Friday, March 19, 2010

Veganism in the Media

Veganism Is _______?

In Long Island University's The Post Pioneer yesterday, its features editor Diane Agulnick shared a couple of paragraphs describing veganism and why she's a vegan ("Veganism Is Not a Religion"). She starts off emphasizing that being vegan is a personal choice for her, writing: "I'm not trying to convert you, I'm not trying to convince you, and I'm not trying to persuade you." She contextualizes this by describing how people often react defensively--even apparently fearfully--upon finding out that she is vegan. What is a vegan? According to Agulnick:

The truth is, a vegan is just an extreme vegetarian. I'm sure most of you know that a vegetarian is someone who does not eat any animal meat, including beef, chicken, fish, etc. The difference between vegans and vegetarians is that vegans also don't eat any dairy, eggs, or any animal products whatsoever.
So after defining veganism as dietary, Agulnick goes on to emphasize the horrible conditions of factory farming to explain why she would refrain from eating animal products other than meat, adding that cow's milk is for calves and that both cows and chickens are "pumped full of hormones" and forced to make them "lactate or shoot out eggs multiple times a day". For emphasis, she adds:
Girls know how hard it is to deal with that one egg once a month; having to go through this on an even more regular basis doesn't sound too pleasant, does it?
I'm not sure I've ever heard this approach used to appeal to either people's empathy or sense of justice to get them to reconsider using nonhuman animals, but then again, as Agulnick restates at the end of her piece to make it clear, it doesn't bother her if people agree or disagree with her "reasoning" since it's just her personal choice. (But hey, if anyone happens to rethink their "carnivorous" ways, it's a bonus.)

Although I appreciate that more people are discussing veganism in mainstream media (or college papers, as in this case), I find it troubling that the "go to" places for so many vegans talking about their veganism is still to overstate how they've no intention of changing others' minds about exploiting nonhuman animals--as if it's rude or shameful to either do so or seek to do so. Adopting this posture does nothing but perpetuate this mindset amongst vegans--and non-vegans alike--that a good vegan is a quiet vegan and that merely talking to a non-vegan about veganism is somehow wrong. How can we possibly educate others about the interests of nonhuman animals within this context?

The Difference Between Man and Animal

Yesterday, on the website for First Things, a publication of The Institute on Religion and Public Life, I found a short opinion piece by a guy called David Wills. He wanted to throw in his own two cents after having attended "a forum on the ethics of food animal product hosted by the National Catholic Bioethics Centre (and after having read a Times Literary Supplement review of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals). He doesn't talk about veganism, necessarily, but after bringing it up and discussing it with a few people on Twitter, I went back to his piece a few times yesterday sort of amazed at intensity of the man's speciesism, as he takes issue with what he calls "a lack of clarity about what man is and animals are". Particularly, he takes issue with Foer book's reviewer's assertion that what Wills calls "food animals" deserve to live long fulfilling lives:
The reviewer seems to assume, but does not even try to argue, that food animals deserve a long and fulfilling life (whatever fulfilling means for them), and therefore to kill them for our use is wrong. But since they have no real consciousness or memory, how can they know, much less care, that their life is shorter than it might have been?

Would a beef cow fall into despair if told he was being slaughtered on Monday? Would he start lamenting the books he had not read, the symphonies he had not written, the fact that he won’t be grazing in the field with his great-grandchildren? Animals don’t live in time as man does, and therefore being deprived of time is not an injustice.

In its blurring the fairly obvious difference between man and animal, that argument is typical of the kind of argument often offered against the current use of food animals. Whatever is the argument for treating food animals better than we do, that is not it.

So nonhuman animals "don't live in time as" humans do and therefore have no interest in living lives of their own and we should thus view their use as justifiable? One could say the same of humans who are senile.

That Wills misses the point of why nonhuman animals deserve to live long fulfilling lives makes itself evident in that he describes them as having "no real consciousness or memory". Anyone who has spent any long stretch of time with any nonhuman animal can certainly refute that nonhumans have no memory. As for consciousness, I think that Wills convolutes the issue by focusing on intellect (e.g. "lamenting the books he had not read") rather than acknowledging its most basic and important aspect: Sentience. That nonhumans are able to feel or perceive things around themselves, seeking pleasures and avoiding pain and developing / maintaining relationships with kin and others, is what truly irrefutably reveals their similarities to humans. Wills chooses to ignore this altogether in his short piece, however, finishing it off instead with some martini-phobic ramblings.

He's Not a Vegan... Because He Eats Fish

Finally, I just wanted to throw in this short mangling of the meaning of "vegan" I found in a short review of a weight loss book by the actor who provided the voice for the captain of the Axiom spaceship in the hit animated movie Wall-E (a movie I thought was tremendously overrated, by the way--something I've always wanted an excuse to say aloud or write somewhere), The Oregonian's Jeff Baker gives us some insight into what a vegan is or isn't:
Garlin eventually managed to start losing weight by eliminating meat, chicken, sugar and processed foods from his diet. He is not a vegan because he eats fish, but he is in that neighborhood and happy about it.
In that neighborhood, huh? Uh, OK. Is that like calling the state of Texas or the city of Los Angeles "neighbourhoods"?


Allysia said...

Hey Mylene,

Just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your blog! Just one thing I disagree with you about, though...I thought Wall-e was an awesome movie! :P

what if summer... said...

I'm also annoyed that people believe a good vegan is a quiet vegan. So what, we're supposed to sit back and be shit all over by people who hate us in the name of courtesy? Give me a break.

I don't know what it's like to be a cow on a dairy or beef farm, but whether or not I (as a cow) can experience life and intelligence on a human level doesn't excuse the fact that I'm born and bred to have my chopped up body parts be marinated for someone's enjoyment. It's gross, and it's so wasteful and inefficient.

I don't really know how I feel about being in the vegan "neighborhood," but it's a step in the right direction at least.

soyjoy said...

Mylene, you make good points here but you don't go far enough. Idiocy such as the quoted material about animals should be not just critiqued but thoroughly refuted.

There are demonstrably false statements made about animal consciousness that explicitly contradicted by scientific study. Animals have been shown to have consciousness and memory, and the fact that Wills doesn't know this shows his lack of standing to address any question relating to animal sentience. Additionally, they are demonstrably more intelligent than humans in certain casea and have perceptive abilities we lack, so any experiential differnce between us may actually be to our detriment, not theirs.

When you compare the difference in how animals might "live in time" to human senility, you're playing into this speciesist assumption. Senility is impairment, a diminishing of the standard of human consciousness, whereas animal consciousness may be less or it may be more than ours, depending on what kind of scale one wanted to devise. The point is we have no way of knowing how animals experience life, and therefore any statements about their supposed diminished experience should be called out immediately for the ill-informed self-serving rationalizations they are.

I recommend Jonathan Balcombe's Second Nature as a resource on this question. I just had him on Vegcast, if you want to get an overview.



soyjoy said...

One last thing: The antiquated arrogance of comparing animals to "man" is also deserving of the most extreme and explicit mockery. Anyone who uses that phrasing (let alone "cow" / "he") reveals that they're getting all their information trasmitted directly from the mid-20th century. As you know, speciesism and sexism are the same thing in a different flavor, and such clearly sexist cliches underscore how knee-jerk and unthinking this expert on consciousness really is.

Philip Steir said...

Re: Veganism is not a Religion...
Well yeah!
"Veganism is the new atheism!"

I've always had a intuition let's say... that meat eating and using animals was much more like a religion than living vegan is.
Living vegan is like kicking the god habit.
The belief in meat (the consuming of animal flesh animal products) and seeing the reality of living breathing like a belief in's completely unnecessary to live a healthy happy life and causes an incredible amount of suffering where ever it is practiced.
Plus, there is the whole delusional aspect in it both. For instance, believing there is a man in the sky who cares about your personal life and has a plan for you is similar to the delusion that non humans were put here on the earth for you to do as you wish.
I'm calling it...The Meat Delusion!

Alexandra Jones said...

About the idea that animals supposedly live in an eternal "now" and that somehow makes it okay to eat them... well first of all, I don't believe that's true, but even if I did, I don't see the logic of it. How does the fact that someone lives in an eternal "now" and has no sense of the past or future make it in any way okay to kill them? And whenever I hear this argument trotted out, I can't help thinking of all the people who meditate and do yoga retreats and practice mindfulness and being "in the now" and propose that this is the path to enlightenment. So which is it? Is being in the now a good thing that we humans ought to aspire to, or is it a justification for us to exploit, torture and murder others? I think I'll ask that question of the next non-vegan New Ager who tells me I should start meditating.

Philip Steir said...

Brilliant observation. One I've actually thought about many times yet never expressed it as well as you have here.

To make the claim how living in the present is proof that animals do not deserve our full moral concern is beyond irrational and ignorant. It's unfair and obviously hypocritical as well.
In context when you think of all the contemplative practices (mainly Buddhism and to an extent yoga)
Which actually make some sense with the idea of introspection and focus on the present. You realize the main goal is to limit ones thinking and attempt to be as "in the now" as possible. However being in the now and learning to be more present is not imagining that someone becomes thought free. That is not the point. None of us are thought free even non humans.
The point of all of this is that when we live in a much more "now" state we can begin to feel that our sense of self vanishes a bit and we can feel more connected (enlightened) with everyone else.
We've all experienced this...being in nature, hearing music that moves us or experiencing self transcending love (which can include sex) even meditating. That is the point of being more present and in the now. Those experiences are just when they might be peak experiences.
However, I believe the idiot who was stating that the eternal now for animals was an inferior state of being was a Christian and lord knows they are all about sins of the past and living for some weird vicarious redemption and future after life.'s the religious humans who pretend to know things that are impossible to ever really know that are the true inferior beings.

M said...

Thanks very much, Allysia! I can agree to disagree with you on that one. It's not so much that I disliked it; it just didn't do anything for me. :-)