Vegan, thou shalt be consistent! (On George Monbiot vs Piers Morgan)

Author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot was slammed by host Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain for being a hypocrite (check out the shouting match here). Monbiot wanted to talk about the ethics of factory farming, but didn’t get much of a chance: Morgan called him out for wearing a leather watch strap.

Pierce Morgan head to head with George Monbiot about animal agriculture
Pierce Morgan head to head with George Monbiot

It’s a scene all too familiar for many vegetarians and vegans: people focus on the bits where we’re inconsistent or not perfect (the medication, the plane rides, the leather belt…), and that seems to give them an excuse to not listen to anything interesting we may have to tell. In this post I briefly want to explore the topic of consistency: how consistent should we be? Is consistency necessarily the best thing? And should we give in to the demands for consistency (and perfection)?

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that what Monbiot chose to wear indeed suggests a certain degree of inconsistency. I’ll make abstraction of the fact that, as he later tweeted, his watch-strap may not have been real leather, and that both it and his shoes may have been bought before he went vegan (in my opinion it’s perfectly okay to wear out old leather clothing as a vegan). So, for the rest of this post, let’s just assume his shoes and watch strap are leather, and that we don’t know when he bought them.

Gotcha!
Monbiot has come out as a vegan and has done a lot to raise awareness about the problems of animal products and the livestock industry. It’s true that he changed his mind a couple of times on these issues, but that’s one reason I appreciate him. Changing one’s mind in public requires courage, and there is, in my view, nothing admirable in sticking to one’s opinion when one actually doesn’t believe in it anymore.

Now, Monbiot, in talking about veganism while wearing leather, showed – it cannot be denied – a certain degree of inconsistency (again, we’re ignoring the idea that he might have bought it before he went vegan). Accusing someone else of inconsistency or hypocrisy is a favored way to discredit them or their views. Which is exactly why people who want to look convincing will try to avoid appearing inconsistent. Also in the vegan realm we spend a lot of effort in making sure no one can say “gotcha!” to us. Monbiot could have thought of this beforehand, and could have worn a stylish vegan watch and ditto shoes. Then, when asked the question by Morgan, he could have proudly talked about how yes, even his watch and shoes were free from animal products. Gotcha, Morgan! Problem avoided!

Mosquitoes
But is it that simple, really? I’m sure a lot of vegans think it is, but let me – as usual – play the devil’s advocate here.

First of all, one thing to keep in mind is that when people are out to find a reason to discredit us, they will find it. It’s like asking the vegan whether she kills mosquitoes. If she answers yes, the non-vegan will shout “aha! inconsistent!” But if she says no, she’ll hear “fundamentalist!” Monbiot might have fared better without the leather – and the headlines would be different – but Morgan probably would have invented something else to accuse his opponent of. He was clearly in attack mode, and wanted to find something to undermine Monbiot’s credibility. As Monbiot tweeted: “It goes to show – you can prepare your arguments to the last dot and comma, but if someone is out to get you, there’ll always be a way.”

Part of this desire to spot inconsistencies – which is a form of do-gooder derogation – is of course that people think it gives them a way out. If the vegan (or other do-gooder) can be depicted as a hypocrite, there is, they think, no reason for them to change their thoughts or behavior.

How do we win over the most people?
What I mainly want to address here is the question of whether being entirely consistent is always the best way to win hearts and minds. In Monbiot’s case, him explaining that yes, his watch and his shoes are actually vegan (which he didn’t do, to be clear) may have caused admiration for his consistency, but it may also have caused a feeling of: “whew, these people go very far!” The zeal with which vegans are vegan, may seem daunting and inimitable rather than admirable.

Of course, there are degrees in this. Consistency itself is relative. That may sound a bit like a paradox, but it isn’t. When I give examples of my own inconsistencies (drinking non-vegan wine when out of the house or not inquiring about the ingredients of bread in a restaurant), these may seem like grave crimes to some vegans (enough to call me a non-vegan), while most non-vegans will hardly see them as examples of inconsistencies in the first place. In Monbiot’s case, suppose he was sitting there pleading for an end to animal agriculture while eating a box of chicken nuggets (I know, but just suppose).That would be an extremely grave and blatant inconsistency that probably wouldn’t have led to anything good.

It’s about communication
So, the question I have is: what is the right degree of consistency? I’m ignoring the fact that no one can be entirely avoid animal products. If you think I’m wrong, check this TED talk about how pig parts can be found in no less than 185 non-food products. Here, I’m rather talking about what degree of consistency will garner the most goodwill from other people – goodwill in the sense that they will move closer to wanting to follow our example. It’s about finding the balance between the risk of seeming uncommitted, on the one hand, and appearing fundamentalist, on the other. That is probably why Monbiot said that he wasn’t “militant about it”. Not because of laziness or because, as the rude Morgan implied, because he loves his luxury products. But because he knows that appearing militant is not attractive for many people. Monbiot has called himself 97% vegan before, and for many people, that might be a much more appealing prospect than a 100% vegan. (Undoubtedly some vegans will sing the “there is no such thing as a 97% vegan” refrain now.)

Many vegans don’t see any dilemma here at all, and just state that we should be entirely consistent because animal products entail animal suffering – period. But, creating a negative impression can also create animal suffering, or at least prevent less suffering than a good image could. As I’ve written before, what goes into your mouth is less important than what comes out of it. Your own consumption has an impact, but the impact of the way you advocate is potentially much, much bigger.

The answer to my question – about the right degree of consistency – is that I’m not sure. I would welcome research that tells us whether it is consistency or a certain flexibility that is most appealing to others. As far as I know, nothing much has been studied on the subject.

We don’t need to be perfect – nor should we pretend to be
For now, I’m trusting that decent and thinking people will be turned off not by Monbiot’s inconsistency but by Morgan’s calling him out for it. The ones that are calling Monbiot hypocritical are probably not ready to take any steps anyway.

I’m hoping that this episode won’t reaffirm vegans in their belief that they have to be perfect. I hope they won’t strive for consistency über alles, and won’t spend a disproportionate amount of attention on the tiny details, while losing the bigger picture. I’m hoping it won’t lead some of them to tell others that they cannot call themselves vegan if they still do eat or wear this or that, with the risk of alienating these people from veganism or the movement.

Maybe part of the solution lies in us not emphasizing our own consistency or perfection, and presenting veganism as an aspiration rather than something we are always achieving. If we don’t pretend it’s a black and white thing, maybe people will be less tempted to call vegans out when they spot an inconsistency. What if we said we’re 99% vegan?

Vegans are not perfect, and not perfectly consistent. And the fear of appearing inconsistent shouldn’t stop us from focusing on what’s really important, and that is reducing animal suffering, and communicating in a way that helps other people warm up to that idea. If a doofus like Pierce Morgan wants to attack, he will. People like him should not determine what our ideal course of action is.

Monbiot, in the meantime, is a great person to have in the vegan camp. No amount of leather on his body will efface the impact of his articulate writing on, indeed, one of the most important issues of our time.

Why vegans get angry at non vegan business owners (and ex-vegans)

In the course of one hour today, two people told me an anecdote about vegans being angry at the owners of a vegan business for not being vegan themselves. Let’s examine if this makes sense.

Let’s first turn to another example of this: a high profile case that was in the media recently. The owners of the famous vegan Cafe Gratitude in Los Angeles turned out to be non vegans, and got quite some heat/hate for that from vegans (although we can assume that the media added their bit of sensationalism to it).

cafe gratitude
Cafe Gratitude

I believe it’s not very productive or sensible to blame owners of vegan businesses for not being vegan, for the simple fact that with a vegan business in most cases you can achieve a lot more good for the animals than by merely being vegan (see The fetish of being vegan). The Gratitude restaurants serve thousands of vegan meals a day. The impact of your average vegan critic’s consumption pales in comparison.

A case could be made regarding sincerity. Some vegans would believe that it’s hypocritical to have a vegan business (and to make money from the vegan cause) while not being vegan yourself. I can understand the sentiment, but I don’t share it. What matters to me is the impact.

But what I mainly wanted to talk about is this: expectations and betrayal, because that’s what I think this is about.

Imagine you are hearing these two pieces of information:

1. Two meat eaters are opening a vegan restaurant in your town.
2. A vegan restaurant opens in your town. Later, you find out the owners are meat eaters

Can you see a difference in your reaction to these two descriptions? In case it’s not clear, let me explain. In the first, it was clear right away that we’re talking about non-vegans. In the second, because you are reading about a vegan restaurant, the expectation is created that it is owned by vegans. When it turns out not to be, you might be (or certainly, many vegans would be) disappointed. In the first case, you might actually say: oh my god, that’s so cool of these meat eaters that they are opening a vegan restaurant.

I see the same dynamic at play all the time. We (or at least most of us) appreciate non-vegans or non-vegan companies doing something vegan. Like Ben & Jerry’s offering vegan flavors of ice cream. But it seems that, when the person or business is very close to being vegan or is vegan, then doing something unvegan (which the non-vegan business or person was doing all the time) is very uncool.

What seems to be happening is that whatever non vegan things are tolerated for non vegans, but as soon as we imagine that people are on our side, they are no longer tolerated. This in a way seems entirely logical (non vegans can do vegan things but vegans can not do non vegan things) but does it make sense, and is it a productive attitude?

Another case where this attitude comes to the fore is in the case of ex vegans. Before these people were vegan, we applauded their efforts in going vegan (well, some of us don’t like “steps”, but most would encourage them). When this person became vegan, we accept them as one of “ours”. But then when he or she gives up on veganism… all hell breaks lose. Few people can incite the vegan movement’s ire like an ex-vegan, especially when they’re celebrities.

I think for the vegans getting angry about these kinds of things, a lot has to do with feeling betrayed and being disillusioned in their expectations. Here are some people of whom we thought they had figured it out, but it turns out they don’t.

I think this quote by James Pinkerton sums it up very well (it was requoted in this article, where I found it):

“An infidel is someone who never believed what you believe; an infidel is a stranger, and so there’s not much point in investing emotions in him. But a heretic is someone you know well, someone who once believed what you believe, but now has a different faith — that’s much more threatening. You fight wars against infidels, and in those wars you seek to defeat, even destroy. But with heretics, even tougher measures are needed, because the threat is so much more insidious, threatening to eat away the true faith. So you launch inquisitions against heretics, to eliminate even the thought of heresy.”

It is human nature, but it’s not a very productive attitude, and we would do well to be on the lookout for and aware of irrational feelings of betrayal, causing us to be angry and alienate people from our movement.

Please don’t turn away

All that evil needs to win is that the good people do nothing, wrote Edmund Burke.

One way of describing the work of vegan activists is to say that we try to stop people from turning away. Stop them turning away from the injustice, the pain, the suffering, the killing.

Animals, if they could express their needs, would want us to look, to feel, to witness. To not turn away.

We hate it when we see people turn away. We want them to look. To face stuff. To bear witness to what is happening.

kindle compassion

Sure, there are people who will be entirely indifferent to suffering. But I don’t believe that’s a majority, even though it may look like that.

What helps me deal with our whole society turning away is one realization: that for many people, their reason to turn away is not that they don’t care. The opposite is true: many turn away because they care.

Because they care, because they feel, because they empathize… they can’t keep watching.

Our task is not to call these people hypocrytical. Our task should be to kindle the flame of the compassion that they feel. Our task is to make sure that acting on their compassion becomes easier. That there is nothing in the way of acting on their compassion. We, as individuals as well as as a movement, should be facilitators of compassionate behaviour.

PS Here’s a powerful version of Pink Floyd’s On the turning away 🙂 (lyrics)

The suffering of a lion

Cecil the lion, the pride of the Zimbabwean plains, is no more. He was shot by someone who planned to make a rug out of his skin, and hang his head over a fireplace.

The tragic hero of this story is both charismatic and photogenic. But the villain too, is worthy of a Hollywood movie: Walter Palmer, a rich American dentist, was armed with a crossbow and attacked Cecil in the dark of night.

dentist-lion-killer
Cecil and Palmer are the stars of the ‘Oscar winning’ drama that is holding people in trance all over the world. The battle has already been fought, but now the dentist is on the run, and the hunter has become the hunted. The internet is ablaze with death threats against Palmer. But that’s nothing compared to what the future might hold in store for him. A whitehouse.gov petition for his extradition has been signed by more than 160,000 people. As Zimbabwean prisons don’t have a great reputation, I guess I don’t even blame Palmer for running…

Lions are big, charismatic, wonderful, creatures, but Cecil was not just a lion. In Zimbabwe, he was a celebrity among lions, a kind of a mascot. Cecil was part of a research project by Oxford University, and he carried a GPS, which the hunters unsuccessfully tried to destroy. And Cecil was killed illegally: he was baited away from an area where hunting was prohibited.

These are all factors that increase our anger and indignation about this evil act. But these factors, even though aggravating, are hardly morally relevant. What really counts, in Cecil’s case, is not that he was famous, big and strong and beautiful, or that he was a lion. What counts is that he was a sentient being, a being capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.

After a shot from Palmer’s crossbow, which only wounded Cecil, the lion suffered for forty hours in hiding, before he was found and killed by the hunters. That’s where our attention should go to. If we think Cecil’s suffering and killing were not OK and believe that he didn’t deserve this, that no-one deserves this, then maybe, slowly but surely, we can start opening ourselves up to the suffering of so many other beings.

The only relevant trait, his sentience, is what Cecil has in common with billions of other beings, who don’t have names, but who can suffer like Cecil did. I am very happy that so many people are outraged about what happened to this lion. And I hope that their outrage and their compassion will spill over to other domains. Cecil was one animal. The other 600 lions that are killed every year can feel too, just like Cecil. The other poached animals are sentient like lions. And the 180 million chickens, pigs and cows that are killed for food every day, they too can feel.

It is this capacity for pleasure and pain, that connects people and animals. It is the quality that does not just connect people of different skin color, gender, sexual orientation or religion, but which also unites human and nonhuman animals. You can experience pleasure and pain whether you are white or black, man or woman, or have an opposable thumb, or manes, or a trunk, a tail or wings.

It will take some time, but one day, we will all realize that in this capacity for happiness and suffering, we are all very similar.

The suffering of a lion

Cecil the lion, the pride of the Zimbabwean plains, is no more. He was shot by someone who planned to make a rug out of his skin, and hang his head over a fireplace.

The tragic hero of this story is both charismatic and photogenic. But the villain too, is worthy of a Hollywood movie: Walter Palmer, a rich American dentist, was armed with a crossbow and attacked Cecil in the dark of night.dentist-lion

Cecil and Palmer are the stars of the ‘Oscar winning’ drama that is holding people entranced all over the world. The battle has already been fought, but now the dentist is on the run, and the hunter has become the hunted. The internet is ablaze with death threats against Palmer. But that’s nothing compared to what the future might hold in store for him. A whitehouse.gov petition for his extradition has been signed by more than 160,000 people. As Zimbabwean prisons don’t have a great reputation, I guess I don’t even blame Palmer for running…

Lions are big, charismatic, wonderful, creatures, but Cecil was not just a lion. In Zimbabwe, he was a celebrity among lions, a kind of a mascot. Cecil was part of a research project by Oxford University, and he carried a GPS, which the hunters unsuccessfully tried to destroy. And Cecil was killed illegally: he was baited away from an area where hunting was prohibited. And he’s a member of an endangered species.

These are all factors that increase our anger and indignation about this evil act. But these factors, even though aggravating, are hardly morally relevant. What really counts, in Cecil’s case, is not that he was famous, big and strong and beautiful, or that he was a lion. What counts is that he was a sentient being, a being capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.

After a shot from Palmer’s crossbow, which only wounded Cecil, the lion suffered for forty hours in hiding, before he was found and killed by the hunters. That’s where our attention should go to. If we think Cecil’s suffering and killing were not OK and believe that he didn’t deserve this, that no-one deserves this, then maybe, slowly but surely, we can start opening ourselves up to the suffering of so many other beings.

The only relevant trait, his sentience, is what Cecil has in common with billions of other beings, who don’t have names, but who can suffer like Cecil did. I am very happy that so many people are outraged about what happened to this lion. And I hope that their outrage and their compassion will spill over to other domains. Cecil was one animal. The other 600 lions that are killed every year can feel too, just like Cecil. The other poached animals are sentient like lions. And the 180 million chickens, pigs and cows that are killed for food every day, they too can feel.

It is this capacity for pleasure and pain, that connects people and animals. It is the quality that does not just connect people of different skin color, gender, sexual orientation or religion, but which also unites human and nonhuman animals. You can experience pleasure and pain whether you are white or black, man or woman, or have an opposable thumb, or manes, or a trunk, a tail or wings.

It will take some time, but one day, we will all realize that in this capacity for happiness and suffering, we are all very similar.

On the Yulin dogs, hypocrisy and racism

Many people are outraged at what happens to dogs at the “Yulin dog meat festival“. I’m talking here about people who are not really concerned about raising and killing farmed animals and eat them every day. I’ve seen a lot of veg*ns calling it hypocritical and/or racist of westerners to cry out over what happens to those dogs in China, while having no problem eating cows, pigs or chickens at home.

dog

I have some difficulty with this attitude, for several reasons.

For one thing, I’m glad there is at least some animal suffering people are shocked by. It happens now and then. To call these people hypocritical doesn’t exactly kindle the flame of the compassion they are showing. It is rather saying to them that that compassion is misplaced. That is unfortunate, and alienates these people further from vegans and animal rights activists.

Obviously, with some people there is quite some racism involved (many posts are clearly racist), and a general upheaval towards what happens at the Yulin festival could encourage even more racism. Yet, it’s too easy to say, and dangerous to say too quickly, that what is below a person’s outrage is racism when it is not expressed as such.

It may not be very rational, but it is very understandable that people cry out over the eating of animals they themselves consider to be companion animals. Irrational though the difference we make between pigs and dogs might be, it is a reality right now, and it would be silly not to take that even into account. Moreover, there is a difference between the way these dogs are slaughtered on the one hand, and the way cows are slaughtered on the other hand. Though it is admittedly a small difference, those who think stunning doesn’t make any difference at all may try to imagine what it would be like to be killed with or without stunning. I’m unwilling to deny or downplay that difference, just like I’m unwilling, as a 17 year long vegan and “abolitionist”, to deny the difference welfare reforms make.

All this is obviously not to say that western nations are “better” than the Chinese: indeed, people in the US or Western Europe generally still eat much more meat than the Chinese do. Moreover, animal activism is popping up in China too. There is compassion everywhere. It is hard to point the finger at other nations. Yet that shouldn’t mean omnivores’ compassion for the dogs in China is misplaced.

So what is a good way to address omnivores who are outraged over the Yulin festival in China? I think first of all we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt and recognize their outrage as a sign of compassion, not racism, not hypocrisy. That is a good basis to make a connection. We can show we appreciate that compassion, and say that the same compassion is the reason we don’t eat animals at all, as pigs and chickens and cows in the most relevant ways are equal to dogs and cats. We can try to point out the arbitrariness of our food choices.

We can then hope that some of these outraged people might want to put their beliefs about meat eating in line with their beliefs about dogs and cats. What happens in China is an excellent way to help people think about our consumption of animals in general. But it can be done encouragingly, not deterringly.

Veganer than thou

May I present to you: the superlocavore vegan (from locavore: eating locally; we will abbreaviate this to SV). This is a type of vegan who takes into account the fact that conventional plant agriculture entails a lot of dead animals too. In the harvesting of plants by machines, many small rodents, birds etc (not to talk about insects) are killed. That’s why the EV stick to the principle that they only eat what comes out of their own organic, manually labored garden. Nothing else.

The superlocavore vegan consider superlocavore veganism as the moral baseline. They consider it doable for everyone (those who don’t have a garden can find another vegan with a garden and live off their land) and thus a moral duty to eat as they eat. People who are merely vegan (and are thus consuming plant products that implied the avoidable suffering of said small rodents and birds) are, in their eyes, hypocrites.

The SV don’t really exist as such, though there are plenty of vegans doing their best to be as self sufficient as possible. In case it’s not clear, I want to make raise the following points or questions in bringing them up:

– Is veganism a black and white thing, or is it, to a certain extent, an arbitrary concept?  What about the so called “moral baseline”? What does it mean when some people go further than us?
– How, as a “normal” vegan, would you react to being called a hypocrite by an SV?
– What does all this say about us judging people not going as far as us (non vegans)

I’m sure that many people will try to point out the differences between veganism and superlocavore veganism, between cows and those rodents, between intentionally eating animals and eating plants the harvest of which unintentionally killed animals… but I’m not sure if there’s a true difference. At least, if there is, the difference is small enough to suspend your disbelief and go along for a moment in the above thought experiment.