Thursday, June 10, 2010

Angels, Devils and Horses

If you are aspiring to follow a vegan lifestyle as much as possible like me, you may have two powerful forces pulling you into opposite directions. Here's me, for instance, in front of a communal cheese tray:

Angel: You should skip it, you'll only feel guilty after. Think about the cows.

Devil: But you love cheese! Mock cheeses are coming along, but you can't recreate a creamy brie or goat cheese. And isn't it better to eat it in communal situations instead of buying it at the store?

Angel: Stay strong! You were 10 pounds thinner when you were strictly following a vegan diet (true.) Remember how much better you thought you looked in your clothes?

Devil: You don't have to be perfect all the time. People aren't looking at you like you are pillar of morality - they are saying, "See, that poor vegan can't eat any of this."

It goes on and on (and in multiple scenarios), but you get the idea. The devil often wins. For all the vegans talking about how joyous it is, and how many videos I've watched online, I remain conflicted. Vegans can quote the UN Report on Livestock's Long Shadow all day long, but who really thinks about climate change when they sit down to eat? Food is emotional. Food is carnal. Food is often impulsive. Intellectual, no.

Now, to those horses. The high horses. Anthony Bourdain once made a snarky remark about vegans taking the joy out of life. I've encountered the vegans that he means. Those vegans, I agree.

For instance, there's a woman commenting on a popular eco-web site who has only given up cheese and made the vegan switch in the past six months, and suddenly, she's calling out celebrity aspiring vegans or vegetarians for not doing enough. Most people become a vegan or vegetarian later in life, but then so often the attitude becomes, "why isn't everyone as perfect as me?"

The lowest of the low to me are the vegans who almost seem to root for failure. Consider some of the comments on this Ecorazzi story about chef Mario Batalli joining the Meatless Mondays movement, rolling out at least two vegetarian entrees on Mondays at all of his 14 restaurants:

A "PR ploy to get free publicity," "a case of greenwashing your business image" and this:

"I would make a bet that those veggie options get almost no takers and after a few weeks they will be dropped from the menu because of poor sales, but when they are drop there won't be any press release and no one will hear anything about it."

So if his entrees don't sell, and vegetarian options at meat-centric businesses fail, the message will be loud and clear to them that there is no demand for vegetarian food. That is bad for animals.

The cynicism is overwhelming at times. Is no small step toward change is a good thing? Only a full fledged conversion, or nothing? There's no A to B to C and so on? It's A to Z?

I've even seen some criticize people's reasons for going vegan (should be for animals, not health) and that if a celebrity says they are vegan, they might not be technically a vegan, because they might not have fully rejected all forms of animal exploitation. Take it a step further: people start saying what Donald Watson, the founder of the Vegan Society who coined the term "vegan" would say about all this. Nothing like speaking for a deceased rights leader.

A web site, Let Them Eat Meat, run by an ex-vegan, interviewed another ex-vegan Jessica Pelkey, who said this of veganism and its comparisons to a religion:

"It's hyper-moralized and the members try to outdo each other. It can extend beyond just diet, clothing and product use into fighting the man however possible: don't wear Nike, don't support Silk Soy, don't feed your dog Iams, don't shop at Safeway, don't don't buy any clothes produced overseas, don't do anything at all ever again."

Sadly, I think a very vocal minority of the vegan community perpetuates this. While I love a good debate, I rarely feel motivated to get into online discussions anymore on vegan-friendly sites, since few people seem genuinely interested in dialogue. If you say anything critical of vegans or their tactics, they will generally start leaving comments disagreeing, ending with them patting themselves on the back for what amazing animals advocates they are. I actually had someone have the nerve to say I am not being a voice for animals if I continue to wear my old smelly leather track sneakers, which I indicated I wear at park cleanups or to walk my family's rescue dog. What happened to a warm, welcoming community?

I avoided even thinking about veganism for two decades of being a vegetarian because I thought it was too restrictive. I used to put half a gallon of milk and eggs in my shopping cart, and consumed a dairy yogurt a day. Now, I put organic almond 'milk' and soy creamer in my cart, bake with Ener-G egg replacer, make tofu scrambles at home instead of scrambled eggs and opt for soy yogurts the majority of the time. But if I hadn't been afraid of the "vegan" label for so long and living up to it, I might have made those changes years ago.

Remember, the emphasis I believe should shift toward "being" a vegan toward trying to follow a diet the best you can. Almost no one is going to want to "be" a vegan when they have to say no to everything all the time. As for the perfectionists and the "there's no cheating on veganism ever - that's like cheating on your spouse" or other far-fetched comparisons, I don't let the high horses make me feel like I'm not advocating for animals because of my choices. Perfection is more for reassuring people's egos, not about implementing real change.


Chessbuff said...

Reading your post makes it very complicated to be a consciencious eater, considering labels, the efficacy of one's sacrifices, and the varying levels of commitment, perfection or near perfection. I reckon that I am not a very critical thinker when it comes to my eating habits or beliefs. I just don't eat farm animals including pheasants, turkeys, ducks and geese. Yes, I think it is a form of rejecting animal cruelty and it does help. But if animal welfare was the point, one can do one heck of a lot better by volunteering at a shelter or donating money to animal welfare causes. Mano a mano, direct actions against animal cruelty, or for animal welfare will always win over refraining from using or consuming animal products. Even there, perfection is a problem. I hardly do any work for cats. My time, almost entirely, is spent helping dogs. Cause for a personal crisis?

Catherine @ The Vegan Good Life said...

I am an advocate of conscientious eating, but with a pragmatic, realistic take. For instance, someone once made me an entire separate portion of oatmeal sans dairy, in addition to the dairy one, at big family breakfast, which seemed wasteful. People wanting to pursue a vegan lifestyle face this all the time. Is it okay if my company's refrigerator runs out of soy milk to use the dairy? In a pinch, I think it is. I try and ask myself, "Are cows really being helped by this?"

Purists would say you're never allowed to stray. Some say abolitionism is the only way to go. If you're wearing leather shoes while cleaning out shelter dogs' cages, you're not being a voice for all animals, some say.

My journey isn't as smooth as I thought it would be. I just again read another commentary how being a vegan is "easy" and you should demonstrate that to everyone in your life. But easy is subjective and I think it's okay to talk about the challenges and big picture issues which will really alleviate suffering. Everyone faces different challenges (family support, product availability, prices, etc.) Saying something is "easy" doesn't make it so. I'm here to say, in my opinion, it doesn't have to be perfect. If I want a rice pudding at my favorite Irish pub, a piece of cheese pizza at company pizza luncheons (instead of cheeseless veggie), I don't think it means I hate cows or am not committed to non-violence.

Chessbuff said...

These perfectionists and other such scorekeepers make life harder, and it is best not to take their attitude too seriously. I think that fate, circumstance, and other things beyond our complete control will always result in some level of contradiction or inconsistency. I can see ourselves bogged down to a point of paralysis if we keep score too much.