Thursday, July 08, 2010

Carnism and Lacto-Ovism Part I

What follows here is an exchange between Sherry Colb and Melanie Joy, inspired by Professor Joy’s book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows:  An Introduction to Carnism.

The first two exchanges will appear today.  The second two will appear on Monday.


From SC to MJ:

In Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows:  An Introduction to Carnism, I think you have very insightfully and accessibly elaborated a phenomenon at work in people who consume animal products.  They distance themselves from the creation of those products in just the ways that you describe, and they rest on a societal institutional framework erected to cope with any errant anxiety (both moral and health-related) very much as you suggest.  So here's the question:  Do you think that lacto-ovo vegetarianism functions with respect to eggs and dairy products much in the way that carnism functions with respect to flesh? 

Like vegetarianism in an "omni" world, veganism is the minority within the vegetarian world, and some of the same defense mechanisms you identify appear to be at work in lacto-ovo consumers' behavior.  Many omnivores defend themselves by noting that they buy "free range" chicken or "grass-fed" beef or other similarly and deceptively labeled products, when available, just as many lacto-ovo vegetarians say that although they eat eggs and milk, they try to buy "organic," "cage free", or "humanely raised" or they have their own backyard chicken coop (supplied, of course, from the same hatcheries that grind up all of the males at one day old, as you explain in the book).  There is also an interesting disgust dichotemization that happens for these other animal products.  An example that occurs to me is that people think of "edible animals" as providing delicious milk -- cow's milk, goat's milk, etc., while they think of inedible animals as providing disgusting milk, e.g., people find the notion of human breast milk cheese repulsive – see this amusing story -- and most people would not want to drink dog or rat milk.

You debunk some of the fictions surrounding dairy and egg production in the book and show how much horrible suffering and death produce these seemingly innocuous products.  But since most of your focus is on flesh (including that of fish, an often-neglected group of sentient beings), I'm curious about whether you'd apply the carnism label to the ideology of lacto-ovo vegetarianism as well?

I look forward to your response, and I want to thank you again for engaging in this exchange.  I think it will be very useful for my students (and I'm trying, to some extent, to channel some of what their inquiries might have been in person).


From MJ to SC:

Do you think that lacto-ovo vegetarianism functions with respect to eggs and dairy products much in the way that carnism functions with respect to flesh?  veganism is the minority within the vegetarian world, and some of the same defense mechanisms you identify appear to be at work in lacto-ovo consumers' behavior.  many lacto-ovo vegetarians say that although they eat eggs and milk, they try to buy "organic," "cage free", or "humanely raised" or they have their own backyard chicken coop (supplied, of course, from the same hatcheries that grind up all of the males at one day old, as you explain in the book). 

Yes, I think that lacto-ovo vegetarians use the same defense mechanisms, but (in terms of these products from "edible" animals) it's a matter of degree. And I believe they use these defense mechanisms only if they actually know that the products were procured with the use of cruelty, making the product morally offensive. Because it's possible to procure eggs and dairy without causing harm to the animal, they're inherently less offensive than flesh. For example, for many years after becoming vegetarian, I continued to consume dairy products. Why? Initially, because I didn't know the process by which dairy was produced. Once I found out, and continued eating cheese (I quit milk right away), I'd push the awareness of animal suffering out of my mind. This went on until I felt too guilty to continue eating dairy, until my awareness (mental and emotional) outweighed my "addiction" to, or desire to consume, cheese products. One issue that suggests carnistic numbing is a matter of degree here is that even for vegans, ovo-lacto products are often, though not always, less disgusting than flesh. Many vegans will, for instance, pick off pieces of cheese or egg from a salad and still eat the salad, while they wouldn't be able to do the same with flesh products.

Another way we can understand carnistic defenses when it comes to ovo-lacto vegetarians is that, just as carnists maintain their carnism in part because it's threatening to stop eating animals, and requires an identity shift, some vegetarians maintain their vegetarianism for the same reasons. Being vegan has a very different connotation than being vegetarian; veganism is seen as inherently political and radical. It's also much more of a challenge for many people on a practical level.

You make an excellent, brilliant point about how "There is also an interesting disgust dichotemization that happens for these other animal products.  An example that occurs to me is that people think of "edible animals" as providing delicious milk -- cow's milk, goat's milk, etc., while they think of inedible animals as providing disgusting milk, e.g., people find the notion of human breast milk cheese repulsive." This certainly suggests that, yes, some of the same carnistic defenses are very likely at work.

As to whether I'd apply the carnism label to the ideology of lacto-ovo vegetarianism as well...."carn" means flesh or body. I've used this term to refer to those who eat flesh, so-called meat eaters. However, one could argue that it could apply to anyone who eats products "of the body." I choose not to use it to refer to the latter, though, because I believe that vegetarians often have a very different psychological relationship with animals and the food they eat than do carnists. I think extending the term could be counterproductive and not fully accurate. I prefer to see vegansim and carnism on a continuum, with most of us falling somewhere in between those two poles. Furthermore, we all experience cognitive moral dissonance in our lives, and the issue is not whether we have this dissonance, but how we relate to it: do we authentically reflect on our choices? Are we committed to our own integrity? I think many vegetarians have taken this step (as have some carnists, to be fair), which is why they relate to food in a fundamentally different way than do those who have not.

Take care, Melanie

From SC to MJ:

Hi Melanie.  Thank you so much for taking the time to think about and answer my question about lacto-ovo vegetarianism.  Thanks also for your kind words about my observations on animal milk and disgust.  I find your thoughts about the issue insightful and helpful, and I hope we can continue the dialogue.

I want to acknowledge some of the important points you make.  First, you are right to observe that vegans generally find the prospect of eating flesh more disgusting than the prospect of eating dairy and egg products, though this reaction does vary from person to person.  Second, lacto-ovo vegetarians do, as a general matter, seem to have a heightened consciousness about their relationship to animals, as you suggest.  And third, many people (including some lacto-ovo vegetarians) are unaware of the suffering and death that goes into the production of dairy and egg products.

I want to propose, though, that the moral implications of these three good observations do not necessarily support your conclusion that there is an appropriate moral continuum between carnism and veganism and that most people fall between the two poles of that continuum.

On the question of disgust, I want to share my own experience with you.  I was raised as an Orthodox Jew (although I am now mostly secular), so my sense of a connection between morality and the consumption of animal products began very young.  I learned, growing up, that it was wrong for Jewish people to eat the flesh of mammals who do not chew their cud and have split hooves (so pigs, horses, camels, and donkeys are not Kosher), and that it was also wrong to eat some birds (e.g. vultures, eagles) and some fishes (those without fins and scales).  It was also wrong, as I learned it, to consume dairy products in close proximity to mammal or bird flesh products (e.g. together or, if the flesh was eaten first, within 6 hours of each other).  As a result, I found (and continue to find) the following flesh “foods” some of the most revolting to contemplate:  pig flesh of any kind, horse flesh, cheeseburgers, lobsters, and shrimp).

Though I have this disgust reaction, I do not believe – just as you do not believe – that there is anything inherently worse, as a moral matter, in killing and consuming a pig or a vulture than there is in killing and consuming a cow or a chicken.  Our morally driven disgust reactions can be trained, as you explain quite well in elaborating the difference between eating cows and eating dogs, and that training may induce the perception of a moral continuum that has little to do with the suffering and death that makes the consumption of animal products a moral question that should concern us all, regardless of religious orientation.

One of the things I like so much about your book is that you very bluntly explain to American readers that our own moral continuum – by which we consider the consumption of a dog horrible and the consumption of a cow perfectly acceptable – is arbitrary, rather than rational, and forms part of a system by which we comfort ourselves even as we violate our own moral intuitions about refraining from inflicting suffering and death on sentient creatures.  In other words, you urge us to examine our moral disgust reactions critically and to realize that these reactions should lead us to reject much more than we presently do.  You encourage us not to accept our own developed continuum as sensible but instead to evaluate it and realize its arbitrariness.

My question about lacto-ovo vegetarianism is meant to do the same.  The fact that many vegans find flesh more disgusting than dairy and eggs probably reflects a similar phenomenon to my own finding pig flesh more disgusting than cow flesh (though I would not willingly eat any of the above).  Most vegans were first lacto-ovo vegetarians, just as I was first an observant Jew, and as a result, our “disgust” reactions are more developed with respect to the products we have believed wrong for the longest time.  I suspect, for the same reason, that most vegans would find the physical prospect of consuming dog flesh more nauseating than the physical prospect of consuming cow or pig flesh, despite the fact that as you suggest, there really is not any well-grounded moral reason to distinguish between them.

If we consider the consumption of cows’ (and other animals’) breast milk, cheese, and butter and the eggs that chickens and other birds produce, the same can be said.  The reality (not just in concentrated animal feeding operations but in all farming, large and small) is that dairy and eggs are produced through the infliction of terrible suffering and death.  Once we realize this (a fact that many people do not realize), the decision to continue consuming these products becomes quite similar to the ordinary omnivore’s decision to continue consuming what he does. 

Everyone balks at the idea of eating some animal products, as you demonstrate – most Americans, for example, would be horrified and disgusted to learn that they had eaten a dog – but that horror does not thereby place the different animal products in different moral places along a continuum; it simply means that our “carnist” or “lacto-ovist” ideology has distorted reality for us, as you so ably explain with respect to flesh.  The distinction between dairy and egg versus flesh consumption therefore seems, from a moral point of view, to have as little to recommend it as the distinction between dogs and cows, disgust reactions notwithstanding.

You say that dairy and eggs are not inherently cruel, but I want to challenge that suggestion, because I think it is not accurate or, at least, that it is no more accurate than the suggestion that flesh is not inherently cruel.

As you propose, the consumption of flesh generally requires death.  In theory, however, one could wait until a live animal died and then consume that animal’s flesh.  I understand that the flesh might not be healthy or tasty, but this is – in theory, at least – an option.  Similarly, it is in theory conceivable to have a chicken who lays eggs and lives a happy life until her natural death, while the eggs are collected and eaten by the humans who care for her, without harming her.  And there could be a cow who becomes pregnant naturally (rather than on the “rape rack” that is used to inseminate cows repeatedly), and the humans caring for the cow could allow her to nurture and nurse her babies and simply release the extra milk for their own consumption.

None of the above, however, has ever been the model for animal farming, though today’s farms (including “organic” and “free range”) are even further from that model than what existed prior to the second World War.  Animals are slaughtered to make flesh products; they are not eaten by humans after dying a natural death.  There is not sufficient demand for “natural death” flesh to make such an operation viable.  Dairy cows, similarly, have (and have always had) their male babies (and a good number of their female babies) sold away for eventual slaughter, because no farmer could afford to take care of baby and adolescent animals who do not economically justify their presence on the farm. 

And finally, the chickens who exist today on farms are genetically programmed to produce a quantity of eggs (and the calcium that the shells extract) that will, as one former rancher described it, result – by the time they reach the age of 2 – in bones the texture of potato chips.  This is why animal sanctuaries feed the eggs, including the shells, back to their hens.  Hens desperately need their eggs if they are to avoid the excruciating suffering entailed in extreme osteoporosis.  And the male chickens (roosters) who are not used to supply sperm for inseminating hens (and their numbers are – by virtue of simple reproductive statistics – far greater than their reproductive utility to farmers) will also be slaughtered, because they do not, while alive, contribute to the economic life of the farm.

So inherent suffering does not distinguish flesh from dairy and eggs, because one can imagine both flesh products and dairy and egg products that come to be human food without entailing suffering.  But such imaginings have nothing to do with any of the farming for profit that occurs in the real world.  Such imaginings, in other words, are carnist/lacto-ovist fantasies.

On the political question, the notion that most people fall in between carnism and veganism is actually not quite accurate.  A minority of the human population is a vegetarian of any stripe, so most people fall into the “carnist” category that you articulate, while four smaller numbers fall into the minority categories of “lacto-ovo vegetarians,” “lacto vegetarians,” “ovo vegetarians,” and vegans.  It is true that there is a large lacto-ovo vegetarian community that views itself as animal-compassionate, but it is equally true that there are many of what you describe as “carnists” who identify as animal lovers and fight against the fur industry or the slaughter of horses. 

If the goal of consciousness-raising is to point out distinctions without a difference, so people can move toward a truly compassionate diet and life, I am not sure we do the public a service by suggesting that the hierarchy of flesh/dairy and eggs has much to offer, anymore than we do the public a service by telling it that eating cows is as different from eating dogs as the public currently believes it to be.

On one other point, I would agree with your response to my question.  People who are currently lacto-ovo vegetarian have likely developed a heightened sense of concern for the suffering of nonhuman animals relative to the “carnist” population.  From my perspective, though, that presents a wonderful opportunity for education.  Just as a carnist who said to you, “I have no problem with eating any nonhuman animal, whether dog, whale, or chimpanzee” would be a more difficult target for your intervention than a carnist who was horrified by the prospect of eating a dog, so then an omnivore might represent a more challenging target for vegan intervention than a lacto-ovo vegetarian would. 

This just means, however, that some people will be more receptive to the vegan message than others; it does not mean that it is counterproductive to explain to people why the egg&dairy/flesh distinction is no more tenable than the dog flesh/pig flesh distinction.  I have actually found in my own experience that many people who eat all manner of animal products, once they learn about animal agriculture, are likely to see the flesh/egg and dairy distinction as unpersuasive.  As a political matter, moreover, so many people who become lacto-ovo vegetarians simply increase their consumption of dairy and eggs (as I, for example did when I became one) that the net suffering that results from the switch may actually represent an increase.

In short, there is not really a foundation for considering lacto-ovo vegetarianism morally superior to omnivorism.  It would be more accurate to say that eating fewer animal products (of any sort) is morally superior to eating more animal products.  But I think being a vegan is easiest of all, once a person actually does it (rather than simply contemplates it and imagines an inaccurate state of deprivation). 

Being a vegan is not impractical or difficult.  It is a healthier, more varied, and more satisfying way to eat, and it does not represent a sacrifice.  I found, as many of my vegan friends have, that the “lacto-ovo vegetarian” phase of our journey felt like a sacrifice while being a vegan has not, perhaps because cow and chicken animal proteins tend to inspire cravings for more cow and chicken animal proteins, whether they take the form of dairy, eggs, or flesh or maybe because lacto-ovo vegetarianism never felt morally coherent, once we knew the realities of eggs and dairy. 

Perhaps paradoxically, I find it much easier to be a vegan than I ever did to be a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and I suspect that many people who make the transition without the “vegetarian” stage at all would feel this way too (as one of my friends who read The China Study did).  I would encourage everyone to set his or her sights higher.  People are ready to hear an accurate story about animal agriculture, and there is no reason to limit that story to one about flesh.

From MJ to SC:

Hi Sherry,

I'm rushing off to class and just now got your email. THanks for all your thoughts! I will respond more fully when I have time, but before your class today I did want to mention a couple of quick things:

I do see veganism and carnism on a continuum; when we consider that the labels are subjective I think this becomes more clear. For instance there are vegans who don't eat soy cheese if it contains caesin, or wear cosmetics that have been tested on animals, etc. But because animal products are so ubiquitous it's essentially impossible to be a true or pure vegan, so most of us fall somewhere on that continuum, even those of us who aren't carnist or ovo-lacto vegetarians. Consider so-called pescetarians, or flexetarians. These are much different than, say, someone who eats all kinds of animal products, every day, multiple times a day. I think it's a degree of numbing we're referring to, and that the issue is less black-and-white than carnist/vegan....

I agree that dairy and eggs cause tremendous suffering. But it is, in fact, possible to -- for instance -- harvest eggs without causing overt suffering. And this is why I believe that it's much easier for ovo-lacto vegetarians to cling to, as you put it, the fantasy of the happy-to-be-eaten animal product.

Okay, gotta run. More later. Best, Melanie


Peggy said...

In reference to Sherry's comments that "Being a vegan is not impractical or difficult," and "I find it much easier to be a vegan than I ever did to be a lacto-ovo vegetarian," I would be interested in more discourse on that.

When one is not always in a position to prepare all their own meals, or always take lunch to work, or when socialization is with folks of mixed food morality, how can I make this practical and easy ?

I live in a city that recognizes, but does not embrace vegetarianism or vegan-ism, and I find that eating-on-the-run or even eating out at restaurants, or attending any sort of social occasion, is a challenge. The options are certainly limited. Sometimes it boils down to salad and french fries. I've eaten more veggie burgers at Burger King that I can stand, although I applaud them for offering them, as no other fast food place here has that option.

I aspire to being a full-time vegan, but other than eating at home, packing my own food all the time, and/or eating strictly at sit-down restaurants with a decent menu, I want to know how it is easiest - and practical. I have not looked for resources on practical vegan-ism, but am open to that. This perhaps is an educational opportunity !
Peggy Dollard

Michael C. Dorf said...


I think Sherry meant that being began is neither impractical nor difficult if one has access to a good market with fresh foods. You're right that the situations you describe can be awkward but I've found that a bit of polite directness with a server or, better yet, calling in advance, can get restaurants to accommodate. The same is true of workplaces. Now, admittedly, all of my experience as a vegan has been living in NYC and Ithaca, and I've found fewer options when traveling. But I actually think that most people who think it would be difficult becoming vegan think it would be difficult because they would miss the foods they used to eat. I agree with Sherry that this isn't true at all. Here's a link with some suggestions:

Paul Scott said...

As a vegan that travels frequently to Europe for work (Switzerland is about the most vegan unfriendly place in the world - largely because they don't even understand that when you say "no animal products at all" that could possibly apply to the butter on the bread or even the bacon and mayonnaise on your salad), I understand well the exact challenges you are facing. Let me make a few suggestions:

1. The first, most important, thing you can do to make veganism easier is to make the choice to be vegan, rather than simply exploring it. If you decide today that you will be a vegan for a month, no matter what, I promise you, even with your lifestyle demands, it will become easy after a week or two. There is a lot more variety - even at most omni-establishments - than non-vegans are aware. Making the choice and sticking to it (even if it means not eating at times) is the best, fastest way to discover those options for your local.

2. Some "fast(ish)-food" options, that many are not aware of:
a. Pizza without cheese. *Most* breads, including pizza dough, are vegan. Just ask if there is egg or butter used in its preparation. For "fast food" pizza joints, this is easy - because they get their dough in a package with ingredients. For "local" establishments, it is generally equally easy. If the establishment can't answer the question, just don't eat there.

b. Sandwich places. See above, re: bread.

c. Chipotle (and likely other tex/mex fast food places). Most Mexican food has only one risk that is not easily identified - lard. Outside of some areas of Los Angeles, however, this is a non-issue. Just ask them. In Chipotle's case, the "vegetarian burrito" is vegan if you avoid the sour cream and cheese.

d. Bagels. See, a., above re:breads. Just avoid the few that are made with eggs - usually clearly labeled as "egg bagels" and the obvious ones with cheese. Don't use, or bring your own vegan version, cream cheese.

3. Pasta. Contrary to the other "breads" - pasta at restaurants generally contains egg. Pasta in the grocery store is more variable, but the easiest thing to do is just ask. If they have a "whole wheat" or spinach pasta (both of these are not common, but not rare) or a "rice" pasta (never seen it outside of grocery store) it is very likely to be vegan (never seem any of these three pasta types made non-vegan).

4. Social occasions - if this means restaurants with friends/co-workers, then simply cope with salads, etc., for a while until the choice you made from #1 above generates your "local vegan knowledge base" of places to go. Then you'll be able to make suggestions and your friends will also simply start factoring your needs in. This will happen naturally from your choice #1 above (unless, of course, you happen to live in Switzerland ;) ). I promise it will be much easier than it must currently seem.

5. Lastly, but really only you know the extent to which this is true, try cooking at home more often. I am biased here, because even in my former omnivore life I loved to cook, so transitioning that cooking to first exclude meats and then exclude all animal products was, for me, simply an additional "fun" element of the transition as I learned new techniques. What I can assure you is that the day-to-day of cooking for yourself is a very small effort. What is a large effort is learning to cook in the first place. So really only you know how realistic this option is. But, if you already cook, I'd just recommend making a choice to extend that cooking (and making it vegan). It is very likely to be less of a challenge than you are presently thinking once you get into the habit. I personally think that cooking for yourself - whether vegan or omnivore - is a good choice that leads to better tasting and better for you food. But, unlike choice #1, I think this is far more variable in results. I just add it as "food" for thought.

Paul Scott said...

Milk (and therefor cheese) is so impractical as to be effectively impossible to produce without vast cruelty. You simply run into a control issue, as currently the number of calves required to stimulate the production of milk is absurdly disproportionate to the quantity of milk procured. Biology ensures this will not change (outside of genetically engineering cows to produce milk without being impregnated - but then that is like a cruelty on its own).

Eggs are more reasonable. I know a friend of my wife maintains a "stock" of rescue hens and roosters. As on sanctuaries, most of the eggs are fed back to the hens. He does harvest a portion of them for his family to consume. He is an omnivore, so this is not entirely an ethical choice (though it is in part). I personally find eggs disgusting now, but I would concede that his "production" of eggs is not, itself, cruel. To the contrary, he is actually providing a nice life for a dozen+ hens and a couple roosters that would otherwise have had a short and cruel life. This practicality, however, is not economically reasonable for commercial egg production and further is possible and practical for a family only because 1. that family has the room on their property to provide a good life for these chickens and 2. was made possible in the first place because of the genetic engineering of hens producing far, far too many eggs. An early step in ending the egg cruelty is the sterilization of these genetic lines and allowing them to live out their lives without reproducing, ultimately bringing the "stock" of chickens back to their natural state. Thus, even the theory of cruelty-free eggs relies on ignoring and not correcting the "sins" of the commercial egg industry that is based on vast cruelty.

beachwoodflea said...

Thank you so much for posting this exchange.

Paul you make excellent suggestions for Peggy.

Peggy, I am not sure where you live... I know in my time in the southern states and mid-west (especially Wisconsin) being a vegan has proven to be nearly impossible. You can only make so many preparations when out-and-about and sometimes you are faced with eating yet another bland salad, or grilled veggies (which are usually grilled on the same grill as meat :( ) ... we each have our own internal discourse at that time, and what works for you is all you need to weigh.

To Professor Dorf's point, in major cities it is much easier. I currently live in Los Angeles and I have never had an easier time with my diet.

Blogger said...

Being a vegan is definitely inconvenient. I once was one, and now I'm just a lacto-ovo vegetarian.

I've never had a problem being a vegetarian, until, surprisingly, I came to NYC to work at a law firm. Most of the nice restaurants in midtown where my firm is have very poor options for a vegetarians, and it's uncomfortable socially. I am really sick of talking about it, especially with attorneys who are evaluating how well I "fit in."

Pasta primavera and gross cheesy dishes are getting old, and I'm almost inclined to want to believe Sherry's position that it's no worse to be a carnivore than a lacto-ovo vegetarian so that I could justify eating steak with all the bros at my firm.

While I do believe that being a vegan is morally superior to being a vegetarian, I disagree that being a vegetarian is no better than an omnivore. Sherry has written extensively on this before, but I think she's wrong for reasons I won't enumerate here -- but basically I do think that one reduces the amount of harm one inflicts by eliminating meat, which usually means replacing at least some of it with vegetable matter.

beachwoodflea said...

bullfighter: I think you are oversimplifying one issue and perverting another. If you do not find inflicting unnecessary death and suffering on any being which is not human to be a moral issue, that is certainly a position you are entitled to. I feel it is devoid of reality or any real reflection, but it is a totally subjective position, so I will take you at your word.
The concept of speciesism (in the dog hypothetical) is a very true thing. Your position that people, or at least you, would be upset by it out of presumption it was someone's pet (therefor inflicting pain on another human) is boggling. I believe if you told the average person they had just eaten a stray golden retriever, their horror (which I don't think is too great of an assumption) would be present and logical. Golden Retriever dogs (and other domesticated animals) are not viewed with the same value as animals which are referred to as "agricultural animals". It is an inconsistency... to your point, there is no difference between eating a dog or pig.

Blogger: While I have never felt the social pressure you speak of, I do 100% agree that the position that ovo-lacto vegetarians or any vegetarians for that matter are as bad as carnists is a counterproductive and dangerous position. Not just for the animals we hope to protect, but for people who are not fully committed to being a vegan.
I firmly believe that any minimization of the pain and suffering on animals is to be applauded. I have been a vegan for more than half my life, but have no feeling of "moral superiority" or contempt for anyone who chooses different.
All or nothing positions have and continue to stagnate the movement. I feel anyone who imposes such a position, no matter how well thought or justified, is not looking at the bigger position of social change.

Michael C. Dorf said...


Just one response to your position that "all or nothing positions have and continue to stagnate the movement." If you go back and read the earlier back-and-forth on this blog, you'll see that Sherry's position was foursquare in favor of incremental change, where it really is change. The discussion was about whether various measures--such as welfare legislation or becoming vegetarian not as a step to further reducing participation in the harming and killing animals, but as an end in itself--in fact make incremental change or enough incremental change relative to other measures. Beyond that, there is in many of these discussions a misframing of the question. People sometimes ask whether we shouldn't be grateful for what people do "for" animals by reducing or shifting the nature of the animal products they consume. I don't see it that way. When I became a vegetarian, and then a vegan, I did nothing "for" animals. I simply shifted, and then greatly reduced, what I was participating in doing "to" them. (I say "reduced" because even a very strict vegan cannot entirely avoid participating in activities that harm free-living animals, through the modern economy's environmental impacts on habitat and climate.) The point of these comparisons is not to judge anyone--for a long time I was doing terrible things, even after I knew I shouldn't--but to express a heartfelt view for those interested in listening on what they might want to do too.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Dear Peggy:

Thanks for your question and for being so open to hearing about our various vegan experiences.

First, I did mean what Michael thought I meant -- that it is easy to be a vegan in the sense that I never missed the animal-based foods that I used to eat once I became a vegan. I agree with you that it can be quite frustrating at times to obtain the delicious, satisfying vegan food that you want when you are on the road, and restaurants so often pollute their foods with parts or secretions from animals (believing, mistakenly, that these things enhance the experience of eating).

Michael and Paul offer great advice, to which I don’t have much to add, but I will say that sometimes, when I’m somewhere unfamiliar, I like to go to a supermarket (or natural foods market, if there is one) and buy some apples, bananas, and nut butter (my favorite these days is almond butter, but peanut butter and cashew butter, etc. work well too), and just cut op the apple and bananas, spread the nut butter on them and eat them that way. It’s simple and not very fancy, but it’s sweet and tasty, and it fills you up (not to mention it’s healthy!). You can also usually find a container of hummus in many markets, and that goes well with some carrots (the “baby carrots” have already been peeled and cut).

These are basic, and learning to cook/to cook vegan will go a long way to increasing the flavor and texture variety of your meals, but if you’re stuck in nowheresville (or you just don’t feel like preparing something that’ll take any time), these are both meals that satisfy, that are tasty, and that will not fill your body with the sort of processed garbage that most Americans (including me, not that many years ago) have come to think of as “food.” Please don’t fall into the trap of becoming a “coke/diet cola and potato chips vegan” -- you are just asking for health problems if you do that. These foods have no fiber, no vitamins, no protein, no complex carbohydrates, no healthy fats, and tons of sodium and saturated fat. They are worse-than-empty calories. That’s how college students eat (if not vegan, they just add a lot of animal-based garbage to the potato chips and diet cola) when they don’t know what they’re doing to their bodies and organ systems (e.g., me in college).

Calling restaurants ahead of time is a great way to avoid having prolonged, annoying, and frustrating conversations at the restaurant. What I usually say is: 1. Do you offer vegan options? 2. (if the person says “yes”), I say, “so there are things you can prepare without any milk, butter, cheese, eggs, meat, chicken, or fish?” 3. If yes, “So what sorts of things can you prepare for me?” (that way, I can say when I get there, that I’d like the “….”, the vegan option that Lisa/Marcus/Barry/whatever -- do get a name -- told me about when I called earlier. You’d be surprised how often the food you get ends up being a lot better than what’s on the menu!

In these situations, I generally use the commonly utilized (though quite euphemistic) words “beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, milk, cheese, eggs, etc.” rather than the more accurate “secretions from a cow or sheep or goat who was impregnated so she would make milk and whose newborn baby was then stolen from her and slaughtered so that the mother’s milk could be taken for humans, the only mammal to consume another’s mammal’s lacteal secretions), and “eggs laid by a hen whose brothers were all crushed or suffocated to death within a day of hatching out of their shells and who will herself be cruelly killed when she stops producing “enough” eggs, along with the gentle, loving, and emotional cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and other animals who are cruelly slaughtered, usually as babies, so that people can consume their muscle tissue.”

Sherry F. Colb said...

On the issues raised by blogger, I want to say that I very much appreciate the frustration of dining with a group of people with whom one wants to “fit in” well and finding the group hostile and resistant to the notion that refusing flesh, dairy, or eggs is even an option, much less a desirable option. The common practice of consuming the products of violence makes it very salient when someone in the group opts out, and the easiest way to deal with the discomfort that emerges in these situations is to marginalize, cross-examine, or otherwise give the person a hard time.

Interestingly, if you just said “I keep Kosher, so I can’t eat any animal products in a restaurant that isn’t certified Kosher,” people would likely have no problem with you, because your actions do not implicate their own behavior in any way. But most people feel deep down that it is wrong to hurt animals unnecessarily, and the decision to reject food that they eat (whether steak or cheese sauce or whatever) puts the lie to the idea that their participation in harming animals is “necessary.” I would urge blogger not to feel demoralized, even though it is difficult in these situations, and to look at people’s questions as an opportunity to educate them. Unlike many lacto-ovo vegetarians, moreover, blogger is very familiar with the reality that all animal agriculture is violent (including dairy and egg agriculture), so blogger can be an informational resource for people.

Fitting in with peers is a strong, natural impulse in all normal humans (and other group-based animals), and food can be a central part of bonding. But sometimes, just saying “I eat this way because I don’t want to contribute to hurting animals” when people ask will either (a) make them stop asking questions, because they don’t want to talk about it, or (b) inspire them to ask more questions and perhaps even consider moving in your direction. You can also propose eating in one of the wonderful vegan restaurants that Manhattan has (one in midtown is Franchia, Park Ave and 35th Street) and exposing colleagues to the bounty that is plant-based eating.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Bullfighter, I find myself feeling very sad to think that someone would reject the idea that hurting and killing animals (other than humans and primates) is morally problematic. I don’t think that people who empathize with dogs are confused -- conflating a pet dog with a non-pet dog -- as you suggest. I think they rightly empathize with dogs because their experience of a dog (perhaps by having a pet or knowing someone with a pet) makes clear our kinship with our animals and the reality that the suffering and death we feel it is wrong to cause other humans is wrong when inflicted on dogs as well. Most people who see someone abusing a dog are horrified and want to make it stop, and this moral response has nothing to do with who the “owner” of the dog is. Indeed, if it is the owner himself inflicting the harm, most people view the “owner” as culpable for that behavior.

I wonder why, if someone thinks it legitimate to extend moral consideration only to humans’ genetic “family”, which might include primates (and in fact, there are people who eat primates or “bush meat”), why that person would not also consider it legitimate to extend moral consideration only to those humans within his family or ethnic group. Once we decide arbitrarily to approve the infliction of suffering and death on others who share our capacity to feel pain and resist death, so long as those others are not “ours,” it is hard to see why we would define “ours” broadly enough to protect anyone other than our immediate kin. This is in fact how racism and other forms of out-group exploitation and annihilation function. I guess that’s one reason I believe that those who disagree with me and Melanie, and believe it morally innocuous to harm other sentient beings, are wrong.

beachwoodflea said...

Professor Dorf,
Thank you for your reply.
I understand fully well that Sherry is fine with incremental change, as long as it leads to real change. I agree with it, theoretically. My experience becoming an ethical vegan sounds very similar to yours. But I do not believe, tactically, in practicing that thinking. I am purely speaking to tactics. Change "as long as..." is a failing tactic to promote the cause. It alienates those struggling as well as dissuades those who are entering. It is an approach and thought process (however accurate) that can and does corrupt the will and dedication of some of the movement's strongest advocates. In the mid 90's when I was working with some now notorious animal rights groups, the internal finger pointing and "as long as..."'s did more to make people disheartened than it ever did to empower them. It is an approach that, to me, does not have an authentic feel of embrace; unless of course... you are merely moving in the process :).

To me, a company like Morningstar farms has done a tremendous amount to reduce animal suffering by providing vegetarian alternatives to common animal based foods. Do they still participate in suffering to animals through their use of eggs, dairy and other by-products? Yes. But should I not applaud them for the tremendous growth they have allowed the animal rights movement (in terms of legitimacy)? It is tactics. When I was in college I ate a bagel with peanut butter every day. There was no whole foods, there was no tofurky or boca; certainly no morningstar. These companies, to me, are signs of progress, and they are partly due to vegetarianism being not just a step, but an acceptable end-goal. If you aim action to corrupt that thinking, you are moving backwards not forwards. Would I like to see Morningstar farms become an all vegan company? Of Course. But even if they do not, I feel they have done more to legitimize the movement for animal rights than most strict-vegan groups ever did or could have done.