A self-described vegan called Emily Weingarten wrote a fairly negative review of Bob and Jenna Torres' Vegan Freak: Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World for the AnnArbour.com website yesterday ("We're vegans, not freaks"). I admit (with a small amount of embarrassment) that I have not yet read the book. It's been on my "must read" list since I first stumbled across their Vegan Freak Radio podcast a few years back. The podcast was where I first learned about abolitionist animal rights and Bob and Jenna were the first two vegans I'd ever heard discussing veganism as anything other than a "personal choice". I had spent years wandering about in various online vegetarian communities where vegans were often labeled "extremists" and where vegans having the audacity to talk about veganism were often chided for hurting others' feelings by suggesting (or even rudely asserting) that consuming dairy or eggs or using any other animal product was wrong. Hearing Bob and Jenna's podcast was a relief; Bob and Jenna's were the first two voices I'd ever heard presenting veganism as the absolute least we can do if we're serious about the rights and interests of nonhuman animals, and they did so in this matter-of-fact way that made veganism sound normal and the consumption and use of nonhuman animals sound extremist.
Their podcast also led me to the serious and earnest study of Prof. Gary Francione's writings and of his abolitionist approach to animal rights, which has the sort of clarity that left me sorry I hadn't had it pointed out to me sooner, so that I wouldn't have wasted years fooling myself into thinking I was doing enough for animals. (It's kind of funny and completely coincidental, actually, that with the exception of a brief mention of my interest in Prof. Francione's work a few months beforehand, my first actual post discussing it in any way was almost exactly two years ago.)
So why am I writing about a review of a book by a couple whose advocacy literally changed my life, when I haven't in fact read it? It's not so much what Weingarten said about the book itself that I want to address, as much as what she makes obvious feeds into what she's said. Before she dives into that, Weingarten says of the Torres' book that
Vegan Freak is a sort of vegan manifesto in which the authors [...] attempt to instill vigor and commitment into already-vegans and inspire non-vegans to take on the lifestyle. There isn’t anything wrong with this. Sometimes the only way for vegans to get respect is to be able to eloquently state their reasons for being vegan and to be consistent in their diet and lifestyle.After what to many might sound a fair and reasonable statement, Weingarten continues, throwing in the "however" which is the raison d'être for her entire piece: "Inspiring others to be vegan is OK, so long as it doesn’t go too far." What could she mean by "too far"? She provides one example of it in pretty explicit detail when she states that it's not her intention to focus on that particular example of it:
I don’t want to write a blog entry criticizing Vegan Freak because the authors spend so much time criticizing anyone who is not vegan and using a variety of other negative tones such as cursing profusely and making bad sexual jokes.Now, I don't want to write a blog post criticizing Weingarten for criticizing Vegan Freak's authors for engaging in what she views as their unacceptable behaviour or delivery, partially because she cites no specific examples of it (and I haven't read the book). Most importantly, though, since I haven't read the book and since humour and tone are such subjective things I could get lost in trying to deconstruct what she means by "criticizing anyone who is not vegan" and discussing the thousands of increments between words like "tasteful" and "prudish" that would come up in discussing language use and sexual references. Instead, I want to focus on the remainder of Weingarten's review, which isn't so much a review of the book, as it is a lecture on appropriate behaviour for vegans--her own "manifesto" of sorts.
Weingarten writes, first, that "[a]ny reasons for being vegan are great, so long as they are motivated by a desire to create some sort of positive change." I sort of agree with that. I mean, environmental and health factors are certainly valid motivators to go vegan, for a variety of complex reasons. She writes this, however, as if wanting to criticize the Torres' focus on what is ultimately the most important reason anyone should have to stop using nonhuman animals--the basic immorality of using them at all. It's a tiny shaming, really, that could be overlooked if not for the fact that it becomes a recurring theme in her piece. She goes on to emphasize the "green" factor further in a second point by making the mistake of creating a false dichotomy, asserting that "[e]nvironmental vegans are just as valuable as ethical vegans". As seen in a recent essay on the Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach website, it's not an either/or situation ("Veganism: Morality, Health, and the Environment"). For further reading on veganism, animal rights and environmentalism, do check out Vincent Guihan's essay from last August on his We Other Animals blog ("I would throw 1000 ancient redwoods out of the lifeboat to save one kitten! It's not because I'm bad; it's because plants aren't sentient").
Weingarten really goes downhill from there. Her third point is "Veganism is about you", and in it--never mind the wrongheaded title of the point itself--she makes two errors. The first is that she more or less contradicts a statement made in her first point, where she asserted that one's reasons to go vegan should not be selfish ones--that they should not be "vain". In explaining her third point, she writes about veganism being about making yourself feel better and reassures her readers that "[i]t’s OK to be proud of yourself for making these personal choices". So... it both should and shouldn't be about patting yourself on the back. Her second error involves trying to redefine "veganism" to include the option of deliberately choosing to use animal products; if you have any doubt of how "personal" she feels these "choices" are, note this particularly confusing statement:
Being vegan might also make you consider how the clothes you wear make you feel, and you might stop wearing leather, wool, and silk.I'd like to think that Weingarten slipped and actually knows that "being vegan" means that you don't wear leather, wool and silk--not just that "you might stop wearing" them. Maybe her slip-up was due to the fact that those words were mostly filler leading up to the bona fide punch of her point (i.e. another otherwise easily overlooked tiny shaming of the Torres' or of other vocal vegans that just adds to the small pile that is her recurring finger-wagging theme) where Weingarten reminds vegans to act with "modesty and humility around non-vegans". (Disapointingly, though, Weingarten does indeed go on to further illustrate her confusion about what is meant by "veganism" a bit later in the piece.)
Weingarten's issues with vocal vegans who choose to educate others about veganism become even more apparent as she goes on to explain that since the "whole world isn't going to stop eating meat" and we "cannot expect our entire society to adopt a vegan lifestyle when meat and dairy are central components of most Americans’ diets", we apparently need to 1) manage our expectations of others' behaviour and (hey, since everybody else is doing it anyway, and we don't want to look like unreasonable extremist "freaks" or anything) 2) change our own behaviour to better adapt to the expectations of others that we be more like them when it comes either consuming or not consuming animal products. Weingarten's opinion of vegan advocacy is summed up when she says:
What we can do is support the people who are interested in learning more about vegan lifestyle and possibly becoming vegan without alienating ourselves by projecting our vegan philosophies on others who may not be interested at all.Let me translate: Go be vegan in the world and if someone happens to notice and to express curiosity about it, great, but otherwise, shut your pie-hole about it, because telling people that using animals is wrong is preachy and rude. Have any doubts about Weingarten's opinion being that avoiding being rude to your fellow humans trumps the rights and interests of animals? Read on:
Yes, the dairy industry can be just as cruel and unethical as the meat industry, but vegetarians and vegans have many common values, and as vegans, we must respect that in order to be respected.She admits that although consuming dairy is unethical that to obtain respect, vegans in turn need to "respect" (i.e. turn a blind eye to the fact) that vegetarians continue to engage in this unethical behaviour and opt to exploit animals since we apparently have "common values" (which obviously exclude those values that lead vegans to refrain from continuing to voluntarily and knowingly use animals as things). But according to Weingarten, in yet another little shaming, merely voicing the obvious truth would be disrespectful.
Furthermore, one's so-called "personal choice", as Weingarten so adamantly described it, suddenly becomes a public and political one when faced with whether to leave aside our ethics to instead consume animal products offered to us by others. According to Weingarten, it seems that non-vegans are emotional messes incapable of processing someone's being consistent about his or her ethics; suddenly, the "no, thank you" involving eating animals or their secretions becomes a selfish choice. To illustrate this, Weingarten, the self-described vegan, writes:
It might make me a speciest [sic] to say this, but people are much more important to me than animals. So if on my birthday, someone makes or buys me a non-vegan cake, I’m going to have a slice to avoid offending that person or causing hurt feelings.So, on top of not talking to non-vegans about veganism, lest you offend them, being a really good vegan also means eating animal parts or secretions, lest you "offend" that non-vegan by refusing to do so. Yet, strangely, at the beginning of her piece, Weingarten herself wrote that
Sometimes the only way for vegans to get respect is to be able to eloquently state their reasons for being vegan and to be consistent in their diet and lifestyle.Weingarten then wraps up her piece by going back to the book and claiming that it lacks the "compassion, humility, peacefulness that is [sic] inherent to a vegan lifestyle". The truth is, though, that Weingarten's article displays a lack of the sort of consistency, logic and understanding (most notably of veganism, itself) that are inherent to actually being able to comment with any sort of authority (or sense, really) on veganism or on how vegans should behave in the world.
Her piece isn't so much written in good faith as it is a passive-aggressive reprimand of vegans who don't stay in the vegan closet. It ends up conveying a sense that vegans are outcasts who should keep their veganism to themselves unless asked (although if vegans should hide their veganism, one is left to wonder how non-vegans would even think to ask about it). It conveys that that vegans should keep their veganism to themselves, even if it means compromising their ethics to avoid hurting the feelings of those who choose to keep treating nonhuman animals as things for human use and enjoyment. I don't know about you, but I think that we owe nonhuman animals more than to agree to behave as if it's somehow improper to assert that it's wrong to use them as our property. Weingarten, on the other hand, makes it clear that she thinks that we owe nonhuman animals less. That, in fact, is a shame.