Tuesday, August 02, 2011

"It's Just Food"

I've written a few times about precisely how not a fan I am of over-hyped short-term so-called "vegan" challenges or cleanses that are usually kick-started with an emphasis on health and weight loss. I occasionally get into the same old tired discussions with non-abolitionist animal advocates over why I'm not, countering their assertions that "any exposure for 'veganism' is good exposure" or that any experience "going" vegan is a potential opportunity for an individual to actually "stay" vegan. The thing is, though, that not eating animal products for three weeks isn't "going vegan". Veganism involves making an ethical lifestyle choice--a step taken to reject living a life that involves the avoidable exploitation of other animals. It's not something tried on like a pair of socks with the intention from the very beginning to go back to consuming (and otherwise using) non-human animals.

Going vegan should, at the very least, involve some sort of intention to stay vegan. Weight loss dieting or health-related cleanses have their place, no doubt, but as primary motivators anticipated to trigger someone's completely and permanently eschewing the exploitation of all non-human animals, eaten or otherwise? I don't really buy it. This may sound like a stretch to some, but I honestly think that the best way to get someone to take the rights and interests of non-human animals seriously is to actually talk to them about why they should take the rights and interests of non-human animals seriously.

I read an article earlier today which served as a reminder to me of why it's problematic to give much credence to faddish short-term public experimentation with what is what is usually just strict vegetarianism. In her Petoskey News article "Vegans are people too", staff writer Rachel Brougham spills the beans that she's a third of the way into a "three-month vegan challenge". Although in her previous articles, Brougham repeatedly refers to her project as following a "vegan diet", she portrays herself in this recent one as identifying with what she describes as the typically stereotyped and judged vegan. She refers to herself as being "vegan" while sharing stories of her interactions with food service employees and dismissive eavesdropping fellow-customers in eating establishments.

There is indeed a fair amount of truth to her realization that far too many assumptions are often made by non-vegans about vegans and that, all too often, those assumptions spill out with awkwardness and hostility. Nonetheless, her inserting this into the article seems a little contrived. It's as if she hopes to cash in some vegan cred of sorts by identifying with what she portrays as ordinarily mocked and maligned vegans--as if she seeks to give some further sense of validity to her entire experience. The thing is, though, that Brougham's experience is far from that of being vegan, or of even understanding veganism in an ethical sense. It's certainly far removed from understanding veganism in an abolitionist sense:

For me, following a vegan lifestyle isn’t about being right or wrong. It’s not about being sane or crazy. It’s not about following a trend or going against the grain. I’m not making a political statement and this isn’t something I’m being forced into as — quite literally — a matter of life or death. It’s simply a different way of living that makes me and countless others feel better.
Although her statement sounds well-intentioned and some parts of it make a sense, it certainly doesn't convey an understanding of what's at stake for animals for whom it is actually a matter of life or death whether or not we continue to treat them as things. To take the rights and interests of other animals seriously and to reject involving oneself in their exploitation is very much a question of making right or wrong choices and of following through with right or wrong actions. Choosing to reject involving oneself in this exploitation will undoubtedly allow someone to "feel better", but to sum up going vegan as "simply a different way of living that makes me and countless others feel better" completely misses the point that going vegan isn't about ramping up one's own pleasure or assuaging one's guilt: Going vegan is about not perpetuating the exploitation and slaughter of non-human animals. It's not about me and you, Rachel -- it's about them.

And of course, as a writer for mainstream media who is testing the waters with strict vegetarianism for a few weeks, it makes sense that she would assert that for her, the experiment wasn't a political statement. Of course it wasn't. It was fodder for an article -- a temporary playing around with some variation on a trendy idea to sell copy. For me, as an abolitionist vegan, actually being vegan and educating others about going vegan are very much both personal and political statements. How could they not be?

Brougham wraps up her article with more comments about exactly how she's feeling better one month in, losing weight and sleeping better. She also makes it clear that whether or not she continues to not eat animals and their products (and to call it "veganism") is completely up in the air and that the outcome is really of no concern to her.
On Oct. 1, I’ll be at a dinner fork in the road. Maybe I’ll go back to my old ways; maybe I’ll eat meat and dairy on occasion; or maybe I’ll stay the vegan course.
Her disassociation with what's involved in continuing to consume animal products and her ambivalence about whether or not to consume them is made most clear, however, when she asserts
I’ll never judge my dinner companion for ordering the steak while I enjoy pasta with vegetables. After all, it’s just food.
As long as anyone continues to hold the belief that pieces of a sentient being are "just food", it's a given that they haven't wrapped their heads around speciesism and haven't weighed what's involved in bringing that piece of an animal to their plate. It's unsurprising, then, that Brougham could be so lackadaisical about whether or not to resume consuming animal products after her experiment. But her experience really just reflects the dozens of other so-called vegan cleanses and challenges so many celebrities, foodies and ordinary old newspaper writers have been droning on about over the past few years. More often than not, the question of animal rights gets tossed to the wayside and (as I mentioned at the beginning of this post) the focus is on health, environmentalism or weight loss. The issue of speciesism--that very state of mind which props up and facilitates the continued exploitation of non-human animals by the general public--is never addressed.

Sometimes mention is made of the treatment of animals, although more often than not when this is done, references are inserted to various purportedly ethical degrees of animal consumption. Readers are reassured that with "happy" eggs, they can have their non-vegan cake and eat it too, and that opting to do so is somehow a good and meaningful step for readers to take without having to engage in the oh so extremist and absolutist refusal to simply reject animal consumption altogether. This is generally why I have a hard time championing these half-hearted forays by non-vegans into murky territory they mislabel "veganism". This is why when fellow-vegans insist to me that getting "the word" out there at any cost is important and that mentions in mainstream media should be celebrated that I'm left wondering whether or not some of my fellow-vegans really realize what's really at stake when clear and consistent messages about the ethics of using animals as things fall short or when this supposed "word" is delivered by unclear and inconsistent messengers.

Let's be clear and consistent messengers about veganism and about what it really is we owe non-human animals. If we won't, who will?


tru said...

Well ... I see your point, but I do have to share my experience.

I had a health professional suggest I read Dean Ornish's book on heart disease as I am an "apple" and thus, my extra weight makes me extra-prone to heart disease and diabetes.

I read that book - and then heard the term vegan probably for the first time in my life when I was researching recipes to go along with the new diet.

I can still remember the exact moment, reading Diet for a New America with Hammy the Fat Cat in my lap and realized I could no more tear a hunk off of him and eat that than I could use animal products of any sort.

So for me, it was a start to look at meat-free and plant based diets (Ornish advocates low-fat dairy and some use of egg whites, IIRC).

So it can be a start - I do, however, agree that the term vegan should not be used to describe a diet change that doesn't embrace everything veganism means.

And I appreciate you defending it so tirelessly.

David Cain said...

I became a vegan after testing out a plant-based diet, and at the outset I didn't know what veganism really meant. I called it a vegan diet, because that's what I thought it was. I think we have to understand that veganism is not well understood and we all come to everything new to us in a state of ignorance, and maybe that doesn't necessarily make us particularly ignorant or flippant people.

And it is widely misunderstood for a reason. The main source of the problem is almost certainly the word itself. It is derived from the word vegetarian, which is a reference to diet and not philosophy. This is a huge mistake on the part of Donald Watson and friends and it's made veganism prone to this misunderstanding.

M said...

I understand completely that different people come to veganism in different ways. The thing is, though, that just because you happen to get to it a certain way doesn't necessarily mean that the path you followed is what brought you there. You could just as likely have arrived there following a different path. I was a dairy-loving vegetarian for over a decade before I started listening to the Vegan Freaks podcasts and reading the writings of Gary Francione. Up until that point, I'd been convinced that what I was doing was "enough" and had I not stumbled across that first Vegan Freaks podcast in which Bob & Jenna Torres spelled out exactly why continuing to consume some animal products wasn't, in fact, enough. At least not for someone who had shuffled out most animal use for ethical reasons. Going vegan was, in fact, the very least I could do. That decade of vegetarianism isn't what led me to veganism, though, and had it not been for the clear, unequivocal message that I heard and then read, I'd probably still be eating cheese and having a complete mental disconnection about doing so. For that reason, I don't champion vegetarianism as a stepping stone to veganism, either. It's not a given that experimenting with one will lead to the other. It can happen, but there are better ways to get there. We need to spend time focusing on those ways -- on being open about what veganism is and why we're vegan and talking to people about that instead of pointing them towards things which fall short.