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Vegan For Any Reason? Some Thoughts

Lately I’ve been ruminating, as I tend to do sometimes. It’s like having a running almost-unconscious dialogue in the back of my mind that comes and goes in intensity. My latest rumination has been about the whole “Vegan For Any Reason” movement gaining a strong foothold in the animal rights community. The basic argument is that if you get people to go vegan for any reason, including their own health, that’s fine – you’re still saving lives and it doesn’t matter why they are being saved. And of course, in a gut-level, utilitarian fashion, that’s true.

But that approach makes me queasy, for a few reasons. First and foremost, when people become vegan because of their own health, the ultimate motivation to stay vegan is weaker than it would be if they were doing it out of the knowledge that death lay behind their previous animal-oriented diets. We all don’t need to beat cancer or lose 350 pounds. We all don’t want to compete in the triathlon or make it to the cover of some magazine. We just want to live our lives and feel as good as possible within the confines of what we feel is reasonable.

To violate a cardinal rule when making arguments, I’ll take myself as an example. Twice. To preface both examples, I need to say that I’ve always been someone whose physical strength is critical to my sense of self-worth. I’ve always had more muscle tone than most women I’ve met, and have easily worked out, at many times in my life, to excellent “cut” status. Even when I didn’t try, I looked muscular.

But perimenopause has taken a toll on that luxury. To become as fit as I was even ten years ago, I would have to work out five times as hard and long as I used to. But I could do it. And if I worked out – and especially if I went raw, or became a smoothie-person – I would feel so much better, both about my own self-image as well as physically. Yet I can’t bring myself to do it. I feel fine enough – not so fine that I don’t realize I could feel better, but fine enough to hold onto the foods and activities I’ve grown to prefer over the years. In other words, my own health isn’t enough to make me change my eating and exercise habits. At least not at this point.

My second example dates back decades. I’ve always been incredibly reactive to dairy, but I never met an ice cream I didn’t like. And so, I never went anywhere without a pocketful of Sudafed, and still battled sinus infection after sinus infection. I would go off dairy sometimes, and felt amazingly better, but not good enough to change my behaviors for long.

What do these examples show? Well, I think many people are like me. They have general wishes to feel better, but if they are told they need to give up all kinds of foods they love, they just aren’t always that interested. The payoff isn’t worth the price. The bottom line of these stories is that one’s own health is a tricky and changeable foundation upon which to build a lifetime of a plant-based diet for the majority of people. That’s how I feel anyway. I also feel that it’s inherently deeply selfish, and therefore slightly repellent.

That’s my general response when people advocate this argument (as a friend did about a month ago, which is what spurred this latest rumination). That is, that I just can’t stomach making light of animal suffering – which is what I feel is going on, on some level, with the cheer-leading approach to veganism (hey, you can beat cancer too, rah rah rah) – just as I couldn’t imagine anything perky about a campaign to save child soldiers (hey, let’s get them Tonka trucks and Barbie dolls!). The latter is unthinkable – no one I know, on either end of the political, socio-cultural, or any other spectrum would ever advocate such a thing.

But I can never quite bring myself to say no, don’t do that, don’t encourage people to go vegan because of personal health reasons, because I do know that very real lives are saved with every decision to go vegan, no matter how long it lasts.

That is generally where my thought process ends. However, my recent rumination proves that I wasn’t really done with this topic. Today I realized why that is the case. An image appeared in my head. I was in Nazi Germany, but the reign had lasted for thousands of years instead of the fifteen years it did. The death camps for Jews, Gypsies, queers, and other social undesirables had morphed into work camps, and supplied the world – yes, the world – with the labor it needed to continue on with its civilized, cultured business as usual. No one gave these camps much thought, or if they did, they had fleeting moments of concern for the poorly-treated brutes; thoughts that disappeared when they benefited in some way from those same brutes.

In this future Nazi world, there were some who went further in their compassion and shunned anything that was associated with the forced labor camps. They devised a wide variety of campaigns aimed to help the people around them see and understand the obscenity of what was going on right around the corner from them, all the time, atrocities from which they benefited. Some of these campaigns involved direct actions – prison breaks, for example – and others were more educational in nature. Some were even cajoling, just as the “Vegan For Your Health” campaigns feel to me.

And when I had that image, I had this concurrent thought: These people – these people – they might well need to be cajoled. They’d had thousands of years to learn that the creatures in the death camps were their inferiors, put on earth to serve them, and were therefore unworthy of deep emotions of any kind. When that is the case – when beings are seen in a breezy fashion as objects for our use – then deep emotional arguments might not reach us. Perhaps the only thing that CAN reach us is something equally breezy. Perhaps appealing to self-interest with people like this is the only way.

That got me to thinking. This is exactly how people are when it comes to non-human animals. Almost every single person in the world feels this way. And they’ve felt this way for literally thousands of years. Their deep emotions are reserved for members of their own species (or a few select “pets” who are awarded the status of slightly retarded, but awfully cute, children). So trying to tap into those deep emotions might not work because they might not exist.

Of course, this ties into my on-going conviction that humans as a species are flawed and cannot NOT be flawed. We can only do our best, minimize our harm, and hope we’re taken out of the game before we do too much more damage. But in the meantime, we ARE doing damage. So hell, maybe we need those glitzy color-laden cookbooks that tell us how we get to be glamorous and a triathlete as long as we go vegan. Maybe pack another ten years onto our lives. That might be the deepest most of us will ever get, and if it works, what the hell.

I still suspect it won’t work, though. Self-interest in becoming prime biological specimens is always balanced with self-interest in putting tasty things into our mouths. In the end, as another friend of mine said last week, the only argument for going vegan – and staying vegan – that has no holes in it is the animal argument: the reduction of cruelty, the recognition that tasty animal things have screams of despair woven into their cells, and that no one is worthy of that kind of sacrifice.

And that’s where my ruminations have led me. It is the longevity of the suffering we have inflicted upon everyone else (and of course upon each other, ever chance we get) that might require a different touch. We might literally have no ability to feel empathy toward others, so urging people to tap into their sense of empathy might be like asking them to breathe through their ears. It ain’t going to happen.

This doesn’t make me inclined to get peppy, but it does make me see another angle to this perky trend.

What are your thoughts?

10 comments to Vegan For Any Reason? Some Thoughts

  • Deb
    People eating vegan are more open to their compassion for animals than those who have the barriers up as they eat animal products. So people who are eating vegan for health reasons are more likely to be open to animal rights arguments than they would have been before they were eating vegan.

    I have specific examples of people I know who went vegan for health reasons, and are now staunch animal rights advocates for exactly this reason. These are people I know, in person. One of them I was the catalyst for, so I saw the process happen over the six months she was making the mental transition.

    So, while I don’t advocate based on health, I see it as an opportunity. Fertile ground for animal rights. Think of it as a team effort. The health people get the ball rolling, and the animal rights arguments can follow.

    What I’ve found is that some people are open to making change for their own health, but wouldn’t be open to making change for others. I was the opposite. We’re not all the same, so we have to go with it. If the only reason someone would start eating vegan is for their health, I’ll encourage them along this path, but that doesn’t mean I see that as the end game. It’s an opportunity.

  • I left a comment twice but it does not show up
  • Reposting by cutting it in half.

    I know this may seem besides the point – it seems I always see things in a way that makes me appear not on point but I do not understand why vegans and vegetarians do not unite around a campaign to transform the cooking channels. These channels are pushing a way of cooking that most people are moving away from. The cooking channel is the propaganda machine for the Nazi.

    I used the health and fitness argument because your fears are accurate. People such as these are incapable of having empathy for animals and in fact their offshoots are transforming cable into animal snuff entertainment. I believe we ignore these trends to the detriment of the animals we know are suffering.

    The latest atrocity as entertainment was that Anthony Boudien sadist deep frying songbirds and licking his lips saying how delicious they were and so tasty. First he showed sparrows in their cages fluttering and then in the deep fryer and then him skewing them and raving about how tasty. You can’t talk to people like this about animals. The stations need to feel economic pressure even to provide what people really want.

    ********************************************
    My letter below went to the Food Network, which can be found at http://www.foodnetwork.com

    I published it on their Facebook page. They are owned by Scripps, which also owns the Cooking Channel, found at http://www.cookingchanneltv.com.

    You can write to either at:

    The Home of Food Network
    75 Ninth Avenue
    New York, NY 10011

    But I used the comment section on their website and their Facebook pages. I believe we have to start demanding our needs be met as we are a significant part of their viewers. Everyone reading this should demand vegan shows get equal air time. You blog owners should ask your readers to write these networks and ask for vegan shows.

    http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/contact-us/package/index.html
    http://www.foodnetwork.com/contact-us/package/index.html

  • Here is a copy of my letter:
    *******************************************************

    I write to ask you to become fair and balanced in the type of food shows you present to the public.

    http://www.foodpolitics.com/2012/01/weighing-in-on-paula-deens-type-2-diabetes/

    You must realize that there are millions of people interested in healthy eating and that means vegan eating. Do we have to organize a boycott to get vegan cooking and baking shows on your network? The endless parade of meat and dairy promotion usually by overweight, unhealthy looking hosts is not appetizing. I change the channel so often when your gluttonous shows come on. How to shove the most meat and cheese down your stomach.

    Sending people to far places to participate in cruelty eating also does not thrill me.

    I would like to see shows on growing your own fruits and vegetables in every zone and shows teaching vegan cooking. I would like to see vegan chefs competing with each other and cooking for celebrities.

    You may think that the only ads you can sell are to the meat and dairy industry but there is a whole world of people who will advertize on vegan sites. You need younger vegans on your marketing staff selling ads to the wholesalers like vita mix blenders, whole foods, bulk seed companies, tofu manufacturers, anti cruelty groups, etc.

    There are hundreds of vegan cooking blogs and at least half your shows should be teaching people to cook in new more healthy ways. There are grants available from the WICK and Food Stamp programs.

    Here are some of the sites I use:
    (Here I listed all the vegan blogs I use.)

    Are you beginning to see the vast audience you are ignoring by your boring traditional shows loaded with dairy and meat. Nothing new – same old stuff over and over. And you could do so much more for the health of your viewers.
    Sincerely,

  • BlessUsAll
    Deb, you make good points.

    Greenconsciousness, I love your ideas and the letter you wrote on foodpolitics.com.

    LOL at bravebird’s “breathe through their ears” and “peppy” and “perky trend” comments.

    Here’s the insight that resonates with me the most: “Self-interest in becoming prime biological specimens is always balanced with self-interest in putting tasty things into our mouths.”

    Yes, everyone has their own path, and mine is to keep preaching the animal gospel — I hope through kind thoughts and actions more than words.

  • Your references to Nazi Germany are apt and accurate. The normalization of industrialized slavery and slaughter that characterized the culminating years of that regime are the apparent model that the current cultural attitudes and behaviors toward the ‘other animals’ appear to emulate.

    Stopping the eating of ‘other animals’ for health reasons serves a short-term goal of saving lives but serious and far-reaching shifts in understandings and attitudes are necessary to re-connect human animals with the ‘web of life’ of the planet. Avoidance of eating ‘animal products’ does nothing to preserve ‘lebensraum’ for our fellow animals nor does this stop-gap approach provide any basis for a dismantling of the horrendous fantasy of human animal exceptionalism that underlies our assault on planet Earth and her lifeforms.

  • I’m not fond of using the health/environmental angle either – Yet, I often do as a foot in the door. I’ve found it at least gets people interested. Meat/dairy/eggs and eating is a topic everyone initially gets. The cows/pigs/chickens are usually just a blur in the background. I didn’t make it this way, but it is.

    That said I’m occasionally thrilled when I pitch personal health first and someone will voluntarily bring up the aspect of compassion or even “fairness” to the creatures that could be spared. I walk away thinking we’ll really make headway soon!

    The flip side is… Often I also get people who don’t even care about their own health: “You gotta die of something”… People who don’t respect the planet let alone the beings on it. In those instances I know it’s a lost cause for them. I move on.

    In my mind I’d rather eat tree bark than harm some Other for my existence… But that’s not the world that dis-functions around me. I use whatever message I think they’re ripe for. I can only hope in time they will ruminate as well to finally consider every other “one” that truly matters.

  • bravebird
    Thank you everyone for these comments! I think that in the end, I am still not convinced it’s ethical to push human health reasons for going vegan — effective, perhaps, but not ethical. However, I don’t go so far as to believe that the people who push these arguments are unethical themselves (although frankly I DO believe that some of these perky happy smiling skinny girly types selling cookbooks in the name of veganism are not anything resembling what I would call ethical).

    In any case — good points — thank you for more to think about regarding this issue. :-)

  • victoria figurelli
    Each and everyone has there own reason for being a vegan .I have heard them all being a vegan if for the animals first for me and the planet secondary and all the good that comes with this choice.
  • bravebird
    That’s my exact order too. :-)

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