Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Us and Them

I read an article in the food section of AlterNet this morning that I felt needed to be addressed. Heather Wood Rúdolph wrote about her recent "slimming detox diet" ("6 Things I Learned When I Went Vegan for a Month") . Self-described as having been raised vegan, the writer went on to follow "some version of a vegetarian diet for most of [her] life" (albeit a "happy fish-and-poultry eater for a few years"). She was seeking something to make her feel clean--to make her feel less "full" after "each meal". So? She cut animal products out of her diet for a month, but upon finding herself craving things like tuna, she decided that "eating this way all the time wasn’t for [her]--at least not right now".

What things did she learn from refraining from eating animal products for a month? To become a better cook, that increasing plant-based sources of fibre in one's diet clears out your (
uh) system, that when you force yourself into eating something you don't want to be eating (e.g. "when faced with another soy-based dinner or carb-loaded breakfast") you'll crave something else, you can find tons of fresh produce at the farmer's market, that "wine is vegan" (uh, it's actually not all vegan) and, that "[i]t's OK to eat dairy and meat--if you do it responsibly". She elaborates:

Realizing I don’t want to be totally vegan all the time makes the meat/dairy choices I do make seem that much more valuable.
Knowing that you want to keep using animals makes your choices to use animals more "valuable"? What does she mean by this? Perhaps she's been reading Michael Pollan (or Jonathan Safran Foer, since I think it's meant to sound sort of profound). What does she mean by "responsibly"? Basically, that since dairy leaves her bloated, she should eat less of it. Oh, and that she should ask grocers or farmers "how the food they’re selling was raised, processed and shipped", since letting oneself get talked into believing that an animal hop-skipped her way to one's plate joyfully absolves one of any moral accountability to consider whether or not one should be consuming them at all for one's own pleasure. What did she not learn? Sadly, for someone who claims to have been raised vegan, she didn't seem to learn what veganism is really about.

I write articles about pieces like hers on my blog because it confounds me how people conflate things when it comes to discussing (or referencing) veganism. It confounds me that so many are eager to co-opt the term "vegan" and apply it to any variation of actually eating and otherwise using nonhuman animals. A friend of mine who sometimes reads my blog tells me that I'm mostly just nitpicking and judging when I write about this sort of thing. I'll admit that after hearing someone self-identify as a part-time vegan by virtue of having an occasional animal-free meal, that the sound my eyes make when they roll probably finds some way to nestle itself between the lines of text that I write. I'm not perfect and am as prone to frustration as the next critter. The thing is, though, that when I write these articles, it's because when others write about veganism and confuse it with variations of the deliberate use and exploitation of animals, however much (or little) of it, it makes it really hard for me to talk to people about veganism.
"But, this-or-that famous celebrity wears leather pants and she's vegan!"

"But, Mark Bittman says you can be 'vegan before six!'"

"You're just being an absolutist by telling me that I can't be like them and call myself a vegan!"
The thing is that if I talk to you about veganism, I'm not trying to interfere with your ability to choose. I'm not trying to tell you what to do. I'm merely trying to give you the information to make the best possible choices that will take into account the interests nonhuman animals have in not being enslaved for our use. If I tell you that veganism means eschewing the deliberate use or exploitation of all animals at all times as much as is it is possible for you--in good faith--to do so, I'm just explaining the meaning of a term to you. Part of that involves pointing out when and where people are completely mangling the definition or meaning of veganism and setting things straight. When I tell you that not eating meat on Mondays doesn't make you a part-time vegan, I'm not trying to make you feel bad for not eating meat on Mondays, but am just trying to explain to you that part-time animal consumption is not vegan. As a vegan (particularly, as an abolitionist vegan who strives to educate people so that they make the decision to stop using nonhuman animals), it makes no sense for me to condone the use of animals; in condoning the part-time use of animals, I would condone the use of animals. "But every little bit helps," you say?

If I convince a housemate to give up eating eggs for a month, there may be one less chicken (out of the millions of laying hens used in North America each year) thrust into the hellish existence of being kept to produce eggs for human consumption that month. But what about the next month? And the following year? If that housemate kept a cat she'd raised from a kitten in a shoebox all year-round and agreed to let the cat out for one single month, what about the rest of the year? "Of course one month is not enough," most would respond. "It's 'cruel' to keep a cat in a shoebox and the housemate should be made to stop it altogether." But for some reason (let's call it what it is:
speciesism), most don't get the same warm fuzzies when considering chickens than they do when considering the animals we usually like to cuddle on our laps. To say that one egg-free month was one of those "every little bit helps" actions, or acknowledging the housemate's effort as having had any moral significance in terms of the rest of that chicken's life (or the lives of the millions of other chickens who continue to be used) makes as much sense as it would to praise the housemate for having let the cat out of the shoebox--much less so, even, considering what chickens go through. We're outraged that a cat would be treated as such, but not so outraged at the treatment of chickens enslaved to provide us with "food".

The problem is that when we get hung up on discussing
treatment, we filter it through this preset notion we have of nonhuman animals existing for our use--as our property. While one type of animal (e.g. a cat) is understood to exist as our "pet", another (e.g. a cow) is understood to exist as our "food". We love our pets and eat our food, and to reconcile ourselves to doing either, we deem one worthy of different treatment than the other. But the truth is that chickens and cats (like humans) are sentient; both chickens and cats (like humans) will react to and avoid pain if permitted to do so. When it comes to sentience, the only thing that differentiates a chicken from a cat is what we humans impose on them when we follow through with our need to classify our "things" into convenient categories to make sense of how we use them. It's artificially imposed by us. This is why the root of the problem, when it comes to addressing the moral confusion we humans have when considering what we do--or more often "hire" others to do on our behalf--to nonhuman animals, is that we think of them as our property. We need to focus on their sentience and acknowledge that a chicken is no more a "thing" than a cat and that a cat is no more a "thing" than is a human.

We humans go through most of our lives justifying our moral actions in a ruthless game of "us-and-them", by which we're perpetually imposing a "them" on others with whom we interact. This has been made obvious through justifications given to repress women for centuries, to enslave fellow-humans, to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and so on. It's at the root of racism, sexism, heterosexism
and speciesism. Where nonhuman animals are concerned, they become the "other"--different from us, and therefore fair game to be used by "us".

What's become alarming is how some non-vegans--particularly vegetarians--have come to filter abolitionist vegans through this whole "us-and-them" manner of thinking. For instance, you may think as a vegetarian that I'm lumping you into a convenient "them" to set you apart and vilify you when I assert that I won't condone any sort of animal consumption or exploitation, when in fact, I'm trying to include you in my "us" by showing you that nonhuman animals are
also "us". By talking to you about veganism, I'm trying to give you the information you need to understand this--not vilify or condemn you for not seeing it, but waving you over to talk to you and to give you the facts so that you can give up your own "us-and-them" mentality. By trying to talk to you about veganism, not mincing words or couching facts, and not trying to acknowledge anything less than not using other sentient animals as being the right thing to do, I'm telling you that I truly believe that you're like me--that you want to do the right thing. I'm trying to convey to you that I believe that you're courageous enough to look at the facts and admit that what we put nonhumans through when we treat them as ours to use is simply awful and that it needs to stop.

When I refuse to listen to other vegans who insist that a vegan message is too hard for you to handle, and who insist that that calling for veganism as the absolute least we can do for nonhuman animals, I'm trying to tell you that I think that you
can handle it. I'm not making you a "them" to my abolitionist vegan "us". I'm trying to tell you that if you can move beyond speciesism that you're capable of coming to the same conclusions and that I'm ready and willing to do whatever I can to help you get to those conclusions and to help you act upon them once you do. That's what vegan education is about to me; that's what it means to get rid of the "us-and-them" mentality and to tackle speciesism. And at the very least, to be able to get to that point, we need to have a clear understanding of what is or isn't meant by "veganism".

Learn more at Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach.


Unknown said...

Really great piece of writing Mylène, I could really feel the passion, it's a very uplifting piece. Thank you, and thank you for clarifying on this 'them and us' issue, you've made an excellent point here and I hope plenty of people get to read it.

Al said...

What Lou said!

Philip Steir said...

6 Things I learned When I Went Vegan for a Month...
by Heather Wood Rudolph

1. The initial motivation about cleansing myself had transformed after a month into just caring about myself.
2. Forming a deep appreciation about where my food comes from is almost as important as thinking nice things about the animal before I ate her.
3. I'm never going on a carb free diet again.
4. I formed a deeper appreciation about myself.
5. Oprah is vegan
6. I am dedicated to eating as responsible as I can...but not in the moral sense. Responsible in the appreciation of where my food comes from sense.
7. Does that make sense?

jessy said...

what a wonderful post, Mylène. it bothers me too when friends say, "i eat mostly vegan" or "i'm a vegetarian and i eat fish just sometimes because "it's good for me'". statements like that drive me bonkers and it's for the reasons you state. if you're "mostly vegan" then you're not vegan, and if you're a "vegetarian" who sometimes eats fish, then you're not a vegetarian. my sister is a most recently a vegetarian and doesn't seem to understand why it's still a cruel lifestyle. i'm trying to get her to hear me out and fight speciesism, but she doesn't understand and thinks that pets and other non-human animals are different, it drives me nuts. she's not the only one - i have vegetarian friends who are the same way and it saddens me that they consume animal products, but would never think to treat their pets the same way other non-human animals are treated. i hear, "i could never give up my cheese", "veganism is too hard & expensive!", and "what would i eat?". **sigh** you better believe that i'm going to keep fighting the fight - but i just wanted to tell you that your post was spot on and that it kicks ass. thanks so much, Mylène - i know it's trite, but you really hit the nail on the head. thank you.

Meg said...

Thank you! I'm getting pretty sick of hearing about "vegans" who are vegan "every other month" or crap like that because they're just doing it for health or to "detox" or whatever. Being a strict vegetarian for your own well being can be good (assuming that you still eat a healthy diet), but it doesn't make someone vegan. And watering down the word "vegan" just to feel trendy doesn't help anyone.

M said...

Thanks, Lou and Al!

Philip: You pretty much summed it all up quite well. ;-)

Jessy and Meg: Thanks so much. I feel the same way about the need for clarity and consistency. And Jessy, I feel the same way about friends and family who don't "get" it.

Vanilla Rose said...

This blog is very informative, you don't have to explain its purpose to us. It is valuable.

M said...

Thanks, Vanilla Rose!

SalT said...

This is brilliant Mylene. Clear and to the point. I often get people thinking I'm being judgemental towards them when questioning why they consume animal products. Thankyou for providing some good ways to describe how this isn't the case!