Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why Erik Marcus Really Needs a New Domain Name - Part 2

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.


wha said...

So, what would you suggest Eric change his domain name to?

tru said...

This makes me so sad. Marcus's first book, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, was instrumental in my becoming vegan. So much so that I even took a day off of work and drove from Salem, Oregon to Olympia Washington just to see him speak.

I actually bought his second book, Meat Market, and started reading through it, only to find myself taken aback by his wishy-washiness and, essentially, undercutting of the discussion.


Dan Cudahy said...


Here are some suggestions:

I'm sure others can come up with more...

KDrumm said...

This is a terrific two-parter. Thank you for writing. about:


James Crump said...

I suggest, simply:

Lucas said...

I'll repeat what's already been said here: Everyone should listen to the Francione/Marcus debate. It is testament to how pathetically weak Marcus's arguments are.
For some reason I can't find it on Marcus's site ( hmm

Karin Hilpisch said...

Thanks, Mylène, for this terrific commentary on Erik Marcus's latest demonstration of anti-vegan advocacy (to which his activism as a whole is dedicated).
Marcus's interview with Foer makes you ''wonder about what truly motivates people to say the things they do.'' In the comment section of part I of your analysis, Philip considers it possible that Marcus is funded by CCF. When I listened to some of his podcasts more than two years ago, Marcus advertised Chipotle Mexican Grill's burrito with ''humanely'' raised flesh in it in such a way that the CEO of said enterprise couldn't have done it any better, comparing it to other chains' products: “Both the products of slaughter but two entirely different animals”. He promotes HSUS as though he was Pacelle's personal assistant.

We can't know what Marcus's relationship to exploitative enterprises in fact amount to. The point is, we need not know. It suffices that Marcus acts like someone would who had a vested interest in ''keep[ing] the meat industry running safely, efficiently and profitably'' (Temple Grandin). For this conclusion, it doesn't matter what drives him psychologically. He misrepresents the abolitionist approach deliberately because the latter threatens the business which he is part of and benefits from, be it 'only' ideologically or also monetarily.

With regard to Foer, the motivation for his “advocacy” is probably most aptly characterized in Marcus's statement at the beginning of the interview: “I assume you must be ecstatic with how sales have been going and the resulting publicity that's accompanied the book.''

6p00d83452b83e69e2 said...

A gutsy 2-part review that makes a lot of unpopular, but well-thought out points.

I admire your candor and willingness to raise issues that too many vegans dance around in the fog of being so happy that "veganism" and "animal rights issues" are getting mainstream press, that they forget the fundamentals.


And Eric would be wise to re-think a few things accordingly.

Best regards, Mark

RYates said...

It seems to me that the problem here is Marcus and not Foer. Foer is just a now-and-then vegetarian who was bothered to find out more once he knew he was to become a new father.

However, he clearly needs to be educated about the abolitionist approach since he seems to be taking his lead on it from its opponents who deliberately distort its message. Classic example is Marcus' objection in their joint interview to the term "moral baseline" which he obviously does not understand (that it's the basis of claims-making) - he thinks it is merely a means of differentiating the goodies from the baddies and establishing "holier than thou" positions.

I doubt Foer has read any of Gary Francione's books - perhaps he should be sent one or two?

By co-incidence, I recently posted a blog entry about Foer's appearance on the US "Ellen" show (which seems to be one of those shallow daytime TV magazine programmes). What attracted me to that was the sociological take on being brought up within speciesist culture with an imagine of "farming" in our minds that is utterly divorced from reality except in advertising.

I guess I'll be thinking of removing it - but Foer himself says he's not an animal advocate (which Marcuse clearly got all upset about in the interview). Marcus plainly did not really know who he was interviewing - and was trying to make more of Foer than is actually there.

Pomegranate said...

Great commentary.

Dave Shishkoff said...

I think Marcus has a personality that desires positive feedback, and so works hard to present himself in a way that appeals to the masses.

These types of people cannot withstand scrutiny, and are poorly reasoned out..but that's not the point. The point is getting as much acceptance as possible.

And the sad thing, is that when it comes to promoting a social justice movement, as veganism really is, it means compromising that message.

Marcus certainly means well, and he believes his good intentions will accomplish just that...but he's simply dismissing his critics, and fails to respond or challenge them...and it's my experience that those who cannot adequately respond to their critics are deluded, and living in a fantasy world.

Veganism, and all the animals we're trying to represent, do not need that.

Thanks for challenging Marcus, you did so in a much kinder way than i can. ;)

kelly g. said...

Great piece, Mylène. I can't wait to read your review of the book!

Also, I think Dave is onto something...