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.


M. (known as) "Butterflies" Katz said...

Thanks for this. Sharing. I'm so tired of how media misuses the word vegan - and has turned veganism (an ethical stance of non-participation in animal exploitation) into a diet for your own health or planetary health and leaving out the essence of veganism; the animals. Veganism is not synonymous with a plant-powered diet. Veganism is about the animals. It's about not being a part of the demand for exploiting, enslaving, owning, oppressing, objectifying, and violently assaulting fellow feeling animals.

Alex Strain said...

Love this and thank you!

mactheweb said...

I can understand your frustration with the sloppy media use of terms such as vegan.

OTH, you highlight one of the reasons that vegans are looked on with derision, namely the strident voice and holier than thou attitude. Al Gore may or may not have gone vegan. Bill Clinton has taken up a veganish diet that comes 90-95% of the way towards vegan. Can we celebrate the progress? Doesn't seem so. Point the vegan fundamentalist finger of judgement and decry all as evil. Amen.

Unknown said...

It's not just the media that is watering down the definition of "vegan." It's so-called vegans as well. As has been pointed out in this outstanding essay, people are attaching adverbs to the word "vegan," with hopes of jumping on the "bandwagon called veganism. Part-time vegan, pesco-vegan, after-six vegan, practical vegan ad naseum are all sad excuses for the true definition of VEGAN.

Unknown said...

This was my reaction as well. Besides the problematic appellation of "vegan" here, I have a hard time applauding Gore doing *anything* serious about his diet (only his diet) after making the arguments he has been making for so long.

It is a shame, but necessary, to qualify "vegan" these days for any real understanding of what the term actually means. I have thought about responses to this abuse of language in the media, and by luck yet. It may soon be time to abandon the term for something else that delimits the ethical core more precisely. Who knows...

Andrea said...

Thanks for writing this!! I get SO tired of explaining that being vegan is not ONLY about what you eat. But it most certainly includes what you eat--not fish or eggs for chrissake.

It's not holier-than-thou to use the definition of a word properly. It's great if someone is almost vegan, but eating fish once a week means they are not vegan. It's not a judgment; it's a fact.

Nicole said...

Thank you for this post. I totally agree with it. I, too, am tired by all the watering down that is done of the real meaning of Veganism. I did post the "news" on one of my page with the disclaimer that he is not a vegan but that it might be encouragement for others to go in that direction.
If that trend continues, the word Vegan will be as meaningless as the word vegetarian.