Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Eat Your Icons: Matt Frazier

I have a lot of vegan friends and acquaintances who have very well-established and well-enjoyed exercise routines and who get a thrill out of pushing themselves to be as fit as they can. They twist and balance at yoga class, run half-marathons, participate in triathlons and have clocked in enough kilometres on their bikes that I'm sometimes embarrassed to refer to myself as a cyclist. I follow and applaud their accounts of participating in triathlons and am often envious of their resolve, thinking that in the right context (i.e. with a motivated cycling buddy) I could probably end up pushing my own self further. It's easy to make excuses when life's filled with distractions, of course, but I'm straying a little from my topic.

Many of these athletic vegan friends and acquaintances are familiar with the names of the more popular vegan or strict vegetarian professional athletes and of those who are currently writing books or otherwise maintaining programs in which the public can participate to shape up. They drop names like Scott Jurek, Carl Lewis, Brendan Brazier and Matt Frazier and mention books, performances, interviews. I have to admit that aside from my French-Canadian genetic predisposition to keeping my ear to the ground on some hockey-related matters that I don't pay much attention to sports or to athletic competitions. Those names are "familiar" to me, but I couldn't tell you if they were runners, body-builders, football players (and so on) without playing with Google.

One of those familiar names came up a few times yesterday -- Matt Frazier's -- and I couldn't help but visit his website to see what all the fuss was about. Someone had posted to an animal rights email list of which I'm a member that Frazier had recently posted "rules" on his website for his vegan fans to follow. What Frazier's in fact done is share the rules that he follows as a self-described vegan in a piece called "My Rules for Navigating Vegan Life in a Non-Vegan World" -- and yes, I wrote "self-described".

Eight Rules

Before he even begins his list of rules, Frazier hauls out those old tired vegan stereotypes -- the ones usually brought up to shame vegans or shut them up. Although he says that he's fed up with how "we" vegans are seen as "extreme, preachy elitists who think we know what's right for everyone and that the world should be forced to eat like we do" he's quick to add that we apparently collectively bring it upon ourselves. He uses the words "militant" and "inflexible" and tells his readers that his list is an attempt to illustrate that vegans don't have to be like that. He says his list of rules developed from "habit". Let's have a look at just what those "habits" are.

Rule #1 Don't Eat Animal Products

Duh. That's a no-brainer, right? If you're going to be a vegan, might as well not eat animal products, right? Except that Frazier has exceptions. He will still "knowingly buy and eat something with honey in it". He's "working" on this, he says, but right now for the sake of convenience, he will still knowingly consume it, knowing all the while that it's not vegan. Then there are other exceptions...

Rule #2 Don't Turn Down Non-Vegan (but Vegetarian) Food That's Offered at a Friend's House

If it's "butter [...], sprinkled cheese or eggs", Frazier says he'll "eat the meal and be grateful". Grateful for what? That he didn't bring something vegan to the meal to eat himself just in case a situation like this came up? 
Most vegans learn early on that it not only takes some of the heat off your host to bring something, but it ensures that if mix-ups occur, you can still all eat and be merry. Is he grateful that his relationship with his friend is so fragile that his friend would blow a gasket or be forever deeply wounded if Frazier didn't compromise his ethical beliefs for the sake of appearances?

Frazier almost draws the line at meat, saying that the situation "hasn't arisen yet" but the thing is that there is no difference between consuming dairy, eggs or flesh. Frazier presents non-meat animal products are more permissible or ethical and in the process guilt-trips vegans who are consistent about not putting animal products, whether flesh or secretions, into their mouths.

Rule #3 If a Restaurant Screw up the Order and Serves Non-Vegan (but Vegetarian) Food, Either Give it Away or Eat It

Quantity matters, says Frazier. An entire cheese pizza, he'd give away. A little cream drizzled on a dish? He would eat this and states that he has. He talks about "honoring" the animal and about how not eating what's presented is tantamount to "making a scene" and is counterproductive for veganism. Funny, but I thought that consuming animal products was counterproductive for veganism, but I guess that I have an altogether idea of what it means to be vegan than does Frazier. He talks about "wasting food" but I can't help but recall a quote from my friend Dan, an excellent former blogger, who once wrote: "I am vegan for precisely the same reason that I am not a cannibal." Would Frazier be talking about so-called food waste if he was offered up a dish sprinkled with a tiny amount of flaked flesh from a human baby's arm? Or breast milk taken from an enslaved woman forcibly raped and who's had her baby taken from her? Would consuming that dish or giving it away "honor" that enslaved human victim? Why is it different for other animals to Frazier?

Rule #4 Don't Make a Scene

A good vegan is a quiet vegan, according to Frazier, and too many vegans. Given Frazier's previous rule, one is left to assume that making a "scene" is pretty much just saying anything at all and sending back a dish rather than eating it. Frazier talks about how this makes vegans look "weird" and that being seen as "weird" leaves veganism off-putting to non-vegans.

Rule #5 Don't Complain About not Having Options

I tend to agree with this to a certain extent. Frazier's delivery is of the severe finger-wagging variety, but the thing is that if you get yourself sucked into a situation where your options will be limited, it really is up to you to contact (for example) a restaurant in advance to make arrangements or to ensure that you have food. You can always email a place after the fact to suggest to management that they include more vegan-friendly options on the menu, but inform yourself of your situation and options beforehand and just figure something out.

Rule #6 When Someone Asks About Healthy Eating, Don't Pounce

Frazier here expects vegans to high-five someone for eating "healthier" animal products and says that he won't bring ethics into the discussion. There's absolutely no reason whatsoever that vegans should feel compelled to tell someone who's cut out bacon in favour of chicken breasts "That's great!!!11". There's also no reason to view someone's choosing healthier animal products as in any way whatsoever leading to veganism, which is grounded in ethics. By all means, don't pounce, but don't applaud animal exploitation, either.

Rule #7 Don't Argue About Diet

Basically, Frazier says here that whether you bring up health or ethics, that debating whether a strict vegetarian diet is better will result in failure because people are just too emotional to hear what you have to say. So there goes tabling and leafletting or doing anything whatsoever that's education and involves engaging others. According to Frazier, it just won't work. Just become an awesome athlete, Frazier suggests, so that people become envious and want to copy your diet. Uh... yeah.

Rule #8 Don't Buy Non-Food Animal Products

I was surprised to read this heading since I figured that Frazier was pretty focused on the whole notion of veganism as a diet. But even here, Frazier talks about not bothering to research products -- deliberately opting to not inform himself -- and he lumps beer and alcohol into this, as well.


To his credit (kinda, sorta), Frazier admits that his list is incomplete. But he talks about "moving towards 'pure' veganism" as if his deliberately choosing to ignore and gobble down animal ingredients is a sort of ordinary veganism. He also brings up that he hasn't given much thought to circuses and zoos and to "keeping animals as pets" (which he says he now has second thoughts about, when 3-4 million animals are needlessly killed in shelters in the US alone each and every year, just for the horrific "crime" of being unwanted).

Let's face it. Matt Frazier's so-called personal rules are an absolute mess. They present vegans' choosing to consume animals as not just "OK" but as desirable -- as the right thing to do in situations that are easy to avoid and easy to handle in ways where you're neither left having to compromise your ethical beliefs, nor looking like an asshat while remaining consistent. But like so many other self-described vegans who've become icons, Frazier's trying to appeal to a larger audience, so it's probably more expedient for him to excuse away people's awkwardness and balking, rather than giving them the encouragement to do the right thing and to not let themselves be embarrassed about it. It's a shame, but it's really no surprise, is it?

Note (2013-07-18): Frazier has since posted an update to his article, stating that rules #1-3 no longer apply to him and that, moving forward, he won't be making exceptions to consuming animal products. No mention of rule #8, however, where he discusses not researching ingredients in alcohol or non-edibles. In the comments to his article, he says that although his own feelings have shifted re: rules #1-3 that he would still advise others to feel OK with lapses or exceptions. Even more problematic is that he also reiterated that he no longer thinks feels right about adopting "pets" now that he's vegan and he stresses that non-vegan "vegetarianism" is still better than eating meat. Hopefully he will come around, but I'm happy to see that he's at least expressed an interest in seeking some degree of consistency in his own practices while self-identifying as a vegan.


Vanilla Rose said...

You should do a feature about Fiona Oakes, marathon runner and definitely a vegan!

Vanilla Rose said...

Oh, and I was going to tell you that I did a post on a site called Apologies if you've already written about them, I was too annoyed at them and preoccupied with ranting to check.

You're the expert in people who aren't vegan but want to pretend they are.

M said...

I saw that and posted a link to your article on the MFIoF Facebook page.

I'm not much of an expert, but just seem to stumble across waaaay too many cases of it and I see its ramifications. That Usually Vegan site is a perfect example, unfortunately.