Thursday, July 28, 2011

Let Them Eat Meat: An Interview by an Ex-Vegan

Rhys Southan's interview of me on his ex-vegan blog, Let Them Eat Meat, went up this morning. According to Rhys:
If anyone could convince me that I’m wrong about veganism, it’s Adam... [T]he interview is worth reading if you’re curious to see the strongest formulation of vegan beliefs that I’ve seen.
Please check out the interview if you haven't read my posts this summer. (Below I've included some not previously posted excerpts from the interview and several links to challenging articles written by Rhys).

Questions in the interview include:
  1. What do you believe is wrong with the standard consumer veganism that the most mainstream advocates promote?
  2. How would you describe the form of veganism that you advocate?
  3. Most vegan solutions for ending the exploitation and killing of animals (animal liberation) seem to require a human/animal separatism. How would your idea of veganism avoid that?
  4. Why do you refer to animals that aren’t humans as “animal others”?
  5. Is veganism a moral obligation?
  6. Do you think veganism, particularly your take on veganism, fits into Nietzsche’s idea of slave morality?
  7. When you first emailed me, you mentioned an interest in Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, which is a book that was influential on my thinking after I quit veganism... However, you believe Becker’s arguments could work for veganism. How so?
  8. Veganism is an attempt to not cause death — is this not also a denial of death?
  9. Vegans admit that veganism is imperfect, and that we can’t really follow the ethics to where they want to take us — being truly anti-speciesist and not causing animal death and suffering. What is the point of having an ethics that we can’t actually follow?
  10. Why should I accept your vision and make the one life I have to live worse in order to say that I am against speciesism?
  11. Why should people become vegan despite the ineffectiveness of becoming vegan on an individual level?

Most of my answers are abridged versions of pieces I've previously posted in June and July:
I. A Critique of Consumption-Centered Veganism
II. Socially-Centered Veganism vs. Consumption-Centered Veganism
III. Veganism Without Vegetarianism: On Guilt, Disability, and Ex-Vegans
IV. Veganism as Social Somatic Response-Ability
V. The Animal Therefore I am Not: Eating Animals and Terror Management Theory (forthcoming)

What do you believe is wrong with the standard consumer veganism that the most mainstream advocates promote?
There needs to be a shift away from individual consumption to social relations. A politics of alliance that addresses the social structures of oppression in which the degradation of human and animal others are interrelated offers a more promising dialogical medium for vegan advocacy.

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How would you describe the form of veganism that you advocate?

I understand veganism as a social modality, an affiliation and solidarity with others beyond (species) boundaries. Veganism is an affirmation of our curiosity about and especially our care for the lives of nonhuman animals. It is a relationship with nonhuman animals that enables us to interact with them as social beings, not merely biological, cultural, or symbolic objects. In other words, through veganism we relate to nonhuman animals first and foremost as someones and not somethings. Through it, we care for and are curious about who animals are in their particularity not what they can do for us. Veganism as a social relation with nonhuman animals requires that we are receptive of and respect their interests and points of views, even when these interests and views are inconvenient to our own.

Veganism is like a conversation: it requires we care and be willing to listen to others’ “voices.” Like a good conversation, a vegan social modality is incompatible with asserting oneself onto and over others. If their singularity and agency are to be recognized, affirmed, and cared for in conversation, we must act least violently toward them. The predominant (social) relationship to nonhuman animals as resources to exploit requires and facilitates an “emotional deafness” to their interests and perspectives. By killing nonhuman animals, we terminate the very possibility of conversation with them. By exploiting them, we end our care for how they feel in response to our actions as soon as caring becomes inconvenient to economic, biological, and cultural ends. By baring us to the responsibility of our care for animal others, veganism is the practice of interspecies participatory justice, not personal purity (i.e. cruelty-free, body-as-a-temple), moral pragmatism (i.e. “the best choice for our health, the environment, and animals”), or political protest (i.e. economic boycott).

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What is the purpose of cautiously referring to animals in a way that verbally respects their dignity when animals cannot communicate with us verbally?
The short answer to your question is that the usage is a personal preference. From my background in philosophy, “the other” is a concept for that which is never known in its totality, and that which, because it is different, insists that we respond thoughtfully and generously to it lest we do it violence to secure a false sense of certainty.

The longer answer is that I don’t use this term to avoid offending chimpanzees, tuna, and stinkbugs. It’s a rhetorical device for reorienting human understanding of and social relations to animals other than H. sapiens sapiens. Rather than thoughtlessly accepting the dominant discourse on animal others as inconsequential, I deliberately change my rhetoric because I believe it does something: it reveals an alternative understanding of human-animal relations, and this in turn changes how we relate to animal others on a social and ecological level.

Many people talk about “humans” and “animals” as if they were in mutually exclusive categories. Not only is this discursive framing dishonest about what we share in common with animal others, it also orients us to regard humans and animals in opposition and conflict (even in circumstances where none exists), which has real consequences for how we interact with them. If humans are something other than or more than animals, that animals are "just animals," then people feel justified "taking sides" (i.e. your child or your dog). Often this means feeling entitled to subjecting "others" to a magnitude of violence (even for such arbitrary things such as entertainment or food) that would simply be unimaginable if done to "us" humans in absolutely any circumstance.

Alternatively, thinking about animals only by reference to humans (i.e. “nonhuman animals”) may be more honest about our similarity with other creatures, however, it continues to center “the human” and define others as deviating from this center. By reproducing humans as the reference point, we obstruct thinking about animal others on their own terms, independent of their similarities to and differences from humans. Furthermore, simply recognizing that humans are similar to "other animals," that we are evolutionary kin, does not address the homogenization of the diversity of animal existences. The generalization of animal life allows us to regard the singularity of each life as substitutable and can justify violence against actual singular beings for the well-being of an abstraction (i.e. such as Peter Singer's acceptance of slaughtering singular chickens painlessly so long as hypothetical chickens in the future will compensate her death by living equally as happy or Michael Pollan's position that humans and cattle share a mutually beneficial relationship at the level of species/genetics, never mind the very real institutional violence that is experienced by actual singular cows).

Addressing those animals who are (what David Abrams calls) more-than-human as “animal others,” on the contrary, neither assumes an opposition nor a human center (i.e. a human could be an animal other to a pig); animals are referenced in their singularity, not their generality or deviation. By discursively framing "the other" as the subject and "animal" as the adjective, I'm highlighting the historical relationship whereby humans have marginalized animals as others--that this designation is a cultural construction--and that the otherness of animals, their unique differences, ought to be taken into account.

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Is veganism a moral obligation?
On the momentous importance of recognizing and embracing our shared vulnerability, watch Brene Brown’s powerful TED presentation on “The Power of Vulnerability”.

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In a comment discussion you had with Royce Drake, Royce said, “I’m just at a moment where I don’t care much for this this ever-expanding slave morality.” Do you think veganism, particularly your take on veganism, fits into Nietzsche’s idea of slave morality?
No, I don’t think so. My understanding of veganism is not founded on a “morality of good and evil,” not the kind Nietzsche critiques anyway. I’m not appealing to any metaphysical principle or value such as God, the authority of pure Reason, the “good” society or person, or “best” consequences.

I do, however, think that mainstream veganism could be argued to be founded upon a “slave morality,” if by that, you mean the metaphysical values of the Enlightenment (and modern democracy): rationalism, egalitarianism, individualism, universalism, progress, autonomy, non-prejudice, etc. I think Erim Bilgim brilliantly describes (mainstream) veganism:
Veganism presents itself as a rebellious movement, but in reality it doesn’t go against the core values of the system at all. It takes the system’s existing values, enlarges the sphere these values apply to, and then blames society for not consistently abiding by its own rules… Veganism defends these values, in fact wishes to enforce these to an even greater extent on the population, and then it goes and calls itself rebellious… they become model citizens. But then they look around and see that the very society whose values they loyally adopted don’t actually abide by those values themselves
I think his critique is limited to consumer vegans, not radical practitioners of veganism like myself, Hammer, Torres, and many others who are critical of the “civilizing mission” of neoliberalism and globalization. Likewise, I think his astute description of some self-identified vegans using the label and rhetoric of “compassion” to mask their privilege and give them an ego-boosting sense of superiority over others, doesn’t apply to those inhabiting a veganism of care and forgiveness.

I also find his claim that veganism is somehow the next logical step in “civilization” is absurd given the power of global capitalism, the animal industrial complex, the existential investment in human supremacy, and developments in biotechology (i.e. cloning, new feeds, non-sentient animals, in-vitro flesh). As I said, veganism will not prevail until the present social, political, economic, and existential paradigms are overturned.

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Why should people become vegan despite the ineffectiveness of becoming vegan on an individual level?
A project a friend and I are working on now is envisioning institutions where human and animal other well-being can be cultivated simultaneously in what we call “trans-species cooperative living.” Research has shown the therapeutic effect contact with animal others can have on autistic, elderly, and imprisoned people. Imagine a system of restorative justice where criminals cared for domestic animals and learned a valuable skill for after release such as cultivating plants instead of picking up street litter and being locked up in cages like animals. Imagine children playing outside and cultivating the virtue of care as part of the school curriculum. Restoring our relationships with other species is not irrelevant to restoring our relationships and caring for humans. One of the themes in Philip K. Dick’s classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is precisely this point: our empathy, care, and relationship to animals is what makes us “human.”

For the last several months I've been discussing veganism and animal ethics with ex-vegan blogger, Rhys Southan from Let Them Eat Meat. Of all the defenders of omnivory I've encountered, Rhys is the most persuasive. Rather than appealing to some romantic, metaphysical, or humanistic BS as omnivore advocates often do (i.e. Michael Pollan's "Killing contract", Lierre Keith's "circle of life", Academics' "human exceptionalism"), Rhys locates where the logic of arguments for veganism and animal rights deconstruct. Not only does Rhys undermine the supposed ruthless consistency of "vegan logic," he also generously explores the reasoning and narratives behind people becoming ex-vegans and vegans alike. I highly recommend checking out his blog regardless where you stand on these issues as it will be a healthy challenge to your social relationship to animal others.

Rhys' best critiques of veganism and animal rights:

Ex-Vegan Interviews: Why Ex-Vegans Eat More Meat Than They Must, Tasha , Erim Bilgin
Interviews with Vegans:  a Vegan Paleontologist, Joshua Katcher, Jack Norris
Some Vegan Humor: the Insect Eating Movement?, Are Humans Herbivores?, Grey Areas


Quiet Vegan said...

Hi Adam,
I came here from your interview at LTEM. I really appreciate all the thoughtful and creative work you've done in putting together the HEALTH blog, and will be visiting often, although probably not commenting so much.

Rob Wakeman said...

Hi Adam,

This is terrific stuff. I'm very glad to find your blog through Let Them Eat Meat. I look forward to following your work.


Diana said...

Hi Adam,
Great interview and you have given me a lot to think about. I'm also impressed that you know as much as you do about moral and disgust researchers like Dan Fessler. I'll be checking your blog more for sure.

Herbal Remedies said...

Many people mistakenly think my abandonment of veganism was an overnight decision, when in reality it was anything but. I had been feeling very sick and weak for a while, but when I went to the doctor they took blood and told me it was normal. I remember telling myself to ignore my deteriorating physical condition and celebrate the ‘hard proof’ that I was healthy and well. I trumpeted the good news to friends and family and gave all the credit to my ‘healthy vegan diet’