Tuesday, January 17, 2017

On "Selective" Morality

It's Tuesday morning, so I've been sifting through various news articles and opinion pieces mentioning veganism. The headline "Why I believe selective veganism is the way forward" caught my eye. It seems an ongoing project for many to co-opt the term "vegan" and to water it down or otherwise alter it to include or promote deliberate animal use for pleasure or convenience. When I clicked on the link, the opinion piece's title became: "Struggling vegan? Why I believe selective veganism is the way forward" which better clarified the writer's likely angle to me. Veganism is haaard! Treat yourself with animal products to make it easier! I hopped that I was wrong, but these pieces have become so predictable.

"Selective Veganism" Explained

Lisa Bowman begins by defining "selective veganism" as "the vegan version of flexitarianism". Basically, she says that while the latter consists of people who are "mostly veggie" occasionally indulging themselves in meat, that "selective vegans" are people who are "mostly vegan" but who occasionally indulge themselves in dairy and eggs. Um. Yeah. "Here we go again," I thought.
Maybe you’re strictly vegan at home but flexible when you go out to eat? Perhaps you’re 100% vegan until you’re offered free food? Or maybe you won’t touch dairy unless you’re hungover as hell.
At least (i.e. at the very, very least) she acknowledges that "most vegans" would view this as a "cop-out" (no, really?), but she doesn't elaborate upon why they would any further, choosing instead to focus on all of the reasons most vegans would probably be better off cutting themselves some slack and, well, not be all that vegan.

Belonging (or How to Avoid Being an Outsider 101)

Bowman makes a huge -- and wrong -- assumption about vegans when she states that most of us she sees posting on sites like Instagram seem to have enormous vegan support networks. The truth is that most of us don't. Outside of major urban areas, most vegans with whom I've spoken have been fortunate if they've known more than 1-2 other vegans off the internet. Social networking helps with this a great deal, since it's a way for us to connect from a distance, or to meet up where we may not have otherwise crossed paths. Sadly, though, many of the new vegans who've written to me via the blog or my blog's Facebook page, though, have mentioned that they knew no other vegans "in real life".

So Bowman brings up socializing and focuses on eating out, saying that since her friends are all non-vegan, she can't eat at "vegan food joints" and finds herself left with only two options. She says she can either "
make do with what’s available for vegans on the menu, which invariably is either nothing or chips and a miserable side salad" or to eat animal products (she specifies that they be "vegetarian") and to not "stress about it". First of all, it should be pointed out that specifying that vegetarian dishes should be chosen is ethically meaningless, since there's no difference between consuming meat, dairy or eggs. In all cases, animals used for these are bred into existence for human pleasure and live wretched lives which end in slaughter. In the case of dairy and eggs, additional lives are taken whether they be of the calves removed from their mothers so that the milk meant for them can be stolen for humans, or the male chicks who end up killed at hatcheries. As for the rest of it? 

It's possible to socialize with people and to have it not involve food. However, if meals are involved, there can still be options which needn't involve what I'm guessing Bowman thinks would be strong-arming your non-vegan friends into a plant-based restaurant. Bowman says she's in Liverpool. As someone who lives in a tiny city (really a big town masquerading as a city) with a population of less than 57,000, I don't have the luxury Bowman mentions of even having access to a strinctly plant-based restaurant. That said, even my small city has at least a couple of vegetarian (and very vegan-friendly) restaurants, a café with half of its menu consisting of vegan-friendly options and then Middle Eastern or Asian restaurants with a good number and variety of dishes perfectly suitable for vegans, as well as pubs and restaurants with at least 1-2 dishes like stir-fries or veggie burgers whose condiments can be switched out if they're dairy-based. Heck, we have at least two pizza places offering plant-based cheese and a popular downtown restaurant offering Daiya and cashew-based mayo as substitutes. I can think of only 3-4 places in the downtown core out of nearly 30 eating establishments where you might find yourself stuck with nothing but french fries.

Is it really be so difficult in a city the size of Liverpool to suggest a place to friends which would have something suitable on its menu? Bowman makes it sound as if your choices are limited to either 1) depriving yourself of the company of your friends, or being with them and 2) depriving yourself of food unless you compromise your ethics to share a table with them. I mean, I just looked at the Happy Cow listings for Liverpool and am envious. 
Honestly, though, if it really came down to it -- if you really found yourself faced with eating fries or a salad with no other options available -- then, so what? I've been asked out to pubs by friends who've shrugged upon realizing that I had no other options but fries on a given menu and I've ordered the fries and made a mental note to avoid the establishment in the future. I don't understand how a vegan whould -- or should be made to -- feel obliged to purchase animal products in such a situation.

On Selfish Pleasure

In a section titled "So that you don't suck all of the joy out of eating" (i.e. another of the excuses she presents for not being vegan), she admits that her weakness is halloumi. She "loves" it, she reveals. She "loves it" when she's hungover and has it "three times a year" and those three times apparently "bring (her) so much happiness, it outweighs the ethical guilt (she feels). Basically, her own selfish pleasure trumps ethics. So what if kicking a puppy made her happy? Or tripping an elderly person to watch them fall? It's confusing when further along in the article, she cites this same halloumi consumption as having led to her feeling physically ill and then goes on to link eating a "clean" diet with eating a plant-based diet, and eating that plant-based diet with orthorexia and then deciding to continue indulging in halloumi and other animal products for mental health reasons. I won't write about this, since we've already seen plenty of the "I listened to my body" confessionals by "ex-vegans" and Bowman doesn't really provide any clear information that her anecdote was any different.

I don't think that Bowman ever clearly refers to herself as a vegan in the article (which is a good thing for many reasons), but it quickly becomes obvious that the piece is less a "how to help struggling vegans" one than Bowman's own self-defensiveness about her own personal choice to continue using other animals and viewing her doing so as somehow treating or rewarding herself. This self-defensiveness becomes even more obvious later in the article when it takes a more hostile turn.

A Good Vegan is a Quiet Vegan

Bowman writes that unless you're a "shouty" vegan, most people won't know that you're vegan so that having to disclose that one is vegan is "awkward". She brings up for instances of being invited to someone's home for dinner or where coworkers surprise you with food. The workplace awkwardness from the latter, I think, would be better avoided altogether if her coworkers simply knew she was vegan in the first place (although by this point in the article, it's obvious that she isn't). Perhaps her own awkwardness comes from having already eaten animal products in front of her coworkers and, thus, feeling hypocritical about calling herself a "vegan" at work, then having to explain why she arbitrarily shifts her boundaries in other circumstances. In this case, I think that being consistent about her ethics would probably be a better solution than using her inconsistency as an additional excuse to further consume animal products. But for an actual vegan, I think that simply clearly self-identfying as vegan could stave off a lot of possible awkwardness.

As for dinner invitations? It's pretty commonplace these days for people to identify or clarify their dietary requirements whenever sharing meals is brought up. But I guess I could see how someone who chooses to side-step ethics to feel a part of the non-vegan gang eating out might be conflicted about asking members of that gang to take her (non-existent?) ethics into consideration when they invite her into their homes for a meal.
Bowman also thinks that explaining that you're vegan entails explaining why you're vegan, and that explaining why you're vegan is "patronising" and to be avoided. (I'm guessing this is where she thinks the "shouty" vegans come in.) She states that rather than risk being patronising, she would choose to exploit other animals. (Note, though, that she again draws an ethically meaningless line here, asserting that she'd consume dairy "to avoid an awkward situation" but would not do so with "meat".)  She brings up travel and mentions that during a stint working at a yoga camp in India, all of the food made available to her contained meat and dairy and that she would have been a "pr*ck" to her hosts if she had abstained. Basically,

Bowman makes it clear, however, that it's not just a question of what she considers to be good manners to eat whatever food is provided to her as someone who presents as eating anything; she throws in somewhat flippantly that she'll eat non-vegan food that's free, since "free food tastes better". 

On Letting the Haters Keep Hating

Bowman also brings up that to avoid getting into a debate about veganism with people who might be antagonistic, she will choose to deliberately eat animal products in front of them and to verbally self-identify as not being vegan. This has got to be one of the most bizarre things I've read in a long while. Of course, at this point in the article, we know that she neither is, nor views herself as a vegan in the sense of the word in which most understand and accept it (regardless of how she later goes on to describe herself as "95% vegan"), so these reasons she continues to list off become more and more confusing. She's writing about how vegans should behave by explaining how she, as a non-vegan, opts to behave in certain situations. This one is no different. I think there are probably much better ways -- certainly more ethical ways -- to avoid or to get out of an unwanted debate about veganism for an actual vegan than to eat animal products and to distance oneself from the term. Bowman seems to have internalized so many negative anti-vegan stereotypes, though, that she can't even actually put herself in the shoes of an actual vegan to consider any other options.

This is evident in her stating that her so-called "selective veganism" allows you to "distance yourself from the extreme vegans". By "extreme" she cites vegans, who confided to other vegans in a Facebook group she had joined, that sitting at a table on Christmas day with non-vegan family members and watching them eat an animal was upsetting to them. She suggests that they should just suck it up
and "get on with it". She then misses the point made by these vegans entirely by insisting:
Just because someone eats meat or milk doesn’t make them a bad person. Their heart may just lie in other ethics.
So, ruining everyone’s Christmas by muttering ‘murderer’ darkly at the dinner table every time Gramps lifts a piece of turkey to his lips isn’t okay. 
There's a difference between leaning on fellow-vegans for support in a private setting (e.g. in a Facebook group) because something is upsetting to you, and being passive-aggressive and/or rude at a dinner table. Also, just because someone's behaviour is upsetting to you doesn't necessarily mean that you think they're a "bad person" in general. Vegans learn to compartmentalize when living the lives in which we constantly interact with other non-vegans. We know that exploiting others is wrong and we live with the reality that over 98% of the people around us actively participate in that cycle, including people who have been our loved ones since before we went vegan. We do still see the behaviour as wrongful, though. But what on earth does it mean to say "(t)heir heart may just lie in other ethics"? It's gibberish to me (but then so is much of this article, to some extent or another).

The "Takeaway"?

She finishes off the article with the typical reducetarianist arguments that "every little bit helps". She uses an argument I'm used to hearing from groups like the misleadingly named welfarist group "Vegan" Outreach, that eating some animal products makes veganism (sic) more "sustainable in the long run". Let's get this straight: Vegans don't deliberately consume or otherwise use easily avoidable animal products. So, if you deliberately consume or otherwise use easily avoidable animal products, you're not a vegan. Your continuing to deliberately participate in animal exploitation doesn't make your "veganism" more "sustainable"; it makes your continued animal exploitation more "sustainable" for you. It just reflects that you haven't taken a long hard look at your own speciesism and that you haven't rejected the notion that other animals exist for human pleasure or convenience. The former is quite significant and the latter is pretty much what going vegan entails.

Veganism isn't a diet imposed on you against your will. Vegans choose to go vegan because it's quite honestly the very least we owe other animals. It's not something you can adhere to 95% of the time while viewing it as a treat to gobble up this or that animal part or product for your own pleasure or convenience. If you view consuming or using other animals as a "treat" to which you're entitled for otherwise depriving yourself of using them, you really (no, really) need to ask yourself what's going on in your heart and head. Criticising veganism as being "too all-or-nothing" if it doesn't involve your choosing to gobble up your beloved dairy-based halloumi misses the point of veganism entirely. Bowman may view deliberately using animals as being a her being a "selective vegan" or "struggling vegan" when the plain truth is that it's neither. It's just ordinary ol' non-veganism.

Ultimately, the only valid thing Bowman has written in this entire article is that most vegans would view her position -- one advocating animal use for vegans as a means to stay "vegan" -- as a "cop-out". It's a "cop-out" at the very least. Sadly, though, Bowman's piece is a pretty standard example of the kind of speciesism reinforced and promoted by a wide number of purported animal advocates today. We need to do better. We need to do so much more.

Monday, January 09, 2017

On Whinging About Going Vegan When Not Going Vegan

Earlier this morning, on the My Face Is on Fire Facebook page, I posted a link to a Huffington Post blog by Lee Willscroft-Ferris, founder of TheQueerness.com. Its first post was basically an announcement to set it up, presenting the context behind it that Willscroft-Ferris -- a longtime vegetarian -- had decided that going vegan was the next "logical step" for them to take, describing the ethical reasons behind doing so. Although the blog title ("Veganism: My Journey Towards Ethical Eating") is unfortunate, Willscroft-Ferris does describe going vegan in terms of overall lifestyle choices and as a "political" act, so hopefully it won't ultimately hinge upon food, but will explore all aspects of animal use. I'm keeping my fingers crossed although sometimes when it comes to writings about veganism in mainstream media, doing so feels like waiting for crumbs to be thrown.

Usually, so very many of these types of opinion pieces in the media end up being insincere bandwagon-hopping attempts to just drop the word "vegan" in an article without the article's ever actually having anything to do with veganism. Someone will decide to put themselves on a diet without doing any research whatsoever, then spend the article or series whinging about how deprived and inconvenienced they felt because they had no ethical issue with using animals in the first place. This is almost always the case with anyone who adopts a different diet without preparing themselves for it, though. Throw into the equation that veganism isn't just a diet and that there's this little thing called "motivation" which factors into the decision made by those deciding to actually go vegan in earnest and it's no wonder that these types of articles so often present "going vegan" as an awful experience.

Take for instance this article on the German Deutsche Well (DW) broadcaster's website. In "Visiting vegan: Could you give up animal products for a week?", British Berlin-based reporter Louise Osborne decides to embark upon the #howgreenami challenge (which I think is an environmentally-focused short-term thing launched by someone or other on Twitter) by purportedly "living vegan for a week". I found myself shaking my head from the beginning of the article. She describes having to replace warm fur-lined leather boots for cold Converse sneakers (there are plenty of winter footwear options available on the market which aren't made using animal products and which still keep your feet comfortable warm). Thus, from the start, "living vegan" is portrayed as miserable. In fact, just two days and four paragraphs in, Osborne states that all she feels is "resentment".

That it's self-depriving is also drilled home as the Brit writes about having had to give up her morning tea, because she usually drinks it with "a splash of milk" and hasn't been able to subject herself to the absolute horror of trying out a plant-based milk in it. She writes: "I'm not quite that desperate … not yet, anyway." So much for even exploring other options. She just assumes that those options would be hideous.

She pauses at this point to drop some statistics at this point about the rise in veganism in the United Kingdom, mentions the oft-cited UN report on the link between meat consumption and greenhouse gases, discusses the popularity of veganism in her adopted home of Berlin, then jumps right back into writing about her woeful experiment.

She decided to point out the social inconvenience of going vegan by bringing up an unplanned and unresearched restaurant outing with friends. The restaurant chosen ends up being one specializing in cheese fondue and grilled meat and as her friends encourage her to "cheat", she orders up creamless pumpkin soup and french fries. As her friends indulge in fondue, she whinges that she feels "left out" even though she doesn't "even like cheese". At this point, the writer's tone seems more akin to that of a sullen or petulant child's than it does one befitting a reporter earnestly exploring an angle for a story. She admits to having "cheated" and to having had wine she knew was processed with animal products and writes that "(i)gnorance is bliss".

She complains about visiting a vegan-friendly restaurant and ending up with chocolate she felt was sub-par compared to the milk chocolate she loves. Then, back to this weird confusion about clothing and her choosing to portray vegans as suffering through the winter months, she complains about her cotton scarves failing to keep her warm. She brings up the word "deprivation" to launch into the token interview with someone presented as an authority on old-hat veganism, writing that she wanted to know how "they lived" with deprivation. So she goes to a market and talks to a purported "health" vegan, then to someone motivated by animal welfare and treatment.

Osborne takes the opportunity to discuss treatment, writing that although she's concerned about it, that she doesn't "
absolutely oppose animals being slaughtered for food". She then brings up that old overused "but if we don't use wool, we'd have to use fossil fuels to make clothing" excuse. She then returns to her token vegan expert, the welfarist, who admits to her that she still uses leather and believes in making her "own rules" about which animal products she uses. She tells Osborne that she doesn't like being told what to do. Osborne wraps up her article agreeing with this attitude, referring to veganism as overly "strict" and finishing her piece off on an "every little bit counts" note.

The (un)funny thing is that these days, many welfarist animal advocates would likely read this article and repost it, presenting it as a positive thing and as a "victory" in terms of veganism being written about in mainstream media. To me, articles like these just reinforce the same old tired lies peddled by large welfarist organisations that veganism is too hard, too extreme, too alienating to the general public, too inflexible, et al. It's articles like these which these organisations use as "proof" that going vegan should be presented not as the least one can do for other animals, but as the most. Articles like these get used to argue in favour of focusing public education on flexitarianism, reducetarianism and all other forms of what is, essentially, excusetarianism. What we need to remind ourselves is that articles like these aren't about going vegan and that if we don't speak up about what going vegan really is that nobody will connect the dots. If we don't dispel the lies and bust the stereotypes, nobody else will. Louise Osborne certainly won't.