Guest Post: A Vegan’s Response

My charming friend Ralph has an in depth response from a vegan perspective to my post a couple of weeks ago, There’s More To Animal Rights Than Tofu. He doesn’t have a blog of his own, so I’m going to post it here.

Let me start with an apology on the length of this reply. I cannot address some of the interesting points your raise without digging reasonably deep in to morality in general. Or maybe I could, and I am too interested in my own opinions to edit down, perhaps a little in column a and a little in column b…. Anyhow, without further adieu.

On Priorities and Jackets

I think you misunderstand the horror of the vegan to the leather jacket. Most people do not have such an analytical, logical progression of thinking as you (and I) possess. I owned a leather jacket for ages after I was vegan, because it was gifted to me many years previously, and throwing it away was in no way helpful for the now deceased cow. Likewise I kept a set of leather shoes that I had purchased decades before.

Two things changed my habits on wearing old leather. Firstly, many animal lovers have a direct, visceral response to leather. The same response that makes most people cringe when they see or hear of nazi/serial killer human skin lamps. The feeling is that wearing the dead flesh of an animal symbolises a flagrant and casual disregard for the suffering of other beings. For me it was supposed to symbolise respect for the environment and not buying new clothing until the old clothing was worn out, but that message just wasn’t getting through. So by wearing leather, I was both offending and alienating people who I ultimately agree with on 99% the very issue for which they are offended. If I turned up to a punk nightclub in a business suit with a crew-cut, I may well be embodying the punk ideology better than anyone else there, but in practical terms, I am likely to alienate and ascetically offend the punks who are there. I might then miss out on social interactions that lead to good gigs; vomiting, breaking bottles or whatever else punks enjoy these days. But it is more than just social pressure, by excluding myself unnecessarily from potential collaborators, I am reducing my capacity to evoke societal change.

At the end of the day, I would be perfectly happy for someone to recycle my skin into a lamp or a jacket, but I understand the yitch factor in other people, and don’t wish to offend (although if I was killed just to be a lampshade, I would leave for the non-existent afterlife feeling most irate). Although I think I am right and the other vegans are wrong, there is very little merit in discussing why it is better for me to continue wearing leather than throwing it out and purchasing a new item of clothing. This discussion is so small-minded, complex, and water muddying, it is mostly counter-productive.

Secondly, I was wearing the aforementioned leather shoes one day when I was bouncing, and I was operating the cloak room. I had to return a mink coat to a lady, which I did with a shudder and a raised eyebrow. She immediately took me to task, and pointed to my shoes, asking if they were leather. They were, and I lost that discussion before it even took off. There are a dozen reasons why leather is better than mink as a clothing item, but the difference was totally lost in the moment. I just looked like a hypocrite, and was easily dismissed before any significant debate could be entered into.  If you are challenging someone’s worldview and/or morality, even if you are doing so passively, and without intent; it seems remiss to start the discussion on an area of complex and counterintuitive moral subtleties. People love to defend their position with an attack, “you are no better than me because” style arguments. Indeed, even if you don’t deliberately challenge their perspective, people often like to stage these arguments when they learn you are vego/vegan etc. As soon as they find a hint of hypocrisy or half arsedness, they feel they have won. This is a sad rhetorical self justification device, and I wish people wouldn’t. But at the end of the day, not wearing leather is so easy, and as part of a general not-exploiting animals lifestyle, has paid itself off many times over in the frustrated facial expressions of exasperated “you are no better than me” arguments that ended with the interlocutor unable to find a hint of hypocrisy. Once they have set up the argument in these terms, they are well and truly screwed when it turns out they are wrong, and even by their own standards you are not being bad.


On Nazi Iconography and Leather Jackets

Let me use another similar analogous case. I have absolutely no objections to the swastika. It is an ancient symbol, at least 3-4 thousand years old, which has had dozens of symbolic meanings over the years, well separated from its original Sanskrit meaning of, basically, “luck” or “auspicious”. I find people’s obsession with the Nazi use of this symbol, such as its current banning from computer games in the EU, infuriating and small minded. The immorality of the Nazi regime was in no way related to their choice of symbolism. And while people would be up in arms if I walked around with a swastika on my clothing, they are willing for Gestapo-style laws to be passed in this country, allowing ASIO to detain citizens indefinitely without access to a lawyer, a right to remain silent, or the freedom to discuss the detention when it has ended. Right wing police repression is fine, just so long as it doesn’t have a bent-arm cross over it.

However, while I feel quite strongly on the topic, I would never wear a swastika for the same reasons mentioned above which preclude me from wearing leather. Firstly, I would offend all sorts of Poles, Jewish folks and leftie sorts, who ultimately I have nothing against, and would probably get on fine with had I chosen to wear different attire. Secondly, my chances of convincing someone of the validity of my views in a social justice debate diminishes significantly if I have a ruddy great swastika on my t-shirt. Am I happy about this? No. But pure pragmatism make it the sensible thing to avoid swastikas and related iconography.

In short, appearances matter. And while the actual damage of a leather jacket may be nothing for the individual animal from which it was skinned, it does make a social difference. Like it or not, humans are social animals who pay a lot of attention to what other people consume/wear. You argue that each individual is responsible for their own use of animal products, so a decision to wear leather is irrelevant, because you cannot be responsible for other people’s decisions. This holds true only if you live in a bubble, on an island, under a rock… and that rock doesn’t have an internet connection. People affect other people all the time, and as moral humans we acknowledge that we hold the moral repercussions of these interactions as relevant. Otherwise, Andrew Bolt is an alright guy [ed note: Andrew Bolt is Australia’s Glenn Beck]. His own lifestyle and actions are probably no better or worse than any other middle class guy. If we say that it is everyone’s own moral decision to be a racist, immigrant hating zealot, then Andrew Bolt is absolved of blame for publishing his daily politically charged invective, because he didn’t actually cast thousands of right wing votes, he only convinced thousands of others to do so. To take this a step further, I don’t know if Pol Pot actually shot anyone himself, so we might as well absolve him of personal wrongdoing and give him the thumbs up as well!

The irony here is that you, out of everyone I know, spend the most time in debate with friends and associates on key moral, social and political topics. Why spend so much time convincing others if every being is a moral island? We all agree that hiring a hit man to kill someone is murder. We also all agree that convincing or conspiring with someone to kill someone else is murder. We agree (although many in our society wouldn’t) that ordering a subordinate to kill someone is murder.  These are all social immoralities, because it is along the social connection that we trace a line of responsibility from the one who pulled the trigger, back to the payer/cajoler/orderer that requested the murder. In short, the social impact of your words, actions and appearance effect other people, and I don’t understand a moral argument that absolves you from the responsibility of your impact on others. While one might encourage self analysis of action, and advocate for people taking responsibility for their own destiny, but we cannot do so at the exclusion of the impact humans have on each other.

Does it Work?

You question the efficacy of animal product avoidance. This is certainly an interesting question. You say you don’t use a lot of milk, maybe, maybe not, I know an awful lot of Snickers bars that would disagree with you. But certainly a few hundred dollars a year from the Victorian $5,125 million annual dairy turnover is a vanishingly small amount. However you don’t pay Fonterra or any of the other large producers directly. A supermarket will only go through a few thousand units of milk each day, and so your choice to buy milk becomes a statistically higher figure. Your coffee shop probably goes through less than a dozen cartons of milk a day, so your impact there is even higher again. And while your personal difference may be negligible to Fonterra directly, it makes a difference to your supermarket and to your coffee shop. So Fonterra wouldn’t give a damn if you stopped drinking their milk, individual suppliers care a lot more. If you go to a different coffee shop because one doesn’t have soy, then you are hitting their bottom dollar. Small businesses care about this a lot, which is why almost every coffee shop in our area now does soy, which they would not have done 10 years ago. And while supermarkets turn more coin, and so you individual contribution means less, they still regulate their milk so as not to waste coin. Not only you, but every coffee shop in your area is buying some soy rather than cow milk, and they will stock accordingly. This graduated commercial process with multiple agents at many stages means your choice of product has a far more pull than the $100 in $5000 million seems to indicate. Ultimately, it is still only $100 that you are hitting Fonterra for, but it is $100 that they actually lose, because Coles asks buys less product from them, rather than $100 that gets lost in economic white noise. While I don’t claim it was me doing it all personally, ten-twenty years ago I couldn’t buy mock sausages, tofu or soy yogurt in my Supermarket and there was only one choice (if that) for soy milk. Now I can. This isn’t because people protested, lobbied politicians or kidnapped sheep, but simply because it became profitable for the supermarket to do so. Let’s say the alternative to dairy industry is 1/5000th the size of the dairy industry, and therefore only worth one million turn over in Vic, that is still 1 million dollars they haven’t earned, and 1 millions dollars buys an awful lot of animal abuse.

So I, obviously, believe what you eat makes an difference. I could wax lyrical about this subject, I could talk about the 40 kgs of chicken that each Australian eats a year on average etc etc. But, just for the sake of argument, let’s just say being vegan, as an individual, makes absolutely no difference to the welfare of animals. Even then, if it makes no practical difference, I STILL believe it is immoral not to be a vegan, and to explain why this is the case, I will need to set a metaphorical theatre on fire.


The Burning Theatre

To expand this line of reasoning I will need to look at the significance of morality. Separated as we now are from religiously mandated morality, one has to decide WHY one should be moral, for what benefit it serves. Previously, we were moral because to do otherwise would offend some deity, and usually ultimately end up with some sort of cosmic karmic justice. But we no longer have that crutch to lean upon. Our morality must rely on a logical explanation. For me, it is the burning theatre analogy.

In the theatre on fire, you can run out, or you can walk out. If everyone runs, there is panic, and people are crushed and die, and no one leaves the theatre any faster than at walking pace, but lots more people suffer. If everybody walks out, no one is crushed or dies, and as a group we all exit at the same pace as the all running theatre. But we usually occupy a theatre where some people run, and some people walk. The people who run do get out faster, with a faster exit time they are less likely to burn to death, but at a increased risk for everyone, including themselves else, of being trampled. The people who walk when others run, leave slower, and so have an increased chance of both being trampled and burning to death.

Whist choosing to run is the safest personal option, providing not too many others are likewise selfish, it is not the best collective decision. The best collective decision is to walk. Ergo, the best individual decision is to walk.

Morality, for me, stems from a hedonistic base. I want to be as ‘happy’ and ‘satisfied’ and as free from ‘suffering’ and ‘torment’ as is reasonably possible. The logical best way to overcome the selfish/selfless dilemma is to live in a society where everyone is selfless – they all walk from the burning theatre. This is ultimately best for me, because it is best for everyone. It is fair, the least folks die, and I have a good chance of not dying.

My morality, then, is an extension of the burning theatre metonym. It is pretty simple, rather than asking “how do I benefit from this action”, I ask myself “what would society look like if everyone did this action”. Often, punching someone in the nose would obviously and clearly benefit me. But if everyone felt it was alright to start punching people in the nose to improve their own lifestyle, we suddenly live in an unpleasant society with very rich otolaryngologists. I don’t buy into arguments that give the other person a god given, state decreed or any other arbitrary right NOT to be punched in the nose; I don’t punch them in the nose, ultimately, because I would love to live in a society where no one ever punches anyone else in the nose.  I chose to walk from the theatre. I know that logically, my individual decision not to punch someone at any given time does not impact on most of our violence. Most people in the world don’t know me, don’t care what I think, or haven’t asked me why I am not punching people. My morality doesn’t have to have super powers to change the world; it just has to be a model of personal behaviour that if multiplied by everyone, would have a good result.

That having been said, things change. You pointed out that a tiny rebellious minority of vegans will take a “long, long time” to change the world, and this is of course correct, even assuming they do change anything at all in the long term (although it is worth noting this change is not linear, most social transmogrification hits a tipping point, and things start to move much faster). It is analogous to a small number of people stubbornly refusing to run, whilst the rest of the theatre goers sprint for the door. In the big picture, it probably doesn’t make much difference.

But you cannot convince other people to walk from the theatre unless you walk yourself. There is no point yelling over your shoulder as you bolt for the glowing red exit sign “gee, this would be much safer if we all walked, aye”? The conviction to act against self interest, for the purpose of general betterment, is at the heart of morality.

If everyone was vegan, all the “difficulties” of veganism would vanish overnight. You could shop without fear, eat without hassle, and party without risk of offence. Yes, it is annoying to be a vegan now, no matter how hard the proselytising vegans try to tell me otherwise. But I do it because, ultimately, it is the right thing to do. If we were all vegan, the world would be a better place.

On Slavery and the Small Minority

I wanted to use Nazis again here, and talk about the human soap as a comparison to animal products. Sadly, I wikied it and found out it is mostly an urban myth. Zounds. I guess I’ll have to wash my hands of the Nazis and move on (see what I did there?). Instead, I will return to that old chestnut of the animal rights world, human slavery.

Only a few centuries ago, slavery was endemic. Actually, it still is, in practical terms. But it was much more commonly accepted in the past. We didn’t move from a situation, today, where no nation state has legal slavery, from the times of yore when everyone did, by everyone stopping all at once. It wasn’t like everyone in the theatre all slowing to walk simultaneously. Rather, a few people slowed, and over time convinced everyone else to do likewise. A small rebellious minority slowly grew to become the majority (of slave owners, I am sure the slaves were unconvinced about the slavery from the start).

So the farmer who chose to run a cotton plantation without slaves was acting against self interest. He would be poorer than his associate farmers, his crops would be more expensive and harder to sell, and he would constantly be butting up against the societal expectations of race and class. I am sure such a farmer would have got lots of “you are not better than me because” style unwanted discussions. Ultimately, a handful of slaves made no significant impact on the massive and staggeringly profitable triangular trade. At the end of the day, his individual rebellion probably made no significant difference to the general discourse of slavery government policy. He didn’t try and rescue the slaves from the other farms. And the six slaves he didn’t buy were probably just sold to some dude down the road for slightly less coin due to reduction in demand.  But he dug his heels in anyway, because it was the right thing to do, and lo and behold, over time, other people began to listen. He couldn’t hope to change the world himself, but he could change his own behaviour.

Yes, there were slave rebellions, of all shapes and sizes. Yes, people and organisations lobbied the governments. Yes, people argued in court of the legality of this and that. And yes people sometimes just shot each other to reform attitudes to slavery. But a lot of the impetus for this movement started with people who simply refused to buy slaves. The Quakers, for example, in the US, were way ahead of their time, and opposed US slavery early. They wrote on the topic, sure, but they also didn’t buy or exploit slaves.

One might argue that social change is better or faster with a gun, and that might be strictly speaking true.  But I prefer the Ghandi style non-violence style for a reason. By buying into the ‘force people to change at gunpoint’ methodology, you may win the slavery argument, but in the process you legitimise violence, gun ownership and the forceful imposition of morality against those who do not desire it. I hope my morality will eventually become popular, not because the strongest insist upon it, or the government mandates it, but because its value is self evident, once it is properly explained.

On the Hardness of Veganism

Interestingly, I don’t mind the “difficulties” of being vegan. Because it is the difficult social moments, the friction that it causes with the people who interact with you, and the resulting discussions, that actually do impact the rest of the world. It is the awkward moment in the burning theatre, when your partner grabs your hand, pulls you to your feet and says “let’s leg it”. But you dig in your heels and say, “fire or no, I am walking”. Does it create social dissonance? Sure it does. But the point of that social friction is the one of the best times you can really challenge someone else’s perspectives on morality. It is all very well to sip chardonnay and discuss theatrical exit strategies; it is something else again to risk the fire for the sake of your convictions. Indeed, among certain people I know, there is something of a habit of seeking burning theatres, just to make a point! But I digress. While I find the veganism “difficult” in some ways, it is those times that the rest of the world sees me be moral, at my own expense. And for me, that is the locus of morality and social change.

Soap-boxing is not a successful means of communication in this day and age, if ever it was. I think people are so used to the media and advertising yelling things at them, people now have an understandable wariness of diatribes from strangers or near-strangers. If I want to communicate my ideals, the best way I know is to the people I know, or meet, in the environment around me.

Cash verses food

I  have participated in numerous animal activist rallies, been to duck hunts, participated in social resistance and vandalism of various shapes and sizes. And none of it convinced me for a moment that anyone had their opinion changed, or that the world was a better place (except perhaps for the people participating in the resistance). I would argue the only animal activism I contributed to that made a significant difference to society as a whole was Sea Shepherd, and that is because of the sheer theatrical scope of their activism, which might interest viewers on TV etc. But most animal activism does not achieve this. The occasional report on channel seven about people yelling at vivisectionists, or getting naked and yelling, and stealing animals from a farm are very, very unlikely to change someone’s mind or lifestyle. A brief story from a hostile news purveyor is just not the kind of thing that changes hearts and minds. Conversely, I haven’t kept count, but scores people I have interacted with have gone vego or vegan – obviously I was only one of many factors, but I think social “difficulties” in finding food has made a more significant change to the world than any amount flag waving or animal protecting I have participated in. How many of those people would have changed their consumption habits, when they did, after discourse with me, if I wasn’t a vegan myself? How many would even have discussed it if they hadn’t seen me refusing to eat chocolate? Again, I was never the sole contributor, or even close, but I could not have made my contribution without the starting point of veganism. If you come down to crunching numbers, I believe even the most active animal liberationist is unlikely to save as many animals in person as they are by stopping consumption of animal products. It is hard to save 40kgs of chickens a year (more, since that is only edible meat) by liberating them from farms. When you add in the impact of swaying other people to stop using animal products as well, you would have to be some sort of latter day animal saving ninja to come even close.

That having been said, I do think it is moral to give money to animal liberation organisations, but I do query how effective your contribution might be. If you genuinely don’t have time to hands-on protect animals, I can see it being a good idea, but as an alternative to veganism, it seems a bit… well… token.  It may sound harsh, but to me it smacks of the “I drive an SUV, drink Champaign and eat caviar – I enjoy and participate gleefully in the capitalist system, but I give to Greenpeace and Community Aid Abroad every month, so I am doing my bit for the world, right?” To return to my combusting odium analogy, can you justify paying someone else to walk while you sprint for safety? Or perhaps more accurately, paying people to explain to others why walking helps everyone… while you sprint for the door. It might be legitimate to pay someone else if you don’t have the skills, the time, or the interest in general exit strategy education. But to do so without also having the guts to actually walk yourself is bordering on duplicitous.  I don’t think of you as a ‘traitor’, as you call it, but surely you can see the eyebrow raising irony of giving money to Animal Liberation Victoria, a proportion of which is used to fund people to go to schools and give lectures on the importance of  veganism?

On Harm Minimisation and Degrees of Suffering

You talk about the relative worth of 980 suffering chickens and 1000 less suffering chickens in the eyes of the abolitionist. I don’t really come to the classic animal rights abolitionist party. Sure, I am as much an animal rights abolitionist as I am a slavery abolitionist. There is no final goal except total abolition, but that does not mean I object to harm minimisation as well.

But to return to the slavery comparison, there are issues of liberty, exploitation and murder of other animals that transcend basic living conditions. Would it be nice if fewer slaves were beaten and tortured on the plantation farms? Sure it would. If we got to a stage where all slaves were treated well, would I be content to let the issue rest? Hell no! Slavery is wrong, and suffering and injustice extends well beyond the individual physical torments and indignities inflicted during the cotton planting process. Likewise suffering and injustice to animals extends well beyond the individual physical torment and indignities inflicted during the food manufacturing process. It is the removal of their right to freedom, to the pleasures they miss that they never knew they could have.

If you want to dichotomise animal welfare activism and animal product renunciation (you do acknowledge they are not mutually exclusive), and assess their relative worth, it becomes a really tricky mathematical moral equation. How many suffering chickens = a free chicken, how do you measure suffering over time relative to higher suffering over a shorter time, how much does liberty rate verses physical pain etc etc etc. The debate might be interesting, but it is neither productive nor ultimately helpful to deciding a moral course of action. Instead, I simply ask what would society look like if everyone did what I did. If I am an animal welfare activist, and so everyone becomes an animal welfare activist, then we live in a world where animals suffer less before they are murdered and eaten. This is better than our world, sure, but compare it to a world in which everyone is vegan…

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