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My Vegan Experiment aka My Experiment In Missing The Point Entirely

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Lately, The Guardian is becoming a platform for self-absorbed and outlandish perspectives on veganism. The paper has yet to feature the only coherent and unambiguous case for veganism: that it is a matter of simple fairness and justice we owe to the animals.

In its most recent piece, Decca Aitkenhead, embarks on what she calls “a three-month experiment with veganism.” She is doing this because she was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 months ago (and for which I am sorry and wish her a speedy and full recovery). Her “single biggest worry about becoming a vegan” is her vanity.

Her ”problem with veganism isn’t the diet, but the identity”. It is a must for celebrities, she says, plus “any idiot with a [vegan] cookbook can access the glamour [emphasis mine] of giving up animal products”.

Can you imagine if someone had coupled being either glamorous or an idiot with being clear about not being racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic/classist/ageist and so on? Me either (well, unless one is actually any of those things). Or said “oh I’ve signed up for an experiment in not being racist for three months. There was no reason not to. It’s good for my emotional health, but it is so tough not making fun of [insert race/ethnicity]”. That would be unacceptable.

Instead, when it comes to animals, we accept all manners of shenanigans – from these sorts of articles to meatless Mondays, assorted baby steps, happy exploitation animal products, graphic and sexist street theatre and so forth. And why is that? Because we are clear and unambiguous when we talk about anything concerning justice or fairness in a human context. However, when we talk about non-human animals, we are forever speciesist.

We put ourselves above any other species of animals for no good reason. We believe we are better than them and therefore we can use them for our frivolous purposes – primarily pleasure/taste and convenience. We mistakenly frame the issues with ourselves at the centre instead of the correct focus being on the victims who are on our tableware.

Aitkenhead illustrates speciesism when she worries “about becoming that person who thinks what they put in their mouth is important enough to merit a significant share of their time and energy every day. Who wants to be sourcing vegan mozzarella on holiday, forever scanning labels, making a nuisance of themselves at dinner parties? To me, it has always felt fundamentally precious, if not borderline narcissistic, to care that much about the purity of one’s digestive system.” Where is the narcissist here?

All I see is a focus on perceived inconveniences and misconceptions from the human perspective. She might have to read a label on packaged food, but if she were buying a cauliflower, frozen peas or an apple, I am certain there would be no reading involved. Or – the horror – she might have to forgo vegan mozzarella on holiday. These are clearly insurmountable difficulties that make it ok to exploit and kill animals with abandon. And imagine this, “oh hey thanks for the dinner party invitation. I’m not sexist, but if you guys want to talk smack about women, that’s fine with me, I won’t say anything because I don’t want to be a nuisance!! And I will join in lest you think I’m being pure”. If we took not being sexist seriously, then we would say something and we would manage the situation. It is the same with veganism as the outward manifestation that we are not being speciesist. It has nothing to do with purity or obsessing about food on holiday or otherwise. It has everything to do with not using animals for our pleasure and convenience and taking that seriously.

Not once does Aitkenhead even obliquely allude to the victims of our pleasure. Not once does she spare a thought for the trillions of animals who die each year for no good reason other than they taste good. Perhaps she does not care. After all, where would she have learned what is veganism?

Despite watching all the documentaries online, her health concerns, “carbon emissions from cattle”, graphic “factory-farming photos”, “world famine”, “eye-opening statistics about how many acres of grazing it takes to make a Big Mac, and how many people the same fields could feed if we planted crops instead” she still wonders how she will manage to be vegan. She says “it’s impossible to know if you are doing it right” and asks “[i]s a low-carb paleo diet the answer? Is meat OK as long as it is organic? Will five a day do the job? Or is anything less radical than a strict raw-food regime a waste of time?” Clearly, if she is asking these questions, she has not learned about veganism from anything she has seen or read.

And her vegan friends are no help because they have either contributed to her confusion or are themselves confused. She says “[t]he problem … is that nothing else about going vegan is remotely simple. Was I really going to find time to start shopping in specialist wholefood stores and soaking mung beans? The vegans I knew all promised that after a month I would start to feel so fantastic that the palaver would seem a small price to pay. This may be true, but I worried that faffing about with legumes would defeat me long before the fabled herbivore high kicked in.” What? Herbivore high? Unless one is smoking herb, there is no high. Going vegan is complicated? Palaver? Specialised shops? All colossal nonsense. Stop using animals and you have gone vegan. There are vegetables (fresh and frozen), seeds, grains, beans (in cans – no soaking!), fruit and nuts in every corner shop in London (where Aitkenhead seems to live) and there are supermarkets up and down the United Kingdom to suit every price point. Perhaps this tells us more about Aitkenhead’s friends’ socioeconomic status or shopping preferences than about anything else.

Can we blame any of them for being confused? Not really because the documentaries, animal groups, celebrities and fashionable animal advocates use veganism as their own personal theatre to enhance and draw attention to themselves – just like flagellating monks used to demonstrate their devotion in public during the Middle Ages. None of these channels or platforms focuses on the unglamorous task of simply, clearly and unequivocally educating people, peacefully and in a non-graphic manner. Why? Because this method does not provide sufficient excitement.

None of these channels or platforms ever states the simple premise that being vegan is a matter of fundamental justice; that veganism is the least we can do. We owe being vegan to the animals, just as we owe human animals not to be racist, sexist, ableist, classist, ageist, homophobic and so on. These are not complicated concepts. Yet, the author is completely unaware of them.

“The simplicity of the solution was irresistible,” says our intrepid explorer. She found a vegan delivery service to bring her all her meals and they would even be on call for her should she find herself “outside a kebab shop, having a wobble” because all she would need to do is call them so they could guide her to “vegan options in the vicinity”. There is an app for that. Or is her Google broken?

“[A]t the end of month one,” Aitkenhead finds that “[t]he whole thing has been startlingly easy” until she “was invited to a dinner party”. No kidding it is easy, because it is. And as for the dinner party, perhaps the delivery service plus advice line would be more helpful if it simply educated its customers and gave them advice about navigating social situations. Ultimately, if we – as advocates – do not educate others clearly, unequivocally and unambiguously about veganism as a matter of fundamental justice then we cannot expect the Aitkenheads of the world to understand what is veganism. Tragically, the animals will continue to pay the ultimate price for our failure to do so.

Going vegan is easy and it is the right thing to do.

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  • Benjamin MacEllen

    Great response, Emilia.

    • Emilia Leese

      Thank you!!

  • KC Starr

    Excellent article!

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