Tag Archives: veganism

Assimilation and commodification

[Image: A baked spaghetti squash, cut open to show the flesh, seeds, and pulp.]

Last night I baked that spaghetti squash (pictured above) that I mentioned buying for the first time this weekend. I tried it plain first, and found it crunchy and a bit bland, so I added a chopped tomato. Ziggy enjoyed his with jarred tomato sauce.

I admit I was hesitant to try this particular squash because I didn’t want to see it as a pasta substitute. I’ve long steered clear of the low-carb and gluten-free trends, always preferring a high-carbohydrate diet and never having a problem digesting gluten myself. My preferred pasta consists entirely of organic durum wheat, which I consider a perfectly healthy choice. But I see squash as even better, both nutritionally and environmentally as there’s no packaging and I can compost the rind, pulp, and seeds (which could also be eaten).

I’m realizing that a lot of what we consider “normal” meals are habits adopted from our parents and friends, dictated by a 40 hour work week, and backed by the constant, insidious push of commercial interests and their government lobbyists. There’s no reason that the morning has to start out with cereal and milk, pancakes and orange juice, or toast and coffee. After a short run this morning I indulged in a delicious mango, and would have had a second if we’d had one (I don’t want to get in the habit of buying expensive tropical fruits). Normally I would have started the day with black tea with sugar and soy milk, then had a second cup with oatmeal, but for now I’m quite satisfied with fruit.

Fruits and vegetables are not much of a priority for advertisers, unless they can package them in a way to maximize profit. Want the nutritional power of kale, but don’t want to take the time to prepare it? Here, eat our dehydrated kale chips! Know you should eat your veggies, but don’t want to? Here, drink our vegetable juice blend! Love fruit, but on the go? Here, eat our convenient fruit and nut bars! Etc.

Every dietary trend that comes along is similarly packaged and commodified. Low-glycemic? Gluten-free? Here, buy these special breads and pastas! Subscribe to this diet plan! Raw? Buy this dehydrator! Buy this cookbook!

Aside from the pressures from advertisers and the challenges of getting through the work or school week, eating differently from everyone else can be a serious social challenge. Peer pressure is very strong. I never would have started drinking if it weren’t for that, as I never liked alcohol; I stopped drinking completely six years ago and haven’t missed it. Children can be teased relentlessly if they eat different foods, and parents are often scolded for supposedly harming their children by withholding animal products from them.

Many ethical vegans counsel activists not to make vegans “look weird” by eating food that’s “too healthy”; they emphasize that vegans can eat pizza, hot dogs, burgers, and junk food just like anyone else. While this is true, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with eating plant-based versions of flesh and dairy products, I don’t like the idea that we have to assimilate in order to spread our message effectively. Animal liberation should sell itself if presented strongly and consistently as a position against violence and speciesism. What the vegan activist presenting the message chooses to eat shouldn’t even be a part of the conversation, unless the listener brings it up.

Another concern is that vegan messaging that emphasizes healthy foods can lead to fat-shaming. This is a valid concern, as I’ve seen a lot of fat-shaming by health-oriented vegans. My position is that besides myself and my partner, no one’s weight is any of my business. While I do value fitness and prefer to stay slim myself, I no longer give anyone advice on weight loss (or gain) unless someone asks me about it directly. Once again, my strategy is to avoid talking about diet when advocating for animal liberation, unless I’m asked specific questions about nutrition.

Ultimately, we all have to craft a diet that works for us within our financial and practical means. I currently have the freedom to eat without worrying about structured meal times, eating on the go, or social pressures. If eating a meal of just bananas or just baked sweet potatoes makes me weird or eccentric, while eating a burger, fries, and milkshake (whether vegan or not) is considered “normal,” so be it.

Healthy hermit

[Image: A Russet potato, a red potato, and a sweet potato.]

For the last week I’ve been eating a diet consisting solely of fruits, vegetables, tubers (potatoes and sweet potatoes), and a small amount of herbs and spices. And loving it. I think sweet potatoes – in particular, the orange-fleshed variety marketed in the USA as “yams” – might just have replaced oatmeal as my favorite food.

I came up with this meal plan myself, for a number of reasons. As I mentioned previously, I wanted to revisit the sugar/salt/oil-free diet that I tried last year, as I’d been slipping into eating more processed, nutrient-deprived foods. I was feeling increasingly sluggish and congested, and gaining weight. I wanted to simplify cooking and shopping. I also wanted to use as little packaging as possible.

My working title for this way of eating is the “Healthy Hermit diet,” because I’ve been quite a hermit lately. Having the freedom to stay home for meals makes it a lot easier to stick to this diet. Though I now feel I should commit to going to farmers markets twice a week to get seasonal organic produce.

Yesterday I went to the Fort Mason Center Farmers Market for the first time in over a year. I’d stopped going there when my volunteer work at the Free Farm Stand conflicted, but I stopped that work some months ago. The stands had a large variety of organic produce. It’s a privilege to live in an area with year-round farmers markets, and to be able to afford organic groceries. I might as well take advantage of it.

I picked up some squashes I’d not tried before: Delicata and spaghetti. I’m looking forward to baking them this week. I wanted a greater variety of starches than just potatoes and sweet potatoes, as much as I love the latter.

It’s sad that a lot of people probably think this diet is extreme. As I posted before, eating large amounts of fresh produce shouldn’t be a luxury. A fast food meal shouldn’t be cheaper than a couple of pounds of organic fruit. And people shouldn’t have to work so hard that they have no time or energy to cook. (Though a lot of my cooking is now done in the oven, with little prep time on my part.)

Whatever anyone’s opinion, my own well-being will be the best test of this diet. Increasing exercise as my energy levels improve will also be crucial to my health. I look forward to a healthier body.

Eating our roots

[Image: A basket of purslane, with a sign reading “Hecka local produce picked from nearby gardens or trees & the Free Farm.”]

I’ve been thinking lately about how terrible our food system is in this country. I’m not just talking about fast food and I’m not just talking about animal agriculture. I’m talking about the price of fresh fruits and vegetables being so expensive that they are seen by many as luxuries, while we simultaneously throw away enormous amounts of unsold produce.

When I did volunteer work in food justice, I saw firsthand how much abundance comes from the Earth. At Alemany Farm in San Francisco, one of my jobs was to harvest purslane (pictured at the top of this post). This hardy, nutritious plant grows everywhere, even in the cracks of sidewalks. It’s considered a “beneficial weed.”

We gave away purslane at the Free Farm Stand, along with lots of unsold produce from farmers markets that would have otherwise gone to waste. Boxes and boxes of perfectly good food.

Eggplants at the Free Farm Stand[Image: A box of purple eggplants.]

While more year-round variety of produce is available here in San Francisco than in many places, the fact is that there is enough abundance to feed everyone directly from the Earth. We can create a society that provides affordable whole foods to everyone if we’re willing to make radical changes.

The word “radical,” by the way, means “going to the root.” I’ve been eating  lots of literal roots myself lately, in the form of sweet potatoes. I’m rediscovering the taste of whole foods, unaltered by sugar, oil, or salt (SOS). I tried going SOS-free for about a month last year for VeganMoFo, and it worked well, so I’m giving it another go, but focusing primarily on fresh fruit and tubers rather than beans and grains.

In order for everyone to have the opportunity to eat healthy foods, we need to create economic and social changes that will replace food deserts with community gardens. This morning, Sistah Vegan Project posted this great video by vegan hip-hop artist DJ CaveM:

This is wonderful. Community gardens are for everyone. Farmers markets shouldn’t be seen as destinations for privileged people. Healthy eating is in our roots.

Pushing and shoving

[Image: Activists holding signs and wearing T-shirts with chickens on them protest at the Golden Gate Meat Company in San Francisco.]

Edit, July 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). My point that it is necessary to openly challenge speciesism remains.

Non-vegans, and even some vegans, often complain that those of us who speak out for the animals are pushing or shoving our opinions down people’s throats. This accusation is levied even against those who simply share information on social media, not just those who attend protests like the one pictured above (a joint UPC/DxE action for International Respect for Chickens Day).*

It’s not surprising that people think this if they see veganism as merely a dietary choice, as it is usually framed. No one likes to be told what to eat. What’s not generally recognized is an animal is a “who,” not a “what;” a person, not a thing. And that person was not given a choice of whether or not to be bred and raised for food for humans to eat.

The opinion that killing and eating animals is normal and natural is so mainstream that most people don’t even acknowledge that it is a belief. The bodies, milk, and eggs of our fellow animals are literally shoved down our throats from infancy. The indoctrination begins in childhood and continues unabated because so few dare to challenge it publicly.

We are surrounded 24/7 by images of the body parts of animals: In advertisements, on social media, at restaurants, and in the homes of our friends and families. We are offered “vegan options” as if veganism is just another dietary choice, like “gluten-free” or “low-carb.” And then we’re told to shut up and stop pushing our opinions, while others smile and laugh and eat body parts all around us.

As horrible as it is to live in a culture that normalizes killing, our fellow animals are the ones that actually suffer for it. Vegans are not an oppressed class. People who call us “selfish” for asking others to stop killing are not respecting that we have an ethical objection to violence. It’s difficult to remain quiet in the face of relentless, unnecessary bloodshed.

Non-vegans who try to give us advice on how to advocate our cause are especially unhelpful. They don’t actually want to help us, they just don’t want their unacknowledged beliefs to be challenged. To paraphrase Vegan Sidekick, I want to reply, “OK, tell me what I should say to convince people to stop killing animals, then I’ll repeat that back to you, and then you’ll go vegan, right?”

It’s really tiring to fight for a cause that is so widely mocked, but I still feel a responsibility to speak out, as an ally to my fellow animals. I don’t care if people think I’m being pushy for calling for an end to the violence. The culture of killing will never change if it is not openly challenged.

* This action, like all of those sponsored by DxE, was peaceful. That hasn’t stopped security guards and customers from pushing, shoving, and kicking nonviolent activists who speak out in their stores and restaurants, as happened at a recent protest.

Culture of killing

[Image: Assorted kitchen knives on a magnetic strip.]

Since getting involved in animal rights activism last year, I’ve become familiar with all of the usual arguments people make for eating animal products. I’ve also become much more aware of the intersecting systems of oppression that make it oversimplified to say that “anyone can go vegan.” I’ve tried to tailor and fine-tune my arguments to reflect my awareness of human oppression while still not compromising my message that animals are people, not property.

But one kind of person that I still don’t know how to reach is a person who says that they eat animal flesh because they enjoy it, and considers palate pleasure alone to be sufficient justification. I’m speaking of people who have no financial or practical impediments to going vegan, and acknowledge that they don’t need to eat animals to be healthy. These people might express concern for animal welfare, but ultimately they see no problem with the act of killing an animal and eating their body simply for the pleasure of it.

And unfortunately, these people are the rule rather than the exception. If anything, they are on the rise thanks to “humane-washing” that convinces people that killing is OK as long as the animal lived a pleasant life and had a quick, painless death (even though that’s almost never the case, including in dairy and egg production). Farmers who claim they love their animals like family members, and then kill and eat them, further contribute to this fantasy world of humane slaughter.

But I’ve come to realize there’s much more to it than this. Fundamentally, our entire civilization is based on domination and killing. As Will Tuttle explored in The World Peace Diet, the advent of herding culture led to the domination not only of animals but of women, people of color, and LGBTQIA people. All oppression is interconnected.

Many would counter that humans have always been killers. This is true. But I don’t believe we have always glorified killing. Deliberate killing for survival was necessary at some point in human history, and may still be in some cultures. But I’m speaking of killing solely for pleasure. We have laws in place to dissuade us from killing other humans, but we indulge in murder fantasies through violent movies, video games, and other pastimes.

I am not suggesting that we ban or censor violent video games or imagery. What troubles me is that we have so much desire for them in the first place. I’ve changed dramatically in that regard myself over the last year. I’ve always had a specific aversion to gun violence, as a person being healthy in one moment and dead from a bullet in the next is utterly terrifying to me. So I never got into first-person shooters or action films, but I did still participate in more subtle forms of violent entertainment.

For many years I played the game Nethack, a single-player dungeon adventure. Although all the violence in this game is conveyed in text form, killing is an integral part of the game. (It is possible to play as a pacifist, but extremely difficult, and normally involves having several pets do the killing for you.) I’ve stopped playing Nethack*, and I’ve stopped watching TV shows that focus on murder and death, including cooking shows. I also stopped taking photos at my partner’s lasertag events. I just can’t get any pleasure out of deadly violence, even in simulated form.

I’m well aware that it is impossible to live without causing the death of sentient beings, which is why I never say “no animal had to die for my meals.”  Even the most strictly observant Jain accidentally kills some insects and other small animals. But that just makes it more imperative for me to avoid killing that is within my control. I can’t just shrug off deliberate, unnecessary killing as an inevitable fact of human civilization.

I have to believe that we humans can evolve beyond this culture of killing. If I believed that large-scale murder and war would always be with us, I simply could not go on. We must break the cycle of violence.

* December 2015 update: When a new version of Nethack came out this month after a twelve-year hiatus, I couldn’t resist checking out the changes. Playing that game again is a guilty pleasure, literally.

Stop ranking oppression

[Image: Section from a panel of a Robot Hugs comic. Words at the top read “No one benefits from being told that their pain is unimportant, or non existant!” Below the words is a scale with a lighter weight reading “Not Harm” and a heavier weight reading “Harm.”]

Today’s Robot Hugs comic in Everyday Feminism is one of the best I’ve seen all year. Please read it now before continuing.

Done? OK. This is what I’ve been dealing with in the year and a half or so that I’ve been involved in animal rights activism. I’ve written here numerous times about the racism, sexism, cissexism, and other human oppression that is either ignored or exacerbated by animal rights activists in the U.S. It’s driving people like me away from activism, and this is not OK.

Often the micro-aggressions faced by activists from oppressed groups (or by those speaking for other oppressed groups) are far more subtle than being told to “shut up.” It frequently takes the form of being told that non-human animals suffer far more than any human. Whether this is true or not, it is still a silencing tactic.

Silencing people who speak up for oppressed humans does not save more animals. It simply strengthens the perception that animal rights activists don’t care about humans. Some activists indeed proudly admit that they don’t care about humans, as they are misanthropists and hate everyone. Many of them deny their own privileges while saying this. Gary Yourofsky comes to mind.

Part of why I have not committed to taking on a more active or formal role with any animal rights group is that I’ve been continually disappointed by the ongoing oppressive language and tactics of other activists. (Coping with depression and fearing the police are my other reasons for being less active.) I do want to be a voice for the animals, and voices are stronger when raised together than alone. But I don’t like being associated with people whose views I find abhorrent, even if they don’t reflect the sentiments of others in the group.

So I will take this opportunity to remind people that while I occasionally participate in animal rights actions and share the writings of various activists, I am independent and speak only for myself. I do not support or condone any views or activities that are oppressive to other humans. I acknowledge my own privileges and mistakes, and ask to be called out if I make statements that are harmful to those in marginalized groups.

This does not mean that I pledge to never say anything that offends anyone. As a queer black trans person, my very existence is offensive to many. I make no apologies for moderating my own spaces as I see fit. Do not confuse calling out oppression with tone policing. I am a pacifist, but I am not passive.

As I’ve written before, a “vegan world” that continues to elevate the voices and needs of able-bodied cishet white men above all others is not a world I want to be a part of. While I will never go back to eating or otherwise exploiting animals – as to me they are people, not property – I will not continue with organized animal rights activism if that means setting aside the concerns of marginalized humans. I am not abandoning the animals, I am abandoning humans with toxic mindsets.

Vegan food

[Image: A pile of fresh fruits and vegetables.]

Today marks the beginning of VeganMoFo, which I participated in last year and in 2012. After giving it some thought, I’ve decided not to join in this year, for the reasons I stated in last year’s concluding post:

I haven’t been as enthused about participating this year because I think my goals, diet, and attitude are too different from those of the organizers and the majority of the participants. The daily round-up posts and giveaways have focused largely on vegan versions of animal-based foods, especially cheeses, and packaged products.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t think there’s anything inherently unethical about eating plant-based substitutes for dairy and flesh, but they are not my focus. Many are expensive, not widely available, and not particularly healthy. And even some “naturally” vegan products, like dark chocolate and palm oil, may be produced in ways that are particularly damaging to farm workers, animals, and the environment.

The idea that “vegan food” is a special class of cuisine contributes to the utterly false notion that plant-based diets are more expensive than those containing animal products. Potatoes and yams are vegan foods. Grains, beans, and lentils are vegan foods. Frozen vegetables are vegan foods. These are inexpensive and can be prepared in quantity, with minimal time commitment.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are, of course, also vegan foods. These can be more expensive and difficult to obtain for some people. This is the main reason I did volunteer work in food justice, growing and distributing fresh produce to the needy. I’ve had to put that work on hold, but I encourage others to explore similar opportunities in their areas, and seek political change to make these foods more accessible.

What about food deserts? What about those who are homeless, have no kitchen access, or work so hard that they have no time to cook? These are legitimate concerns. But they are not going to be solved by funneling more time and money into creating the best-tasting vegan cheese, or vat-grown meat. We should be dismantling the intersecting systems of oppression that create poverty, homelessness, and food deserts in the first place.

As my depression has worsened, I’ve had less energy to devote to cooking, and have been more reliant on prepared foods. So I’m sympathetic to those who value convenience. But I’m not sympathetic to human convenience taking priority over an animal’s life.

Until humans recognize non-human animals as people, not property, veganism will continue to be seen as merely a fad diet for privileged people. And I’m not interested in promoting specialty “vegan foods” for the benefit of humans. Vegans are not an oppressed class. Making healthy plant-based meals more accessible to humans who actually are oppressed is a worthwhile endeavor. But we should never forget that every meal containing flesh, milk, or eggs cost a sentient being their life.

Stripping “for the animals”

There’s a new post going around about a study claiming that sex, in fact, does not sell, and neither does violence. While, if true, this is interesting to know, it doesn’t affect my attitude toward using sexually provocative imagery in animal rights campaigns. I am opposed to using sex appeal to “sell” animal rights or veganism because I find this tactic to be demeaning to human women.

The usual response to this criticism is that a woman has the right to display her body however she wishes. I absolutely agree. I posed fully nude on numerous occasions myself, before my transition, and I have no regrets about doing so. In fact, at this time most of my nude photos are still available online in various places.

What I am asking is for people to recognize power dynamics, as this comic about empowerment versus objectification shows. When PETA features nude and semi-nude people in their campaigns, they are almost invariably thin, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, white or light-skinned cisgender women. Occasionally male and dark-skinned models are also featured, but white women’s bodies are the primary attention-grabbers. Though in this 2009 Craigslist ad they sought to hire a black model – for no pay – to strip completely nude while reading their annual “State of the Undress.” They wanted a black or mixed-race model to “have her ethnicity resemble Barack Obama’s as closely as possible.”

Anyone who doesn’t see a problem with that Craigslist ad seriously needs to check their privileges. In addition to being racist, this solicitation is emblematic of how women are treated in the mainstream animal rights movement. In this male-dominated movement, a woman’s physical appearance is more important than her voice. And it’s no surprise that when vegan messaging constantly touts health and weight loss benefits to humans – as opposed to elevating the voices of the victims – only slim, conventionally-attractive people are desired to promote veganism.

This criticism isn’t about telling women what they can or can’t do. Nor is it an attempt to be “divisive.” I will work with people from various animal rights organizations even if I don’t completely agree with their philosophies or tactics. But I will not ignore, excuse, or condone campaigns that are sexist, racist, or otherwise oppressive, whether or not people think they are effective “for the animals.” Humans are animals too, and my activism is not limited to liberating non-humans. A vegan world that continues to elevate the needs and voices of cishet white males above all other humans is no world I want to be a part of.

Celebrating black vegans

Yesterday, Aph Ko of the black vegan feminist web site Aphro-ism shared a post about reactions to her list of 100 Black Vegans. In a typical display of white fragility, commenters on the Vegan Society Facebook page denounced a list that dared to celebrate blackness as “racist.” They really couldn’t see how a movement that has repeatedly ignored and excluded black people needed a list like this, that was, as Aph Ko put it, “highlighting black people who were doing amazing work.” (In that vein, I’ve added both Aphro-ism and Sistah Vegan Project to my new Links page.)

Veganism is not a “white thing.” Black folks care about animals, the environment, and human health just as much as whites do. The media’s portrayal of black people as violent thugs who live on junk food is racist and ignorant, and contributes to the idea many whites have that blacks just aren’t interested in veganism. This sentiment also ignores the intersections of race and poverty that can make it difficult for many black people to access healthy plant-based food.

Not all of the vegans on Aph Ko’s list are animal rights supporters or activists, and some activists say that going vegan for health reasons is selfish or invalid, as veganism encompasses much more than a plant-based diet. While I advocate for total animal liberation from the perspective that non-human animals are people, not property, I also recognize that many people who initially come to veganism for health reasons go on to recognize the inherent moral worth of animals. So while I don’t normally share stories about health benefits of veganism or news about the latest vegan celebrities – regardless of race – I do not actively oppose others doing so.

Veganism is not just a rejection of violence; it is a celebration of life. And as the Ko sisters posted in another blog entry, we need to celebrate black Life, not solely focus on black deaths. And one way to celebrate black life is to tuck into some delicious vegan soul food. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a vegan soul food restaurant in your city, check out Bryant Terry‘s cookbooks and whip up some of your own!

The lives at stake

[Image: A human and a calf look into each others’ eyes.]

While I normally advocate in terms of anti-speciesism – disrupting the idea that human animals are inherently superior to non-human ones – I recognize that some people will never accept that message. They may accept welfare reform, or “cutting down on meat,” but will not accept the fundamental idea that all sentient beings are persons and should not be held as property.

Here’s the thing. No matter how you feel about non-human animals morally, if animal agriculture continues, we are not going to have a livable planet left.

Animal agriculture is the leading cause of environmental destruction. Animal farming is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all transportation exhaust combined. It also uses a tremendous amount of water, far more than needed for growing plants. But the environmental damage does not come just from intensive, “factory” farming. So-called “free-range” farming also takes a great toll on the ecosystem, and there literally isn’t enough land to convert all animal farming operations to free-range; it’s inherently unsustainable. The documentary film Cowspiracy lays out the facts.

It frustrates me greatly whenever anyone says that in a vegan world, there wouldn’t be enough land to grow crops for everyone, and people would starve. The exact opposite is true. People who say this seem to think that eating animals somehow does not involve growing crops, but most of the animals whose flesh we eat (as well as those raised primarily for their milk and eggs before they, too, are killed) are fed crops that were grown especially for them. Unless you are a hunter or fisher and eat only the animals you’ve killed yourself, you are almost certainly eating plant crops secondhand when you eat animal products.

Whenever you hear from “official” sources that veganism is bad for the planet or for human health, my advice is to follow the money. Capitalism provides enormous incentives for animal agriculture to continue, and not only in the USA. Hundreds of environmental activists in Brazil have been murdered for speaking out against the destruction of the rainforest by ranchers. And in the USA, environmental contamination from animal farming disproportionately affects low-income communities and people of color.

The idea that we can just “cut down on meat” to reverse this damage is too little and much too late. Would you be satisfied with a single ounce of flesh, milk, or eggs each week? The answer is not to cut down, but to cut it out entirely.

It’s far easier and less risky to tell people to take shorter showers  than to stop eating animal flesh, milk, and eggs, but this advice buries the truth. This cover-up is going to kill us all if it doesn’t stop. The lives of everyone on Earth are at stake. If you care about the future of this planet, please learn the facts and stop the killing.