Friday, December 14, 2012

Vegans Writing About Veganism in Mainstream Media

I was scanning through online newspapers today, looking for vegan holiday meal features. Anyone who claims at this point that veganism is still some sort of obscure ideology of which most people have never heard either don't watch television or don't read the paper or magazines. The word is indeed in circulation and people are curious about it -- for all kinds of reasons.  It's being discussed in entertainment and fashion magazines, in food and health columns, in news stories about rates of chronic illness or the environment. Of course, people are mostly talking around it or using it as a buzz-word, misrepresenting it or taking it out of its ethical context. More than ever, now is a great time for ethical vegans -- for abolitionist animal rights advocates -- to submit opinion pieces on veganism to their school papers, to volunteer to write food articles for their local papers, or to comment on articles we see where veganism is maligned, misinterpreted or lumped together with some other food fad.

Missed Opportunities

Take for instance this short bit in Carlisle, PA's The Sentinel, in which vegan writer Lisa Wardle shares a recipe for homemade black bean burgers and fluffs it out by talking a little bit about veganism. Great opportunity for a wee bit of education, right? Except that she touts it as being good for your health and good for the environment, with nary a single mention of how it's actually remarkably "good" for other animals who'd otherwise end up on someone's plate. Her focus in the article is on food and she presents veganism as being more akin to having an apple a day (y'know, to keep the doctor away) than what it actually is, which is a commitment to rejecting animal exploitation. Indeed, she mentions "not eating animal products once or twice a week" and being "an occasional vegan" as quite beneficial to one's health.

Of course there are indeed health benefits to lessening one's consumption of animal products -- but lessening one's consumption of animal products from time to time doesn't make one "an occasional vegan" any more than not pressing a female employee for sexual favours in exchange for a job promotion a few times a week would make a male manager "an occasional feminist". Think of the seeds that may have been planted in readers' minds by simply changing two or three sentences.

An Opportunity Taken

In Newfoundland & Labrador's The Independent, Jess Dawe went a more elaborate route to write about veganism. I like the piece. It's well-written and a fair amount of thought and research were put into it. She starts off explaining that veganism "is a lifestyle choice" and that it involves avoiding animal use going beyond food and extends to the avoidance of other animal products. Where Dawe unfortunately confuses matters, though, is with her insistence that all kinds of reasons can lead someone to become vegan. For her article, she focuses on health, the environment and then ethics and she then writes:
What I’ve provided here is an overview of three of the most popular reasons someone may adopt a vegan lifestyle. The reasons explored are by no means exhaustive, as there are many other reasons why someone may choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle.
While there may indeed be various triggers to get people thinking about different aspects of their animal use, I doubt that concern for one's health will lead to one's avoiding an animal-using circus or to eschewing leather belts.  Dawe seems aware of this herself as she specifies that switching to a "vegan diet" would be the result of being motivated for either health or environmental reasons. This seems to suggest, though, given that the health and environmental reasons are listed as two of three of "the most popular reasons someone may adopt a vegan lifestyle" that becoming a strict vegetarian and simply not eating animal products (while otherwise continuing to participate in other facets of animal exploitation) qualifies as being "vegan". Veganism isn't just a diet.

Which takes us back to Dawe's introduction, which states outright that veganism isn't just a diet, so why she would list "reasons" that may lead one to merely change one's diet as "reasons" people go vegan is quite confusing. It is no doubt even more confusing to her readers who are constantly bombarded in mainstream media by stories about strict vegetarian Bill Clinton being "vegan" or of other celebrities who've adopted a completely (or mostly) plant-based diet purportedly being vegan. Is it any wonder when we run into leather or wool-wearing folks (I'm looking at you, Kathy Freston). 

I do love many of the points she raises, though -- about being vegan not necessarily meaning you're more healthy, about the ethical reasons one may go vegan not merely revolving around the horrors of factory farming, and so on. The points she raises about the health and environmental aspects of rejecting animal consumption are valid, but health and environmental arguments are really just ancillary when it comes to veganism, whose focus is not on ourselves but is instead on other animals -- or at least it should be if we expect to convince others to respect the rights and interests of those other animals. So reading her article is kind of like reading a pretty decent book, then finding a chapter missing and the order of a few others jumbled.

What about you? Have you thought about writing about some aspect of veganism for your local or school paper? Have you started a blog? Have you considered publishing a 'zine? There are all kinds of opportunities to get the word out there whether in a stealthy or overt way. Others would not be writing about it if the public was not interested in reading about it. Why not give it a shot?

Monday, December 10, 2012

The "Little Steps" that Count

The response to my post from Friday on Mercy for Animals' failure to both combat speciesism and promote veganism has been almost overwhelmingly positive, whether from emails I've received, to comments left on the  blog's Facebook page. Many have agreed that it's essential for animal rights advocates to know the actual ethical positions on which these large groups are basing their advocacy.

Elsewhere on the interwebs, particularly in the anti-abolitionist slanted vegan subreddit of the social news website Reddit, the old familiar accusations of nit-picking and being divisive were the norm, along with my personal favourite: "Well, if you have such a big issue with them, why don't you shut up and go out there and do it better?" As if one wee blogger should be shamed into silence for not being able to compete with the $1.3 million in annual revenue enjoyed by a group like Mercy for Animals! It's funny, though, how none of the negative responses to my blog post actually addressed the content -- and legitimate concerns -- of the blog post. "Every little bit counts," they said about Mercy for Animals' campaigns. " When those so-called little bits involve placating the general public into feeling comfortable with continuing to participate in the exploitation of others, though, where is it that they actually count? Surely not in the interest of those other animals?

Each time HSUS insists that it's not out to end the farming of animals for human consumption, it's telling the public that it's alright to use animals. Each time that PETA or Farm Sanctuary -- a sanctuary, for pete's sake! -- chooses a non-vegan celebrity spokesperson, it's telling the public that it's alright to use animals. Each time Vegan Outreach insists that vegans should shrug off easily avoidable animal ingredients when around non-vegans to avoid looking nit-picky, it's telling the public that it's alright to use animals. Each time Mercy for Animals insist on its website that asking members of the public to go vegan is off-putting, it's telling them that veganism is too hard. And when abolitionists say that veganism is a first step, these groups tell the public that we're extremist and unreasonable. When abolitionists say that all animal advocacy should have veganism as its moral baseline, these groups tell the public that we're critical and divisive. Joe Public nods in relief, forks over a donation and signs a petition, then goes home to a roast chicken dinner.

How absolutely sad that it's become taboo in animal advocacy circles to actually assert unequivocally -- to even merely suggest -- that other animals aren't ours to use. How so very much more crucial it's become for those of us who do reject animal exploitation to speak out. If we agree that veganism should be the starting point for any meaningful advocacy in our fight against speciesism, we should not allow ourselves to be shamed and silenced by those groups who profit from its perpetuation. 

We may not have the millions these organizations do, but every single one of us has the ability to affect someone -- to change someone's heart and mind. Those are the real "little steps" that do count. We need to speak out. If we don't, who will?

Friday, December 07, 2012

So What's the Matter with Mercy for Animals?

I often get into conversations or exchanges with advocates who'll bring up this or that group or organization to mention that they like one of its posters or pamphlets, or that they heard a quote from one of its heads and that this quote really got their attention. Often, I'll find myself nodding and then shrugging, remembering this or that bit of information I'd filed away at some point which had left me dismissing the group in question, whether for its being speciesist and regulationist and as promoting ineffective campaigns, or for its endorsing and condoning (whether explicitly or implicitly) what are portrayed and presented as lesser degrees of animal use. Sometimes the group in question will have  used things like sexism or the threat of violence to promote whichever message it claims as its own. More often than not, the group will have seemed more concerned with fundraising for all of its wrongheaded campaigns than in earnestly effecting serious and permanent change in the public's continued use and exploitation of other animals.

Whatever the reason, there invariably seems to be something that leaves the group either falling short -- often far, far short -- of championing the rights of others or failing altogether to present any sort of clear message to the public about animals not being ours to use. Sadly, there also seems to be a growing tendency for animal groups to publicly distance themselves from the concept of veganism, from the word "vegan" itself and even expressing hostility towards those who refuse to equivocate when it comes to what we owe other animals. Sometimes these animal groups will perpetuate stereotypes and even ridicule those who are unequivocal in asking the public to consider that these sentient beings over 98% of us view as things existing for human use should be left alone. "Every little step counts," they'll assure non-vegans as they cash they donation cheques. "Not everybody will go vegan, so we have to applaud and encourage whatever they're willing to do," they'll argue. "Mentioning veganism is pushy and pushing them is judgmental," they'll insist. It should come as no surprise that validating (again, whether explicitly or implicitly) others' continued use of animals can be profitable.

Over the next while in a regular series of bi-monthly blog posts, I hope to examine some of the better known animal groups whose names get tossed around in activist circles. I'll try to highlight examples of where their advocacy doesn't jive with abolitionist animal rights advocacy and evaluate what they have to say about veganism, whose promotion is the starting point for any earnest and meaningful animal advocacy geared towards combating speciesism.

Mercy for Animals and its SICs

Mercy for Animals has certainly been in the news these last few years, earning itself a fair bit of mainstream media coverage thanks to its taking undercover footage of the abuse of animals at specific factory farms or slaughterhouses. Recently and just in time for the US Thanksgiving holiday, its cameras focused on one of Butterball's turkey facilities to offer up an expose of the horrible treatment endured by the turkeys at the hands of that facility's workers. Mercy for Animals even set up a website called Butterball Abuse on which you can find disturbing portions of the video footage, photos, expert testimony that the footage shows bona fide abuse and then a call to take action by going "vegetarian" (which for Mercy for Animals means adopting a plant-based diet), spreading the word about the Butterball Abuse site and.... making a donation to Mercy for Animals.

So? So the public was horrified. Calls to boycott Butterball popped up all over the internet, whether singling the company out for the obviously (not) out of the ordinary and extreme cruelty caught on film by Mercy for Animals, or for its being involved in factory farming in general. Non-vegans across the interwebs were outraged. How dare Butterball leave them potentially feasting on the carcass of some poor bird who was somehow mistreated? The idea of it was just repugnant. Thanks to Mercy for Animals, participating in animal cruelty could be avoided. Armed with knowledge of Butterball's facilities' workers obviously extraordinarily heinous treatment of the turkeys in its possession, members of the general public were left able to source a turkey from some other company (i.e. in whose facilities no such awful footage had been taken). I've no doubt that it was a relief for those who may actually believe -- or want to believe -- on some level that the majority of turkeys lead perfectly wonderful lives and die quick painless deaths to end up a carved carcass on a holiday table.

When the Exceptional is no Exception

The truth that gets overlooked is that there's no such thing as the humane enslavement and slaughter of any sentient being. From birth to death, other animals raised for human consumption are confined, mutilated, deprived of the chance to form relationships with others (whether kin or not). They're often deprived of even basic things like clean food or water and are just ordinarily treated like things with no interests of their own. Their lives alternate between being filled with terror and boredom. Butterball? Butterball was just an extension of the same old, same old. The company is just particularly well-known and thus made an effective target to single out to be able to grab the most media attention. It worked, but what did it really accomplish? So some Thanksgiving turkey consumers bought their turkeys elsewhere. Maybe a few even skipped over the turkey altogether and opted for a meat-free Thanksgiving, inspired by Mercy for Animals' site -- its "guide to vegetarian and vegan living", which although it offers up a lot of animal-free recipes uses the terms "vegetarian" and "vegan"  interchangeably and thus confusingly.

Limiting the Focus

On its "About" page, the group describes itself as follows: "Mercy for Animals is dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies." Right there, we have it stated outright that Mercy for Animals concerns itself with those animals we call "food". Furthermore, this concern zooms in on not whether there should be animals farmed for human consumption, but on how these animals are treated as they're farmed for human consumption. Once upon a time, as evidenced by all of the now-dead links on its "Site Map" page, it engaged in plenty of other single-issue campaigns that are ordinarily very popular and fast-cash-grab types of campaigns -- anti-fur, anti-circus, anti-vivisection, et al. These days, though, the group has limited its scope to highlighting worst-case scenarios when animals are raised to end up on supermarket shelves.

Why "Veg" and not "Vegan"?

In what is perhaps its most bewildering article on its site, one called "The 'V' Word: A Note about Terminology", Mercy for Animals explains why it has chosen to sometimes deliberately avoid using the word "vegan". The group states that it 
always has, and always will, unapologetically encourage people to adopt a lifestyle free of meat, dairy and eggs, based on cruelty-free, plant-based alternatives.
This description, of course, focuses on that part of one's "lifestyle" which concerns itself with eating. When it then addresses how people often ask why it sometimes uses the words "vegetarian" instead of "vegan", it responds by implying that the term "vegan" is off-putting to some segments of the public and that shuffling it out is part of what it calls a "carefully considered strategy" to appeal to those members of the public who are apparently a little skittish. It lists off a bunch of vague or misused  terms -- "pure vegetarian, plant-based, plant-strong, herbivore, or just plain ethical" -- it says are all used to describe "a cruelty-free lifestyle" and explains that it is reclaiming the word "vegetarian" in the sense in which it was initially meant to be used -- to describe a diet free of animal products.

So what's wrong with that? Nothing, I guess, if you're merely advocating an animal-free diet. However, Mercy for Animals lumps the word "vegan" in with the rest of those (apparently interchangeable) terms when what it's really talking about is limited to diet. Veganism isn't a diet... yet the group describes quite plainly that it limits its focus to diet and nonetheless insists that it is in fact advocating "veganism". It makes perfect sense to me, given that the group doesn't promote veganism, that it doesn't employ the word "veganism" to describe any aspect of its advocacy, but hey -- what do I know?

The piece goes on and on about how the word "vegetarian" facilitates more discussions with people and how it's a lure that can be used to grab peoples' attention so that discussions can eventually be had about (whatever it is that it thinks is) veganism. It also goes to great lengths to drive home that using the word "vegan" is alienating and leads to
conversations generally focused on the seemingly endless list of obscure ingredients that are nearly impossible to avoid or how hard it seems to give up cheese or ice cream.
One can't help but wonder how on earth members of the general public could possibly view the word "vegan" in any sort of possible light, given Mercy for Animals' obvious conviction that even just talking about veganism is harmful to advocating veganism -- which Mercy for Animals isn't even advocating in the first place.  And not only does Mercy for Animals try to make a case for its not advocating for whatever it thinks veganism is, but it goes on make a final assumption that "humans" are just incapable of hearing a vegan message at all -- from anyone, and that somehow promoting vegetarianism and with it the idea that there's something ethically significant about just avoiding meat is the only really effective way to fast-track someone to not eating any animal products at all.
As a species, humans tend to have very "all or nothing" mindsets. Because they view veganism as impossibly difficult, they will often write off making any lifestyle changes at all. But when presented with the prospect of going vegetarian, people tend to be much more open-minded and will often take that initial step toward cruelty-free living. Once they’ve taken that first step, the next step is that much easier.

What Mercy for Animals misses, though, is that to "get" veganism, once must accept that it's unethical to use other animals. It in no way follows that condoning different degrees of animal use will somehow facilitate someone's connecting the dots that animals aren't ours to use at all. 


So there you have it. Mercy for Animals' campaigns emphasize the treatment of only certain species of animals -- those we raise for human consumption -- rather than educating the public about whether all animals are ours to use. It profits off confusing people into thinking that some forms of animal use are worse than others and (whether inadvertently or not) by misleading people into thinking that all animal food production isn't always inherently torturous for the animals involved. Furthermore, it misrepresents veganism as a diet and then criticizes using the word "vegan" (whatever it is that it understands this word to mean) as too extremist and as ineffectual and potentially detrimental. How on earth could anyone who takes the rights and interests of other animals seriously support or condone an organization like Mercy for Animals? I certainly couldn't.

Further Listening/Reading:

For information on why vegetarianism isn't a gateway to veganism, listen to Gary Francione's podcast on the topic and then read his follow-up post about it.

For more on the wrongheadedness of SICs, see last month's MFIoF blog post on the topic.

Check back over the next week or so for a feature I hope to do on successful grassroots advocacy in New Zealand, Australia and North America with stories from folks who've taken an abolitionist vegan message to the public.