Veganism’s Mind/Body Problem
Lately I’ve been feeling the need to articulate a mission statement of sorts. Or at least clear space in my mind for doing so, kind of like you clean your desk before sitting down to work. That is what this post is: a shuffling of papers in preparation for the pursuit of a concrete outcome.
This creeping desire to pin down my quest derives, I suppose, from a nascent awareness that my core identity is gradually moving away from my work as a history professor to that of an activist blogger and writer who seeks to . . . . well, there’s the need for articulation.
What I’m struggling with intellectually is precisely where to situate myself between theory and reality. If I’ve learned anything from my immersion in animal rights literature and activism it’s that, at best, we—if I can even use that pronoun—are united only insofar as we share a sliver of space where theory and reality bump into each other. This is fine. The small overlap leads to vibrant discussions and it forces us to constantly reassess our intellectual foundations. Consensus is dull.
But the sliver of commonality also creates confusion, the sort of confusion that might cause stagnation when it comes to the larger (and shared) effort to help animals. Let me be perfectly clear: I certainly would love to live in a world where a cultural mentality free of speciesism prevailed, where there was no sense of fundamental human exceptionalism, and where it was considered universally wrong by every secular or religious moral standard to treat animals as instruments. I really, really, really want that. I would also love world peace.
Which is to say: this is a remote reality that I have a very hard time imagining ever coming to fruition. This resignation, of course, may be the result of my own lack of imagination. I tend to think, however, that it comes from an honest (if reluctant) assessment of the world around me. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t pursue the Big Dream. Or that I personally won’t pursue it as an essential backdrop to a more accessible mission that strikes me as more likely to be grasped by the general public.
And that mission? At the risk of marginalizing myself and my message, I will be honest and admit that I see my current task as this: to convince people to stop eating animals. That goal strikes me as realistic, pragmatic, and consistent with the larger discussions we are already having about food, agriculture, health, and the environment. From there, it’s an easy step to start discussions about exploiting animals for clothing, entertainment, and research. Put another way, I’m more interesting in changing behavior within the existing frameworks of discussion before changing fundamental mentalities that demand an entirely new, currently non-existent framework. It is this perspective, for those who care, that allows me to get animal issues into the mainstream media.
I guess this means that I have more immediate faith in helping to change habits as a pretext to changing minds rather than changing minds as a pretext of changing habits. Of course, this habit/mind dichotomy is overstated; they necessarily evolve in tandem. But for the purposes of helping to clarify for myself the project I contemplate daily, it helps to separate them, however temporarily. Plus, we are, as humans, more aware of our habits than we are of their underlying ideologies. We often think we believe what we don’t believe, and vice-versa. It’s harder to trick ourselves when it comes to visible habits.
Having just returned from a forum where discussions were much more centered on how to get dairy out of the diet rather than the comparative existential status of humans versus non-humans, I’m quite convinced that there is every justification to focus on the logistics of habitual change before hitting people over the head with liberationist ideology. The liberationist ideology may or may not follow right away. But, fortunately, it’s not required for a profound shift in behavior to be initiated.
I realize this pragmatic moral hedging will anger and alienate a lot readers. But one thing I’ve never done here at Eating Plants is write what people want to hear. Vegans don’t need a Michael Pollan—someone who tells everyone what they want to hear. Plus, rest assured that in choosing an emphasis I’m rejecting nothing, including the remote chance that humans will universally overcome speciesism and human exceptionalsim and stop, once and for all, the exploitation of the most vulnerable in our midst.
In any case, desk cleared.