More on ex-vegans

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After the “I”m not vegan anymore” post by Alexandra Jamieson a few weeks ago, there were all the expected reactions: anger, disappointment, insults, and, yes, support. I avoided responding right away because I wanted to make sure my reaction was appropriate and thought out. I like Alexandra. I interviewed her a few years ago for Herbivore and have liked her positive approach to promoting veganism and healthy eating from her appearance in Super Size Me to her subsequent books and consulting services. She’s never been confrontational or insulting, so I want to avoid being the same way.

But, I do feel there is something to be said about her post as well as celebrity ex-vegans and the whole “I’m not a vegan anymore” thing (see also).

I’ve written about my frustration with vocal “ex-vegans” before:

Who I find really difficult to deal with are militant ex-vegans. They are far worse than any so called “militant vegans” I’ve ever met. These are the people who feel they have the experience and, therefore, the right to disparage veganism or vegetarianism because they “used to be one of those.” I don’t know about you, but I can never imagine giving up veganism and I can’t imagine any truly committed vegan ever going back to animal products and disparaging their former lifestyle at the same time. These militant ex-vegans with a chip on their shoulder may not be worth engaging in an argument. Let them blow off their steam and, in turn, look like blowhards to everyone else.

Alexandra doesn’t fall into the militant ex-vegan category. Militant ex-vegans will start web sites telling you why you shouldn’t be vegan and start quoting the Weston A. Price Foundation and Dr. Mercola. Alexandra’s still promoting plant-based diets and feels they can work for many people. However, I read her announcement with more disappointment than I did with someone like Ellen who eats eggs from backyard chickens or Megan Fox who “lost too much weight”. With celebrity ex-vegans, I groan and say, “Not surprised.” We shouldn’t look to celebrities for inspiration any more than we should any random person on the street. But when someone declares “Not vegan!” when their livelihood and own celebrity has come from promoting veganism for many years, I feel like there’s potential for damage to be done to ethical veganism’s acceptance. When a vegan chef, Certified Holistic Health Counselor, and vegan cookbook author denounces her veganism, it has the effect of making veganism seem too difficult for the average person. Or worse, it makes it look like the wrong choice (“If some promoting veganism for that long decided it was wrong for her, it must be for me, too!”)

What I think disappoints me most about Alexandra’s reasoning for making the change are some of her justifications. First, the cravings:

My body started craving the “bad” stuff. Namely, meat.

It used to be that, when a friend ordered a burger out at dinner, I was slightly (though quietly) disgusted.

But I started noticing a different reaction.

Instead of disgust, I started to salivate.

The impulse to order salmon instead of salad with tofu at my favorite restaurant was overwhelming.

And, for me as a vegan, it was confusing, too.

At first, I thought: “I must be mineral deficient. Or maybe I need more concentrated protein. I’ll eat more sea vegetables. I’ll just add more nuts and hemp seeds and drink more green juice. Then the cravings will stop.”

I denied these cravings and tried to “talk my body out of them”.

I hid my cravings from myself, and my community.

I ate more sea vegetables in order to add more minerals to my diet as I had told so many of my vegan-curious friends to do. I chose more protein-heavy plant foods on a regular basis. I avoided sugar and drank green juices by the pint, all in an effort to give my body the nutrition that I thought my body was asking for.

I tried for over a year.

I felt ashamed. If I was “doing it right” I wouldn’t have these cravings, would I?

And still, the cravings persisted.

I’ve never given much value to “cravings.” To me, food cravings aren’t indicators of anything terribly substantive. I don’t think they’re indicators of “something your body lacks” like iron, protein, or some other random vitamin or mineral. Research backs me up on this. That’s not to say that cravings aren’t real feelings. They are. But rather than your body “telling you” that you’re not getting enough protein so you should eat a steak, I think it’s simply that you miss the taste, texture, or memories associated with the food you crave. Most vegans will tell you that they didn’t stop eating meat because they hated the taste. If that was the case, meat analogues wouldn’t be so popular. Vegans stopped eating meat for ethical reasons, health reasons, or some combination, and a craving for a food they used to eat simply means they want something like that again. Every so often I think, “I miss Philly Cheesesteaks.” But does that mean I’m going to go out and order a dead cow with cheese slathered all over it? No – I’ll grab some sliced seitan, fry it up all Pat’s (or Geno’s)-like, and pour some nootch-filled cheese sauce all over it. It does the trick. I think food cravings as a reason for returning to eating meat, dairy, or eggs is simply an excuse, a justification for something that feels wrong at its core.

The other part that really bothered me about Alexandra’s piece is the set of conclusions she comes to at the end. The ones that struck me as particularly bothersome:

I believe you can love and care about animal welfare and still consume them.

I believe humans are animals. And some animals need to eat other animals to be healthy. Some do not.

I mean. For real, though?

But, I do give Alexandra credit for being honest. Certainly, it wasn’t easy for her. And I sincerely hope that as she continues her journey, she looks more deeply at the reasons she’s no longer vegan and reconsiders her stance down the road.

So, rather than continuing picking the post apart (because, really, I don’t want this to come across as a personal attack), let me instead share a few other pieces that I think get it right:

First, I urge every single person reading this to read “Facing Failing Health as a Vegan” by Sayward Rebhal. This may be one of the most important pieces about veganism ever written. (I’m boldfacing that because I feel that strongly about it.) Sayward discusses her own health issues, the internal struggle it caused, and the ultimate, happy resolution where she was able to overcome her difficulties while remaining a vegan. She is proof that if the animals and veganism are really important to you, you can make it work.

Secondly, Jack Norris, RD has a couple of responses well worth reading. Jack can always be counted on for good, even-handed analysis.

“An ethic of justice doesn’t change.”

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Vegan RD extraordinaire Ginny Messina was interviewed over on The Thinking Vegan and it’s well worth a read. Ginny talks the standard nutrition talk, but unlike many RDs, she also discusses the ethical side of veganism. This section is particularly striking (emphasis mine):

No one knows what the exact “ideal” diet for humans is, or if there is any single diet that fits that definition. I talk with my colleagues frequently about new research and whether we need to reassess some of our recommendations or advice based on the latest findings – because ideas about the best way to eat are forever changing. Who knows what the research will be showing 40 years from now? But an ethic of justice doesn’t change. The argument in favor of animal rights today will be the same in 40 years. So why not stick with the argument that is 100 percent unassailable, the one that we never have to scramble to defend in light of new findings?

In addition, I think there is a real problem in shifting the focus of veganism away from an ethic of justice for animals toward more anthropocentric concerns. It actually reinforces the idea that our food and lifestyle choices should be all about us – a belief that lies at the center of animal exploitation.

I used to feel that people that came to veganism solely through a desire to eat healthier couldn’t be counted on to be in it for the long-haul. Natala proved me wrong. However, I do still think that at some point during a person’s transition to veganism, the ethical side of it should come into play to help reinforce one’s resolve.

(ETA the link to the interview. Oops.)

The teat tweet

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A dairy farm in Canada is tweeting for their cows.

The 12 cows are part of the “Teat Tweet” project, tweeting “about their lactation cycle and robotic milking activities.”

I say this is a good opportunity for some activism. I dropped a note to Freeride Speedy:

@FreerideSpeedy It must suck to keep giving birth and then having your babies and milk stolen. Don’t worry: some of us out here respect you.

How about we all adopt one of the dairy cows and tweet words of encouragement? Here are direct links to their twitter accounts. And let’s use the hashtag #dairysucks.

Italian slaughterhouse photos

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If you have any friends or family that still eat meat, you may want to share with them this award winning set of photos from inside an Italian slaughterhouse (WARNING: extremely graphic and disturbing photos). The first photo is shocking, a butcher shot from the neck down holding a decapitated cow’s head by the horns.

But the second photo is the one that really struck me. It’s a photo of three lambs looking in a doorway at three skinned sheep hanging from by their legs. It reminded me a lot of the Corridor of Death video that Gary Francione pointed to last year. The image of animals witnessing what will be their ultimate fate is a sobering one. Put yourself in their place and imagine the terror and despair. And now imagine that happening every second of every day, whether the animals come from a factory farm or whether they come from a “humane” meat operation.

Keep fighting the fight. For them.

ABC’s dairy expose

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Have you seen the piece that aired on World News Tonight and Nightline last night? Let’s talk about it a bit.

Just to get it out of the way: yes, the story has the expected issue of focusing on abuse rather than use, but I’m going to focus on the positive effect a piece like this could have. Here’s why I think that, obvious problems aside, the airing of this piece will be positive in the long run:

1. It aired on a mainstream news program (actually, programs)

This piece aired on ABC during prime time on World News Tonight and later in the evening on Nightline. The former is a news broadcast my dad watches (he’s not one for overtly political leaning newscasts in either direction). That’s mainstream. And they’re showing footage from Mercy for Animals. That’s pretty impressive. Sure, it’s happened before, but when this sort of footage gets in front of a mainstream audience, the idea of veganism seems a little more normal to these same people.

2. A dairy farmer dug his own hole

Did you catch the dairy farmer they interviewed? He started off by giving the standard “it’s in our best interest to treat them well” line and shortly thereafter was stumbling all over himself defending tail docking and horn clipping as “standard industry practice” (which it is) and saying, “Of course I wish we didn’t have to do it…” It was enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. Almost. Except for the whole exploiting animals for personal gain thing.

I don’t think too many people can get behind docking cow’s tails or cutting their horns. (Except for those who convince themselves it’s not a standard practice.)

3. The artificial insemination footage

It was only about two or three seconds long and it only aired on the Nightline version of the story, but I think the very brief shot they showed of a farmhand elbow deep, artificially inseminating a dairy cow could be the most important piece of footage. I think the majority of people still kid themselves with visions of happy bovines humping in meadows of green grass. I’m also pretty sure the sentiment that “well, the cows have to be milked” is still prevalent. This very short piece of footage, though, is like a slap in the face: no, these dairy cows are not naturally pregnant and happily giving their milk to us. We’re raping them, confining them, and then stealing the milk meant for their offspring, all so we can have our next hit of cheese.

I’m hoping that short bit of video replays in people’s minds when they sit down with a glass of milk or a bowl of ice cream.

And, yes, there are some problems…

While the majority of the piece focuses on these cruel practices that are going on every second of every day, there’s just enough of the welfare message that I can certainly imagine someone coming away with the idea that, “Hey, that’s awful, but at least they’re starting to phase out those practices. Now I can feel OK about consuming milk.” And that’s the big downside of championing welfare legislation as a victory: a marginal welfare improvement becomes marketing fodder for the dairy industry.

And in case there’s any doubt that this is the message that people are getting, one need look no further than the comment section on the web version of the story (or a blog entry from before the story aired). Skip past all of the “gee, thanks for only showing one side of the story!” comments and you get to ones like this:

“I pledge to drink water and hope everyone that reads this will do the same. We can live without milk, until the humane society can get this straightened out.”

It’s a shame, because if that quote ended after “We can live without milk,” it’d be perfectly fine. But I’m sorry to say: if you wait for the Humane Society to “straighten it out,” there’s a problem. Everyone has to stop waiting for someone else to fix the problem. You can help fix the problem right now, this instant. Stop drinking milk, stop eating cheese, stop eating ice cream, stop consuming dairy. There’s no magic welfare wand that can be waved that will make it all OK. I hope that soon people will start coming away from stories like this thinking, “That’s terrible and I’m not going to be a part of it” rather than “That’s terrible and, boy oh boy, someone should do something about it!”

(If you haven’t seen the story, here’s the shorter version that aired on World News Tonight. A longer version appeared on Nightline, but doesn’t appear to be archived online.)