Archive for the ‘You’ve Got Mail’ Category

Killed Peacefully

» July 14th, 2013


When we confront the horrors of factory farming, and feel the impact of our discoveries, we know we must make a decision. Change becomes imperative. Our gut demands it. It’s the strangest and vaguest psychological phenomenon but, when we decide to decide, somehow we accept the premise that any decision is better than none, that any decision is, in being better, a good stopping point when it comes to the project of understanding from where our food comes. This is a misguided decision. Tragic, in fact, because it’s a waste of an awakening. We see suffering and behave symbolically rather than with flames of fury.

I’m finally finishing Modern Savage—as in a week away from hitting the send button to St.Martins Press and going on a 20-mile run, hoping the effort does better than my last book, which I now call “the flop heard round the world” (yes, that was me pathetically whining). What I’m arguing in my last chapter on pigs is that humans who interact with our porcine friends inevitably develop an innate sense that their emotional architecture is so exquisite that, however hard we try, we cannot conceal our suspicion that we’re committing murder when we slaughter them. I like this chapter. Because I’m right.

In the course of finalizing my research, I keep coming across accounts from farmers who appear to truly adore their animals, kill them, and then experience Shakespearean moral turmoil in the aftermath. This one, about a month old, struck as especially honest and thoughtful. Because I’ve been so bothered of late (one might say stymied) by so many ego whelps, I’m in a sensitive and empathetic mood. I wanted very much to respond to this post personally, but then I remembered that I have hundreds of subscribers who could offer a collective response far beyond what I could provide.

I’ll give it a week and send this blogger a response. Our response. Be the thoughtful readers—the activists—that you are.


“The Majority has Spoken”: A Teachable Moment

» April 19th, 2013


The letter that follows came to Eating Plants the other day. It arrived in response to my April 10th coverage of Wagner Farm:   I initially chose not to post the comment—in part to save the writer, who was clear about her identity, from herself and, in part, because it is not intended to promote productive dialogue. I am, however, posting now without attribution (which, I know, goes against my normal push for complete identification). I am doing so for a specific reason: I would like to send this person a set of measured responses from my readers. Be forewarned: the letter is rude and, at times, out of line. However, the writer makes several assumptions that reflect common beliefs among many consumers who think they are morally justified to eat animals. There is, I realize, likely no way that what we say here will sway this person from her immediate and passionately held set of beliefs. However, we all know how time has a way of sending us back to earlier experiences and reinterpreting them, providing an opportunity for latter-day enlightenment.  So, thanks, and, again, be as measured as you can. -jm


This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.  PLEASE PLEASE go find a real cause to write about.  Your obvious lack of any knowledge on this topic is embarrassing.  You don’t even have the pig’s names right.  If you’re so concerned about their welfare, don’t you think you should at least get the names right?  And do you have any evidence, any at all, that those two pigs are being served at Baconfest?  I didn’t think so.  This goes to you too, Debby [Rubinstein, head of a local organization that wants to rescue the pigs].  You really should give it a rest.  The more you say the more ridiculous you sound.

[The following quotes are all from Debby Rubinstein, followed by the reader's responses.]

“I don’t believe in slaughtering animals for food but I accept that others do. Acceptance of others beliefs and mutual respect is critical if we’re going to have a dialogue about issues that we all feel strongly about. My hope is that Wagner farm will show some good will towards the vegan members of their community by selling animals to the rescue.”

If you are so “accepting,” why is it that you are trying to control animals that are PRIVATELY OWNED?  Each owner of those animals can do what they want with the animal.  Just because these PRIVATE CITIZENS aren’t doing what you want, you have to throw a fit and make false accusations about Wagner Farm. You can do what you want with your animals, and the private citizens who house their animals at Wagner Farm can do what they want with theirs.  If they want their pigs to grow so old and so large that they can no longer walk, they can.  If they want to sell them for slaughter, they have that right as well.

“While slaughter is a global issue, we and many others find it inappropriate that a tax payer purchased and supported facility devises and implements policies and programming that essentially promote cruelty toward others, and makes money in doing so as well.”

Cruelty towards others?  These are ANIMALS.  Humans eat animals.  Other animals eat animals.  It’s the circle of life.  If animals didn’t eat animals, the overpopulation would be devastating.  If you don’t want to eat meat, fine.  Don’t.  But don’t push your ideas on others.  It’s unbecoming.

I have visited Wagner Farm.  I’ve seen the way the animals are treated.  They are hand fed and cared for everyday.  It’s a FARM.  They are trying to open the eyes of people who think meat comes from plastic-wrapped containers in the grocery store.  Maybe you should try to find a farm that is ACTUALLY mistreating animals.

As an American, it is your right to voice your opinion and that is one of the many great things about this country.  But please, please note, you sound ridiculous.  No one takes you seriously, Debby.  Maybe if you found a worthwhile cause, you would have more support than just two people.  The people of this town make it very clear that they don’t agree with you.  Don’t you think if the majority of the tax payers in Glenview agreed with you that your protests would have actually had, you know, protestors instead of just you?  This country is ruled democratically, and you have been outvoted.  There is a reason you’re not getting anywhere, even after all these years.  No one agrees with you.  And if there are a few, the VAST majority of the tax paying residents don’t.  So you will never win. That is another one of the beautiful things about this country.  The majority has spoken.

The Challenge, Part I: A Vegan Goes Grainless and Soyless (and Organic)

» February 1st, 2013

Today and tomorrow will be guest posts. Susan Clay and Mountain Krauss, two loyal readers of Eating Plants, issued each other a unique challenge. Here is an account of Susan’s experience. We’ll hear from Mountain tomorrow. 


By Susan Clay (aka “CQ”)

On January 1, 2013, my life changed. Not because of a New Year’s Resolution. I don’t do those. But because of a challenge. A challenge I posed to fellow blog commenter Mountain. I offered to do two things between January 1st and 31st: quit eating grains (plus soy and corn) and go organic. And I invited him to join me in trying a new-to-him ethical diet: no animal products, except for eggs from his rescued hens. Mountain accepted, with the caveat that he would “need [his] grassfed Irish butter.” Done deal.

Why this unconventional cuisine compact? Well, it started in earnest when Mountain insisted in a mid-December Eating Plants blog ( that the monoculture-grown grains vegans eat harm animals and the earth. Actually, I already knew he was right, because after he first made that claim last spring, I’d searched the web and discovered that polyculture, veganic grain crops — a food fit for what one could call “vegans-plus” — do exist. But they’re in the experimental stages of development. My research led me to ask one of those experimenters to write an article on her findings. She did so, and I edited it into the form of a comment on this blog, which James then published as the guest post “Vegan Permaculture” last May (

I’ll quote a few sentences from that post, so that everyone understands why I didn’t pooh-pooh Mountain’s contention.

Is a vegan diet that includes grains less violent than the diet of a meat-dairy-and-egg-eater? We’ve been going ’round and ’round that question on various posts in the Eating Plants (now blog, haven’t we? Recently, I found someone who has been attempting to reduce the harm to animals from grain production down to zero.

Helen Atthowe of Montana is a vegan agricultural ecologist who is behind and whose writing, photos and videos of her veganic permaculture farm are featured on it. According to Atthowe, humans who eat grain cannot, for the most part, escape causing suffering and death to other living organisms.

Consumer demand for bread, pasta, cereal, crackers and chips, Atthowe laments, has homogenized the landscape into a monoculture of annual grasses—wheat, corn (maize), rice, oats, rye, and barley grains, all called cereal grains. Even organic vegan cheesy puffs use monoculture grains. (Another monoculture crop, soybeans, is a grain legume; livestock are fed almost all the soybeans grown in the U.S.)

This vast production of grain by modern agribusiness inevitably kills many birds, small mammals, and insects. It is also hard on larger wild species, not to mention on the land itself. At present, a typical vegan eats the same grains as non-vegans simply because there are not yet any commercially viable veganic grain production systems. But thanks to the efforts of some dedicated scientists around the world, annual grains grown as single cash crops will not remain the only large-scale option much longer.

Indeed, grains can be grown and are being grown in less disruptive polyculture systems. Polyculture systems, says Atthowe, closely mimic nature’s ecosystems, within which insects, birds, small mammals and other wildlife thrive. These polyculture grains can be grown as perennials, with reduced tillage and hence less disturbance of the organisms who rely on a stable soil system.

True, the fact that I was causing easily-avoidable harm to animals took an inexcusable seven months to sink in, but sink in it finally did — not just theoretically, but practically. I craved a change that would be meaningful and permanent, like the shifts I made from omnivore to vegetarian in 2002 then to 99% vegan in 2005 and to fully vegan in 2010.

One of the biggest admissions I had to make to myself is that I was addicted to pasta. Several times a week, if not every night, I would have sizeable helpings of spaghetti with either tomato sauce or vegan butter — or equal doses of both. January was the month I came to terms with and overcame that addiction. I have no desire to return to such a counterproductive, destructive habit. In future months, after I use up the on-sale pasta I’d stocked up on pre-challenge, I won’t buy more.

Nearly halfway through the month, I learned from email exchanges with Mountain that the term “paleo,” which he had used from the beginning, involves more than simply forsaking grains and soy products. It is a diet also absent legumes (beans and peas and peanuts, for example) and sugar. Feeling that I was being an imperfect paleo, I resolved to cut out the rest of the non-paleos, even though I had made a four-bean casserole the previous day. (Into the freezer it went.) When, on January 14, I stopped adding soy-based vegan salad dressing and soy-laced vanilla frosting to fruit salads to make them palatable, I learned that organic navel oranges are plenty sweet and that peanut-butterless apples and un(vegan)sugared bananas are delicious when I’m famished. That said, I confess to using a dab of soy spread the three or four times I was weary of vinegar on veggie salads. Mea culpa.

On only one other occasion did I violate my self-imposed rules, but it was an innocent error. An out-of-state friend was in town and invited me to lunch at his ritzy hotel. Having checked out the menu on the website, I had a hankering for the only vegan-paleo option I could find: sweet potato fries. But by the time we sat down, my friend, who remembered I’m vegan, was insisting I order a real meal. He asked the waiter if the sauce on the pumpkin ravioli could be changed from cheese to tomato. “Yes” was the answer. So I agreed. Seriously, I completely forgot that ravioli is a pasta made from grain. I hadn’t eaten ravioli in absolute ages, and I was so focused on it being an animal-free entrée. By the time the mistake hit me, it was too late, and I felt, despite my chagrin, that it would be unkind to my host, to our waiter, and to the chef to either cancel or change the order — or to ignore the food once it was set before me. (No, I am not rationalizing. I’m explaining how I arrived at what I felt was the best choice!) So I ate half of it, then stopped, even though I was still hungry. Sure, the pasta was good, but it didn’t set off an urge to pig out on it. For that proof of being “cured,” I’m grateful.

Inevitably, this post has been all about food. Altering our food choices was the challenge that Mountain and I agreed to take on.

But for me, and I’m sure for Mountain, it was about more than simply adding and subtracting certain physical objects on our plates. As I wrote to Mountain in late December (I’ve adapted my words to suit this audience): “To me, this is about being willing to open my eyes to more light and my heart to more expansive love. It’s about purifying — unselfing — my motives. It’s about listening and learning. And it’s about making the best choices I know how to make and am capable of making — choices that benefit all living beings and harm no one. It’s about never saying, ‘That’s it. I’ve done enough!’”

Today is February 1. I’m eager to continue the adventure by remaining partly paleo and mostly organic. Yes, I’ll finish the grains and legumes already in the house (“waste not, want not”), but by degrees and in moderation. And yes, I’ll buy the occasional loaf of organic wheat bread. But I will never resume being a grain-aholic. The field mice in Kansas have a new friend.


The Challenge, Part II: A Paleo Goes Meatless and Milkless

Laika Magazine

» December 14th, 2012

A bit of self promotion, or at least promotion of a new magazine I think you’ll like a lot. It’s called Laika and it’s a beautifully done publication. I have a feature in it on slaughterhouses. Subscribe. Read. Thanks.


Eating Plants: Closing Time

» November 9th, 2012

I recently noted that I was going to take a month off blogging to work full time on my e-book about Bill and Lou. I made this declaration without any clue about when or how I would close up shop. Well, today my hand was forced. In the course of an hour my i-phone stopped sending e-mails and my laptop, from where I do all my blogging, had a major stroke. So, message thusly delivered by the vagaries of fate, I’m signing off for a month, during which I will write my book and, somehow, buy a new laptop and, somehow, not blog and somehow, keep my sanity.

Here is my last bit of advice (for now) regarding the Bill and Lou saga: keep the pressure up. I am going to say something vague and then I am going to say something concrete. Vague: things are happening that bode well for the fate of Bill and Lou, important things by heroic people, things I cannot at this moment reveal. Vague point being: there is real hope. Specific: there’s a lot floating around out there in Facebook lalala land that could easily lead the defenders of Bill and Lou to lash out at GMC. Don’t. Now is the time for reasoned and strenuously civilized vocalization; don’t wield the stick with GMC, don’t get petty. Dangle the big carrot. Imagine you are in a debate with a person and he has just conceded a critical point of yours. That is no time to throw a punch. It’s a time to encourage. Seduce. Persuade. Cajole. Cheer.

Be well. Back in a month.



PS: many of you have sent me beautiful and articulate essays on the unfolding GMC situation. Although they will not be posted here anyime soon, be assured that they will make into my book.


The Life of Bryan: A Case Study

» October 3rd, 2012

In the end, it’s hard to know where to start with a farmer such as Bryan Welch.  But let me give it a try and, after so doing, suggest a little experiment.

On one level, Bryan loves raising livestock and, by any agricultural standard, treats his animals remarkably well. Constant access to pasture and fresh water, no branding or other common forms of mutilation, no artificial insemination, lots of socialization, and so on. Reflecting this attention to his animals’ well-being is his own emotional connection to his livestock. He writes of his rams: “Over the past nine months I’ve watched them grow from two-pound, curly-headed sprites into 80-pound monuments of ovine masculinity, created from grass. They are out there in the snow this morning, sparring and bucking, sharing a big bale of hay. Each of them has a personality and I care about each of them as individuals.”  And just in case we missed the point that he cares deeply about his animals, he adds, for good measure, “I held them when they were babies.” Sweet.

On another level, though, Bryan understands his animals as commodities. He minces no words and clouds no reality when he explains that, “In the end, of course, they are killed for their meat.” But of course. Notice the passive voice. Bryan doesn’t kill them. Instead: “I’ll load five of my young rams into a trailer and take them to be killed.” Indeed, he sends them to a slaughterhouse, a decision that he justifies in part by making it clear that he has personally vetted the slaughterhouse and knows his animals will be handled with care there—that is, until they’re killed.  ”We look for facilies that handle the animals gently,” he writes. But of course, of course. . .

So, here we have it: two levels in the life of Bryan—one a clear concern for animal life and the other a sangfroid sense that “of course” they must be killed for food. Now, a pivotal moment: rather than bash Bryan and go on and on about his absurd moral inconsistency, let’s slow down and take a look at what happens in the chasm separating these levels of Bryan. What occupies the mental space between these radically different, but simultaneously held, perspectives? What’s going on between the layers?  Two things stand out for me.

One, Bryan is a passive victim of misinformation. He has, in essence, swallowed the tired hit list of justifications for killing animals for food we don’t need. Animals kill animals all the time. These animals wouldn’t exist without us. Predation is at the core of life. Without animals on the land, plants would gobble the land up anyway, etc, etc. These are pretty easy arguments to debunk, one and all, and I won’t do it here. Suffice it to say, though, that these “arguments” serve little more than to provide a false buffer against a deeper and more troubling reality that, to his great credit, Bryan—unlike most farmers in his shoes— doesn’t ignore.

And that brings me to the second outstanding aspect about Bryan: he’s asking the ethical questions. Openly. Despite his adherence to bogus rationalizations, he’s not hiding from the ethical reality of his work, like so many farmers do. He has doubts. When he asks, “should we nurture our empathy and refrain from eating meat?,” he’s opening a door for a discussion. Plus, he’s not dismissing veganism as a viable ethical response to his conundrum. He writes, “When I take them to be killed, I’ll feel that familiar twinge. It is a specific sort of pain I would not feel if I were a vegan, or if I purchased my meat at the store.”  Bryan, for all his flawed rationalizations for what he does, is asking to hear what others might have to say about his predicament.

And this brings me to my proposal. Vegan advocates spend a great deal of time and effort discussing and debating strategies of reform, pathways to abolition, methods of conversion, and so on. Rarely, though, do we include in our discussions the perspective of people such as Bryan Welch—active farmers with a conscience. What I would like to do is this: let’s compile some comments to this post, send them to Bryan, and begin a discussion that includes this farmer who is clearly open to what we have to say. In other words, let’s try something novel: let’s reflect, respond, and . . .drum roll . . .  listen.



You’ve Got Mail

» August 28th, 2012

What follows are a few comments that I want all readers to see.  One of the most unexpected pleasures of keeping this blog has been the outpouring of intellectual wealth and heartfelt compassion to come from readers who see matters from a vibrant array of perspectives. I’m humbled by your willingness to engage in authentic dialogue and I appreciate it very, very much. Enjoy.


From Ingrid Taylar (to “Embers in the Cesspit”)

Thank you, James, for addressing this subject. I’m in constant interaction with wildlife and with those who exploit wildlife for recreation. The “nature is harsh” refrain is the most common rationalization I hear for cruel behavior in the field. That, and the more insidious, “I choose to be a part of nature, connected, not an observer as in a museum.”

Many hunters I meet don’t make any distinction between human and non human predation, in part because they need to believe in that paradigm for their own sake, and in part because their experience of the wild is in the act of predation which obfuscates the truth you acquire through simple observation.

I spend hours upon hours as an observer and photographer — behavior which is necessarily interactive, albeit in a nonviolent way. And I appreciate the conclusions drawn in your post, and also in the various comments here. There is a brutality to the predator-prey interaction when it happens, obviously. But, it’s not incessant, it’s not recreational or gratuitous, and there is often a component of balance that allows for evasion. It’s significantly distinct from human predation by order of magnitude and intent.

I compare the experience I’ve had at a goose hunt, where rows of hunters rise up from trenches repeatedly to shoot and wound multitudes of geese at once. The geese respond differently to that assault than they do to the predation they’ve evolved to accommodate. A month later, after hunting season, the same location is near silent and calm except for the low grumbles of the geese. Occasionally, they rise in unison, in response to the predation danger of a Bald Eagle, but it’s a behavior adapted to thwart the eagle’s advances. They hear the calls of the local crows first, signifying a predator overhead, then they take to the skies in response, hoping to confuse the predator and leave their flocks intact once the danger disappears. That is the norm. Not the other.


From Vance Lehmkuhl (to “Embers in the Cesspit”):

James – I am wary of being overly contentious as I do sincerely appreciate your writerly style and your obvious conviction in these essays. That said, I have to dissent again on the simplistic appeal to “common sense.” Those who would privilege the desires of humans over the needs of animals make the same call, so a higher standard than that is needed.

My claim is that humans have made such demonstrably wrong conjectures about the difference between human and non-human consciousness that our doing so now calls for a higher standard of evidence. Affirmative claims about animal sentience, in contrast, have usually been proven to be above the level of previous conjecture. If a given person or institution demands “incontrovertible proof of animal consciousness” in this context, too bad. Animals’ consciousness is truly a matter of common sense, and those who willfully blind themselves to it are not our responsibility to rescue or convert.

Another book I have recently read, which Jonathan Balcombe was kind enough to point me to, and which will be officially published in November, is “Chasing Doctor Doolittle,” by Con Slobodchikoff. You may or may not have encountered references to his work with prairie dogs, where he established the fact of these animals’ language referencing both nouns and adjectives as regards potential threats (takeaway: prairie dogs have a unique alarm call for “man with gun”). After reading this book, there is simply no question of the truth of “animal consciousness.” The only remaining question is whether the human variety can truly compete on an objective level.

If I may be permitted to “self-promote” from my own essay on this subject, “The Decline and Fall of Human Supremacy” in Vegetarian Voice (from 2005, already outdated by much more evidence)…

“If we are to make a case for ourselves as uniquely conscious, the most logical way to prove that might be to abandon ‘human supremacy’ and behave in a way that shows we grasp the larger implications of our species’ actions: To restore ecosystems instead of destroying them; to eat what’s best in the long run for our bodies and our ideals, instead of what’s most immediately handy; to instill in our children a respect for all forms of sentient life.

It’s possible, of course, that we could subsequently find that some animal somewhere has in some way done the same thing, once again redrawing the line. But the effort would not be wasted: At the very least we would have finally lived up to and embodied the term we use to describe ourselves: Humanity.”


From Karen Davis (to “Louder than Words”)

It is not complicated to know what a cow or a chicken wants to do to be healthy and happy.

Visit our sanctuary in Virginia and you will see that chickens want to be out of their houses each morning and into their spacious yards and wooded areas to forage, sunbathe, dustbathe and socialize together. They want to roost up high together at night on perches, reflecting the fact that chickens evolved in the tropical forest and slept in trees, and still do. They want to run on their legs and flap their wings, nest and do all the things they evolved to do, as reflected in their overt behavior – unless their natural behavior is thwarted and distorted, as it is in crowded confinement situations with boring food, mutilated beaks, and no outlets for their time and energies.

The reason that even intelligent people insist we can’t know what an animal of another species wants to do is simple: What animals want to do conflicts with what we want to do with them, and to them, and how we want to use, misuse and abuse them.

Acknowledging that other animal species have interests, preferences, desires, dislikes, aversions, affinities and so forth would require moral obligations and radical changes in our behavior toward them. Let’s stop pretending we don’t know, or can’t know, what a chicken or a goat or a chimpanzee desires to do. I know what our chickens want to do because I watch them choose their daily activities in an environment that stimulates their interests.

For instance, chickens released from a long siege in a cage and placed on the ground almost invariably start making the tentative, increasingly vigorous gestures of taking a dustbath. They paddle and fling the dirt with their claws, rake in particles of earth with their beaks, fluff up their feathers, roll on their sides, pause with their eyes closed, and stretch out their legs in obvious relish at being able to bask luxuriously and satisfy their urge to clean themselves and to be clean, as well as engage in the highly social activity of dustbathing together.

Dustbathing is one of many examples I can give of knowing what chickens desire to do as demonstrated by what they choose to do. My knowledge fits that of the ages going back to Plutarch and other recorders of chickens’ behavior, in which genetic patterns combine with the birds’ learning abilities.

A question that confronts us as a society is whether we have the decency and courage to start codifying our accumulated knowledge of other animal species and proliferation of findings about them into laws that uphold animals’ dignity and protect their interests. By interests, I mean their bodily integrity, their biological and cognitive repertoires, and their habitats.

Karen Davis, Ph.D., is president and founder of United Poultry Concerns. She maintains a sanctuary for domestic fowl in Virginia.


Housekeeping Items

» August 10th, 2012

It’s a travel day and I’m on deadline so I thought I’d take a quick moment to cover some mundane items. Important, but mundane.

1) Many readers have e-mailed me with questions, made comments asking me for a response, or otherwise prompted me in one way or another for this or that. One of the most difficult aspects of chronic blogging is that I’m simply unable to get to every question. I do not want my reticence to in any way be interpreted as rudeness. This blog would be nothing without readers and commenters, and I’m always appreciative for your input (even if in disagreement), but I can only do so much. So I appreciate your understanding if I do not respond.

2) Two quick thoughts about comment etiquette. First, no gratuitous swear words. I realize this request sounds absurdly priggish, but my objection is more stylistic than anything else. I find gratuitous swearing to be, well, trashy. Work harder to find a better word. Sorry. Second, if at all possible I would love for commenters to include their full names. I think it helps foster transparency. Not requiring this, but I’d love to connect with real people with real names rather than total strangers with impersonal monikers.

3) There’s been an outpouring of support for my upcoming literary blog. I’m truly grateful.  I’m in the early stages of working on how to do incorporate this idea into (working closely with my web guy Steve Zilko). Many of you have sent book suggestions my way. Keep them coming, but beware that my choices and analyses may be—no, will be—quirky. In any case, I hope to have this section up in a couple of weeks.

4) If you’re ever in San Francisco and can get to Millenium, do it. It’s vegan and it’s delicious.





» August 4th, 2012

Working from old notes, I made an error in my post yesterday on welfare labeling. I noted that PGI, a Canadian organization, would “perhaps soon” be offering the world’s strictest welfare label. Turns out they had once offered the world’s strictest label and got out the business because of widespread dishonestly among marketing groups. I’ve made the correction in the original post but thought it was important to let subscribers know directly. My apologies for any confusion this mistake may have caused. -jm

The (Melanie) Joy of Healthy Debate

» July 30th, 2012

As an academic and activist I’ve experienced my share of unhealthy arguments. Personal, nasty, demeaning, and sometimes bordering on demoralizing. Often, the dialog surrounding issues of animal rights reminds me of Beatty’s justification for ridding the world of books in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “And if they’re nonfiction its worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. All of them running about putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun.”

Fortunately, there are gifted scholars and activists who, while putting big messages out there, refuse to put out the stars or extinguish the sun in the process. One is Melanie Joy, who readers of this blog most likely know. Author of Strategic Action for Animals and Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Joy is a social psychologist who speaks internationally about carnism and the psychosociology of violence against animals. With the possible exception of Jonathan Safram Foer, she has, through tireless advocacy, done more to convert people to veganism than anyone else I know.

I was thus honored when, in the interest of furthering enlightened debate, she sent me the following response to my blog posts of July 26th and 28 (and the commentary around them).  As you will see, her insightful comments raise a number of issues that will certainly stir more debate. Healthy debate.  It is with Joy’s permission that I publish her remarks. Enjoy them.

As a psychologist and activist whose work has centered around naming and reframing some core vegan concepts, I couldn’t agree more about the need to choose what we say wisely and appropriately. But what I think is missing in this conversation is the appreciation that language is not just historically, but socially contextual. 

The insistence on using only the term “vegan,” all the time, seems an oversimplification at best, and at worst even counterproductive to our goal of creating a vegan world. I would argue that we would do well to select our words based not simply on linguistic accuracy, but on communicative efficacy. Sometimes these are synonymous — sometimes the most accurate word is also the most effective. Often, they are not. For instance, I believe “carnist” is a more accurate term to refer to non-vegans than, say, meat eater — which reinforces the myth that animals are meat, and that eating them is an ideologically neutral behavior. But do I use “carnist” when talking with a….carnist? Never; “carnist” is too triggering (though, as an aside, “carnism” is not). Our goal must not be to be “right” but to connect with the other. Change occurs when people are open to what we have to say, and connection is a prerequisite for openness. 

We can meet people where they are at — we can respect who they are, with all the inaccurate stereotypes they may be harboring about veganism — or we can meet them where we wish they were, and pretend such assumptions they have won’t create a barrier to connecting with them. Just because we know what vegan means, and we have embraced the term, this doesn’t mean everyone else has as well. 

So “vegan” can “other” us. Think about it: if, in the “carnist’s” mind a vegan is radical, extremist, anti-food, anti-human, holier than thou, etc., then the minute this term is used such a stereotype is conjured and the minute this happens common ground is lost and the opportunity to speak authentically and openly about a profoundly sensitive subject becomes that much more difficult. Am I saying we should never use “vegan”? Of course not. But as someone who has traveled fairly extensively talking about just this issue, having paid close attention to the reactions of people to the words I use, I can say with some conviction that, at this point in the evolution of the vegan movement, we cannot afford a one-size-fits-all approach to our word choice. Context is everything. I share my veganism every chance I get — and there are plenty of times when the chances I get are the result of a conversation that began with discussing “plant-based” or “vegetarian” diets. 

I agree that proclaiming and reclaiming and wearing with pride our veganism is essential, and that we should push the movement forward by making it visible through words whenever doing so is what’s best for the movement. And I appreciate you raising this important point, because it needs to be examined and it needs to be pushed forward. But I think it’s a risky and at times counterproductive approach if we end up putting linguistic purity above strategic activism. Because in the end, what’s most important is not being right, but being effective.