Monday, June 18, 2018

We're a Happy Family! (Or Why "Veg" Groups Don't Work.)


I spent years as a vegetarian. I've talked about this before. I first decided to eschew meat when I was around 19 years old. I had become an environmentalist, reading up as much as I could on how human habits were wrecking the planet. I became a less wasteful consumer and then sought to do more. At one point, I wrote a weekly column for my hometown paper; later, I spent a summer working on a project to promote recycling. An old high school friend who'd become a vegetarian soon easily convinced me that not eating meat fit in with my environmentalist ethics and so I stopped eating meat. It's bizarre to me in hindsight that, as a lifelong animal lover, I never connected the dots about animal use and its effects on those very beings who are actually being used. I didn't even really think about it when I decided to stop eating their flesh to "save the planet". There was no World Wide Web yet.   

I remained vegetarian for a few years, focused intently on ensuring that I consumed enough legumes and whole grains to meet my protein needs. The "protein myth" was still being passed around at the time and the old second-hand vegetarian cookbooks I found also presented the need for carefully complementing proteins as a given. I also upped my consumption of dairy (mostly cheese) and although I had never really liked consuming eggs, I shuffled them in as a semi-regular part of my diet. I had to "replace" the meat I wasn't eating, after all. I began regularly scooping tofu out of the briny bin of my city's health food store and added it to absolutely everything. Usually plain and raw. I eventually lapsed a few upon starting a new relationship which led to my sharing a living space with a non-vegetarian musician. The trees would be alright without my help for a while, I figured.

I picked it back up again after watching a documentary on the Chinese fur industry with my cat Tarwater curled up on my lap. I watched footage of cats and dogs crammed into cages, listening to the reporter describe their fate. I started to cry and held Tarwater more closely. Then a few animal rights activists were interviewed and they mentioned vegetarianism and how killing cats for their fur was no worse than killing chickens for their flesh and that eating meat caused so much environmental devastation. That did it! I had to become a "vegetarian" again! 

My Introduction to Online "Community" and to "Those Pesky Vegans"

It wasn't long after this that I found myself with internet access for the first time ever. My reasons for re-exploring vegetarianism had become more animal-related than tree-inspired and I promptly located and joined a large and popular "veg" internet forum and found community. My life was spent interacting with non-vegetarians (including coworkers who constantly tried to challenge or debate me in the communal workplace kitchen and family members who viewed my vegetarianism as a rude social imposition on them at gatherings). The online forum I called "home" for the next couple of years was predominantly made up of vegetarians who avoided meat for any number of reasons -- health, the environment, allergies, religion, etc. There were some vegans in the community, but the terms "veg*an" and "veg" were tossed around a lot to lump together both vegans and vegetarians. The forum's vegans had their own separate "veganism" and "animal rights" discussion boards and were repeatedly directed to them by forum moderators. 

In fact, discussions of veganism felt as if they were more or less relegated to those boards. Whenever a vegan had the audacity to gently point out what was ethically problematic with a form of animal use brought up by a non-vegan, it only took one or two vegetarians to pipe up that they felt "judged" or "offended" for the vegan in question to be swiftly reminded that there were already designated "vegan discussion boards" to discuss vegan issues. A public scolding of the vegan usually ensued and everyone was reminded that the forum was "a place were all veg*ans" could "come together in kinship", since we all purportedly "shared common values" and were "all on the same path, but just at different points along our respective journeys"--as if we were all, in fact, moving toward some sort of common goal. Vegans who spoke up for themselves or for other animals were disparaged as whiny, disrespectful and combative and as ruining all of the hard work accomplished by the site's wealthy hosts. Vegans in general were often written off as being vegetarianism's extremist fringe-dwellers.

But you know what? As a young non-vegan vegetarian who was dealing with being mocked and misunderstood by those around me offline for choosing not to eat meat, I was grateful to find company with others who could relate when I shared my experiences. I wanted the comfort of community -- of peaceful community. Defending my choices and getting wrangled into debates offline could be exhausting. To be honest, I at first resented those pesky vegans for rocking the boat. They were upsetting the day-to-day camaraderie I enjoyed with others who'd also shuffled this or that animal product from their diets. They were upsetting people -- vegetarians -- by pointing out to us how we were not doing enough. "The nerve of them!" I thought. "Can't we all just get along? Isn't it bad enough to get attacked from people on the outside without having to be attacked by others 'like us' in what should be a safe space?" I was singled out as a weirdo in the offline world for choosing not to eat meat and (even though no comments were ever directed at me specifically) felt I was being singled out by vegans in this merged community for not doing more. I couldn't shut up my offline critics, but I was grateful that my fellow vegetarians and the moderators maintaining the peace on this site were able to shut up the vegans I felt were picking on the rest of us.

"Those Pesky Vegans" Re-examined

Veganism was portrayed as an extreme point at the end of a purportedly shared journey. Vegetarians (regardless of whether or not they had voiced intentions to actually go vegan) were lumped together with them, often protectively coddled as "potential" vegans. More often, they were condoned as "doing good" wherever they'd decided to "pause along their journey". So vegans were told to keep their "preaching" and "proselytizing" to themselves. In fact, those who failed to comply immediately were often heckled by a small handful of longtime regulars (who were often vague about their own animal use, while making it clear that they were financially well-off and tight with the site's financially well-off owners). Labels like "vegan police" and "holier-than-thou" were thrown around to shame vegans into silence. Many vegans left the forum altogether, since standing up for themselves (or for other animals while in "mixed" company) often escalated into a very public expulsion and (usually) banning. The vegans were viewed as the wrongdoers. Even within a so-called "veg" community, vegans were made to feel ashamed about expressing aloud (or in print, as the case may be) what they knew we really owe other animals if we take their interests--their lives--seriously. 

But you know what else? Watching what was going on had an impact. Hearing these "oh-so-extremist" vegan messages politely -- or passionately! -- pop up again and again? Watching vegans get shamed into silence for expressing themselves in what was supposed to be an inclusive community? It left me wondering why only the overlapping points -- the lowest common denominator, if you will -- were deemed acceptable to bring up. One way or another, even though I had not yet connected the dots to go vegan, the constant anti-vegan hostility was enough to make me look for a new community. I explored a few more places over the years, including one I helped build after experimenting with veganism and where (although the vegan vs. vegetarian dynamic was much healthier and much more respectful of veganism) I still found myself feeling as if I needed to censor myself. I had begun my transition towards veganism and I wanted to be able to talk about it without worrying about being accused of hurting the feelings of others who had no desire to go vegan. That said, being "around" other vegans was great, helping the vegan-curious who wanted to transition was validating. 

I couldn't as time went on, however, deal with the awkwardness of sharing a community with some folks who were vegetarian and who'd made it clear that they had no interest in or intention of going vegan. I was finally connecting the dots and finding myself meeting blank or incredulous stares when talking to friends or family about my decision. The community I needed at the time had to be more than a meatless mirror to what I was experiencing offline. I eventually stumbled across the Vegan Freak Radio podcasts and discovered the amazing online forum called "Vegan Freaks" where veganism was promoted, discussed and shared in a no-nonsense and unapologetic way. I'd finally found my cohort. No more excuses: I went and stayed vegan and it was a true relief.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

With a perceived rise in interest in veganism on a local level, I recently joined a regional Facebook group set up for both vegetarians and vegans in my area. I thought it might be interesting to get to know other vegans offline. I soon got into a heated discussion with a vegetarian dog breeder who had stated outright that she had no interest in going vegan and that since the group was for both vegetarians and vegans, that she expected the vegans to respect her choice to continue participating in animal exploitation. She distorted my calm and objective criticism of breeding dogs for profit and human pleasure (particularly when millions are killed in shelters each and every year) and accused me of launching a personal attack. She, in turn, launched into a passive-aggressive defense of her "choices" calling me "judgmental" and insisting that I was making her feel unwelcome.

One astute member of the group messaged me to point out that the breeder had just recently appeared to be flaunting her animal use and trying to shame vegans into censoring themselves. She had criticized a photo someone had posted about the plight of dairy cows, outraged that it had been permitted in the group, insisting that it was offensive to those in the group who consume dairy. She'd then started up a discussion to get vegetarians to list off their favourite dairy cheeses. (Goading with gouda?) But her behaviour had been overlooked. Her outrage came to a head after my debate with her about dog breeding. 
As a result of my not bowing down and telling her that there's nothing wrong with using animals for pleasure and profit (or with breeding dogs into existence when so many are abandoned into shelters and killed each year), she made several furious posts threatening to leave the group and to form a separate group excluding vegans where "vegetarians wouldn't be judged".  It's one of the first hissy-fit tactics they'd teach you about in "Online Forums/Groups 101" if such a course existed. Make a lot of noise, play victim, garner sympathy and portray the person with whom you have a difference as a vicious bully. Many stepped up, showering her with her attention and reassurances that "different views" were respected in our group and that she should stay. She left anyway.I ended up getting a personal message from one of the group's moderators. I was told that I was being negative and "alienating" by calling animal use other than meat-eating unethical. I felt as if I'd been swooped back in time. I quote from the message: 

"We are all on the same page and our hearts are all in the right place. Some just aren't there yet and need love, encouragement and acceptance for the changes they do make and not criticism for the changes they haven't been able to make yet. Every little bit counts and should be encouraged. Something is better than nothing. Please keep your opinions about milk and eggs to yourself unless someone specifically asks you for them. Please do not criticize someone's livelihood or profession. This group is to unite us in our common cause and we should focus on the values we share and not on our differences. You're making vegans look unkind." 

It's sad enough that animals are used unapologetically by over 98% of the human population and that vegans are shamed into silence when walking around in the regular old world. To have the moderator of a group for vegans and vegetarians basically tell me to shut the fuck up about the ethics of animal use lest I offend someone who chooses to use them felt like way too many steps backwards.

Veganism Is Not Vegetarianism

It had been over 20 years since I had first encountered that sort of chastising in a "veg" community. Had absolutely nothing changed?
 But it got me thinking again about why these mixed groups don't work and wondering why on earth I had thought it would be any different at a local level. Basically, it was more of the same moral confusion I'd encountered over a decade earlier. Disagreements are pretty much a given whenever vegetarians and vegans share a space. Why? Because we're not the same. The truth is that you either deliberately choose to exploit animals for your pleasure and/or convenience or you choose to avoid -- as far as possible -- to exploit animals for your pleasure and/or convenience. Vegetarians who are not actively transitioning towards veganism choose to continue to participate in animal exploitation. Plant-based dieters who otherwise use animals and reject veganism as extreme or unnecessary choose to continue to participate in animal exploitation. They are no different than others who choose to do the same, whether those others are pescatarians, flexitarians, or eat-everything-arians. There are vegans and there are non-vegans. Sometimes there are non-vegans who are going vegan. But we need to stop assuming that all non-vegans are going vegan. We need to stop feeling obliged to lump ourselves in with non-vegans who are not going vegan and to sacrifice truth or to sacrifice vegan community because we're crossing our fingers that if we're nice enough, maybe those stubborn non-vegans will stop willingly participating in the torture and slaughter of other sentient beings.

And if we do share spaces, rather than choose the lowest common denominator as a guideline for behaviour or as a foundation for community standards 
(i.e. to act as if animal exploitation is OK), we should opt to raise the bar. I'm 100% behind helping others who want to transition. But these shared spaces -- if they are to successfully exist -- should be ones where vegans feel safe and where the non-vegans in them are actually actively and in good faith seeking help to go vegan. These spaces should be ones where vegan principles are respected, upheld and promoted. If a non-vegan hasn't gotten to the point where they are willing to behave accordingly in a space shared with vegans, then that individual has obviously not connected the dots about whether or why they should go vegan. That individual is no different from any other non-vegans outside of that space who thumb their noses at vegans or at veganism. And a space in which speciesism and exploitation are either condoned, shrugged off or promoted surely ain't the place to get anyone to connect any dots. This is especially so in "veg" communities or groups which are comprised of those who reject animal exploitation and of non-vegans who see no ethical issue with the continued human use of other animals.

You either reject animal exploitation or you don't. If you don't reject it, we're not "on the same team". We're not "on the same path". And you're not part of my vegan community. I don't want my vegan community to grow by using non-vegans as filler to make it seem larger than it is; I want my vegan community to grow by changing people's hearts and heads about what it is we owe other animals and to help them go vegan. I don't think that's unreasonable to ask.