Wednesday, December 08, 2004

I'll Only Say This Once

I'm honestly not trying to horn in on Thersites' racket with all this metacommenting lately, but I had such an irksome experience commenting over at Adventus today, that I feel I have to explain something, even if it's mainly for my own benefit.

I've occasionally mentioned being vegan, not out of pride, or to be controversial, but just 'cause it sometimes gives me what I fancy are insights into certain situations. I happened to mention it re the abuse Robert M. Jeffers was taking from some chump who assumed that Jeffers was religious only because he'd never heard someone spout the standard dorm-room objections to religion. I mentioned that you get the same thing when you're vegan...people constantly think they have hard proof that you're foolish, inconsistent, or hypocritical, and that it's proof you've never heard before. In reality, of course, you've heard it many, many times; you've explained yourself to the people who'll listen, and (with luck) you've learned to extricate yourself from debating the people who won't, and there is nothing new under the sun.

Weirdly enough, I actually got an e-mail a couple days ago asking me why I didn't "promote" veganism. It's simple: I'm not a proselytizer by nature. I'm willing to explain myself if asked politely, and I'll usually defend myself if attacked, but I'm not cruising to win converts, and I never have been. I've gotten them, sure, but never through active proselytizing. Nonetheless, it's amazing how often people will attack me on the basis of the moral superiority they imagine I must feel (yeah, right...if they only knew!). Today, for instance, the moment I mentioned I was vegan, my worthy opponent knew pretty much everything there was to know about me - just like that - and immediately labored to let the mantle of guilt shroud me before a gogglin' world.

It's not my intent here to justify myself to that fine fellow. But if anyone else is curious, I can explain my deal pretty easily. First, I don't pretend to know how animals suffer, whether they "think," or what moral meaning their suffering has, if any. What I do know is that I'm comfortable being wrong about veganism, but I'm not comfortable being wrong about eating animals. That being the case, I do my best to live up to what I think is right - which involves a lot more, obviously, than being vegan - though the world is far from simple and few issues are completely black-and-white.

All morality involves the drawing of arbitrary lines; living requires compromise at every turn. Still, I don't accept the "in for a penny, in for a pound" argument that says that where a small evil exists, a greater evil is justifiable. I don't accept the idea that the theoretical suffering of plants, for instance, trumps the actual suffering of ducks being forcefed to make pate. I don't accept the idea presented to me today (and many times before), that I'm a murderer or a hypocrite or a phony for eating rice (which I very rarely eat in any case), because "rice production kills more animals than game-hunting would." I don't accept that kind of sophistry and bad-faith theorizing, which I think is designed less to promote better moral choices, than to make decent ones look shabby and hollow.

In opposing that type of argument, I'm not saying that everyone has to be just like me; I'm saying that my conscience is my own, and that since I respect other people's dietary choices, they should respect mine, or at least tolerate them politely. If we're truly liberals, we don't really have any other option than to do this for each other.

I despise the kind of elitist moral one-upmanship that scorns to make compromises with the "unenlightened," and I recognize it as a real problem on the left (and among vegans, in particular). I also despise the kind of priggish cynicism that attempts to glorify itself by pretending that other people's acts of charity and expressions of compassion are really caused by rampant egotism and selfishness, and will turn out disastrously in any case. Honestly, when you consider the incredible mess we've made of just about everything, whether by omission or commission, I'd think moral superiority would be the last thing anyone would be feeling. Speaking for myself, self-approbation is definitely not a feeling I know well!

Anyway, that's the last you'll hear from me on the matter. Tune in tomorrow, when I'll answer the question that's plagued mankind for decades: Who's stronger, Thor or the Hulk?


Phryne said...

I sympathize with what you have written here.

It reminded me of a discussion I once had about the color grey in a black and white world. When I said I chose to go for grey my opponent told me bluntly: "If you choose grey, others will make you turn either black or white. They will make that choice for you and if you resist, you will be attacked by both sides."

And he was right. Even the most innocent of choices can be seen as a threat. Why are you drinking cola instead of beer? Why are you wearing gloves all the time? Why are you interested in art? Why are you this and why are you that.

Responding to these questions is tiresome and ultimately pointless. Children ask these questions too, but they want to learn. When adults ask them, you are in trouble. Hence my motto: Non Tibi Spiro, I do not breathe for thee.

Rmj said...

I watched that little drama unfold, and it amazed me. I can only figure it has something to do with the problem of identity, with the self as a sort of tenuous boundary that depends too much on who you are, because that determines who I am. And if you are making me uncomfortable, that threatens my sense of me.

That, or some things are just annoying.

But what I want to know is: can The Hulk pick up Mjolnir? And does even asking that question expose me as a hopeless comic book geek?

Phila said...

Guy, great point...I hadn't thought of that. And RMJ, what you say about identity is beautifully phrased. It's something that I was tempted to expound on originally - and might've, had I been able to express it as you did - but I was afraid it'd sound too self-serving coming from me. It's true that certain choices, or beliefs, come across as personal attacks no matter how nicely or tolerantly they're phrased, and no matter what assurances of respect and humility go along with them. I think there are certain spectres haunting all of us - terrible injustices, and huge unanswered questions - and the people who try to avoid them tend to get angry very easily with people who try to face them.

I apologize again for cluttering up your comments with that stuff. I won't let it happen in the future. Between you and me, I'm absolutely sick unto death, as the saying is, and simply can't stand this kind of pointless conflict.

Ellie Finlay said...

I applaud your position. I'm a vegetarian myself but haven't managed to make it all the way to vegan - mainly because I have hard to fit feet and I can't find non-leather shoes that fit. I like to answer people who charge me with inconsistency by telling them about Thich Nhat Hanh's illustration. He said that when you use the North Star as a reference point, you don't actually expect to get to the North Star. But you use it to help you go in the right direction. We kill micro-organisms everytime we boil water for tea. Never ever contributing to the killing of a being would be like actually arriving at the North Star and that's impossible. But by his vegetarianism he is at least going in the DIRECTION of non-killing as much as he is able.

Phila said...

Nice analogy, Ellie; I like it. If I had the heart, I'd discuss the concept of supererogation, and the ways in which the impossibility of perfection is supposed to make improvement pointless.

I'd probably horrify a lot of vegans in that I don't really have an ethical objection to eating dairy and eggs, beyond the fact that I'm staunchly opposed to factory farming. I live in an area where it's possible to get eggs from veg-friendly farms where hens are treated like queens, so if I had some bizarre medical condition that required me to eat poached eggs, I could manage pretty easily. But I do just fine without eggs and milk, so why bother?

I recognize that veganism's extreme, and I don't consider it an obligation (or even a possibility) for everyone else. My only "public" goal is to come across as reasonably healthy and sane, if I can. If my aim is to be non-coercive and to respect other life, I can't be attacking people all the time, and calling them "murderers" because they wear a belt, and all that stuff! It's unjust, self-aggrandizing, and counterproductive.

If the leather thing bothers you, you can get great shoes custom-made here...pricey, but very nice! I have a wallet from them that I like a lot. Thanks for the comment!

Thers said...

Assuming I am remembering it correctly, I've always been fond of Thoreau's explanation in Walden of why he would no longer eat meat -- that it "appeals to my imagination."

RMJ is absolutely right I think to focus on identity as the key issue here. One thing that's interesting is how issues like vegetarianism & veganism can be so bizarrely conflated with gender boundaries. I remember once in college being in the cafeteria with a group of friends, when one young woman somewhat offhandedly mentioned that she was a vegetarian. Pretty much all the males in the group (I kept my mouth shut, which I'm not exactly proud of) immediately attacked her, teasing pretty viciously, making the kind of jokes I'm sure you've all heard. Why eating meat should be associated with masculinity so intensely and implicitly is a bit of a mystery, but there you go. That may be part of the explanation for the disproportionately fierce response to what is after all merely a matter of personal taste (no pun intended).

But then again, don't matters of taste always involve questions of social class, standing, grouping, as well as personal identity? As per several of our previous conversations, musical taste for example is very deeply tied to some often murky questions of personal identity, and someone's personal taste in music does provide a lot of information about them. If, say, someone sincerely tells you that their favorite singer is Michael Bolton, maybe it doesn't tell you the whole story of their life, but it does give you a chunk of it, for good or ill.

But this is a separate question than the ethical one of how legitimate it is to bug other people about these matters of taste. Not very far, of course. But when someone gets a bee in their ass about someone else's personal choices which could not possibly affect them in the slightest, from a sociological point of view I find it pretty revealing, about the bee-assed person as an individual but still more about the deep structures and distinctions in modern culture.

Anyhoo. Horn in on my racket all you like for the next few days; I'm here right now not grading papers, and the guilt is getting almost as overwhelming as my instinct to procrastinate.

Oh, if Thor is such a mighty God, right, could he create a Mjolnir even HE couldn't lift? Huh? Huh?

Phila said...

"Bee-assed"...ha! Very droll.

I gotta admit, there are some vegans who are so completely fucking nuts that I can't really blame people for making me suffer for their sins. But that's not a problem with veganism per se; it's a problem with that sort of tribalist "cult of purity" that people get into, where a big part of the attraction is the feeling of being apart from "phony society and its plastic values, man." In my case, I'm so goddamn alienated already that the last thing I want to do is seal myself in some kind of morally superior hermetic bubble.

But look...Thor is like this old god that no one believes in anymore 'cause Jesus came along and everyone liked him better. So what if Jesus is, like, totally behind the Hulk? Like what if Jesus made the Hulk into the Hulk, and gave him his superpowers? 'Cause then the question is, who's stronger, Jesus or Thor? And all we have to do is compare Norway with America to know that Jesus would totally kick Thor's ass.

Amanda Marcotte said...

Hear hear! Great defense--I too hate being told that I'm automatically self-righteous because I don't eat meat. I'm self-righteous about entirely different things.

I do think a lot of vegetarians get into the diet without being self-righteous, but since you get ridiculed and teased so often about it, you start getting defensive. Which only convinces those who are already suspicious of the diet that it's the mark of a self-righteous person. Vicious cycle, you see.

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, yours truly was a vegetarian. It didn't last long, for reasons that are my business and on one else's.

I understand the position, and, intellectually, I agree with much of where it's coming from. But it's just not for me. However, I don't have a problem with anyone who pursues the veggie (my term for vegans AND vegetarians) lifestyle. In a way, I envy them for having that kind of commitment and sincerity in their beliefs. Maybe that's part of what makes some of the virulent "anti-veggie" people so uncomfortable that they must attack it. They know they don't have that kind of conviction.

Then there are the people who are so hypersensitive and paranoid that if all you're doing is telling someone you're vegan (or whatever), just being conversational, they think you're attacking them or pushing them to change. Call it the wingnut mentality.

OTOH, I'm sure many of us have known some veg types who did kinda push it. Veggies are like anyone else: Some of them can get hopped up on it, and not just from defensiveness, as someone upthread asserted. People with deep convictions, of any kind, often have (or acquire) a Messiah streak. I liken them to the born-agains who think they have THE ANSWER and have to share it with everyone. With people like this, I've found that it's best just to smile, say, "That's nice," and look for an opening to change the subject (rare with the religious) or an exit. Not that I don't have some fun with religious nuts, but the hardliner veggies can usually take the hint that we must agree to disagree.

Speaking of agreeing, I agree that RMJ pretty much pinned it with the identity issue. Too many people don't possess an inner sense of self. To some degree, we all get our cues for who we are externally...but some of us have the ability to draw from an eclectic mix of sources and come up with our own unique brand of self that doesn't change much unless we have good reason to do so.

But I digress. What this boils down to, ultimately, is that too many people don't have a grasp on the concept of live and let live. Whatever happened to that, huh?


Anonymous said...

Well, darn, blogger ate my long-winded post. So I'll do a short-but-sweet.


Honey, if you want to be vegan, that is way cool with me. More power to you. What do I care what goes in your... Um... Who cares what FOOD you eat? To me, it's just another facet of an who you are.

Live and let live, I say.

Anonymous said...

I personally don't understand how anyone could give up a good, juicy steak - much less pizza, ice cream and chilli dogs - but hey, some people don't understand my devotion to the sweet leaf.

If you REALLY want to freak someone out, tell them you don't like potatoes. The responses I get to that one are amazing. I'm always--always--the first person someone's met who doesn't like potatoes.

Phila said...

Backslider, you have yet again proven yourself a gentleman and a scholar! I consider the Hulk case closed.

And as I said above...hell yes, vegans can be among the most irritating, elitist and intolerant people on earth. That's why a) I try to be very low-key about things; and b) realize that I'm gonna get a certain amount of flak, no matter what, for the sins of my brethren and cistern.

LJ and Backslider, I'm not gonna try to convert you....but if I ever cook you guys a feast, I promise you'll go away happy!

Anonymous said...


I'm sure you could make a good feast for us. The vegetables I do like, I like a lot. Spinach for instance. I love it, raw or cooked. And I do the meatless thing sometimes. I have days when I make spaghetti with meat sauce...and days when I make it with a meatless sauce, for instance (even though I'm not supposed to eat wheat products, but I do). I've been so poor at times in my life that I had to live on black-eyed peas and cornbread, and we didn't even have bacon to season the black-eyed peas or butter to put on the cornbread. It's kind of weird that the South is known for the "bad" things in its cuisine (ribs and BBQ and fried everything), but how so much of it is easily vegan/vegetarian friendly, too.


Phila said...

LJ, you better believe it! As a self-centered hedonist, I'm not willing to live on sprouts and sauerkraut juice. The meat analogue technology, at this point, is pretty goddamn amazing. Ground beef and pork sausage imitations have reached a point where they're indistinguisable from the real thing (of course, the meat industry met us halfway by cutting these products with soy to make 'em go further)! We basically eat the same stuff anyone else would...we just approach the ingredients/preparation a little differently. I've cooked dinner for people more than once and had 'em say "When did you guys go back to eating meat?" The ice creams and cakes are amazing, too. The one thing that's a little dicey is cheese; there's one very good version, but it takes a little getting used to. Something like bleu cheese or brie is the only thing I ever miss, and I don't miss it that much.

Really, it's not that different from being married. Used to be I could go on tour or something, and bed down with some appealing person, and there'd be no harm done. Now that I'm married, I can't do that (at least, not unless the wife gets in on the action!). So am I denying myself, or limiting myself? Yeah, but so what? It's a trade-off I was very happy to make, and I don't ever miss being single.

Rmj said...

Besides, Thor's dead in modern Marvel continuity.What? (A) god is dead? Did they resurrect Nietzsche over at Marvel or something?

As for the Hulk being worthy to life Mjolnir, then explain to me how, in a really early Thor story (back when he was the wimp with the cane), some kinda 'atomc powered' cherry picker could snatch Mjolnir from his grasp (thus threatening to return him to wimp form in 30 seconds, because he couldn't get to the payload where the hammer got stored).

I've still got that one somewhere, in some kind of anthology. Never did find out how he got outta that one.....

So, did I miss Ragnarok, too? Nobody ever tells me anything....

Phila said...

I knew Eschaton was a hotbed of literary talent and intellectual brilliance, but little did I dream we had some of the world's pre-eminent Marvel Comics experts among our numbers! Here I thought Backslider had settled the matter, and then along comes Jeffers with a whole new wrinkle on things.

And LJ, your point about Southern food holds across what ya might call "peasant" communities, because they sometimes couldn't afford meat or dairy. My all-time favorite cookbook is called "The Mediterranean Vegan Cookbook," which doesn't have any fancy tricks or imitation's just a collection of age-old peasant recipes that are traditionally vegan, having developed that way by economic (and sometimes religious) necessity. Belongs on any cook's shelf, IMO...some really interesting dishes in there, no matter what your diet is.

Anonymous said...

Careful with that Mediterranean soubriquet. The (southern) French side of my family would toss some sabots at you if you told them they had to do without butter, eggs and cheese. I've never known people nuttier about those things, in all my life. My grandmother cried when her doctor told her to cut butter out of her diet after she was diagnosed with diabetes, and she had all those wonderful recipes, passed down through the generations from the old country, which didn't taste the same to her without butter. She stopped cooking them altogether when I was rather young. But I do remember some of them. Great stuff.

Speaking of butter...

If you want a swap in cookbooks, one of my favorites is Nourishing Traditions. Don't worry, it has some stuff in there that vegans can use. After you read that book, though, you'll never eat margarine again. Nasty, vile stuff.

Phila said...

I use Earth Balance, which tastes great and is reasonably healthy. The old margarine, if memory serves, was a hideous amalgam of bleached and dyed rendering scraps. Never had it though, I don't think.

The amount of food products that are actually ingenious waste-disposal strategies is pretty terrifying...