Jonathan Safran Foer mentions 'suffering' over and over throughout his interview with Erik Marcus, making it clear, in case any of his readers or the podcast's more distracted listeners were still somehow left wondering, that his concern is with the treatment--not with the use--of nonhuman animals. His views on those who do take issue with the use of animals altogether get revealed as the interview takes a less-than-interesting turn and vegan advocacy suddenly gets kicked around like a crumpled soda pop can on a dirty beach. That old familiar shaming game begins and Marcus and Foer play off of each other to display how they have a heap more in common than merely having written books about factory farming.
It's sad enough when those who are either unsupportive of or outright opposed to veganism and vegan advocacy (and who themselves choose to exploit animals) can't articulate their stances any better than to ridicule vegans and equate consistency with fanaticism; it makes me wonder about what truly motivates people to say the things they do, however, when someone who is purportedly a vegan decides to turn on other vegans for having the (gasp!) audacity to talk to people other than vegans about veganism. Considering that as early as p. 6 of his book, Foer brings up the term "proselytizer" in his first mention of someone's having talked to him about the ethics of eating animals, the remainder of the interview, although horribly disappointing, is not particularly full of surprises.
Marcus' voice takes on an almost gleeful quality as he suggests that in writing his book, Foer left himself open to criticism "from hardcore level 5 vegans in our movement". Foer insists that he's all for criticism and then indulges in a fair bit of it himself, dancing a little jig around the ethics of eating animals while talking about "steps". Foer questions whether we should really be asking people to take the "first" step (i.e. any lessening at all of animal consumption) or the "last" step (i.e. veganism); he then suggests that it is altogether unreasonable to ask people to start by taking the "last" step. He insists that asking people to take the "first" step introduces the issue in a way that is "cast less militantly" and "opens a conversation".
For someone who asserts in this interview and elsewhere that he is no animal activist, Foer certainly seems to have rather strong opinions about how advocacy and activism should be carried out. The thing is that I can understand to a certain extent why an on-again, off-again vegetarian of many years who has yet--even after researching a book about the horrors of factory farming-- to make the decision to go vegan would perpetuate the myth that going vegan is extreme or that going vegan is difficult. We all have baggage when it comes to personal weakness; it seems somewhat disingenous, however, for Foer to project his weakness on to the public and to so grossly underestimate the average person's ability to hear and respond to a clear vegan message. And that Marcus, a vegan, should not see fit to point that out to Foer was what was perhaps the most shameful part of the interview.
But it doesn't stop there...
Foer insists that taking a first step (e.g. skipping meat for one day a week) always leads to a second and further step. Prof. Gary L. Francione, though, has successfully argued here and here both how and why this isn't the case. Foer then backtracks by asserting that even if those small steps "are the only steps made" that it still "makes a tremendous difference". The truth is that coddling anyone into thinking that any level of animal exploitation is OK since they've made a "tremendous difference" in dropping this or that animal product does a disservice to them and merely confuses them about what it is that we in fact owe animals. Marcus, however, states explicitly that he condones small changes that never lead to veganism. He describes what he calls his "two track activism", by which on one hand he a) purports to want to convince anyone and everyone that veganism is simple, but that b) if they're "absolutely unwilling", he still thinks that it's "a big win" to convince them to eat less meat or at least buy "more expensive" meat from animals that are not factory farmed. It's patronizing at best and dishonest at worst to communicate this sort of wishy-washy message in lieu of a clear and honest message. Furthermore, it would be an understatement to express the disservice that holding this mindset, and consuming accordingly, does to the nonhuman animals who do happen to be the unlucky ones who continue to be used by humans who've received this message from purported animal advocates. Is focusing on that first step and following it up with a pat on the back not really more akin, then, to taking two steps back while losing an opportunity to get someone to consider veganism?
Foer and Marcus bring up abolitionism and eventually switch the term out to opt for 'absolutist'. Foer describes abolitionism as drawing a line in the sand and then focusing on how to get others to draw their lines in the same place, rather than getting them to work "toward" that line as a "goal". In saying so, Foer shows a complete lack of understanding of the abolitionist approach to animal rights and the way in which vegan education is often conducted. Prof. Francione has repeatedly said in interviews, himself, that incremental change is encouraged as long as it involves moving forward towards the ultimate goal of going vegan. What's not condoned by abolitionists is the sort of incremental change that goes nowhere and merely serves to reinforce someone's views that in giving up this or that animal product, he or she has done enough and should not feel concerned or guilty about continuing to exploit nonhuman animals.
Where abolitionists believe that people have the ability to hear, process and react to a clear vegan message, Marcus takes an altogether different view. He describes assessing which message should be communicated to non-vegans as an issue of "trust", where someone like Foer feels that getting someone to the first step and then letting that person suss things out (whether or not this entails a progression to the logical conclusion of going vegan) shows that Foer "trusts" the recipient of the message. On the other hand, according to Marcus, others who are adamant about delivering an unequivocal vegan message don't, in fact, trust the message's recipients:
I think a lot of the absolutist position really has to do with distrusting your listener. [...] I am going to proscribe for you exactly what kind of behaviour you should be carrying out and if you come up anywhere short of that, or god forbid you advocate lesser steps to others, then you don't get to be in the camp of good people who care about animals.Not only is this a total mischaracterization, but it is completely mean-spirited (and that's as generous a term as I could come up with). Marcus knows better than this, which is why I have to ask why he would deliberately try to deceive his listeners about abolitionists who are unequivocal about the need for nonviolent creative vegan education, and who instead put a great deal of faith into the ability of others to be able to connect the dots when presented with a clear message concerning the immorality of using nonhuman animals.
Furthermore, Marcus rants that the most "objectionable term" he's heard is the expression "moral baseline" and that using it suggests to people "that if they don't go vegan, automatically they're immoral people" and Marcus says that the more you "judge other people's integrity or quality as a person" the more opportunity you have to "alienate" those people. The irony in all of this is that on top of completely misrepresenting advocacy or education that has an unequivocal vegan message, Marcus is pretty much doing exactly what he accuses abolitionists of doing--finger-pointing, judging, questioning integrity and alienating.
Insisting that not consuming or exploiting animals should be a starting point--a moral baseline--for expressing that one is taking their interests seriously is logical. If one were advocating against rape, would Marcus tell us that it's objectionable to insist that if one is to take the interests or rights of rape victims seriously that one should start by themselves not raping others? It would be speciesist of Marcus to agree with one scenario and not the other. (For more information on why veganism needs to be the moral baseline of the animal rights movement, please read this essay on the Abolitionist Approach website by Prof. Francione.)
Erik Marcus ends his interview with Jonathan Safran Foer by stating that if you want to consider yourself an activist or if you're truly seriously interested in animal protection that you absolutely "have to" read Foer's book. I disagree and assert that if you want to consider yourself an animal rights activist and are truly seriously interested in animal protection that you should start by going vegan. In his write-up for his podcast interview with Foer, he claims that Eating Animals "will become the default title recommended by vegetarian activists for the next decade". Perhaps that is so, but I am fairly confident that, contrary to what Marcus in all of his confusion may also believe, Foer's book will never become the default title recommended by vegan activists for the next decade. I am also fairly confident that vegan Erik Marcus will never become the default animal advocate whose name gets recommended by vegan activists for the next decade. At least one can hope.