Tag Archives: Rationality

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.

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The Rationalization of Misogyny: Why I left the Vegan Skeptic Community

Cartoon of a chimpanzee in deep thought

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As readers may be aware, I take issue with the abolitionist position on atheism and feminism.  I won’t rehash those points here, but given those developments, myself and a few other activists thought it prudent to branch off and begin a new project in 2011-12, one that specifically valued rationality.  As a scientist and an atheist, this position seemed well-suited to my worldview.  I began to advocate for a rational, evidence-based approach to Nonhuman Animal liberation.  Instead of drawing on personal beliefs, religion, experience, etc., I have argued that we need to hold our tactics and theory up to scrutiny.  Does it work?  And does it work for the right reasons?  If not, we’re not making any headway. Now is the time to abandon personal allegiances, idol-worship, and comfortable (but ineffective) approaches.

And so I became an ardent supporter of VeganUK, a small internet community that favors a rational approach and offers a safe space for atheists to connect and collaborate.  I started publishing papers and blogging about our new approach.  I became an administrator for the VeganUK Facebook group.  I became an editor for their magazine, The Abolitionist (now defunct).  I spent hours and hours at this non-paid position because my heart was in it, because I really believed in the project.

At this time, I was also studying feminist theory heavily.  Teaching gender at the university level, I became immersed in the research on gender inequality, rape culture, and patriarchy.  It was starting to inform my activist work.

It was then that I began to notice that other feminists who also valued a rational approach to Nonhuman Animal advocacy were routinely being shouted out and then banned from VeganUK.  The community rules, in so many words, stated that if you don’t hold up to scrutiny, you get the boot.  Which is fine if we’re valuing rationality, but it soon became clear that this was a ruse to subdue critical feminist thought. There was intense pressure on female group members to agree with the men and ignore the feminist experience that shows women another side to reality that men are more or less oblivious to.

The utopian dream of rationality is achieving 100% objectivity.  But this dream of pure objectivity completely obscures the fact that human beings are themselves tools of measurement.  Humans are products of socialization, they are prone to error and bias.  The scientific method works to reduce bias, but it cannot account for how one’s identity shapes the very questions we choose to ask.  Neither can it assure that how we choose to research the question and how we interpret the results is done with complete objectivity.  So long as the human factor is involved, there will always be bias.

Feminists argue that recognizing differential socialization and privilege is a more honest approach to a scientific inquiry into social inequality.  Social beings studying the social are never divorced from the social.  If you can’t get rid of bias, the next best thing to do is own up to it.  If your tool is imperfect, you will have imperfect results.  Pretending the imperfection isn’t there is unprofessional, dishonest, and often dangerous.

Drawing of two hands in a science laboratory holding a meditating female figure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In advocating this position, a position widely accepted within the scientific community, taught to students of science, and often required in scientific publications, I was ridiculed as “unscientific” by individuals in the group with no formal scientific training themselves.

Men who identify as atheists and skeptics with a few Richard Dawkins books on their shelf are encouraged to think themselves arbiters of what is deemed legitimate science.  I suspect, however, that their claim to expertise (with no qualifications to support it) is a prop for patriarchal oppression. These identity markers help already privileged people appear more important, authoritative, and wise. This mechanism protects the white male position and delegitimizes marginalized voices.

I will not rehash the illogical and often hateful “rationalist” arguments some vegan men use to adulterate feminist theory, as I don’t think they warrant any further platform.  The atheist movement itself, where much of this anti-feminist rhetoric originates, is rife with sexist claimsmaking and abusive treatment of women.

A few years ago, feminists in the atheist (rational/skeptic/humanist/free-thinker) community began to speak out against the harassment they’d been enduring online and at conventions.  Prominent male leaders such as Dawkins either ignored or mocked their complaints.  In response, many women and their allies created “Atheism+”, a social change space where intersectionality is encouraged and social inequalities are explored through a rationalist lens.

Atheist+ proponents argue that it  is not enough to dissect the role of institutionalized religion in oppressing humans as a general matter.  When we operate according to generics (i.e. “humans,” “humanity,” or “mankind”), we more often than not default to the experience of privileged, white, heterosexual men.  We need a more nuanced approach that recognizes how the white male experience is not the universal experience.

Importantly, Atheism+ explicitly acknowledges that the unique circumstances of marginalized experiences are largely ignored in atheist activism.  As the popularity of Atheism+ increased, atheism was no longer seen as a space for men to reassert their white male superiority and mock religious people (who, by the way, are often from vulnerable non-white, non-male demographics).  Atheism was now about inclusivity and compassion for at-risk populations.

Cartoon. Man says: "Only rational thought can free the world!"Woman asks, "Can we do something about sexism and racism, too?" Woman is shouted down.

Unfortunately, the Atheist+ movement met with considerable hostility for their efforts, and the rift in the atheist community remains.  Female free-thinkers have launched new web spaces and an annual women’s conference, but many men in the movement continue to belittle feminists and harass them.  At the 2013 Women in Secularism conference, the Center for Inquiry’s CEO Ron Lindsay opened the event with a speech bemoaning how feminist critique was nothing more than a means to silence men. The realities of patriarchy can be completely lost on even those men supposedly in support of the feminist approach to free-thought.

The generic rational approach, more often than not, hides behind masculine ideology and the rhetoric of rationality to bully, intimidate, and ultimately silence women, people of color, and other vulnerable persons.  As often as rationality is used to liberate, it is used to oppress and maintain inequality.  Rather than prioritizing criticism and discourse, it becomes a legitimized means of stifling marginalized voices to the benefit of privileged white males.

When I originally wrote this essay in 2013, one the leaders of VeganUK was stalking my every move online.  He watched everything I posted on my blog,  on my public Facebook page, Twitter, etc.  He was also screencapping any of this feminist behavior he found objectionable, emailing me with these images as “evidence.”  He filled up my inbox with threats to sue me for voicing free speech over public content that I find problematic and sexist.

For any woman who has been a victim of violence at the hands of men who have stalked them (and there are many), it should be clear how behavior of this kind is both inappropriate and violent. And it is gendered. It is a classic technique wielded to threaten, frighten, and control women.  Apparently free speech, rational thought, and criticism are appropriate only when they do not target privileged white men. I say this because feminist rationalists are abused in similar ways as a matter of course. The rationality movement is systematically seeking to erase women’s skepticism.

Until it went defunct sometime in 2015, The Abolitionist was also hosting my work without my permission.  I contacted four VeganUK administrators explicitly requesting that my work be removed, as I had no desire to be associated in any way with a group that promotes anti-feminist sentiment.  All refused my request; insisting that my work was not mine to control.  Although I had signed no copyright, they took my volunteered efforts to be the sole property of VeganUK.

For a group that claims to promote science, rationality, and integrity, I was quite shocked that academic dishonesty and blatant theft were actually being defended.  I was informed, more than once, that it was up to them to decide what to do with my work. But, then, science has a long history of appropriating the ideas and discoveries of women for patriarchal legacies. This would become an important life lesson for me as a female scientist and academic.

When men can’t shut women up with language of authority, power, and knowledge (more “sophisticated” and legitimated means of controlling women), they simply revert to the tried and true method of harassing and threatening them. When that doesn’t work, they can rip the carpet out from under marginalized folks by stealing their contributions and rendering them invisible. Sadly, it works. Science has been effectively doing so for over 200 years.

Privilege will always try to silence others to protect itself.  But, as always, onwards and upwards.  I’m still a scientist, I’m still an atheist, I still value rationality . . . I just keep a skeptical woman’s eye on it all from a safe distance.  The vegan rationality community is a dangerous space for many critical thinking women, and it’s nothing I want to be a part of. My efforts here are shared in hopes of reaching readers who value social justice and critical thinking, and those women who might be comforted in knowing they are not alone in their experiences.

 

If you enjoyed this essay, these ideas and more are explored in my book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights (Palgrave 2016).

 


A version of this essay was originally published on July 16, 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.
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