Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Hate and Gibberish in "The Chronicle of Higher Education"

For the most part, when I poke around online for references to veganism in mainstream media, I'll find misuses of the term "vegan" or the odd jeer against those who choose not to use animals buried in some foodie's article on why he would trade in his firstborn for a plate of bacon. Every once in a while, things get kicked up a notch when someone -- often someone who profits from animal slaughter -- goes on a particularly hostile anti-animal rights rant. Although it's no surprise to read arguments against not using animals from those who fear their livelihood is threatened as more and more members of the general public start paying attention to the reasons we shouldn't use non-humans, it does make me wonder about what makes people tick when someone who doesn't have a hands-on financial interest in the continuation of animal exploitation decides to to go on an anti-veganism tear. I saw a stellar example of this yesterday in July 4's The Chronicle of Higher Education in an article by Harold Fromm ("Vegans and the Quest for Purity").

Fromm begins his article by positioning Peter Singer as an authority in the animal movement by referring to him as having started the debate regarding "human versus animal consciousness and the morality of eating meat", stressing that although Singer doesn't label himself a vegan that more and more people are becoming vegan. Having positioned Singer as an authority, he then makes uses of the animal liberation movement's deadbeat dad to add punch to his assertion that "the philosophic issue—whether all consciousness, human and animal, is equal—has hardly been resolved":

Singer himself, in the persona of the protagonist of a short story he wrote in a 1999 response to J.M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals, concluded: "The value that is lost when something is emptied depends on what was there when it was full, and there is more to human existence than there is to bat existence"[.]
Singer is basically offered up as a reasonable moderate to set up the rest of his article, which is devoted to portraying vegans as unreasonable extremists. In fact, he spends the next ten or so paragraphs going on about how vegans are antisocial and rude, lumping in together cows and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) for moral consideration and then comparing the ethics of humans consuming cow's milk to human babies being breastfed by their mothers, etc. No, really -- he does!

Fromm next attacks Bucknell University Gary Steiner's NY Times op ed piece from last November, "Animal, Vegetable, Miserable". He accuses him of having had made "a miserably weak case for living the life of a vegan" and goes on to rant about Steiner's dismissal of the ethical significance of those who claim to be conscientious omnivores -- those lovers of "happy meat", and about Steiner's assertions that speciesism and animal use are both horrendous and deeply ingrained in our culture. You see, Fromm thinks this is all very silly and hypocritical, since according to him vegans suffer from "biocentrism" and we're in denial of the fact that our choices and actions are not, in fact, all about us:
We care about the planet because we are made from its materials. The planet, c'est moi! That deludes some people into thinking they can be disinterestedly "biocentric," having the interests of the planet (and nonhuman animals) as much at heart as those of human beings. But because the so-called environment is the same substance as ourselves, our concern for it is just a disguised case of looking out for No. 1. Biocentrism is little more than a type of self-congratulating anthropocentrism.
After sharing this little nugget about the selfishness of choosing not to exploit animals with his readers, Fromm continues with a heap more logical fallacies and factual errors, trying to disprove the immorality of the human use of non-human animals.

We evolved in a kill-or-be-killed world, Fromm explains, conveniently leaving out that as we humans have established ourselves at the top of the food chain and that our most fearsome weapon of choice today when it comes to consumption is the almighty shopping cart. Nonetheless, Fromm insists that as "[r]efined as some of our moral sensibilities may now be, there's nothing we can do to outwit this fact: To be alive is to be a murderer. Or to be murdered."

He goes on to explain just how murderous we are by asserting how we are all ust selective killers -- even vegans. According to Fromm, this is evident in that we do not hesitate to kill bacteria when we shower or brush our teeth, or take a single step in any direction for that matter. Hell, according to Fromm, that we are merely selective killers is evident in that we would consider taking antibiotics and that we don't offer "the HIV virus [sic], the swine flu [and] tuberculosis" the same moral consideration that we extend to "animals beautiful and large enough to be registered by the senses of Homo sapiens".
The grandstanding of vegans for carefully selected life forms, to serve their own sensitivities—through their meat- and dairy-free diets, their avoidance of leather and other animal products—doesn't produce much besides a sense of their own virtue.
According to Fromm, the only real way to not be hypocritical would be to die, perhaps committing suicide -- "the supreme biocentric act" -- since "the real 'crime' is existence, not being or using animals". (I think that someone ripped the 'S' section out of his dictionary, since he's obviously not familiar with the word 'sentience'.)

Now, lest his readers think that Fromm is a heartless and bloodthirsty buffoon (as opposed to just being a regular old buffoon), he goes to great lengths to paint himself as caring and concerned. He's an admirer of Michael Pollan's, he says, keeping his carbon footprint small and eating a diet "very high in plants and low in meat", and although earlier in the article, he jeers at Gary Steiner for pointing out the horrors involved in our institutionalized use of animals, he does an about-face and writes that he "approve[s] of [the] revulsion at the brutal treatment of animals raised for our consumption" of people like Pollan and the aforementioned Singer. In fact, Fromm insists that he actually finds vegetarianism admirable and states that he "would recommend it" for a long list of reasons that are really too pathetic for words and all fall short of taking animal rights and interests seriously:
[V]egetarians have more limited goals and have marked out a manageable territory with fewer cosmic pretensions. They are concerned about their health. Or they don't want animals to be raised expressly to be tortured and killed—especially in factory farms and slaughterhouses—for their dinner plates. Or they don't want to ingest the dead bodies of fairly complex creatures, which is apt to make them feel queasy.
So vegetarianism -- that is, exploiting some animals, but not others -- is admirable, according to Fromm, regardless of whether it's done primarily out of self-interest (e.g. health), emphasizes dissatisfaction with the treatment (but not the use) of some animals, or merely stems from an aversion to the gross factor involved in eating the dead. Furthermore, even though he makes it clear in his own words that what he calls vegetarianism is inconsistent and that it's useless in terms of having any sort of real positive impact upon our consumption ethics, what's laudable about it according to Fromm is that it's easy:
No doubt they would prefer all animals (whatever that might include) to be treated humanely, but they are not prepared to stop wearing leather shoes or eating Jell-O. At least vegetarianism—though it can't resolve the moral dilemma of the savagery of our lives—is more or less possible in both theory and practice.
Veganism, on the other hand is purportedly neither possible in theory nor in practice, but Fromm deems it "harmless enough [...] if you don't care about being part of society or alienating potential friends who may find you more trouble than you're worth".

Since vegetable farming involves the killing of animals, says Fromm, vegans are also waging "a war on animals". Fromm should have done done himself a favour and done a little bit of reading before babbling like a troll in a vegan discussion forum:

[There are] more than 10 billion land animals we actually slaughter for food annually, of which more than 9 billion are chickens, and which works out to about 33.3 animals per non-vegan annually, PLUS the animals killed by harvesters to feed both humans and “food” animals, which we can estimate at least another 1.5 animals per non-vegan annually, for a total of at least 34.8 animals per non-vegan annually, compared to the estimated 0.3 of an animal per vegan annually. By going vegan, we avoid ALL (100%) of the animals intentionally slaughtered to feed ourselves and over 99% of all animals killed, intentionally or as a regrettable and unintended side-effect. (Dan Cudahy, "Contrasting Harms: Vegan Agriculture Versus Animal Agriculture")
Instead, Fromm would have us think that since the very act of living involves the accidental deaths of a few (or billions, I guess, if we toss common-sense aside and lump in the non-sentient microbes that Fromm puts on par with sentient non-human animals), that it is hypocritical and inane to deliberately choose to not use or exploit sentient non-human animals. It's a "hopeless longing for innocence", he says, since we're doomed from birth to be "murderers", particularly those of us who were nursed by our mothers and thus at one point consumed human milk.

Ultimately, Fromm rejects veganism as plausible since according to him, "as long as we are among the living, we should stop pretending to virtues possible only for the dead". I reject Fromm's incoherent attack on veganism -- obvious and unfortunate oversight of an editor from The Chronicle of Higher Education that it is -- and assert that as long as we are among the living, we owe it to the others who live alongside us to strive to show them justice, and to at the very least refrain from making the consumption choices that restrict their ability to live out the course of their own lives instead of suffering through lives spent enslaved and waiting to be slaughtered.


Meg said...

I saw that one. Ridiculous doesn't even begin to describe it.

And of all things, he chooses to bring up viruses? They're not even considered LIVING by most scientists, let alone sentient. Next he'll be saying that we shouldn't worry about killing humans because we smash up rocks all the tie.

I can't believe this stuff gets published.

Claire said...

Fromm says: [V]egetarians have more limited goals and have marked out a manageable territory with fewer cosmic pretensions.

Okay, this thought process (if I may call it that) is just stupid. Being vegan is doable if you have a certain amount of privilege. If you don't know where your next meal is coming from, you're less concerned with what, and more concerned with how much and when. But privilege is also required of being vegetarian, following the slow-food movement, eating local, or even eating low-carb. And if you have the time and internet connection to write an essay about it, you have the privilege. If you choose to be vegetarian and not vegan, that's your choice, not a reason to invent a moral imperative.

Patrick said...

Sorry I have to disagree with you Claire. Vegan eating is cheaper and more efficient.

Agreed with Meg, it blows my mind that this Harold Fromm gets all the attention he has. I suppose the ivory tower has suited him quite well yeah? Funny when they pick at their tweed elbows like that. Singer and the other blow hard Michael Pollan do it too.

Really all this article makes me want to do is ignore the article and make a large street sign. Cheers.

LiveVegan said...

Thanks for this Mylene :). As Meg said, it's ridiculous and it's hard to believe this type of nonsense gets published.

Meg said...


I don't think that Claire is saying that vegan food is more expensive, but rather that it's simply not much of an option for some people. Vegan food is often cheaper (my own grocery bill has shown me that), but money is not the only thing that limits choice or grants privilege.

For example, I have a relative who wants to eat a strictly vegetarian diet and perhaps become a vegan, but she is a minor and has no control over the food that's served (and the person in charge of that is quite hostile to veganism). She does not have the privilege that I have as an autonomous adult.

I know other people that, because of a lack of money, transportation, and nearby grocery stores, get much of their food from a gas station and what people bring them. Still others may find themselves in hospitals or prisons or nursing homes or other situations that do not provide vegan options. And there are certainly parts of the world where people still depend a lot on hunting and/or fishing. Some people even just lack the privilege of access to good information on veganism, which can keep them from trying or being a healthy vegan.

Is that o.k.? No, of course not! I don't want to see any animal exploited! But the problem isn't always that people are making a bad choice, it's that they don't have a viable choice to begin with. And I think that's something that we need to understand and also help change -- while appreciating the privilege of having choices.

Patrick said...


Thanks for educating me, I hadn't thought the other definitions of "privilege" through... I was just so frustrated with Harold Fromm's article.

I was looking at privilege from a purely economic perspective. Thanks.

Vanilla Rose said...

Have you ever seen those things called "Anti-Feminist Bingo", "Libertarian Bingo", etc? They're all squares full of cliches that seem to fit many of those in that category (things they say or do).

What we need is a bingo card. And a list of anti-veg*n remarks with a link to the best putdowns formulated in response.

Then we could just look at these things and say, "Yeah. B12 - number 12. Lions - number 3. Bacteria - No 4. Desert Island - No 11", etc and post the relevant links.

Vanilla Rose said...

Anti-Feminist Bingo Card

Vanilla Rose said...

FYI, here is Libertarian Bingo.

Although I'm pretty sure someone somewhere has done a Vegan Bingo card ...

Vanilla Rose said...

Am pretty sure this one is aimed squarely at PETA.

And This one is aimed at meat-eating feminists.

Ah. Yes. This is the one where meat eaters come up with silly stuff, right <a href=">here</a>.

I think I've stopped now.

Vanilla Rose said...

PS We do need a bingo card, though. Just today I find that someone on another site has tried the "carrots used to be living too" one on me. Why is it always carrots?

Vanilla Rose said...

Sorry. There should have been a link and I mispunctuated. on the one about anti-vegetarians.

Also, the article is flawed because it brings in deep ecology without making it clear that deep ecology and veganism generally do not mix.

Cassidy said...

Logical many logical fallacies in his arguments. And non-sequitors...those too. *frustration*