Thursday, March 20, 2014

Another Underhugged Non-Vegan Takes a Few Digs

Oh, PeTA!

Some fellow vegans and I were mocking PeTA yesterday. You know the old saying: Sometimes you either have to laugh or cry? Genuine and clear-thinking animal rights advocates know the harms caused by sexist, sensationalist and wishy-washy supersized animal advocacy groups like PeTA. Each and every one of its campaigns and the mainstream public's response to all of them are seemingly never-ending reminders of just how effectively PeTA manages to leave the general public more and more convinced that anyone standing up for the rights of other animals must be missing a few marbles or hopped up on hallucinogens. If I seem to be straying a little into hyperbolic assertions, you really need to forfeit a few minutes of your life sometime to deconstruct one of PeTA's single-issue campaigns. At the very least, it will put things into perspective for you.

It was during this mostly tongue-in-cheek exchange that someone posted a link to a recent article in the UK's Telegraph by someone called Hannah Betts. In response to one of PeTA's ongoing and annoying "sexiest vegan" contets and described as a "vegetarian for some 30 years", Betts purports to answer the question: "Can a Vegan Ever be Sexy?" with a long rant filled with stereotypes, inaccuracies and a sort of rather obvious hatemongering subjectivity which leaves one hoping for the sake of her friends and family that her diatribe was at least somewhat therapeutic for her. (Sometimes it's good to just let it all out, y'know?)

It's no suprise that non-vegans would find it just as easy as vegans do to pick apart PeTA's campaigns -- particular its more sexist and fatphobic ones. Betts starts off by quoting from a PeTA press release:
“People go vegan for a variety of reasons, including the fact that vegans tend to be fitter and trimmer than meat-eaters, which makes them more attractive.”
It's unfortunate that rather than just dissect PeTA's equating a person's thinness with sexiness and pointing out the problems inherent in this, and that rather than attempt to bust the whole stereotype of the lean health-nut vegan ('cause we should all be aware that there are vegans of each and every size) and to perhaps write something meaningful, Betts decides to keep her argument superficial. She attempts to establish that vegans are all, in fact, unattractive and undesirable creatures.

They Say Hate Is Blind

Betts suggests that "the notion of a 'sexy vegan'" is "an oxymoron" and then begans a series of snide deprecatory claims that are as much in need of a decent fact-checking assistant as they are just mean-spirited and, in some cases, just sort of bizarre.
Society may have got beyond the stereotype of the vegan as a flaky-skinned, flatulent tree-hugger to the point where it can imagine a flaky-skinned, flatulent tree-hugger wearing Stella McCartney. However, vegans are still not necessarily the individuals one would most want to make eyes at.
So, whether or not they're dressed up in a trendy vegan-friendly fashion designer's clothing: vegans smell, have bad skin and are all hippies. This could have been something lifted from one of the Pork Network's badly-written anti-vegan articles. Betts continues by stating that going "plant" is, in fact, a pretty much guaranteed way to shed "one's sex appeal". But then she goes on to rattle off bits about celebrities -- many of whom aren't even vegan -- to try to prove this.

She describes Bill Clinton from his younger and more unhealthy years as "hot stuff" and refers to him now, much older and in less danger of keeling over from a heart attack as "skeletal". She says "[v]eganism has aged him 20 zombieish years" while altogether discounting that perhaps getting older has aged him. Clinton was president a decade and a half ago. The man's he's pushing 70. The fact that he's never been a vegan and now even eats fish and eggs also makes him a weird example with which to begin, never mind that his mug -- regardless of its age -- is likely not the go-to image most conjure up when they hear the word sexy. But the thing is that Clinton's dietary changes were made specifically to facilitate weight loss. He was in bad shape. To say "veganism" made him skeletal and purportedly unsexy is erroneous whichever way you look at it.

Another non-vegan, Beyoncé Knowles, is singled out next. Betts describes her as having become "unrecognisably gaunt, her hair and skin lack lustre" and compared her to a "malnourished waif" following a three week plant-based cleanse she did, designed in part for weight loss. Betts' description of Knowles refers specifically to her most recent appearance on the Grammys, where according to the pictures I've seen on the internet, her skin was glowing, her curves still curvy and her hair looked no different than it has in the past although minus her usual hair extensions. Again, any way you approach them, Betts' claims are bunk.

Natalie Portman (who went back to eating animal products while pregnant a few years back and who was quoted a few months back as anticipating that her forthcoming move to Paris would compromise any attempts at being vegan) is the next celebrity brought up. Betts pulls a big word out of the ether and describes her as "pulchritudinous" (i.e. a word used to describe someone of breathtaking beauty) but unsexy. She then rattles off a bunch of other celebrities (including non-vegan Ellen DeGeneres and some Hollywood starlets I'm certain anyone would deem quite fetching) as further examples. Her list made no sense. I mean, she even disses Brad Pitt. Now, I'm am most definitely not a celebrity worshipping fan-girl, but at this point it becomes obvious that Betts could be presented with a handful of the most universally agreed upon aesthetically pleasing individuals in the world and, upon finding out that they were rumoured to be vegan, would spit on the ground and mutter the words "you're disgusting".

In indulging herself in this diatribe, though, Betts does no better than PeTA. She basically takes a list of successful and (mostly) incredibly talented people, some of them non-vegan and the majority of them women, and belittles them according to her really warped perception of their beauty and sex appeal... and she blames this lacking sex appeal on their purported veganism. It's sexist, sensationalist gibberish not worth the bandwidth used to read the article.

On Attempting to Establish Credibility

Betts tries to build herself as some sort of credible authority on the nasties inherent in veganism by asserting that she has not "eaten meat for 30 years, apart from once" and that she "became a vegetarian for precisely the macroeconomic/ecological reasons that Peta [sic] and its furry friends so admire". She rattles off some stuff about how she became aware, as a teenager, that eating grain-fed animals was stealing grain from "the world's poor [humans]" and that this prompted her to go meatless.

To her credit, unlike most of the large welfarist animal organisations, she does not attempt to feign any sort of interest in animal rights. However, her set-up certainly leaves her with no more credibility to critique veganism. Yet, critique it, she does:
[A] diet confined to plants is an asceticism too far: denying the body, as it denies the life – social and otherwise; facilitating animal existence by curtailing human.
She then lists off a bunch of food items as prohibited:
They are obliged to renounce: sugar (coloured with bone char), honey (the toil of bees), red foods (cochineal, made from insects), sweets, mousses, margarines, peanuts and crisps (gelatin, made from animal waste), soy cheeses (the milk protein casein), many breads (butter, whey), beer and wine (tropical fish bladders), even orange juice (often omega-3 enhanced) and the medicinal Bloody Mary (Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies).
It's incredibly misleading, of course. I've been told that most white sugar in the UK is vegan (and even if it wasn't, it's not difficult to find sweetener produced without bone char filtration). Apples are red foods. Not all sweets are made with animal products (and -- gasp! -- you can even make your own without animal ingredients), peanuts and crisps are not all made with gelatin and soy cheeses are not all made with casein. Beer and wine are not all filtered with animal products. Not all orange juice is enhanced with animal-derived omega-3. The way Betts describes it, these things are all off-limits across the board. That's deception, plain and simple: "The life one subscribes to under such circumstances is not only obsessional, it is profoundly boring – for oneself and others. (Who could possibly envision a life without Bloody Marys, after all? The horror!)

It's all downhill from there. Betts goes on to refer to vegans as having the "neurotic cast of mind" apparently required to go vegan when, for instance, hypothetically being presented with an otherwise meatless dish with a "thimbleful of chicken stock" in it at a dinner party and lacking the "compassion" to oblige the host by gobbling it up. (Did you think there'd be no shaming vegans for not eating animal products in this article? Honestly? Scroll down and you'll even find the obligatory "holier-than-thou" reference) Betts continues:

[M]ost of us do not have a problem with the notion of animal needs being subservient to human ones. And, while many avoid the foie gras and veal crate extremes, a jar of honey, or a round of goat’s cheese, do not seem especially savage.
So there we have it. No surprise that she lumps herself in with an "us" that condones animal use. Some may express shock that someone who self-identifies as a vegetarian would seem so callous about exploiting others, but this is where it's useful to point out that vegetarianism is all about continuing to exploit others. There's no ethical significance between drinking a glass of milk, devouring a pork chop or donning a fur coat. Speaking of fur coats, vegan-hating Betts is a fan.

But hey, just to make sure that her readers realize that she really is a voice of authority on all things "veg" and that she's done her time, self-flagellating with the most pesky of unsexy vegans, Betts spells details the horror of her own self-deprivation:
[M]y own periods of even non-fish consuming vegetarianism have also coincided with anaemia, vitamin B and D deficiency, inability to recover from illness, exhaustion and hair loss. “Trimmer” vegans may be, but the ability to bruise while resting my chin on my hand and the sight of hairballs around my flat did not immediately imply “fitter”.
Because, well, nutrition... it's all in the meat, obviously. "Nutritional advice is nothing if contradictory," Betts tells her readers, but then informs them that it's nonetheless generally agreed upon that the healthiest diets in the world include at least some animal products. So it's contradictory if it's pro-vegan, but crystal-clear common sense if it ain't. Got it! It looks as if the diet which I follow while being vegan hasn't yet started to dim my intelligence so much that I can't follow Betts' brilliantly executed and flawless arguments.

Why Dontcha Tell Us How You Really Feel, Sweetheart?

But then again, I have some other issues with which to deal. You see, according to Betts, a vegan like me indulges in "[po]-faced extremes of behaviour" which automatically render me "unsexy". In fact, we vegans are all unsexy "[e]vangelists" and "zealots" and thus "seldom the coolest people in the room". As per Betts, incorporating animal exploitation into our lives would strike a greater balance in terms of "health, planetary preservation [and our] sanity". Hell, it would even finally leave us able to socialise with anyone other than our cats, she says, chuckling to herself over the "gotcha" that the cats eat meat.

Me? I think that given the chance between hanging out with Hannah Betts and a furry feline that I'd take the obligate carnivore's company over the obligate hate mongering idiot's. I get the sense that 99% of the people who left comments in response to her article would agree. Now can someone pass me some alfalfa sprouts? I'm feeling a little faint.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Home as a Safe Zone

Transition and Compromise

Before learning about abolitionist animal rights, I spent many years as a vegetarian, slowly shuffling around animal products, but for the longest time with no actual end goal to go vegan. Veganism was a final step, I'd heard over and over again. Any steps taken towards minimizing my use of animal products were great, I told myself. Veganism was for those nutty pro-violence animal rights activists, I told myself.  I was doing "enough".

For several years, I lived with a non-vegan. He was a non-vegetarian who had suggested to me early on in our relationship -- since I did most of the cooking and thus orchestrated most of our shopping -- that he'd be happy keeping our kitchen meat-free, and to continue sampling the variety of other plant-based products I had begun selecting to bring home home. I was snapping up animal-free alternatives to many familiar food products, curious to try them out. I had replaced our dairy milk with rice and soy. I had traded in our household products for more simple things like baking soda and vinegar. Our scrambled egg or omelet brunches soon revolved around tofu and our morning coffee became whitened with Silk creamer.

My partner even agreed to avoid meat when we ate out together. I don't remember how it came up, but he seemed happy with it. However, although he avoided meat, he leaned heavily on other animal products while I found myself shifting more and more towards vegan options. For a long while, even as I found myself transitioning, I was "alright" with his consuming other animal products. It wasn't so much that I still thought that (not) eating meat was any more ethically significant than (not) using other products, but just that I had continued to consume cheese for years after I had stopped eating meat, myself, so the sight and smell weren't viscerally offensive to me. It was ultimately a compromise, although my own consumption habits were obviously changing.

The reality was that he didn't share my evolving views. It may have been convenient for him to just eat and use whatever was around in our home, but if he ever chose to avoid animal products outside of our home, it was mostly out of deference to me. His going through those motions made our cohabitation less inharmonious than it could have been, but convenience and deference don't build an ethical framework. Eventually, when I was not around, he would "treat" himself to burgers, cheese, eggs and ice cream, sneaking them into our apartment when I was out of town, the wrappers and containers in the trash the only evidence left behind of their consumption. The bottom line was that he did not see anything wrong with using others. Me? All I needed at this point was a small push. The chasm between us was about to get much wider.

A "Liberated" Kitchen

It was not long after we parted ways and I had settled in to living by myself that I made the conscious decision to go -- and to stay -- vegan. I had begun listening to the (now defunct) Vegan Freak Radio podcast hosted by Bob and Jenna Torres. I had decided to join its associated online community. I had also started reading Gary Francione's work. Everything became clear to me: How could I not go vegan? Living alone and being the only person filling or emptying my fridge, my closets and medicine cabinet made it incredibly uncomplicated. There would be no more cheeseburger wrappers, empty egg cartons or chocolate milk containers in the garbage can when I returned from a weekend away. There would be no more uneasy feeling that I was sharing space with someone who obviously just wasn't "getting it" and just going through the motions -- someone who had come to regard animal products as treats of which he was being deprived.

From then on, my kitchen was mine. I might find myself sitting across tables from friends, family, acquaintances and others who would chow down on animal parts, but I would no longer have to do so in the space I chose to call 'home'. It had become my "safe zone" -- the one spot in my immediate life in which I would not be expected to regularly observe and ignore others' animal use from across a table. I swore that it would remain so.  No, veganism isn't just a diet, but drawing the line at food felt reasonable to me.

On Defending My Wee Vegan Space

Over the next year or so, I found myself in a couple of situations with guests where I needed to restate and to re-defend my boundaries. The first such occasion involved friends who had come over for a beer and movie night. At one point after we had all had a few, interest was expressed in getting Chinese takeout. "As long as it's vegan," I reminded my friends. I also pointed out that we could easily, easily walk a few blocks to any number of other eating venues if they wanted something else. We decided on some dishes and I went to return some empty bottles to the kitchen as one friend called in our order. When the food arrived, two of the dishes were meat-based -- they had ordered them anyway. "Lighten up!" I was told. I let it go at the time. It was awkward and new to me to assert myself about my veganism, particularly in a sense that didn't specifically involve my own consumption. I vowed, though, that the experience would never be repeated. I felt disrespected.

Over the subsequent few years, I settled into my decision comfortably. The truth is that I don't often have guests and that most of my socializing involving meals revolves around eating out. Exceptions to this have arisen when I've had friends visit from out of town and/or when I've had company stay overnight. I posted on the My Face Is on Fire Facebook page a few weeks ago to ask about others' experience with maintaining vegan homes, and this was brought up a few times by vegans as sometimes leading to awkwardness, particularly when there are young children involved or guests with their own dietary restrictions.

For me, either friends have shown up with food partially-consumed during their trip, or if we have gone out to eat, the issue of what to do with doggie bags has arisen. A scenario that came up for me recently involved a day-trip into another city with someone I had recently begun dating. Our plan had been to head back to my place to watch movies upon our return. We had dinner before heading back and my friend had his Thai chicken dish boxed up to bring with him. Since we had not yet had a conversation about my house rules, I winced and found myself tucking an unwanted bag into my fridge for several hours. I tried to tell myself that it wasn't a big deal, but the truth is that this was the first time in several years that I found myself with someone bringing non-vegan food into my place when I was able to say something about it.

From Single to Not-so-Single

I ended up having "the talk" with the new dating interest, not thinking that it would be a big issue. The result was that he told me that my rule overly-complicated things and that it imposed restrictions upon him that he felt would make our interaction a pain in the ass for him. What if he stayed over and wanted something specific to eat? Did I really expect him to read the ingredients on every single food item he brought into my home? He claimed that he respected the reasons behind my rule and respected my ethical choices, but said that he nonetheless felt that it was "unfair" to him. Very briefly, I considered telling him not to worry about it -- to forget I had said anything. As soon as I found myself thinking it, I became disappointed in myself and never uttered the words. We rarely ate out together after that and things (very, very) soon fizzled as I found myself unhappy that I had allowed myself to be made to feel guilty about having set such a simple boundary in my own home.

Since finding myself going vegan, only two relationships I've had have progressed to a point where cohabitation was discussed as an eventuality. One was with a vegan while the other had been with a non-vegan who'd expressed willingness to compromise and to keep all products used or consumed at home vegan-friendly. With the latter, I felt as if I was revisiting my vegetarian past, setting myself up to deal with trying to pretend that someone who thought that animal exploitation was alright wouldn't merely end up behaving out of deference to me, but we went off on our separate paths for altogether unrelated reasons before we got to dabble. But how would this work moving forward? What about the next relationship?

Many vegans who live in more densely-populated areas than I do have told me that they refuse to date non-vegans. They do so to avoid any of the aforementioned issues. Many cite the difficulty posed in needing to compartmentalize another's speciesism when you find yourself getting up close and personal with that "other". Some go through the motions and get involved with non-vegans, but then come to this decision after finding themselves in increasingly serious relationships and then left faced with irresolvable ethical differences and the ensuing heartache. When I asked about it on the MFIoF Facebook page, the majority of the respondents to my post expressed that they were happily and harmoniously sharing their homes with other vegans. A few expressed satisfaction with situations involving non-vegan partners or roommates, where compromise of some sort had been reached. Some of the respondents were crossing their fingers that their loved ones would eventually "come around".

The thing is that even though sometimes -- not often -- our non-vegan friends, family or romantic interests do come around, but there's never a guarantee. It's incredibly wrongheaded, I think, to try to build a romantic elationship on the hope that the other person will "eventually" change such a significant aspect of his or her own belief system. I received a surprising number of disheartening private messages from individuals expressing sadness and frustration with their own situations. A few were vegans whose relationships with their respective non-vegan partners either were disintegrating or had disintegrated after compartmentalization or compromise had proved to be too difficult.

Would this too, then, be my fate? Is it really that unrealistic to hope that I may one day get to share my "safe zone" -- my home and the kitchen in it -- with someone whose views on speciesism might actually reflect my own? Is it really so unreasonable to think that in this world, where speciesism permeates each and every aspect of our daily lives, there could be a second human can-opener for Eli-cat and Minou-cat who might not balk at having almond milk with his cereal? Someone who might actually insist on it and also insist on his or her no longer participating in the exploitation of others? I guess we'll see.