Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson Tackles Veganism -- or Does He?

Years ago, shortly after I first became a vegetarian, I picked up a copy of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. I remember bringing it up in conversation to omni friend after omni friend and even lending it out to a few. It was overflowing with touching stories that I figured might influence friends and family to take animals more seriously -- to reconsider our treatment of them. I ended up forgetting about him as my attention turned to a more serious study and consideration of animal ethics and I became a vegan . I was intrigued a few days ago when I stumbled upon a reference to Masson online that indicated that he'd written a new book -- this time, about veganism. It's called The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food.

A search of news stories about it only brought up a handful of results, albeit a few of them somewhat
impressive. The Washington Post, for instance, has a review of the book that's juxtaposed with Chicago Tribune entertainment writer Mark Caro's "kinder / gentler" exploration of the foie gras industry, The Foie Gras Wars. The much less significant Seattle Weekly's got a blurb on it that starts off with an ill-researched gratuitous stab at veganism (its writer, Brian Miller, uses the term "vegan militia" and defines what he calls the vegan "creed" as "no meat, no eggs, no dairy, sometimes no fish"). Where the book is concerned, Miller obsesses over Masson's comparison of chicken factory farms to concentration camps and on Masson's off-beat history. However, Miller also brings up that he feels Masson's work does not present any new information and that he lacks credentials as an actual philosopher. The review that really got my attention this morning, however, was The New York Times' piece on his book, which contains snippets of interview.

The piece states that -- as I'd known back when I'd read his earlier books in the late 90s -- Masson was raised a vegetarian. What I didn't know is that, according to the
Times' piece, "Mr. Masson began eating meat as an adult and became vegan just five years ago". It's strange to think that he would have been writing all of these books touting the complex emotional lives of animals after having himself gone back to eating them; I guess that this is something to research at some point, more to satisfy my own curiosity than anything. What did elicit a raised eyebrow from me, however, was to read Masson present himself as a vegan, then state

“I call myself an aspiring vegan — sometimes I say veganish,” Mr. Masson said. “I make mistakes sometimes.” If he’s at a restaurant and finds out he ate cake made with a bit of butter, he said: “I can live with that. It’s just too weird and too hostile to go ‘blech’ and throw up and say, ‘I can’t believe I just ate that.’ “

But that, Mr. Masson said, is a fairly typical response to accidental dairy consumption by vegans, who will eat nothing produced by or from an animal.
Although not freaking out over having accidentally consumed animal products is understandable, offering up the term "veganish" to describe consuming an animal product through no fault or intention of one's own seems problematic at best. Masson manages to take it one much more damaging step further, though, in the piece's final paragraph, in which he certainly leaves this wee blogger unable and unwilling to give serious consideration to anything further he could possibly have to say about veganism or the ethics of animal consumption:
This summer, Mr. Masson and his wife and sons are going on a bicycling tour of Italy. “I can see a situation where we’ve been riding all day, and we’re going to be hungry and the Italian people are going to give us pasta with cheese and we don’t want to hurt their feelings,” he said. “So I may just not be vegan for two weeks.”
It's Singer's "Paris exception" revisited. In those few sentences, Masson manages to convey that not hurting a human's feelings is more important to him than valueing the lives of non-human animals. In those few sentences, Masson manages to completely undermine much of the work he's published over the past ten years, and he's pretty much left anything he could possibly have to say or write about veganism a bit of a farce. I haven't read his book and after reading what I did this morning, unfortunately, I'm not sure that I'd see any point in doing so.


kelly g. said...

Ouch, that's rough. I read 'The Pig Who Sang to the Moon' a few months ago - which was great, btw - and , in the book's conclusion, Masson mentioned that he was an "aspiring vegan." He also acknowledged that he'd been saying that for way too long, and it sounded as though he was going to make a more concerted effort to give up the few animal products he was still consuming. It's too bad to hear him make such remarks all these years later. (The book was published in 2003, just to give you an idea.)

But then again, he also refers to Scully's 'Dominion' approvingly - possibly even citing it as one of his favorite animal rights books (don't quote me on that, though), which is irritating, since Scully comes down firmly on the welfare side, at least in 'Dominion.'

M said...

According to this interview (, he's also a supporter of the John Hopkins Institute's Meatless Mondays initiative, which includes in its nutritional guidelines recommendations to consume low-fat dairy products, as well as twice-weekly servings of fish.