Friday, March 29, 2013

What's Extreme

That NPR Commentary by Barbara J. King

Anthropologist Barbara J. King is surprised. She wrote a short commentary for NPR yesterday about veganism ("Want to help animals? No vegan extremism is required"), weighing in on where to draw the line to qualify a vegan as an extremist. I mean, it's a really short commentary and variations on the word "extreme" show up a good half-dozen times to punctuate it. Her blurb begins by focusing on another NPR commentary written a few weeks ago, this one by Eliza Barclay and about a recently-published book called Veganissimo A to Z: A Comprehensive Guide to Identifying and Avoiding Ingredients of Animal Origin in Everyday Products.

Veganissimo as (Possible) Straw Man

Barclay's commentary ("Is your medicine vegan? Probably not") revolved mostly around how some vegans -- including one of the book's co-authors -- will actually risk their own lives by refusing to consume non-vegan medicines they need to survive. According to the book's press release, a copy of which I received (and promptly forgot about) back in early December, veganissimo is purportedly "a new word to describe someone who is as vegan as possible". According to the release, the book is mostly descriptive in that it provides the information about the prevalence and occurrence of animal ingredients in stuff (i.e. not just pharmaceuticals, but in food and other consumable products) for people to do with it what they will. Either Barclay decided to hyper-focus on the pharmaceuticals aspect of it, or perhaps the press release is vague on the book's actual slant and on its perhaps being prescriptive and persuasive. (I suspect the former, but have contacted the publisher and should be obtaining a review copy shortly to see for myself and to share the outcome with My Face Is on Fire readers. And don't get me started on this whole "new word for a variety of veganism" thing. I think I've made my position on that clear enough in the past.)

"There's No Such Thing as a Vegan"

So back to Barbara J. King's piece: She starts off talking about how "animal [people]" sometimes decide to alter their lifestyle choices to exclude different types of animal exploitation, sometimes doing so progressively until they reach a point where they decide to reject to consciously participate in animal exploitation altogether. She writes:
Now you're thinking about taking the next step: going vegan. You're ready to give up dairy and eggs. But something worries you. Can you ever be vegan enough?
Right there -- that. Every vegan has heard the lame argument brought up again and again by non-vegans -- or worse, by "former" vegans -- that there's really no such thing as veganism, since you simply cannot avoid all animal products: they're everywhere. This gets brought up -- often smugly -- as if to convey that deliberately choosing to go ahead and consume some animal products is morally OK, since you're going to end up using other animals on some level or another anyway. What's funny is that this is completely lost on King (who may very well not be vegan -- anyone know?), who tweeted her surprise several hours ago today that what she describes as her "pro-vegan" commentary is experiencing some "vegan backlash".

Matt Ball and His Unvegan Outreach

Of course, I had to take a peek at the particular blog post response to her piece which she cited as "vegan backlash". Albeit roughly written, some valid points are made in the post referenced on Of Course, Vegan. Veganism isn't extreme and it does a disservice to vegans and to non-vegans, who are more than ready to hear a clear vegan message, to blather on about where vegans should draw the line in terms of those areas where animal ingredients aren't, in fact, easily avoidable. The writer of Of Course, Vegan begins by showing a complete lack of understanding of Matt Ball's position on what it means to be an "extreme" vegan by describing him as having been "coerced" by King into "talking as if taking animal products is something that vegans should do". Anyone involved in serious vegan advocacy knows that Ball and his misnamed Vegan Outreach outfit certainly do not need to be coerced into loudly proclaiming that vegans should consume non-vegan things and engage in non-vegan animal advocacy. Ball repeatedly shames vegans who choose to avoid easily avoidable animal products in their food, accusing them of making veganism seem "too hard", and Vegan Outreach has become pretty publicly outspoken about vegan advocacy's asking too much of non-vegans. (Thankfully, Of Course, Vegan's writer did manage to see through Ball's illogical rubbish and commented on it.)

So King goes straight to Matt Ball (who shames vegans as being too extreme for 1) not consuming honey, 2) asking servers about ingredients in dishes on restaurant menus or for 3) being unequivocal in promoting veganism). In doing so, she ends up just regurgitating -- or at least perpetuating -- that same old "veganism is too hard" whine that's usually spewed out alongside the "veganism is extreme" whine of the many who want their occasional piece of cheese and to not have it pointed out that they didn't need it and that it wasn't theirs to take. She gives Ball a platform to do more of his usual shaming by quoting him repeatedly. For instance:
What we personally consume (especially at the margins) is almost irrelevant compared to what we can accomplish with thoughtful, honest advocacy for the animals. For example, influencing just one person to stop eating chickens and eggs — or even simply cutting back! — has an almost infinitely larger impact than if I avoid yet another obscure, miniscule animal product.
What my choosing to personally consume has to do with influencing "just one person to stop eating chickens and eggs", I have no idea. Ball seems to be saying that we need to stop being vegan to somehow accomplish more for other animals. This makes no sense whatsoever. None. King described her commentary on Twitter as being "pro-vegan", but it's not -- unless you consider "vegan" to involve occasionally indulging in a bowl of soup made with animal fat broth, stealing honey from bees and applauding others for shuffling a few animal products out of their diet while they continue to otherwise exploit other animals. King doesn't seem to get this, but in relying on Matt Ball as some sort of reasonable expert vegan voice, she pretty much set herself up to not "get it".

The Lo-Down on Basic Self-Preservation

Whether this book that triggered King's commentary actually encourages vegans to avoid taking life-saving medication is sort of beside the point. I mean, vegans encouraging other vegans to risk their lives is of course a form of inexcusable reckless shaming. If the book does indeed engage in that (and I'll find out when I get my review copy), its writers are crackpots. That line of argument is the same sort of absurd bunk that leads some to insist that if vegans really wanted to avoid exploiting other animals they shouldn't even eat plants, since growing plants involves displacing and killing other animals.

The bottom line is that there are medications we sometimes need to take which are derived from other animals, or that have at one point been tested on other animals -- medications for which there are no animal-free or animal-tested alternatives. Taking these to be healthy and to stay alive is certainly excusable. But doing so in no way adds weight to the argument (perpetuated by groups like Vegan Outreach) that there are times we should shrug off consuming or exploiting when it is possible for us to avoid doing so. Using Veganissimo as a lead in to bring in Matt Ball's slippery-sloped take on what should be considered "extreme" was confusing, wrongheaded and unfortunate.

The Lo-Down on Speciesism

What dragging Matt Ball into her commentary seems to have accomplished is to conflate a sort of viewpoint that is extreme (i.e. vegans might as well all become breatharians since the mere act of living seems to involve animal exploitation) with Matt Ball's twisted idea that actually earnestly rejecting animal exploitation and following through accordingly and authentically in our daily lives is also extreme. Ball seems to think that we should all throw in the towel and discard holding veganism as a moral baseline in our advocacy, since even though vegan education worked to persuade some of us to stop exploiting other animals, it somehow can't possibly be expected to make a difference in the rest of the world.

Someone like Ball considers it a victory for other animals if we can all just persuade a friend or family member to skip eating meat for one or two meals out of their average week. Actually addressing the underlying issue -- i.e. the prevalent speciesism in this world -- seems unthinkable to him. But the thing is that we're not going to shift the general population's mindset without striking at the root of the problem. We're not going to permanently change their hearts and minds about treating those sentient beings as things by giving someone a high-five if she shuffles out this or that form of animal use while otherwise continuing to use other animals. We're certainly not going to convey that we in any way take the rights of other animals seriously if we giggle and shrug, then gobble up a non-vegan dish with gusto alongside them.

If Matt Ball believes that punching toddlers is wrong, would he suggest to us that we should give a parent a big old hug for agreeing to not punch their toddler one day a week? Would he expect us to  call it a victory for toddlers? Would he not agree that what we would need to do is convince those abusive parents that punching toddlers is wrong in and of itself since toddlers shouldn't be punched at all? So why settle for less with other animals and ignore that it's the underlying speciesism guiding non-vegans' behaviour that needs to be addressed in our advocacy?

So if Barbara J. King is surprised that there would be any sort of "backlash" to her article, maybe she needs to re-examine her understanding of what it means to be vegan. At the very least, she should have done her research before weaving Matt Ball's shaming of ordinary old vegans into her commentary and using a straw man to launch into what she claims is a pro-vegan piece. Far from being pro-vegan, it's just more of the same speciesist fodder from the overwhelmingly and sadly speciesist mainstream media.


Vanilla Rose said...

Had she done her research, she would have known the definition of veganism: “Veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude - as far as is possible and practical - all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment.”

And thus would have known that the medicine thing was a red herring.

Demosthenes said...

All I can say is, damn you're good, Mylène. Always thoughtful, and nothing escapes your critical eye. Well done, yet again.

M said...

Thanks Demo. That's kind of you. I'm surprised there weren't more responses left to this post, since it generated quite a bit of traffic.

Vanilla Rose, exactly!