Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What We Talk About When We (Don't) Talk About Veganism

Sheep  Being Slaughtered
Cow being slaughtered

What We Talk About When We (Don't) Talk About Veganism

No one seems to agree on how to pronounce the word, and at those crucial  mealtime moments, when it becomes evident that I’m avoiding the slabs of cooked animal flesh because I’m “vee-gan,” someone loading up a plate with just that usually pipes up to remark,  “I thought the word was vejen, like vegetable,” and someone else will chime in with, “Can’t it also be vay-gen?”

Vee-gan, vejen, or vay-gen, as the debate takes on a jokey lilt, I fall silent, trying to pretend I’m amused when I’m not. The question is a  way to derail the real issue---why this person is eating animal flesh and why I'm not. Focusing on the pronunciation is a kind of diversion tactic, operating on multiple rhetorial levels ("I see you don't eat meat," "what kind of weirdo are you?" "are you judging me for eating meat?").

Whatever they want to call it, I’ve been vegan for three years (and I do prounce it "vee-gan" with a hard "g." Before being vegan, I was vegetarian--all my adult life---a choice that came with its own, though milder, social burdens except it’s far less freakish than veganism—sounds "healthy" and maybe even seems slightly sexy to some!-----and people are after all relieved that you’ll still stack the cubes of cheese on your hors-d’ouevres plate, and not flinch if the veggies have been breaded with egg, even if it’s not the “quote-unquote” free-range variety.

Veal Saltimbocco

Veal Calves

When the pronunciation dance dead-ends, me trying my best to smile, I fill my plate with whatever appears to be animal-free, and someone else asks me tentatively, “Are you vegan for health reasons or for moral reasons?”

Oooops. The Question. And this is when the room gets quiet. All eyes turn. It’s a scene repeated so many times it’s lost its particularlity. And yet I’m never prepared. Not because I don’t have a very clear answer but because whatever I answer is no-win. Either road you travel down, the trip implies judgment. If you say you do it for health, then you’re pronouncing the non-vegans unhealthy, and if you say it’s for moral reasons, then you’re accusing your companions of an ethical lapse, lacking compassion for other sentient creatures.

So I do a little rhetorical soft-shoe, smooth the tone in my voice, and answer “for ethical reasons,” the adjective “ethical” somehow sounding less harsh than “moral,” because ethics are the reason (health being secondary) that I do not eat animals.

But the fact is, and I might as well just spit it out right here and now, in my wildest imaginings I cannot understand why any rational, compassionate, intelligent human being (and the world is full of good people, many who call themselves “animal lovers”) would partake in, with so little aforethought to the absolute suffering and wretchedness of animals , the consumption of them, and then–and then!---- deny their complicity. These very same people who dote on pets, who enjoy wildlife and “Nature” shows, and who slow their cars to ogle the aesthetics of contentedly-grazing cattle on what remains of the disappearing family farms–these very same people are deaf to the misery, torment, and terror of the animals they consume as food, clothing, and household products.

Downed cow dragged to slaughter
Mmmm, Dinner! Nothing like Downer Cow on the Plate

What I really want to say is, these animals are being mutilated, tortured, and slaughtered so that you can wear fur and leather boots, eat chicken and beef and pork, and your children can drink milk. If you get exorcised over horrific cases like the woman who microwaved her ex-roommate’s kitten, and write letters to legislators about men whose fighting pitbulls are ripped apart, what is the difference? How to explain this disconnect? Is it because your role is several steps removed, and someone else is doing the breeding, torturing, and slaughtering? Is it because when you step into the supermarket, all you see are shapeless packages that don’t look like body parts, or what Carol Adams calls the “absent referent”? By the time you buy your hamburger or chicken breast, it bears little resemblance to any animal you’d write your legislator about protecting. Fast-food restaurants lighten the mood with names like “chicken tenders or nuggets” and “buffalo wings,” and upscale establishments adorn their menus with poetic descriptions of slaughtered animals: “beouf bourguignon with pearl onions” or “coq au vin.” (The French helps!)

So why do I fall silent and hesitate? Because I don’t always trust myself not to say these things. Because I don’t want to alienate my human friends and family. Because I don’t trust myself not to burst into tears and create a scene. To begin with, I don’t want to do animals further harm by being remembered as that nasty, judgmental, crazy woman who confronted everyone about consuming the flesh of other creatures and ruined a perfectly good dinner party. No, that kind of woman makes you want to run out and grab the first animal you can, knock off the hooves and horns, and barbeque a shank of beast right on the spot.

Rabbits in slaughterhouse (credit CAFT for photo)

Furthermore, I don’t want to spoil my own opportunities for fellowship with others by becoming persona non grata, the nutty animal rights person who  can recite a litany of horror so outrageous on the face of it  and so overwhelming you have to assume she’s exaggerating, and maybe just needs a vacation.

It's a lot of work to  develop polite, friendly ways to deflect the anxieties of others who, by virtue of learning I don't eat "anything animal," still, interestingly, wish to pursue the issue to its bitter end, often reacting   by going on the offense. A typical strategy is starting down the list of what I call “gotchas,”often begining with “So what are your shoes made of?” And usually I’m safe on that one because I purchase only non-leather shoes, though I freely admit I have “grandfathered” in a few pairs of leather hiking shoes I’ve owned for years. (And even with non-leather shoes, unless I know they’re “vegan shoes,” it’s likely the shoes I’m wearing are made with glue made from horses.)

"If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we'd all be vegetarian . . ." Sir Paul McCartney

Just months after moving to a strictly plant-based diet (does that sound less scary?), I collected and gave away scads of belts, a leather jacket, and dozens of leather shoes, and three wool overcoats. Down sleeping bag and down jacket went to a homeless shelter. In truth, I have now consigned several pretty pairs of shoes to a closet in the attic and am not sure how I can ever again slide my feet against the skin of an animal who I know has suffered for my foot wearing pleasure. But even in admitting my own struggles, I risk coming across as downright Puritanical, some joyless soul who spends her time enforcing limits on her life when it won’t make a bit of difference in the bigger picture and, besides, as was pointed out to Elizabeth Costello in Coetzee’s eponymous novel, the animals don’t know you’re not eating them. I want to say, but it’s important to live by your principles, I’m a happy vegan, I eat heartily, I love food, and I have vegan friends who make fabulous cheesecakes and lasagnes. I want to say that being vegan is fun, and you're operating under a "do no harm principle." Or at least "lessen the harm. 

But it seems I'm  doing something wrong because I’m being managed. It's occurred to me I should simply say I have allergies, because people honor those without question.

“People have been consuming animals for centuries.” Yes, tradition as justification is responsible for all kinds of horrors, including slavery, subjugation of women, domestic violence, etc.

Pigs are super smart, affectionate, and social. Meticulously clean by nature,
they are forced to live in their own feces and vomit, and often next to corpses of other pigs. They are fed massive amounts of anti-biotics which---guess what---you eat, too!

“It’s really too much trouble to be vegan. I have a family to feed.” Many cultures around the world, often for economic reasons, use almost no meat or dairy in their diets. Plant-based diets are easy and ingredients are profuse, and it’s often—well, cheaper!

When I’m asked what I eat, I say, “What don’t I eat?” Meat and dairy products comprise a very tiny pocket of the larger world of good food, though thanks to the heavily-funded meat and dairy industries and their lobbyists and ad campaigns, one might assume that a day without meat and dairy verges on starvation. Can I say it again, that vegans love food?

I am getting better at deflecting what I call the “but carrots cry, too” attacks, and I’m quick to concede that as a vegan I do only the best I can, even as, for example, I still participate in the “pet food industry” because I live with a dog and two cats, and cats are carnivores, so any way you slice it, both figuratively and literally, they are consuming flesh. “See, you’re not really living by your own ethics!” they crow. Another gotcha!

I have developed a practiced understanding  smile as I listen to all the reasons people give for eating meat, including the need for protein and iron. “ My doctor says I need red meat.” Who can dispute a doctor? However, Western doctors get very little special training in nutrition (about 4%), so it’s likely that a doctor finds it easier to stick to the outmoded “four food groups” model.

And in those moments a part of me feels so false because out of politeness I pretend by my silence to accept that meat-eating is perfectly okay for others, just not for me. That I’m non-judgmental. That your meat-eating comfort is more important than the animals who suffer to feed you. That I’m the anomaly for not eating animals.

And even when I try to move the conversation away to other, less incendiary topics, inevitably it’s the meat-eaters who want to return to it, but only on their terms. It’s rare that anyone ever wants to hear about the real reasons I’m vegan, like the widespread horror of corporate farming practices and confined animal feeding operations and slaughterhouses. In fact, so rare, that no one has ever asked me to elaborate.

No, sometimes it’s the sweetly apologetic, “I’d be vegetarian if it weren’t for my husband” rationale (this dynamic for women appears to be very common) or else it’s more of the “gotcha game,” as in, “So, if you don’t believe in consuming animals, then what do you wear in the winter to stay warm?”

Well, in truth, I don’t wear wool or down, and I’ve learned that though it takes a little time, you can find winter coats and jackets made of synthetic products. (Of course synthetics raise a whole other slew of questions.)

Early on, I imagined these exchanges to educate by example. I listened with an open heart. But it is rare I run across someone who is genuinely curious. Mostly, they seem put-upon. I’m an inconvenience with what one friend of mine referred to caustically as my “dietary taboos,” and another friend jokingly referred to as my “happy cow lifestyle.”

It’s as if I am a provincial visitor from a tiny, remote, and strange land who has not yet learned the customs of the new, larger, more modern country, and stands before everyone dressed in the wrong clothes and speaking an unintelligible language.

The fact is, I know many very smart, very successful people, fully capable of reading the mountains of available information out there about what it is we do to animals, and so it surprises me that veganism is still considered freakish. Vegan friends of mine who are in their twenties and early thirties are more enlightened, and have more of a community. Certainly the “mainstreaming” of veganism in the younger generation has been helped along by books like Vegan Freak, with its fast-paced friendly tone, or Skinny Bitch, with its “let’s keep it real, girlfriend” voice, or Jonathan Safran Foer’s somewhat overly-earnest, but effective Eating Animals, have helped defuse veganism of its overly-earnest, didactic, outsider status. In certain circles, it’s even cool to be vegan. Many celebrities are vegan, and some have started their own food companies and clothing lines!

Male piglets are castrated without anesthesia
But veganism is not “in” in most of the circles I find myself in. It’s partly generational. People my age eat meat and they’re proud of it.

If I had more guts, I’d come right out with it. I’d say, Eating meat is akin to cannibalism for me. I say this here, from the deepest part of my heart, because it is what I believe. I believe when you put meat in your mouth you are devouring the needless suffering of other living creatures. I would love to invoke Elizabeth Costello’s Plutarch Response. But I don’t. “Sucking on death wounds” is hard to enunciate among friends.

In truth, being vegan is more than eschewing meat and animal products. And it’s more than eating from the broad spectrum afforded by a plant-based diet, and turning to non-leather products, and products not tested on animals. It’s a larger philosophy of living. In part, I view my life in the context of my relationship to animals which means that I live with the knowledge of a lot of pain, as well as a lot of joy. Being vegan means you’ve had to ask a lot of questions, and you’ve had to think about a lot of unpleasant things along the way. Being vegan means you’ve had to take a good, long look at yourself and your own complicity, and figure out how you want to live the rest of your life.

Calves are taken from their mothers to prevent bonding and isolated in "hutches."

If this sounds too “Saul on the road to Damascus right before he became Paul” for you, I apologize. I saw no bright lights, I heard no voice of the Almighty, I didn’t fall down on the ground, and my name wasn’t changed. But there is a religiosity to such experiences, the ones that transform us and ask us to the see the world anew. This happened for me when my father died a year ago. It happened when I almost lost my sister to a freak medical condition nine months ago. It happened when I divorced. What I list here are losses and near misses. But gains are also transformative, particularly when they come at the expense of one’s own routinized ways, and disrupt us to become better at who we are.

And still, I do not know how to talk about it with the people I encounter in my daily life, and the friends and family who are dear to me and yet so far away across this divide.

The other day I was in a boutique pet supply store (they don’t sell animals!) where I take my dog once a month for the self-service bath. Two customers were parading around a large white lab and several purebred dachsunds, one of them an adorable, appealing blond puppy. All the dogs looked well cared for, and the couple were doting on each of them. While the man held the leashes, the woman began trying different Halloween outfits on all the dogs.

I don’t know about the others, but the blond puppy, they told me proudly, had been bought at a local pet store.

Where to begin? I begin by saying nothing, by smiling politely and saying the puppy is cute. They are pleased, as they pull a little pumpkin tee shirt over him that says “Bitches Like Me.” They are laughing and enjoying the puppy. But I avoid picking him up and playing with him, because I am too horrified. My gesture is one of utter absence, one that goes unnoticed. How do I tell these people that their desire for that puppy has just added to the suffering of scores of other dogs? For as long as we consume, animals will be provided----whether it’s pets or food or clothing----or the mother of this puppy, stuck in a cage in a puppymill somewhere being used up as a breeder until she’s of no use anymore.

And so what I don’t say is, this is the 21st century, and how can you really not know about puppymills and how this dog’s sweet, abused mother is back in some wire-floor cage in a warehouse or barn being bred again? That her life and the lives of her puppies are sheer misery, that they probably receive little or no vet care, many of the puppies starve to death, some of them have collars embedded in their necks, some of them can’t even walk because their toenails are ingrown, and most of them have never known human touch other than being tossed in a crate and transported to a pet store? That you aren’t rescuing a puppy when you buy from a pet store, you care contributing to a million dollar industry which treats animals as commodities?

You can really spoil people’s day with this kind of talk. Which is why I wait for people to ask me how I became vegan, and not why.

Hens in Battery Cages
Battery cage chickens

It hasn’t been simple. Even as a child, I worried about eating meat, having witnessed cruelty to animals, some of it utterly senseless and some of it connected to food, like the neighbor who cut up a live rabbit in front of me when I was four, or the boy who rode his bicycle over and over his pet turtle while its shell cracked and bled, or another boy who sadistically removed the legs—very slowly––of a Daddy Long Legs, leaving only the body that reminded me of a miniature hamburger.

I ate meat because I was served meat, and I was such a meat eater that when my ex-mother-in-law taught me how to cook, I served up everything from chitlins to pork chops to oxtails.

And then, in 1980, I fell ill after a dinner of veal on the island of Corfu. I didn’t even know what veal was. It just fell under that generic category called “meat,” and when the plate was brought to me in the little outdoor restaurant which I could barely afford, I ate heartily. Hours later, I ended up with fever and vomiting and explosive diarrhea, and two days later, as I weakened, I had to be hospitalized. Lying, sick and scared, on a blood-stained gurney in the Corfu Hospital, in a roomful of beds lined up one after another, I feared I’d never get out of there alive. The doctor, in a ratty white coat, smoked. Terrified by the flies and bloodstains and cigarette smoke, I refused their repeated attempts to insert an I.V., despite the urgings of the darling eight year old girl who spoke a little English they sent in to persuade me.

“It is good,” she said, “very, very good,” while the doctor and nurse stood behind and nodded. But she looked worried. I shook my head. In my fevered, weakened state, I was afraid they’d force me, but finally they left, shrugging and whispering on their way out.

In the middle of the night, I was awakened by an awful sound. The old woman in the bed next to mine had pulled over her IV stand. I forced myself to get up and right it up. And feeling terra firma under my feet, I dragged my dehydrated self through darkness past the other beds to the big metal sink against the wall and drank copiously out of the water faucet.

Then I crawled back into bed and waited to die. And only then, as I lay there, I heard a voice, very clearly in my head, the voice of the veal, whatever animal it came from, speaking to me, and telling me not to eat meat. This is true. I heard the voice, and I listened. I still didn’t know what veal was, but I would damn sure find out.

a dead veal calf
Dead veal calf lies in slatted stall where it lived its entire life. Veal calves
are "byproducts" of the dairy industry.
The next morning I was awakened by Corfu  sun pouring through the windows and the greetings of a woman in a head scarf  who was making the rounds with breakfast, which consisted of a carton of milk and some hard toast which she gently tossed onto our top sheets.
I was alive!

I drank the milk and ate the toast, and then slipped downstairs and checked myself out of the hospital, lying to the discharge desk that the doctor had given me his permission and the papers were on the way. I fled by taxi back to the little hotel where I’d left my things, and hid out for another day, staying up half the night so as not to miss the only boat back to Venice the next morning at

Standing on the deck of the boat, I was still nauseated, but my strength was returning. I watched the waves slapping against the hull, I vowed on my return to Italy to eliminate meat altogether from my diet.

And that was the start. I never ate meat again. I still ate dairy. And lots of it. Rationale----they don’t kill the animals to make cheese and ice cream, two of my favorites. Little did I know then what the life of a dairy cow is like. No, I wouldn’t have understood, nor did I want to understand, any more than the people who face me off at dinner parties. And I believed in “organic” and I believed in “free range” and I thought I was home free.

Still, over the years, I was plagued by things I read, particularly as I became more and more invested in animal rights law. Some new information on the farming industry, for example, would get me in its grip, and not want to let go. But I’m stubborn, and I kept shaking it off. Being vegetarian was one thing. Being vegan was so extreme. It was like living on a macro-biotic diet. Weird people were vegans. And it was just a strange word. I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. I was certain vegans were unhappy,unattractive  people with  bad skin and awful clothes who pulled carrot sticks from paper bags in the lunchroom, and proselytized. (I didn’t know any vegans, but this is what I assumed.)

Satan sounds an awful lot like "seitan"

Three years ago I was teaching my special topics course called “Animals and Ethics” at the university where I’m employed. It was a class I specially designed, and the reading list, devised from my own forays, combined cross-disciplinary essays and articles by scientists, philosophers, lawyers, anthropologists, religious scholars, and ethologists, as well as poems, stories, personal essays, a novel, three films, and several legal cases. The students were lively and interested, and several of the students who’d grown up in hunting and fishing and farming cultures had important contributions that complicated our discussions in the best sense. I was being careful—careful not to alienate—careful to offer up competing arguments and debates----careful to maintain an environment in which students felt comfortable. I was very aware of a number of dynamics at work-----my own ethical vegetarianism, my biological femaleness (yes, this really matters in college classrooms and could be an essay in itself!), and the fact that I was assigning works from disciplines I am not an expert in. I kept telling the students we would be learning together, but little did I know how true this would be.

Fox on a Fur Farm
Caged Fox on a Fur Farm

One day we were discussing an article, “Animal Pain,” by Bernard Rollin, in which he poses these two questions: “Why has common sense (and until recently the legal system as well) studiously avoided coming to grips with our moral obligations to other creatures? For that matter, why has philosophy, which has notoriously concerned itself with all sorts of questions and which has explored all aspects of ethical theory, been virtually blind to questions concerning animals?”

Rollin, a philosopher, goes on to recount an exchange he had with a veterinary student after an ethics course in which he focused on our moral responsibility to non-human animals. To jump start our discussion, I read aloud to the students the following quote from Rollin’s vet student:

“If I take your teaching seriously [sic], no part of my life is untouched, and all parts are severely shaken. For if I ascribe moral status to animals, I must worry about the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the cosmetics I use, the drugs I take, the pets I keep, the horses I ride, the dogs I castrate and euthanize, and the research I do. The price of morality is too high----I’d rather ignore the issue.”

Upon finishing the quote, which I read in a slow, steady voice, I had the sensation of being struck in the back of the neck—suddenly and violently. The twenty students crowded around the seminar table in on a wintry day in Ballantine Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, blurred before me. I thought I was going to faint. I remember blinking and trying to make sense of where I was, and wondering why some of the students were sitting there staring at the page I’d just read, and others were staring expectantly at me, but no one seemed to notice that something had just happened. Was it my imagination, or had the whack on my neck been accompanied by the sound of something cracking? In fact, it took a few seconds for me to realize that I was still sitting upright and, though breathless, I was all right.

What I wanted to say then and there, I couldn’t, because teachers aren’t supposed to be so moved by what they teach that they have a breakdown in the middle of class. This is academia, where we train our minds, but not our hearts.

What I wanted to say is this: when I just read the words of the vet student aloud, they became my words, and I became that person living in denial. For years, I’ve approached and avoided. Yes, I’ve been vegetarian, which was a step in the right direction, but it was a compromised position, and one I can hardly feel proud of. I occasionally even ate fish and crab, living as I did on the West Coast all those years, and I wore leather and some wool, and I bought products that I knew were tested on animals because it’s just so much work to find the ones that aren’t. And now, more than two decades later, I’m having another revelation, and it’s happening right here and right now in the middle of our class, and though I can’t announce this, because it will feel heavy-handed, maybe even staged, I will go home tonight and begin my life as a vegan. I don’t know what this means exactly, and I’m not sure I’m up for it all the way, but I will learn and I will try, and----- dammit, it means I can’t wear leather anymore, because leather’s not really the innocent byproduct of the meat industry that I’ve always justified it as, as if wearing leather were my contribution to reducing the waste of those discarded animal lives.

In the end, I recovered myself without missing a beat, and finished the class, though it felt as if I were walking through water. After, I drove directly to the local co-op on the east side of town, and went straight up to one of the twenty-something employees I suspected of being a vegan, and said, “I’ve decided to become vegan. Please tell me where to begin.”

And he did.

Becoming a vegan is not without selfish impulses. Over the next few days I realized that if I were to live with myself—I mean, really live with myself in the larger epistemological sense (and I do live alone in the physical sense, since my divorce five years ago)–I had no choice. It was not just about the animals, it was about doing what was in my heart.

Just as I did with becoming vegetarian, I have not looked back. Not for a moment have I regretted my decision even when finding myself in a small town in Northeastern Ohio celebrating an aunt’s 90th birthday, desperately trying to find something to eat. Even the pasta was made with egg! My cousin’s husband asked me, “Can’t you be a little flexible under the circumstances?” I paused and smiled. (The smile makes such a difference.) And then I apologized for the trouble I was causing. But I looked at him and said, “No, I really can’t. It’s a commitment I can’t go back on.”

Being a vegan is now so naturalized for me that it is with shock I will glance across a restaurant and see people consuming meat. What I see on their plates is not the same as what the meat eaters see. Dressed up with gravy, sauce, and sprigs of green, it’s still the flesh of animals, animals who have died for our eating pleasure.

I’ve often thought I should photocopy Rollin’s article and do a little guerilla leafletting. But the truth is, people come to these things in their own time. And as the question of meat is directly tied to the question of the status of animals, and the status of animals still remains inextricably tied up with our own sense of urgency to separate ourselves from our own animality, things get complicated fast. If we untangle the animal question, we are face to face with ourselves. Easier to keep the lines drawn. Easier to imagine Old McDonald’s farm with singing animals ranging in the sunshine on green grass.

Animals are still considered property in the eyes of the law, which creates impediments for arguments about the moral status of animals. It is only fairly recently that we have even conceded that animals feel pain. Many would argue that they also feel joy, and I believe they have as much right to their joy as I have to mine. Animals force-bred and confined in pens, tails and beaks docked without anesthesia, and shoveled off to slaughterhouses where many are still alive as they are being flayed, is unthinkable to most people, and yet this is what people–good people—people who love their children and their pets and advocate for social justice---consume, day after day.

People like me who took years to sit up and take notice, who thought that ceasing to consume animals was akin to jumping off a cliff. Social suicide, for sure, I thought, as I climbed back in my car that fateful day, with a sackful of soy, seitan, lentils, and fresh veggies. No one will ever have me to dinner again.

Turkeys shackled, hung upside down, and crying out as they await slaughter

So what happens next? For now I show up at dinner parties and stick to the safe topics. I wander the world and learn to avert my eyes. Like Rollin’s vet student, there are still things I choose to ignore. I want to be accepted, I don’t want to alienate others. My intentions may be good, but why don’t I speak the truth? Why isn’t there a way to say, “Do you have any idea the violence and pain that animal on your plate went through just so you could have a moment's pleasure?”
I don’t know how to say it.

And even if I did, would I? My silence---my fear of alienating---my sense that I won't be believed------that’s the real horror.

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