My first reaction to “Stop Mocking Vegans” by Opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times, Aug. 28, 2019, was: Here we go again – the usual sop thrown to people who, for ethical reasons, refuse to eat animals, the usual concession couched in the same old “yeah they’re right, animals suffer, but we – you and me, dear reader – don’t care enough about animals or what they go through for food, compared to our love of consuming them.”
Thus, when a few emails came saying what a nice article, finally some respect! I wrote back that I disliked it. New York Times journalists who write about farmed animal investigations – Nicholas Kristof and Mark Bittman, for example – tend to cast their coverage in terms that blunt the ethical and emotional impact. Kristof:
“Maybe in a century or
Bittman scolds animal rights advocates for wasting time on foie gras because meat production is cruel anyway, and while cramming ducks and geese may be “unnatural,” it is not necessarily “torture.”
So when we feel gratitude for crumbs sprinkled to the populace from a journalist’s perch of detachment, I feel the hurt of what animals endure even more. We’re grateful for so little when it comes to them, I feel. If a mainstream journalist pretty much bypasses the animals but offers up some “respect” for their advocates, we pleaders and workers for peace and justice for animals feel vindicated by this bit of condescending approval from the citadels of our animal-abusing society.
Following my original scan of “Don’t Mock Vegans,” I read it more closely. At least it doesn’t have the smirking tone of a Kristof or a Bittman piece, although I think it overdoses on the theme of how despised vegans are in today’s society. Here is the paragraph that particularly diminishes the power that “Don’t Mock Vegans” could have had:
“I am not a vegan. I am barely, failingly, a vegetarian/pescatarian — I make an effort to avoid meat, but for reasons of convenience and shameless hedonism still end up eating it several times a month, especially fish. My purpose here is not to change how you eat, dress or think about the ethics of consuming something like the Popeyes’ sandwich. Instead, as a fellow omnivore and a person concerned about the planet’s future, I want to ask you to do something much more simple: to alter how you think about vegans.”
What if instead of enslaved chickens and other “food” animals, the victims were human? How about rewriting Manjoo’s paragraph as a contemporary message to 19th-century slaveholders:
“I am not an Abolitionist. I have not freed my slaves. I know I don’t need to own slaves, but I keep them for convenience and for the pleasure of watching them pick cotton in my fields. My purpose is not to change your slaveholding behavior, or how you think about the ethics of owning human slaves. As a fellow slaveholder, and a person who cares about America’s future, all I’m asking is that you show the Abolitionists some respect.”
(Dear enslaved person: what is your opinion of this?)
How, I ask, does this type of plea address, or even relate to, what Manjoo calls next in his column: “the criminal cruelty of industrial farming; the sentience and emotional depth of food animals; [and] the environmental toll of meat”? Should ethical vegans be grateful for a plea to people who presumably don’t want to join us to at least “love” and “celebrate” and “salute” us for being “irrefutably on the right side of history”? I don’t know about you, but I am not grateful for this corny plea for a “salute.” I worry that ethical vegans could feel so grateful for such tokens of “respect” for our commitment to animals (or the call for it) as to consider them a kind of compensation for animals getting nothing. If ethical vegans get “respect,” and the animals do not substantively benefit, what’s to celebrate?
Twice in his piece, at the beginning and again at the end, Manjoo gushes over the “deliciousness” of a Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwich. This – and his assurances that he himself is not vegan or even “vegetarian,” and that he is not urging readers to do anything but “respect” or at least “not mock” vegans– all of this sends a more visceral and relaxing public signal than the actual urgencies he reports on. If we really want to help chickens and save the rainforests from being destroyed by soybean production to feed them – Manjoo points out that three quarters of the world’s soybeans are fed to “fast-food” chickens and other farmed animals – should we harp on how “delicious” fried chicken sandwiches are and give a shoutout to Popeyes? If the moral issue is presented as a choice between a “delicious” fried chicken sandwich that “everyone” wants, and saving the rainforest, what message resonates loudest with the majority?
It would be a terrible irony if ethical vegans (by which I mean animal rights advocates) were to get “respect” at the expense of and as a substitute for the respect the animals so desperately need and for which we are working and longing. Any respect we receive that does not include the animals is, at best, a Pyrrhic victory.