place you already know has delicious vegan-friendly food. Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants are often good bets. If someone invites you over for dinner, communicate your needs well in advance and offer to bring a vegan-friendly dish or two that would fit in well with the meal. This takes the pressure off your host and gives you an opportunity to share delicious vegan food with others. Win-win, yes?

It's fundamentally important that you look out for yourself as much as you can to avoid the easily avoidable. Then, if someone tries to make you feel as if your being vegan is inconveniencing them, you can smile and hand them a cookie -- or the Luna bar stashed in your bag!

Tradition, Rejection, Oh My!

Anyone who's ever spent some time on a vegan discussion board is familiar with the often similar stories from newer vegans about coping with shared family meals. The vegan's opting not to eat whatever non-vegan dish is offered up is viewed as a rejection or rude. "But you used to love my abracadabra animal dish. Won't you just have a little bit of it?" the distraught-looking favourite aunt may say over a shared holiday meal. "Wow, that veganism stuff is pretty strict," your sister may take you aside to stage whisper to you. "Can't you make an exception for Aunt Lovely's abracadabra animal dish? It's (insert holiday of choice here)! She'll be really hurt/offended/upset/forced to take home leftovers!!!"

Parents of teenagers or young adults who go vegan may take things even more personally and feel that the values which they attempted to instill in their offspring were deemed lacking somehow. If meals are shared often, then their parents are reminded of this day after day and there can be friction. All you can really do in cases like this is to either prepare your family in advance about the changes you've made to your diet as a part of your veganism, as well as to reassure Aunt Lovely (or other family members) that it's nothing personal, but that your choices are guided by convictions you now hold following observation, research and meaningful reflection. 

You need never compromise your ethics to soothe hurt feelings. Use your words.

One of These Things (Is Not Like the Other)

I think that in some cases, some of the "won't you just try a little bite?" types of statements are simply a reaction to the fact that your actions demonstrate your having taken an ethical stance that differs from the one held by the other person. (You remember that old Sesame Street song?) Perhaps the other person feels as if his or her own stance has been deemed "wrong" and feels judged and thus a little defensive. Somehow, proof is sought that you have inner-conflict about to bubble over and that you really, really want that cheesy bite of nachos your friend is having as much as your friend does. It's assumed that you must want to be reeled back in. After all, if you do, then that ol' status quo maintained and all is back to "normal".

More often, it's really usually just as simple as the other not understanding how or why you've decided to go vegan -- or (thanks to the confusing messages in mainstream media) what it means to be vegan. It ends up assumed that veganism is tantamount to some sort of self-depriving diet on which you're no doubt miserable, and on which you'd be grateful to be given an "out" to cheat. I've had so many well-meaning friends offer up such "temptations" over the years. I'm convinced that most of them really thought they were doing me a favour rather than trying to trip me up in a "gotcha" moment of weakness.

All you can really do in these situations is to calmly and clearly explain your choices and, if the time and the place is right, how it is that you came to make them. You may not change their own minds about animal use at that moment, but at least you can attempt to get them to understand and to respect your choices. You can get them to understand that you don't really want to have that slice of pepperoni pizza waved under your nose.

It's a good opportunity to get them to start thinking about why someone would view the exploitation of other beings as inherently wrong. Once someone actually spends time pondering what's involved behind the scenes in animal use, they may come to realize that they actually happen to agree -- to have agreed all along -- with many of the reasons which led you to veganism. Very few people could say with absolute sincerity that they would be completely comfortable hurting another animal for no justifiable reason.

Have that conversation. Plant that seed. Be that flexible.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Sammy


I think that it was the summer of 2000 that a young, muscular black cat became my close gardening companion. I knew that he came from the apartment above mine. It concerned me that he seemed to almost always be outside, which left me uneasy given that we lived on a busy downtown street corner where I'd already watched one cat die from a hit and run. The parking lot adjacent to our yard was also a spot where kids attending all-ages shows at the Elk's Club across the street used to congregate to drink, fight and break bottles. The summer was hot and the cat I came to call "Sammy" -- an abbreviation of the horrible name the upstairs neighbour had given him -- had little other than a half-filled and filthy water dish at his disposal, a tipped over box of dry kibble left out 24/7. I offered him water. I filled a dish with proper kibble. He, in turn, would stretch lazily in the grass beside me as I pinched and plucked various plants. Several times, I observed the neighbour parking her car and Sammy running out from a bush beneath which he spent much of his time out of the sun, eager to greet her and her two children. She would instruct the children to ignore him and he would be left in the yard staring after them as they went inside. It broke my heart. He was alone.


I noticed scratches from what I assumed were scraps with neighbourhood cats. There was a feral colony a few blocks away. There were several roaming toms all over, some who'd walk into the yard. Late in the summer, one scrap left Sammy with an infected bite, swollen and pus-filled. He allowed me to drain it and to treat it with antibiotics. I mentioned it to the neighbour, who expressed annoyance at my having brought it to her attention. Over the next while, I continued to spend time with this friendly and neglected cat, discussing with my ex what I felt might be done. We had just that previous summer adopted kittens Zeus and Sophie to add to the household we shared with six-year-old siblings Tarwater and Almonzo. Bringing yet another cat wasn't something either of us sought.

Another abscessed wound later and as summer turned to fall and the evenings became colder, we confirmed that Sammy was in fact being left outside 24/7 and I began to let him into our attached shed at night to stay warm. Halloween was coming and a three band bill had been announced at the Elk's Club. Sammy was outside just after dusk as I was putting gardening tools away. I heard some kids in the parking lot laughing and someone drunkenly calling "Here kitty, kitty!" and I immediately called out "Sammy, Sammy, Sammy!" and he came running and I let him into the shed. I decided that moment that I wasn't going to risk losing him again.

The neighbour ended up confessing that she'd left him out in the yard, hoping he would "go away". So when we approached her about keeping him, she was relieved. I learned that he was "around four years old -- maybe older". At this point, he had another bite wound and would need veterinary attention -- tests and immunizations. She agreed to cover the cost of the initial vet bill, but later put up a big stink about it and we let it go, relieved that Sammy was finally safe. We quarantined him a while after his initial FIV test. When we eventually let him out of the office to interact with the other cats, he snapped at them constantly, defensive and so used to having been picked on. The rest of the gang, after tentative approaches, kept their distance. Sadly, this would set the tone for his interaction with most of the cats for years to come.


We heaped love on him and worked around his defensive nipping issues. We respected that he didn't want to be picked up or otherwise restrained and worked on winning his trust. I was always most sad watching him looking out the window at the upstairs neighbours and her kids in the backyard. He fell victim to additional heaps of my affection whenever that occurred. Sammy came to dote upon Sophie, adoring her so obviously to everyone who witnessed his behaviour, but he was never fully accepted. The humans tried to make up for it as much as we could. We hammered out an existence together and in later years, once Tar and Monzo passed, Sammy actually came to bond with Zeus quite closely. It took a visit from a friend from Pennsylvania who pointed out their moments of play for me to first realize it. Later, Sammy and Zeus would nap together comfortably. It was a relief.


Sammy and I fell into our own routine. He would regularly wake me an hour to an hour and a half before I needed waking, insisting on his breakfast. His preferred methods were either to bat at or knead my scalp. Occasionally I'd wake up on my side with Sammy's face inches from mine, my cheek damp from having been licked awake. Weekday mornings, he would follow me to the bathroom and wait for scritches after I showered, watching me get ready for work, at first along with Zeus and later by himself.  


Earlier this year when Zeus died, Sammy ended up alone in my apartment for the first time in a decade. I was out of the country and unable to return for a week. My cat sitter Vadini upped her presence to comfort him (and for that, I am so grateful to her). My friend Tanya promised to come visit, as well. When I returned, Sammy was ecstatic. I was the last of his family and had come home. For the next few weeks, we cuddled almost constantly. Afraid, I think, to be left alone again, he would follow me everywhere. I realized that after his having spent his entire life in this home with the company of other feline companions that he needed another friend. I brought home Eli, whose great enthusiasm for play soon exhausted my poor old guy. A few weeks after skittish Eli had begun to settle in and when it became clear that Sammy was alright with his company, but in need of respite from his many insistent attempts at rowdy play, I brought home Minou to distract Eli and to add a gentle third to my feline family. 


Several months later, Sammy was diagnosed with chronic renal failure. Because of his strong aversion to being handled (and thus medicated) and since he was eating, drinking and appeared content -- particularly because of his age -- the vet agreed that I should watch him closely until a decision needed to be made concerning palliative care. His weight continued to decline, but his appetite was still voracious. Sammy's condition worsened quickly these past few weeks. During his last few days, he barely ate and became incredibly affectionate, seeking constant attention and reassurance -- all of which I gave him. Last Thursday he let me know that he'd had enough and so, on Friday morning, I made the decision I had so very much dreaded and called the veterinary clinic to book an appointment. I was stuck at work, but my friend Tanya agreed to come over to spend the afternoon with him so that his final hours would be with someone who'd loved him and known him almost as long as I had. And for his last hour I held him close. My beautiful old man would not be alone.

Friday, November 29, 2013

So Al Gore Has Gone 'Something'?


Who's Done What?


Over the last 48 hours, I've seen excited status update after excited status update in my Facebook feed over the news leaked out that Al Gore may have gone vegan. What started it was a passing reference to the supposedly "[n]ewly turned vegan Al Gore" in an article by Ryan Mac on the Forbes website. Since that reference, the websites of just about every imaginable major news publication have been passing this on and elaborating upon it, although all of the reports I've seen thus far have yet to offer up an official confirmation. According to The Washington Post:
An individual familiar with Gore's decision, who asked not to be identified because it involved a personal matter, confirmed that Gore opted a couple of months ago to become vegan. Gore's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Speculation over his decision to go vegan is mostly centred on what would be assumed to be the most obvious "reason" for someone like Gore. According to The Washington Post, folks "usually become vegan for environmental, health or ethical reasons, or a combination of these three factors" and Al Gore so very obviously champions at least one of these causes, so I'm guessing that onlookers are drawing the conclusion that Gore has gone "vegan" for the planet. After all, he's been heavily involved in environmental advocacy for the last several years, publicly pushing for policy reforms geared towards slowing the rate at which the planet's climate is changing thanks to what we've been spewing into the air for decades. In 2006 he won an Oscar for his documentary An Inconvenient TruthIn 2007, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against global warming.

As he's persevered, reports confirming the link between large scale animal agriculture and global warming have been repeatedly highlighted in the media. Given this, it was really no surprise when animal advocates began to call on Gore to do the logical thing and to go vegan (or to at the very least stop eating meat, since meat production is often singled out as being more environmentally problematic than are other animal products). Gore himself was often referenced in the media as intending to at least reduce his meat consumption, so given his public prominence and the low anticipatory buzz that's surrounded him for a spell, it's no surprise that this news of his apparently having gone vegan has a lot of animal advocates excited.

He's Gone What?

When someone drops the word 'vegan' into a news story these days, it's essentially meaningless to me until it's explicitly defined. The Washington Post may very well have connected to an insider who is close enough to Gore to be able to confirm this or that tidbit of information about his personal decisions, but the problem is that along with occasionally being used properly, the word has been tossed around so very often to describe strict vegetarians, people who go on 3-4 week diet cleanses, those who eat periodic plant-based meals at certain times of day, as well as celebrities who may at some point have been vegan (or doing any of the other aforementioned things listed). Basically, the term is very often used to describe people who indeed do choose to consume easily avoidable animal products. All it takes is one well-circulated press release to announce that this or that celebrity has "gone vegan" and the details -- the actual facts -- become irrelevant. They get buried in all of rest of the chatter.

The Clinton Example

A while back, Bill Clinton decided to change his diet. "Bill Clinton Goes Vegan!" was proclaimed over and over again in the news, on animal advocacy websites and blogs, and by excited vegans everywhere. Advocates viewed the press exposure for veganism as positive. Except that Bill Clinton didn't go vegan. For a while, he adopted a strict vegetarian diet and did so for health reasons. These days he's no longer even following a strictly vegetarian diet -- or any sort of vegetarian diet at all. Earlier this fall, in an interview with AARP for an article called "Bill Clinton Explains Why He Became a Vegan", Clinton admitted that
Once a week or so, he will have a helping of organic salmon or an omelet made with omega-3-fortified eggs, to maintain iron, zinc and muscle mass.
So in an article about why he purportedly became 'a vegan', Clinton admits to once-a-week (or so) meals of fish or eggs. Never mind that completely unsubstantiated nutritional reasons are given for it, but the fact that Clinton, the article's writer and the writer's editor all three saw fit to call Clinton 'a vegan' although he admits to eating fish and eggs? Well, if that isn't proof that not taking the word 'vegan' as a qualifier seriously until whoever uses it fills in the blanks with details, I honestly don't know what is.

In the numerous articles about Gore's supposed recent shift, his 'going vegan' is repeatedly compared to Clinton's (e.g. the recent LA Times article "Al Gore is now vegan, just like Bill Clinton"), but Clinton isn't -- in any sense of the word -- a vegan. He probably never was a vegan and now he is not even technically a vegetarian (although ethically speaking, whether it's salmon or eggs he's consuming is irrelevant). Yet, groups like PETA applaud madly and laud him for having supposedly 'gone vegan'. Animal advocates who missed the AARP article and/or the ensuing string of articles and blog posts about it by those animal advocates who didn't miss it are still calling him a vegan. Once the buzzword has been dropped, advocates seem to latch on to it.

The facts are overlooked, further dietary changes are ignored, and until the day when Bill Clinton is photographed gnawing hungrily on a roasted lamb shank, he will no doubt continue to be called 'vegan'. As for what Al Gore may be doing? If it truly is anything that involves following in Bill Clinton's footsteps, what is there for animal advocates to celebrate? Until he fills in his own blanks, I'll hold off on clapping my own hands together in delight. Right now, Clinton's own situation as reported by the media and animal groups seems to have done nothing but to confuse the public about what 'veganism' actually means.

The 'Why' Behind the What

Of course, it will be great that he will likely be seriously curtailing his consumption of animal products. In Clinton's case, health was the factor which led to his shuffling around a lot of what he eats. In Gore's, until he actually speaks up and elaborates upon what he has done and why he has done it, we can only speculate that he will be curtailing some of his own exploitation for environmental reasons. Until then, we have two political celebrities who are still exploiting other animals and who are each limiting the extent of their exploitation for reasons that have nothing to do with the rights of those other animals themselves being taken seriously.

Clinton has already shown that shuffling animal products back into his diet in isn't a concern for him in terms of his health and as far as I know, he hasn't stopped wearing leather belts or silk ties to keep his weight in check. If Gore truly has gone vegan, great, but so far reports suggest that he's just changing his diet. If he's merely changing his diet for environmental reasons? Sneaking in the odd bowl of ice cream or fillet mignon won't ultimately have that much impact on global warming. As long as neither of them actually care about the ethics of of animal use in and of itself, they will likely continue to use them.

To use the term 'vegan' to describe either of them is incorrect. It's a simple question of definition. Worse, though, is that the term is now more and more commonly being used to describe behaviours which 1) have nothing to do with consideration for what it is that we owe other animals, and 2) which involved the unapologetic exploitation of these other animals through the continued use of their bodies and products for the sake of pleasure.

So?

As an abolitionist, I hold veganism as a moral baseline in my advocacy. This extends to whom I choose to salute or applaud in terms of his or her actual, perceived or hoped for involvement in -- or impact on -- changing the status quo for other animals in a meaningful and permanent manner. It seems bizarre to me applaud a non-vegan as possibly facilitating society's shift away from speciesism when this non-vegan's own behaviour is, in fact, mired in speciesism.  Some may balk and protest that "It at least gets the word 'vegan' out there and leaves people thinking about veganism." The real truth is that the so-called word that someone like Gore's diet change gets out there just becomes more watered down and meaningless. The actual ethical reasons behind the coining of the term become lost altogether. What gets out there is more confusion about a label people who avoid animal products use as shorthand to self-identify when eating away from home or as descriptors when we seek to purchase various products.

It's not only something that I cannot applaud, but it becomes something worrisome to me. And when I see other advocates for veganism -- abolitionist advocates for veganism -- pointing out that this news about Gore is something worth celebrating, I'm really left wondering how it is that we've become so desperate to grasp at each and every little thing we can, rather than sticking to the simple and clear message that convinced me to finally stop fucking around and to go vegan six and a half years ago.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

On Ribbing


It was around two months ago that I pulled up in front of my small local grocer's just as it was starting to sprinkle. I was on the way home from an hour-long bike ride on the dirt and gravel trails around my city and had stopped to pick something up to throw into a salad. Radishes? Scallions? It had rained earlier and a long narrow puddle had formed alongside the curb where I was hitching up my bike to a lamppost. I squatted to thread the lock's cable through my back wheel and noticed a flutter in the puddle. A large moth was flapping madly and, without skipping a beat, I reached out to scoop him up out of the water. He continued to flap and flap and I cupped my hands to shelter him from the breeze which had picked up and I observed him for a bit. One of his wings was jagged and so I couldn't tell if he was just too wet to fly or if he was, in fact, seriously injured.

A little girl ran over and I looked up to see her mother following, smiling. "She wants to see," she told me. I lowered my hands and the girl looked and asked if he was alright. I told her that I wasn't sure and her mother waved her away. As I stood up, the breeze caught him and blew him out into the street. It had all lasted less than a few minutes. I finished my errand and checked my Facebook messages and posted a status update about my encounter. Although I'd felt sort of compelled to share the brief experience, I also felt a little apprehensive about sharing it after I had done so.  Mostly, I had this niggling feeling that someone -- likely one of a couple of non-vegan friends -- would no doubt take a poke at me to garner some likes or laughs. And? Someone obliged.

I'm not super thin-skinned. Having grown up in an extended working class French-Canadian family that included a lot of older male cousins, being teased is old hat to me. I don't even remember what the words used in his poke had been. What was written seemed an attempt to use "Operation Moth Rescue" to paint me as being a soft-hearted "flaky vegan". Another non-vegan friend quickly "liked" the poke... then another. A few more pokes ensued, woven through the thoughtful comments left by those vegan friends (and a couple of closer non-vegan friends) who'd understood my impulse to reach out -- such a simple gesture -- to scoop up a fellow being.

I usually shake my head and respond with an attempt at humour when I become the subject of someone's gentle ribbing. Over a decade as a vegetarian and a smaller handful of years as a vegan have left me dodging barbs, attempting to slip off the radars of more than a few workplace lunchroom clowns, hearing the periodic "plants feel pain too, you hypocrite" comments, being told each and every rare time I catch a cold that my immune system would be stronger ''if only I ate meat'', et al. Every once in a while, I find myself smiling that sort of "You're an asshole, but it would just be too unbecoming of me to dismantle your assholery right now" sort of smile. If you've ever been sucker-punched by someone about your veganism at an inappropriate time and it was obvious that that individual was just trying to be a bully and to make you squirm, you've no doubt worn that very same smile.

But then there have been those gentle pokes from well-meaning friends who may very well be just teasing the way they would tease you about any other story or subject, whether or not it's related to veganism or animal issues. For years I would just smile and shrug, mostly because I'm generally a non-confrontational person and found deflecting less stressful than asserting myself and then merely being told that I obviously couldn't "take a joke". The thing is that these mostly well-meaning friends have not experienced those less-than-gentle pokes vegans get from other friends, coworkers, family or even strangers. They don't taste the hostility in the mean-spirited anti-vegan articles that often show up in mainstream media, saturated with mistruths and ridicule.

As a blogger and as someone who's been involved in online activism for a while now, I've heard again and again from new vegans that the most difficult part of transitioning and settling into being vegan for them has involved dealing with other people. It's most markedly alienating when its people who are -- or were -- loved ones who become antagonistic. Sometimes it's not so much that those loves ones are consciously disrespectful or deliberately antagonistic, but that their words just end up thrown on the pile of all of the rest of the negativity we sometimes encounter from others. And sometimes those words smart more simply because they're from people from whom we expect validation rather than humiliation. The truth is that for those of us who have come to a point where we have chosen to reject participating in the inherently brutal exploitation of others, veganism is a matter of life or death. Tease me about the ABBA on my iPod. Kid me about the piece of kale stuck between my teeth. However, please don't attempt to undermine the seriousness with which I build the ethical framework within which I live my life.

I was on the tail end of a couple of weeks of what had felt like almost persistent ribbing and had ended up in a couple of ridiculous -- and exhausting -- debates in the days leading up to "Operation Moth Rescue". When that (later) self-professed well-meaning non-vegan friend decided to take a public poke at me on Facebook, I felt disrespected. I also felt that all of my fellow vegan Facebook friends had been disrespected and that I had allowed this to happen again and again by not addressing the taunts and pokes which had begun to increase in frequency and insensitivity. I wrote the following :
It's funny how some non-vegan friends will take gentle digs at my veganism, knowing that I blog about it, knowing how serious I am about it, knowing that many of my vegan Facebook friends will read the comments they leave on my wall. I know them well enough to know they're not trying to be mean, but I can't help but wonder where they would draw their line about disrespecting someone else's ethical... stance. If I were Jewish and keeping kosher and talking about it, would they take digs at me for that? If I was against child abuse and writing about that, then what? I don't expect all of my friends to agree with my reasons for being vegan. I don't expect all of them to understand why I choose to cause the least harm I can in whichever way I can and sometimes do things that seem silly to them like rescuing a stunned mouse from a road and sitting on a curb a half hour to make sure he's OK before setting him free, or taking the opportunity to scoop a drowning moth out of a puddle -- or adopting a traumatized skittish cat from the shelter (or fostering/adopting a large number of them in the past, something for which I've been chided by friends and family because it left me "going without").

Maybe it all seems silly to some, but it isn't to me. I take suffering and death seriously. I take trying to make some sort of difference seriously. It's meaningful to me. This time last year, I made the decision to euthanize my cat Sophie whose asthma became too much for her to bear. This time -- this very week -- six years ago, I lost my cat Monzo to hyperthyroidism and my father to cancer. So I know suffering and I know death. Oh fuck, do I ever know both intimately. I do what I can to alleviate some of it or to disinvolve myself from causing it as much as I can. It's who and what I am and I'm unapologetic about it. I was the 10-year-old kid who scooped up the cat mauled by the collie on the corner and knocked on several doors until an adult would help. I'm now the adult who refuses to participate in any animal exploitation to the best of her ability because this is the best possible life that I can lead -- the life that makes the most sense to me. I don't expect non-vegan friends to agree with everything I do, but I'd like to think that on some level that they could acknowledge that there's some good in this, whether or not they choose to do it themselves.
Many of my vegan friends responded with empathy. Many also expressed gratitude (some in private asides) for my having voiced what they too-often felt. Rather than use my post as an opportunity to trigger a dialogue or earnest discussion where we might come to an understanding of sorts, my non-vegan friend expressed that he'd felt censured and stated that he would self-censor moving forward when feeling the urge to share "funny" things. He expressed regret that I had been offended, but with neither an understanding of, nor a desire to understand, why it had been offensive.

I had overreacted. I had been thin-skinned and emotional. I had been the stereotypical humorless vegan, even though I had previously always responded with a smile and a shrug.

Hey vegan, can't you take a joke?

Hey, you?

Vegan?