Friday, June 29, 2012

The Difference Between Steps and Standing Still

Veganism as Something-ism

Just a few days ago, I got into an exchange with an individual who subscribes to the My Face Is on Fire Facebook page. It was triggered by a link I'd posted to an article from The Thinking Vegan ("My interest lies in animal liberation, not making more vegans"). Gary Smith's article is largely a commentary on what's been left in our laps as animal rights advocates now that the term "vegan" has been co-opted and mangled by so many to purportedly mean any variation on using less animal products. Not making "more vegans" in this sense means not turning someone on to the former Freston fast craze or Bittman's "Vegan Before Six" thing and then convincing oneself that some sort of meaningful advocacy has actually been done. Smith writes:

At what point do we start to articulate animal liberation, the ethical argument for veganism? At what point do we start to articulate the animal rights message? [...] The outreach we are currently focused on is disingenuous and misleading, and backfires if it takes longer for people to understand the ethical message of liberation.
I do agree with that wholeheartedly and have been writing around that on My Face Is on Fire for a spell now, so it was bizarre to have someone who'd chosen to like and follow the blog's Facebook page suddenly pipe out to disagree with Smith's message about the need to include the ethical argument when engaging in vegan advocacy. The individual asserted that she feels strongly that if you convince someone of the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet that a conversion to veganism is almost a sure thing. We talked in circles around each other a bit as I attempted to explain to her that it doesn't follow that buying into self-concerned reasons having nothing to do with other animals would lead to a sudden epiphany about the immorality of exploiting other sentient beings.

A Step is a Part of... Stepping

As an abolitionist vegan, I'm not just interested in getting some people to not use this or that part of another animal on this or that day of the week. At least, I'm not interested in getting some people to not use this or that part of another animal on this or that day of the week for its own sake and as its own end. There needs to be movement towards not using other animals -- an actual "going" vegan. When engaging in vegan advocacy, it needs to be made clear that this going vegan is the starting point that needs to be reached for each of us to work towards the real goal -- to bring an end to the exploitation of others animals -- and that anything less falls short of it.

The aforementioned individual on Facebook, however, was convinced that using one argument to get someone to stop eating animals would either get them to connect their own dots somehow, or leave them more open to an ethical argument to cut out other forms of animal consumption and exploitation. Somehow, to this individual, this vegan, actually talking to people about animals having an interest in not being enslaved and slaughtered for human pleasure seemed counterintuitive to getting those people to stop providing the demand that perpetuates the enslavement and slaughter or other animals for human pleasure.

Baby Steps or Bog?

Too often I'll hear a "tsk" and the words "baby steps!" when I point out to advocates that the best way to talk to nonvegans about not using animals is to explain to them in clear terms why other animals aren't ours to use. The call for "baby steps!" is patronizing, honestly, as if nonvegans are somehow unable to grasp simple concepts like sentience or to be able to weigh actual facts rather than be coddled. Even more often, I'll hear the term "stepping-stone" tossed around to excuse advocating for variations on reduced animal use. A clear argument for veganism is what got me to go and stay vegan and the many, many years I teetered between lacto-vegetarianism and strict vegetarianism were no stepping-stone at all: They were a bog in which I was quite contentedly stuck, engaging in communal congratulatory backslapping with others in that same bog. I convinced myself that I was doing "enough" until someone finally told me that I wasn't and explained why in plain language. Many other abolitionist vegans with whom I've had conversations over the years have shared similar stories and sentiments. Why on earth would I advocate anything less than veganism and risk leading others into that same bog?

What the Veganism I Advocate Surely, Surely Ain't

So let's go back to Smith's article on The Thinking Vegan and this so-called vegan advocacy in which those who dodge being clear and consistent in providing it with a clear animal rights context now claim to be engaging . What's it left us with? The Huffington Post has become what a fellow-abolitionist and I half-jokingly call "re-veganism central" over the last few years, with its numerous articles by "former" vegans, wool-wearing or honey-eating "vegans" and as of this week (assuming I haven't missed any previous gems!) even butter and cheese eating "vegans". To her credit, Sasha Turgman does indeed add a "mostly" qualifier in her article's title and otherwise occasionally slips it into her article "On Being a Mostly Vegan". The article focuses on diet only, which is no longer a surprise in mainstream media articles touted as being about veganism. Turgman does refer to herself as a vegan without the qualifier, though, as if somehow being a "mostly" vegan is being a type of vegan.
I decided to become a vegan [...]

When I first became a vegan [...]
In fact, she describes herself quite explicitly at the beginning of the article (albeit again merely focusing on diet) as not eating some animal products:

It never crossed my mind that I would choose to give up all the creamy deliciousness of my favorite food to become a vegan, but here I am, meat, cheese and dairy-product free.
She lumps herself in with vegans again by perpetuating a few stereotypes to clarify to her readers that "we're not all tree-hugging, paint-throwing, fanatical activists" and that what apparently differentiates her from those other awful, awful vegans is her own insight into what acceptable veganism should be like: "It's about listening to my body and being healthy, if I eat butter or cheese one night, who cares?" (It's no wonder that she inserts into the article at some point that being whatever-it-is-she-is-that-clearly-isn't vegan "hasn't been hard at all"!)

Whenever I hear other animal advocates insist that they accomplish something by taking an apparently more kind and gentle poke at the status quo as they fall short of talking to people about plainly and simply not using other animals, there is inevitably another Sasha Turgman who pops up in mainstream media. And these Sasha Turgmans indulge in a weird sort of self-congratulatory happy dance, presenting themselves as some sort of vegan while unapologetically condoning -- even promoting -- not just that any human should continue to use other animals, but that vegans should as well. (Y'know, lest you want to end up branded a "fanatical activist" or something.)

You tell me, though: Baby-step or bog? It seems pretty obvious to me that it's incredibly disingenuous of us as advocates to conveniently omit any mention of the actual ethics of using and exploiting others. In teaching people that there's anything about vegan advocacy -- about veganism -- that shrugs off deliberately choosing to continue to exploit other animals, are we in fact advocating the taking of steps or are we merely advocating standing still? And if those of us who engage in advocacy don't present nonvegans with a clear consistent message about what veganism really is and of how it must factor in the rights and interests of others to not be exploited, who will? Surely not "(mostly) vegans" like Sasha Turgman.

To learn more about abolitionist animal rights and about vegan advocacy, please visit The Abolitionist Approach website.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Tangent and Ramble on Potentiality and Speciesism

The Seed

The prolific James McWilliams recently wrote a piece about humans who use intelligence and then "potential intelligence" as criteria to assess whether it's moral to exploit others. You know the ones. Upon your bringing up the argument from marginal cases in response to their trying to assure you that they only eat "dumb things", they'll sometimes veer off in a slightly different direction to justify their continued use of others. They'll insist that regardless of being a toddler or in a coma that a human still has the "potential" to be more intelligent. McWilliams deals with the veering with ease, both bringing up that one could argue against this line of reasoning when discussing someone with Alzheimer's, for instance, whose potential in this sense -- at least in terms of being a rational agent -- isn't assured. Beyond this, McWilliams writes:

Potential hardly ensures the achievement of it. I have the potential to be the President of the United States, but this doesn’t mean that I should now be granted security detail and access to Air Force One. My potential to reside in the Oval Office, much less learn calculus, by no means ensures its fulfillment. In this sense, a potential right to something is, in effect, not a right at all.
He's right, of course that it's a failed stretch to try to hinge another's moral worth or value to us on that other's potential.

On Other Potentials

McWilliams also brings up in passing in his article that he views all non-vegans as potential vegans. It's not an uncommon assertion for those engaged in vegan advocacy to make. I think that in this sea of speciesism, most of us would like to cross our fingers and believe that friends, family and other loves ones -- that neighbours, coworkers and strangers alike -- will eventually "get it" and reject the violence inherent in the exploitation of others animals. After all, we each came around. We each came to view other animals as persons with their own wants and needs existing outside of their use to us so why shouldn't others? The thing is that some of them very well may.

Off on a slight tangent (and ramble), I guess that on one level, I would like to view all non-vegans as potential vegans as well. Of course, asserting this doesn't always sit well. I've had loved ones who've overheard me mention it (or who've read something in which I've written it) who have felt that this was patronizing. In a few cases, some told me that this sort of mindset left them feeling as if their being accepted -- whether by me, or by other vegans -- felt conditional, as if they were only being welcomed in to this or that vegan's life with the expectation that they will eventually go vegan. Of course, as McWilliams argued in his aforementioned article, someone's having a potential to be something hardly assures its achievement. I bring this up because I do worry about those vegans who cling too tightly to viewing their decidedly nonvegan loved ones as "potential" vegans and who end up disappointed when things don't fall into place.

On the Mingling

I've written quite a bit about vegan-nonvegan relationships over the years. Almost three years ago, a discussion with a vegan advocate I know and respect led to his stating to me that he would no sooner go out with a speciesist than he would a racist. Considering the fact that the context of our discussion involved my own relationship at the time with a nonvegan who was adamant that, although he would happily -- and voluntarily -- avoid consuming animal products in my presence, he would never come around to recognizing that other animals have a right not to be used by us, the comparison left me feeling that my own judgment had been questioned. In a post called "Being an Abolitionist Vegan in an Omni World" I wrote the following about my reaction to the discussion:

On a plain and ordinary level, I've always found myself agreeing with others that racism=sexism=speciesism. However, the association made concerning this person for whom I'd come to care didn't sit well, especially where I felt myself being judged for having allowed myself to accept this person regardless of his speciesism. I'd felt I'd been deemed inconsistent--a bad abolitionist.
So why the disconnect? I felt like a hypocrite. But then I didn't. I have an omnivorous mother. I have an omnivorous sister and two omnivorous nephews. I've explained to them my reasons for going vegan and those reasons have bounced off of them. Should I feel shame for continuing to love them or continuing to associate with them? Is the onus somehow on me to keep pressing them to change, however uninterested they've seemed thus far? Where does one draw the line with regards to one's obligation to educate others about veganism? Particularly when it comes to your personal relationships? And what of the aftermath? What if you fail? Do you "tsk-tsk" and walk away? Or do you acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of humans--whether strangers or loved ones--don't view nonhuman animals as anything other than things to be used? Does compartmentalizing this make you a bad abolitionist? Does it make you a hypocrite? Does it make you a realist?
As I soon discovered, I was far from the only vegan with these questions weighing on her. The truth is that, with very few exceptions, most of us weave our lives around nonvegans around us. We do this on various emotional levels and in the end, it really is up to each of us how far we wish to take it. We're each left examining our own boundaries and sussing out how to sort out out our perhaps conflicting emotions and to hammer out a rationale with which we can be happy.

I won't revisit the whole "should or shouldn't" debate that some occasionally try to rekindle concerning whether vegans should (or shouldn't!) seek out romantic relationships with nonvegans. It's not my place to make up someone else's mind about who she welcomes into her life. Even less so do I have any business admonishing or even chiding another over the whole affair of how she goes about falling in love. What I have done in the past, though -- what I will continue to do -- is to take issue with those animal advocates who do shame others in the vegan community for how they set their own boundaries, whether or not the setting involves opting to involve themselves with nonvegans. Dealing with others is often the hardest part of being vegan and I think it's complicated enough for vegans to navigate an overwhelmingly nonvegan world without having to deal with antagonism from fellow-vegans on a matter which already weighs heavily on our hearts and minds.

Where Factoring in Potential Can Become Problematic

You've heard it before: "I won't be there to hold your hand if she doesn't go vegan!" Tantamount to a heads-up to an impending I-told-you-so, this sort of statement is made every so often by advocates chiding others for their romantic involvement with nonvegans when those others end up trying to defend their decision or choice to be with a nonvegan. Now, you'd think that it would be the threat of withholding support that might get my attention when such a thing is uttered. In fact, what troubles me more is what invariably leads to such a statement's being made in the first place.
"He really likes animals. I know that if I give him a few books to read, he'll come around."

"She's already a vegetarian; after enough time with me, I'm sure that she'll see that consuming dairy and eggs and other animal products is no different from consuming meat."

"He's really involved in social justice issues; I just need to open his eyes to justice issues involving nonhumans, as well."

"If she eventually loves me enough, she'll go vegan for me."

The translation? "S/he has the potential to go vegan, so I just need to cross my fingers and wait for it to happen." But as James McWilliams points out in that somewhat different context in the article mentioned at the beginning of this post, "[p]
otential hardly ensures the achievement of it. I have the potential to be the President of the United States, but this doesn’t mean that I should now be granted security detail and access to Air Force One". I bring this up because, as I mentioned above, I do worry about vegans who do choose to involve themselves with nonvegans and who -- whether they're fully aware of it or not -- do so with strings.

What? Is she saying that it's wrong for me to hope that my new boyfriend might become vegan?

The answer to this is a jumbled yes and no. You see, as mentioned earlier, I'd certainly like to believe in the possibility that many of the nonvegans around me could one day go vegan. Someone in whom you sense and see moral concern for other animals and whom you think may very well follow through with the moral impulse to act upon this concern would surely benefit from receiving that additional information and hearing those sound ethical arguments. But what if this doesn't pan out and you'd hinged everything upon it? Then what?

Isn't it incredibly problematic to walk into any relationship keeping your eye on an ideal? Does it honestly make sense to choose to be with someone with the expectation that this someone will one day, hopefully sooner than later, be significantly different in both outlook and action? Think about it for a second and also think about it outside of the context of animal use. Can you really expect to fall in love -- truly, madly and deeply in love -- with someone you expect someone to be, rather than with the someone that individual already is? Is it fair to you or to that individual to have some sort of unspoken condition tucked in-between the lines from the very beginning?

Hope as an Obstacle

Here's the thing: Hope should never be an obstacle to your own self-awareness, nor should it ever be a replacement for effective communication. The bottom line is that vegans who choose to swoon alongside nonvegans have two clear options: One is to come to terms with the fact that the relationship into which you wish to enter with a nonvegan could very well end up being a relationship
which will always be with a nonvegan. The other is to be honest with yourself about what you think you can -- or can't -- live with and to pile your expectations excruciatingly clearly on the table early on. This doesn't mean that change won't or can't happen, but it's a good earnest and authentic starting point in terms of keeping things as uncomplicated as they can be. Is it any sort of guarantee that things will remain uncomplicated? Of course not! We're talking about relationships, after all. If you truly cannot come to terms with the first option, though, and then don't feel "comfortable" following through with the second option -- to lay it all out on the table for discussion early on, I can guarantee you a whole heap of complications. And you know what? Those complications aren't just in terms of juggling a vegan-nonvegan romance, but involve problems reflecting a lack of the sort of basic communication needed to juggle any sort of relationship at all. Think about it.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

What This Vegan Eats

Some of the foodstuff going around in my apartment this past month:

Oven-roasted artichokes on iceberg and spinach, with tomatoes, avocado and broccoli slaw. with sundried tomato and roasted garlic dressing.

Pho-ish broth, shiitakes, baby bok choi, nappa cabbage, red bell peppers and udon noodles with pan-fried tamari-sprinkled tofu, mung bean sprouts, shredded basil, a line of hoisin and a line of sriracha and a couple of lime wedges.

Oven-roasted collards with crushed garlic and Cheddar Daiya. Seitan chunks and pickles on an organic kamut bun with ketchup and mustard.

Mushroom-lentil stew with tomatoes, turnip, carrots and broccoli. Seasoned with smoked paprika and dried chipotle, dill weed and parsley.

Beets (oven-roasted w/balsamic vinegar and a touch of sea salt), fiddleheads, medium-firm tofu (marinated in a touch of organic tamari and sesame oil, dredged through multigrain flour and 12-spice seasoning, pan-fried in olive oil), ketchup w/a dab of blackstrap molasses.

Iceberg, red bell peppers, tomatoes, tofu marinated in a sweet onion/lime dressing, slivered almonds, hemp seed and a couple of Brazil nuts.

Tofu with turmeric, parsley, black pepper, a pinch of black salt and some nutritional yeast, scrambled with red onions, zucchini and corn. In the dish, fava beans cooked with tomato, cumin and a bit of lemon juice.

Iceberg, cucumbers, tomatoes, shredded purple cabbage, radishes, organic carrots, red bell peppers, walnuts, ancient grains Gardein chunks, scallions, hemp seed and a drizzle of sweet onion/lime dressing.
Sautéed green/wax beans, steamed baby Brussels sprouts & baby carrots, baked sweet potato and pan-fried multigrain Gardein chunks.

Romaine, tomatoes, purple cabbage, mushrooms, steamed broccoli, hemp seed, black sesame seed, a drizzle of sweet onion/lime dressing. Corn on the cob w/sriracha.

Red onion, Gardein chunks, shanghai choy, red bell pepper, organic heirloom rainbow carrots and mung bean sprouts stir-fried with Massaman curry paste. Rice noodles.

Into the blender went: A banana, three huge strawberries, an organic carrot, a plum tomato, a bosc pear, a large collard leaf, a heaping tablespoon of almond butter, a teaspoon of hemp seed, half a small pink grapefruit, a cup of frozen blueberries, half a cup of blueberry soy yogurt.

Steamed collards tossed with a sweet onion/lime vinaigrette, steamed carrots, oven-baked Gardein patty, good old reheated beans w/ tomato sauce.

Potato-onion whole wheat perogies, beet stems & greens sautéed with olive oil and crushed garlic. Green/yellow beans and baby carrots tossed in lime vinaigrette.

Pho-ish broth, shiitakes, baby bok choi, nappa cabbage, red bell peppers and udon noodles.