Friday, May 27, 2016

Let Me Tell You Why I Am So 'Vegan,Vegan,Vegan' All the Time

One common refrain we hear ad nauseum on our Instagram page is this: “I don’t tell you what to do. Don’t tell me what to do, you &^%* vegan. I don’t understand why you can’t just shut up about being vegan all the time.” It’s usually a lot more expletive-laden than that and for my purposes in writing this, I will ignore the fact that they showed up on our Instagram page to whine about us not leaving them alone, which is kind of strange but whatever.

This same sentiment seems to also be at the root of a couple of recent YouTube videos that went viral as well – I won’t link to them – which is basically, “Could you vegans puh-lease shut up about being vegan?!” Now, keep in mind that a good 95% of the time Vegan Street is accused of “pushing our agenda” down someone’s throat, we are simply sharing the facts without personalizing it but the question remains: if it is true that vegans talk so much about being vegan, why is this? Beyond the obvious intention to share knowledge that might help to influence people in a positive way, why do we just have to be so damn vegan-vegan-vegan about things? Maybe I can offer some insight.

We are haunted by what we know and what we have seen.

I can tell that you’re already rolling your eyes. This is not meant to be melodramatic or guilt-tripping: it is simply the truth. It can be challenging to put yourself in a the headspace of a vegan if you are not one yourself, but if you want to understand why we sometimes behave in ways that seem puzzling or even obnoxious to you, it is essential to understand that many of us are vegan in the first place because we empathize with those who society tells us don’t matter. We empathize but we must still live in a culture where we are surrounded by clear signs of disconnection, from advertising campaigns to freezer cases, shoe stores to meals with friends, evidence that is both brutal and coolly ordinary,
reinforcing that these lives don’t matter, that their bodies are perceived as objects, that their lives and deaths have happened without the slightest acknowledgement.

As sensitive people know, empathy is both a blessing and a curse: it’s a blessing to be able to live in alignment with our values but a curse to be rendered so raw and exposed because of it. Many of us experience something akin to trauma from knowing what we know and seeing what we’ve seen. For those from abusive backgrounds, knowing what the animals go through can trigger our own trauma responses. I mention this not to take attention away from the horrors inflicted on animals but to simply explain why so many of us behave in ways that seem strange to those who aren’t vegan.

To understand a vegan mindset better, you might imagine what it might feel like to know about horrific cruelties being inflicted on innocent lives on an incomprehensibly massive scale, knowing that it is entirely unnecessary, and that this is not an abstraction or just a bit of information for you. You feel it. You carry it around with you. Knowing what you know is something that can cause a great deal of despair and you will often feel the weight of it in your own body: you can feel a sense of dread, you can feel like something is pressing against your chest, you can feel like you want to cry, you can feel grief-stricken, you can feel very angry, you can feel disconnected, you can feel utterly void of hope.  

Now imagine if what you know and what you have seen have taken up residency in a crawl space inside your brain that you didn’t even know that you had. You would be different, right? Even those who scrupulously avoid graphic videos and images still know what is happening because that reel continues to play in your internal crawl space. Last, imagine that you know that by withholding our collective financial support, we could easily topple the industries that destroy and help create a more just, compassionate and healthy world. It’s not happening, though, and not only do people not listen, many make the same comments and jokes that belittle what matters so very much. These are comments you will hear every day.

This all leads to a big reason, I think, that we are so vegan-vegan-vegan about things: it underpins so much of our outreach but perhaps it’s a misapprehension on our part. It’s that we take the adage “When you know better, you do better” to heart. We believe it to be true. There is an innocence lost when you learn that there are people who, despite knowing better and having the capacity to do better, choose to remain complicit in violence and destruction. In other words, they know better but they don’t necessarily do better. We’ve been led to believe that when people consume animals, it’s because they don’t know better. The fact is, though, that there is so much compelling information available today, so much up-to-date knowledge available and so much more access to being able to choose otherwise today. We live at a time when it’s never been easier but people consistently choose to maintain their status quo and support violent systems.

In truth, we are just desperately trying to help you to see and understand what we see and understand. Can that be annoying? I am sure it can be. There are worse things, though. If it means anything, it can be just as frustrating to be a vegan and not understand how people can be exposed to what we have seen and not be moved to want to change.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Vegan Death Threats in the Age of Truthiness

Back when I was a teenager and beginning to learn the train system in Chicago, I became familiar with guys who would ride the CTA and try to entice passengers (*cough*suckers-tourists-and-cocky-teenagers*cough*) to bet against them in something we all knew as the Shell Game. It went like this: a gregarious guy walked onto your car and announced that he had a game to play. Under one of three small cups, a.k.a., shells, he would hide a red ball. He would challenge passengers to bet against him to see if they could correctly guess where the ball was hidden after he’d shuffled the cups on his board. He’d make a great show of quickly moving the cups around on a board and then someone, clearly a plant, would enthusiastically take him up on the bet. The plant would “guess” correctly and win money, coaxing others to give it a try themselves, try it again double or nothing, on and on. The game was rigged so you were conned without even knowing it. Once you realized that you’d been played, you felt like an idiot but afterwards, you were wiser for having been suckered. The shell game, the smoke-and-mirrors and sleight of hand of petty scam artists and swindlers, comes to my mind as I think about a recent story that has been all over the media in recent days. Sadly, though, the stakes are much higher than being out $20 and a bit of your pride. On the bright side, if this story helps us to be more critical thinkers about the media we're receiving, we will all be better off for it.

Bear with me.

I subscribe to Google news alerts on the topic of veganism. One thing that you notice when you subscribe is that our news cycles can come in waves. I’ve been subscribing for long enough that now I know that popular stories predictably generate many more copycat stories. In general, the majority of stories in these alerts are stand alone pieces, like a new vegan restaurant in San Diego or an interview with a vegan cookbook author in Oklahoma. Sometimes, the stories are interesting enough to inspire me to want to share them. Most times, I can tell by the headline whether they hold much interest for me or not. A few times a year, a story will get so much play in the mainstream press that my Google news alerts are all but dedicated to that one particular topic for days or even weeks at a time. For example, with the New York Times recently publishing an article on the wonders of aquafaba (about time!), I am now seeing another uptick in stories exploring the astonishing properties of chickpea water. I am here to tell you that we are in the middle – well, I hope the tail end – of one of those cycles if you hadn’t noticed already.

Since the story first broke in the mainstream media in late April, my Google alerts have been full of screeching headlines about a couple who opened a small chain of vegan (or nearly vegan but for honey) restaurants but are now eating animals themselves. They are espousing the tired, New Age pabulum that they are “grateful” for the animals they are raising to kill and consume on their farm and that eating them is part of the “cycle of life” that woo-inclined flesh fetishizers often use as a justification for their consumption habits. Their affirmation-inspired raw restaurants and their Mexican restaurants will keep the menus their founders developed when they were plant-based, though, so no meat, eggs or cow’s milk will be added to their recipes, thankfully.  

When vegans on social media and the blogosphere, though, started exposing the pair on their “transition” to eating the flesh of dead cows – which they’d been foolishly, and, in typical New Age, heads-up-their-asses fashion, blogging about on their website (sample text:
But we know that while we die a little bit each day as we open our hearts further to the presence of love, and as we are the caretakers of our farm animals the responsibility for their health and well being lies with us, and with that, I must do some anti-vomiting affirmations of my own), they were met with an understandable activist backlash. The vegan community helped to build these restaurants to where they are today and it felt like a betrayal as well as a slap in the face. For a day or two, things ticked along as par for the course until the narrative shifted and then, bizarrely, the reporting on the story hinged the focus on the claim that the pair was receiving death threats from seething, bloodthirsty herbivores. Death threats in and of themselves are not unusual these days. I’m pretty sure I get at least a couple silently hurled at me just walking from Point A (when the dog sniffed menacingly at the neighbor’s rose bushes) to Point B (when I accidentally stepped in the path of someone doing sprint training). Death threats are a way of life today, ironically. The reason this claim was so bizarre was that, despite the headlines, we were offered no example of a single one.

It’s the shell game. It's a bait-and-switch, a sleight of hands. This time, we were played for clicks.

On platforms as diverse as TIME to the Hollywood Reporter, The Raw Story to Jezebel, we are told that, oh, those hypocritical vegans have really revealed their seamy, violent underbelly now with their scary death threats. The headlines shriek about the putative death threats from alleged vegans but despite this very accusatory and charged headline, as I’ve read the actual copy of the stories, I have not come across a single example of a death threat. Not even a screenshot with a name blurred out. Not from a supposed vegan, not from anyone. Some of the media have couched their language more carefully, not surprisingly UK outlets, which have more sensibly placed the origin of the accusation with the couple who have claimed to be receiving said threats, but for the most part, readers are supposed to accept that these threatening remarks happened simply because the couple said that they happened, not because proof was offered. The reporting was shuffled so skillfully, as with the shell game, most people didn’t even notice that they'd been duped. In fact, I read a couple of these stories myself before I noticed that the assertion was not factually supported in the copy. There was not even one iota of evidence offered to support the claim of death threats. We’re just supposed to forget that little detail. This is not to say that vegans would not make death threats – I am confident that it’s possible – but it is to say that we did not see a shred of evidence of this despite the claim in the incendiary headlines.

I am not so naïve that I don’t understand the objectives behind click-bait or yellow journalism but when sensational allegations are presented as fact, they should be backed up with at least something approaching evidence, lest the journalists and media outlets rightfully be written off as peddlers of “truthiness.” Truthiness, a neologism coined by satirist Stephen Colbert, is “
the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.” Among the consequences of journalists and media platforms absolving themselves of the need to maintain a commitment to factual integrity and instead being content to uphold the much lower bar of truthiness is that for many people reading their fabrications, a screeching headline is implication enough and they are off to the races. Now vegans, already a marginalized and often misrepresented population, can add “makes death threats” to the list of headline-driven, factually-deficient media strikes against us, alongside “hates humanity,” “on a risky diet,” and “orthorexic.”

With an accusation as serious as threatening someone’s life levied against vegans as a whole, shouldn’t journalists be expected to offer even a modicum of proof? Apparently not. The shrill headline has done its job and now the news outlets are licking their chops as the content drives a wave of all-powerful clicks and they can pretend to shake their heads at our apparent bloodlust. Meanwhile, the couple in question have redirected the entire conversation with the media’s active support: they got their restaurants loads of free press, they got sympathetic tsks from the viewing public, they got to be embraced by spectators who are reassured by lapsed vegans, and they got to play the victim even after admitting that animals are now being “harvested” (seriously, what “former vegans” would use this deceitful term with a straight face???) for their meals. Everyone wins except the vegans and especially not the animals that people "lovingly harvest."

The ripple effect of lazy, manipulative, click-driven journalism threatens our democracy and our ability to interpret and understand real-life events. At its worst, it confirms prejudices, maintains a malignant status quo and is corrosive to critical thinking and analysis; it teaches media consumers, which is all of us who are aren’t living in a cave, to passively and often unknowingly accept this lower bar of truthiness. There is so much to lose when our media are content to aim for the lowest possible standards. As people who consume media, we must absolutely hold their feet to the fire of responsibility when a claim has been made for the sake of a clickable story and we’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Opt out of this elaborate shell game. Call out the sleight of hand when you see it. Insist on responsible media, not truthiness. Vegan death threats? Unless backed up with actual evidence, it only makes for a great speed metal band name.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Robinlee Garber...

Can folk stars also be rock stars? Well, in the case of rising vegan folk singer-songwriter, Robinlee Garber, I would have to say, yes, yes, they can be. Full disclosure: Robinlee and I work together on Chicago VeganMania, where she runs our very sweet and original little lounge-type space, the Culture Café. At our Culture Café, Robinlee curates and emcees a day’s worth of great acoustic musical talent and maintains a chill, welcoming vibe as a respite for some to the wild vegan bacchanal that rages on in the main room. She does a sublime job of keeping everyone’s spirits up and making all feel comfortable.

When not showcasing other acts, Robinlee has been busy making a name for herself in the Chicago folk music scene and now the national stage with the release of her first solo album, Resilience. With a honeyed, clear and expressive voice, Robinlee’s collection limns the space we negotiate when we move beyond our comfort zones and challenge ourselves to embrace (or simply experience) the unknown. Songs are reminiscent in the best way to the 1970s California folk scene (think Jackson Brown and Joni Mitchell) with some torch and jazz elements that add warmth and complexity; slide guitars, cellos and banjos are subtle but evocative complements to Robinlee’s assured vocals. This is an album to listen to when you need a little boost, when the boss has got you down or when you need the company of an understanding friend but you’re by yourself. Currently #18 on the National Folk DJ Chart, it’s a joy to see this hard-working, compassionate and lovely musical artist getting the recognition she deserves. Sometimes vegan folk heroes can also be rock stars.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did
you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

In 1972 when President Nixon declared a "war on cancer" my mom announced that we were going to finish all the meat that was left in the freezer, and then we were "done" with eating meat. Both my parents lost a parent when they were just teenagers to heart disease (my grandfather at 39-years-old had a heart attack, and my grandmother died of bone cancer at 41). I was very much aware at young age that meat was not a healthy food choice, and I was scared of getting cancer, even as a 5-year-old kid. Also, I loved animals, and the idea of killing one for food made me very sad. At about the age of 11, I was calling myself a vegetarian. Also, when I was little I can remember being at a department store and in the coat section literally petting all the fur coats. My dad came up from behind me and whispered in my ear something like "that fur coat your petting came from a really beautiful animal." That made me really, really upset after that experience. 

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

For me it was a combination of learning how to prepare good food, and also learning how cruel the dairy industry was. I had no problem giving up meat, but I was addicted to cheese and loved products made with eggs. Once I discovered how to make the foods I love using just plant-based ingredients, I was totally set to switch to a more compassionate way eating. 

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

I love to have vegan food at my shows and perform at venues that offer good vegan items on the menu. When I go to music conferences I will bring my own food with me and share it with other musicians. I've written some vegan-themed songs as well, and occasionally I'll play them at shows where I think people would be open to the message. Food and humor work the best in my opinion. One night I was having dinner with two friends who were each eating some kind of BBQ dish. When the food arrived I took one look at their plates and said to them seriously, "You'll be happy to know that I know CPR in case your dinner tries to exact revenge and kill you with a heart attack." 

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

I think the movement has many, many strengths! I know so many smart, talented, and passionate people who are great at talking about all the benefits and the importance of being vegan. There's so much information out there now in the areas of health, the environment, and animal welfare. And of course, the food tastes great. 

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Vegans need to stop picking on each other. I believe that everyone is doing the best they can at any given time. Being vegan in an omnivore world is hard enough. We need to cut each other some slack and stop comparing who is more vegan. 

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

Eating a plant-based diet will improve your health, heal the planet, and save the animals from a lifetime of unnecessary cruelty and death. 

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

I have been lucky to be surrounded by so many vegans in Chicago! I'm a huge fan of Vegan Street and I love being one of the core members of Chicago VeganMania. For books I always recommend that people read The China Study. I love the movie Forks Over Knives, and I'm super excited about a new movie called Food Choices by Michal Siewierski. I'm also a big fan of the website and have been following that program for over two years. 

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Watch movies like Forks Over Knives and other documentaries. I love to cook, be outside in nature, and of course hang out with other vegans! Being part of the core group for Chicago VeganMania is also energizing and inspiring. We have so many great people working on the festival. 

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Only one? I'm a big fan of supporting local adoption shelters for homeless animals and also pet rescues groups. If someone is looking for a specific breed of a dog, persuade them not to go to a breeder or a pet store, please!! Also, if you can't have a permanent animal companion of your own for whatever the reason, volunteering at a shelter, fostering animals temporarily, and assisting in animal rescues and transfers is a great way to help the cause (and get some furry adoration in return). 

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

…Striving to attain a higher level of consciousness toward other sentient beings and the planet. It's also totally badass to live on and enjoy eating just fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.