Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Vick and Vegans

Most vegans who have spent enough time mulling over human behaviour acknowledge it as a given that speciesism is so deeply and firmly entrenched in mainstream North American culture, it's sometimes hard to figure out where to even begin teasing it out and addressing it. It manifests itself each time a well-enough meaning omni friend asserts great love for the family dog over dinner, while carving up a slice of a turkey's breast. It manifests itself when that same dog is abandoned at a kill-shelter, given up when lack of time and interest leave him more an unwanted burden--a thing that's exhausted its use--than a member of the family. It's also manifested itself quite prominently over the past couple of years (and more so in recent weeks) in the much-publicized case of former/future football great Michael Vick's involvement in dog-fighting and his subsequent arrest for it.

On a visceral level, when I'd first heard of the case I'd branded Vick a monster. To both organize and profit from the deliberate torture of animals seemed the most heinous of acts. Upon giving it further thought, though, after that initial knee-jerk reaction, I came to agree wholeheartedly with Gary L. Francione's 2007 piece on the whole matter in which he wrote the following:

Michael Vick may enjoy watching dogs fight. Someone else may find that repulsive but see nothing wrong with eating an animal who has had a life as full of pain and suffering as the lives of the fighting dogs. It's strange that we regard the latter as morally different from, and superior to, the former. How removed from the screaming crowd around the dog pit is the laughing group around the summer steak barbecue?
Since Michael Vick's recent release and subsequent reinstatement in the NFL, the internet has been swamped with heated discussions in message forums, outraged blog posts, indignant tweets on Twitter, anti-Vick petitions and the creation of innumerable groups on social networking sites calling for the boycott of NFL sponsors (as well as those of the Philadelphia Eagles who signed Vick) until Michael Vick is shown the door.

In one such group on Facebook, I'd posted a link to Prof. Francione's essay and asked this simple question: "How many of those here calling for a boycott are actually vegan?" and the very first response to my question was from a woman who asserted that Michael Vick was a monster and that she enjoyed her steaks, thank you very much. A few days later, the group's moderator emailed me to state that
she was vegan, but felt that veganism was a "personal choice" and that the Vick issue transcended that and should be the sole focus of the group's discussion. The following day, my link and question were quietly removed. Basically, what she was attempting to convey to me is that this single issue concerning one man and a certain species of nonhumans is somehow more relevant than the widespread exploitation of other nonhumans by the overwhelming majority of humans. For those of us who do consume animals and their products, who wear their skins and fur, who pay to watch them pace behind bars to delight our children: How can we so vehemently loathe that which we do ourselves every single day?

What's most ridiculous is that these so-called boycotts being encouraged to get Michael Vick trounced from the Eagles and NFL ignore the fact that this very sport itself involves animal-eating athletes wearing animal products while running around a field chasing a ball that's made from a cow's skin. These games take place in stadiums where spectators consume mass quantities of animal-based hotdogs and hamburgers. There is not one single aspect of this game that doesn't involve the suffering and exploitation of animals. As for boycotting sponsors "just until" Vick is trounced? The Eagles' sponsors include (but aren't limited to) Tastykake, Dunkin' Donuts, Papa John's, KFC and Taco Bell. As for boycotting NFL sponsors, according to the NFL's Canadian site alone, some of those sponsors include: Campbell's, Maple Lodge Farms, Burger King and Nestle. Need I really explain the ridiculousness of boycotting companies whose very existence is based on the exploitation of animals to punish one single man who's exploited animals?

As Dan Cudahy pointed out quite effectively on his Unpopular Vegan Essays blog, single issue campaigns are problematic on many levels, including that they encourage us to single out the value of one species over others-- they "cultivate speciesism":
they don’t also call for an end to ALL animal exploitation and abuse, they cultivate speciesism. SICs do this by implying, via the silence regarding other forms of exploitation, that forms of exploitation other than the one on which the SIC is focused are either not as important or unimportant. SICs can avoid this problem by putting it front and center that ALL animal exploitation is wrong and ought to be abolished, but they almost never even mention other forms, much less make them front and center of the campaign.
Keeping this in mind, it's troubling to me that some vegans--particularly those who purport to support the abolition of all animal exploitation--have been very vocally against pointing out the ethical inconsistency and hypocrisy of branding one man's exploitation any more significant than the daily habits of most people that lead to the mass slaughter of over ten billion nonhumans in the US alone each year. For instance, Virginia Messina (a registered dietitian specializing in vegan nutrition) recently expressed that Michael Vick should, in fact, be singled out as a monster and that faith in the "good hearted" nature of omnivores should leave vegans absolving them of any accountability in their own roles in the torture and slaughter of those over ten billion aforementioned nonhumans and keeping their fingers crossed that they'll come around:
[W]e are good at psychological self-preservation which means we can distance ourselves from the pain of the masses in order to do what we want. Some people are far better at this than others, of course. But even those of us who care a lot about suffering and who make changes in our lives and also become active to make changes in the world, still do it to some extent. Just as many meat eaters do it by choosing not to think about the effects on animals of their diet and lifestyle choices.
To her credit, she does admit that this sort of behaviour is not, in fact, "defensible". This assertion seems empty and meaningless, however, when she elaborates by saying
[t]hat’s what keeps so many vegan activists going—the very fact that many omnivores are, in fact, good hearted, compassionate animal lovers. We know that if we can just get people to really think about what happens on factory farms, there is a good chance they will change their behavior.
She then jumps into the exact same sort of vilification of Michael Vick that's been echoed across the internet by humans of all sorts, regardless of their own exploitation and consumption of nonhuman animals. But isn't Messina's "psychological self-preservation" really just a euphemism for what Gary L. Francione calls "moral schizophrenia"? And rather than reinforcing this moral schizophrenia in others by supporting their vilification of Michael Vick, wouldn't it make more sense to do as Gary L. Francione points out in his recent podcast concerning the Vick issue, which is to use the very issue as an opportunity--a way in--to "get people to really think about what happens on factory farms"?

Allow me to play devil's advocate and consider that maybe this "psychological self-preservation" is indeed leaving some otherwise well-intentioned consumers with a blind spot. If that's the case, then does allowing the "good hearted" to continue ignoring the roles they play in the suffering and exploitation of nonhumans not do them a disservice? If I were harming others I would otherwise not seek to harm and was ignorant of it and had it pointed out to me, I would surely appreciate it so that I could alter my behaviour. Is allowing others to continue deluding themselves into thinking that Michael Vick's exploitation of dogs is wrong, while the direct roles they themselves play in the continuation of the torture and slaughter of others is "understandable" not--at the very, very least--patronizing? And at the very worst, how does crossing one's fingers to hope for the best while perpetuating this moral schizophrenia help those nonhumans who continue to be slaughtered?

As a vegan, how consistent am
I being in not intervening to take every opportunity I can to educate others about veganism? As an abolitionist animal rights advocate and activist, does turning a blind eye and deluding myself concerning what really works not leave me, in fact, accountable and complicit in the continuation of the mass slaughter of nonhumans? We may toss words around and argue theoretical points while continuing to make excuses for our fellow humans, but at the end of the day, should this not be about effecting change? Rather than worrying about stepping on toes, should the focus not be on ending the exploitation of animals?


Unknown said...

Great blog. It's really too bad, but it seems like welfarism and white supremacy often go hand in hand these days.

Eric said...

Nice work.

Those who try to silence or ignore the abolitionist approach seem oblivious to the hypocrisy and elitism inherent in their view, a position that seems to require that its advocates pander to their audience, to not challenge them meaningfully, to reinforce the welfarist views people already hold... to not make meaningful progress for animal rights.

Welfarists do not seem to grasp the implications of accepting that animals have the moral right not to be our property. Nor do they seem to understand that you can indeed have a rational and respectful discussion about abolition with a fellow human that doesn't involve patronizing him/her.

kelly g. said...

I've also witnessed a disturbing amount of racism surrounding this issue, particularly on closed forums.

M said...

Prof. Francione is debating the Vick issue over at Opposing Views, by the way. It's worth checking out, although some of the comments in response to his piece may leave you rolling your eyes enough that they get sore.

M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...


You are correct, correct & correct.

Bea Elliott said...

I had many acquaintances rush to get my reaction about Vick. I'm sure they thought that finally we would all agree on something. Of course they were very disappointed when I just showed a moderate disgust and not "rage". And as I attempted to explain why they each slowly bowed out of the conversation. But that happens when you strike too close to the truth. Still, I hope they know enough to question further: We are all M Vick.

As usual - thanks for a great post!

M said...

Thanks, Bea!

I had similar reactions when my omni friends tried to use the Vick incident as some sort of bonding opportunity, assuming that I'd be outraged, as well.