Saturday, March 13, 2010

No Emily, Veganism Isn't Just About You or Me

A self-described vegan called Emily Weingarten wrote a fairly negative review of Bob and Jenna Torres' Vegan Freak: Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World for the website yesterday ("We're vegans, not freaks"). I admit (with a small amount of embarrassment) that I have not yet read the book. It's been on my "must read" list since I first stumbled across their Vegan Freak Radio podcast a few years back. The podcast was where I first learned about abolitionist animal rights and Bob and Jenna were the first two vegans I'd ever heard discussing veganism as anything other than a "personal choice". I had spent years wandering about in various online vegetarian communities where vegans were often labeled "extremists" and where vegans having the audacity to talk about veganism were often chided for hurting others' feelings by suggesting (or even rudely asserting) that consuming dairy or eggs or using any other animal product was wrong. Hearing Bob and Jenna's podcast was a relief; Bob and Jenna's were the first two voices I'd ever heard presenting veganism as the absolute least we can do if we're serious about the rights and interests of nonhuman animals, and they did so in this matter-of-fact way that made veganism sound normal and the consumption and use of nonhuman animals sound extremist.

Their podcast also led me to the serious and earnest study of Prof. Gary Francione's writings and of his abolitionist approach to animal rights, which has the sort of clarity that left me sorry I hadn't had it pointed out to me sooner, so that I wouldn't have wasted years fooling myself into thinking I was doing enough for animals. (It's kind of funny and completely coincidental, actually, that with the exception of
a brief mention of my interest in Prof. Francione's work a few months beforehand, my first actual post discussing it in any way was almost exactly two years ago.)

So why am I writing about a review of a book by a couple whose advocacy literally changed my life, when I haven't in fact read it? It's not so much what Weingarten said about the book itself that I want to address, as much as what she makes obvious feeds into what she's said. Before she dives into that, Weingarten says of the Torres' book that

Vegan Freak is a sort of vegan manifesto in which the authors [...] attempt to instill vigor and commitment into already-vegans and inspire non-vegans to take on the lifestyle. There isn’t anything wrong with this. Sometimes the only way for vegans to get respect is to be able to eloquently state their reasons for being vegan and to be consistent in their diet and lifestyle.
After what to many might sound a fair and reasonable statement, Weingarten continues, throwing in the "however" which is the raison d'être for her entire piece: "Inspiring others to be vegan is OK, so long as it doesn’t go too far." What could she mean by "too far"? She provides one example of it in pretty explicit detail when she states that it's not her intention to focus on that particular example of it:
I don’t want to write a blog entry criticizing Vegan Freak because the authors spend so much time criticizing anyone who is not vegan and using a variety of other negative tones such as cursing profusely and making bad sexual jokes.
Now, I don't want to write a blog post criticizing Weingarten for criticizing Vegan Freak's authors for engaging in what she views as their unacceptable behaviour or delivery, partially because she cites no specific examples of it (and I haven't read the book). Most importantly, though, since I haven't read the book and since humour and tone are such subjective things I could get lost in trying to deconstruct what she means by "criticizing anyone who is not vegan" and discussing the thousands of increments between words like "tasteful" and "prudish" that would come up in discussing language use and sexual references. Instead, I want to focus on the remainder of Weingarten's review, which isn't so much a review of the book, as it is a lecture on appropriate behaviour for vegans--her own "manifesto" of sorts.

Weingarten writes, first, that "[a]ny reasons for being vegan are great, so long as they are motivated by a desire to create some sort of positive change." I sort of agree with that. I mean, environmental and health factors are certainly valid motivators to go vegan, for a variety of complex reasons. She writes this, however, as if wanting to criticize the Torres' focus on what is ultimately the most important reason anyone should have to stop using nonhuman animals--the basic immorality of using them at all. It's a tiny shaming, really, that could be overlooked if not for the fact that it becomes a recurring theme in her piece. She goes on to emphasize the "green" factor further in a second point by making the mistake of creating a false dichotomy, asserting that "[e]nvironmental vegans are just as valuable as ethical vegans". As seen in a recent essay on the Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach website, it's not an either/or situation ("Veganism: Morality, Health, and the Environment"). For further reading on veganism, animal rights and environmentalism, do check out Vincent Guihan's essay from last August on his We Other Animals blog ("I would throw 1000 ancient redwoods out of the lifeboat to save one kitten! It's not because I'm bad; it's because plants aren't sentient").

Weingarten really goes downhill from there. Her third point is "Veganism is about you", and in it--never mind the wrongheaded title of the point itself--she makes two errors. The first is that she more or less contradicts a statement made in her first point, where she asserted that one's reasons to go vegan should not be selfish ones--that they should not be "vain". In explaining her third point, she writes about veganism being about making yourself feel better and reassures her readers that "[i]t’s OK to be proud of yourself for making these personal choices". So... it both should and shouldn't be about patting yourself on the back. Her second error involves trying to redefine "veganism" to include the option of deliberately choosing to use animal products; if you have any doubt of how "personal" she feels these "choices" are, note this particularly confusing statement:
Being vegan might also make you consider how the clothes you wear make you feel, and you might stop wearing leather, wool, and silk.
I'd like to think that Weingarten slipped and actually knows that "being vegan" means that you don't wear leather, wool and silk--not just that "you might stop wearing" them. Maybe her slip-up was due to the fact that those words were mostly filler leading up to the bona fide punch of her point (i.e. another otherwise easily overlooked tiny shaming of the Torres' or of other vocal vegans that just adds to the small pile that is her recurring finger-wagging theme) where Weingarten reminds vegans to act with "modesty and humility around non-vegans". (Disapointingly, though, Weingarten does indeed go on to further illustrate her confusion about what is meant by "veganism" a bit later in the piece.)

Weingarten's issues with vocal vegans who choose to educate others about veganism become even more apparent as she goes on to explain that since the "whole world isn't going to stop eating meat" and we "cannot expect our entire society to adopt a vegan lifestyle when meat and dairy are central components of most Americans’ diets", we apparently need to 1) manage our expectations of others' behaviour and (hey, since everybody else is doing it anyway, and we don't want to look like unreasonable extremist "freaks" or anything) 2) change our own behaviour to better adapt to the expectations of others that we be more like them when it comes either consuming or not consuming animal products. Weingarten's opinion of vegan advocacy is summed up when she says:
What we can do is support the people who are interested in learning more about vegan lifestyle and possibly becoming vegan without alienating ourselves by projecting our vegan philosophies on others who may not be interested at all.
Let me translate: Go be vegan in the world and if someone happens to notice and to express curiosity about it, great, but otherwise, shut your pie-hole about it, because telling people that using animals is wrong is preachy and rude. Have any doubts about Weingarten's opinion being that avoiding being rude to your fellow humans trumps the rights and interests of animals? Read on:
Yes, the dairy industry can be just as cruel and unethical as the meat industry, but vegetarians and vegans have many common values, and as vegans, we must respect that in order to be respected.
She admits that although consuming dairy is unethical that to obtain respect, vegans in turn need to "respect" (i.e. turn a blind eye to the fact) that vegetarians continue to engage in this unethical behaviour and opt to exploit animals since we apparently have "common values" (which obviously exclude those values that lead vegans to refrain from continuing to voluntarily and knowingly use animals as things). But according to Weingarten, in yet another little shaming, merely voicing the obvious truth would be disrespectful.

Furthermore, one's so-called "personal choice", as Weingarten so adamantly described it, suddenly becomes a public and political one when faced with whether to leave aside our ethics to instead consume animal products offered to us by others. According to Weingarten, it seems that non-vegans are emotional messes incapable of processing someone's being consistent about his or her ethics; suddenly, the "no, thank you" involving eating animals or their secretions becomes a selfish choice. To illustrate this, Weingarten, the self-described vegan, writes:

It might make me a speciest [sic] to say this, but people are much more important to me than animals. So if on my birthday, someone makes or buys me a non-vegan cake, I’m going to have a slice to avoid offending that person or causing hurt feelings.
So, on top of not talking to non-vegans about veganism, lest you offend them, being a really good vegan also means eating animal parts or secretions, lest you "offend" that non-vegan by refusing to do so. Yet, strangely, at the beginning of her piece, Weingarten herself wrote that
Sometimes the only way for vegans to get respect is to be able to eloquently state their reasons for being vegan and to be consistent in their diet and lifestyle.
Weingarten then wraps up her piece by going back to the book and claiming that it lacks the "compassion, humility, peacefulness that is [sic] inherent to a vegan lifestyle". The truth is, though, that Weingarten's article displays a lack of the sort of consistency, logic and understanding (most notably of veganism, itself) that are inherent to actually being able to comment with any sort of authority (or sense, really) on veganism or on how vegans should behave in the world.

Her piece isn't so much written in good faith as it is a passive-aggressive reprimand of vegans who don't stay in the vegan closet. It ends up conveying a sense that vegans are outcasts who should keep their veganism to themselves unless asked (although if vegans should hide their veganism, one is left to wonder how non-vegans would even think to ask about it). It conveys that that vegans should keep their veganism to themselves, even if it means compromising their ethics to avoid hurting the feelings of those who choose to keep treating nonhuman animals as things for human use and enjoyment. I don't know about you, but I think that we owe nonhuman animals more than to agree to behave as if it's somehow improper to assert that it's wrong to use them as our property. Weingarten, on the other hand, makes it clear that she thinks that we owe nonhuman animals less.
That, in fact, is a shame.


Unknown said...

Profuse cursing?

JⒺssica said...

"Vegans" like that really bug me, she contradicts her self so much that it just makes me think "why the fuck are you vegan then?". Great analysis of her review, I need to read that book too!

Lou said...

"a passive-aggressive reprimand of vegans who don't stay in the vegan closet" spot on Mylène. It's a very confused piece, as I was saying to Elizabeth last night while you were writing, I think it's a piece that's very much coloured by the author's cognitive dissonance in relation to veganism.

It reads as if she hasn't entirely processed her own feelings about veganism, possibly through lack of exposure to multiple perspectives, when I first went vegan I would have felt a bit more inclined to stay in the closet myself without a support system or writing like Gary's, Roger's, yours etc.

It occurred to me that this kind of 'veganism' which is likely more on the welfare side of things (I obviously don't know that for sure, just guessing) probably informs a closet mindset - I imagine if I felt that I was refusing food to reduce suffering and still saw it as food I was purposely 'going without', I could pat myself on the back for being so devoted, moral, righteous etc. It would take a hell of a lot of willpower to keep refusing what you still saw as tasty food which was only rendered out of bounds by the suffering involved in it's production. As such you might see yourself (either through your own eyes or those of an imaginary judging other) as 'better than' or 'holier than thou' for having this insight, morality and resolve and you might be terrified for other people to see this, surely they would find your principles and dedication as a sign of feeling superior and therefore dislike you... so... stay in the closet, don't let on how your morals and principles have set you apart from others. After a while you might feel so uncomfortable with your feeling of difference that you might want to deny it to yourself too (and reprimand others for not falling into line with your own defence mechanism, I mean, view of veganism)..

Kerry said...

Excellent essay, Mylène. Emily Weingarten sounds incredibly confused about veganism. And her assertion that we should just be quiet about our veganism or be inconsistent for the sake of not hurting someone's feelings is, quite frankly, beyond the pale.

M said...

Thanks, everyone! I've left a comment on her opinion piece and encourage others to do so, as well.

I think that her attempting to shame vegans into silence or into engaging in non-vegan behaviour is really unfortunate and I agree wholeheartedly that she seems so very confused about what veganism actually means--on many levels.

LiveVegan said...

I agree with Lou. ""a passive-aggressive reprimand of vegans who don't stay in the vegan closet" spot on Mylène."

Thanks Mylene

Megan said...


As I said about a former "vegan" acquaintance(from her facebook posts she seemed to be a vegan when it was convenient, and endorsed AKC ear-cropping and tail docking)who called me an "obnoxious, self righteous asshole" for being vocal, and that I was what "gave vegans a bad name," 'tis better than being a vegan that actually hurts the cause.

Unknown said...

Emily Weingarten makes herself sound foolish and uninformed. I am vegan, not ashamed to BE vegan, proud to say I do make a difference of one, one of many. I'm with Vincent on "Profuse cursing"? I read Vegan Freak some time ago and don't remember profuse cursing. I also read Skinny Bitch, sure there was cursing, but it was a great book, informative AND funny. It is what made me decide to live vegan. My daughter has been vegan for years and I never listened, so I thank the writers such as the Torres' for helping me see the impact of my choices. I can only hope that more people will explore rather than ignore their choices and how they affect the non-humans who only have humans to be their voice. Thanks for listening!

LoncheraV said...

Staying in the "vegan closet" does little to help anything at all. I was not as vocal about my veganism some time ago, and people were confused about what I really meant by it. So then my friends threw me a surprise birthday party, with a non vegan cake. How funny was it that I was the only one NOT eating cake at my own birthday party? I wasn't rude, I thanked them for the gesture and kindly explained why I didn't want a slice of the cake. They were embarrassed and apologized, but I didn't make a big deal out of it. So it ended up giving me the opportunity to explain my veganism to them and at the same time having a good time without compromising my ethics.

True friends understand, and are open. It really frustrates me when people say this things, like we should not be consistent because we "send out the wrong message" - What good is it to be vegan if you can't be an agent of change?

Al said...

I read Weingarten's review just this morning and had the same reaction to it.

I also haven't read Vegan Freak, also started listening to the VF podcast a few years ago, and it also got me out of the closet and turned me on to Francione's work which also shapes the majority of my thinking on veganism.

In short, I identify and agree with every word written in this post. Thank you.

Crystal said...

I hate when vegans refuse to stand up for veganism. Veganism is not a personal choice, it's an ethical and political decision.

It's sad to read the comments on her article and see how everyone just goes "all those vegans are so preachy." while some vegans are in fact preachy as some democrats are preach and some gun nuts are preach, saying "I think eating animal products is wrong" really isn't preachy.

c said...

I'm going to go off on a tangent here but since veganism is not about us (totally agree), how do you feel about the UK granting anti-discrimination rights to vegans?

sinead said...

Sheesh. Saying that ethical vegans should support other people choosing to use animals is like saying that feminists should support other people choosing to rape. It's absurd. Does this woman even understand what morality means?

artsycraftsyivy said...

I think this Emily Weingarten is probably a fake vegan, a vegan for health. That is the only way she could possibly be okay with everything she's saying in her article. When one is a vegan for health, there are no consequences. So what if you don't even vegan all the time. It's just a diet--and you can cheat on a diet. Yep, she's a fake vegan alright.

Vanilla Rose said...

Chastity: I have already written to a government minister to check if her support for ending discrimination against vegans extends to providing vegan Vitamin K injections (they changed the formulation of the carrier so it contained cow bile) to children whose mothers are vegetarian, vegan or Hindu.

I wonder what she will say.

DS said...

Another great post, Mylène.

Vera Lothian said...

Obviously we should all be quiet, just as we should have been for womens rights, slavery, discrimination, homophobia etc etc.

It worked for them right?

No wait it didn't cause they wheren't quiet they spoke up to what was wrong and things have changed, not enough but change has and is happening. the smae wi happen with veganism.
And to say it in the words of bob
F*ck yeah.