Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My Most Controversial Post

I have been thinking how best to broach this subject because I am asked often about it. So, when a faithful reader, Carol, who always has some incisive comments, called me out on my remark in the September 13th post in which I said, "It's a shame, but the "Meat is Murder" crowd really seemed to put many in the mainstream off, and only now are serious omnivores admitting the benefits of a plant-based diet, and problems with animal flesh diets," it was time to step up to the plate. Since I was reminded that most of my audience, including the one who was the impetus behind this vegan journey of mine, were part of the "Meat is Murder" crowd that I should clarify my remarks. I could not agree more, Carol!

In short, the average person, I have found, has been turned off by the messenger, not necessarily the message as it relates to veganism.

One of the biggest motivating factors of Western veganism is the ethical treatment of animals and the effects on the environment. In my opinion, it is mostly because of this movement, and celebrity endorsement, that veganism has become such a focus, sometimes controversial, over the years. And that is a great thing because it brought added attention to those doctors who advocate a plant-based diet, and when books like the "China Study" are touted on TV more people are influenced by the benefits of a vegetarian, or vegan diet. But lets discuss the ethical issues.

One of the most strident defenders of the ethical issues, benefits to animals and environment, of veganism is, indeed, Heather Mills. We have had multiple conversations about the environment, and I find many of the arguments very interesting. So interesting that I want to see continued open debate and discussion with the brightest scientific minds in the world, void of all politics and obfuscation, and just pristine, transparent scholarship about what is happening to the environment, correct any problems, and how we can preserve it for many centuries more.

When it comes to the discussion over the environment, I want to be bored by the truth, and not entertained by half-truths.

I decided on this vegan quest almost a year ago because I was fat, and abusing my body terribly. Moderation was not working, it was impossible for me, really, so I whole-heartedly bought into the notion that veganism was an excellent way to bring my body back to life, lose weight, lower cholesterol, and master moderation. Because it was such a radical idea - to take a hard-core carnivore, and make him a hard-core vegan - I figured, it was crazy enough to work. And it did! But, my motivation for veganism was 100% dietary, and that is what I wrote about.

Outside of writing about the documentary Food, Inc. and a couple of other brief comments, I have stayed clear of the "other side" of veganism. Until now.

Peta Protester
 I stand by my comments about the "Meat is Murder" crowd putting many in the mainstream off to the benefits of veganism, because of the countless individuals I have encountered in the past 10 months who say as much. Whereas this movement gained attention first through some very controversial antics, the celebrity endorsements brought the attention to animal rights, specifically PETA, out of the corners of far-left ideology and into everyone's living rooms. This in turn gave more discussion and voice to veganism as a diet which was great, but along the way some controversial tactics bothered so many people to the point that they became blind to the great benefits (both dietary, and environmentally) of veganism.

The ugly side of that coin is video of some elderly society woman being doused with red paint in protest of her antique mink stole, or an advertisement with raw, painful 9-11 images to protest...logging. I myself, while waiting for a table at Red Bamboo, picked up a vegan newsletter and was repulsed by the images of mutilated animals -- it angered me alright, but it was against the publication and the restaurant for putting it out there. I have educated myself to some of the horrible practices of animal meat cultivation, and I staunchly support more humane practices, but a photo of a mutilated carcass does nothing but...well, put me off.

I do admit the same can be said for other controversial social issues - the more shocking and revolting the image, the more damage they do to their own side. Not every point needs to be made with a bloody sledge-hammer.

The more radical "Meat is Murder" crowd has definitely turned off many mainstream people by their tactics and stances.  (**quick breath of levity here in the midst of such a heavy topic - I really liked the 1985 album by The Smiths, coincidentally, called "Meat is Murder." OK, back to seriousness**).  Although it is the fringe, it is what gets the media attention. If an organization states that animals deserve more rights than humans, and people should not own pets, or if a movie star implies that people who eat meat are inhumane, that really turns people off to such a noble cause of respecting animals, the environment, and a vegan diet. I have always maintained that veganism needs a better PR campaign.

All sane people want a better environment, and abhor animal cruelty, but they see a difference between some savage who beats and starves his horse, and Grandma who keeps two cats. The visual image many people have had in their heads of a vegan, or animal rights activist has not been one that they aspire to be, nor neccessarily identify with.  But that is changing, that is good, and that was my point.

I am thrilled that the extreme voices are becoming more mute, and that the mainstream sees more evidence on TV by Dr. Oz, and Dr. Fuhrman, etc. about the benefits to a plant-based diet, and more and more mainstream celebrities and athletes are coming out in favor of it.

Finally, I am 100% in favor of humane treatment of animals, and strongly feel that what some of these food conglomerates do with both the injection of hormones into animals, and their gross mistreatment on these "farms" are barbaric. However, I think it is folly to want to outlaw Farmer Brown and his free range chicken farm.

Recently, when Men's Journal magazine wrote about athletes who have gone vegan, they took strides to make the point that it's not a sandal-wearing, tree-hugging crowd anymore. Point being, don't flip the page, these are folks like you (or folks you want to be like) who are vegan too!

In conclusion, had the pro-vegan, "Meat is Murder" crowd not been so radical in the past it would be more mainstream today. And on the flip side, had they not been so radical they would not have attracted the attention of celebrities, who in turn ended up making the vegan diet more newsworthy, thus more acceptable.

So, did this radicalism work? End justifying the means? Well, it did, but at what cost? Even today, mainstream publications talk about the harm of a carnivore diet, but stress that although vegetarianism/veganism is good, 'We are not one of those radicals!' Or, as a world-wide news analyst said recently in a story about a champion wrestler from India who is a strict vegetarian, "Who says vegetarians are wimps?"  For every mainstream comment about the positives of vegansim there often is an accompanying back-pedal as if to say, "We are not one of the those weirdos, but veganism is good!"

I firmly believe the cause of animal rights and veganism would be much farther along in society today if they took a more measured, and sober approach. And the years of mainstream society's resistance to the cause bears (bares) this out. Q.E.D.

Thank you for your time and I welcome your comments - pro and con! Terrence


Vegan Epicurean said...

As you may have guessed I came to veganism by way of eating a more healthful diet to better fight cancer. The vast majority of my friends and acquaintances are omnivores. While they will listen to me regarding the potential health benefits of veganism they are turned off by the more radical side of veganism and have told me that many times.

Many Americans are worried about their health. If we focus on that we may get more people to listen to the message and actually consider it. In my mind if the end (veganism) is what is important the path to that end should not matter. I think that message gets lost.


Terrence said...

Great point Ali, thanks!

Joshua said...

Terrence, you are touching on so many issues here - from media politics to personality types. But I understand the essence of what you're saying and I agree that veganism can use a PR makeover (something I've attempted to tackle when talking to young men in the fashion/arts/communication industries.) But it should also be addressed that for many people, animal rights is a valid social justice movement attempting to validate the perspectives of non-human animals. Regardless of what we choose to believe about them, they do have their own perspectives and a desire to live that is just as strong as yours or mine. Their fatal flaw is that they can not organize and represent themselves to us in a way we consider valid, and out fatal flaw is that we do not validate their struggling, crying out, or cowering as potent forms of dissent.

As someone who came to veganism from a completely ethical perspective, it's important to remember that not everyone is the same when it considering to our sensibilities and what sets off a spark. We are not all based in a preference for rationality or reason (or even science). Many people are driven by emotion or beauty or spirituality or even apathy. That being said, there is a place for The China Study in the same sense that there is a place for shocking imagery. The beauty is that they compliment each other, and complete each other.

Joshua said...

I'd like to put a big, red flag beside the words "extreme" and "radical" (and "terrorist" for that matter) - these words are used as weapons not because they have any intrinsic meaning - but because they suit those that wield them whose interests revolve around maintaining the status-quo and often, their own positions of power/wealth/influence. "Extreme" for whom, and "radical" in comparison to what, exactly? Western civilization? I would argue that the very economic model we've been living with could be considered extreme and radical when viewed from the perspective of the natural systems of ecology. I would also categorize the institutionalization of practices that cause pain and suffering (human or not), and structural speciesism inherent in our current culture as extreme and radical when viewed from the perspective of those not in power. It is critical to ask what is at stake for those using these words, and to objectively analyze what we attach value to while considering what is actually valuable (a thriving planet?).

I would also like address the problems that are unavoidable when you have models of journalism and media that require advertising dollars. I could make the argument that your understanding of "radical" activists is a fabrication, an isolation of a few moments or act taken out of context, or at the very least a distortion of reality. As someone who works in television and media, I understand how one moment can be taken out of context and used against anyone. Let's say you had a wonderful day except for the moment you decided not to give a nickel to the homeless man. Lets say the media played a clip of you doing that over and over. Soon enough you'd be the heartless man that hates the homeless, regardless of the fact that you had just volunteered at a soup kitchen.

Joshua said...

There are very powerful industries who have a lot to lose if veganism were to become too popular (especially ethical veganism), and it is in their interest and the interest of those who receive financial gain from them, to distort reality in favor of the status-quo while maintaining an illusion of "balanced" journalism. For more on this I'd recommend watching the documentary "Manufacturing Consent". It is not a conspiracy theory so much as it is "business-as usual". You referencing of the "red-paint throwers" and the idea that animal -rights activists (most of whom care for and love their pets) do not want people to have companion animals is a distortion, and is moving towards mythical. The number of people who've had red-paint dumped on them while wearing fur is small - but even still, when compared to what the 40 animals who make the coat went through - what is more "extreme"?

Lastly, I believe that your discomfort with the "Meat is Murder" crowd might be confusion with a disdain for those that have rejected many areas of popular culture and who are not relatable on many levels - and therefore, tactically ineffective when attempting to win over those still participating happily in mainstream behaviors and activities.

I hope some of this was a helpful response!

hebba said...

Well written! I find that sometimes the radical left make mainstream folks temporarily embrace things they DON'T believe in simply because its the opposite of their view.

Terrence said...

Thanks so very much for lending your unique voice to this discussion. You certainly were industrious in your extensive response, and I greatly appreciate you taking the time to write a virtual graduate-level dissertation!
If I may engage in a poor man’s Oxford Debating Society for the sake of discussion (though I could not touch your word count level), and perhaps serve as a cure for insomnia for anyone reading this, let me make a few points in response to your articulate comments.
First of all, without a doubt, the animal rights movement is an extremely valid social justice movement, and I respect much of what they hope to accomplish.
In regards to your objection to the words “extremism,” “radical,” and you even brought up a new element to the discussion, “terrorist,” I think we could spend days tucked away in some tavern debating the points of what is “radical.” To this there is no doubt. But, the whole point of my original post was not to engage in a scholarly discussion for a final exam in Ethics 101, rather than to state that the average person has found offense in some of the more extreme elements of the animal rights groups (extreme defined as far outside the mainstream). Unfortunately, in the mainstream, it has been offensive enough that it distorts their view of them, and leads to an aversion to veganism (and those groups). I base this on the myriad of people I have spoken to, and the numerous emails I receive from people who say the same thing. In effect the line goes something like this, “I’m uncomfortable with these people, and therefore, I will make a snap judgment about vegans.” I have dealt with this almost every day for 10 months. And from this experience I felt confident stating the point that the “Meat is Murder” crowd’s comments or antics, however infrequent and small, has resulted in a generally negative perception by the mainstream. As an addition to my proof, these experiences with the average person take place in decidedly “enlightened” NYC, and multiple publications have printed the benefits of veganism while running away from any association with the animal rights community. The negative perception, even though it’s misguided, is a reality.
Now none of this says that these perceptions and misperceptions, and misconceptions are right, or just, or fare, rather it is the cold, unfortunate fact that ‘perception is reality.’ And as I often mention, much to my chagrin.
I think the rest of your analysis, although well articulated, proves my point. The average person will look at the interesting argument of “structural speciesism,” and say, “So, what? We’re all of God creatures, but there is a hierarchy of species based on brain capacity and evolution.” Whereas an intellectual would love to pull up a bench in Washington Square Park and debate our culture and outlook on ecology, the average Local 1 union employee, or accountant, or nurse would probably find a debate about equality with animals and erasing the hierarchy of species ridiculous.

Terrence said...


But more importantly, although we can debate the values of different things, most people would generally value the laws that prohibit harassment, intimidation, assault and destruction of private property, so those small handful of paint throwing incidents become wildly offensive, and thoughts about the sad fact that it took 40 chinchillas to make that coat will not rise to an equal level of offense to most people. Those small incidents were done to make a statement is a forceful way – mission accomplished, but now most people would view those activities by PETA as “radical” and “extreme,” even if it happened twice over 10 years ago. There has been no effort to change that perceived extremism. Same with the term you brought up, “terrorist,” as in eco-terrorist. We could have a wonderful discussion about the evils of destroying our forests, over-building on our pristine lands, and the proliferation gas-guzzling SUVs, but when an activist group, however tiny, takes credit for firebombing an SUV dealership, burning new housing developments to the ground, and placing metal spikes in trees so an unsuspecting logger’s chainsaw becomes disabled with pieces flying off, causing serious injury, it is hard not to call those dangerous acts terrorism. Even if each of these real examples from the news only happened once, the stain is there for the average person. I know for myself, I want to protect the forests, and I want to curb over-building on pristine lands, and I want more economical and environmentally responsible automobiles, but I don’t want to be associated with a group that committed those heinous acts.
When I speak of veganism, some people lump that in with the stories they have heard mentioned above. So, again, the PR for veganism (both dietary and ethical are always lumped together in this) is suffering. Now all the media events designed to bring attention to the noble cause of protecting the environment, and protecting helpless animals are purposefully inciting and jarring. People don’t like jarring. So, even though their intention is valid and noble the execution simply turns people off.

Terrence said...

(con't - OK, I passed your word count!)

Although you bring up another interesting point about powerful forces that have an interest in distorting reality, there is reality that has no distortion. For example, I can say that the PETA nude ads are clever (though the one with a crucifix up against a nude body was incredibly offensive to me), I would be more supportive of the cause if they publically condemned the illegal acts of others being done in their name.
Now, if anyone is still reading this manifesto, let me end on this final debate point. I think my general argument is again proven correct that the “Meat is Murder” crowd has, in the past, turned the average person off to their cause because of either the antics or the spokespeople are so far outside the mainstream.
You mention the documentary “Manufacturing Consent,” which essentially says that profit driven collusion amongst corporation runs the media and effects people’s opinions. Yet, there are thousands of pro-business executives that would have a problem with that theory because of what they perceive as a generally anti-business news slant in the media. That goes back to my little mantra, ‘bore me with the truth, don’t entertain me with half-truths.’ Add the fact that the documentary was written by Noam Chomsky and you really begin to play outside the mainstream. Again, I am not passing judgment on the validity of his arguments at all, but any YouTube viewing of the old Chomsky vs. William F. Buckley, Jr. debates from the 60’s and 70’s will show that it would be tough to find any parent on your son’s Little League team who harbors such political thoughts as the world famous Noam Chomsky. Now being outside the mainstream is not wrong, and in fact, many of our greatest minds were originally outside the mainstream. But, when activities or comments or personalities of a movement fall outside the mainstream, no matter how just and honorable and good their cause is, there will not be many people giving that movement a chance to pitch their wares. It’s hard to hear the message when the messenger turns you off.
My point still is that as long as a media-seeking, de facto leader of an animal rights/vegan organization says or does things outside the mainstream, then the great benefits of veganism and protecting against animal cruelty will have a harder time finding acceptance.
So, no, I disagree with your assertion that I find discomfort with the “Meat is Murder” crowd based on any “confusion” on my part, nor is it “ disdain” for those who rejected popular culture. In fact, my discomfort for some in the “Meat is Murder” crowd - the few who received the widest media attention – is solely based on their illegal acts or extremist views. However small a voice these people have amongst the great animal social justice crusade, it has been loud, it has not been condemned by others in these organizations, and it has had a negative impact on the average person which resulted in a slowed acceptance in the mainstream of the two things I care deeply about – the promotion of a plant-based diet, and the responsible stewardship of the land.
As I said, it is not the message, but the messenger, and it only takes one event on national TV to tar an entire movement if that movement is not willing to distance themselves from radicalism, and embrace a more mainstream approach.
Joshua, I thank you again for your heartfelt remarks, and I hope I have shed some more clarity on this discussion and my position. The best part about this is that in the end, we both want essentially the same thing.

Vegan Epicurean said...

Very well put! I particularly like your ending that we all want the same thing. ;-)


VivaciousVegan said...

I found absolutely nothing offensive wrtten here in your post. It is a fact that "card carrying members" of PETA have a bad rep when trying to save animals. People will not be interested in something if other people are screaming in their faces! I am not an ethical vegan by trade, I came to veganism for health reasons and wrote about it a few blogs ago. You made very good points.
Health vegans are rising...we will overpopulate soon and be the sensible voice people hear...LOL

Carol said...

Okay so I started something eh? Well I'll try to keep this short(ish).

My comment was prompted by the fact that lately in vegan blogland there seems to have become something of a split between those who are vegan for ethical reasons and those who are vegan for health reasons with each side pointing fingers at the other (not attractive). I would like to point out that it doesn't have to be this way if we each approach each other with some sort of understanding and tolerance and not assuming things about each other and not labelling each other.

I wasn't sure who you were referring to and who exactly you categorised as the 'Meat is Murder' brigade. Was it all ethical vegans or just some and if so where does the distinction lie?

I just want to point out that most ethical vegans are just caring compassionate people who deplore any act of violence towards all living creatures. So please don't assume all ethical vegans are 'animal rights activists'. I'm not sure what the definition of an animal rights activist is exactly but I do know that 'Animal rights activist' does not equal vegan.

Carol said...

Nor do most ethical vegans want to outlaw free range chicken farms (most of us would like to see more of them and less of the other kind obviously). Nor do most of us want to ban keeping pets (just the breeding of pets when there are so many unwanted animals waiting in shelters). Nor do we all support PETA and other organisations like them.

I actually don't know much about PETA as they aren't big over here, I mostly get any information I need from The Vegan Society (the original society set up in 1944 by Donald Watson and Elsie Shrigley who in fact coined the term 'veganism').

I (and I suspect most vegans) don't want to ascribe animals the exact same rights as humans (that would be ridiculous), just the right to live a life as free as possible from human interference and human inflicted suffering.

I don't believe 'meat is murder'as such, animals kill each other every day. There are some communities in the world who rely on keeping animals to survive the inhospitable conditions in which they live. I do believe however that since we don't need to eat meat to survive we should at the very least limit our eating of meat and treat all animals with humanity and respect.

Your main point I know was about the damage that some activists have done to the image of veganism and I have to agree with you to some extent. I don't want to have to pretend that I am only vegan for health reasons simply because some people think vegans are nutters who go around spraying people with red paint.

BUT I have to point out that sometimes I think people are turned off veganism and get defensive about it when talking about it not because of this at all but because it makes them feel uncomfortable about their own food choices. They feel that you are making a judgment about them because you have taken this 'ethical stance'and they haven't.
Whereas if you say you are vegan for health reasons they can accept that without feeling bad about themselves in the same way they would if you said you were going on the Atkins diet. I think this is just as big and valid an issue as those who are put off by the 'radical' vegans.

Most people as you say are basically good and moral people who don't want to inflict suffering on other living creatures and this is where I think we do need sometimes to educate people about the horrors of factory farming. How else are they to know, it's not exactly in our faces. If it was there would definitely be more vegans out there I believe. But does this make me 'radical' because i'm pointing out (nicely) a truth that people aren't aware of?

Basically I would just like people to stop putting words in my mouth and thoughts in my head and I suspect most other ethical vegans would also. Maybe the extremists are to blame for this negative view of ethical veganism but look, most of us with any degree of intelligence don't label all Muslims as terrorists just because there are some extremists out there so people really shouldn't do it to vegans.

And I shouldn't be made to feel a freak for being vegan for ethical reasons.

A bit rambling, but I hope you get my point.

I love a good friendly debate!

Carol said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terrence said...

Carol - you certainly started something. Your points are very valid, thank you!

And yes, the "people" I am referring to are the small minority who commit illegal acts, and who have condemned carnivores as immoral, and have advocated some very outlandish positions (equal legal protection for animals on par with humans). These numbers are very small, but it is the only voices the average person in the mainstream hears, thus they have been turned off.

Had you been leading the charge these past number of years, we would not be where we are with such contention!

Thanks so much or writing!

Vegan Epicurean said...

I am a vegan, I don’t eat animals (or animal products) nor do I buy leather, though I used to do both. As I have stated before I came to veganism for health reasons. Yet ethical vegans have emailed vile things to me about how veganism isn’t about health. Is this the majority of vegans? No. But this very loud vocal minority turns off many people, me included and I am a vegan. If their goal is to save more animals by having more people eat a vegan diet they are having the opposite impact. It is very sad and counterproductive to the cause.


Carol said...


Thanks for your kind comment and for addressing this issue on your blog, it means I don't have to, lol.


I agree with your comments entirely and nobody should have to put up with abuse of any kind.

It is important to recognise that the term veganism was coined with a particular meaning specifically relating to ethics and not health and some vegans (I'm not one of them) insist that eating a vegan diet does not make you a vegan. I don't think this viewpoint is helpful but I respect their right to take that view. I DO NOT think this gives them the right to be abusive and I am sorry that you have experienced this.

I would point out that this goes both ways though, there are some quite angry 'health' vegans out there who badmouth 'ethical' vegans and label them all extremist morons as I think I pointed out in my previous comment. It happens on both sides.

It's so sad when people who have so much in common can be so far apart.

I still believe the vast majority of vegan bloggers out there (of all kinds) are lovely people in my experience.

penhaligon said...

I can agree that there have been some bad PR campaigns in general for vegan/vegetarianism (Peta) and that can put people off.

But at the same time I disagree with what you said about disturbing pictures/videos of mutilated animal bodies etc. The reality of how animals are treated SHOULD be made public and it SHOULD put people off!

Admittedly, I don't think yelling and guilting people with aggressive slogans is the way forward. Personally I think you should just show them the truth and let them decide for themselves.

Terrence said...

Pen - thanks so much for your thoughts!

I will only say this. I read many parts of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" in 8th Grade? Maybe 9th? So, I have always been well aware of the barbarity of a slaughter house. However, when I am waiting to be seated in a VEGAN restaurant and pick up a pamphlet why the heck would I want to look at a mutilated animal? For what purpose does that serve? It was not telling me something that I didn't know, or assumed, and it just had the opposite of its intended effect - I got pissed off at the people who put out the literature.