When Unity Is Untenable.
Like many people who grew up under a yoke of dysfunction, I was raised with the belief that loyalty to family was a virtue that was both paramount and inviolable. It was not something you thought about; the mere act of considering an alternative to steadfast loyalty was an indictment of one’s character. Loyalty was understood in my household as unswerving, unquestioning obedience as opposed to anything I would have any agency over. Loyalty from this framework removed the element of choice: You were uncritically obedient. You agreed with your father, no matter how irrational he was, because otherwise you’d get in trouble. You didn’t question your aunt’s views, no matter how hateful and bigoted they were, because doing so would be disrespectful. You toed the line. Buttressing this expression of loyalty was its heavy-handed cousin, the notion of unity.
I know when I am being asked to suspend or discard my own thoughts and values for the sake of unity because that was the environment I grew up in, like many others. We were raised with empty platitudes that exhorted us: We must unite. We must stand in unity. We must be united together. Because we grew up with this notion, we recognize when we’re being pressured to fall into line again.
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Unity makes sense from an anthropological point of view.
The survival of the family, thus the continuation of the genes at the most fundamental level, meant we came together in a united front to uphold and defend the members of our tribe. We were stronger woven together than as individual strands. If there was wavering, if there was less than conformity behind each other and especially behind a “leader”, it made the whole unit more vulnerable to being attacked. This makes all the sense in the world if there is a mastodon charging at your living quarters, but starts to become irrational pretty soon after that.
These ancient echoes still reverberate in many of us, though, fostered by family and messaging by society and perhaps even coded into our DNA. A display of unity is what we learn from an early age to avoid being cast out and exposed to potential harm. Our primitive genes can’t really tell the difference between real and perceived threats. Even when we live seemingly very autonomous, self-sustaining lives, the expectation that we will fall in line with those in our units remains a powerful pressure point for leveraging compliance.
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With the new administration in the U.S. last week, I heard this theme again, the same one I have heard my whole life, the calls for unity, the ending of division. On paper or in oration, this can be moving and often high-minded: Who is for division, after all? That said, we must very seriously consider who we are being asked to unify with in these calls and what is at stake if we heed the call. Are we being asked to unite with people who promote long-disproved notions of the earth being flat? Are we being asked to unify with those who promote convoluted, often bigoted-at-the-very-core conspiracy theories about a shadowy elite (*cough*Jews*cough*) trying to rule the world? Are we supposed to be united with those who believe in the supremacy of white people? With misogynists, propaganda boosters, violent and regressive rioters?
Further, in practical terms, how is this unification supposed to happen? Is the middle ground a place where we accept some of the notions they believe in or tacitly agree to overlook them?
I mean this quite seriously: How do we unite with something or someone that is anathema to our values? I suspect that if we do, we would be asked to accept an erosion of our own morality. Just like when disgraced former reality TV host Donald Trump characterized white supremacists as “very fine people” alongside anti-racism activists, those who were upholding a position against bigotry were deeply downgraded and the racists were suddenly - and very undeservedly - elevated. What happened in Charlottesville should not have taken on the tone of breaking up a brawl between two toddlers over a Tonka truck: This was people on the wrong side of history, the side of history that supports genocide and a belief in racial superiority, suddenly being as decent as those fighting against Nazism, as if these were equally right factions who just had different opinions. It is also like the fundamentalists who insist that creationism be given equal time to evolution in public high school science: It simultaneously elevates one to a position it has not earned as it devalues the other. That is always how these things balance out.
It is irrational, unconditional, unfair, unearned and dishonest.
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We hear this same call in the vegan movement when we are told to put aside our values for the “greater good” of a united front. We are told to great manipulative effect that we are hurting the animals by being divided. Especially when we know that QAnon followers, flat earthers, misogynists and racists are found in the vegan ranks, how would we unite with conspiracies and bigotry without tipping the scales in that direction?
I will never, ever unite with vegans and animal rights activists who promote junk science, unhinged conspiracy hypotheses and oppressive, bigoted views. It does the animals no benefit to unite with such individuals because it cheapens and discredits all of us, thus it hurts our outreach and the animals. What we need to do is elevate. If the people promoting oppressive attitudes and/or disinformation want to meet us there, that is where we can start. They can become better educated. But never, ever should we debase ourselves and this cause by uniting with that which is anathema to an informed, educated, diverse and compassionate social justice movement.
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Our Changing Trollscape:
Or My New Year's Goals for 2021
I can’t tell you how much I don’t believe in the idea of New Year’s resolutions. Or maybe I should say, I can tell you quite emphatically that I don’t believe New Year’s resolutions are usually that effective. I can give you all kinds of evidence to support my attitude about resolutions in general, especially on super-charged occasions like the start of a new year, but I think instead I will just cut to the chase, because while resolutions don’t do much for me, I am a Type A person and I place a lot of value on productivity, so I’ll say that I sidestep the issue by reframing what might otherwise be called a “resolution” as a “goal” and doing it pretty much any time of the year. Works for me.
Ever the contrarians, John and I went vegan on February 1, 1995, that is how much I don’t believe in the solemn January 1 resolution, and maybe that is part of why it stuck.
All these years later, I feel like I am always refining, buffing and trying to improve my vegan practice; at this point, it’s like micro-movements rather than sweeping changes, but even these seemingly small tweaks can feel like a lot. It is both easy and tempting to not stray too far from our comfort zones, but I think it’s worth looking into how I can breathe new life into my expression of veganism, to keep it fresh and dynamic for myself but also improve it.
My goal with regard to my veganism in 2021 is to stop wasting my attention on those who don’t really deserve it. I’m pretty sure that I reaffirm a vow to do this every year - heck, every day - but it deserves to be underscored: I will not be arguing with people anymore on social media. In the past, this would be a meat-eater who was content to waste my time with predictable but still hurtful jabs. What is very different these days is that now our primary trolls are not bacon enthusiasts and dairy farmers but other vegans.
Heh. Let that sink in. Heck, let me italicize that for effect: Most of our trolls are other vegans.
From people who believe that Black Lives Matter is reverse-racism to those who think the coronavirus is a hoax, we are bombarded with vegan trolls and haters all the time, but especially when we pivot away from vegan-exclusive content. This is not to say I won’t ever argue back at some misguided troll who tells me to “stay in my lane” when I amplify other social justice or important causes (my lane, presumably, is one lined exclusively with vegan cupcakes and cashew cheese) but I will do my best to ascertain when it is no longer productive to engage. The researchers of this large study on productively arguing online found that some back-and-forth exchanges on social media and comment threads can be fine, but anything past three or four exchanges and your chance of being persuasive becomes quite low. So, yes, I am officially recommitting: I may post rebuttals to disinformation or unfair accusations for other observers, but I refuse to give my precious attention to those whose modus operandi is to confuse, redirect, obfuscate and promote disinformation.
If you find me engaging, feel free to intervene. It’s sad to realize that most of my trolls are other vegans, but I guess it’s healthy to not be in denial.
Do you have a vegan goal for 2021? Or do you have a favorite way of dealing with vegan trolls?
Vegans Decide: Am I an Apologist or an Extremist? Depends on the Eye of the Beholder.
The other day my son asked me a question that turned out to be more nuanced than at first blush, as his questions tend to be. He asked what was the most common criticism other vegans leveled at me. I said, “That I’m an apologist,” fresh off that day’s latest disapproving comment on Instagram. “Or that I’m not vegan enough.” Then I thought about it for another few seconds and said, “No, it might be that I’m an extremist,” remembering a random potshot from the day before, this time on Facebook. “That I’m a purist.” The more I cogitated on it, the more I realized that the scornful comments from other vegans about how I practice my veganism seem to happen in equal measure on either end of the too strict/too accommodating continuum. Weird, huh?
Let’s first look at some real-life examples that will set off the armchair critics…
• If I give someone seeking advice guidance on phasing animal products out of their lives rather than shame them for not removing it all at once? I’m an apologist.
• Even though I know it is a process, I don’t pretend that animal products are harmless. Thus, I am an extremist.
• I understand that we live in an imperfect world, thus even our choices as vegans are unavoidably influenced by this, so I’m an apologist.
• I still hold that we should do the best we are able to despite this lack of perfection. Therefore, I’m an extremist.
• If I am encouraging to non-vegan restaurants when they try to incorporate more plant-based options to their menus it must follow that I’m an apologist. (I’m also a sell-out who doesn’t care about vegan small businesses.)
• When I give restaurants feedback that removing animal-based ingredients and still paying for them without a substitution is not a fair or considerate option for vegan diners, it must mean that I’m an extremist. (I’m also pushy and discouraging.)
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Maybe this can be understood as falling under the same header as how we form many of our opinions, from “What is beauty?” to “What is pornographic?”: It is simply a matter of the subjective perspective, the eye of the beholder. We all have our preferences and our biases, our backgrounds and our slants. My personal set of biases make it so I am more inclined to think that those whose vegan practice and activism looks more like my own are more effective and reasonable. Our brains are hardwired for confirmation bias; it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it is something to be aware of so we can try to factor that into our calibration and realize these reactions are not necessarily rooted in facts but inseparable from the flawed mechanism through which we interpret information.
Perhaps it’s also that the internet pushed our tendency towards criticizing and judgment into hyperdrive. Whereas once we knew that there was a lot we didn’t know about those we don’t even know in person, with access to conversations online, suddenly we know allllll of what a person is about without room for nuance. We have the illusion of familiarity and instant understanding; heck, perhaps it’s our predisposition towards confirmation bias that is behind this as well.
I guess the point is, our activism is our activism, our vegan practice is our vegan practice, our way of communicating with others is…you get it. How can I be both a vegan apologist and a vegan extremist? It’s in the eye of the beholder.
How about you? What criticisms do you face from other vegans?
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Photo credit: Anders Nord/Unsplash (This is a different tuxedo cat. Tuxi hasn't let us get close enough for this nice of a shot.)
Tuxi, or What the Animal Rescue Community Can Teach Vegan Advocates
A couple of weeks ago, we noticed a little black-and-white cat in our backyard. This isn’t all too uncommon — we found our tortie Clara Bow in the backyard as well as a very young kitten. There are outdoor cats in our neighborhood, some of whom are feral, others may be stray or in-and-out cats. I am not sure. But this one particular cat, whom we started calling Tuxi because she is a tuxedo cat, was one we started seeing every day. She is definitely fearful and quite likely feral. We started putting food and water out for her and she started eating. My son even built a pretty structurally sound teepee in the yard for Tuxi out of sticks and wood remnants and, lo and behold, she actually hangs out in there. (The backyard faces my office so I can spy on her.) When we go outside, she runs away but it is clear that the yard is a home for her.
As it became clear that Tuxi was in our yard every day and had come to accept provisions there, it also became clear that we’d need to humanely trap her and get her spayed so more kittens wouldn’t be born outside. I reached out to a friend who does a lot of work with the Chicago rescue community and she posted on a local TNR Facebook group to see if anyone might be able to help with the trapping. Very quickly, a woman who lives five minutes from my house stepped forward to help and the ball was in motion. We texted and she came over to drop off the trap and once again to help me when it wasn’t setting up properly; she also supplied me with all kinds of good advice for getting Tuxi to go into the trap. The same day I set it up, I looked out my office window and Tuxi with her pretty green eyes was blinking back at me from inside the trap.
Rosi, the neighbor with the trap, worked with her numerous contacts to get me a vet appointment and before too long, I was on my way to the clinic with Tuxi in my car. I got perfect directions on how to identify myself at the vet’s office, which is about 40 minutes from my home, and yet another volunteer cat rescuer named Laurie dropped Tuxi back off at our house after the surgery and vetting. Laurie also dropped off extra cat food for a colony that Rosi is helping with, which I put in my car, and when it was time to return the trap to Rosi’s house, she had a really nice insulated shelter for Tuxi on the porch. I left the food from Laurie along with the trap and it felt so elegant and efficient in the exchange. For those wondering, when we’d released Tuxi a little earlier, she backed out of the trap and ran from our yard but she has returned every day for food. If she wants to move in with us, she is more than welcome but it is baby steps in winning over feral cats. For now, we are working on building trust by bringing out food and water every day, and helping her to get used to our voices when we see her in the yard.
The whole experience was seamless. I reached out to my friend in the rescue community and she picked up the baton; Rosi picked up the baton next; we picked up the baton again by trapping and delivering Tuxi; Laurie picked up the baton finally by dropping her off back at our home. This kind of coordination and willingness to help really made an impression on me, and reminded me of the rescuers I knew when I worked at a large animal shelter back in the 1990s. These are the folks who gladly pool their resources and work to alleviate suffering of outdoor animals, primarily cats, year round, feeding, sterilizing and keeping them as comfortable as possible. I was always struck by the selflessness, egolessness and dedication of this community.
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This experience got me to thinking: What would vegan advocacy look like if we truly wanted to help those who were looking for support? For example, when I was looking for help with a stray cat, no one reprimanded me. No one shamed me for not adopting immediately. No one yelled at me that there are outdoor cats in my neighborhood. They stepped forward to help and didn’t get territorial with one another, knowing that it takes a village.
How often do we see someone who is dipping a toe into veganism get chastised for making mistakes, get attacked for not having a 100% vegan wardrobe yet, get shamed for being a little trepidatious? Instead of people stepping forward in genuinely helpful and supportive ways, like the TNR community did for Tuxi (and me), too often the vegan response to someone seeking encouragement or help is shaming and beratement. What if we looked at the vegan-curious in the same way the cat rescue community looked at this cat in need and the person who wanted to help her, who needed support and for people to step up in a helpful way? This isn’t a one-time thing. Over many years I have observed how willing the rescue community is to work together, extending themselves, their knowledge and resources in a helpful way.
What if we looked at new vegans like animal rescuers do cats who need help and we took our egos and our desire to “teach a lesson” out of the mix? What would our advocacy look like then? I don’t know all the answers, but my guess is it would be way more effective for actually helping.
None of this is to say I am perfect. I am as sarcastic as they come. If a newbie or not-quite-vegan is looking for help, though, maybe we should be more like the cat rescuers I met and give people the benefit of the doubt, suspending our insistence on everyone knowing everything about veganism right from the get-go so we can step forward in helpful ways.
I’d love to know your thoughts. Please leave a comment by clicking on the word Comments at left.
Hello, Let's Talk About Social Media...
Hi, all -
Welcome to the newly updated VeganStreet.com! It’s weird because I’m all excited about my capacity to blog on our new website and blogs are pretty much a relic of the mid-2000s but what I am most excited about is creating a space for having conversations off social media. Because, really, isn’t it all a little nauseating and stressful?
Think of this space as our comfy living room where we can stretch out with as many or as few pillows as we like and our beverages of choice to shoot the breeze. Maybe there’s a cat on your lap. If you’re allergic, maybe there’s not. This is your mental space and you can design all the elements exactly as you like.
For me, I will have a pillow behind me and a pillow on my lap (yes, there’s a cat or two, too) and an iced tea in the summer and a hot chocolate in the winter. Are you ready?
Since social media is on my mind, I thought this first foray could be about it: the benefits, the drawbacks, how it has changed our habits (can you imagine getting a beautiful vegan meal and not wanting to photograph it?) and even how we think. I have made friends around the globe - not just Facebook friends, real-life friends - through Facebook specifically, people who break my heart when they experience setbacks and loss, people I rejoice with when things are going well. They are also people who have been there for me and my family through massively difficult times. At the same time, would we have the unique stresses, rampant conspiracy theories and decreased life satisfaction without social media? On yet another hand, social media has made it so easy and convenient to spread the vegan message, learn more and get active. On yet a fourth hand, I can’t tell you how many times the cruel, offhand comments of a random stranger on Instagram has really gotten under my skin. There are so many more persuasive pros and compelling cons.
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This is what I am asking: What are your general thoughts about social media? How do you regulate its effect on you? What are your healthiest habits with social media? How do you use it for a tool for outreach and advocacy? Or have you walked away altogether? Comment below.
If you wish, please leave a comment by clicking on the word Comments at left.
HERE ARE A FEW MORE WAYS TO CONNECT WITH VEGAN STREET
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