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?


Cody Fenwick said...

"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"."

Very well put. One interesting effect of speciesism is that it doesn't prohibit one from seeing animals as morally relevant, but it does seem to rule out seeing them as the subjects of justice. Thus people think as long as they're doing a little better with regards to animals that they're doing the right thing. If we recognize the moral wrong as deriving from prejudice, we usually stop thinking this way.

I have started a blog, because that's quite easy. Getting published in a paper is quite more of a challenge, though certainly worth a shot! I enjoyed your post, and look forward to reading more.

Marty said...

My local paper is The New York Times, so I limit my comments to their online edition.

I gave up eating different species of animals and animal derived foods for my health. I am now vegan for the animals. I am an abolitionist yet I believe that anyone making a change in their diet has taken that first step of a journey. Some will stop short but others, as I did, see a light and keep traveling to see the illumination.

Don't confuse the first steps of thinking about food and animals with that being the end game goal. The first is incredibly beneficial as it means people have begun not eating mindlessly. The latter is unacceptable as an end.

Changing ones lifestyle is a process of discovery. People travel at their own pace. I look at people who, as an example, are "vegan before six" and don't think they are a failure because they didn't go all the way but as people who I only have to encourage to go another few hours to reach the goal.

M said...

Cody wrote: "One interesting effect of speciesism is that it doesn't prohibit one from seeing animals as morally relevant, but it does seem to rule out seeing them as the subjects of justice. Thus people think as long as they're doing a little better with regards to animals that they're doing the right thing."

I agree, although it's weird to think of others seeing animals as morally relevant considering the absolutely heinous things done to them in everyday life in the food industry and elsewhere, just barely out of sight.

I"ve just bookmarked your blog and look forward to reading it!

M said...

Marty, I think that it's important to keep in mind that just because you or I experienced certain triggers or sequences of events which may have led you or I to eventually go vegan, it doesn't follow that those same experiences are necessarily "first steps" necessarily leading to awareness of -- and respect for -- animal rights for others. I mean, I first became vegetarian back when I was 20 for environmental reasons and, after a few years, I went back to eating meat (along with all of the other animal products I'd continued to consume, not really thinking of what was involved in animal use). When I went vegetarian again years later, it was from watching a video on the dog/cat fur trade in an Asian country. It took a good 5-6 years or so (I'm lousy with numbers) before I actually went vegan. When I did, it wasn't because I'd seen a dog/cat fur trade video years earlier and it wasn't because I'd gone vegetarian (which in fact dragged on for many years). It was because I listened to the Vegan Freak Radio podcast and started reading Gary Francione's essays on his website and got a simple and clear message finally drilled into me that animals aren't ours to use. That was the first step; everything that came before it was an obstacle. I was mired in my vegetarianism for several years, convinced that I was doing "enough" -- and I wasn't just vegetarian for health reasons, which would have had even less to do with taking other animals into consideration. I mean, I didn't even consider going vegan when I was vegetarian for what I felt was serious concerns about animal "cruelty". I was convinced that veganism was extremist, too difficult, unhealthy and something generally pursued by either violent animal liberationists or teenage girls with eating disorders.

When we "think about food and animals" and do it for self-involved reasons (e.g. to lose weight, to lower cholesterol) we're still thinking of other animals as things. They key to fighting speciesism and what's accomplished in teaching others to go vegan is to get them to stop thinking of animals as things. Someone who goes vegetarian to get healthier (for example) is still thinking about animals as things. That person may reduce his or her intake of meat and other things containing animal fats, as well as all kinds of other "things" which are plant-based and still regarded as food, but regarded as "unhealthy". Until someone points out to them the serious moral issues involved in the comodification of other animals -- and not just animals who are ordinarily eaten -- nothing really changes.

As for the "Vegan Before Six" bunk -- it's just more of the same and it's all meaningless in terms of getting people to stop viewing other animals as things. It's like if you and I were advocates against child abuse and you said to me that someone who chooses to not beat toddlers "before six" wasn't a failure but just needed a pat on the back and encouragement to try a little harder to "reach the goal". But with the "Vegan Before Six" crowd, the goal is generally just to be more healthy. They're not vegan and they're not going vegan. They're trying to lose weight, be hip, be green, get healthier. When you say they're on a path, you miss the point entirely that they're using a completely different map and have a completely different destination. As vegans, it's easy for us to make the mistake of assuming that all roads lead to veganism; they don't. If they did, all of these people who are vegetarian for decades would go vegan. Without a clear vegan message, they're not going to reach for another map, Marty. They're just not. And to pretend otherwise is a little delusional. Sorry, it just is.

michael said...


I have alway approached veganism from a health perspective initially, then environment, then animal welfare. Could you response to this comment with some links to other posts u have written that outline your reasoning for completely abstaining from animal consumption. I am interested in hearing your full argument!

Thanks so much