Thursday, May 23, 2013

Personal Freedom, Animal Rights, and Privilege

A little while ago, I shared this blog post in a Facebook group that I moderate.  (Please take a moment to read it if you haven't already.)  The ensuing discussion included the following comments:

Some of these same arguments could used for religious reasons too. One persons ethics are not the same as another's tho I think it's appropriate to take a stance on personal ethics. My quandary here is that when the Christian Right believes the exact same thing and want to make their ethical concerns laws that rule my life I [am] absolutely against that. I think many people really don't think about their food choices and feel attacked by this approach. I think it's easier to get people to challenge themselves by helping them learn about the differences and what's going on with the food industry. Also extreme poverty does not make way for food choices. If I lived any further from STL or made any less money I could avoid meat but not gmos and /or would be dependent on food pantries again and they don't share produce.

 ...[M]y concern, and just processing this mind you, is that the message is you are a bad person if you are not vegan. And people who are poor get the message they are bad a million ways. I was attacked a lot the first few weeks I stopped eating meat, and I am still not vegan, from people on both sides I never expected it from. It was a much harder transition because of that.

Those comments raise some valid concerns.  Here is my response:

The Religious Right wants to legislate interactions between consenting adults, or between adults and fetuses that are not yet sentient. There's a fundamental difference between that and wanting to extend legal rights and legal protections to other sentient species.

Instead of looking at it from the perspective of the human having their choices restricted, try looking at it from the perspective of the animal being protected from abuse and exploitation. How do you think the animals would feel about the idea that it's a "personal choice" whether or not to confine them in factory farms, abuse and neglect them, slaughter them and consume their flesh? What about their personal choice, their intense preference not to be used and abused in that way? The "personal choice" philosophy is centered around the choices of the oppressor, not the oppressed.

As an analogy, consider the debate around smoking in public places. People who are against public smoking bans look at the issue in terms of smokers' personal freedom. They view smoking in public places as a personal choice, and the bans as an unfair restriction of that choice. Those who favor the bans, however, view it as a right of people who don't smoke to be protected from the harmful effects of secondhand smoking that they haven't consented to being exposed to. One person's rights end where another's begin. It may be a personal choice to smoke in one's own space away from other people, but it is not a personal choice to harm others by exposing them to secondhand smoke.

When one claims that this argument harms people who have no choice but to eat some animal products, one ignores the fact that this argument is not directed towards such people.* Perhaps this point needs to be made clearer. Survival is the most basic right and priority of any being, human or not. What "survival" means, is, of course, up for debate. But this argument is directed towards people who have the privilege of making a choice whether or not to harm others. If you hit someone in self-defense, you are not an abuser. If you steal bread because you are starving, I would not call you a thief.

The fact is, most people who are not impoverished and who don't live in food deserts have at least some choice about what they eat. (The amount of choice varies widely, of course.) I believe that people are morally obligated to do whatever they feel they can, based on whatever privilege they have, to fight oppression, both against their own and against other species. The keyword is privilege. With privilege comes responsibility. That's why I'm not going to hand out a booklet on veganism to someone living on the streets.

*Some people claim that everyone on the planet can be vegan, but I do not make any such claim.  There are people for whom that option is not realistic or even possible.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I never thought I'd say this, but I agree with PETA on this one.

As a longtime vegetarian, I'm used to having to explain to people that not all veg*ns support PETA.  I find that their tactics tend to give animal rights activists a bad name, and often marginalize groups of humans in the name of ending the oppression of nonhuman animals.  It as though PETA doesn't realize that all oppressions are interrelated, and that humans are, in fact, a species of animal (as potentially problematic as that may be to say).

So, imagine my surprise today when I stumbled across this post on PETA's website.  Did I just see a message of moderation from PETA?

What led me to the aforementioned post was another post on the PETA site:  a list of foods that are accidentally vegan.  That list contains the following footnote:
*Items listed may contain trace amounts of animal-derived ingredients. While PETA supports a strict adherence to veganism, we put the task of vigorously reducing animal suffering ahead of personal purity. Boycotting products that are 99.9 percent vegan sends the message to manufacturers that there is no market for this food, which ends up hurting more animals. For a more detailed explanation of PETA's position, please click here
That sounds remarkably similar to the position of Peter Singer and Jim Mason, as described in their recent book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.  (The relevant quotation from that book can be found at the bottom of this post.)  Perhaps PETA saw the sense in their argument and decided to take their lead.  That would be appropriate, as Singer and Mason are two of the founders of the animal liberation movement.

The position of Singer, Mason, and (strangely enough) PETA is the position that I espouse in this blog.  Veg*nism is, in essence, a boycott.  For a boycott to be effective, it is necessary for a large number of people to participate.  And it's much more likely that others will be willing to participate if they don't feel that they have to give up every product with a miniscule amount of animal-derived ingredients.  At this point in our history, at least, I believe that we can do more good by encouraging people to do what they can than by focusing on purity and dogmatic adherence to a strictly vegan diet.

One commenter on this blog summed it up nicely:
Over time, I've come around to the idea that "mostly vegan" is perhaps a more ethical choice than fully vegan. My logic is that [if] you live a happy, healthy life as a mostly vegan person and others see it's not so hard to avoid animal foods when you can and not to worry about it when you can't, you're more likely to inspire others down that path. And if you convince three other people to drop half the animal products from their diet, you've done much more good than a strict vegan who eats no animal products - and turns off others from making a choice towards a plant-based diet by making it seem rigid or difficult.*

So, if you're reading this post, and you're not already vegan, please know that every vegan choice you make is a step in the right direction, and you don't have to compulsively check ingredients lists in order to make a difference for animals.

*ETA NOTE: While I believe that this commenter makes a good point, I do not wish to suggest that those who maintain a strict vegan diet are less ethical than those who don't -- only that there is an argument to be made for not adhering to veganism so rigidly that the vegan lifestyle appears to others to be difficult or impossible to maintain.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


As you may have heard, Alex Jamieson -- vegan author, nutrition coach, and ex-wife of Super Size Me filmmaker Morgan Spurlock -- recently announced that she is no longer vegan.  I found her announcement, while disappointing, also heartfelt and brave, given the generally harsh response to ex-vegans by the vegan community.

Several years ago, I actually had an experience like hers, and, like her, I experienced these cravings for at least a year and gave a great deal of thought to the decision before I acted on them.  I had built an identity around being vegetarian.  I relentlessly debated whether giving in to the cravings would be a good thing, in terms of rejecting the rigid purism of a strictly vegetarian diet, or a bad thing, in terms of compromising my values.  Ultimately, I decided that the cravings were my body's way of telling me that I needed some meat, so, for that as well as for social reasons, I briefly became a poultry-and-seafood flexitarian. I found that I did not feel any better from eating meat, did not particularly like the taste of it, and in fact, did not like how I felt when I ate it.  I could not stop thinking about the fact that I was eating a once-living animal.  The cravings quickly gave way to disgust and guilt, and I became a vegetarian again.  I still feel badly about this brief lapse in my adherence, but perhaps it was necessary in order to recommit to my ethics.

That was, of course, my experience, and others' experiences may be different.  I cannot make the claim that no human being needs meat to be healthy.  All I know is that the even the most conservative authorities deem well-planned vegan diets to be healthful.

But Jamieson's experience raises a question, and it's a question to which I don't know the answer:  When are cravings telling us what our body really needs, and when are cravings lying to us?

I frequently have cravings for chocolate.  It's one of the reasons that I'm not fully vegan.  (I know dark chocolate is often vegan, but sometimes dark chocolate is just too much for me, and I crave a milder, sweeter version.)  I've heard it said that chocolate cravings indicate a shortage of magnesium.  But I take a daily multivitamin, and I recently had my nutrient levels tested and found to be within normal ranges.  I've also heard it said that chocolate cravings are really just sugar cravings in disguise, but I don't buy that.  There's definitely something particularly addicting about chocolate.

So, is my chocolate addiction just that -- an addiction?  Or is there something in chocolate that my body truly needs?  Are meat cravings just like chocolate cravings, or is there something more substantial to them?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Occupying the In-Between

In the veggie world, there are vegetarians and vegans.  Among meat-eaters, there are proud carnists, sympathetic carnists, and ethical omnivores.  Flexitarians occupy the space betwen veggies and meat-eaters.  I started this blog because I feel there's a perspective that's missing from the online discussion of animal rights.

Carnists tend to oppose veg*nism, or at least argue that meat consumption is a personal choice.  Ethical omnivores tend to promote animal welfare, but not animal rights.  While flexitarians and vegetarians outnumber vegans, vegan bloggers are increasingly becoming the main voice of animal rights in the blogosphere.  In the past, vegetarianism was seen as radical, but veganism is quickly becoming the new moral baseline for people who believe in animal rights.  Vegetarians appear to the mainstream to be laid-back as compared to vegans.  Often, vegans take an abolitionist approach to animal rights, and therefore dismiss vegetarianism, flexitarianism, and ethical omnivorism as not going far enough.  Many view the term "ethical omnivore" as an oxymoron.

I represent the middle ground* between vegetarianism and veganism.  There is no word for this space.  Many vegans take an absolutist approach to the term "vegan," insisting that only people who avoid all animal products of any quantity qualify as true vegans.  They believe that watering down the term is detrimental to the movement.  Others believe that some flexibility should be allowed.  They believe that an overly strict definition of the term discourages would-be vegans.

While I tend to adhere to the latter philosophy, I make no claim to the term "vegan."  But neither do I feel that "vegetarian" is an adequate term to describe my lifestyle.  I avoid the majority of animal products, while still eating foods like honey and milk chocolate.  I make an effort to ensure that most of my diet is vegan, but I don't worry (too much) if something I eat contains a small percentage of dairy or eggs.  My general guideline is that if a food contains less than 2% of a non-meat animal-derived ingredient, I'll eat it.

My reasoning is that, if I'm not a purist about it, I'm more likely to stick to it.  I tried going vegan a couple of times in the past, and each time, I gave up and went back to vegetarianism.  The reasons that I slipped were mostly social.  In the Midwest, it's hard to go out with friends and find enough to eat on a vegan diet.  Since I've always tended toward underweight, skimping on food is not a healthy option for me.  Though many vegan advocates insist that going vegan is easy, I have not personally found that to be the case.

Many people adhere to veganism as though it were a fundamentalist religion.  Any miniscule ingestion of an animal product is equivalent to sinning.  From an abolitionist perspective, that makes a certain degree of sense.  If animals have the right to live free from human exploitation, then humans have no right to use them to any degree whatsoever.

In a perfect world, we wouldn't use or abuse animals at all.  We would find vegan alternatives to animal testing and the animal-derived ingredients found in everything from plastic bags to car tires.  But we live in an imperfect world.  We're a long way from full-scale animal liberation.  In an imperfect world, some people have a hard time going vegan.  It's impossible to avoid 100% of animal-derived ingredients.  And ten people going mostly vegan will make way more of a difference than one person who manages to avoid animal products completely.

I think we should encourage people to do what they can -- not as a way to avoid responsibility, but as a way to assume it.  Some people say that anyone can go vegan, and, technically, that's true.  But the reality is that food is a complex, social, and deeply personal issue.  Certain foods are at least psychologically addictive.  There are a lot of people who insist that they could never give up bacon.  While I'd never say "never," I'd much rather see them give up all animal foods except bacon than continue eating the Standard American Diet.  When people see an either-or choice of strict veganism vs. full carnism, they're less likely to attempt to change at all.

So, that is the basic philosophy underlying this blog.  In future posts, I will expand upon and elucidate my views.  I fully expect to receive opposition from strict vegans, should they happen upon my little corner of the blogosphere.  I also expect the usual thoughtful comments from proud carnists, such as, "Meat is tasty murder!"

I will leave you with a quote from Peter Singer and Jim Mason, two of the founders of the animal rights movement:

We are not too concerned about trivial infractions of the ethical guidelines we have suggested. We think intensive dairy production is unethical. Because dairy products are in so many foods, avoiding them entirely can make life difficult. But remember, eating ethically doesn't have to be like keeping kosher. You can take into account how difficult it is to avoid factory-farmed dairy products, and how much support you would be giving to the dairy industry if you were to buy an energy bar that includes a trace of skim milk powder. Personal purity isn't really the issue. Not supporting animal abuse--and persuading others not to support it--is. Giving people the impression that it is virtually impossible to be vegan doesn't help animals at all. - from The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter

* In the sense that the full range of bisexuality is the "middle ground" between homosexuality and heterosexuality.  In reality, I am much closer to the vegan end of the spectrum than the vegetarian end.