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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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What Black Lives Matter Can Teach White Vegans

Content Warning: Post discusses racism, sexism, and a number of other forms of discrimination, as well as the Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s protection of discriminatory attitudes and tactics.

SouthernLivesMatter

 

This is a story about symbols and solidarity. It is also a pained confession of my sometimes uncomfortable identity as a white Southerner, one that I hope can constructively add to the dialogue. As I repeatedly come up against white fragility and hostility in the Nonhuman Animal Rights movement as it responds to coalition-building and diversity efforts, I felt compelled to share my thoughts here, born of both personal experience and research in social movement studies. If you have been directed to this essay or otherwise found yourself here and you are white-identified, I encourage you to read on with an open mind. I am not judging you, I am only imploring you.

I grew up in a small town in rural Virginia. The Confederate flag was constantly present in my life. Some people hang the flag on their porch. Lots of “good ol’ boys” plaster their trucks with them. My classmates regularly wore t-shirts featuring the flag to school. Civil War heritage is a major part of life in Virginia as well, probably because much if not most of the war was fought in our state. I am and always have been a history nerd, and I even participated in Civil War living history events and “reenactments” as a teenager.

In graduate school as a young woman, the flag came up in discussion in a sociology theory class. The professor was using it as an example of how symbols become socially constructed and can hold different meanings. He asked us who in the room was not offended by the flag. I am embarrassed to say, I was the only one that raised my hand. I was also the only person from a rural and poor background in the class (poor people where I come from don’t often make it to college, and they rarely find their way into graduate school). I was acutely aware of that. When “outsiders” criticize the confederate flag, some whites interpret this as another attack on poor, working-class Southerners who, to be fair, are disproportionately burdened by a substantial amount of structural classism. Race, of course, still matters, but it is conveniently erased from the framework.

I believe I said something along those very cliche lines of, “It doesn’t mean what you think it means. I don’t see it as racist.” Then I made some awful comparison about the swastika, insisting that Hindus shouldn’t have to abandon the symbol just becomes some people think it’s racist. Oh and didn’t you know that some African Americans fought on the side of the South in the Civil War?

Yep.

That happened back in 2007 and I still remember it vividly because I am mortified by it. I thought I was being critical, but I was really just thinking about myself. It isn’t about me, though. It’s about how others are hurt by these symbols. It’s about the systems of oppression that are still ongoing, still disadvantaging, and still costing lives.

Deep down, Southerners are not ignorant of this meaning. We know it’s not just about Southern culture and working class pride. A few summers later, I was tubing the river in the area where I grew up. I got ahead of my group and while I waited on the banks for them to catch up, two older white men came up to me and started a conversation, having recognized me through their friendship with my late father. While we were shooting the breeze, one of them made an off-hand comment about how they used to have a rebel flag hanging up on a tree by the river entrance to “keep the n*****s away.” I was more or less a stranger to them, but I was white, which made them feel comfortable acknowledging the flag’s implicit meaning. Shocking how I once convinced myself that these racist symbols could ever be “colorblind,” or that my naive personal interpretation as a privileged white person could ever supersede the larger societal meaning.

I share this story because I learned from it, regret past attitudes, and wish I had not sided with self-interested defensiveness. I wish I had thought of others’ interpretations, not just my own. After all, I live in a society, not a bubble. As Black Lives Matter dominates headlines and protesters fill the streets, there has been renewed contention over the flag’s use, which has, in turn, inspired white defensiveness and counter-mobilization. For whites, the contention is a symbolic attack on their way of life (and, whether or not they are willing to admit it, their privilege). For African Americans and other people of color, it’s an attack on their very right to life and safety. The two are not comparable.

BLM

The flag is just one of many examples where meaning is contested and racial inequality runs the risk of erasure. In my observations of the vegan movement, I have seen race issues ignored altogether, silenced by white gatekeepers, or derailed with appeals to Nonhuman Animal lives. Beyond the excuses (“We have to focus!” “Animals are suffering more!”), much of the resistance has to do with activists taking personal offense when their approach is criticized: “I’m not racist! This tactic doesn’t make me racist!” “This has nothing to do with violence against women!” “Speciesism is just like the Holocaust; that’s how it really is!” etc.

Here’s the thing: 

When activists engage tactics that simulate the rape of women or disseminate images and sounds of cows being raped as a scare tactic, the movement appears sexist and callous.

When white activists publish cookbooks from an imagined stereotypical “thug” perspective, and keep pushing the book despite the protests of people hurt by these stereotypes, the movement appears racist and callous.

When middle-to-upper class (even millionaire) activists insist over and over that veganism is “easy” when, for so many living under structural oppression, it absolutely is not easy, the movement appears classist, racist, and callous.

When cis-gender activists belittle transgender persons who advocate for transgender rights instead of prioritizing speciesism, the movement appears trans-antagonistic and callous.

When thin-privileged activists politicize obesity and post billboards mocking women of size by calling them “whales” with the intention of shaming them toward veganism, the movement appears sizeist and callous.

Who would want to associate with such a movement? If participants are attracted by racist, sexist, classist, or sizeist claimsmaking of this kind, are they associates the movement will benefit from? Are these the best ambassadors for a social justice movement?

Importantly, many vegans engaging these problematic tactics have been exposed to patient explanations from people who are actually living under the oppressions themselves. Yet, vegans continue to defend these tactics with gusto, doubling down on defensiveness. In retaliation, it is vegan feminists and allies who are accused of bigotry, taking things too seriously, or looking to start trouble and drama. I am reminded of a small protest that took place at the Animal Rights National Conference in 2016 in which an audience member took his turn during the Q&A to ask the white male speaker to consider not taking up so much space at conferences to make room for marginalized voices who are rarely given platform. The moderator shut down the protester, and the audience erupted in applause. They were not clapping in support of the protester’s brave actions, but rather the moderator’s restoration of (white supremacist) order.

Defensiveness over mindfulness.

Me-myself-and-I thinking subjected me to public embarrassment in that graduate classroom so many years ago, and I have learned a very important lesson since that day. Activism isn’t about one’s own interpretation. Given that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is largely white-identified and middle-class, the prevailing interpretations can never be considered universal. A failure to acknowledge privilege equates to a failure in resonance. Activists must consider the interpretation of those who are being hurt by movement rhetoric, attitudes, and behavior.

There are consequences resulting from this ignorance. If the goal is to grow the movement, shouldn’t activists be more concerned with the interpretations of others rather than their own? After all, resonating with the audience is one of the most important goals for any social movement.

Ethics matter as much as efficacy, however. Defensiveness over white privilege runs counter to the ethical position the Nonhuman Animal rights movement espouses. The white supremacist hijacking of symbols in an effort to racially neutralize them for the interests of privilege is not in alignment with justice. “All lives matter” claimsmaking, for instance, is frequently cited by white vegans who perhaps wish to capitalize on the visibility of Black Lives Matter mobilization to draw attention to other animals who are also suffering extreme violence. Black Lives Matter claimsmaking, however, is not race-neutral, and when whites attempt to make it so, this is an act of racism.

“All Lives Matter” is not alliance-building, it’s alliance-destroying. It suggests that mobilization to improve the life chances and well-being of the Black community is somehow unwarranted or distracting. It erases difference, and when difference goes invisible, this invisibility supports systems of inequality that feed on difference. Difference exists whether or not whites choose to acknowledge it, and rejecting its existence is complacency with oppression. Nor should readers forget the Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s historical legacy of racism. Appropriating the symbols of Black liberation when the movement has, for years, both excluded and oppressed Black persons is especially problematic.

All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter. Espousing that Black lives matter does not mean that Nonhuman Animals do not matter, or that white lives do not matter, or that anyone else’s lives do not matter. It only means that the systemic oppression faced by Blacks is abominable and must stop. White vegans have an obligation to support this effort, not to derail it.

White vegans, it’s not about you.

 

A version of this essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on July 15, 2015.


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

Readers can learn more about the legacy of racism in vegan advocacy and the importance of a pro-intersectional approach 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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