"But It's Better Than Nothing."
Never has a sentence left me scratching my head in confusion as much as this one, which is oft-repeated by these recent trend-hoppers who omit one or a half-dozen items from their diets and insist: "It's better than nothing!" and go on to proclaim themselves 'conscientious consumers'. These are the same folks who will list off any number of reasons they simply "cannot" be expected to do more. Take, for instance, foodie writer Alicia-Azania Jarvis and her recent article in the UK's The Independent ("My year of eating ethically") in which she goes to great lengths to a) justify the moral "sufficiency" of her decision to continue to consume animal products, although readily admitting that she is aware of the suffering this consumption entails, b) insist that taking any sort of ethical stance when it comes to the consumption of non-humans or their products inconveniences other humans and leaves you perpetually socially embarrassing yourself, and c) make it clear that omitting any animal flesh from your diet at all will lead to serious nutritional deficiencies. Surely, wringing one's fingers while trying to make strong arguments against not eating animals is not "better than nothing" for those animals?
Is Hypocrisy "Better Than Nothing"?
While alternating between calling herself a vegetarian and a pescetarian (as well as a pescatarian), Jarvis makes it clear in her article that she feels that although there is really no justification for eating fish, she... er... has justification to do so.
The ethics of vegetarianism are far from straightforward – particularly for a hypocritical pescatarian like myself. There's no doubt that if your motivations are animal welfare-related, there's little defence: fish, as people endlessly remind me, have feelings too.
My first strand of reasoning is that it's a matter of degree. You do what you can; pescetarianism is an extension of buying all-organic or free-range-only. It's better than nothing. It's a convenient argument, but also one that I actually believe.
I suppose that one could easily agree that pescetarianism is indeed "an extension of buying all organic or free-range only" (assuming that by "organic", she is referring to animal flesh). After all, eating one species of animal is no different from eating another species. Taking an animal's life for the sake of human pleasure, whether that animal spent most of his or her life in a lake, in the ocean, in a stall or in a field is still taking a life for the sake of human pleasure. I suspect, however, that what Jarvis is trying to say is that consuming non-humans raised according to organic or free-range "standards" (i.e. "happy meat") is somehow more ethical than consuming non-humans who are not, and that consuming fish is more akin to consuming the flesh of "happy" slaughtered animals. Use is use, though, however you qualify it.
Although once upon a time I might have taken issue with a foodie's lumping in the eating of animals (i.e. fish) with vegetarianism, I think that in many ways, the time has come to shrug off that inclusion, since there is no moral distinction between eating animal secretions such as dairy and eggs and eating the flesh of others -- whether or not they spend their lives underwater. Basically, if I'm going to nitpick, I'm not going to waste my time trying to argue over the semantics of a word (i.e. "vegetarianism") that in most of its incarnations is essentially no morally different in describing one's consumption from the word "omnivore". As Jarvis, herself, points out:
[E]ating fish but not meat is no more hypocritical than eating neither but continuing to consume eggs and mass-produced milk.She's right about that. However, does calling yourself a hypocrite really absolve you of the the problematic nature -- the inherent dishonesty -- of hypocrisy? I mean, it may show that you're not completely self-delusional (although even that's arguable), but is there really anything respectable about admitting that you're too self-important to care that you unapologetically indulge in behaviour that involves doing something you acknowledge knowing is morally problematic? Something you know involves harming other sentient creatures? People often say that ignorance is bliss; when did admitting that you know you're doing harm suddenly become worthy of earning the respect of others? When did people become convinced that admitting you've done something wrong changes that what you're doing is wrong? It doesn't.
The fallback position assumed by most who are called on this is to say that "it's better than nothing". In Jarvis' case, she dismisses the harms imposed on non-human animals with her admitted hypocritical consumption of their flesh and secretions by saying to those who make choices like hers: "[A]t least you're doing your bit for the planet."
I want to make a few things clear. First: There is no shame in taking a stand and refusing to participate in animal exploitation. Some, like the unfortunately misnamed Vegan Outreach's Matt Ball might try to convince you that authentically going vegan and actually being consistent about your everyday choices makes veganism seem too hard. Worse, you'll embarrass yourself in front of those who refuse to acknowledge the interests non-human animals have in not being used as things. Jarvis, essentially an omnivore who chooses not to eat the flesh of certain species of animals, steps forward as the spokesperson for the "social nightmare" (her words) of being either vegetarian or vegan:
Become a vegetarian, or pescetarian, or – in fact, especially – become a vegan and suddenly you find yourself Socially Awkward. As far as I was concerned, making some kind of public announcement (aside from via the informal channels of Facebook or Twitter) was not an option. It was too self-important by half and horribly embarrassing.
Obviously, though, you need to let people know – if at no other time then at least when they invite you for dinner. In the case of long-standing friends, it can all feel a bit ridiculous. "By the way," you nonchalantly add, while mentally running through all the times you have served them meat, "I'm a vegetarian these days. Um, you can un-invite me if you like." I did, once, neglect to do this.
The result was my only carnivorous divergence so far. At least I think it was; in the event, I decided it was best not to ask what else was in the suspiciously-bacon-y fishcakes my friend served.
So basically, according to Jarvis, it is (OMG!!!) embarrassing for people to evolve and to incorporate changes into their lives that both make them better people, and that make a difference for non-human animals? Furthermore, if you do end up with something on your plate that belonged to someone you've purportedly decided to refrain from eating, just turn a blind eye to it all and carve away? And yes, according to Jarvis, fish are plants and don't count as a "carnivorous divergence", but that's straying from my point...
Let's be Honest
We live in a society where there is a fair bit of familiarity with the concept of not eating animal products for ethical reasons. It's a bit melodramatic to present making it clear to family and friends that you've set boundaries for yourself with regards to your consumption habits as being akin to self-humiliation. I mean, we also live in a society where it's become commonplace for people to assert their food requirements with respect to their allergies and various intolerances (think peanuts, lactose, gluten -- those sorts of things). Those who cannot eat certain food items are not made to feel shame when asserting that they cannot eat those items. Why should someone be made to feel ashamed when asserting that he or she chooses to not eat those items? In Jarvis' case, I can see where there would be much confusion and much eye-rolling, since she identifies herself as both a vegetarian and an omnivore. I'd personally be feeling heaps of social awkwardness if I were Jarvis' friend and on the receiving end of this contradictory information and had to respond to her. But of course, self-flagellation and self-identification as a hypocrite somehow take care of this for Jarvis:
Fingers crossed, meanwhile, that no one finds out you eat fish. Not only have you become the difficult one at the party; the one that caused the chef all that trouble and then tried to convert the guests, but you're a hypocrite. The only solution here, I'm afraid, is full-on retaliation (see above defence of my ethical stance). Hopefully, by the time you've finished, conversation will be have been killed so thoroughly that no one will bother to argue. Or invite you out ever again. In a way, problem solved.
Maybe Jarvis could benefit from reading my blog post from this past February about how effective communication is actually how to avoid social blunders?
Unfortunately, it's not just the fish-eating faux-vegetarians trying to lump themselves into some big ol' "animal people" family with vegans who seem bent on perpetuating the stereotype that talking to others about not using animals is socially unacceptable proselytizing. I can understand how completely emotionally twisted up inside someone like Jarvis must be; she uses animals while pretending to be making choices significantly different from any omnivore's and does so while publicly labeling herself a hypocrite. How could she not want to rip those who talk to people about not using animals a new one? She wears her speciesism like a badge of honour. What's sad, though, is when other vegans perpetuate stereotypes and try to shame their fellow-vegans into staying "in the closet".
I think that there needs to be acknowledgment and discussion of the fact that many of us, as vegans, are still dealing with our own speciesism. While comfortable on our own turf with our decisions not to participate in the cycle of animal exploitation, some of us are still uncertain of how--or if--that should extend outside of our own bubbles.
"It's a personal choice.""I don't want to get laughed at."
"But I once used animals, so who am I to judge?"
The truth is that if someone at a social event asks you about your veganism, you're not left to "face the horrifyingly anti-social prospect of wittering on like some sanctimonious evangelist" -- you're answering a question. I find that sometimes the best thing to do while participating in a meal and when asked about being vegan is to keep my answers short and to the point and to suggest elaborating after the meal if the person asking is interested. It's not so much that (as Jarvis brings up) I would be afraid to put someone "off their food", but rather that people are generally less defensive hearing about why I choose to not use animals when they're not slicing into various animal parts at the time.
Let me say it again: There is no shame in taking a stand with regards to refusing to participate in animal exploitation. There is also no shame in communicating to others why it is that you refuse to participate in animal exploitation, or in talking to them about what it means to be a vegan. Given the misinformation that gets passed around by people, like Jarvis' fearmongering about nutritional deficiencies in the rest of her article (even though she consumes most animal products aside from the flesh of land mammals!) and her wishy-washiness concerning "compassionately-informed omnivorism" versus veganism, shouldn't someone be talking to non-vegans about not using other animals? Ideally someone who actually doesn't use animals?
If you won't, then who will?