Archive for the ‘Vegan Activism’ Category

What If Vegans Are Wrong?

» April 8th, 2014

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.

 

The Thinking Vegan?

» April 6th, 2014

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?

 

Center for Biological Diversity Connects Diet and Animal Extinction

» March 21st, 2014

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.

 

 

Mayor de Blasio Vows To End Horse Carriages In NYC

» February 18th, 2014

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that NPR’s coverage of this story was a mess. It begins by immediately belittling the issue of horse welfare, noting that one might reasonably expect the mayor to deal with “big picture problems” instead of . . . .horses. This choice of an opener raises a question. Why would a journalist begin an article on any topic by suggesting that, compared to “big” issues, the one she was covering didn’t really matter? If nothing else, this is a strange way to draw attention to a topic that is somehow important enough to warrant national coverage.

But Janet Babin’s dismissive attitude infects the entire piece. Babin explains that “horse carriage rides are a staple in cities around the country.” Really? In so far as a “staple” is a “main item of trade or production,” horse carriage rides are decidedly not a staple of the urban experience. The reporter furthers her opinion—and, in a way, what she has put together is an opinion piece–that the Mayor’s proposal is just plain weird by reporting that the mayor “raised some collective eyebrows” with his choice.

This phrase is another interesting choice. It implies that everyday folks—the collective–were similarly thrown for a loop by the fact that the mayor cares more than a whit about horse welfare. But again, there’s no evidence offered of a collective anything. And if there was, how about the possibility that a collective of New Yorkers might find the carriage trade problematic? Might it have been more accurate to note that “a collective cheer” went up when New Yorkers heard the news?

And then there’s the problem of context. The carriage horses are largely a political and horse welfare issue whose underlying motivator is economic. The money is on the side of the drivers who allegedly exploit horses. But the politics aren’t—they are more complex, including as they do, interest groups who are concerned with the welfare of horses. Babin again takes the easy way out by ignoring this context and offering only opinions (her own, the industry’s, a horse advocacy group’s) while calling it “news coverage” — which it isn’t.

The segment goes downhill quickly. Before explaining why the horse carriage industry might be a welfare problem, Babin rushes to quote a joke from the Daily Show with John Stewart. Stewart had remarked, ”Should we even be living here? ‘Cause  . . . sometimes I look at their stable and I go like, what do you think that’d go for, $1,600 a month? What do you think?” Well, sorry to be a grump, but I think humor does not have a place in this story. Unless you find the prospect of horse abuse funny.

When Babin finally does get around to exploring the issue from a welfare angle she quotes Allie Feldman, the executive director of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets. Feldman gives a great quote, but her organization is identified as an “animal rights group.” Now, maybe Feldman described her organization this way but, judging from the organization’s website, I would doubt it.  It does not in any way address the issue of animal rights per se. More to the point, it allows Babin to use loaded language—yikes!, an animal rights group!—to skew the issue as one that only a bunch of crazies, oh and the mayor, cares about.

She then quotes the Horse and Carriage Association, which predictably says, ”A lot of these horses come from very, very bad backgrounds and are rescued from very abusive situations. This is not an abusive situation . . .” And then some tourists from North Carolina who are crushed that they’ll never be able to ride through Central Park behind horses that, according to a great deal of evidence that Babin ignores, suffer immensely.

Not only is the Horse and Carriage Association given the last word in this piece, but its message of sanctuary is never countered by credible and widely available information that would, if given attention, have resonance to more than the “animal rights activists” who Babin identifies as the only nuts who care about this issue in the first place.

NPR’s Grade: D.

Note to readers: I’m in the process of beginning an on-line project with the journalist Vickery Eckhoff that evaluates the media’s coverage of animal issues. A more thorough statement of purpose, as well as a web address will be forthcoming. For now, though, please note that the kind of piece published here is the sort of work that Eckhoff and I (and an assemblage of writers) will be doing. Needless to say, when we launch, I hope to count on readers to spread the word.  –jm

 

Doesn’t A Killer Whale Suffer in Captivity?

» January 5th, 2014

In the course of researching killer whales for what I hoped would be several Forbes.com posts, I put the above question to SeaWorld spokesman, Fred Jacobs. Here is his answer:

“There is . . . no truth to your claim on stress.  We have displayed killer whales for nearly 50 years.  In that time our trainers have interacted with them hundreds of times a day, every day.  Literally millions of safe interactions with these animals.  SeaWorld is an accredited and respected zoological institution that operates under multiple, overlapping federal and state animal welfare laws.  The overwhelming majority of killer whales in our parks were born in our parks.  They adapt very well to their environments.  Our standards of care are the highest in the zoological community: ample food, clean and chilled water, exercise, mental stimulation, veterinary care and the company of other members of their species.”

Needless to say, I sense something fishy in this answer. So I turned to Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist known globally for her work on orcas. She generously addressed Mr. Jacobs’s response point by point in an email. Here it is:

FJ: There is no truth to your claim on stress.  We have displayed killer whales for nearly 50 years.  In that time our trainers have interacted with them hundreds of times a day, every day.  Literally millions of safe interactions with these animals. 

NR: [T]his claim, which SeaWorld has been making ever since Dawn Brancheau was killed (the company relied heavily on it in the first OSHA hearing), is misleading at best and simply incorrect at worst. The correct metric to determine the safety of interacting with this species is not the number of interactions but the number of whales involved in injuries and deaths.

SeaWorld has held approximately 60-70 whales in its history. Of these, at least 10 (and frankly it’s been more, but these are the ones I know for certain) have been involved in interactions that resulted in people’s injuries or deaths. THAT’s the relevant metric. An analogy would be if there was a car model that had a design flaw that will eventually result in brake failure in some percentage of cars. One might drive any such car hundreds or even thousands of miles before the failure, but eventually the brakes will fail in some percentage of cars because of this flaw. So the relevant metric would be not how many miles one drives before the failure, but the number of cars that eventually fail. If only 1-2% of cars of this model experienced brake failure, they would be recalled.

In SeaWorld’s case, at least a sixth of its whales have “failed” – that’s a double digit failure rate, which in any other industry would result in a recall.

 FJ: SeaWorld is an accredited and respected zoological institution that operates under multiple, overlapping federal and state animal welfare laws. 

NR: The fact that SeaWorld is accredited is irrelevant if the accreditation process itself is flawed, which I argue it is. But regardless, there are not “multiple” federal and state animal welfare laws under which SW operates – this is just a strange claim altogether. SW operates under only two federal laws (there are no state welfare laws that apply to marine mammal display) – and only one of these is significant. The Animal Welfare Act sets care and maintenance standards for captive marine mammals, but has been under fire for years for being out of date (its enclosure size standards, for example, haven’t been updated since 1984). The Marine Mammal Protection Act addresses only one element of captive marine mammal display – education. However, the MMPA requires that a marine mammal display facility only meet professional industry standards for education, so this element is self-policed and in essence means that educational standards have no outside oversight.

 FJ: The overwhelming majority of killer whales in our parks were born in our parks.

NR: This is true, but it’s because almost all of the wild-caught whales SW once had have died. They only have five left, out of 31 total (so 26 wild-caught whales have died over the years at SW). Arguably ALL of those whales should still be alive, since the oldest of them would only be in their 50s or 60s (and orcas can live to be 60-90). But even more charitably, at least half of those 26 should still be alive.

 FJ: They adapt very well to their environments. 

 NR: This statement has absolutely no meaning. This is the very debate we are having in the scientific and public communities. SW obviously believes this, but it has very few data to back it up. I have a lot more data to support my position that they do NOT adapt well at all to their “environments” in captivity. They die young, they have poor dental health, many new mothers do not nurse their calves properly (some outright reject their calves, a very rare phenomenon in the wild, if it occurs at all), they are abnormally violent toward each other and they have injured and killed people.

 FJ: Our standards of care are the highest in the zoological community: ample food, clean and chilled water, exercise, mental stimulation, veterinary care and the company of other members of their species.

 NR: Fred’s claim here is actually completely accurate – SW’s standards of care are the highest in the zoo and aquarium world. But that is not the same as being comparable to natural habitat.

Food at SW is ample, but it is limited in diversity – SW’s orcas are fed fish species that are not necessarily preferred in the wild and some of the whales SW has held were mammal-eaters and had to adapt to eating fish. Frozen fish usually have lower nutritional value than fresh, so most captive orcas have to receive vitamin supplements. Same for water content – frozen fish have lower water content (whales and dolphins get their water from their food – they do not drink) and therefore some captive orcas need water supplements in the form of gelatin.

The clean and chilled water is unnatural – it is “too” clean (even pristine ocean water is not as clean as tank water, which is nearly sterile). It is also often artificial (only SW San Diego uses natural seawater – San Antonio and Orlando use artificial seawater). The methods to keep it hygienic do not allow any fish or algae to be placed in the tank (and such additions would also interfere with visibility during the show). In short, while water quality at SW is the “best in the business,” it compares poorly to natural habitat.

To claim that captive orcas get adequate exercise is simply illogical. These are animals that never stop moving in the wild – even when resting (they do not sleep the way we sleep) they slowly swim forward. In captivity, they can spend hours “logging” (remaining motionless at the surface). This is the epitome of unnatural behavior. Captive orcas are the equivalent of couch potatoes. Some are more active than others, but none are as active as they are in the wild. They almost certainly have health issues that are related to this lack of activity, just as with humans – it is certainly one easy explanation for their shortened life spans in captivity.

As for mental stimulation, I consider that an illogical claim as well. Orcas are not naturally diurnal – that is, they are not active in the day and inactive at night, as humans are. They rest when they are tired, whenever that may be. They are active when they need to be. Daylight means less to them than to land mammals, as they are often at depth where it is always dark (they “see” with sound – echolocation – and their vision is less dominant as a sense than their hearing). So the diurnal cycle they are forced to adopt in captivity is actually completely unnatural, meaning they spend at least 8 hours – during the nighttime when the park is closed – inactive, which is not normal for them. In short, I think boredom is actually the most significant stress they face in captivity – their tanks have no variety, no diversity, no CHANGE. Their environment never changes and they spend a lot of time (unnaturally) inactive.

As for veterinary care, the simple response to that is, wild orcas don’t need veterinary care. Also, as Dr. Chris Dold (the lead vet at SW) testified in court at the OSHA hearing, orca veterinary science is still largely an ART, not a science – they still guess a lot about diagnoses and treatments and often guess wrong.

Finally, while SW orcas do have the company of their own species (which is more than Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium has, for example), they do not have family. SW often separates family members – this is a species that probably has the strongest family bonds of any mammal in the world, including humans. SW’s habit of moving calves to other facilities – sometimes when they are younger than two years of age – is perhaps the most damaging thing that happens to orcas there. Captive orcas are not socialized properly, because they are removed from their mothers far too young. This may be one of the reasons they exhibit unnatural levels of violence toward each other and toward people (the same thing has been observed in elephants – orphans of culls, who are raised “without adult supervision,” are often unnaturally violent when they grow up).

Vegan Products Are Great But It’s A Change Of Heart That We’re After

» January 1st, 2014

The end-of-the-year vegan lists are coming in and vegans are appropriately rejoicing at the plethora of vegan-themed products that infused the marketplace last year.

Vegan restaurants, vegan cheese, vegan mayo, vegan supermarkets, vegan books, vegan shoes, vegan bacon, vegan everything have made it easier than it has ever been to reduce animal exploitation through consumer choice. These developments are fantastic. One of the highlights for me was getting an advance market jar of Hampton Foods’ vegan mayo made from pea plant protein. How cool.

That said, it’s important to remember that veganism is ultimately not about a change in purchasing habits, but rather in a fundamental change in perspective on the human-animal relationship. The idea that we can purchase our way to this kind of enlightenment is an especially American idea, but it’s also one that can easily lead consumers astray from what really matters when we buy these products: the underlying quest to grant sentient beings basic moral consideration.

This imperative is easily overridden when we display vegan products as markers of our identity or ideology. What I mean is that it’s too easy to see a commercial landscape teeming with vegan products and, as a result of those products, assume that we’re making progress toward the deeper goal of reshaping the human-nonhuman bond.

What I’m really saying here is that vegan products are great, but we need to make sure that they are manifestations of a changing mentality rather than commercial ends in and of themselves.

N.B: Thanks to all those who wrote letters to the Times about its moronic turkey leg story.

P.S.: I’ve a new piece up at Forbes on “Blackfish”: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesmcwilliams/2014/01/01/seaworlds-popularity-tanks-as-blackfish-documentary-makes-a-splash/

There Is No Righteous Bacon

» December 18th, 2013

“At Olive Hill Farms we believe that belly rubs and behind-the-ear scratches make better bacon.”

This is the maniacal sentence that pulled me into what turns out to be a mind-blowingly thoughtless and ultimately cruel website about a farm that claims to love pigs and then kills them. Check it out here.

“Happy pigs, scrumptious pork,” the farm promises. Note to farm owner (who claims with pride, “this girl brings bacon into the world”): you cannot have pork from a happy pig. Because the day you turn the pig into pork is the day you render all those belly rubs and ear scratches the act of either an Alzheimer’s patient or a psychopath, a psychopath bent on profiting from people who happen to be equally thoughtless and clueless.

Let me reiterate for the umpteenth time: you cannot have happy meat. There is no such thing. Sure, you can raise an animal and treat that animal well while she’s alive but when you kill the animal you kill the happiness, making all previous acts and intentions meaningless; when you eat the flesh of a sentient being you are eating the flesh of an animal whose interest in being happy was deemed less important than your salivating palate. And that’s sick. How hard is this point to understand? Evidently very much so.

In a way I have less animus toward mindless consumers who buy cheap factory meat at the Kroger, never once thinking that they are eating the flesh of a being who suffered (which describes the vast majority of meat eaters). It’s those lunatics who claim to care about the animals they kill, those who photograph their beasts in supposed bliss and use that pornography to sell the animal’s flesh, that turns my stomach and makes me sick.

 

Who Put You At History’s Helm?

» December 13th, 2013

Here’s Walter Benjamin: “Naturally, one must wish for the planet that one day it will experience a civilization that has abandoned blood and horror; in fact, I am . . .  inclined to assume that our planet is waiting for this. But it is terribly doubtful whether we can bring such a present to its hundred or four hundredth-millionth birthday party. . . ”

Want to experience an existential moment as an animal activist? Ponder the above claim. Read it and internalize it.  The idealist invests everything in the hope for human agency. But Benjamin places hope for an end to violence at the hands of humans in sobering perspective.

Our predilection to violence is rooted in soil whose depth far exceeds the birth of our existence. Benjamin understood this. Hence the “who are we to change millions of years of history” tact. Indeed, who designated us history’s giver of gifts, the past’s and future’s great hope, as if we were assigned to show up to the holiday party with a fine bottle of Pinot Noir and buzz the guests into happiness?

Too many collective habits are the result of the inertia of benign thoughtlessness. Banality of evil and such. How else can lovers of peace and harmony and goodness eat a rueben for lunch before delivering a sermon on live and let live? Four days of blog silence have been spent wondering what’s the point of word therapy when another BBQ joint opens down the road. With a sign that has a butcher’s knife. As if consumers will witness an instrument of torture—and, really, what else is it?— and think, “yes, that will do.” And it will. Surely.

Should we burn the sign? Bomb it? Ignore it? As the classic note that children give to children says: yes? no? maybe?

[New Forbes piece. Please  visit.]

“Did Mom Use Vegan Sugar?”

» November 30th, 2013

With the Thanksgiving feast finally on the wane, as leftovers gradually disappear, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the myriad challenges faced by vegans who participate in the non-vegan world.

By that description I mean vegans who choose, despite their veganism, to remain involved in extended non-vegan family dinners, often in other parts of the country, at other people’s houses, and in settings where vegans are akin to martians. Not bad people, just eccentric curiosities.

Well, that was me. Scenes at my parents’ house on Thanksgiving would make a sheltered vegan’s head spin. At one point I found myself in my parents backyard, sitting on the lowered door of my brother’s pick-up truck, a spread of hunting magazines around me, watching my brother dip a bird powdered in red dust into a vat of roiling peanut oil.

Mind you: if every person in the world went vegan, my brother, an otherwise very good guy, would be the last. The good news is that I have grist for about a dozen posts from that choice experience.

In any case, it was, in this setting, a sign of hope, and also a touching gesture, that many of the nearly 20 people at dinner brought vegan dishes on behalf of me and members of my immediate family. I ate extremely well on Thursday afternoon: Brussels sprouts, green beans, a spinach and walnut salad, a vegan wild rice stuffing, and a roasted yucca root (my thought she’d bought me a sweet potato). Wine.

The night before my sister-in-law, wife of the world’s most dedicated human carnivore, made me a superb vegan lasagna (she needed the personal assistance of a Whole Foods employee to help her find the ingredients), that I’ve been slicing away at for days. In fact, I just had some for breakfast.

One of the Thanksgiving desserts was a “vegan pumpkin pie” made by my mom. I almost never eat desserts, primarily because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. As a result, I’m rarely in the position to ponder the question that someone with a little more vegan knowledge than others asked, tactfully but out loud, away from the crowd: did mom use vegan sugar?  Good question, that one.

Yes, there is non-vegan sugar. And, as it turns out, no, mom had no idea what kind of sugar she used. Mom had no idea she needed to even have an idea. This lack of knowledge, of course, meant that mom most likely used non-vegan sugar. Oh, and I should add, my mom made this pie not for Thanksgiving, but for my birthday, thus leaving me in the position of crushing mom’s feelings or eating a non-vegan pie.

“Awkward . . . ” as my kids would say. I gave the matter some thought, but  not a whole lot of thought, before I ate the pie, thanking mom, digging in, making it official that vocal vegan advocate James McWilliams may very well have not eaten vegan on Thanksgiving 2013.

It seemed to me by instinct to be the right decision to make (although I can already anticipate reader disapproval) under the circumstances, and it’s one that, at this point in time, I don’t regret in the least. Made mom happy. Tasted good. Was well intentioned. Would have gone to waste otherwise. Etc. and so on.

And there’s the upshot: If vegans rampage through life holding our moral flags high and making people miserable—or making ourselves look like assholes— because of the purity of our principles, we’ll never make any headway in putting our ideals into action down here on earth, where decent people sit on the back of pick ups and read up on shooting deer while lowering a turkey into boiling grease.

Sure, I’d love it if the question of vegan sugar was a mainstream culinary concern, but it’s not. In fact, as a Thanksgiving event at virtually any house in America will attest, slaughtering and eating sentient animals isn’t even a mainstream culinary concern. Hell, it hardly registers. If I start yapping on about sugar in this setting, I’d be deemed insane.

So, unless you want to remove yourself from the culinary reality in which we live, forget the sugar when it makes sense to forget the sugar. Regrettably, if we want to make headway on the latter concern—that is, reducing the slaughter of farm animals—we’ll have have to eat some pie and start picking the low-hanging fruit.

 

Was There Honey in That?

» October 5th, 2013

My daughter was recently annoyed that she ate something at school that turned out to have yogurt in it. Before I reacted to her situation, I had one of those split second conversations with myself reiterating subconsciously that “my answer matters so don’t screw it up.” I told her to not get too worked up about it and, next time, to try and be more proactive about checking out ingredients. Ask a question or two. Conversation over.

Analyzing why I answered this way, and knowing how hard it can be to negotiate a non-vegan world as a vegan, I realized that while I care deeply about not eating animals, I’m not one to freak out if I eat something that I think is vegan, and has every reason to be vegan, but turns out to have a drop of honey or some sort of milk power in it. I’m not going to be happy about it, but neither am I going to pitch a fit or feel guilt or rage.

The politics of personal dietary choices—especially ones that buck the norm in fundamental ways—can be tricky. On the one had it’s important to reveal the dedication of our commitment to the cause of ethical veganism by, for starters, being hyper-vigilant about ingredients. On the other, we have to make sure that our hyper-vigilence does not become more about ourselves and the image we want to cultivate than the larger cause. I’ve had times when, hovering over the kitchen at my brother’s house looking for a vegan foul, I’m told, with good reason, to chill the hell out. Good advice.

One time, right after I’d gone vegan, my mom planned a delicious vegan meal to support my decision. It was a lovely vegetable and pesto soup. I insisted on doing the dishes and, when I went into the kitchen, I saw sitting on the counter two empty boxes of chicken stock. I knew mom hadn’t done this on purpose: habit was habit. She hadn’t thought about it. But intention was intention—this was an innocent foul. What could I do but laugh? I did laugh, and now she only uses veggie stock, even when I’m not around.

But are we cheapening the value of our decision when we react this way? Do we detract from the gravity of the cause? How have you, if you are vegan, handled such situations?