Yesterday I found out that two of my favorite professors have gone vegan. This happy piece of news inspired me to post about some of my thoughts that came up last week regarding going vegan versus staying vegan.
I recently had a conversation with my homedogg Shawn over at Romantic Scribbles about dealing with the “difficult issues” of belief systems, and how while dealing with such things is occasionally painful, annoying, or disturbing, it is an essential step to meaningful, lasting change. Shawn is dealing with these challenges in his work as a youth minister at a church that puts a high value on relevancy, and was saying that some churches that cater to the come-as-you-are, modern crowd occasionally are reluctant to talk about harder questions of faith. In his opinion, shying away from the more uncomfortable topics leaves people in a place of doubt and frustration when they are inevitably confronted with those questions, and how if people never learn to deal with those issues they might think that their faith/belief system is simply incapable of making sense of the world. Shawn was, at the time, speaking specifically of the question of homosexuality in Christian thought, since it is a hot-button topic these days, and there is obviously immense (and not unwarranted) tension between the gay community and the Christian community. This in turn made me think about dealing with the difficult issues in veganism.
I suppose I should post a disclaimer before progressing: the organizations I am about to critique have gotten more people to go vegan than I ever will. I am aware that they have both done more good in the world than I could ever hope to do, and I appreciate (sometimes– more on that later) their hard work and dedication. But I think no one is beyond critique, and I also think that though these organizations are doing a lot of good they are also doing a lot of harm, as well.
I find that in the vegan community there is also a great deal of anxiety over how to talk to people about complicated questions regarding abstaining from animal-based products. I don’t personally think there is a philosophically on-point organization out there in terms of confronting the realities of vegan life, either going vegan or staying vegan, or dealing with diplomatic, reasonable, and effective vegan outreach. Today I will (thrillingly) address the two largest organizations, and what I see as their shortcomings in vegan philosophy.
First of all, there is PeTA, which is an organization that I feel has done more to harm the vegan cause than any group of people ought to do, but that’s another post. PeTA, especially PeTA2, is actually really great at getting people to go vegan (especially that coveted ‘tween’ age group). They have awesome merchandise: t-shirts, stickers, and other stuff, all with their brand of catchy sloganeering (the “I am not a nugget!” campaign is especially attractive), and their website is flashy and cool and looks like every advertisement at Hot Topic or wherever. PeTA may have good “action alerts” for those who don’t realize that McDonald’s is bad for animals, or that Versace uses fur or something, but PeTA is really terrible at keeping people vegan. Why? Because PeTA is (1) problematic in that it focuses its energy in truly bizarre places, (2) easy to ridicule, especially by people who realize it’s perhaps a bad idea to pretend that it helps animals to resort to lowest-common-denominator advertising that makes women into the meat we’re supposed to be avoiding (as well as having a rotten track record for sensitivity to women’s issues in general), or is just outrageously offensive and in poor taste, and (3) doesn’t deal with the tough issues.
One of the things that I find that PeTA does wrong is take the “it’s so easy to be vegan!” tack. Now, I’m not saying it’s hard to be vegan– in fact, I think it is remarkably easy given how hostile to veganism the world sometimes seems to be– but it’s not always easy, and PeTA doesn’t do a lot to address that. Being vegan is remarkably easy when you’re surrounded by vegans. Being vegan is not so easy when your family doesn’t support you (especially as a child, tween, or teen without money to buy your own groceries or advocate for the restaurants your family goes to), or when your friends are assholes about it, or when it’s Thanksgiving and you realize for the first time you don’t get to eat mom’s turkey or Aunt Josephine’s homemade mac-n-cheese and everyone really wants you to join in. Times like that it’s easy to think things like “well, it’s already been paid for” or “once won’t hurt” or some such. While that’s probably true in an objective sense, to eat something “just once” is dishonest to one’s self and one’s belief system that absolutely can address those kinds of problems in very real and very compelling manners, and is the result of a lack of a thorough exploration of the ideology behind veganism that is rooted in the terrible suffering of animals to bring us such treats as Thanksgiving dinner or birthday cake. Images, even the most terrible images, fade, but reason sticks with you.
What PeTA does right is that it gets people to go vegan. Hell, they got me to go vegan: once in college for about half a day, and then for real in ’06 when I really made the choice for life. PeTA, if it stuck to its really effective campaigns (slaughterhouse pictures, fact sheets about eggs, undercover lab-testing exposes, cold hard numbers behind the breed/adopt debate) might do some real good. But for now it seems like it takes other organizations or social groups to keep people vegan. The support found at places like the Post Punk Kitchen or the friendly atmosphere at retailers such Herbivore or Cosmo’s Vegan Shoppe are much more effective in terms of making the right choice a long-term choice.
The other vegan organization out there that shies away from the tough issues is the milder, more outwardly reasonable Vegan Outreach. That said, I have recently requested to be taken off the VO mailing list due to an email alert in my inbox the other day. Here is the text of the letter that so infuriated me. In it, the author, Matt Bell, dances around the topic of vegans eating honey, or asking if veggie burgers are cooked on the same surface as meat burgers at restaurants, and other such things that should be dealt with more intelligently than throwing up one’s hands and claiming, and I quote “of course, we could all “do no harm” by committing suicide and letting our bodies decompose in a forest. But short of this, the best path is to take a step back and consider why we really care whether something is vegan.”
Bell’s subtle jabs at the idea of “ahimsa” aside, I personally have taken that “step back,” and I have come to the realization that yes, it is important to care about whether something is vegan. To fret over things like the outward appearance to non-vegans of using vegan soap and avoiding honey is a non-engagement with issues that deserve our attention. It seems easy to me. Using vegan soap supports vegan companies, often small and independent and worthy of business, and I really can’t see a downside to that at all. Additionally, honey is maybe the most avoidable of animal products, and is the easiest animal product to substitute in baking, tea, and Molly’s Patented Cure-All (recipe at the end of this ridiculously long blog post). In fact, it is a superior product given that it dissolves easily in cold as well as hot liquids, making it ideal for iced tea, a place where honey epically fails.
I can’t see how compassion toward insects as well as fluffy animals does anything more than reinforce for non-vegans that veganism is ethically consistent. I don’t find the avoidable/unavoidable idea of veganism “arbitrary,” as Mr. Bell seems to. Indeed, I think his numbers– that 10 billion animals are killed yearly for food purposes– leads rational vegans to a place of wanting to do more, and thus avoiding things like whey, stearates, leather goods, wool, and other so-called by-products of that terrible, terrible industry. To do so is the logical extension of compassion, and when represented reasonably and cheerfully to non-vegans does not make one seem insane or overly pious or whatever he seems to think. To be frank, most non-vegans think vegans are crazy just for avoiding cheese, or chicken, or perhaps most of all (given the conversations I have, but maybe it’s just a southern thing) bacon, so I doubt jaws really drop any lower at the mention of honey. It is ethically disingenuous to go halfway, ending the discussion with statements like “the issue for thoughtful, compassionate people isn’t, “Is this vegan?” Rather, the important question is: “Which choice leads to less suffering?” Our guide shouldn’t be an endless list of ingredients, but rather doing our absolute best to stop cruelty to animals.” This sort of false binary only allows lazy people to justify eating honey. Vegans really can make a conscientious effort to avoid animal ingredients and do our best to stop cruelty to animals!
It is so, so easy to avoid by-products, and it is so, so easy to deal rationally with issues such as by-products, honey, and the notion of cross-contamination. No, honey is not a vegan product, regardless of whether your car kills bugs when you drive. No, it isn’t unreasonable to buy vegan soap even if your tires are made with stearates. No, it isn’t bad for the vegan image if you politely ask a server if vegan options are prepared in a way that they might be cross-contaminated by meat. His bland polemic “the animals don’t need us to be right, they need us to be effective” is a rallying cry for slitherer-outers who simply don’t want to think hard about inconvenient issues. And, in my opinion, to ignore or justify those sorts of minutiae only leads to a case of unnecessary justification to omnivores asking why it’s OK to exploit insects with a complex society and culture but not to eat less-self-aware creatures such as oysters.
I think it’s better to be honest to one’s self and to the animals, and just take the time to sort out one’s own thoughts so one can communicate effectively when needed. There are obviously more than two groups of people who ask about veganism, but two of the biggest are those who are genuinely interested and who will appreciate rational discussion, honest answers, and ethical consistency, and those who ask about veganism only to sneer and chide and won’t think veganism is possible regardless of ambivalence to honey-eating. Why limit our compassion just to reach those people? Dishonesty to a movement for the sake of making a fairly complicated life-decision seem easy is just silly.
In my opinion, being as consistent as possible does more to help the animals, and I genuinely care about bees, meat in my food, and not washing myself with animal fat. I am also fairly confident in my ability to represent that compassion to others without seeming insane, and if I of all people can do that, more cool-headed individuals must be able to with ease. Really, to say anything different would be dishonest.
Veganism isn’t always easy, but it is a moral choice, and those are never always easy. To represent veganism as anything less than a complicated, but compassionate decision that helps the animals and the earth is just setting up people for hard times later when they do have to wrangle with those questions without help from organizations such as Vegan Outreach or PeTA, and I hope one day they see that. And with that, here’s my recipe for my honey-free, go-to cure-all whenever I’m feeling a cold coming on, or have a sore throat, or am just feeling like I need a little pep in my step.
The juice of half a lemon
2-3 tbs. agave nectar
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
two slices fresh ginger
1/2 fresh garlic clove
Smash the garlic and the ginger, and drop in a mug. Cover with lemon, agave, and cayenne. Top off with boiling water, stir, let sit until cool enough to drink, and enjoy! Yes you will smell like garlic but it’s good for what ails you!