Friday, May 25, 2012

Aren't You Weaned Yet?

Chinese artist Liu Qiang currently has a work called "29h59'59" showing at 798 Art District in Beijing, China. The photo's gone viral in animal rights circles. It would be interesting to find out more about how or why the sculpture was created. Whether inadvertently or not, it's become a powerful piece of imagery symbolizing our exploitation of others.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Shame, Shame: Vegan Stereotypes

A friend sent me a link earlier today to a brief interview on the Blisstree website (“How to Go Vegan Without Getting Weird”) with one of the two women who run a fairly new site called Vegan Housewives. The site features product reviews, recipes, crafts and a lot of bright Instagram-y faux-retro photos bringing to mind all things Sarah Kramer. I haven't actually checked it out all much except to click on a few links to bright and colourful things that aren't bright and colourful ads. In the interview with Vegan Housewives co-founder Kourtney Campbell, an unfortunate false dichotomy about vegans is set up immediately and it's this in particular which caught my attention.

The piece starts off by asserting that mainstream media presents a false dichotomy of sorts by perpetuating that there are only “two kinds of eaters: normal ones, and…vegans”. To dispel this, though, another false dichotomy is in turn set up, pitting the lumping together of almost every vegan stereotype imaginable versus what gets called “stealth” veganism:

[V]eganism still gets depicted as crazy, restrictive, unhealthy, unnatural, and for weird, crunchy hippies. But in fact, there are many stealth vegans among us, proving that you can go vegan without turning into a crusty, twigs-and-bark eating social outcast.
On the surface, one could shrug this off thinking that there's nothing wrong with pointing out that not all vegans fit into such an extreme stereotype (after all, we don't), but the thing is that in this either/or that's presented to readers, the “or” ends up driving home a truly confusing message about what it means to be vegan.

According to this piece and according to Kourtney Campbell, the idea of presenting vegans in a positive manner and as existing outside of the “tie-dye and dreadlocks” stereotype--presenting them as coming in all styles--can indeed be done. In fact, the implication is that Vegan Housewives site dodges that stereotype and that in doing so becomes so cool that even those who aren't vegan still read it. In fact, we're told that the site's other co-founder, Katie Charos, isn't even vegan herself. (That's one way to dodge vegan stereotypes, I guess!)

Campbell then goes on to explain in a weird and convoluted manner the sort of vegan she isn't (and the sort of vegan she thinks other vegans shouldn't be). To do this, she begins by (predictably) comparing veganism to religion. She bemoans how “other 'Christians' portray themselves with such hatred towards other people [...] just because they live a way they disagree with” and talks about how upsetting it is to her that those hateful Christians drive people away from Christianity in disgust. In case you're wondering where this is headed, wonder no more: The parallel Campbell proceeds to draw isn't to that old familiar stereotype of the proselytizing and judgmental vegan who (gasp gasp gasp!) has the audacity to voice aloud that using others is in any way wrong. No, Campbell compares her hateful Christians and the damage she sees them as doing to vegans who are so, so “extreme” that they actually--perhaps scandalously?--inquire in restaurants about whether their food was cooked in or alongside animal ingredients.
I know a lot of vegans that interrogate restaurants. Some even go as far as to ask if meat has ever been cooked in the pans or if you use a different part of the kitchen for the vegan food, etc. When I see this, I immediately think “this makes restaurants NOT want to cater to a vegan lifestyle.” If all vegans are this difficult, then why in the world would we ever want to serve them? And I would really like to know how an animal is being harmed by using the same utensils that were used to cook a non-vegan meal.
So according to Campbell, vegans adopting a don't ask/don't tell policy when it comes to finding out if that little bit of grease on their roll comes from a slaughtered sentient being's body is the main way to go about getting restaurants to “want to cater to a vegan lifestyle”. Basically, ignoring that what you're eating at that restaurant may contain some quantity of animal ingredients is the only way for a vegan to get restaurants to prepare food suitable to be eaten by vegans. Given that PETA's Bruce Friedrich and Vegan Outreach's Matt Ball have both chastised vegans for asking about animal ingredients in restaurants, it's no surprise that yet another so-called vegan would follow suit in this shaming others who merely seek to inform themselves so that they can avoid animal products. Stating that restaurants will only cater to vegans if vegans loosen up about consuming animal products, though? Really?

As for Campbell's sarcastically asking for evidence of how an animal was harmed if a utensil that's possibly covered in animal fat or secretions is used to handle and contaminate food otherwise free of animal products, I think that she's missing the point about veganism and what it means to reject animal exploitation and to avoid consuming avoidable animal products. Deliberately consuming reasonably avoidable animal products is just not vegan. Period. I mean, using her logic, one could argue that it's extreme for vegans to question whether part of a deer left on the roadside after having been struck by a car was used in their tempeh burger. Although she tosses the word “cruelty” around, Campbell admits to having gradually adopted a “vegan diet” for health reasons, so it's not difficult to see why she'd find it odd that someone would not want to eat food that's touched parts of other animals' flesh or bodily fluids. But does this give her the right to shame others who don't want to eat that food?

I remember years ago how an ex had been questioned about my veganism by a friend who was hosting a barbecue to which we'd been invited. I think my ex had mentioned that there was no need to worry about me and that I'd just bring something to eat that needn't sit on the grill. His friend asked what the big deal would be in having food which had been cooked on or alongside ground meat. Without skipping a beat, my ex asked:
“Do you find the idea of eating feces revolting?”

“Well, yeah.”

“What about eating something cooked on something that had just been covered in feces?”
The conversation ended. I got a chuckle out of how he'd handled it, crudely--yet effectively--comparing one form of revulsion (e.g. stemming from moral reasons) to another. The comparison obviously doesn't apply for all vegans and it is quite a bit more nuanced than that. But to some, myself included, the idea of biting down into a piece of flesh that once belonged to a living someone is really no different than the idea of biting into something covered with a little bit less of that someone's body, and I'd no sooner voluntarily do either than I would if feces were substituted for the animal flesh. If that makes me extreme of difficult, then so be it.

Maybe in Kourtney Campbell's world, good vegans are those who shut up about veganism and who willingly opt to ignore animal products in their food (i.e. those who are stealthy enough to pass themselves off as non-vegan). She says in the interview, after all that she “honestly [doesn't] think that at first sight anyone would know what kind of lifestyle [she chooses]” and that this “is kind of nice”. Bad vegans, on the other hand, are those who speak up for animals and who aren't ashamed to establish and defend their own ethical boundaries when it comes to their personal animal consumption. They stick out rather than appearing to fall in line with status quo by blending in. The truth is, though, that Campbell's not even attempting to argue the best way to change that status quo. She makes it clear that not being a stealthy vegan is tantamount to “pushing” veganism on others and that she wants no part of that.

Kourtney Campbell and Katie Charos might think that someone like me who has the gall to ask about whether there's pig grease on my lentil burger is pushy; they may view as negative my criticizing their shaming of vegans who actually take veganism seriously. But from a website which misleads its readership into thinking that it's actually written and maintained by two vegans when it's not, this isn't all that surprising. In the end, what matters to me is not whether being consistent in my avoidance of consuming animals is mocked and mischaracterized by other self-described vegans who choose to be inconsistent. In the end, what matters to me is that I not provide demand for further exploitation and that I make it clear that I take not consuming others seriously. That I may not be stealthy is less a concern to me than my worry that vegans are actually out there right now actively perpetuating speciesism, and that this speciesism is lulling people into thinking that there's anything right in continuing to use other animals as things existing for human use.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Thanks, but No Thanks!

Never Mind a Slippery Slope: Someone Cut the Brake Lines!

As far as exploring issues concerning animal ethics goes these past several weeks, The New York Times has been less of a trail-blazer and more akin to a drunk wandering home down a dark road, occasionally stumbling into the ditch when squinting at approaching headlights. Seriously. Between columns by its non-vegan writers weaving misinformation and assumptions into messages to the paper's readers about how difficult it is to go vegan and more recently, articles raising eating plants as a notable concern within the context of the overall question of ethical consumption. "Inquiring into justifications for consuming vegetal beings thus reconceived, we reach one of the final frontiers of dietary ethics," wrote Michael Marder, while at the same time, The New York Times' Ariel Kaminer, writer of its column "The Ethicist", was inviting people to step up to the plate to present their best arguments to justify that the consumption of the flesh of other animals could somehow be moral. A contest was launched for one and all, it was, and if not for the sad reality of the matter at hand, it would be all too easy to just write it off as an unfortunate farce. Sadder, still, is that Kaminer trivialized the notion that choosing not to consume other animals could, in fact, be an ethical stance to consider.

Was There an Elephant in The New York Times' Lobby?

Recently, in response to this contest as it neared its conclusion, a number of scholars, physicians and writers came together to sign a letter to The New York Times to express just how wrongheaded the whole enterprise was from the ground up, noting that with one exception, the panel of judges picked was mostly comprised of men who make their living and reputations defending the so-called "humane" use of other animals.

There is an important debate to be had about the ethics of killing and eating animals. But this is not the way to have it. Honest ethical inquiry begins with the question, “How should we live?” or “What should I or we do about ‘X’?” It does not begin with a predetermined conclusion, then work backwards for justification. To throw down a rhetorical gauntlet–”Defend X as a practice”– is not to open up an ethical conversation; it is to build closure into the inquiry, and to stack the deck from the outset.
And that was, in fact, the problem with this contest. It was set up by taking as a given that other animals are ours to use and that those who use them needed a forum to voice their justification for continuing to do so. The best justification coughed up would receive the nods of approval of the who's who of those who champion the idea that conscientious consumerism can--and in some cases should--indeed include the enslavement and slaughter of other sentient beings. The New York Times' well-intentioned readership could emit a collective sigh of relief. After all, even many who are in fact vegan and who do regard themselves as animal advocates sometimes end up applauding these popular and privileged humans as somehow making an actual difference in terms of their respective fans coming to know and to accept that we owe other animals a lot more than to treat them as things.

And the Winner Is...

A few days ago it was announced that Ariel Kaminer would be stepping down from her position as columnist for "The Ethicist". (Aw, really??) This morning, the contest's finalists were announced, including its recipient of the most votes and its hand-picked winner. I don't have much to say about PETA's Ingrid Newkirk's piece, called "I'm About to Eat Meat for the First Time in 40 Years". It's about lab-grown meat and I'll let you take a read yourselves, and then ask you to have a look at Alice Springs Vegan Society co-founder Jeff Perz's essay "The Case Against Test Tube Meat" to see where Newkirk's got it all wrong. The veritable winner, though? He who received the symbolic bobbing-in-unison of the heads of Jonathan Safran-Foer, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Peter Singer and Andrew Light? Some environmental studies instructor at a place in North Carolina called Warren Wilson College.

Jay Bost describes himself as a former vegetarian and then vegan who decided to go back to consuming animal products. Claiming that the issue weighs on him constantly, Bost insists that "[t]he reasons [he] became a vegetarian, then a vegan and then again a conscientious meat-eater were all ethical". Bost's emphasis in his short piece is no surprise considering that his work revolves around environmental studies and the only two times he brings up animal sentience are strictly with reference to the killing of a "sentient being". Bost sugarcoats the question of actually using and enslaving other animals by calling doing so "raising meat". Animal flesh and secretions are products, and producing these products are no different to him than growing plant-based foodstuff. With this in mind, he presents what he call his main argument as the following:
[E]ating meat raised in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical. Just as eating vegetables, tofu or grain raised in certain circumstances is ethical and those produced in other ways is unethical.
An animal is a plant is an animal to Bost, in this sense. He seems to present it as a given that use in and of itself is somehow not an ethical concern, but that how the final product comes to be is the only thing worthy of consideration. Animals are merely machines, sometimes proving to be more efficient according to the environment in which they are used to produce useful calories and protein for human consumption. He goes on to say that
If “ethical” is defined as living in the most ecologically benign way, then in fairly specific circumstances, of which each eater must educate himself, eating meat is ethical; in fact NOT eating meat may be arguably unethical.
Once cannot help but wonder, then, using this narrow interpretation and definition of what is indeed "ethical" whether Bost would agree that where human overpopulation is concerned, perhaps cannibalism could be seen as a viable option and whether perhaps humans not opting to consume other humans "may be arguable unethical". If this seems an oversimplification, it should be pointed out that totally side-stepping the question of what's in fact involved when we use other animals as machines existing for human use is an even more ludicrous oversimplification when it comes to attempting to argue any sort of justification to use them.

His two sole references to sentience are token at best and Bost writes sentience off in the end, winning this contest by asserting that consuming other animals is indeed ethical if 1) we keep in mind that "all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form" (which brings me back to wondering if Bost would extend this to our consumption of other humans in areas horribly overpopulated), 2) be "compassionate" and "choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat" (again, not presenting any sort of case for how it could be deemed ethical to enslave and slaughter another sentient being, other than his aforementioned environmentally-concerned presentation of other animals as efficient energy conversion machines for humans) and 3) that we "give thanks".

I always scratch my head at this whole business of trying to justify the torture and killing of another being by emphasizing gratitude and the act of expressing this gratitude. I mean, really? To whom is this gratitude expressed? To the animal whose life was hijacked and taken from her? To the offspring torn from her so that we can drink her secretions? Would it not be ludicrous to posit that if someone were to enslave another human being and to torture and then kill her for sheer pleasure that it might somehow be more ethical or excusable to have done so if the torturer or killer gave thanks? But we live in a world where we view other animals as existing for human use. Bost's short piece takes this as a given. The New York Times' contest in "The Ethicist" took it as a given, as well, and its panel of expert judges have also expressed this through their own writings and work. So I'm left going back to my original quote from the letter signed by 59 scholars, writers, artists and physicians to protest the contest and to explain why the whole thing was a farce from the word "go":
There is an important debate to be had about the ethics of killing and eating animals. But this is not the way to have it. Honest ethical inquiry begins with the question, “How should we live?” or “What should I or we do about ‘X’?” It does not begin with a predetermined conclusion, then work backwards for justification. To throw down a rhetorical gauntlet–”Defend X as a practice”– is not to open up an ethical conversation; it is to build closure into the inquiry, and to stack the deck from the outset.
There is indeed an important debate to be had. What The New York Times attempted to do (and accomplished) was no more than a sensationalist and lopsided poke at an issue which is trendy and talked around a fair deal in mainstream media, but ever so rarely addressed clearly, consistently, coherently and in earnest. It was no surprise, but was and is a true shame, nonetheless.