Friday, November 29, 2013

So Al Gore Has Gone 'Something'?

Who's Done What?

Over the last 48 hours, I've seen excited status update after excited status update in my Facebook feed over the news leaked out that Al Gore may have gone vegan. What started it was a passing reference to the supposedly "[n]ewly turned vegan Al Gore" in an article by Ryan Mac on the Forbes website. Since that reference, the websites of just about every imaginable major news publication have been passing this on and elaborating upon it, although all of the reports I've seen thus far have yet to offer up an official confirmation. According to The Washington Post:
An individual familiar with Gore's decision, who asked not to be identified because it involved a personal matter, confirmed that Gore opted a couple of months ago to become vegan. Gore's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Speculation over his decision to go vegan is mostly centred on what would be assumed to be the most obvious "reason" for someone like Gore. According to The Washington Post, folks "usually become vegan for environmental, health or ethical reasons, or a combination of these three factors" and Al Gore so very obviously champions at least one of these causes, so I'm guessing that onlookers are drawing the conclusion that Gore has gone "vegan" for the planet. After all, he's been heavily involved in environmental advocacy for the last several years, publicly pushing for policy reforms geared towards slowing the rate at which the planet's climate is changing thanks to what we've been spewing into the air for decades. In 2006 he won an Oscar for his documentary An Inconvenient TruthIn 2007, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against global warming.

As he's persevered, reports confirming the link between large scale animal agriculture and global warming have been repeatedly highlighted in the media. Given this, it was really no surprise when animal advocates began to call on Gore to do the logical thing and to go vegan (or to at the very least stop eating meat, since meat production is often singled out as being more environmentally problematic than are other animal products). Gore himself was often referenced in the media as intending to at least reduce his meat consumption, so given his public prominence and the low anticipatory buzz that's surrounded him for a spell, it's no surprise that this news of his apparently having gone vegan has a lot of animal advocates excited.

He's Gone What?

When someone drops the word 'vegan' into a news story these days, it's essentially meaningless to me until it's explicitly defined. The Washington Post may very well have connected to an insider who is close enough to Gore to be able to confirm this or that tidbit of information about his personal decisions, but the problem is that along with occasionally being used properly, the word has been tossed around so very often to describe strict vegetarians, people who go on 3-4 week diet cleanses, those who eat periodic plant-based meals at certain times of day, as well as celebrities who may at some point have been vegan (or doing any of the other aforementioned things listed). Basically, the term is very often used to describe people who indeed do choose to consume easily avoidable animal products. All it takes is one well-circulated press release to announce that this or that celebrity has "gone vegan" and the details -- the actual facts -- become irrelevant. They get buried in all of rest of the chatter.

The Clinton Example

A while back, Bill Clinton decided to change his diet. "Bill Clinton Goes Vegan!" was proclaimed over and over again in the news, on animal advocacy websites and blogs, and by excited vegans everywhere. Advocates viewed the press exposure for veganism as positive. Except that Bill Clinton didn't go vegan. For a while, he adopted a strict vegetarian diet and did so for health reasons. These days he's no longer even following a strictly vegetarian diet -- or any sort of vegetarian diet at all. Earlier this fall, in an interview with AARP for an article called "Bill Clinton Explains Why He Became a Vegan", Clinton admitted that
Once a week or so, he will have a helping of organic salmon or an omelet made with omega-3-fortified eggs, to maintain iron, zinc and muscle mass.
So in an article about why he purportedly became 'a vegan', Clinton admits to once-a-week (or so) meals of fish or eggs. Never mind that completely unsubstantiated nutritional reasons are given for it, but the fact that Clinton, the article's writer and the writer's editor all three saw fit to call Clinton 'a vegan' although he admits to eating fish and eggs? Well, if that isn't proof that not taking the word 'vegan' as a qualifier seriously until whoever uses it fills in the blanks with details, I honestly don't know what is.

In the numerous articles about Gore's supposed recent shift, his 'going vegan' is repeatedly compared to Clinton's (e.g. the recent LA Times article "Al Gore is now vegan, just like Bill Clinton"), but Clinton isn't -- in any sense of the word -- a vegan. He probably never was a vegan and now he is not even technically a vegetarian (although ethically speaking, whether it's salmon or eggs he's consuming is irrelevant). Yet, groups like PETA applaud madly and laud him for having supposedly 'gone vegan'. Animal advocates who missed the AARP article and/or the ensuing string of articles and blog posts about it by those animal advocates who didn't miss it are still calling him a vegan. Once the buzzword has been dropped, advocates seem to latch on to it.

The facts are overlooked, further dietary changes are ignored, and until the day when Bill Clinton is photographed gnawing hungrily on a roasted lamb shank, he will no doubt continue to be called 'vegan'. As for what Al Gore may be doing? If it truly is anything that involves following in Bill Clinton's footsteps, what is there for animal advocates to celebrate? Until he fills in his own blanks, I'll hold off on clapping my own hands together in delight. Right now, Clinton's own situation as reported by the media and animal groups seems to have done nothing but to confuse the public about what 'veganism' actually means.

The 'Why' Behind the What

Of course, it will be great that he will likely be seriously curtailing his consumption of animal products. In Clinton's case, health was the factor which led to his shuffling around a lot of what he eats. In Gore's, until he actually speaks up and elaborates upon what he has done and why he has done it, we can only speculate that he will be curtailing some of his own exploitation for environmental reasons. Until then, we have two political celebrities who are still exploiting other animals and who are each limiting the extent of their exploitation for reasons that have nothing to do with the rights of those other animals themselves being taken seriously.

Clinton has already shown that shuffling animal products back into his diet in isn't a concern for him in terms of his health and as far as I know, he hasn't stopped wearing leather belts or silk ties to keep his weight in check. If Gore truly has gone vegan, great, but so far reports suggest that he's just changing his diet. If he's merely changing his diet for environmental reasons? Sneaking in the odd bowl of ice cream or fillet mignon won't ultimately have that much impact on global warming. As long as neither of them actually care about the ethics of of animal use in and of itself, they will likely continue to use them.

To use the term 'vegan' to describe either of them is incorrect. It's a simple question of definition. Worse, though, is that the term is now more and more commonly being used to describe behaviours which 1) have nothing to do with consideration for what it is that we owe other animals, and 2) which involved the unapologetic exploitation of these other animals through the continued use of their bodies and products for the sake of pleasure.


As an abolitionist, I hold veganism as a moral baseline in my advocacy. This extends to whom I choose to salute or applaud in terms of his or her actual, perceived or hoped for involvement in -- or impact on -- changing the status quo for other animals in a meaningful and permanent manner. It seems bizarre to me applaud a non-vegan as possibly facilitating society's shift away from speciesism when this non-vegan's own behaviour is, in fact, mired in speciesism.  Some may balk and protest that "It at least gets the word 'vegan' out there and leaves people thinking about veganism." The real truth is that the so-called word that someone like Gore's diet change gets out there just becomes more watered down and meaningless. The actual ethical reasons behind the coining of the term become lost altogether. What gets out there is more confusion about a label people who avoid animal products use as shorthand to self-identify when eating away from home or as descriptors when we seek to purchase various products.

It's not only something that I cannot applaud, but it becomes something worrisome to me. And when I see other advocates for veganism -- abolitionist advocates for veganism -- pointing out that this news about Gore is something worth celebrating, I'm really left wondering how it is that we've become so desperate to grasp at each and every little thing we can, rather than sticking to the simple and clear message that convinced me to finally stop fucking around and to go vegan six and a half years ago.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

On Ribbing

It was around two months ago that I pulled up in front of my small local grocer's just as it was starting to sprinkle. I was on the way home from an hour-long bike ride on the dirt and gravel trails around my city and had stopped to pick something up to throw into a salad. Radishes? Scallions? It had rained earlier and a long narrow puddle had formed alongside the curb where I was hitching up my bike to a lamppost. I squatted to thread the lock's cable through my back wheel and noticed a flutter in the puddle. A large moth was flapping madly and, without skipping a beat, I reached out to scoop him up out of the water. He continued to flap and flap and I cupped my hands to shelter him from the breeze which had picked up and I observed him for a bit. One of his wings was jagged and so I couldn't tell if he was just too wet to fly or if he was, in fact, seriously injured.

A little girl ran over and I looked up to see her mother following, smiling. "She wants to see," she told me. I lowered my hands and the girl looked and asked if he was alright. I told her that I wasn't sure and her mother waved her away. As I stood up, the breeze caught him and blew him out into the street. It had all lasted less than a few minutes. I finished my errand and checked my Facebook messages and posted a status update about my encounter. Although I'd felt sort of compelled to share the brief experience, I also felt a little apprehensive about sharing it after I had done so.  Mostly, I had this niggling feeling that someone -- likely one of a couple of non-vegan friends -- would no doubt take a poke at me to garner some likes or laughs. And? Someone obliged.

I'm not super thin-skinned. Having grown up in an extended working class French-Canadian family that included a lot of older male cousins, being teased is old hat to me. I don't even remember what the words used in his poke had been. What was written seemed an attempt to use "Operation Moth Rescue" to paint me as being a soft-hearted "flaky vegan". Another non-vegan friend quickly "liked" the poke... then another. A few more pokes ensued, woven through the thoughtful comments left by those vegan friends (and a couple of closer non-vegan friends) who'd understood my impulse to reach out -- such a simple gesture -- to scoop up a fellow being.

I usually shake my head and respond with an attempt at humour when I become the subject of someone's gentle ribbing. Over a decade as a vegetarian and a smaller handful of years as a vegan have left me dodging barbs, attempting to slip off the radars of more than a few workplace lunchroom clowns, hearing the periodic "plants feel pain too, you hypocrite" comments, being told each and every rare time I catch a cold that my immune system would be stronger ''if only I ate meat'', et al. Every once in a while, I find myself smiling that sort of "You're an asshole, but it would just be too unbecoming of me to dismantle your assholery right now" sort of smile. If you've ever been sucker-punched by someone about your veganism at an inappropriate time and it was obvious that that individual was just trying to be a bully and to make you squirm, you've no doubt worn that very same smile.

But then there have been those gentle pokes from well-meaning friends who may very well be just teasing the way they would tease you about any other story or subject, whether or not it's related to veganism or animal issues. For years I would just smile and shrug, mostly because I'm generally a non-confrontational person and found deflecting less stressful than asserting myself and then merely being told that I obviously couldn't "take a joke". The thing is that these mostly well-meaning friends have not experienced those less-than-gentle pokes vegans get from other friends, coworkers, family or even strangers. They don't taste the hostility in the mean-spirited anti-vegan articles that often show up in mainstream media, saturated with mistruths and ridicule.

As a blogger and as someone who's been involved in online activism for a while now, I've heard again and again from new vegans that the most difficult part of transitioning and settling into being vegan for them has involved dealing with other people. It's most markedly alienating when its people who are -- or were -- loved ones who become antagonistic. Sometimes it's not so much that those loves ones are consciously disrespectful or deliberately antagonistic, but that their words just end up thrown on the pile of all of the rest of the negativity we sometimes encounter from others. And sometimes those words smart more simply because they're from people from whom we expect validation rather than humiliation. The truth is that for those of us who have come to a point where we have chosen to reject participating in the inherently brutal exploitation of others, veganism is a matter of life or death. Tease me about the ABBA on my iPod. Kid me about the piece of kale stuck between my teeth. However, please don't attempt to undermine the seriousness with which I build the ethical framework within which I live my life.

I was on the tail end of a couple of weeks of what had felt like almost persistent ribbing and had ended up in a couple of ridiculous -- and exhausting -- debates in the days leading up to "Operation Moth Rescue". When that (later) self-professed well-meaning non-vegan friend decided to take a public poke at me on Facebook, I felt disrespected. I also felt that all of my fellow vegan Facebook friends had been disrespected and that I had allowed this to happen again and again by not addressing the taunts and pokes which had begun to increase in frequency and insensitivity. I wrote the following :
It's funny how some non-vegan friends will take gentle digs at my veganism, knowing that I blog about it, knowing how serious I am about it, knowing that many of my vegan Facebook friends will read the comments they leave on my wall. I know them well enough to know they're not trying to be mean, but I can't help but wonder where they would draw their line about disrespecting someone else's ethical... stance. If I were Jewish and keeping kosher and talking about it, would they take digs at me for that? If I was against child abuse and writing about that, then what? I don't expect all of my friends to agree with my reasons for being vegan. I don't expect all of them to understand why I choose to cause the least harm I can in whichever way I can and sometimes do things that seem silly to them like rescuing a stunned mouse from a road and sitting on a curb a half hour to make sure he's OK before setting him free, or taking the opportunity to scoop a drowning moth out of a puddle -- or adopting a traumatized skittish cat from the shelter (or fostering/adopting a large number of them in the past, something for which I've been chided by friends and family because it left me "going without").

Maybe it all seems silly to some, but it isn't to me. I take suffering and death seriously. I take trying to make some sort of difference seriously. It's meaningful to me. This time last year, I made the decision to euthanize my cat Sophie whose asthma became too much for her to bear. This time -- this very week -- six years ago, I lost my cat Monzo to hyperthyroidism and my father to cancer. So I know suffering and I know death. Oh fuck, do I ever know both intimately. I do what I can to alleviate some of it or to disinvolve myself from causing it as much as I can. It's who and what I am and I'm unapologetic about it. I was the 10-year-old kid who scooped up the cat mauled by the collie on the corner and knocked on several doors until an adult would help. I'm now the adult who refuses to participate in any animal exploitation to the best of her ability because this is the best possible life that I can lead -- the life that makes the most sense to me. I don't expect non-vegan friends to agree with everything I do, but I'd like to think that on some level that they could acknowledge that there's some good in this, whether or not they choose to do it themselves.
Many of my vegan friends responded with empathy. Many also expressed gratitude (some in private asides) for my having voiced what they too-often felt. Rather than use my post as an opportunity to trigger a dialogue or earnest discussion where we might come to an understanding of sorts, my non-vegan friend expressed that he'd felt censured and stated that he would self-censor moving forward when feeling the urge to share "funny" things. He expressed regret that I had been offended, but with neither an understanding of, nor a desire to understand, why it had been offensive.

I had overreacted. I had been thin-skinned and emotional. I had been the stereotypical humorless vegan, even though I had previously always responded with a smile and a shrug.

Hey vegan, can't you take a joke?

Hey, you?