Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bill and Lou: Who's for Dinner

Even several years into being vegan, there are conversations I overhear or articles I read that sometimes leave me feeling more than a little weirded out about the people mouthing or writing the words in question. I'm used to walking around in a world where others around me adopt this sort of "out of sight, out of mind" mentality about the animals they call "food" and chomp into their mystery meat of choice without giving it a second thought. I used to be one of them and it still baffles me how clueless I was when it came to connecting the dots and to realizing that the pieces of meat and cheese between my two slices of bread come from someone and not something.

But times have changed and we now have the likes of writers like Jonathan Safran Foer Mark Bittman earning a living off of yammering to the public about so-called conscious eating and the need to acknowledge how an animal who is bred and raised to end up on a human's dinner plate is treated, and to look for ways to reassure yourself that this animal you eat (or whose secretions you eat) hasn't been tortured as much as usual. "But they're starting getting people thinking and starting conversations!" some may insist. What they're doing, though, is getting people thinking about ways to feel better about continuing to use others. We're left with a small growing movement of animal treatment apologists whose penance, it seems, involves enslaving and slaughtering the animals themselves. 

From chickens or rabbits fussed over in the backyard as pets before ending up carcasses in their freezers to handpicking baby goats on "happy, happy" local farms where you can witness the animal's slaughter, from the rise in popularity in urban areas of weekend survivalist hunting expeditions and of butchering classes where eager participants learn how to slice or scrape off every single part of an animal's carcass so that this his or her death may not be deemed "wasteful". We're left with articles glorifying the act of killing others. "What I feared most was the screaming. Desperate cries from a freaked out pig might ruin bacon for me forever," Chicago Tribune's Monica Eng wrote back in 2008 of her visit to a place she visited called Paradise Meat Locker, on a quest inspired by Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma to justify her continued consumption of others. In the end, Eng kicked it up a notch and involved her kids in her quest and wrapped up her article like a proud mom, quoting her daughter's saying to a slice of prosciutto, "Thank you, pig. I love you pig. Now I'm going to eat you."

Green Mountain College
In the name of knowing where one's "food" comes from, it seems to have become commonplace for people to say the creepiest things about the animals they insist on treating as things while engaging in some sort of pretense of empathy, or worse, of "honour" or "respect". If you have spent any time on any social networking sites over the last few days, you'll already be aware of this great show of warm fuzzies at Green Mountain College in Vermont. The New York Times featured an article on the college this past weekend ("Oxen's Fate Is Embattled as the Abattoir Awaits") and on their farm's oxen, Bill and Lou, who've been used to till the farm's fields and to plow snow for most of the past decade. 

Lou, it seems, injured his leg while working and can no longer till. Bill has been assessed as healthy but "aging" and likely unable to keep working without his sidekick of many years. The options weighed for both were euthanasia (although in Bill's case, this would be a euphemism for obviously needless killing), sanctuary (which leaves me wondering why euthanasia was being considered for Lou in the first place) and slaughtering them both to serve them up in the college's cafeteria for students and staff to devour. "'It makes sense to consume the resources we have on campus,' said [farm director] Mr. Ackerman-Leist."
The decision to slaughter them and feed them to the college's staff and students is merely a continuation of those who've enslaved them viewing them as no more than commodities, squeezing the last bit out of them they can.

The situation which has resulted is confusing at best. Some people -- locals, students, animal rights activists, and others -- are outraged. Others view the decision as merely rightfully reflecting the college's focus on sustainability. The situation is problematic on many levels, some more obvious than others. On one hand, Bill and Lou are no different from any other of the billions slaughtered each year for human consumption, other than that the world has now come to know them as "Bill and Lou". The irony in that their planned slaughter is being protested by non-vegans as well as vegans merely drives home the speciesist acceptance that animals are ours to use, but that how they are used hinges upon how able they are to secure our affection. After all, The New York Times didn't care all that much about Bill and Lou those ten years they were used in lieu of a tractor to till the soil, did it? 

On the other hand, their plight brings to light the whole mucked up "conscious consumer" trend and the notion that as long as we convinced ourselves that an animal has had a "happy" life that it's OK for us to take that life away from him or her.
“Our choice is either to eat the animals that we know have been cared for and lived good lives or serve the bodies of nameless animals we do not know,” said William Throop, the college’s provost, who specializes in environmental ethics. 

Andrew Kohler, a senior, took a course in which he learned how to drive the oxen team. [...] “They start listening to you, and they become your friend,” Mr. Kohler said. “I feel honored to eat them.” 
The quote above reflects another thing that's problematic about the whole situation. Whatever lives they may or may not have lived, it's clear that they're no longer seen as having any use to Green Mountain College for the purpose in which they've been used up until now. It also echoes that whole idea that it's somehow more ethical to take another's life if you are express thankfulness and humility at your having been able to do have done so.

As a vegan, I also couldn't help but notice that the either/or presented concerning what we (or the staff and students at the college) eat is 1) happy, happy Bill and Lou or 2) others like them who've not been singled out by the public as individuals. Where's the option to not eat animals? 
On campus, support for their consumption is strong, even among the 30 percent of students who are vegan or vegetarian.
“It’s about sustainability, and I’ve been a vegetarian for three years, but I’m excited to eat Bill and Lou,” said Lisa Wilson, a senior. “I eat meat when I know where it comes from.”
Basically, the message communicated loud and clear is that killing and eating Bill and Lou is so very much the right thing to do that even people who don't usually eat other animals are clamouring to dig in. (Not that I see the word "vegetarian" as being ethically relevant in terms of what we owe other animals, but I'm guessing it helps to better contextualize why Wilson would make such a dumb contradictory statement -- which incidentally smells like third-rate spin -- when you keep in mind that she appears to be one of only two students sitting on the Green Mountain College Sustainability Council.)
Slaughtering them isn't a necessity; it's an option, and one easily passed over. According to the college's official public statement posted on its Facebook page, it was somehow deemed that sending them to a sanctuary would be unethical since they would continue to consume resources (adding that the two will have to be killed at some point anyway):
Those who know Lou and Bill best—our farm staff and students—are uncomfortable with the potential ramifications of sending the animals to a sanctuary. Bill and Lou are large animals, weighing over a ton. A transition to a new setting will be difficult for them, and only postpones the fact that someone else, in the not-too-distant future, will need to decide that it is kinder to kill them than to have them continue in increasing discomfort. If sent to a sanctuary, Bill and Lou would continue to consume resources at a significant rate. As a sustainable farm, we can’t just consider the responsible stewardship of the resources within our boundaries, but of all the earth's resources.
So the fact that Bill and Lou eat -- gobble up resources -- was factored into killing them?  At a college where the feeding of animal flesh to over 70% of its resource-hungry student population is the norm, this sounds a little ironic, no? Then again, the college presented killing the oxen for food as its apparently only really viable option to feed its non-vegan students as it "striv[es] to meet their dietary preferences". So dietary preferences trump concerns of the regular gobbling up of resources, and the simply not eating of animals or of animal products gets swept off the table altogether. Bill and Lou? They're just convenient to take the edge off. 
According to one of the more recent comments left on the college's Facebook page in response to it's announcement of their decision concerning the oxen, Bill and Lou were, in fact, killed yesterday. If this is true, the public will find out soon enough and then most of those involved will go back to eating maybe not oxen with names, but any of the billions of cows, chickens, pigs, fishes and so on (or their secretions) that will continue to be slaughtered, not worthy of the attention of New York Times readers. It seems that even even being recognized as individuals by others, whether or not those others are confused about what it is that we owe non-human animals, isn't enough to save your life when you're someone else's property.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What Vegans Eat

Reviews of a few Halifax eateries aside, it's been a few months since I've splattered some food photos on the blog to provide an example of the range and variety of foods that vegans eat. Here are a few things I've tossed together in the last few months:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

For the Sake of a Little Flesh...

For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man [...] touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds? [...] We slaughter harmless, tame creatures without stings or teeth to harm us, creatures that, I swear, Nature appears to have produced for the sake of their beauty and grace. [...] For the sake of a little flesh we deprive them of sun, of light, of the duration of life to which they are entitled by birth and being.

-- Plutarch, Moralia

The Bandwagon's Getting Crowded

A Californian friend who's a regular and thorough reader of the New York Times fell into the habit a while back of sending me links to veganism-related articles he would come across. Given the number of pieces that have been run over the past several months on food ethics -- ranging from clumsy pokes to hostile swings at veganism -- he's been kept busy. Some low points came earlier this year and included "Wellness" writer Tara Parker-Pope's unforgivably sloppy piece in April on the supposed difficulty of going vegan, and the fiasco that same month which was the ridiculous mini-essay contest to defend meat eating in its "Ethicist" column also in April (which was followed by that column's writer's leaving her post). The ongoing sometimes overtly anti-vegan and sometimes "66.66%" vegan writings of Mark Bittman (including his 2009 "Wellness" guest-post bemoaning his having supposedly become protein deficient from skipping meat at lunch and breakfast) set the stage for it early on, as did various one-sided articles on things like the popularity of hobby butchering classes.

It was hardly much of a surprise this morning to get an email with a brief "Have you seen this?" and a link to yet another story that fits into what seems to have become commonplace in the New York Times. This time 'round, it was a Mark Bittman interview with a woman called Sherie Rene Scott who is apparently a former vegetarian who's decided to stage a one-woman show called "Piece of Meat" to talk about her return to meat-eating after having spent "her entire adult life as a vegetarian". Scott sums up the show in her interview as being about "desire". The one word I'd probably choose to sum up the show? "Opportunistic". Or maybe "shuffling". I'd hardly use the words "innovative" or "creative".

The article's started to go around online animal advocacy circles with some advocates focusing on how apparently awful it is that Scott's gone public with her return to meat-eating and then attempting to profit off of it by turning it into entertainment. As ended up being discussed over the course of the day on Gary Francione's Facebook page, there are many things problematic with both Scott's actions and interview and few of them really have anything at all to do with the fact that after 26 years of consuming animal products she decided to start consuming yet another animal product.
Vegetarianism was a part of my being, not just something I identified with politically; it was who I was, a part of my nature. And for it — for this desire — to come up in me, I had never been tempted in all of that time. So I looked at every aspect in my life to see what could I possibly be lacking. A lack of nourishment artistically? Was I hungry for another type of flesh, like a middle-aged lady hot to trot? But then my doctor said that female vegetarians over 40 do not get enough iron, and he said, “It’s eat meat or you get treated for anemia.”
Where to begin with this, really? So consuming animal products (i.e. eggs, dairy, likely otherwise using them in skin care products and so forth) was a part of her "being" -- a part of her "nature" and so she ended up opting to consume other animal products (i.e. animal flesh). She speculates about it having been triggered by some sort of artistic lack and makes a tacky ageist and sort of sexist comment about middle-aged women, not very cleverly comparing sex to meat-eating. I mean, seriously? Yet Bittman describes her show as "quite feminist".

She then tacks on that some authority figure made the scare-mongering claim that "female vegetarians over 40 do not get enough iron". Now, do I really, really need to start linking to the multitudes of authoritative documents that will provide sufficient fodder for the nose-thumbing that claim deserves? Even the most mainstream of medical and nutrition-oriented organizations in North America have long-since offered up official positions confirming that a well-planned vegan diet (never mind a vegetarian diet's like Scott's) can not only be perfectly healthy, but may even be more healthy than one in which animal products are consumed. Do a Google search. I dare you. Also, this whole ultimatum (i.e. "eat meat or you get treated for anemia") she uses as justification is almost funny. Oh gosh! Treatment for anemia -- the horror! Faced with the hardship of perhaps having to take iron supplements for a short while and to then (gasp!) increase her consumption of awful things like quinoa, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, collards and spinach, she was left with no choice other than to go back to consuming the one animal product she had (perhaps) not been consuming.

Of course, as most of these folks do, she tries to dredge up some sympathy, expressing that when she  gobbled down her first bites of animal flesh in 26 years, she shed tears. But this soon swings to the old familiar and very, very trendy presentation of meat-eating as some sort of visceral and sexy thing -- a touching base with one's predatory self that in Scott's case comes out sounding like some victim's twisted need for revenge:
I’ll align myself with the prey. I want to enjoy my flesh, and other people’s flesh, when it’s my choice. I don’t want to constantly be treated like a piece of meat. And I had to look at how I had treated others as a piece of meat, too. When have I been the predator?
So having felt like a victim of violence, her logical response is to choose to adopt what she describes herself as a predatory nature? (Don't people usually go to therapy for this sort of thing?) She chooses to embrace her animal exploitation, and following in the steps of many others who've cashed in while doing so, perpetuates this weird, weird notion that so many others have been flinging around, that it's somehow more ethical to do something if you do it wide-eyed and deliberately. Using other sentient beings is OK, according to Scott, "[a]s long as you're doing it consciously". So if I punch you in the nose deliberately and having weighed doing so beforehand, it's somehow less wrong than if I just did it without thinking? 

What really gets to me is how hilarious it is that the end of the interview that she claims that although so many talk about their journey toward vegetarianism, "no one talks about leaving the fold". I mean, has she not read the New York Times in the past 3-5 years to see that rather than come forth shamefully, others like her have seized the opportunity to jump on a bandwagon to flaunt their exploitation of others? The fact that Scott merely chose to shuffle around how she exploits animals -- whether eating or wearing their flesh or drinking their secretions -- matters little. What's unfortunate and a real shame, though, is the New York Times' continuing indulgence in presenting to its readers this constantly lopsided take on animal exploitation issues. Scott? She's just another drop in the bucket.

We have so much work to do. Please talk to someone about going vegan today.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mary's Place and Mary's Place II

A few weeks ago, I took my first trip out of town since last February when I'd flown to Berkeley via San Francisco. People had warned me that veganism is old hat to many Bay area eating establishments and that I would find myself delightedly overwhelmed with choices when I ventured out.

In recent years, I've seen an increase in vegan options being made available in my tiny city's eateries. Most of this has been the result of new Middle Eastern or Asian restaurants opening and of the establishment of a vegan-friendly vegetarian juice bar/bistro called Nirvana (whose Facebook page is frequently speckled with enthusiastic promises of free hugs to patrons by its young yoga-fiend staff). 

I'd visited Halifax last year and had fallen in love with Heartwood (which I visited again last month. I made it out to the Wooden Monkey again this year for their Daiya smothered organic blue corn chip nachos, too. I'd hoped to venture out and visit 2-3 other places, but my trip ended up shorter than anticipated so I decided to stop in someplace that had come highly recommended through members of the Nova Scotia Vegan Association. That place was Mary's Place at 2752 Robie St in Halifax's north end.


The word "unobtrusive" comes to mind to describe Mary's Place. From the outside, it looks like any other little diner in an area of the city much less prone to drawing tourists. I almost missed it during my wanderings since I'd forgotten to jot down its street number. I stepped into what was, in effect, a quirky little diner with the low drone of a television from its cash register area competing with the Middle Eastern music spilling out from the kitchen, sometimes with sporadic sing-a-long thrown in for good measure by the wait staff while cleaning tables.

At 3 pm in the afternoon, I was one of five customers chowing down.
I was greeted almost immediately with a glass of water as I sat down to look around. Mary's Place is by no means a vegan restaurant and its menu was loaded with everything from a greasy all-day breakfast offering to hamburgers and meat kabobs. However, I'd come for what I'd been told was the wide variety of vegan options on the menu which I'd been promised had some of the best Syrian food in the city.

A few items on the board.

Chatty diners. (Nice 'stache!)
One of the neatest aspects of its menu involves a section of 21 vegan dishes from which you can pick any three to assemble a plate. The choices ranged from tabouli, foul salad (i.e. fava beans), stuffed grape leaves and veggie kafta to stewed tomato okra, lentil soup and veggie chili. I ordered the the fattoush, veggie kafta and baba ghanoush, It came with flat bread, a dollop of hummus, pickled turnip and some complimentary coffee -- all for around $8.50 plus tax and tip. The fattoush was really tasty and the baba ghanoush was some of the best I've ever had. The veggie kafta was a little bland -- sort of like mushy falafel without the seasoning, which was no surprise given that it's mostly bulgar (with red and green pepper, garlic and herbs). It went pretty well with the hummus and pickled turnip, though. One thing is for certain: It was a whole heap of relatively healthy and very yummy food -- and cheap!

I liked it so much, in fact, that when my host Mike and I met up for a cup of coffee at Humani-T Cafe to discuss where to go for dinner my last night in the city, I suggested that we try out its newer second location, Mary's Place Café II at 5982 Spring Garden Rd, so that I could compare and contrast the two.

We showed up at Mary's Place Café II sometime after 7 pm on a Tuesday. In a popular location closer to a few of Halifax's university campuses, this spot definitely had a completely different vibe to it than the original Mary's Place on Robie. It was larger and much, much brighter. It was also licensed. To be honest, I can't for the love of Zeus remember whether there was alcohol of any sort mentioned on the menu at the Robie St location, but it was prominently advertised here on each table. Also, from eyeballing the menu, it seemed more expansive. It also seemed more expensive. The combo dish I'd gotten earlier on Robie St had cost me $8.50 and although I didn't jot it down (hey, I'm no professional restaurant reviewer!) I think the same deal here was for around $10.00 and minus the coffee.

Our enthusiastic and helpful server answered our questions quite patiently and took our orders. Mike and I both opted for a starter dish on the appetizers section of the menu that offered tabouli, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, baba ghanoush, hummus, tahini sauce, garlic sauce and flat bread. The presentation was somewhat more involved than it had been at the original Mary's.

Seriously more involved than it had been at the original Mary's! Sadly, though, my friend and I both agreed that although the sesame seed encrusted heart-shaped falafel added a nice (if corny) touch, they were sort of dry and bready and not what either of us had expected. I regret not having tried the falafel at the other location so that I could have compared the two.

To round things out, we ordered a side of toasted potatoes in garlic sauce that ended up leaving us with waaay too much food for us to finish off. At $5 a huge basket though (some of the ones in the photo below had already migrated to our bellies), they're a scrumptious carb-laden treat to get if you're just looking to split some munchies over a beer.

Will I return to either place when I go back to Halifax? Probably. Mary's Place on Robie St is the sort of spot to which I'd drag an old friend to sit down for a cozy late lunch and conversation over coffee.  Although the service at the second location was awesome and the food was pretty good, the bright lights and student-oriented vibe didn't appeal to me as much. I probably wouldn't squeeze Mary's Place II into a brief visit, but it would be the sort of spot I wouldn't rule out visiting again if I actually lived in the city.

I have to admit, though, that as someone with limited vegan options in my small city that the thought of having either of these places here is definitely appealing. I miss Halifax already.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Misrepresenting the Abolitionist Approach, Part II: On Hugs and Merit Badges

On Calling Not Changing the Subject "Changing the Subject"

In his post offering up the reasons he had changed his mind about participating in a podcast discussion with Gary Francione, James McWilliams had stated that "it [would] accomplish nothing except intensify the polarization that [McWilliams was] trying to minimize". Rather than take the opportunity to substantiate claims made during his recent public criticism of abolitionist advocates, he'd written that his intention was to instead continue developing his own arguments on his blog. The message received, based on his followers' reactions in the comments (reactions to which he did not respond and which he did not correct) was that debating the differences between abolitionist animal rights and welfarism is a waste of time and that he was no longer going to waste his own time doing it. I figured he'd meant that. So I was disappointed to amble over to his site the other day to find that he'd chosen to re-post an article by Melanie Joy in which she dredges up the welfare-abolition debate and takes a few passive-aggressive swipes at abolitionists.

A Reluctant Finger-Wagger

Joy starts off echoing McWilliams' message about how debating the fundamental differences between welfarism and abolitionist animal rights is a waste of time that she's always avoided, but that the apparently horribly traumatic and negative effects of those differences' having recently been aired forced her make an exception and to give up some of her time to weigh in. She starts off assuring us that there's nothing left to be said in the welfare vs. abolition debate -- she says it's "gridlocked". She implies that focusing on it at all is a soul-sucking time-sink. So? She offers up a fix -- a "reframe", she calls it, to make all of our lives "more peaceful" and our activism "more effective".

Critical Discourse and Debate Are "Non-Vegan"?

Joy suggests that we step away from what she calls the "content" of the issue (i.e. the facts and ethical arguments) and focus instead on "the way we communicate" -- the "process". She sets up a false dichotomy, suggesting that advocates can do one of two things. We can be "argumentative" so that
[o]ur consciousness and process can mirror the speciesist [...] culture we are working to transform, thus reinforcing, for instance, ideological rigidity, black-and-white thinking, defensiveness, bullying, self-righteousness, and hostility.
Otherwise, we can be "cooperative" and let our, um, consciousness
reflect the core principles of veganism – principles such as compassion, reciprocity, justice, and humility – the essence of a “liberatory” consciousness (and process), a way of being (and relating) that is fundamentally liberating and that I believe can significantly empower the important strategic conversations we need to continue to engage in.
She goes on to use the term "non-liberatory" to describe the former, which is also what she writes she's observed is brought to the table when differences in goals, strategy and tactics are discussed.

Conflating Diversity Within One with the Differences Between Two

Joy brings up that old familiar notion of the strengthening effect of diversity and extrapolates from it that we should somehow recognize that there is similar strength in our "differences" as advocates. She suggests that we should see the fundamental differences between what I've already mentioned in my previous post have realistically become two altogether different animal advocacy movements -- one welfarist focusing on how other animals are used and the other abolitionist and focusing on whether other animals are ours to use at all -- and that we should see liken these differences to mere diversity within one movement and as "opportunities" to strengthen what Joy calls "our movement". The thing is that likening diversity to those differences goes beyond comparing apples to oranges and makes as much sense as comparing a bowl of nooch gravy to a piece of granite. To insist otherwise merely undermines the seriousness of those differences.

Things get a whole lot more skewed in the article as Joy continues to weave into her text as a given that we're all apparently focused on the same goal -- i.e. that we're one movement with our collective eye on the same prize. She mentions "differences in terms of how effective various strategies are for ending animal exploitation" and that although some of those strategies may be "counterproductive" that "we" (i.e. members of an apparently comprehensive movement bent on ending animal use) need to discuss our different strategies "openly" and without "argu[ing] with each other"... but what exactly does she mean by "arguing"?

Debating = Evil

Surely, you would think that she's dismissing "arguing" in its common sense, when emotions are heated, tables are flipped and fists are shaken in the air? But no, according to Joy, merely having a rational critical discussion where you're expected to defend claims you make is tantamount to falling into this supposed non-vegan and "non-liberatory" mindset. Joy, in effect, decides to attack the entire idea and usefulness of debating, in and of itself. This form of critical engagement -- this rational exchange of information and arguments to clarify and substantiate claims and positions -- is purportedly rigid and extremist, according to Joy. It's just a contest and is all about winning. In fact, not only is it all about winning, but it's about labeling the person with whom you're engaging in critical dialogue a "loser". It apparently leaves the observer or listener to said debate limited to accepting one of two positions (obviously not the so-called loser's) and leaves the observer or listener completely in the dark about possible nuances to whatever topic is being debated. Presumably, this is because Joy thinks that people are incapable of listening and then reflecting upon and processing what they hear?

She contrasts debate with "dialogue" as if they're two completely altogether different things. Dialogue alone, it seems, allows for the sharing and exchange of information. Dialogue alone fosters an awareness of "multiple perspectives". Dialogue alone leads us to contemplations and thoughtfulness upon hearing different perspectives. Debate? It just leaves us pumping the air all "non-liberatory"-like, itching to see a victor and a vanquished. She writes: 
Achieving our objective of animal liberation depends on developing a comprehensive, complex, sophisticated, and flexible strategic approach to targeting a comprehensive, complex, sophisticated, and ever-changing form of institutionalized oppression. It is unlikely that the reductive, black-and-white rhetoric of debate can ever produce such nuance and analytical richness.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I smell straw. It's possible that she comes by it honestly and that Joy's own experience with debates has left her unnerved -- that a bad experience has left her with a limited and one-sided idea of their purpose or process. There's a certain irony in that something that's such an ordinary part of what I should hope most thinkers or academics view as critical dialogue ends up made a straw man by Joy and that her contrast between this straw man and her notion of "dialogue" is in and of itself as narrow and "black and white" as the outcome she purports results from engaging in debate. Debate, she claims, is "problematic" and is in fact "an obstacle". It's "non-liberatory" and thus (gasp!) non-vegan.

I'm a Pepper, He's a Pepper
She's a Pepper, We're a Pepper

Having established that debates are a Big Bad, Joy branches off from this to get to what I think is the true purpose of her essay, which is explain why it's just plain silly that some who call themselves abolitionists would want to engage in debate with others they call welfarists. According to Joy, advocates are just plain old confused. They've mistaken strategy for ideology (with the latter presented as "morally loaded", as if it's somehow horrible to attribute rightness or wrongness to something and to take a stance accordingly). Her concern, it seems, is that self-described abolitionists who busy themselves educating others about not using animals and who see other advocates focusing on how animals are used (and not engaging in vegan education) are making a big mistake in assessing those actions as reflecting the other advocates' ideology. According to Joy, those differences are just strategic and we're apparently all, in fact, seeking the abolition of animal use. She writes that it's only "when we untangle ideology from strategy [that] we can redirect the conversation to how best to bring about this end without getting sidetracked by moral argumentation. (Because who on earth would want to lose their way advocating for the rights of others by getting distracted actually discussing silly things like "rights" or other "morally loaded" junk?) 

I won't go into detail about how Joy rambles on about how there is absolutely no evidence that promoting welfare reform will or won't bring about the abolition of animal use, except to suggest to she should put down her Cooney and pick up a copy of Gary L. Francione's Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement or (better yet) The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? and that she perhaps consider taking a quick look at some of the (dare I say it?) nuanced writings on his website about why one should opt to focus on educating others to go vegan rather than waste time on attempts at welfare reform (attempts which often end up reinforcing the idea to non-vegans that other animals are indeed ours to use). Joy writes that "our investment in being right can prevent us from being effective" which misses the point altogether that for abolitionists, our investment is not in being "right", but in convincing others to go vegan. For me, hearing that someone's connected the dots and has rejected animal use is what's effective. Joy's investment in thinking that I'm participating in a contest or sporting event is preventing her from seeing that I'm fighting a holocaust.

To Joy, though, we're all on the same side, albeit some of us are trying to play soccer and to force other advocates into forming an opposing team so that we can just whup their arses for the sake of whupping arses. Debating, according to Joy, is just the "othering" of fellow advocates for the sake of arse-whupping. In fact, she points out, the whole "welfare-abolition debate" is a perfect example of this. It's a "myth", she tells us. It's just a construct slapped together by those who call themselves abolitionists. Why? Supposedly to force into a make-believe opposing camp other vegans who don't self-identify as having any sort of specific political or ethical stance when it comes to the question of the morality of animal use per se. If their actions reflect a political or ethical stance (e.g. through participating in or promoting regulationist campaigns)? Joy says that using a descriptor to identify them is antagonistic and irrelevant if they, themselves, don't self-identify with that same descriptor. (An aside: I wonder if Joy would take this one step further, then, and assert that if someone doesn't self-identify as, say, a sexist, that this person cannot rightfully be called a sexist?) Plus, throwing that descriptor out there is tantamount to actively foiling the hard work that other advocate is doing, whatever that "work" may be.
Identification with a position has largely been the province of a small group of vegans who have constructed an identity around their strategic-ideological approach and who have constructed labels for both themselves and the other “side.” In our soccer analogy, it’s as if there is only one team trying to win the game; the rest of the individuals don’t even think of themselves as a team and are simply moving across the field, only kicking the ball when it gets in their way.
Even when she admits for a second that maybe there is indeed something to abolitionists contrasting themselves with advocates whose focus is not on use, but on treatment, Joy insists that the difference between welfarists and abolitionists is still somehow make-believe -- a "myth":
To be fair, just because only a minority of vegans have a “team” identity, this does not mean that the majority play no role in constructing the debate. It is entirely possible that the small, vocal minority have developed a cohesive group identity because they have felt that their valid and pressing concerns have not been taken seriously by the broader vegan culture. Both “sides” must work to defuse the Myth of the Great Debate.
So in the end, there is no such thing as a welfarist or an abolitionist according to Melanie Joy -- all vegans are ultimately abolitionists (Joy's obviously never heard of Wayne Pacelle, Paul Shapiro or of Erik Marcus). Oh, and for heaven's sake -- don't try to debate her on this, because you'll just be kicking a soccer ball in her path and blocking the effective advocacy in which she is currently engaged by trying to blur distinctions between two altogether different movements. Joy's intention seems to be to shame and to silence the one movement that is unequivocal about its focus on animal rights while fighting to end animal exploitation. She seems to want to co-opt the descriptor "abolitionist" as it is understood now in animal advocacy circles, and to stretch it out to include anyone and everyone who wants to self-identify with it, regardless of their ethical stances or of their actions and complicity in the reinforcement of speciesist attitudes. I'm guessing that explaining to her that terms come with context and with definitions would just lead to an accusation that I was being confrontational and "non-liberatory".

Descriptors Aren't Merit Badges

Isn't it funny? This whole business of calling those who are actually abolitionists and who reject animal use things like "extremist", "divisive", "bullies", et al. while wanting to co-opt the term for people who aren't actually abolitionist but who still involve themselves in perpetuating animal use by focusing on treatment, it's really no different than animal-using vegetarians calling vegans extremist, divisive, bullies, et al. and then vegetarians wanting to co-opt the term "vegan" to self-identify as some "degree" of vegan as they continue to deliberately engage in avoidable animal use. Vegans get scolded and shamed into accepting vegetarianism (i.e. animal use) as somehow being no more than a wee moral sidestep (lest they be deemed holier-than-thou, judgmental, the vegan police, elitist, et al.). Now abolitionists are being scolded and shamed into embracing welfarism and into allowing those who focus on animal treatment to co-opt the term "abolitionist" for themselves -- regardless of their political or ethical stances or of the nature of their hands-on advocacy. If you try to point out that they're different, according to Joy, you're obviously a bitter trouble-makers who's gobbling up the time of those who could otherwise be doing their tabling or starting Care2 petitions to stop Safeway from selling brown ducks on Tuesday mornings. I mean, how dare you?

Welfarists and abolitionists aren't just grumpy siblings sniping at each other in the back seat of a car while on summer vacation. There is no rift in one unified movement; we are two separate movements. Our differences goes far beyond being mere "diversity", but it seems that hammering that out by engaging in critical debates that would make this evident is "non-liberatory" and not in keeping with vegan principles. Joy claims that we need to be truth-seekers, but seems to want us to do so blindfolded. And if in their own truth-seeking, advocates around us do more harm than good to other animals, we should nonetheless "value" them for their truth-seeking-ness; instead of tapping them on the shoulder and suggesting that they're doing it wrong, we should give up on our own fixation on doing it "right".

According to Joy, judging another's actions is always "shaming" and shaming is non-liberatory (and thus goes against vegan principles). According to Joy, judging always involves bullying. (Critical thinking means less time for hugs?) Joy's investment in keeping us from stepping on each other's toes is preventing her from acknowledging that for each misstep one of my fellow advocates takes, there may be additional lives lost. It's not about us; it's about them. If I point out to you that spending all of your time trying to get non-vegans to sign a petition to convince a fast-food burger chain to only use eggs from chickens who have an extra three inches of room in the cages in which they spend their entire miserable short lives, I'm not doing it to hurt your feelings: I'm doing it because I'm thinking about those chickens and that the chickens in those cages would rather not be in those cages at all. It's not about us; it's about them.

What Now?

She's right that we have "much work to do". Some animal advocates educate the general public about veganism; other advocates choose to educate the public about not not buying shoes made of kangaroo leather from one specific company while not addressing that no leather from any animal should be purchased and that all animal exploitation is problematic. As an abolitionist and an ethical vegan who truly wants to see an end to speciesism and to the horrific cycle into which billions of other sentient beings are enslaved and slaughtered every single year, part of my work involves sometimes tapping the kangaroo shoe petitioner on the shoulder and suggesting that more could and should be done. If someone like Joy wants to insist that that my doing so somehow goes against vegan principles -- that it's "divisive", so be it. At the end of the day I'd still offer Joy a big ol' hug. Then I'd ask her to substantiate her claims and to give me an opportunity to refute them, because this is where real learning and understanding come from -- not from smiling and nodding and turning a blind eye to others' fumbling around us.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Misrepresenting the Abolitionist Approach, Part I: Some Context

First There Was the Finger Pointing About Finger Pointing

Several weeks ago, James McWilliams wrote an article ("Vegan Feud") for the mainstream news and pop culture site Slate that created a slight bit of a stir in online animal advocacy social networking circles. In it, McWilliams criticizes the abolitionist animal rights dismissal of animal welfare regulationism as ineffective, and he uses this to frame what was essentially a high-fiving defense of the past and current work of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Rather than recognize the intrinsic and considerable differences between abolitionist animal rights and welfarism as reflecting two altogether different movements, McWilliams appears to make the same error that all too many welfarists make when responding to abolitionist criticism by lumping both in together under one heading, deeming them two "in-fighting" factions of "the [same] cause". In the face of their quite fundamentally different philosophical stances and advocacy practices, he chooses to finger abolitionists for refusing to compromise on their own most basic underlying rejection of animal use and of their promotion of veganism as the moral baseline -- as the starting point for any serious animal advocacy.

Abolitionists Are Right?

It's not that McWilliams doesn't get that the process involved by groups like HSUS to regulate animal use does in fact differ from what abolitionist animal rights activists endorse and promote. He even seems to acknowledge that it falls short. He writes in his piece:
Nevertheless, as the abolitionists correctly point out, there’s nothing especially revolutionary about HSUS’s approach to improving the lives of farm animals. HSUS works closely with Big Agriculture, never calls for animal liberation, and never explicitly endorses the habit that most efficiently prevents animals from being killed: veganism. 
Confusingly, even while lumping a group like HSUS in with abolitionists as somehow being a part of the same "cause", McWilliams does acknowledge that what abolitionists point out in their critique of HSUS isn't incorrect. The facts are what they are and HSUS has made it clear again and again that it's not in the business of seeking to bring about an end to animal use.  So what's the problem?

Abolitionists Are Wrong?

McWilliams at one point sums up what are fundamental differences in advocacy as a mere "rift" that needs to be healed -- notwithstanding that HSUS rejects each of the six principles of the abolitionist approach to animal rights -- by having abolitionists 'fess up that HSUS "is doing something right" and to also admit that focusing on educating people about going vegan and about why it is that they shouldn't treat other animals as things just isn't going to work. He writes:
Francione’s logic is hard-hitting, but his extreme message is unlikely to resonate widely in a population that’s only 1.4 percent vegan. According to social psychologist and longtime vegan Melanie Joy, the abolitionist approach could attract a lot more supporters if it acknowledged, as HSUS does, that most people are going to embrace veganism on their own—you can’t strong-arm them into it. 
McWilliams continues by paraphrasing Joy's assertion that going vegan requires a "profound shift in consciousness" and that people are just going to do it when they're ready to do it. As for me, I smell straw.

On How Not Talking to People About Veganism Is the Best Way to Promote Veganism

There are two essentially wrongheaded things to address in the previous quote. The first is that loose thing called an argument that animal advocates (too often ones like Jonathan Safran Foer who are themselves non-vegan) use to defend promoting vegetarianism -- i.e. the consumption of some, but not all types, of animal products -- as somehow being ethically meaningful. They insist that veganism is extreme -- a final step in a long journey where every little bit counts and should be applauded. They insist that the general public isn't ready to hear about why it is that it's wrong to torture and slaughter other sentient beings. They insist that "only 1.4% of Americans are vegan" and that this is somehow indicative of how few people could possibly "get it". Not only does this downplay that (if one trusts Google's citing US population as being 311, 591, 917 as of July 2011) over 4 million Americans are vegan, but it's also insulting to those who aren't, simply infantilizing them and suggesting that they're either too stupid or rigid to be offered -- and to understand -- a clear unequivocal message.

Furthermore, according to Joy (or McWilliams' take on Joy), it seems that merely offering up to anyone that clear and unequivocal message that other animals aren't ours to use is tantamount to "strong-arm[ing]" them. McWilliams writes that abolitionists should just follow Joy's lead -- and apparently HSUS' -- and accept and endorse the notion that people are just going to "embrace veganism on their own". Considering Joy's focus in her work on meat-eating's being more morally problematic than other animal use, and given the lengths to which HSUS has gone to assert that it is not a vegan organization and has no wish to bring an end to animal use, doesn't it sound -- if you'll pardon the academic vernacular -- downright kooky to suggest that abolitionists should adopt Joy and HSUS' attitudes towards the (non) promotion of veganism? And that this will be more effective in bringing people 'round to veganism?

As someone who was an on-again, off-again vegetarian of different stripes for years before hearing my first Vegan Freak Radio podcast in which Gary L. Francione's abolitionist approach theory was explained, all I can say is that I'm grateful that someone didn't balk at expressing quite clearly that not using them is the very least we owe other animals. I only wish that someone had talked to me about it sooner. It surely wasn't going to be Melanie Joy or HSUS, since ever after years of my not going vegan, they would likely have thought that I'd somehow maybe figure it out on my own -- possibly after enjoying warm fuzzies following the purchase of one of Joy's books and mailing off a quick donation to HSUS. The truth is that it took that plain old honest and earnest message for me to "get it". I'm still grateful to the Torres' for the advocacy work they once-upon-a-time did -- their voices are missed in more ways than one -- and for their promotion of Francione's abolitionist approach to animal rights.

If the message wasn't too overwhelming for me, someone who'd been raised in a small town and in a working class "meat and potatoes" home, surrounded by animal agriculture and hunters, why should it be for someone else? And if Melanie Joy and HSUS (and James McWilliams) won't talk to others about going vegan, then who will? And why on earth would anyone purporting to take the rights of other animals seriously suggest to abolitionists that we shouldn't? There are billions of other animals killed for human consumption each and every year. Are we really expected to sit around and hope that someone decides to go vegan without ever having had someone tell them why they should go vegan, y'know, lest they be overwhelmed by it or feel "strong-armed" into it?

Podcast, Yes? Podcast, No.

As a follow-up to this article, Francione extended an invitation to McWilliams -- in good faith -- to participate in a podcast discussion with him to go over issues raised by McWilliams in the Slate article. Presumably, the invitation was also extended to clarify some of the misrepresentations of abolitionist approach advocacy the article contained. McWilliams first accepted and then declined, more or less stating that he didn't want to participate because debating the issues — i.e. defending his public promotion of welfarism and critique (and seeming dismissal) of abolitionism — would purportedly be destructive to “the cause of animal advocacy”. It seems that McWilliams himself must have felt, in choosing to write his original article in Slate, that this discussion is indeed an important one to be had. Otherwise, why would he have brought it up publicly on such a widely-read and mainstream site (whose readers, incidentally, mostly don’t give a bean about the difference between either the regulation or the abolition of animal use)?

In his blog piece explaining his choosing to decline to do the podcast, McWilliams insisted that his arguments’ substance wasn't a concern, but that he saw participating in the podcast as nothing but engaging in a sparring contest where sparring skills might trump substance. He went on to more or less compare an intellectual debate in which he would be given the opportunity to elucidate and to substantiate his attack on the abolitionist approach (and where Francione would be given an equal opportunity to correct and clarify and to defend his work and that of those who subscribe to the abolitionist approach) as ending up as nothing more than the bumping together of two egos.

Good Faith/Bad Faith

McWilliams seemed to present himself as wanting to do the humble and noble thing and to focus on advancing “the cause” without taking this opportunity to provide those (who may or may not read Slate) who are actually interested in animal advocacy a well-thought out rational explanation for how it is that he thinks wefarism is in any way benefiting other animals and that the abolitionist approach fails to do so. That seemed like such a passive-aggressive dodge to me and it left me more disappointed in McWilliams as an advocate than I was when he wrote that wrongheaded Slate article in the first place. His refusal seemed quite disingenuous and sympathy-seeking and I would have expected more from a passionate and earnest advocate, and most certainly from a tenured academic. One would think that, having deemed discussing his critique of abolitionist advocacy with Francione as potentially harmful to the movement and with his concern over supposed "in-fighting" that McWilliams might have chosen to indeed step away from the issue to focus on other things. Part II of this lengthy blog commentary will examine how, sadly but unsurprisingly, this wasn't the case.

Stay tuned for more!