Friday, June 21, 2013

When Non-Vegans Write About Veganism, Revisited

It is becoming more normal than not, isn't it? Non-vegans are all over mainstream media talking about their on/off again or temporary plant-only diets and then weighing in on "how to go vegan" or on "what it's like to be vegan". So the general public reads these articles and is left thinking that if it appeared in such-and-such a publication or on such-and-such a website that it must be right. You've read the articles, I've written about the articles. There's no need for much context, since we've seen it all play out before. What we really need to start doing, however, is to dig in our heels to stop this rebranding of the word "vegan" and to educate people about what truly rejecting animal exploitation is all about.

The Latest

Someone called Kevin Powell recently wrote a semi-autobiographical and semi-instructional piece for Huffington Post on how (not) to be a vegan ("Why and How I Became a Vegan"). According to his write-up page, Powell has written for everyone from Rolling Stone to Esquire and The Washington Post. (An aside: I really have to wonder if getting to write for major publications has more to do with connections than talent, since I so very often see folks with heaps of credentials who either can't research or can't write, or in a case like Powell's, jump on bandwagons and then completely misrepresent lifestyles they obviously do not understand and then try to present arguments less coherent than a cranky toddler's protests against having to go to bed.)

The problem with Powell' involve two things he conveys explicitly in his article about "why" and "how" he became vegan: The first is that he believes that veganism is a personal choice about one's own consumption and that vegans should mind their own business when it comes to others around them who choose to continue to use animals. (More implicitly, it's that same old shaming of vegans have the audacity to actually express aloud that it's wrong for other animals to be exploited.) The second thing that's conveyed is that veganism is a diet and that this diet leaves room for the occasional consumption of meat, dairy or eggs to avoid hurting other humans' feelings. Basically, this is that other sort of backhanded shaming that implies that, even when minding their own business, it's rude for vegans to be consistent about sticking to their ethical principles. In Powell's world, refusing to occasionally consume animal products seems to make you an asshole.

"How To"

Powell starts off immediately by cautioning people to take it very slowly and to get professional medical advice if going vegan. I'm all for doing things right and think that most people--whether vegan or non-vegan--could benefit from a consultation or two with a decent progressive nutritionist. That said, I can't help but think that Powell makes it sound right off the bat as if switching to a plant-only diet is a horribly risky thing to do. Like Powell, I'm no medical professional, but from personal experience and anecdotes from others, I have to say that I think that getting a good book or two about nutrition and bookmarking some reliable sites featuring menu ideas or vegan-friendly recipes would probably benefit most people more than talking to a general practitioner, given how little training most ordinary doctors receive on the subject of nutrition. (Of course, if you have a pre-existing health condition, that's another story and since this really isn't what I want to focus on about his piece, I don't want to overstate anything about this cautionary tone he sets, so let's move on.)

"Veganism" as a Personal Choice

Powell describes his transition to veganism, which he inadvertently ends up defining as his voluntarily eating and exploiting animals whenever it seems like a good idea. He's "stuck" to veganism, he says, "except when [he has] had little to no choice but to eat fish in certain heavily fish-based cultures/communities [he's]visited internationally" (lest he "insult the customs and traditions" of his hosts). Not eating animals or animal products also seems to risk offending others closer to home and so Powell leaves himself another out to consume animal products:
I likewise bend the veganism rule for specific holiday gatherings with my mother here in America because, well, she is my mother and dinner with her is sacred and important and I do not take that for granted as my mom gets older. And my mother ain't trying to understand why I do not eat meat, seriously.
One can't help but wonder how often Powell "bends" his dining rules given that someone's not understanding his supposed "veganism" is a good enough reason for him to not stick to his guns. One just as quickly stops wondering, though, when he leaves no doubt whatsoever that his personal interpretation of the term is just plain ol' meaningless:
I do not care if other vegans say my way is not veganism. I say yes it is because anyone who knows me knows that my lifestyle has become very vegan-centered. One day I hope to even wear clothes and footwear on a daily [sic] that are vegan-based. That is how focused I am about living a vegan life.
Vegan-centered, eh? He doesn't even consistently adhere to a plant-only diet and although he does state that he uses home and personal products which aren't tested on or derived from animals, he admits that his clothes contain animal products. But don't tell him that eating other animals or wearing their fur and/or skin is not what "veganism" is about, 'cause he really doesn't care what anybody else thinks veganism is or isn't.

Powell makes it clear that as much as he isn't interested in having anyone clarify to him whether veganism makes room for varying types of deliberate--and easily avoidable--animal use, he's also more or less unconcerned about others' animal use: "I would certainly marry a woman who eats fish or chicken. That does not bother me, although I would prefer to marry a vegan." Along with this, he states that all he would ever ask of others is that they be more "mindful" of what they consume; he insists that he would never "shov[e] the way [he] see[s] things in terms of meat-eating vs. no meat-eating down people's throats". His purportedly being "vegan" is just a matter of "opinion". It's a personal choice.

Vegan Voices

So? Yet another non-vegan who is presented as a reliable and somewhat authoritative voice ends up making a mockery of the whole notion of rejecting animal exploitation. It's nothing new, yet it's still troubling. This ongoing rebranding of the word "vegan" seems to have become disheartening enough to some bona fide vegans that a few have suggested that the word should be tossed to the wayside altogether rather than defended. Worse is that as the word continues to get co-opted and misrepresented, the public becomes increasingly confused about what it is that we owe other animals, hearing that even self-described vegans believe it's OK to throw back an occasional pork chop or glass of chocolate dairy milk from time to time.

Powell's made a "choice", yes, but that choice has nothing to do with veganism. Shame on the Huffington Post for publishing yet another misinformed and badly written piece about not being vegan.


veganelder said...

He writes: "It started many many years ago with my not eating pork. I am a Christian again now (as I was growing up) but for a period of time I was a Muslim and not eating pork is a rule of that faith."

That's all it took for me to be seriously concerned about this fellow's judgement. Anyone jumping around like that and apparently being oblivious to the implications about both their seriousness and their commitment levels really rarely has anything to offer that I'm interested in.

There are lots of shallow folks pushing out lots of words that don't carry much meaning. This fellow sure has such an air about him.

Abby Bean said...

Do you think there are no actual vegans that write factual articles on veganism, or do you think mainstream media isn't trying to hear it?

Anonymous said...

If its only a style of life, then its centeredness is of his own design, focusing on him as an individual, not the personhood of the animal.

M said...

I think that mainstream media seeks to appeal to the widest base it can, so that publishing articles which advocate veganism without giving non-vegans an out to keep exploiting is probably avoided. It won't sell copy. It won't make advertisers happy. Also, let's face it that most major advertisers on these blogs, in newspapers and magazines, etc. profit off continued exploitation.

M said...

Basically, I don't think that mainstream media will persuade the public to go vegan. But I do think that articles in mainstream media will begin to change *once* more people go vegan.

Abby Bean said...

I just don't get what the point of reporting on it is, if you're going to do so inaccurately.