Monthly Archives: September 2016

It’s Like, Totally Sexist

Young white woman twirling her hair, reads, "I'm vegan. But I TOTALLY respect your RIGHT to harm other animals for your frivolous habits."

In my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights, I argue that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement banks on sexist scripts in the interest of promoting veganism. To this effect, stereotypes are frequently employed to shame women into compliance.

Memes like that pictured above “work” because they draw on a popular cultural trope, “The Valley Girl,” to negatively characterize the behaviors of others. Recall the cult classics Clueless (1995) and Legally Blonde (2001). Their leading characters are jokes, something to be laughed at or despised.

The women in these memes tend to be described as frivolous and smug, often infantilized and always trivialized. They are always women as well. I have yet to see a “Valley Boy” meme in circulation.

Movie poster for Clueless, shows Alicia Silverstone holding a cell phone and wearing a minidress and heels wrapped in a boa on a staircaseMovie poster for Legally Blonde, shows Reese Witherspoon dressed in heels with a tight dress and blonde hair blowing in the wind while she looks up to the sky, small chihuahua in a pink sweater at her heels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These memes frame veganism as a personal choice and nonveganism as women making selfish choices over righteous ones. Women are degraded and insulted for “the cause,” while the structural causes of speciesism are subsumed under sexist deflections.  Too often, women become the targets of activist frustration and anger with little regard for the intersectional nature of women’s oppression and that of other animals.

Meme of a white woman with her mouth open very wide and she is looking up with her eyes almost rolling back. Reads, "OMG IT'S LIKE SO SAD THEY KILL BABY COWS AND GOATS BUT I CAN'T LIKE LIVE WITHOUT CHEESE!"These memes are chosen intentionally to draw on particular cultural knowledges.  In a society that systematically disadvantages women as evidenced in an epidemic of discrimination that is fueled by negative stereotypes, sexism in vegan advocacy is something that social justice activists should take seriously. Exploiting oppression to combat oppression is unlikely to be successful. Given that gender oppression and species oppression interlock, aggravating the devaluation of women is likely to have negative impacts for other animals.

 

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

 

Readers can learn more about sexist strategies in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and its consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.


A version of this essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on June 3, 2013.

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The Vegan Politics of Taste

12582229724_5423168e8f_zImage from BZDogs

Psychologists tell us that we eat with our eyes. Sociologists, however, think we eat with our ideologies.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has theorized extensively on the politics of taste. What is good taste? What is bad taste? How do we know what we like? It has less to do with our taste buds than we might think.

The human senses are, of course, capable of detecting sweetness, bitterness, sourness, saltiness, and so on, and these tastes are synchronized with our brain to help us to determine what is edible, nutritious, and potentially useful for our bodies. However, as with so many embodied experiences, this process is highly shaped by our social environment.

For example, “vegan food” is regularly chastised for tasting like cardboard, sticks, and leaves (taste tests popular on Youtube exemplify this), but how much of this is based in reality? Stealth vegan entries into bake-offs should give us pause:

Tweet by username @ShultzTheWorld: "@triplejHack a vegan pie accidentally judged as meat pie and came 2nd at fine foods expo yesterday. Pie makers furious vegans rejoice"

Strange how vegan food can taste pretty good when we’re focusing on the flavor and not the politics.

Without culture to shape how we assign meaning to food, we are free to objectively rate it according to our senses, not our conditioning. The silliest part is that all humans eat plant food regularly without thinking twice about it. Fruit, grains, and vegetables, for instance, do not contain animal products, but nonvegans do not grimace when offered a banana not wrapped in bacon or dipped in butter.

Once the vegan label is attached, suddenly all the cultural baggage, promoted and reinforced by powerful industries and the government they influence, flood into the brain, manipulating the consumer’s experience of that food.

vegan-food-taste

 

Social constructions of taste are one of many operatives in the maintenance of oppression. What tastes good, bad, healthy, or not is determined by those with the power to shape interpretations. In Western society, this means corporate influence should not be discounted.

Some food companies and activists avoid describing their products as vegan, fully aware of market research that demonstrates apprehension about alternatives. “Plant-based,” “meat-free,” “soy alternative,” “vegetarian,” “veg,” and “animal-free” are labeling schemes that have been tried with varying success to encourage nonvegans to overcome their politicized palate.

Treating adults like toddlers, however, is perhaps not the best approach. Reducing vegan stigma by coming out of the closet, so to speak, is one way to resist. Until veganism is promoted proudly by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, it cannot overcome stigma or challenge social constructions of taste.

Unfortunately, most professionalized organizations in the movement enable this behavior. Reclaiming veganism as a matter of political support for the advancement of Nonhuman Animals is a crucial first step. Taste follows power structure; until veganism is recognized as legitimate, vegan food will continue to “taste” yucky in a speciesist society when human privilege is on the 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 Surprising History of John Harvey Kellogg and His War on “Meat”

John Kellogg

But although the sheep goes dumb to the slaughter, do not its [sic] eloquent eyes appeal for mercy?  Do not the bleating of the calf, the bellowing of the bull, the cackling of the frightened geese, the gobbling of the reluctant turkeys, and the cries of the hundred of other creatures that we call dumb, but to each of whom nature has given its [sic] characteristic mode of speech, rise in eloquent protest against the savagery to which the instincts inherited from our cannibalistic ancestors habitually lead us?  That we are able in cold blood to take the lives of these innocent beings, then to bury their carcasses in our stomachs, as do the savage beasts of the forest, is made possible only by the fact that the ancient savage still leaps and yells in our hearts. (Kellogg 1923: 219-220).

Dr. Kellogg’s 1923 The Natural Diet of Man [sic] offers an interesting perspective into the vegetarian/vegan movement of the United States 100 years ago.

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Take, for instance, the preface and final chapter in which Kellogg complains of the “meat” industry’s reaction to post-war declines in flesh consumption.  As he explains, the industry launched an “Eat More Meat” campaign, flooding newspapers with scientific claims to “meat’s” essentialness to human health.

Take, also, the cringe-worthy examples Kellogg reprints in the chapter entitled, “Newspaper and Magazine Misinformation.”  The “meat” industry has been bombarding the public with strategic advertising to increase profits for a century or more.

Despite this entrenching ideology, Kellogg seems confident the industry would not succeed:

The packers are certainly trying to “raise the wind” in behalf of their industry, but they will not succeed.  When they set to work to find “scientific data wherewith to correct adverse propaganda,” they will find nothing to correct.  The physiologists have been stating the simple, incontrovertible facts about meat, which show its uselessness and harmfulness, and there is not a word to be said in its favor which has not already been said and resaid so many times during the past that there is nothing new to say.  […] it is not to be believed that these eminent and efficient promoters of national welfare can be persuaded by the packers to back up their “Eat More Meat” campaign, which has been organized, not in the interest of the public welfare, but simply to enrich the pocketbooks of breeders and butchers. (361)

What right have packers and breeders to undertake to exploit the consumers of food simply to create a market for their products? (362).

For a time, the scarcity of WWI normalized vegetarian and low-meat eating

For a time, the scarcity of WWI normalized vegetarian and low-meat eating

Despite this optimism, the role of “meat” in the project of oppression is deeply rooted and the “science” the industry creates is just as biased but convincing as it ever was. Kellogg, however, was witnessing the very formation of an ideology in an era of great social change. “Meat” was shaping nationhood.

Indeed, “meat”-eating and colonialism went hand-in-hand at this time.  British colonizers, for example, explained their supremacy in India as a direct consequence of the physical and mental superiority granted from consuming flesh.  Indians, who primarily ate plant-based diets, were argued to be weak, stupid, and ripe for subjugation.

This ethnocentrist and racist ideology permeated the Western defense of flesh consumption.  Dr. Kellogg counters in The Natural Diet by highlighting many of the amazing and physically exerting feats that Indians regularly achieved.  He suggests that any feebleness suffered by Indians and other colonized vegetarian groups was more accurately attributable to starvation. British imperialism, in other words, was the source of harm, not a vegetable diet.

Incidentally, Kellogg was certainly no egalitarian himself by any right. Notably, he founded a eugenics society at his Battle Creek sanitarium where he hosted conferences on “racial betterment.”

All patients at Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium were expected to practice vegetarianism. Photo from Willard Library.

All patients at Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium were expected to practice vegetarianism.
Photo from Willard Library.

 

While primarily concerned with “meat’s” impact on human health, Kellogg does make an ethical appeal to vegetarianism near the end of his book:

With winter’s frost an evil day arrives,–a day of massacre, of perfidy, of assassination and bloodshed.  With knife and ax he turns upon his trusted friends,–the sheep that kissed his hand, the ox that plowed his field.  The air is filled with shrieks and moans, with cries of terror and despair; the soil is wet with warm blood, and strewn with corpses (220).

As this prose attests, plant-based eating was serious business for Dr. Kellogg. He required vegetarianism of all patients sojourning in his Battle Creek Sanitarium. In fact, when patients were caught sneaking “steak,” he was known to place their meal under the microscope to grant them a closeup view of the bacteria active in the decomposing flesh. In a shock tactic that remains favored by vegan activists today, he hoped the exposure would repel and disgust them from further digression.

Perhaps understandable for the time, The Natural Diet of Man [sic] explicitly argues for vegetarianism, with only a fragmented acknowledgement of vegan politics. He does, however, note that a completely plant-based diet is just as healthful and nutritionally sufficient as a vegetarian one. It is also cheaper, he concedes.  Kellogg even recommends nut milk, a suggestion would be unheard of in today’s corporatized and monopolized food system. That’s just as well. Today’s Kelloggs cereal is fortified with animal-derived Vitamin D. Nut milk or no, it would not suitable for vegans.

 

A version of this essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on May 25, 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 politics of science and 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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Could Fat-Shaming and Health-Shaming Encourage Veganism?

Pink striped socks standing on pink scale

Fat-shaming and health-shaming, two popular tactics in the vegan movement. Want to get that beach body? Go vegan. Want to cure yourself of depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, or heart disease? Go vegan. Remain nonvegan at your own risk.

The majority of activists and organizations regularly tout the wonders of veganism for curing humanity’s many ailments, and, in doing so, they create a vegan-as-healthful / nonvegan-as-unhealthful dichotomy which invites shaming. Shaming nonvegans does not work because stigmatizing health behaviors in general does not work.

Stigma strategies have been employed against fat people, people with HIV/AIDS, people who abuse heroin, and more. The thinking is that the facilitation of a culture of stigma will facilitate social control. I have been teaching deviance and stigma with Colorado State University for several years, and I frequently emphasize to my students that these approaches are not based in evidence, but rather in discrimination.

Shaming strategies individualize what are essentially structural issues. That is, instead of focusing on food production, food access, poverty, racism, or classism, shaming focuses on each person’s presumably good or bad choices within that system. There is a false assumption of equal access in opportunities and choices. There is also a failure to acknowledge painful oppressions faced by those who are cut off from privileged pathways.

Many scholars and activists who specialize in the critical study of age, ability, and size emphasize that what is considered healthy is often more subjective than we, as a society, are willing to acknowledge. Healthfulness as a social construction depends upon a number of ascribed advantages that grant the privileged class the ability to define “normal” and “healthy” for everyone else.

Unfortunately, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement regularly pulls on established stigmas in hopes of shaming its audience into veganism. This tactic, however, is unsupported. More importantly, evidence demonstrates that stigma strategies only aggravate oppression. Anthropocentric approaches also incorrectly present veganism as a diet and invisibilize Nonhuman Animals, whose injustice should be centralized.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.Readers can learn more about the problems with stigma strategies 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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You Won’t Believe This Shocking Whole Foods “Healthcare” Policy

Photo by Jay Janner

Photo by Jay Janner

 

Cooperation with speciesist industry is a primary tactic for professionalized organizations in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, despite its dangerous consequences for normalizing a post-speciesist ideology. This strategy concerns me as it normalizes capitalism, despite capitalism’s inherent need to exploit social inequality.

“Father” of Nonhuman Animal rights and elite philosopher Peter Singer supports this pro-capitalist route, insisting that those with the privilege to do so should financially support the world’s poor, generally by funneling wealth through carefully selected, elite-operated charities. From this perspective, it is not necessarily the unequal system that is the problem, but rather the failure for more privileged parties to take care of those underneath them.

Altruism and corporate success are fundamentally incongruent. Consider Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s 2009 editorial piece published in the Wall Street Journal warning of the perils of Obamacare (President Obama’s attempt to provide healthcare to the millions of Americans who were vulnerable and unprotected, myself included at the time). Mackey insists that each person is responsible for their own health, and placing this burden on corporations is inappropriate:

“Rather than increase government spending and control, we need to address the root causes of poor health. This begins with the realization that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health.”

Not surprisingly Mackey’s prescription for personal responsibility and better health entails consuming more whole foods (conveniently on offer in his stores).

While activists believe that elites are the gatekeepers to to a more altruistic society, the pressures of capitalism will ensure that their cooperation with industry will entail serious compromise. Like many grocery chains, Whole Foods amassed its wealth through the exploitation of Nonhuman Animals, prison laborers, and immigrants producing product and the lower classes pushing the product on shop floors. What Mackey fails to acknowledge is that social services such as Obamacare are funded in part by corporations because it is considered a means of redistributing the wealth extracted through these inequalities.

Whole Foods Vegan

Mackey, like many wealthy elites, resent this government intervention, promoting instead a neo-paternalist charity system which would keep this redistribution process within in his control. In doing so, corporations are able to feed or starve particular programs or issues  according to the economic and political interests of the corporation.Revising tax laws, he insists, will, “make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance…” The celebration of individualistic solutions to social problems created by capitalism redirects blame to the most vulnerable in our society and absconds corporations of their responsibility to redistribute the wealth accrued through the exploitation of the vulnerable.

Mackey advocates “capitalism with a conscience,” supposing that a system built on inequality need not be devoid of altruism or compassion for others. But this conscience is conditional on the protection of a system of haves, have nots, and “personal responsibility” for successfully navigating a fundamentally unequal society.

This is not a game that social justice movements ought to be playing. Capitalist corporations require exploitation and prioritize profit. This incompatibility with egalitarianism should be a warning to activists that corporations will hold very little genuine support for social justice. Indeed, when activists offer their movement’s seal of approval to these “conscientious capitalists” as the Nonhuman Animal rights movement frequently does, corporations such as Whole Foods will happily apply these commendations to their products. Undoubtedly, this will also justify dramatically increasing the profitability of their value-added products.

 


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

Readers can learn more about inequalities in vegan projects 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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