Veganism’s Mind/Body Problem

» May 6th, 2013

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.


20 Responses to Veganism’s Mind/Body Problem

  1. Well, you have certainly not alienated this reader, James. I read the whole post repeatedly thinking “Yes, exactly!” It’s not a small thing to admit in this community that it’s hard to see world-wide veganism ever taking hold, but we must be connected to reality while we work toward the dream. It may not be realized in our lifetime, but it’s still a worthy goal. Thank you for once again articulating so clearly what many of us believe.

  2. Carolle says:

    James, Your post makes a lot of sense, to me at least, and doesn’t seem like a major shift from your previous writings (here and elsewhere). The realist view is not pessimistic at all and I don’t want to read a “Pollan view” from you. Of course I’d love for every single person to stop eating & wearing animals as well, and I want to be a part of that influence for others. There is only one sure way I can influence ones around me: simply by living by example. I guess being a positive realist is key for the day-to-day.
    Thank you for your thoughts and for embracing / celebrating reality.

  3. Sailesh Rao says:

    James, you are in good company. Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist, has argued that in order to free people and help their intellects conquer their minds, it is best to set boundaries. He uses the analogy of an elephant (the mind) and a rider (the intellect). Mahatma Gandhi, in order to free Indians from the rule of the mighty British Empire, started the Khadi movement where he asked people to change their clothes from British manufactured clothes to homespun cotton clothes. And the Khadi movement managed to bankrupt the Manchester textile mills within a dozen years and set in motion the events that would culminate in the declaration of independence for India.

    The Vegan movement is the Khadi movement of the 21st century. Some embrace it to better their own health, some embrace it for the sake of the environment, and some embrace it for the sake of the animals, but no matter what the reason, it is a first sure step towards our end goal of a world without prejudice, where every life matters.

    • CQ says:

      I’m not familiar with Haidt’s work, but based on your brief description of it, Sailesh, I much prefer your Gandhi analogy to Haidt’s comparison of humans setting boundaries on their minds to humans riding and conquering elephants.

      The Khadi movement reminds me of the sugar boycott that disrupted one of the main products harvested by British slaves, severely crippling the slave trade, as described by Adam Hochschild in his essay “Against All Odds” and quoted by James LaVeck here:

  4. Beautifully said, Sailesh; thank you.

  5. markgil says:

    here is a great new article from Jo Tyler about this subject:

  6. Charlie Talbert says:

    James, you write, “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.”

    You share that mission with lots of people, but very few have your platform. Does being a history professor get you easier access to The Atlantic, the New York Times and other national publications who have printed your opinion pieces; or to Little, Brown, and Co., which published Just Food?

    Before I retired, I had an above average paying job that allowed me to contribute sizable amounts to my favorite animal advocacy organization, and lesser amounts to a few others. Not advocating more directly, more often, frustrated me, but I think I was more effective indirectly.

    This is not a perfect analogy for your question about what to do, I know, but enough of one to consider.

  7. Ellen K says:

    I’m not only not alienated either, but sharing your questions about refining mission, and re-thinking how I use my professional time to further the same cause (with dairy products and the humane myth being my particular concern).

    My early academic work and graduate training schooled me in theory (comparative religion, social ethics, literature of nonviolence) to help create the vision you describe — world peace included :) . But I’ve long ago shifted to practical implications, regardless of stated beliefs. I observe around me the “moral schizophrenia” articulated by Gary Francione in yesterday’s post on everyone talks a good game about compassion, but few walk the talk.

    So, yes, targeting behavior seems key. How to do that? I can’t recall the source now, but read a while ago something to the effect that 20% of people do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do, and 80% don’t unless there are clear, short-term consequences to their action (punishment or reward).

    And here’s where the personal health and environmental consequences play a huge role in altering dietary behavior. This article impressed me with the importance of including those factors in vegan advocacy, along with the ethical issues, to achieve lasting behavior change:

    • Lori says:

      Ellen, thanks for posting that article. I pretty much agree with it, though I go for the multipronged approach usually.

      • Ellen K says:

        Hi Lori,
        I always go multi-pronged, figuring out as best I can what angle will work as a starting and/or major point for a particular person or group, but incorporating the other aspects as well for a more complete picture (so an athlete interested in performance always hear from me about veal calves and murdered chicks, for example; someone motivated by ethics/social/spiritual issues gets from me a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition and a reminder of the importance of taking care of one’s self to be a positive example to inspire others; conversation about systemic violence towards women gets steered towards Carol Adams, and dairy substitute recipes, etc etc)
        I would require a film immersion evening to cover all bases of “Earthlings”, “Peaceable Kingdom”, “Forks Over Knives’ and “A Delicate Balance” for every student in the country if I could!

    • markgil says:

      interesting take on the ethical issue and why veganism is more than just an issue of diet by Jo Stepaniak:

      “Contrary to vegetarianism, veganism was founded on deeply held ethical convictions that espouse a dynamic respect for all life. This philosophy unifies vegans everywhere, regardless of superficial differences. Hence, a vegan from one part of the world can relate to and empathize with a vegan from another part of the world despite their disparate culture and language.

      There are no such entities as “part-time vegans,” “partial vegans,” or “dietary vegans.” People who merely consume no animal products, including no eggs, animals’ milk, or honey are not vegans; they are “total vegetarians.” Until one’s commitment extends beyond the scope of food, the word “vegan” does not apply, regardless of how the media or certain individuals wish to employ it. Unlike vegetarianism, being vegan does not entail simply what a person does or doesn’t eat—it comprises who a person is.

      People who are vegan attempt to imbue every aspect of their lives with an ethic of compassion. This influences their choice of clothing, personal care products, occupation, and hobbies, as well as food. It also colors their political perspectives, social attitudes, and personal relationships. This is not to say that all vegans think alike, act the same, have analogous opinions, or view the world and their place in it identically. Nevertheless, vegans do subscribe to a shared tenet that builds a collective awareness. It is this coalescence of consciousness that creates a bond among vegans and has the power to transcend cursory distinctions. In the final analysis, despite our diversity, there is only one type of vegan—a person who is committed to and practices a reverence and respect for all life.”

      • Ellen K says:

        I get it, and thanks for this. Yes, I’m very clear on veganism as an all-encompassing ethic, and strive for this in my own life as well as my advocacy. But the topic was behavior, and how to help achieve practical effects with populations who are indifferent to anything other than their own immediate pleasure, or avoidance of their own pain. And what to do with those who profess an ethic of compassion, environmentalism, love for animals, spirituality, etc etc, yet whose behavior (food choices) directly contradicts / violates those professed convictions.

  8. Lori says:

    I think being practical is very important. Many of us have our own beliefs about what is the best strategy to achieve our goals and we’re all right some of the time and wrong some of the time.

    I’ve known and talked to and conversed online with too many people who just don’t care a wit about animals, or even if they do, don’t care enough to change their habits, to think that we can win our goal with the animal welfare/rights argument alone.

    My personal belief is that in order to achieve the goal of getting people to stop eating animals (and animal products) we should push all the reasons we can. Some will be swayed by animal rights, some by health, some by environmental reasons. I always put out all three reasons when I’m asked, hoping that at least one will hit on their curiosity or moral compass.

  9. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    I look forword to this verbal/intellectural journey on which you are embarking since clarification is useful in such a confusing and dizzying data driven world. When I have attempted to state my desire to attain such a goal as you articulate , my husband,a very hard edge practical man, strongly suggests that I am totally naive and that it is natural in Mans evolutionary journey to fight and kill and use animal flesh to feed his brain and it will be ever thus! Certainly it seems as if it is a race between my notion of a decent existance for all and the obliteration and decimation of our and other species existence owing to the availability of nuclear armaments and the rage and hatred our tribes exhibit. It often seems that more people have been killed than have been born!!! I suppose, we shall have to just keep the dream alive while we can because that is in OUR natures to do so. What a gift is LIFE and how much more difficult it is to create than destroy! Let us hope we prevail.

  10. CQ says:

    I agree that it’s helpful for each of us to define and articulate our individual mission. After all, we each have a unique purpose and destiny to fulfill.

    The supportive comments must be welcome, but shouldn’t be a surprise to you, James. After all, you’re good at explaining the host of underlying ethical reasons for eating only plant-based foods, whether or not you also explain your liberationist ideology or even a legal rights platform.

    The only observation I haven’t seen mentioned thus far is this: which is the boss, the body or the mind? Or are they co-bosses? If the mind is always boss of the body, which I think is the case, then doesn’t theory have to precede and lead the practice of that theory?

    Put another way, doesn’t the ideal have to be envisioned and understood, and then worked toward, so that it becomes the on-the-ground reality? (I hope this doesn’t sound like ethereal nonsense.)

    This morning I happened upon a statement in a book on metaphysics; I’ll paraphrase the ideas in a “question” format: “Do we work from the standpoint of effect instead of cause? Do we substitute right action for right thinking, believing that what we do is more important than what we think, instead of having our actions and speech be the spontaneous expression of our improved thinking?”

    It sounds to me, James, as if your principled thoughts are precipitating not only your own actions but also will invariably influence your written and spoken contention that others should act in the same way — eating foods that support instead of decimate the animals, the environment, and their own best-and-brightest values.

    • markgil says:

      “This morning I happened upon a statement in a book on metaphysics; I’ll paraphrase the ideas in a “question” format: “Do we work from the standpoint of effect instead of cause? Do we substitute right action for right thinking, believing that what we do is more important than what we think, instead of having our actions and speech be the spontaneous expression of our improved thinking?”

      interesting questions-here is Gandhi’s take on this CQ:

      Your beliefs become your thoughts,
      Your thoughts become your words,
      Your words become your actions,
      Your actions become your habits,
      Your habits become your values,
      Your values become your destiny.

      • CQ says:

        We can generally count on Mohandas Gandhi to have wisely seen and clearly articulated some great truth, can’t we?

        • markgil says:

          if only more people would become aware of the wisdom of sages like Gandhi, but as they say, ignorance is bliss…

  11. Jean says:

    It seems to me that you, Gary Francione, Carol Adams, John Simons and others–all professors who have not been entrapped by postmodern theory’s conversation with itself (with all its inherent nonaccountability that weakens any form of advocacy)–have been in the forefront of uniting the academic and public spheres for quite a while. Academia is indeed fortunate to have such down-to-earth, brilliant, and committed activists always reaching out to the reality beyond its academic boundaries. I have been a subscriber to Eating Plants for only four months, but already I hope that you might find it possible to maintain your passion to “stop, once and for all, the exploitation of the most vulnerable in our midst” on both sides of the boundaries–boundaries that unfortunately exist.

    When I read your reflections following the recent conference in El Paso: “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,” I could not help but think of what Elizabeth Costello faced, in contrast, a decade earlier in her relentless quest to end the “normalized atrocities” of factory farms. If only she could have turned to Eating Plants on a daily basis, she undoubtedly would have not felt so isolated–especially as an academic, not afraid to admit her empathy with nonhuman animals, seeking entry into the world beyond academic borders.

    How could your subscribers feel anger or alienation for your honest desk-clearing post?! Thanks, James!


  12. James says:

    Well, I certainly turn to Elizabeth Costello frequently, so I’d have been happy to play such a role, if only as a gesture of thanks. Thanks for your thoughtful note.

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