Friday, January 13, 2012

On Getting that 'Word' Out!

'Veganism' Is Everywhere!!

I remember a few years ago how articles about veganism in online media sources were just occasional finds. They still are, really. I mean, the word 'vegan' gets tossed around a fair bit these days. You'll find it in food and health-related articles in the NY Times or in articles on the ethics of factory farming in The Atlantic. You'll hear it brought up on daytime talk shows whose hosts have either dabbled with some sort of plant-based thing or who've actually taken it further to refrain from using animal products altogether. You'll hear it in soundbites on entertainment gossip shows when this or that celebrity self-identifies as having embraced and/or rejected veganism (e.g. Larry Hagman is the latest to throw his hat, claiming to have 'gone vegan' to fight his cancer, while Eva Longoria was recently widely-quoted as having suffered almost immediate negative health effects when she supposedly went vegan). The thing is, though, that with few exceptions, none of these article that drop the v-word actually educate the public about anything having to do with veganism.

Partitioning Veganism

We end up with a jumble of mixed messages from mainstream media sources or others in the public eye. Even so-called animal advocacy groups like Vegan Outreach end up condoning animal consumption, either setting up false dichotomies or basically shaming vegans that we're wasting time and energy in actually avoiding personal consumption of animal products. In the words of its co-founders Matt Ball:

I like to sum up this philosophy by pointing out that a half hour of leafleting will likely reduce more suffering than the effort it takes to go from 99 to 99.9% vegan for one’s entire lifetime.
You had better turn a blind eye to those anchovies or to that casein, lest you somehow magically get a couple of hours lopped off your life that you could have used to hand someone a pamphlet!

Vegan Outreach's other co-founder Jack Norris, a self-identified vegan, takes it even further, calling upon vegans to consume animal products to convince others that it's easy to not consume some animal products :

If a food is 99% vegan, then it’s vegan enough for me. I want other people to think that they too can boycott animal cruelty and still eat in as many places / situations as possible, but I also feel okay about it knowing that the small amounts of animal products I might be eating are probably not causing any measurable harm, especially compared to alienating one person from trying vegetarianism for even a few meals.
A few issues arise from this statement, assumptive and straw man-ish as it is. First of all, Norris is using percentages to qualify a food as being "vegan enough" to indicate how convenience should influence the quantity of animal products a vegan should feel comfortable consuming. The fact that it's sometimes difficult for a vegan to eliminate all animal products from his or her daily life (e.g. driving or riding in a car involves using a vehicle whose manufacturing has at some point involved animal testing, tires containing animal products, etc.) isn't a license to shrug and deliberately choose easily avoidable animal products just for the sake of convenience or the sake of appearances. As for appearances: Do you really think that by eating animal products, you're going to convince another human being that going vegan is easy? If anything, you'll just be successful at conveying to that human being that vegans shrug off animal use. Norris doesn't mention trying to convince another human to go vegan, though, but uses the term 'vegetarian'.

I suppose that if you self-identify as a vegan and want to convince your meat-eating friend that it's easy to find a meal that doesn't include meat, going ahead and ignoring that pat of butter on your baked potato or the sprinkle of parmesan on your marinara sauce might be effective. I should hope that as a vegan, though, you'd know enough that there's no ethical distinction between eating a chicken's leg or her eggs, a cow's tongue or the milk meant for her calf. There's as much suffering involved in the lives of those enslaved for their so-called products as there is for those enslaved for the taste of their flesh. There's no less injustice involved and the truth is that they all end up in the slaughterhouse in the end. Where eggs and milk are concerned, even additional lives--those of male chicks and of the calves produced through repeated impregnation--are lost. Norris confuses the issue completely. To him and to Vegan Outreach, it's "vegan enough" to continue to deliberately provide demand for this enslavement and slaughter of others. And why? To convince someone that it's not difficult to sometimes consume some animals, since it would supposedly be off-putting to try to show them that it's not difficult to be vegan? Vegan outreach, indeed. And it's not just Vegan Outreach rejecting the opportunity to send a clear vegan message. PETA does it in all shapes, sounds and smells (e.g. in a letter to the editor where they promote "go[ing] vegan -- at least for one or two days a week" to save water).

Mostly Plant-Based Diet?

The truth is that when the word pops up in print these days, its meaning has become quite commonly understood to be something akin to 'mostly plant-based diet'. We have non-vegan foodies like Mark Bittman to thank for that, along with every other food or health fad writer who's jumped on the bandwagon to find ways to pimp the word 'vegan'. Upon pointing this out here or there on the interwebs, I invariably end up with at least one person raising an objection, insisting upon one (or a combination) of the following, that

a) every little bit counts,
b) I can't expect things to be 'all or nothing',
c) anything that lessens [sic] animal suffering at all should be celebrated,
d) I'm being overly-critical/judgmental/divisive in not embracing that Person X (who is advocating not eating this or that species or part of an animal on this or that day of the week) and I are really fighting for the 'same cause',
e) and that it's important to get The Word out there. (Apparently, I tend to forget about this thing called The Word again and again!)

The thing is, though, that something is spreading, but this so-called 'word' has little to do with examining the ethics of using other animals. More often than not, it has nothing to do with educating others to reject animal exploitation at all--even when it appears to do so.

The Result?

With wrongheaded messages like these, is it really any wonder that those outside of advocacy get it wrong? When so-called animal rights activists--well-funded groups perfectly capable of disseminating truthful and consistent information--choose instead to 1) send mixed messages to the public, and 2) to shame those who take the rights and interests of animal seriously out of trying to set things straight, should we be surprised that the word 'vegan' is now being tossed around by so many to mean anything from vegan, to someone who occasionally eats an occasional salad with an oil and vinegar dressing? All of a sudden, everyone's a spokesperson for veganism and neither being vegan nor actually taking animal rights seriously seem to be qualifying criteria for this.

A blurb I read sometime last week on the Indianapolis Star's website ("Vegan diet can be a healthy, satisfying start to the new year"). In this bit purportedly promoting a "vegan diet", its author, in fact, recommends "eating vegan or vegetarian a couple of times a week" and partitions veganism into 1) something that merely means not eating animals and 2) something that sometimes means not using them at all. In this other article I read today ("Local vegetarians have limited options"), a self-described "flexible vegetarian", who excuses away awkwardly re-branding her regular old omnivorism bent by insisting that she doesn't like "labels", is quoted as saying that it's "hard to be a vegan" in her area and that one would likely "starve to death". The article continues by using 'vegan' and 'vegetarian' interchangeably and quotes another apparently stellar authority on veganism-cum-vegetarianism, an assistant professor of dietetics, who offers up that it's hard to find vegan-friendly food in grocery stores and that (because he's also got a degree in sociology or psychology tucked into his jeans), it's also difficult to not eat some animal products (e.g. meat) because you can't go out with your friends and not "be the picky one". These are the people who are out there getting the so-called 'word' out.

Get Talking!

Who's going to tell the public that veganism isn't about having the occasional grilled cheese sandwich or sprinkle of smoked pig's flesh on a salad and calling it "vegan enough"?

Who's going to tell the public that the animal enslaved and slaughtered for human use doesn't care whether you wear her flesh on your feet or gnaw on rib once she's dead? Meat = dairy = eggs = leather = fur.

Who's going to tell the public that we owe other animals more than to continue to use them for the sake of convenience, or worse, for the sake of appearances?

Who's going to tell the public that we owe other animals--these sentient persons--more than to continue to use them as things?

Who's going to tell the public that we don't need to keep participating in or perpetuating this cycle?

Who's going to show them by example that going vegan is easy?

If not vegans, then who else? If you're not vegan, then please consider what's involved in your continued use of other animals today. Visit Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach for more information. If you are vegan, get that 'word' out--but please just make sure you get that 'word' right. Talk to someone about veganism today.


Unknown said...

Brilliant. Good essay. I make it a point to never every shut up. If all the veggos talked all day long, instead of being fearful of rejection, we might could get somewhere...

Linda McKenzie said...

Great essay! But you might want to correct "it's hard to find non-vegan food in grocery stores".