Vegan Mofo: Let's Talk About Veganism

Two things happened in the last few months that made me want to write this post: 1) I finished Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and 2) I decided to look up my old friend the "Voracious Vegan" and saw what a shit-storm has been going on with her blog, which is now a non-vegan food blog called Voracious Eats. (You can read the now infamous post, "A Vegan No More" here.) Since I didn't eat anything of note yesterday, being a bit sick, I thought I would go ahead and comment on these two issues for Vegan Mofo.

These two "events" (if you can call them that) intertwined because they both deal, on some level, with how vegans and vegetarians interact with omnivores. In Safran Foer's book, he researches factory farming extensively, and also looks at small sustainable animal farms to research what is the best food to feed his child. Although he eventually lands on vegetarianism, for both ethical and practical reasons he finds it hard to disown those that are working hard to provide good alternatives to meat-eaters, and at the end feels compelled to support their plight as well.

The point is that, while he advocates vegetarianism strongly, he makes the point that the dialogue between veggies and omnis should not be quite so, well, fraught with rage and accusations. Discussing diet choices can already bring out the worst in people (just ask my boyfriend how racist I am against Germans and their love of mayonnaise), and when we involve animals in that discussion we really get into sensitive territory. This is because human beings have an incredibly complex relationship with animals, which is really about our relationships with ourselves. The way we feel about animals, not to mention our views on whether or not they ought to be eaten, are inextricably intertwined with our views on human beings, God, nature, and morality. And you expect to untangle all of this over a dinner party?

The point is, when we talk about vegetarianism, we also talk about all of these other matters. ("Here comes everyone.") So its no surprise that people get extremely emotional about it. However, let us do ourselves a favor, and try to separate two things when we discuss veganism/ vegetarianism: ethics and health.

1.) Ethics
I went vegan for ethical reasons. (And to impress my hot vegan boyfriend at the time. So shoot me.) I thought about it deeply and felt that, if I were on a desert island alone with my dog, I would probably have to eat her. But not being on a desert island, I was privileged to not have to eat my dog, or any other animal. I always could, but I don't have to. So why should I contribute to a system that harms the planet, causes unspeakable cruelty to living beings, and facilitates human rights abuses on labor?

The answer, for me, is obviously I shouldn't. BUT.... what if I lost that privilege of being able to choose? What if I had to eat meat?

2.) Health
When I went vegetarian almost 10 years ago, I noticed two changes to my health: one, I didn't get stomach aches anymore (I think I was mildly lactose intolerant) and two, I ate a wider range of food which made me feel happier.

But that's basically it, friends. I didn't lose weight, my skin didn't clear up, I didn't notice a huge change in energy or mood... basically, I was the same, but I liked my food a lot more and enjoyed cooking a lot more. But for me, it wasn't some miraculous health change. (I know it is for some.) It also, on the other hand, did not have any negative effects. I had the same health problems as before (eczema, hay fever) at the same levels, and didn't suffer from any huge physical changes.

But here's where I bring up the example of the artist formerly known as Voracious Vegan... she did experience massive changes apparently. She got very ill, lost her energy, and became depressed. To me, this effectively removes her choice. This is now the desert island scenario.

It is my opinion that if, for whatever reason, you cannot sustain a vegan diet (and given the variety of people on this planet, this has to be a possibility for some) than you should not have to sacrifice your health and happiness to do so. Similarly, you should not continue to eat grains if you are gluten intolerant or peanuts if you have a nut allergy. (Isn't this sort of a no-brainer?) I can't see any reason why a vegan diet cannot provide all of the essentials that people need for their life, but I'm not a doctor so how the hell should I know? Listen to your doctor and don't eat what makes you sick.

I love animals, but I love myself more, and I would not put myself at risk to be vegan. So far, I have never had any diet-related health problems in my 10 years of vegetarianism and 6 or so years of pretty decently adherent veganism. I don't personally know any other vegans that have either. But I am willing to admit that it is possible and that if you are struggling big time, maybe you should try something else. Let's not torture people to beleaguer the point, vegans: if everybody ate less meat we would already be getting somewhere important, and forcing people to stick to a diet they don't like, or even makes them sick, is not our job.

Voracious Vegans
That being said, I was bewildered to read, both on the comments section of Voracious Eats and elsewhere, tons of people angrily tearing down vegans as propagandists, liars, cheats, and fundamentalists, who will do anything to get their way. Looking around at vegan cooking blogs, I see so much positivity, delicious food, and just general love- but maybe I'm not reading the right blogs?

The way I see it, vegan food speaks for itself. It is just as delicious as non-vegan food, with the added benefit of not containing dead animals. If that's not enough of a sell for you, then I'm not going to be able to convince you by screaming "meat is murder!" I was really disappointed to see people accusing Tasha of having lied about her illnesses or secretly hating animals or calling her a bitch and even evidently sending her and her family death threats. (WTF?) Guys, we don't win the war against factory farming and cruelty to animals by attacking non-vegans, especially people who tried it and couldn't make it work for them. In my opinion it is much more effective to seduce people gently, by serving them delicious vegan and vegetarian options to eat, providing them with information if necessary, and raising awareness of the dangers of the current food system. A lot of people come over on their own, but almost no one changes the way they think about food because of being cursed out or attacked. I mean, is that how you went vegan?

Its not necessary to demonize non-vegans. People contribute to the cause in their own way, and if that way is veganism, then that is awesome, please pass the cupcakes. But if not, it doesn't mean you are an evil person. Just as my diet doesn't make me a fanatic or human-hater. But also not a saint.


Jennifer (It Ain't Meat, Babe) said...

I agree with you that we should try to stay away from extreme rage when it comes to discussing our dietary choices. I feel that way about vegans AND omnivores. I try not to take it personally when people paint all vegans as crazy elitist nutjobs, I just aim to not be a crazy elitist nutjob myself. I don't even mind when people who used to be vegan tell me that it wasn't for them. I think VV got a lot of blowback, unfortunately, because she attempted to make the point that all the "science" quoted by pro-vegan people is patently untrue, and also vaguely accused other vegan bloggers of lying about what they ate. No one likes that kind of stuff, but I think the best thing to do is just ignore it, rather than, say, threatening someone's life. For heaven's sake! :)

Ula1010 said...

I loved your lines about the complex relationship humans have...and how it all can't be untangled over a dinner table. In fact, I wrote it down and am going to try to bust it out the next time I'm asked about veganism over a dinner table! And I'll think kind thoughts of you when I do it!

I went to one of Foer's readings not long after his book came out. He took questions (the place was packed) from a variety of people on the spectrum and it was all very civil. He really did a great job creating that environment. There was definitely some 'agree to disagree' points during this discussion but it was a DISCUSSION, not hostile at all.

I have always tried to stay away from the hardcore vegan line, but it can be a struggle. I became vegetarian 21 yrs ago, vegan 6. A couple of years ago I reached such a burnout dealing with attacks over the dinner table. I've been trying to get myself to a more zen place about this and not lose my temper when I'm being poked during dinner.

I have to say that when VV referenced herself as a self righteous veganical, well, she said it all there. If you're self righteous as a vegan, you'll be one as a meat eater, and I think the rest of the post is a relfection of that. Also, I think that most of the post was her trying to convince herself that the omnivore's way was better for the environment, etc. than anyone else. In hindsight, she probably should have explained her personal reasons for going back to meat eating and ended the post. People would have been angry, but I think the rest of the post was more inflammatory. It brought out angry vegs and meateaters saying, "Ha! Told ya so!"
Although, yes...the threats are a bit much...to put it mildly! I don't know why people think that kind of behavior helps anyone, especially the animals.

Bliss Doubt said...

"...human beings have an incredibly complex relationship with animals, which is really about our relationships with ourselves." Wow, that's probably the truest statement of all time.

I have little patience or sympathy for Voracious, though I've never posted on her blog, either before or after her big announcement. I found out about her big reveal by reading other vegan blogs. She didn't just come out with "I'm no longer vegan", but came out with guns loaded with her cherry picked "science" and, apparently, an urge to stamp out veganism on the planet, which you continue to see in her more recent posts, such as "debunking veganism". I never saw any death threats among her comments, and the comments on that November 2010 post are mostly supportive, along with a few responses from vegans who questioned her "science".

I've seen it before on other blogs. Someone decides that health issues they're dealing with are all from a plant based diet, so they announce the change defensively, against attacks that really are mostly not going to come. One blogger announced going un-vegan with a post titled "Vegan A-Holes", and said that since she'd started buying meat and dairy, people at the grocery store were looking in her cart and giving her disapproving looks--people she didn't know!

I maintain that it's the non-vegetarians who are always the aggressors in any discussion of the proper diet for humans. I only discuss my dietary choices when people ask me, and they are always asking with the intent to shoot down what I say.

The mainstream media makes light of vegetarianism, which is perhaps the biggest barrier to any real discussion. Mass media is supported by fast food giants, multinational agribusiness, the beef council, and so forth. You can't miss the evidence if you read the paper, watch tv or listen to the radio.

I've never seen any snarky vegan comments on the "Pioneer Woman" blog, or any other food/recipe blog that celebrates the standard American diet, but all the vegetarian and vegan blogs, which are really just very boutique online magazines, dealing with things like bringing up vegan children, getting along with omni family at the holiday table, recipes, news, animal rights and other views, will receive potshots from time to time.