Vegans: Be Wary of Slogans

» September 1st, 2014

As I continue the often uncomfortable process of subjecting my beliefs about eating animals to systematic scrutiny, I find myself seeing aspects of animal activism in a new, and not always flattering, light. Lately, for example, I have found myself getting frustrated with the overly simplistic claims that serve to justify the vegan way of life. Please note that I have zero moral tolerance for raising animals to consume them when other options are available. That said, I’m realizing that many vegan justifications are just as thoughtlessly reductive as are the carnivorous claims that vegans find so dimwitted: “we were meant to eat meat,” “we’re at the top of the food chain,” “it is the animals purpose to be food,” and so on. And we don’t want that.

So when I read something like (and I’m choosing a random example of late), “Our relationship with other animals should be one of awe and reverence, not one of use,” I think, well that’s nice. But then when I really think about it on a deeper level, I realize that this is an aphorism that obscures a far more complicated reality. First, on what grounds do I have an obligation to look at other creatures with awe and reverence? What if the animal does not behave in a way deserving of these reactions? Should I revere my awe-inspiring dog for rifling though my trash? To do so would actually be to objectify them by denying them any form of free will, to release them from any consequence of their actions, with automatic awe and reverence freezing these creatures into a romanticized category not unlike a classic painting or novel. ¬†Awe and respect too easily becomes mindless glorification.

Likewise, the question of use is far more complicated than the aphorism suggests. Of course, the intended meaning is to not use animals by yoking them to a plow or churning them into a burger—but that’s exploitation, a form of use. But use per se is unavoidable. We use each other—humans and humans, animals and animals, animals and humans—all the time. To remove ourselves from the matrix of use, for the evident purpose of experiencing disengaged awe and reverence, is to exonerate ourselves from the very hard work of developing genuine relationships with animals, ones that demand us to deal with a range of differences and similarities—a matrix of uses— to find common ground on a set of relationship “rules.” If you live with a companion animal, you know how hard this could be. I use my pets; they use me. To sever that bond is, once again, to objectify animals.

I’ll stop, but maybe you get my point. If you think it’s wrong to exploit animals, you have an obligation to make those thoughts known and appreciated. But when we do so through sloganeering rather than on the basis of common sense, moral clarity, and logical consistence, our chances of having an impact on broad cultural change is significantly reduced. We’re just firing very loud blanks in a war of words.

6 Responses to Vegans: Be Wary of Slogans

  1. ARC says:

    I agree, James, that we should not engage in vaporous pious generalities to justify our vegan commitment. I do think however that the statements you critique have real and important meaning.
    When thoughtful vegans ( and most are) state that our relationship with other sentients should not be one of exploitation or mere “use” I think we are implicitly referring to the Kantian stricture that one should never relate to another person strictly as a means but always, as well, as an end in him/herself. Where we differ is that Kant restricted the term “person” to members of his own species solely while we extend it to many other kinds of sentients who have intentionalty/consciousness or to whom it matters that their lives go well rather than badly or who are subjects of a life (probably pretty much interchangeable criteria; you take your pick). I think we agree that it is okay to appreciate our dog’s affection when we are down, his alerts that someone is coming up the front porch stairs or his regular invitations to get up from the couch and away from the computer monitor or tv screen as long as we acknowledge as well his intrinsic worth that precludes for example euthanizing him when old age brings deafness or arthritis and diminution of certain functions.
    And when we say that our relationship to other sentient creatures should be one of reverence I think we mean something very precise and concrete: that it is imperative that we recognize their unalterable right to bodily integrity, a reasonable degree of self determination and freedom of movement including engaging in behaviors and relationships that are species specific (dogs need to bark, cats to scratch, chickens to peck etc.) and that may annoy or dumbfound us.
    On the other hand it is true that words do have a way of inhibiting thought, especially when parroted, so it is incumbent on all of us who wish to speak for the animals to find our own concrete narrative of what brought us to veganism, an ethical and philosophical position so obvious and incontrovertible to us, but which is espoused by at most a few percent of the world’s population. There is work to be done!

  2. Teresa Wagner says:

    James, some people look at the issue of veganism through a spiritual and emotional lens, not just a logical one, and some perhaps see it through a spiritual and emotional lens exclusively. People who are not yet vegan–those we may be trying to educate–will be influenced through *their* lens. As one example, the research of the Myers-Briggs personality inventory indicates that some humans make decisions with the data that comes into their life primarily from a thinking/logical perspective, while others do so primarily from a feeling/emotional perspective. According to that paradigm, and my own opinion, neither is right or wrong, just different. So as we look at the words and phrases we use to describe why we are vegan or why the whole world should be vegan, it seems to me that both logical and spiritual/emotional phrasing is needed. I greatly admire your keen intellectualism and your marvelous writing. But not everyone we are trying to reach will be reached via their intellect. Some need to be reached via their heart or soul. Slogans about “awe and reverence” will influence them more than facts.

    Thank you for another engaging post.

    • James says:

      Excellent point, Teresa. My inclination is to explore the connections between the intellect and emotions, and that it is something I will do. My working hypothesis is that “logic” need not be cold. That is, that our emotional lives are driven by a logical sense of right and wrong, and that emotions are indeed often the best starting point for a logical ethical investigation into a concern. For me, I was emotionally struck by a video I’d seen of animal abuse, and that emotional reaction sent to explore a lot of philosophy. Many thanks for the comment.

  3. Karen Harris says:

    I’m not sure what you are referring to as slogans really – I guess they just don’t bother me as much as they do you, nor do I think they necessarily cause a reduction incultural change. There are far more pervasive and powerful forces out there making sure of that!
    I interpret the example you give in a much broader sense – a reverence for life. I don’t think the “slogan” implies that every single behavior carried out by human and non-human animals should be viewed as awe inspiring.
    I think that it is all right to speak from the heart without examining every single word for possible multiple interpretations – it would take forever to utter anything!
    From following your blog, I know you are uncomfortable with labels, and over simplification. I personally go a bit easier on vegans; they have a hard enough time constantly justifying their choices.

    • James says:

      Karen,
      I value your input very much and I trust you’ll take this comment in the spirit of hoping to improve the movement to liberate animals. I think your comment carries a whiff of woe-are-we victimization that’s counterproductive. I (and others) are not nit-picking words and logic because I want to rattle the nerves of vegans or engage in academic hair-splitting. I do so because I deeply believe that the vegan movement, while centered on a core principle that I generally support, suffers from a disturbing level of intellectual laziness. Not stupidity, mind you. But laziness. Perhaps it’s idealistic of me, but I do believe that if a solid and honest argument is made for anything, and the data of experience backs it up, then cultural change will follow. Thus, when I see sloppy logic, I pounce on it, hoping others will do the same for me.
      JM

  4. Karen Harris says:

    James,
    Thank you for your response. I am glad that you and others are out there bringing intellectual rigor to issues revolving around veganism – so important.
    From my own experiences, however, I have found that most people are reached through a more spiritual/emotional connection, as Theresa expressed so eloquently in her response. This belief comes after years of teaching in both high school and college, as well as my own activist work. I have found that this approach is very important, especially for young people, who often need to be drawn into an issue out of passion, not an intellectual argument. Obviously, ideally both approaches work together in tandem, as you suggest Often they do not.
    I think what you misconstrued as a feeling of victimization was more my feeling that I think that well meaning, if intellectually lazy vegans, don’t do any harm, and actually do lots of good. Personally, I save my criticism for the corporations and educated foodies who have all sorts of intellectual justifications for why they do what they do.
    I guess maybe you are more idealistic than I am!

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