Archive for the ‘Vegan Activism’ Category
After years of this kind of writing, the kind of writing I do here, I’m starting to see my name preceded by “vegan author.” Naturally. I identify as a vegan and thus am happy to embrace the qualification. That said, I don’t really put it out there myself. When people ask for a bio, I send them a description that fails to note that I’m a vegan. I’m wondering what’s up with this hesitancy.
I suppose part of it has to do with the fact that, technically speaking, I’m not a vegan. I ride in vehicles with leather seats when I could opt out. I drive a car and have run over squirrels and birds and snakes and not really cared too much about it. I’m certain I’d have no qualms eating insects and am even more certain that I already have, although inadvertently, eaten insects—just this morning, in fact, on a gorgeous ten-mile run down some winding streets in Maine (several gnats in my craw). Insofar as veganism is living in a way “that does not exploit animals,” according to the Vegan Society, I fail on more accounts than I care to mention. Moreover—key point to note—I could change my actions to reduce that exploitation: but I don’t. Too damn inconvenient.
Another reason that I’m ambivalent about shouting my vegan status from the moutaintops is that I’ve noticed over the years how, for those who aggressively identify as vegan, their veganism is primarily about the depth of their personal loyalty (and the inadequacy of others’) rather than on reducing animal suffering. By giving the habit we hope to prevail a Name, by tattooing it on our arms and celebrating as the numbers joining the club grow, and touting that Name above all else, we forget that social change does not happen when everyone joins in and gets stamped with a V. There’s something possibly cultish-smelling here that, however right it might be, grates against my sense of radical individualism, not to mention that this “us and them” way to see the world seems misguided and alienating to a lot of people.
Here’s something I think about a lot: before I became vegan—or, stopped eating animal products (I recall being impressed with a person) a really charismatic person—asking that his pizza come without cheese or meat. He did this without hesitation in front of a dozen hipster meat eaters. When I asked him why, he said animals were treated terribly to bring food to the plate and he wanted to minimize his role in that suffering. He never said he was a vegan and he never proselytized. At that point in my life, if he had done either, I would have thought “extreme” and ordered the jambon. Instead, he quietly and unknowingly pushed me in the direction of where I am now—a vegan in name, albeit a hesitant one rather comfortable with ambiguity and uncomfortable with a label.
Next week Slow Food USA will host an event called Slow Meat 2014. Allan Savory, the current guru of rotational grazing, will deliver the keynote address. Obscuring the ethics of slaughter behind culinary rhetoric, the event—among other stunts—will “honor” the American bison (the meeting is in Colorado) with an “artistic, narrated breakdown.” Which basically means Slow Foodies will slaughter the bison, butcher him, and discuss their actions with high-minded intentionality. They will not rush.
Ellen Kennelly (a frequent participant at the Pitchfork) and I recently discussed the importance of getting ahead of the media on these issues by attempting to preempt predictably uncritical coverage. Any reporter covering this event, for example, should understand that Allan Savory’s colleagues have seriously questioned his research. They should also know that there are ethical implications to killing a sentient animal for the purposes of entertainment and culinary indulgence. Fast food or slow, these issues should be addressed, or at least fall on the media radar. In an important respect, there’s a reason that thousands of people will gather to witness the slaughter of a bison and not question the act: a lack of knowledge.
To that end, Ellen—who is one of those people who is constantly engaging the public on animal issues in the most tactful and effective manner—wrote the following letter to her acquaintances in the Slow Food club. It’s an invitation to discuss the issues that concern animal advocates. Not fight over. Discuss. She also outlined for me the kind of information we should seek to present to those who attend and write about this event. I think it’s all very smart.
The meeting will happen. Slow Food will go on. The bison will die and be eaten. But that doesn’t mean our outrage can’t exist more publicly, in the mainstream media, rather than merely seething in the confines of our little blogs.
I trust you will share this information far and wide.
My son and I just finished the final episode of Masterchef Junior. It’s a compelling show. I’d even say that—the obvious detriment notwithstanding—it’s a great show. Kids aged 8-13 draw upon a wealth of hidden talent and experience to cook meals that could be featured in any top restaurant in the country. The show offers an important reminder that, when parents back off a bit and let kids loose they can force you to redefine “age appropriate” behavior. Inspired, my son has practically commandeered the kitchen and gone to work. I’m now watching him make a vegan tempura batter. Yum.
Now, to that obvious detriment notwithstanding. The recipes on Masterchef Junior would make a carnivore quiver like a tuning fork. When the judges taste the superlative results emanating from the kids’ kitchen, their reaction is visceral. They lurch forward, brows furrowed, eyes rolling back into their heads. “I want to give you a hug,” one of them might say. Or, “this meal could be a restaurant’s signature dish.” The kids beam.
The suffering behind it all is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. The failure to connect the animal products to the animals was especially clear when the kid who ended up winning the competition—aged 13—cooked a meal that the judges said was the best they’d seen and tasted in four years. It was a veal chop. With that victory, the essence of our culture’s disconnection from the food we eat was affirmed. My son and I could not help but note that the winner won because he cooked a baby cow.
Vegans are increasingly getting involved in all sorts of video projects, many of which are necessarily dark and depressing. A cooking show that featured kids cooking first rate vegan meals, being judged by top vegan chefs, could be a great way to raise awareness, celebrate kids’ interest in plant-based cuisine, and demonstrate that a vegan, too, can melt with pleasure when tasting finely prepared food.
There are few ambitions more audacious than trying to convince someone to change his diet on ethical grounds. Eating is, at its core, an act of personal intimacy and nobody really wants to be instructed on how to be intimate. We like to think we’ve got that one figured out.
This point is one that a lot of animal advocates forget when we present our case with what seems like airtight moral logic, only to then be ignored or scorned by folk who are perfectly happy with their BLT and BBQ, thank you very much.
It drives animal advocates a bit nuts. When we congregate we will often say, somewhat plaintively, “when will people realize what they’re doing to animals? When will change happen?!” Brows furrow. Heads shake in frustration.
The problem with the question, of course, is that it rests on the flawed assumption that humans respond to moral logic with appropriate behavioral change. Not only is this wrong, and not only is the moral logic we espouse rarely as persuasive as we think it is, but the truly daunting fact of the matter is that, in politely asking humanity to stop eating animals, we overlook how eating animals is more than a cultural choice. It’s a biological act rooted in our deepest eco-evolutionary past.
Now, that doesn’t make it right (as readers know I’m well aware). But let’s take this seriously: a couple million years of hunting and gathering, not to mention the adaptation of the human brain to life on the African savannah, makes the carnivore doet a pretty freakin’ tenacious habit
Three aspects of our evolutionary legacy strike me as particularly relevant to the claim that, when it comes to eating animals, the past has a commanding and assuredly long-term hold on the present. In this post, I’ll note just one.
It has to do with the experimental backstory to the human carnivore’s diet. As a species, hominids did not burst on the scene and start eating a standard diet appropriate to their needs.
The standard diet appropriate f0r hominids (and homo sapiens) in the pre-agricultural era was forged through endless and terrifying trial and error. Plants and animals were tested, accepted, rejected. They were savored, flavored, regurgitated. People routinely died because of poor dietary choices. Others thrived.
In other words, an essential part of becoming and being human involved testing the natural world to see what would keep us in the game. A tremendous amount of evolutionary energy was invested in this process, one that, by virtue of hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated assessments of what “works,” made eating at least some meat central to being human.
That fact might run counter to contemporary animal ethics, but it’s a heavy anchor to pull up all at once.
Here is what an orca whale eats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “a wide range of prey, including fish, seals, and big whales such as blue whales.” They also consume herring, cod, squid, and octopus. They are actually the largest known marine mammals to kill and eat other mammals, consuming 375-500 pounds of food a day.
In no way bound to the ethical standards of humans, they are, nonetheless, massive destroyers of sentient life. They have to be in order to live. But they don’t, as it turns out, eat humans. Not because they take pity on us. But because we’re too bony and don’t smell right. Plus, they never see us in the wild. We generally don’t swim in their waters.
I mention these details not as a lead-in into yet another story on SeaWorld, but as an attempt to make sense of Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson’s truly bizarre recent claim that, “I would rather have been born an orca.” Evidently he’s serious. “No kidding,” he writes, “I really would.”
Why would he want to be an orca? Humans, so quick to the pull the trigger on each other, have dismayed Masson so thoroughly—we killed 200 million of our own in the 2oth century–that he wants to join the orca clan because orcas have “killed exactly zero of their kind.” In this respect—the fact that they spare their own—he adores their “gentle lives.” Intended to be a plea for compassion, Masson’s gambit is really an expression of self-preservation and moral exoneration.
First the self-preservation. Masson’s main problem with humans, at least as he articulates it in the article, is that we kill other humans. This intra-species violence is why he wants to jump ship from humanity and join the “gentle” orca community, a species that shreds to death some of the smartest creatures alive and eats their children. Note that Masson doesn’t condemn humans for killing other species, as orcas do (and he would get to do as an orca), but only for killing each other. So the claim, although hardly his intention, ultimately suggests that Masson wants to leave the human world and join the orcas because he’d be safer and maybe live longer.
Being an orca would also let Masson off the ethical hook, allowing him to become a guiltless shredder of ocean animals while garnering respect from Masson-types as peace-lovers for not killing their own (or humans). In his tirade against his own, Masson writes, “There may be no orca heroes, but nor are there orca psychopaths . . .” What Masson fails to acknowledge is that, because there are no orca psychopaths, there are also no orca animal rights activists. There are no orcas who will stand up and say, “stop the slaughter of our octopi brethren!”
So, if Masson were an orca he would a) destroy blue whales while b) bearing none of the ethical responsibility for doing so. As a human, though, he admirably has assumed the burden of responsibility (writing wonderful books on animals), a burden that he would, if his wish came true, toss off as casually as he did this silly article.
Just as we experience outrage when Big Agriculture’s deep pockets lobby for subsidies and deregulation, so we should react when a bunch of great writers lend their literary talents to a fast-food company with a history of greenwashing.
That’s now happening with Jonathan Safran Foer and the team of writers he has “curated” to further thicken Chipotle’s rhetorical soup. Like Big Ag’s iron triangle, this relationship reeks of self-interest and faux populism. Simply put, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
So far the reviews of this initiative are rotten, as they should be. But what’s problematic is not that the writing—all done on cups and bags—isn’t insultingly bad, but that this project happened in the first place.
That an impressive slew of cultural critics and deep thinkers—ranging from Toni Morrison to Steven Pinker—didn’t think better about cheapening their talents by using them to promote a food franchise bodes poorly for the state of intelligent public discourse. It’s like all those cool kids in high school, the best looking ones with the nicest clothes and fanciest cars, who were so collectively enthralled with their clique that were unable to see how ridiculous they looked to the rest of us.
Beyond the embarrassment of this literary-burrito association, though, is the goofy reasoning behind it. Here’s Foer’s quote in Vanity Fair: “I mean, I wouldn’t have done it if it was for another company like a McDonald’s, but what interested me is 800,000 Americans of extremely diverse backgrounds having access to good writing. A lot of those people don’t have access to libraries, or bookstores. Something felt very democratic and good about this.”
Sure. All those Chipotle goers, denied access to a library or a bookstore, will now be able to read the thoughts of our nation’s most creative thinkers on the outside of trash—very democratic, very good. But, by this logic, why not just place your wordy pearls of wisdom on a McDonald’s bag? Or just a bathroom wall? That would be democratic. And eliminate this outbreak of literary food poisoning for good.
*Two notes. First, I’m so baffled by this initiative that my residual paranoia compels me to say that I think this could be a hoax. Just saying. Second, I have this piece today in Slate.
“Over 98% of Chipotle’s sales involve violence against animals, which amounts to billions of dollars in blood money.” So declares the animal activist organization Direct Action Everywhere.
And they’re right. It is one of the harder realities to accept for those who want to believe that Chipotle is a fast food restaurant aiming to change the food system for the better. Fact is, nothing could be further from the truth. It merely taps popular discontent with conventional fast food to profitably purvey a greenwashed and “humane” version of slaughter. Additional anger might derive from the recent news that the company’s two founders raked in $50 million last year. Blood money indeed. (See my previous work on Chipotle here.)
Direct Action Everywhere is drawing attention to the abuses hidden by Chipotle’s savvy advertising campaigns and shamelessly misleading “Food with Integrity” gambit. It writes, “while its corporate propaganda has succeeded in making it one of the most successful businesses in the world, it has also left it vulnerable – particularly when even meat industry publications have noted that the company purchases meat from the same concentrated animal feedlot operations (so-called “factory farms”) as other buyers.”
To make these claims stick DxE participants have gathered in 37 cities and 13 countries under the banner of “It’s not food, it’s violence” and staged peaceful flash-mob protests at Chipotle stores, in some cases causing early closures with their civil disobedience.
I spoke to lead DxE organizer Wayne Hsiung several weeks ago. The impression I got was that Hsuing, a recovering law professor who has studied at MIT and the University of Chicago, had mastered the art of being everywhere and nowhere at once, passively leading a massive grassroots effort to challenge Chipotle with something it knows very little about: the truth. Any journalist looking for a perfect subject for a profile should seek him out.
Meantime, get involved by going here.
I have a friend and colleague—and a vegetarian— who is editing a book in which he invited philosophers to argue that it’s ethically justifiable, at least in some circumstances, to eat animals. My friend is not inclined to necessarily agree with these assessments, but he’s secure enough in his own beliefs to accept genuine challenges to his suppositions. I admire this willingness to expose his own flank to attack, if for no other reason than doing so has the potential to leave one even more secure in his position than when he started. Ethical vegans should take note. (I’ll review the book here when it lands.)
Many comments to my recent vegan pillars piece—offline and on—criticized it on the grounds that it somehow threatened the vegan cause. How dare you suggest there’s something shaky about veganism! The implication here was that any attempt to highlight conceptual weaknesses or even identify unique challenges that vegans faced was an insidious form of betrayal. That stance might work for the activist, but not the intellectual. Doubt inspired by honest reflection hardly provides anti-vegans with ammunition to use against us. Plus, if we continue to see this matter as an us v. them war, we’ll end up having great appeal to ourselves alone. What’s the point of that?
Veganism is not a cult. It’s an ideal to which we do our best to follow. Necessarily, by nature of existence, we’ll fail, but if we proceed in ignorance of our failures we’ll never appeal to masses of thoughtful and pragmatic people who have the means to live life without unnecessarily and intentionally harming animals. The fact that some people do not have that means is yet another hard reality of ethical veganism that, as activists, we’re too eager to obscure rather than directly confront. There are a lot of cheerleaders for veganism out there. I enjoy their cheers. But that’s not what this blog is about. The Pitchfork aims to make you uncomfortable, however momentarily.
And so I’ll be spending a good chunk of time, as well as dedicating some meatier Pitchfork columns, to thinking out loud about how I (and others) might be convinced to eat animals. I don’t want to eat animals. I seriously doubt I’m ever going to eat animals. But I very much do want to systematically consider the oyster, consider roadkill, consider insects, consider the Inuit, consider other topics that you suggest. And so on. I want to consider the remote possibility that I’m wrong. Because that just seems right.
Okay, cue up your outrage:
Now, take a deep breath: what do you do here? How do you react?
There are thinking and thoughtless ways to approach this image. The most thoughtful might actually be to shrug it off as a shallow and insulting marketing gimmick. But doing so misses an opportunity to explore what exactly makes American culture—especially the complicated culture of the American West—uniquely supportive of this kind of message. That’s a big topic, a great topic, a topic relevant to animal ethics. But it’s not what I’m going to explore at the moment. I simply want to note that a thoughtful response to this image might tend in that direction—the direction of thoughtfulness, the kind that illuminates the culture we want to change.
My real reason for including this image is to offer a case study on how not to react. This image came to me via a tweet from Gary Smith’s “The Thinking Vegan.” The twittery tag line was “what a horrible human being.” Inspired by such insight, Facebook readers smelled blood, launching into a tirade of invective that collectively made Palin look like Gandhi by comparison.
Here are what “thinking vegans” had to offer by way of intelligent analysis:
“Sarah Palin is a ignorant lying bloodthirsty murdering psycho in any language”; “I think she is but a stupid slut who did`n`t get enough love and care while growing up”; “Dumb bitch!”; “what a piece of effing shit”; “Fuk u her thats why your fukd n will die of some of cancer”; “I hate her”; ”Sarah Palin is an old Indian word for Cunt”; “She is an ignorant murdering bitch”; “Sarah Palin is an old Indian phrase meaning fuckwit!”; “Palin is an old Alaskan word for murderer coke whore…what a waste if oxygen this bitch is”; “Dumb as a rock that woman. Wanna throw up in her face”; “Ugly excuse for a human being.”
Ugh. And this from a Twitter profile that claims to have “a philosophical bent.”
Some of this was on The Thinking Vegan’s FB page, some on the page of the person whom The Thinking Vegan retweeted. Either way, there’s nothing thoughtful about this dump of anger. The Thinking Vegan should reconsider the impact of stoking cheap outrage. If anything, this kind of exposure alienates otherwise thoughtful and compassionate people who want to create a better world for animals. There are reasons that many potential vegans refuse to identify as vegan. And this example is one of them.
It might feel good to lash out, but what’s the benefit for animals?
Mainstream environmental groups in the United States have almost categorically refused to promote veganism. This refusal is not only maddening, but it’s ironic, given that the environmental benefits of reducing animal consumption are well known and uncontested. My own attempts to engage with mainstream environmentalists on the issue have left me totally befuddled at the myopia that underscores this omission. But what else is new.
Years ago I approached 350.org and asked them if they’d consider officially promoting veganism as a viable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I was told that it wasn’t something they were really all that into. What I suspect they really weren’t all that into was losing donors who cared about the environment but didn’t want to be told they had to give up eating animals to help achieve the organization’s goal of reducing carbon output to 350 ppm. Not realistic, they suggested, which is a rather odd stance to take for an organization that wants humans to restructure their fundamental relationship with the natural world.
Enviros that do address the meat issue will often resolve it through an appeal to the “land ethic,” arguing that humans can eat meat so long as they acquire it in a way that maintains as much as possible the earth’s natural balance and harmony. If there are too many hogs, kill em and eat em. Too many jellyfish in the sea, ditto. This ethic certainly has its appeal, but not only do I find it unrealistic–we suck at getting it right–and not only does it ignore the rights of animals not to be shot or netted, but the ultimate logic of the ethic demands that we begin by hunting humans. So, well . . yeah.
All this is a long way of saying that it’s nice to see at least one environmental group–The Center for Biological Diversity–address the meat issue with forthright advice. “Eat less meat, save more wildlife,” it explains. “Pledge to take extinction off your plate,” it adds. Their effort is part of “an earth friendly diet campaign.” It’s a step in the right direction, one worth watching and encouraging. Learn more here.