Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Vegan Challenges

No, this is not a piece about what a challenge it is to be vegan. Don't get me wrong: Although I think that shuffling ingredients out of your diet and rejecting various other forms of use is actually pretty easy for most of us and gets easier and easier as time passes, I do think that it can be a bit more complicated from some who are not used to thinking about their food or in cooking for themselves, in reading labels or thinking about processes, but it's certainly doable. It's doable if you have made an earnest decision to extricate yourself from the cycle of exploitation and have based this decision on solid reasons that focus on the ethics of animal use; it's doable if you have come to realize and to accept that it's wrong to use other sentient beings and to treat them as things existing merely for human pleasure.

Sure, it can take a bit of time before it becomes old hat and you will find yourself in occasional situations with others where you may find yourself feeling singled out and sometimes treated unkindly, but who ever said that doing something right is always required to be easy? The truth is that in so many ways, once you realize the impact your decision has on the lives of so many others, going vegan is a relief at worst and an absolute joy at best. I find it difficult to qualify something like that as being "hard".

Playing "Vegan"

Almost every other week, it seems, someone pops up on some sort of news website proclaiming that he or she is going to attempt to "go vegan" for a month. More often than not, it's actually written after the so-called experiment. Sometimes a few friends or coworkers or a spouse get in on the action, as well. These pieces are invariably limited to discussion of diet and reinforce the misconception that veganism is a diet. I blame some of that on Kathy Freston and Oprah and the whole vegan cleanse fad they triggered (and at which she-with-everything-at-her-fingertips failed miserably).

In almost all of these articles or commentaries, the reasons given for trying it out focus on health or environmental concerns. Often, the writer treats it as some sort of trial akin to running a three-legged race, expressing interest in just wanting to see how "hard" it must be to "be vegan". Although a few end up shining a bit of positive light on the deliciousness of plant-based food, more often than not these articles end up being long whiny gripes about how inconvenient--or even near-impossible--it is to find those plant-based foods. All too often, they focus on cravings and admissions of cheating to savour this or that absolutely irresistible animal-based dish or of how family members or friends were horribly inconvenienced by the participant's ill-researched month-long dietary trial.

For Instance...

Grist recently ran a piece by Elizabeth Kwak-Hefferan called "What I learned from a month of eating vegan". Kwak-Hefferan makes some valid points in her piece, mentioning that convenience foods (often containing some sort of of "hidden" animal ingredient or another ) "got a whole lot less convenient" mind you, she should have visited the health food section of her supermarket to sample any of the many, many vegan prepared convenience food options now readily available). She brings up that not all restaurants are vegan-friendly and that their options can be limited and that getting used to cooking at home can help. She also points out--and rightfully so--that vegan-friendly foods are not necessarily healthy foods.

There were a few other glimmers of positivity in her piece, including her assertions that vegan food can be absolutely tasty and that cravings pass:
People generally reacted to our experiment in one of two ways. One, “Oh YAY! Being vegan is the best!” or two, “I could never be vegan.” As a former member of camp two, I can honestly say: Yes, you totally can. Sure, there are roadblocks. But the food can be sublime. And while I missed some taboo items, I didn’t miss them as much as I expected.
That's just super, except for the fact that Kwak-Hefferan admits at the end of the piece that she's chosen to go back to eating animal products. Her piece is also littered with somewhat mildly negative comments, as well as comments which illustrate the lack of seriousness with which she viewed her experiment. For instance, she talks about "becoming the 'difficult' guest at dinner parties and evenings out" and mentions "the smell of non-vegan foods promiscuously wafting about" in non-vegan restaurants. She also dismisses promoting going vegan as easy:
I’m sure this gets easier with practice. But insisting that a paradigm shift in dietary habits isn’t hard is a real disservice to anyone who’s struggling to adjust to it.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, I certainly do understand that going vegan can very be a bit more challenging for some than for others, but I think that as someone who basically threw herself into a few weeks of suddenly and drastically changing her diet with no motivation other than to write an article for Grist that of course it would make sense that she'd find it overwhelming and that she would whinge about it a little.  

When Playing "Vegan" Fails

It should come as no surprise that a group of people uninterested in animal rights issues who would embark on a month-long diet for the sake of writing an article would walk wash their hands of it at all at the end of their trial period.
“The relevant issues for me are sustainability, nutrition, and the enjoyment of food,” Matt mused. “Although veganism has useful things to say about all of them, completely eradicating animal products seems an overreaction to a complex problem.” Laura agreed: “Eggs from your neighbor’s chicken seem far more animal-conscious and environmentally friendly than tofu made from vast fields of soybeans and processed who knows where.” [...] Matt and Laura dedicated themselves to finding local meats and cheeses. We all understand now that we can survive perfectly well without animal products — so why wouldn’t we consume less of them, and make sure the ones we do eat come from ethical sources?
So they've all become more "conscientious" exploiters. Instead of having weighed what is indeed a "complex problem" from the standpoint of other animals and asked themselves whether or not these other animals should even be used by us, they have instead chosen to greenwash their animal use a little and to embrace current exploitation trends (e.g. locavorism).  Considering that their starting point didn't really concern itself with animal rights and didn't really involved going "vegan", it's really no surprise.

Presto! Instant Seasoned Veteran!

Our non-vegan writer decides to use her failed one-month experimentation with what is essentially strict vegetarianism to offer up advice -- yes, advice! -- to others thinking about going vegan. Kwak-Hefferan advises people to not "do it all at once" -- which she purportedly attempted to do. It's apparently too difficult and wouldn't "allow for the occasional [animal based] indulgence (all the better if it’s a local, organic, and humane one". One gets the sense that she's saying that you should leave yourself enough time to continue to treat yourself to the flesh and secretions of the exploited as you initiate your plan to uh, stop exploiting them. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I spent a long stretch as a vegetarian before I heard a clear message about animal use that addressed all forms of exploitation. I'd been shuffling out animal products for years, but it took hearing a few of the old Vegan Freak Radio podcasts and reading some of Gary Francione's essays on his Abolitionist Approach site before I then quickly made a permanent change. I certainly didn't continue to "treat" myself to any products of the exploitation I decided to reject. But others over the years have told me that hearing a similar clear message about what we owe other animals did indeed leave them going from ordinary ol' omni to vegan almost immediately.

Worse, though is how whatserface goes off on a completely confused ramble that just serves to further misrepresent veganism. Not only does Kwak-Hefferan announce that she's not going to go vegan herself, but she insists that she's going to "go more vegan than [she] was before". She also insists that the "all-or-nothing thinking" behind asking people to go vegan, you will get "nothing".
During the course of this experiment, I heard from and spoke with many more people who are “mostly vegan” (i.e., cop to eating cheese once in a while, or eat vegan at home but not necessarily with friends) than who are “really vegan.”
Duh. Given that over 98% of the population isn't vegan, of course she would have heard from more non-vegans. Somehow, though, she seems to think this reflects that a) you can be vegan and eat animal products, and/or that b) very few vegans don't give in to temptation or convenience and "cheat". She seems to use this to prop up her argument that asking people to go "really vegan" (i.e. what you and I know as plain old vegan) just won't work. So in the end, her "vegan challenge" to her readers is this:
Be more vegan than you are. Even if you don’t want to take me up on the month-long experiment, maybe you can eat a vegan dinner three times a week. Or do like New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and be vegan until 6 p.m. every day. Or hell, keep eating meat, but make it ethical meat. Whatever you’re doing, try doing it a little better. Who knows where it’ll lead you?
Sound advice from a woman with absolutely no expressed interest in animal rights issues and who's only ever dabbled temporarily with plant-based eating? Yeah, right. Follow it and I can assure that there's at least one place it probably won't lead you -- to actually going vegan. (I keep rolling my eyes involuntarily at her article's conclusion -- "keep eating meat, but make it ethical meat"? Yeah, keep beating toddlers, but make it ethical beating. Sigh.)

Doing it Right

I used to be horribly cynical about all 30-day vegan programs. I blame the aforementioned Oprah/Kathy Freston vegan cleanse pairing for it, along with all of these articles in the media like the one referenced above. I was also always concerned about the fact that anyone talking about "going vegan" for 30 days was almost always talking about food and doing it as a trial of sorts with a fixed end date.

The thing is that there are indeed some folks who have been taking the time to put together well-organized programs for those who are curious about veganism or who are genuinely interested in going vegan. Take the Peace Advocacy Network's program, for instance. Started in 2011 in Philadelphia, it's since expanded so that in 2013, similar PAN Vegan Pledge programs are being held in 9-10 different locations around the US. The programs aren't set up as one-off experiments or solely focused on food, but are introductory programs offering things like cooking classes and educational speakers addressing topics ranging from nutrition to the very ethics of animal use. Pledges are given care packages, shopping tips and hooked up with supportive mentors with whom they can touch base with any questions they may have. The programs are free for participants and PAN uses donations to cover the roughly $15 per participant cost (for rental-space, social events and so on) as well as product donations for the care packages given to pledges. The feedback from the pledges in these programs has been stellar and many have stuck it through and continued on as vegans. Some have even returned to volunteer as mentors the following year!

The Vegan Society in the UK has a more basic mentoring program set up, partnering up the curious with experienced vegans and providing educational materials. (I say "mentoring" when the truth is that having a mentor is optional for those who make a 30-day pledge, which seems unfortunate since I think that having a good vegan sidekick or sounding board for someone making the initial transition is invaluable.)

It's a true shame, though, that instead of embarking upon an unresearched and half-assed month-long plant-based eating experiment that someone like Kwak-Hefferan didn't seek out a group like PAN that is legitimately dedicated to sending people off along the path towards veganism. It's true that one's intentions before embarking on any such program will ultimately determine the outcome, but at least Kwak-Hefferan would have been exposed to people who were rightfully motivated and maybe their authentic experience could have been presented in the resulting article and at least Kwak-Hefferan could have actually learned a little about what veganism actually is before taking it upon herself to write about it for the public.

1 comment:

Micha said...

Thanks for your straightforward post, Mylène. Some months ago I took part in the 30-day-vegan-challenge multi-media program by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Focussing mostly on the practical, social and health aspects of going vegan, she nevertheless underlines (in her podcasts) the importance of developing and expanding compassion for animals to help end their suffering. Confrontation and pointed, perhaps angry remarks are not her strategy, though. I admit that I am not so sure which one is more effective to inspire more people to go vegan. I went vegan 2 years ago after reading some explicit books on animal exploitation. Some research in the internet provided me with all the information I needed to make the transition from omni to vegan overnight. What I know for sure is that the altruistic, ethical reason is the most important one for staying vegan. There is no excuse for using non-human animals for human ends. It's not about us, it's about the animals. That should be the pivotal message in all 30-day-vegan-beginner-programs.
Best vegan wishes, Gary for president! Micha