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.


M said...

This was just emailed to me by someone who was apparently experiencing difficulty leaving a comment. If others are experiencing the same problem, please drop me a line.



Vegans don't deliberately consume or otherwise use easily avoidable animal products.

Well, this certainly is the baseline. I advoate new vegans to just stop eating the animals and anything that comes off off or out of them. That's the first big step. It's pretty easy to avoid the ground beef or the cheese. Less easily is the rice made with chicken broth. It does become dauntingly eye opening for the new vegan to see all the places that animal ingredients find their way into. Milk in bread? Yep. There is a learning curve the well intentioned new vegan finds themself riding on.

So something that starts out easily seen, when learing more about it, becomes more difficiult to achieve. I have an app on my phone that drills down into some of the chemicals in my food. And then there is "dough conditioners" which can contain L cystine derived from human hair or duck feathers. It becomes more complicated because we choose to make it more complicated but there is a big difference between avoiding somethign which MIGHT contain an animal product and one you KNOW certainly does.

I used to identify, (incorrectly), as a vegan when I was still flying and would find myself on the road eating at a place with no vegan options. I was SOOOooo close that I figured what difference do those 3 meals out of the 90 I ate a month matter. Fries, (made in the same oil as the chicken and shrimp of course) and salad with oil and vinegar never crossed my mind back then although it would now.

People like her need to be called out. It is the only way someone can change their paradigm. I did.

So thanks. Nicely done.

Marty's V Burger

Keith Berger said...

Excellent essay! I was unaware of it till now.

I need to pay better attention to what wonderful vegan advocates like you are doing these days!