Friday, January 29, 2021

On Taking Advice About Veganism from Non-Vegans


It's that time again. Someone out there in the world decided that an article was really needed about their botched experiment with "veganism". (I use that term very loosely while writing about this, since in almost all of these cases, it's completely misused.) Whether it's a reporter for mainstream media or some university student writing for their school paper, these things pop up over and over again throughout the year. Thanks to Veganuary, January tends to dredge up more of them than usual since many of the large animal welfare organizations mount well-funded publicity campaigns to encourage people to "try veganism". What they invariably mean (and if you read the "about" section on the Veganuary website it's spelled out pretty clearly) is to "try following a plant-based diet for a month" for health, environmental and even ethical reasons.

Failure as a Win

Of course veganism is so much more than a diet. And going vegan isn't something that one does temporarily, leaving open-ended whether or not to walk away from it after a set period. Without any forethought at all, without resources or a support system (if even only a single vegan contact) and, mostly importantly, without having made a conscious decision to reject participating in animal exploitation because one has connected the necessary ethical dots, it's just plain silliness to write about spending a month floundering and presenting it to an audience as an earnest attempt to "try veganism".

The writer of such an article is almost always setting themselves up to fail, but then it's probably a case of having the conclusion set before even putting pen to paper. (Do people even put pen to paper, anymore?) Since most of the writer's audience consists of non-vegans, that writer's reaching a conclusion that involves remaining non-vegan is probably the most satisfying to the largest percentage of their readers. So it's ultimately a win for the writer and a win for the publication.

Unfortunately, since so many people believe whatever they read, the frequency of these articles likely leaves people thinking that adopting a plant-based diet -- or actually going vegan -- is about as enjoyable as getting a root canal.

The "Experiment"

In the University of Warwick's purportedly award-winning student newspaper, The Boar, writer Shay Solanki decided to take a kick at the can. She writes that she decided in December of 2019 to reduce her meat intake and that she and her sister then decided to take the leap for Veganuary. While her sister decided to follow a vegetarian diet for the month, Solanki decided to "bec[o]me vegan". 

Just into her second paragraph, Solanki complains that "[s}omething, however, felt quite empty to [her]". She points out that she had been a daily meat eater and that "vegetarianism was mainly reserved for [her family's] older generation" and that although Indian food was "closest to home" for her because of her background and that she was a good cook, that she never felt truly "satisfied" when eating anything.

Describing how "restrictive" it had all been, she informs her readers that as soon as January ended, she "ran straight to fry some fish and felt relieved" and that she continued to eat it and "normal foods" (words matter here) for the following two weeks until she felt guilt and then stopped. But January had been "really tough", had left her "not feeling good" and she had taken it "too seriously", she adds. A friend of hers who had also "tried veganism" for Veganuary had apparently decided to stick with her newfound plant-based diet and Solanki writes that she felt a lot of "pressure" from her to do the same.

So the outcome for Solanki? She decided to take it easier on herself and to be "mostly plant-based" since if she ever traveled to another country "like Morocco or Lebanon" she wouldn't be able to find any food that was "culturally significant" and that it "would be a waste to not explore their culture" by eating food containing animal products. (I laughed at the mention of Lebanon, since it's widely-known that there are so many of what some call "accidentally vegan" traditional dishes to be had there.)

"Fake Innocence"?

Solanki begins to wrap up her article by saying that the worst thing about veganism for her is its "fake innocence". Veganism must be, according to her, simply evil.  She repeats that it purportedly restricts people from being able to experience other cultures and then  she gets really serious: veganism (gasp!) "hinders" you from being able to buy "certain cosmetics and clothes". 

She goes on to list a mishmash of some of the common stereotypical complaints against veganism. In researching its history, she says, 
you'd find its origins in the work of some white guy in the 1940s, but that if you research "properly" you'll find that its origins go back to "ancient Indians and other Mediterranean cultures". (Like Lebanon?) This recent "wave" of veganism, she says, has made plants and meat-alternatives' prices "surge" and that in diverging from its "ancient roots" (presumably by having been promoted by the aforementioned white guy in the 1940s), it has become exclusive and that this exclusivity is "unfair" and "not worth the hassle". 

This confuses me quite a bit since she wrote at the beginning of her article that she spent Veganuary leaning on Indian cuisine, since it was familiar and accessible to her. When I think of traditional vegan-friendly Indian cuisine, I think of chickpeas, lentils and mung beans. I think of potatoes, tomatoes, spinach and zucchini. I think of rice and wheat flour. How would this be too expensive or exclusive? It's such a worn and tired argument against veganism to insist that unless you can do all of your shopping at Whole Foods (or stuff your freezer with overpriced packages of Beyond Sausage), you can't possibly feed yourself as a vegan; it's particularly weird and out-of-place coming from someone who has knowledge of and experience with whole foods (lowercase!) Indian cuisine. 

Solanki then delivers that predictable final blow by attacking vegans directly. "It's a running joke" she says "that vegans are annoying and forceful". From her own expansive experience "it's entirely true in most cases". In fact, she says that (emphasis mine coming up) "as a former vegan, I've often felt guilt pushed on me by other vegans for eating fish". So she's a worldly and weathered vegan after a traumatic one-month stint* feeling deprived
for having limited cosmetics choices and having to rely on the the "accessible" dishes she said are basically relegated to her family's "older generation". And pissy vegans who reject animal exploitation didn’t champion (or sanction) her choosing to exploit other animals. (*At the very end of the article, she states out of the blue that she was "vegan" for six months.)

At the end of the article, after piling stereotypical excuses over each other, Solanski softens her tone to say that veganism might be OK for some. Ajuste in case she wasn’t emphatic enough about it in the article, she confesses to her readers that it just wasn’t for her