Monthly Archives: February 2016

Can Veganism Save Your Life? I’m Skeptical

Engine 2 Diet founder pictured holding an axe wearing a shirt that reads "KALE"
Rip Esselstyn, founder of the Engine 2 Diet

Perhaps one of the most dangerous trends in Nonhuman Animal rights activism is the relentlessness of bogus health claims made in the name of veganism.  Plant-based eating1  is often marketed as the secret solution to every health crisis under the sun.  Want to reverse heart disease?  Go vegan.  Want to fight depression?  Go vegan.  Want better skin?  Go vegan.  Want a better sex life?  Go vegan.  And the list goes on.  Encouraging healthful and ethical eating is not in of itself a bad thing (so long as it does not include body-shaming or concern-trolling), but encouraging others to expect miracles is disingenuous.

In many cases, veganism becomes a mask for capitalizing on the vulnerable. Blatant marketing schemes adulterate the nonviolent message of veganism, repackaging it into profitable fad diets in order to sell programs, books, videos, and membership access.

Unsubstantiated or inflated claims inevitably undermine the vegan movement’s legitimacy. They could possibly endanger individuals who ascribe to them as well.  Vegans committed to nonviolence and justice have an ethical obligation to take issue with those who misguide and exploit the sick or dupe the worried with fear-mongering.

Take, for instance, VegNews, which launched a “Veganism Saved My Life” column in 2013. It features seriously ill people who are supposedly pulled from the edge of the grave by the power of fruits and vegetables.  In the first installment, a woman with Stage IV Breast Cancer is approached by a Seventh Day Evangelist who encourages her to try plant-based eating.  After forgoing her medications and going vegan, the patient reports:

I felt results within the first few weeks of changing my eating. I felt lighter, and even though I was still very ill, I began to have more energy. My immune system grew stronger and stronger—it’s why I am here today.

Extraordinary claims might be expected from vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists, as faith-based claimsmaking is customary in the religious community, but when a respected authority in the vegan community such as VegNews lends platform to these questionable claims under the guise of science, it then becomes necessary to consider how the vegan movement could be engaging human exploitation and endangerment.

Engine 2 Diet founder poses with a bounty of vegetables

Can veganism cure cancer?  Diabetes?  Heart disease?  Perhaps so in some cases.  Nevertheless, activists  should keep in mind that there are a litany of other variables impacting life quality and longevity including genetics, environment, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, sex and gender, exercise, and stress levels.  Of course consuming processed foods, “meats,” dairy, and birds’ eggs is not helping much, but it isn’t entirely accurate to claim that plant-based eating is the mysterious key to recovery and long life.

Many studies have been conducted that do suggest that plant-based consumption improves health and lifespan, but to exalt the practice as a magical cure-all is potentially very dangerous.  Anyone who is considering shifting to plant-based eating with high expectations of Oprah-worthy medical turnarounds is advised to do their research.  Buyer beware: look beyond the shiny claims endorsed by celebrity doctors, manufacturers, and authors.  Actually take a look at the original medical research.  This information is available to anyone (Google Scholar is a great place to start). Many mainstream medical journals ensure that the main findings of their published research are free from jargon and easily located in abstracts.

Plant-based eating has potential to improve quality of life and reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, but, no, veganism can’t exactly “save your life.”  What it can do, however, is save the lives of Nonhuman Animals.  Going vegan means refusing to support the exploitation and killing of others.  Indeed, while I have argued thus far that a health-scare approach to vegan outreach is risky for public well-being, it also disempowers the vegan movement.  Activists can’t reasonably hope to create meaningful social change for other animals by enticing new members with fear, quackery, and anthropocentrism. Furthermore, only a few privileged humans have access to pricier plant-based eating of the “life-saving” kind.

An honest approach to veganism will acknowledge that Nonhuman Animals must be included in the message as a matter of coherency. An honest approach will also acknowledge that health claims are limited both in efficacy and in accessibility.

 

Note: I use the phrase “plant-based eating” in lieu of a veganism, as I am careful not to conflate a vegan diet with veganism as a political position.

 

A version of this essay first appeared on The Academic Activist Vegan on January 7, 2013.


You can read more about the problems of health-centic vegan outreach in A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave 2016). Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Derren Does Dairy: When Skepticism Fails Veganism

Milk ad showing Derren Brown with a milk mustache; reads, "Unlock the power within"

Derren Brown is a British illusionist, mentalist, and skeptic known for divulging the secrets of magicians, psychics, and new age charlatans.  Folks in Brown’s line of work spend a great deal of effort debunking bogus scientific and medical claims in particular.  In one program, for instance, Brown trained an actor to play a faith healer and effectively tricked a community into believing the man had special divine powers to cure ill and disabled persons.  The danger with faith healers is that children and adults alike are encouraged to forgo medical treatments and medication in the expectation that a god or gods will cure them. As a result, faith-healing has been responsible for the premature or unnecessary death of many vulnerable persons.  Brown’s intentions, in this sense, are fundamentally humanitarian. This is more than putting on a good show; he seeks to put skepticism in the service of social justice.

Unfortunately, many skeptics seem to be unable to see through similarly unfounded health claims when it comes to nonvegan diets.  In the mid-2000s, Brown appeared in a “Healthy Living” dairy campaign, joining the ranks of countless other musicians, athletes, and other non-nutritionists whose celebrity is used to persuade consumers in lieu of scientific evidence. Bathed in the warm glow of celebrity endorsement, these advertisements state that cows’ milk is good for skin, teeth, hair, bones, and energy (“facts” as they are called). With our trusted celebrities telling us so, who are we to question it?

Hardly facts at all, these statements are promulgated by a dairy industry that pushes unhealthy, dangerous products onto unsuspecting and trusting consumers.  As with other Nonhuman Animal products, dairy is linked to obesity, atherosclerosis, cancer, diabetes, resistance to antibiotics, and even osteoporosis.  These dubious claims to healthfulness earn legitimacy when promoted by state, medical, and educational institutions that are regularly bombarded with political pressure, free “educational” material, donations, and funding from immensely wealthy speciesist corporations.  Brown may as well sport a Coca-Cola mustache while touting the health benefits of soda. That wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Coca-Cola attempts to health-wash its products as well.  At the turn of the century, this carbonated sugar product was originally marketed as a wellness product.  Even today, boxes of canned soda proudly state that Coke is good for hydration!

 

Milk ad showing Derren Brown with a milk mustache; reads: "Powerful stuff"

Worryingly, Brown is not the only skeptic overlooking the industry’s misrepresentation of Nonhuman Animal products as “health food.”  In one interview with atheism advocate Sam Harris, Harris states that he is certainly supportive of extending moral consideration to other animals.  In fact, he claims to have been a vegetarian once, but gave it up because he felt he “wasn’t getting enough protein.”

I not only find this response to be disheartening, but also rather suspicious. The ubiquitousness of protein is no medical mystery. Protein is present in just about anything that is edible, from popcorn to kale, mushrooms to pumpkin.  For that matter, protein is especially plentiful in the beans, lentils, pasta, grains, and tofu that comprise much of the vegan diet.  In fact, one would have to work quite hard to become protein-deficient on the typical American vegan diet. Indeed, most Americans consume double or more the recommended amount of protein, which leads to a number of health problems such as gout and renal complications.

It is strange that leaders in the skeptic community can’t see through nonveganism as one of the greatest scams to date, endangering both human and nonhuman lives alike.  What becomes painfully clear is that science and rationality are products of cultural norms in much the same way as religion, spiritualism, and mysticism are. Skeptics are susceptible to the blinders of privilege, too. Subsequently, until the skeptic community begins to take seriously the injustice of speciesism and the health risks of nonveganism, I suggest we maintain a healthy skepticism about skeptics.

 

A version of this essay first appeared on The Academic Activist Vegan on January 3, 2013.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the racial politics of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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What is Post-Speciesism?

Goat in a grassy meadow, "Atlantic Happy Hogs" brand

Photo from Atlantic Hogs, a “free range” institution in Ireland

 

Speciesism  is institutional discrimination and, to a lesser extent, individual prejudice against Nonhuman Animals based on their species. Speciesism is violence against Nonhuman Animals that is perpetuated by the privileged human species,1 usually for the benefit of humans. It is conducted based on the belief that nonhuman species are lesser in some way. Speciesism relies on the understanding that there is an “us” and a “them,” that humans are at the top, and other animals are below.2

Post-speciesism is an ideology which suggests that species does not matter and/or that speciesism is either a thing of the past or that it is currently being adequately attended to. Post-speciesism relies on the belief that we are “all one” and that we all have an equal place on earth or in the “circle of life.” Violence against other animals continues on to the benefit of humans, but this is no longer interpreted as a form of oppression or domination. In other words, differences in life opportunity that are based on species identification are erased from the narrative.

This erasure is essential to upholding oppression in a society where social justice ideology has been gaining momentum. For instance, Ireland’s commitment to a “green” economy commodifies humanity’s concern with speciesism, rebrands speciesist institutions, and sells essentially the same products for a much higher price because humans are paying for the symbolic value that has been attributed by post-speciesism. “Humane” labeling is the Nike swoosh that differentiates one t-shirt or tennis shoe from the next and justifies the higher price. These labels denote quality and rely on consumer trust to extort the higher price. Post-speciesist ideology facilitates this trust.

 

Top image shows a skewered pig's corpse charred and sliced, while bottom image shows a happy piglet in clover. Reads, "Atlantic Spit: Amazing Taste for Exciting Part. Our mission is to breed and produce happy animals that will be mouth watering, when they reach they table..."

Atlantic Hogs advertisement in Galway, Ireland

 

Post-speciesism obscures systems of oppression and relationships of domination. It makes human supremacy invisible. It allows a smiling piglet like the one above to be juxtaposed with a burned and bloodied dismembered corpse dripping body fluids and then interpreted as “mouth watering” for an “exciting party.” Species doesn’t matter here: we’re all happy. This isn’t like the old days of speciesism where violence was out, open, and celebrated. In the post-speciesist world, hurting other animals is a thing of the past because these are “happy animals” and the party is exciting.3

This post-speciesist rebranding helps speciesist industries to stand out in a heavily competitive marketplace. As with all capitalist endeavors, ideologies are necessary to obscure exploitation, to make consumption pleasurable, and to encourage the fetishization of the product.

This fetishization process is especially poignant in LUSH Cosmetic’s consumer base. While the company relies heavily on the exploitation of Nonhuman Animals in its mostly non-vegan product line, it appeals to post-speciesist ideology to stand out among the thousands of bath & body chains and create a strong customer loyalty. For instance, LUSH enjoys a faithful following from the majority of the vegan community and even funds some advocacy projects, despite its continued commitment to violence against animals. Post-speciesism thus becomes a diversion.

Screen capture of LUSH's online statement about their "Fresh Organic Free Range Eggs"

 

Consider Lush’s ingredient description for eggs:

Our organic free range eggs come from a farm that’s around 50 miles away from Lush headquarters in Poole. The farmers adhere to strict organic animal welfare standards, so the chickens are well looked after and are given plenty of space to roam outside. They eat quality organic food and are happy and stress-free in their sheds. These are the high standards of care that we expect, and demand, when animals are making such an important contribution to our products.

Notice that the inherent violence of domestication is obscured from the narrative, as is the fate of male chicks who will be killed as part of the process of egg production. The hens are also framed as consenting workers who “make contributions” to the corporation. Everyone is happy and has their place. No one is being hurt. Differences based on species identification are not relevant.

But we know that they are.

As with post-racism and post-feminism, post-speciesism is an ideology that obscures differences in experience based on identity and the very real and very violent consequences of those differences. In doing so, systems of oppression are also obscured to the benefit of society’s most privileged. Post-speciesism, as with many ideologies, is also integral to the smooth operation of the capitalist system, the system from which all oppression originates.

 

Notes

1. Violence here is used interchangeably with oppression. Practically all human uses of other animals involve violence. Importantly, domestication itself is an act of violence. This violence can also be indirect, such as human-created pollution and ecological destruction that threaten free-living species.

2. Just as women can engage sexism against other women, Nonhuman Animals can engage speciesism against other Nonhuman Animals. Importantly, this discrimination must take place within the context of a human institution for the ultimate benefit of anthroparchy. For instance, horses and dogs are often used by humans to hurt or kill other animals and women are sometimes used by men to traffic prostituted girls and women or to produce or cast pornography. Otherwise, violence engaged by Nonhuman Animals exists as a strategy of survival. Nonhuman Animals that are biologically carnivorous would not be said to engage speciesism, as this is relegated to survival. The actions of lions, wolves, dolphins, etc. do not occur within institutions of speciesism as that of humans do. Nonhuman Animals that harm humans are not engaging speciesism for this same reason. 

3. Atlantic Hogs further facilitates this non-violent idyll by informing customers that veterinarians are present in the abattoir. Of course, veterinarians are associated with healing, nurturing, and life, which obscures the reality of suffering and violence that is taking place for human benefit.

 

This essay was originally published on July 29th, 2015 on The Academic Activist Vegan.

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.


Readers can learn more about post-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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What’s Wrong with “Carnism”?

Sponge Bob Vegan

Many of my readers have asked over recent years why I do not support the rhetoric of “carnism.” The short answer is that it is speciesist.

In an interview with ARZone, Dr. Melanie Joy discusses her theory on carnism, which she defines as an invisible ideology of “meat”-eating (I place “meat” in quotations as it is a euphemism) that is (according to her website) “‘essentially’ the opposite of veganism” (I place “essentially” in quotations as I will show this not to be true).

One host asks Dr. Joy why she rejects the more logical and straight-forward concept of speciesism. Her reply was that speciesism is “too abstract” and “confusing,” but most people seem to “get” carnism.

This is where I have a problem.  Why the focus on flesh? To single out flesh as somehow more problematic is nonsensical. Instead, it becomes yet another campaign for reductionism/vegetarianism. Carnism obscures the importance of veganism and unnecessarily confuses anti-speciesist campaigning.

Dr. Joy insists that the term carnism actually entails all animal products. To the casual observer, however, this is not true. Having read her books, for that matter, I can attest that this hidden vegan meaning is never made clear. She even concedes in the ARZone interview that she rarely mentions “leather” or “wool.” Carnism also excludes vivisection, companion animals, and animals used in entertainment.

Following up with this important oversight, the ARZone host asked if she believes that audiences exposed to carnism ideology were “getting it” or if they were finding themselves “confused.” Dr. Joy  clarified that she’s had no problem with confusion at all; most people do indeed “get it.” Of course, we would not expect many authors promoting their work to suggest that it left readers or listeners confused! But aside from the leading question–Dr. Joy isn’t really pushing us to consider anti-speciesism or veganism, so there isn’t much to get confused about. Vegetarianism as a concept has been largely accepted in our culture for some years now. She’s not proposing anything radical or new.

The real intention of carnism lies in its ability to sell.

At the time of the ARZone interview and the publication of her second book, Joy had recently launched the Carnism Awareness and Action Network. As with dozens of other reform-focused organizations, CAAN does not explicitly promote veganism, but instead promotes arbitrarily defined reductionism. It’s all about the meat.

Most importantly, CAAN’s website also loudly displays “DONATE” buttons.

Clear anti-speciesist messages discourage donations, and large non-profits are wary of this. As organizations professionalize, they compromise. This is a pattern that surfaced in my dissertation research spanning the late 20th and early 21st century of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. When an organization professionalizes, donations become key to its survival. Carnism language helps CAAN to stand out in the crowded social movement space. It also makes it more appealing to elite donors when that nasty, offensive “vegan” language is carefully tempered, obscured, or erased entirely.

Joy’s argument is that the carnism schema simplifies an overly complicated concept (that we shouldn’t hurt others). She insists that speciesism (the correlative to racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and ethnocentrism) is just too confusing. But rarely (if ever) does she herself make a clear case for veganism in her writing or campaigning. Also troubling is she never clearly states why exploiting species, such as cats, elephants, and dolphins, that are not used for food is problematic. Nor does she make it clear that exploiting Nonhuman Animals for their skin, milk, or eggs is inherently linked to the flesh consumption that carnism highlights.

Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants inhaling an endless stream of Crabby Patties
Again, the misleading nature of carnism ideology is intentional, as further evidenced in Joy’s essay titled, “Our Voices, Our Movement: How Vegans Can Move Beyond the ‘Welfare-Abolition Debate’.” This essay published with One Green Planet at the time of the ARZone interview and CAAN’s launch, and it seeks to downplay the importance of the growing divide between “abolitionist” veganism and reductionist/reformist non-vegan approaches. Washing over factional divides in the movement is critical for non-profits, as acknowledging them would mean legitimizing pundit concerns about the non-profit structure itself. Acknowledging them would certainly undermine Dr. Joy’s superfluous theory on carnism as well.

Like many non-profit leaders,  Dr. Joy ardently defends counterproductive and ultimately speciesist tactics of reform and vegan-bashing.  Her suggestion for “moving beyond” the debate is simply that anti-reformist vegans cease their claimsmaking and join the status quo (“our voices, our movement”). Carnism works to invisibilize veganism as a rhetorical matter, but also as a political one.

This essay is not intended to character attack Dr. Joy. Her approach to anti-speciesism is a common one–it is part of a larger system of pro-capitalist non-profiteering which stagnates social change, despite the good intentions of its participants. While her approach to social change is deeply flawed, her social psychological work on how humans and societies interact with and understand other animals is very approachable. I have even assigned it to my students in the past.

That said, carnism has got to go. Joy insists that we must understand carnism in order to understand the mental blocks preventing liberation. However, caring about Nonhuman Animal suffering while simultaneously participating in their exploitation doesn’t need yet another label. In social psychology, it’s called “cognitive dissonance,” and it is a result of oppression generally speaking, and speciesism specifically. That’s the language the social justice community understands, but a new label for an old idea makes for jazzy grant proposals. That’s the bottom line.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The White Privilege in Vegan Moral Superiority

Dog wit face in paws looking sad

I usually love it when I’m wrong. I truly get excited when my paradigm shifts, when I learn new things, or when I see things in a new way.

Unfortunately, in my line of work (critical sociology), being wrong about something usually means that I’ve hurt someone. If my argument about oppression is wrong, that often means I’m abetting oppression. In these cases, the best I can do is own up to my mistakes and try to make an example of them.

I once posted an opinion piece on lactose intolerance on my blog, the purpose of which was to vent my frustration. I was responding to a buddy who had replied to one of my anti-speciesist social media posts declaring that she was lactose intolerant. I responded with, in so many words, “Okay, great, but I’d prefer if you did it for the right  reasons.”

She was white, by the way, as are all of my lactose intolerant friends. Most people who are lactose intolerant, however, are not white, which goes to show how homogeneous and undiverse my circle of friends is.

When I wrote that piece, I was thinking of my friend Katie, my friend Francesca, and my friend Danny: three friends that have said something similar to me: “Oh you’re vegan? Well, I’m lactose intolerant!” They’re all white.

With this in mind, I wrote in the blog piece that being lactose intolerant is not the same as being vegan for political reasons. I said that it’s not good enough. I was thinking and responding from my white worldview.

Then, I went on to explain how lactose intolerance is prevalent among people of color and non-Westerners. I wrote that framing lactose tolerance as normal and natural is a means of looking down on others and maintaining white superiority.

A reader very rightly pointed out how ridiculous and offensive it was that I was, on one hand, chastising people who are not vegan for the “right” reasons, and, on the other, emphasizing that lactose intolerance was not a white thing. She wrote that such a claim implies that going vegan for other animals is the superior way, and people of color who go vegan for their own health are morally inferior.

I completely agree.

Some time ago, I began to abandon promoting veganism as a strictly Nonhuman Animal rights issue. Although I believe veganism remains a political action in the service of nonhuman liberation, veganism is also understood as a political diet by some (in that it relates only to food consumed, and may not relate to non-food items or services that involve speciesism). But we should not be quick to write off veganism as a diet. This is because eating Nonhuman Animal products hurts humans almost as much as it hurts other animals. The oppression of other animals exacerbates the oppression of humans. Humans are exploited and enslaved in the production, and humans are suffering and dying from eating them. Not just humans in general, but at-risk populations in particular. This includes undocumented workers, immigrants, people of color, and the poor. When we make veganism solely about our moral obligations to Nonhuman Animals, what we imply is that the suffering of vulnerable humans doesn’t matter as much or doesn’t matter at all.

Going vegan “for the animals” generally reflects white privilege. It’s something I have the “luxury” of prioritizing. Some groups, however, are dealing with intense oppression, which necessitates them prioritizing themselves and their community. A lot of white activists find such a position offensive, as though the animals are being “sold out” and some people are being “excused” for participating in the oppression of other animals if they don’t go vegan or can’t go completely vegan. But, the underlying message from this response is that only whites have the “right” morals, and non-whites must be lacking. It becomes a means of upholding white superiority. In fact, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement was founded as a means of otherizing people of color and legitimizing white supremacy. We must remember this history to inform our activism today.

Whites in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement often pull on human inequality when it works to back up anti-speciesist claimsmaking, but then fall right back into the white framework to exclude or blame vulnerable populations for not struggling against violence in ways more accessible to those with privilege. Intersectionality is merely tokenized. I hate to say it, but that’s exactly what I did.

Veganism as a political concept was developed to deconstruct speciesism, but some folks are engaging veganism as a diet for political reasons as well. Only with sensitivity to differing life positions can we begin to build the coalitions needed for an all out attack on the (in the words of bell hooks) white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist social system that oppresses so many for the benefit of few. Anti-speciesist  veganism and food justice/anti-racist veganism have a lot in common. We should respect one another, not pull on our privilege to shame others for walking a different path to the same goal.

 

A version of this essay was originally published on August 27, 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.


If you enjoyed this essay, these ideas and more are explored in my book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights (Palgrave 2016). Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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