The vegan defensive

I should warn you that I don’t read actual news. My main sources are Jezebel, which is a feminist look at pop culture; Alternet, which is an incredibly leftist site; and a number animal rights and feminist blogs that I subscribe to. So maybe I should rephrase that – I read news from sources that are quite blatantly biased. So keep that in mind. Anyways,  I came across this article today:

The article is called “Why are we against wearing fur, but OK with eating meat?”

Excellent question. The reasons that this author listed off about our detachment with meat weren’t anything new to me, but they were certainly new to her. So, with the possibility that some of them may be new to you, I’ll recap.

Ways in which we emotionally distance ourselves from the animals which become meat:

– Slaughterhouses and factory farms are hidden away from the public.

– We refer to cow meat as “beef,” pig meat as “pork” or “bacon,” rather than by the name of the animal. She says that we can refer to birds and fish as what they are because they are so different from humans, and I would agree with regard to fish. However, birds are “poultry,” and when you get the meat, it’s given piece by piece – “wing,” “leg,” “breast.”

– This actually leads in to her next point: the presentation of meat is another way we distance our food from the original animal. They used the examples of mcnuggets and baby food, but I think the most distinct examples are chicken fingers, buffalo wings, and the piece by piece selling of birds. My mom made a whole chicken for Thanksgiving (for the meat eating side of my family), and when we picked it out at the store, I was shocked by how much it looked like a chicken. When I look at steak, it doesn’t remind me of a cow. When I look at a strip of bacon, it doesn’t resemble a pig. And when I look at a chicken leg (drumstick?), it just looks like food.

What I thought was most valuable about this article was their quote from Melanie Joy, author of “Why we eat pigs, wear cows, and love dogs.” Joy was put in the hospital for eating a tainted hamburger. She calls it the worst and best experience of her life, because that was what finally stopped her from eating meat. “Once I stopped eating meat then I wasn’t so defensive,” she says. “I was able to take in more information about what happens to animals who become our food, because I didn’t have anything to defend at that point.”

This struck a chord with me, and not in the way you would expect. I stopped eating meat when I was in 7th grade, and if anyone had argued the point with me before then, I don’t think I would have cared enough to be defensive. And I really don’t bring up veganism with people. I’m happy to have a discussion if they bring it up, and I heard some pretty extraordinary defenses, but if the person is interested enough to engage me, then they aren’t often closed off to what I have to say. But there is a different defensive that I’d like to explore – the vegan defensive.

This came up a little bit ago because of a blog post my boyfriend directed me to.

The title, “A Vegan No More,” immediately put me on the defensive. I expected a post about some girl who had tried being vegan just for kicks, didn’t know how to feed herself properly, got anemia or some other health problem because of it, and then used her experience as steadfast evidence that veganism is inherently unhealthy and unnatural.  What I found was a moving, eloquently written piece about a girl whose body simply couldn’t sustain a vegan lifestyle. She wasn’t vegan just for kicks; she became vegan for ethical reasons. And she wasn’t living an unhealthy lifestyle – she fed herself incredibly well and exercised. But she had severely debilitating health problems, and when she listened to her body, it told her that veganism was not what it needed. She went back to eating small amounts of meat, dairy, and eggs, and her health problems disappeared.

For every congratulations this post garnered, there were furious responses: strangers telling her that she wasn’t “doing” veganism correctly, death threats to her and her family and charges that she was a made up person created by factory farmers. Ludicrous stuff. Infuriating stuff, if it were posted by any other group. But being posted by vegans, it just made me totally confused. It makes sense to be defensive if your opinions can be disproven by fact. I can give you a lot of reasons that you should not eat meat. If you listened to every single one of them, if you saw a factory farm and a slaughterhouse, and if you lived in a location that could support a vegan lifestyle,  you would have no reason to stay omnivorous. You choose to eat meat because of a sentimental attachment to the taste or traditions, but you would have no factual basis for your choice.

Obviously, that is a lot of “ifs.” But my point is, meat eaters have a reason to be defensive. So do hunters. So do people who test commercial products on animals. If they were to listen to reason, they couldn’t do what they do. But why on earth are vegans so defensive? If what we are doing is supported by fact and utilitarian philosophy, if it is a ethical choice reached out of a desire to do good in the world – what do we have to be defensive about? If we are completely in the right, then why are we afraid of being proven wrong?

The conclusion I reach: we are not completely in the right. Veganism as an ideal is wonderful. It is a way toward a better, gentler world. It is living your beliefs, and what could be more admirable than that? But veganism as an actuality is messy. There are tons of processed vegan foods that line the shelves with equally unhealthy and environmentally unsound non vegan foods. There are lots of vegan dishes with white flour, sugar, oils, and other unhealthy ingredients. Fruits and vegetables are sprayed with pesticides that can pass into our body the same way arsenic or dioxin in chickens can. And there are similar concerns with the working conditions of immigrant laborers in cotton fields as there are with the working conditions of immigrant laborers in Tyson’s factories.

Veganism is not the destination. It’s an incredibly valuable stop on your ethical eating journey, but you can’t just stay there and be content. Especially if your goal is to eat healthy. I hate to admit it, but the more raw I eat, the better I feel. I don’t know if that’s true for you, but for me, just being vegan isn’t enough to have a healthy lifestyle. When I was in high school, I never ate enough calories. My first few years of college, I relied on gluten filled, starchy, and/or processed foods. I spent weeks eating Luna bars for breakfast. It was only when I started to eat whole plant foods that I noticed that incredible difference that people are supposed to notice when they switch to a veg*n diet. I felt lighter, full of energy, I slept better, I lost weight, and my body started to crave things that were good for me. It wasn’t a panacea, but it was better.

There are flaws with veganism as your only eating guideline. A person can eat vegan and still be unhealthy. It is possible that a person’s body can sustain a vegan lifestyle, but they live in a location or family situation where that is impossible. It is even possible that eating vegan may not fit your body. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be honest about the flaws in my cause than try to hide them from the public by being defensive.

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5 Responses to The vegan defensive

  1. Ian says:

    Before I start, great blog, but this post.. so many wrong conclusions, couldn’t possibly disagree more. A few examples (and bear in mind that I am not a vegan) –

    Beef is not called beef in an attempt to distance ourselves from meat production. These differences in name come from the days of the Norman conquest of England. Beef is from Boef. French. Cow is from Cu, old English.

    The French ruling classes were served prepared meat, referred to by their French names. The English masses who actually farmed animals and had cause to refer to them as whole animals used the old English names.

    Bird meat is only referred to ‘piece by piece’ if you buy a specific piece. Have you not heard of, for example, roast turkey or chicken curry?

    And the answer why vegans are so defensive is far simpler than your conclusions – because they are a minority with their beliefs constantly under question by so many people they come into contact with.

    • ecofem says:

      Hi!

      1. Thank you for the etymology information – I never knew that! It makes sense – one of the words for pig in Latin (though infrequently used in classical Latin) is porca or porcus – which is probably where we get pork. But what about bacon? I was curious so I looked it up: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=bacon
      bacon is from a term meaning “back meat.” I would argue that there are neutral derivations for some of the terms we use to refer to animals and animal meat, but a. not for all of the terms, and b. we do not use the terms neutrally or equivocally. That is, I don’t say “look at that beef” the same way I would say “look at that cow.”
      And, as you are pointing out, neither did the French and English. The English called it a cow because they interacted with it as an animal. The French called it beef because they interacted with it as food. For the French, it was merely a linguistic differentiation. For us, it is a linguistic differentiation as well, but I argue that it is also (inadvertently or intentionally – you can guess that I believe it is intentional) separating the animal from the meat in our minds.

      2. Any information I give about meat eating habits can be suspect, since I haven’t touched it in a long time. Also, the meat eating habits I observe the most are those of college students. So I see a lot of people eating chicken fingers, and not as many eating whole chickens, but it could definitely be as a result of my sample population.

      3. What you say about vegans is certainly true – I’m ready to explain my eating habits at a moment’s notice. And it is because we are a minority that is constantly questioned that there is the vegan defensive. It’s the way we protect our cause. I don’t mean to imply that vegans are the only ones who are overly defensive or protective of their cause. But most people who are overly protective have something to lose if they listen to an argument from the other side, and in that post, I explored the idea that vegans are no different.
      Again, it may be linguistic confusion – there is a difference between the vegan defensive and simply defending one’s belief. As a vegan, I am aware of how what I do and say reflects on the group (vegans as a whole), and so I make the choice to either be honest about the imperfections of veganism as the pinnacle of ethical eating or to only acknowledge the good, thereby making veganism look good and serving, perhaps, a greater good. If I were simply defending my belief, I would acknowledge that it is not perfect and that I am not perfect. With the vegan defensive frame of mind, I don’t do that.
      Context also plays a part. Getting grilled at the dinner table and reacting to a comment that “God gave us dominion over animals, therefore he wants us to eat meat” is a different level of reactivity than death threats leveled at someone who wrote a heartfelt narrative about her struggle with veganism. The first example shows provocation, an expectation of argument. The second one is really without cause.

      Thanks for reading, thanks for the information, and thanks for giving me something fun to look up – the effects of the Norman conquest on language!

  2. Ian says:

    Glad you found it interesting!

    Personally I’d think that the wording isn’t that important, I can’t imagine there are many people who look at chicken or lamb in a particularly different way to beef or pork just because the meat shares the same name as the animal.

    The immediate visceral reaction to seeing something that is clearly a dead animal does make a difference to some people though, as you indicate with the chicken fingers reference. It’s definitely common enough to see a half chicken with wing attached, or a rare steak with blood oozing out, for example.

    Personally I’m of the opinion that if people eat meat, they should at least do so in the full knowledge of what they’re doing – not only have a clear idea of what’s involved to bring the food to their plate, but really also to be willing to perform the slaughter & butchering themselves.

    Without this so often food is simply reduced to being a piece of pink mush on a supermarket shelf, with the only associated meaning/value being a £1.50 price tag.

    Regardless of any rights or wrongs with veganism, it’s at least a step in the right direction, and cultural change can’t happen without a first step.

    • ecofem says:

      Sounds to me like we see things pretty similarly. In Portland, where I was for a while, there is a group called the Portland Meat Collective (http://www.pdxmeat.com/) which is a combination meat CSA and butchery school. I think that’s the way meat should be done if it’s done – small scale, local, with a connection between the raising, killing, and eating.

      And you bring up a good point that words may not be as important as presentation. Maybe I was focusing too much on language. Like I said, I haven’t eaten meat for a while, so I sort of have to put myself backwards in time to remember what it was like.

      And yes, veganism is a step in the right direction. The important thing is thinking about where your food comes from, and the next important thing is acting on that information. Everybody should care about factory farms – for the sake of the workers, small farmers, the animals, the environment, consumers’ health, and the messages such a method sends to society.

      I don’t mean to pry, but I noticed the pound sign. Are you in the UK? Have you been following the Nocton Dairies saga?
      http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Oppose-the-UKs-biggest-factory-farm/310675121942

  3. Lisa says:

    I think our language does distance us from the reality of our food. Forty five years later, I still remember my horror as a child when I first realized that beef is actually cows.

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