Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ten Life Lessons from Longtime Vegans


A couple of weeks ago, I posted a question to my Facebook friends and got far more responses than I expected. Usually when a thread has more than 250 comments, it means that people are fussin’ and feudin’ with each other (why did I suddenly turn into Yosemite Sam? I have no idea…) but it wasn’t like that this time. People just had a lot of thoughts to share. Here was the (slightly edited) question I posed:

“I'm curious: for those who have been vegan for more than five years, what factors do you attribute to your longevity as a vegan? There are many things that tempt people away from veganism, from a desire to fit in better to simply missing some things you used to eat, and we know that the rate of defection from veganism is quite high. What have you done or what have you plugged into to make veganism work for you? In other words, what do you attribute to your success as a long-term vegan? Thank you!”

Even though this is far from a scientifically rigorous survey and a fairly small sample, I think the resulting responses offered a fascinating lens into what makes a successful long-term vegan. I am used to being pretty blown away by the depth and insight of my Facebook friends but this time, I was almost overwhelmed by both the deluge of responses as well of the generosity of spirit reflected in them. From this simple question, I got a rich supply of answers about the qualities that are both common and unique to long-term vegans. Curious about what may be part of the successful long-term vegans composite? I have collated my most frequent responses in order of how common the answer was below.

Fascinating stuff. Here’s how it broke down…

1. Compassion for Animals

Far and away, this was the most commonly cited reason for staying vegan: once one’s eyes were open to animal suffering, it was impossible to go back to not knowing and when one wavered, remembering the core ethical basis was key for sticking with it. As
Kathleen F. said, I've been vegan for seven years. I just think of the animals and all the pain and suffering they endure. My pleasure is not worth their suffering.”

Lisa H. said something I heard in different iterations throughout the thread: “I could never be vegan for my health. For the environment I couldn't be 100% vegan. Maybe 75-90% at the most. For the animals (farmed and wild), I'm as 100% vegan as it's possible to be.” The ethical foundation was what made it a more accessible, solid commitment when the other motivations were too abstract or not deeply felt enough.

Pam W. said, “I've been vegan for 12 years and I fully attribute it to my core value that it is wrong to cause or participate in the infliction of suffering and exploitation. Animal-derived foods are the product of exploitation in which animals necessarily suffer (mamas having their babies taken away, hens bred to lay eggs at an unnaturally accelerated rate leading to osteoporosis and other physical ailments, the stress of slaughter transport, and the terror of the slaughterhouse). I have no desire for food that is made of violence and terror. I don't see it as a sacrifice because the food in question is revolting to me.”

I would say that 95% of the responses were a variation on this theme, though many also included some of the other motivations and reasons.

Vegan Community

Whether introvert, extrovert, or somewhere in between, the human species hungers for understanding and connection. So many of us do not have vegan partners or extended families but even if we do, a larger supportive community provides a vital sense of belonging and a safe place to land as we navigate this world that is often diametrically opposed to vegan values. A supportive community was mentioned second most often as an essential component of integrating a successful, long-term vegan practice. “
I would recommend finding a community in person or online (but choose wisely because some can be very draining and counterproductive)…” said Molly D. Wise words: While seeking community, remember that not all are created alike and they will not all meet your needs or suit you.

“Definitely connecting with people who understand and accept veganism. Vida Vegan Con started within my first few years of being vegan, which made ALL the difference. I made SO many amazing connections and friendships that still persist today. Knowing I'm not alone in caring so deeply about the animals and the environment,” said Katie L.

Also remember that community can be in person and online; it can be three people or 1,000 people. Community is what gives you a sense of shared values, acceptance and being among those who understand you. A community that is healthy for you should make you feel inspired, accepted and stronger. If a community drains you, look elsewhere. Remember, too, that while in-person communities are ideal, virtual communities can also contribute a lot to your thriving as a vegan.

3. An Indifference to Fitting in (or Stubbornness)

I have an untested theory that one of the most common denominators among those who are successful long-term vegans is that we tend to be people who care less about fitting in and don’t easily succumb to social pressure or feel the need to conform to the status quo. Not surprising to me, this emerged as one of the top three recommendations for successful long-term vegan integration. By the same token, a common refrain I hear from those who have quit is being vegan was hard for them to adapt to socially. Maybe their family made them feel guilty about not participating in certain traditions; perhaps their friends made them feel excluded; maybe they felt self-conscious making dietary requests when ordering meals. To those who are able to successfully navigate the terrain, these pressures are far less important than remaining true to their values.

As Linda R. said, “
I have always been the odd person out, and that has often left me struggling to find a way in until I became vegan. Now I don't want a way in because a conventional life of using animals and turning my back on their suffering isn't something I can abide.” As another friend commented, “Stubbornness: I'll be damned if I let someone say ‘I told you so’ (this is the smallest part, but it did help me in the beginning).” Said Ashley D., “Dealing with people (and struggling to fit in) is probably the biggest challenge of going vegan. Luckily, I'm immune to social pressure. Being diplomatic toward those who are participating in harming animals has been the hardest part. I'm very logical, and ethics come first.”

4. The Expanding Variety and Increased Access to Quality Vegan Food

As the world around us has begun to meet the expanding demands for plant-based food and improved offerings are available to consumers, it’s made it easier to be vegan in the world. This was the fourth most common factor attributed to one’s success as a long-term vegan. As one friend wrote, “
The surge in awareness has been so much more tangible in the last 10 years alone, and the varieties of cheeses, drinks, egg-type foods, protein foods creativity just make it - I'd say - impossible to go back to not being a vegan....” There are fewer valid excuses for falling off the path when those flavor profiles and textures are not only accessible to us but getting more delicious all the time.

5. Learning How to Cook

For many people, learning how to cook – perhaps for the first time in their lives, perhaps just a few meals – is a necessary component of integrating veganism successfully. When you learn the basics of cooking for yourself, not only will you save money, you can develop the skills for recreating the meals you once enjoyed. “
Viewing Earthlings was the game-changer, but learning how to cook for myself made it stick. Ten years ago I was a broke grad student and the few veg-friendly restaurants in town made eating out impractical,” said one friend. For another, “A lot of cooking, especially baking. Knowing now where to buy ready made items makes it easier too,” was what made all the difference.

6. Health Benefits

People who come into veganism through the door of health may have a stronger foundation when they learn the compelling ethical reasons but the health benefits can be motivating by themselves. Plant-based diets are not a magic bullet but there can be real health boons and it is a foot-in-the-door for those seeking their physical advantages. As Tina L. said, “ health has improved dramatically for one thing. Going back to eating animals or their byproduct in the form of dairy would also bring back my chronic sinus infections, headaches, nasal mucus overload, indigestion, and high cholesterol. On a more serious level, I'd probably have full blown Type 2 diabetes like my father by now.”

Another friend wrote, “I will be 36 next week and I already know five or six high school classmates who dropped dead due to heart issues. I have one high school classmate who nearly died of a heart attack a couple years ago and another one who was literally told by his doctor to go vegan because he is a ticking time bomb based on his cholesterol numbers. Maybe my motivation is pretty self-centered but it does the trick.”

7. Connecting their Veganism to a Bigger Picture

Another frequently cited reason for sticking with veganism among the people I asked is that their vegan practice is connected to a larger worldview that is meaningful to them. Said one, “
I mean yes, of course having the ability to empathize with animals is a huge contributing factor, but I also think that keeping oneself informed about what goes on in animal use industries and how that also connects to impacts on humanity is a big reason in my staying vegan.”

As Audrey M. succinctly put it, “It's easy when you make it about something bigger than yourself. Trust me, I have no willpower for anything.” Yet another friend took a broader view: “My commitment to veganism has deepened as my awareness of intersectionality (originally developed by Kimberle Crenshaw) has grown. At first, I was vegan for the animals, then the environment. Then my compassion grew to include the people who suffer under our industrialized, power-over food system. I learn a lot from vegans of color about this, and I'm seeing how anti-racist work and animal rights work are often enmeshed.”

8. A Radical Shift in Perception: Animals Are Not Seen as Food, Clothing, Etc. Anymore

I heard this one a lot and it’s not surprising. There is a shift in perception that occurs when you go vegan and if you’ve been vegan long enough, it seems to change one’s perspective unalterably. I remember talking to another friend about raising our vegan-from-birth children. She remarked that her son never had a tantrum when he wasn’t allowed non-vegan samples at the grocery store. It was the same with my son. We speculated that perhaps even as toddlers, when it was explained that these samples had animals or animal products in them, they were no longer perceived as “food.” They would as soon eat the rocks.

This perspective shift was reflected in quite a few comments. “
I don't think of animals as food anymore and that keeps me from going back to eating them,” said Grace K. Another friend said, “When I see meat or other animal products, I don't see food. I see the carcass or secretions of a tortured animal. The same goes for entertainment, clothing, etc. I don't see just clothes, or just cute animals behind bars. I see miserable animals who never should have been exploited or killed. As the one saying goes, it's easy to be vegan when you focus on the victims instead of yourself.” As Megan D. said, “Vegan 11 years. I see animal products as non-food. The same way I'd look at like, a desk. It's not food. It's not clothing.”

9. Connecting with Rescued Animals at Sanctuaries

Some people responded that interacting with animals who live at sanctuaries has helped people to feel a sense of hope and also connect more deeply with their convictions about compassionate living. Said Stephanie H., “
I also wanted to add that meeting the animals, especially happy ones at sanctuaries, getting to know them and their personalities - and then contrasting that with seeing the scared, miserable ones in the agriculture industry - that really leaves an impression. Non-vegans should be encouraged to go to sanctuaries and connect with the animals so they can see how amazing they are when they are happy and in a safe place.”

10. Find Podcasts, Bloggers and Mentors as Well as Movies that Inspire You

Quite a few respondents said that finding vegan podcasts, bloggers and mentors kept them going during the often awkward and challenging transitional time and an equal amount also have found films to be galvanizing. Said one, “I also had more conviction - I listened to Vegetarian Food for Thought a lot right as I transitioned so that was helpful since I have a lot of respect for Colleen.” Said Scott N., “I originally went vegan for health reasons, and ended up staying vegan for ethical reasons after watching all of the videos, such as Earthlings, Vegucated, and Cowspiracy.”

As reflected in the thread, films can be a double-edged sword: some find that films worked to deepen their conviction and others find films, especially the more graphic ones, to be sapping of their strength. “I always felt like I had to force myself to be a witness to these things out of respect for the animals. I wound up bringing my resulting feelings to a therapist. There are some images and moments permanently stuck in my head now that in retrospect I didn't need to see in order to live this life with conviction. It has absolutely weakened me. Still grappling with it,” said one friend. The bottom line here is that films can be very visceral and potent, especially the ones that are graphic: choose wisely and respect your limits with it.

What do you think contributes to one's longevity as a vegan?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Jo-Anne McArthur...


Award-winning photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur has traveled the globe for the past 15 years, documenting the often unimaginably sad lives of animals usually relegated to the background or hidden entirely from view: desperate raccoon dogs on a fur farm; the cold isolation of beluga whales in small tanks at aquarium parks; a lonely performing elephant chained outside a circus; pigs destined to become meat. As a photographer whose work has helped to draw back the curtains on the often concealed industries or the very out in the open ways that living beings are turned into consumable products, Jo-Anne’s purview is specific but also immense. With haunting, extraordinary images that pull viewers in, Jo-Anne has found enough of an audience for her work to have had the unforgettable We Animals collection of her photos published and even was the subject of the 2013 documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine.  As co-founder of The Unbound Project, Jo-Anne works to shine a spotlight on women around the globe who are leading the efforts to build a more just and kind world, and she is also planning to have her next collection, Captive, published this summer. In the midst of all this, Jo-Anne has recently made her voluminous archive of photographs available for free to the public via her searchable database, the We Animals Archives. Individuals, organizations, and media outlets are encouraged to use her credited photos, which is an incredible resource for opening eyes and hearts to informed, compassionate living. (Please consider donating to help this important effort continue.) I am honored to feature Jo-Anne McArthur as this week’s Vegan Rockstar.

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?

Short version, sorry! Longer version can be found in several interviews including this comprehensive one by Farm Sanctuary, and in the introduction to the We Animals book. Please have a look!

There were some defining moments for sure. I realized that I saw animals differently than others did. The macaque chained to a window in Ecuador disturbed me, while others took tourist photos of the poor animal. At one point my mother had 10 chickens living at her home in the country. I became friends with them; they were just like the dogs and cat. They wanted to socialize, be in the house, get attention, do things. It was then that I realized that there was no distinction between the chickens I ate, and the dogs I called family. They were all the same. I stopped eating meat, and then I became vegan on my first day as a Farm Sanctuary intern on April 1st 2003.

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?

At the time I felt that veganism would be a huge deprivation and exertion of will power. I didn’t know any vegans, really (just one tall skinny dude from my tree planting days; he’d eschew the massive buffet after work and eat an entire watermelon). I’d have been reassured to know that I would not feel deprived, that I would still fit in to society, that dinner parties wouldn’t be a place of worry about food and food topics, that I could (and did) just chill about all that. On the one hand, becoming vegan is life changing for sure, but it doesn’t mean you have to rearrange every single aspect of your life. I’d have benefitted from being told that it’s not “deprivation” eating, it’s just “different” 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 have a “let them start the conversation” approach. Spend a few minutes with me and you’ll see what’s on my plate, you’ll have found out that I’m an animal rights photojournalist…and these are interesting things! I’m friendly and happy, which allows people to feel comfortable asking me questions about what I do, what I eat, and why. The conversations happen inevitably, and they can see that my choices are a joy, not a deprivation.

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

Its growing diversity. We are no longer all doing the same types of work or outreach. We are doctors, lawyers, neuroscientists, ethologists, writers, chefs, educators, comedians, influencers, high tech company upstarts and all the rest. We’re shattering stereotypes and we are making the message mainstream.

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

We’re all very opinionated about this, aren’t we? :) My short answer is that people like to think they are coming to a decision on their own. They feel more empowered. Do your best to let them. More showing, less shoving.

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

Why vegan? Because it’s a joy. For my body, my spirituality and my intellect, it makes sense. And because it’s a great choice for so many reasons: the animals, the planet, and our bodies.

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?

When I started looking for veg-related materials, I wasn’t on the internet much! That was pre-2000. So I thought of the group most people did at the time. PETA! I got PETA pamphlets. From there I saw Peaceable Kingdom, The Witness, and then A Sea of Slaughter, written and narrated by Farley Mowat. That was a 45-minute documentary and I stopped eating fish after that. It was that simple. Influential authors had, at the time, been Erik Marcus and Peter Singer, as well as cookbooks by Jo Stepaniak and Robin Robertson. I read fewer strictly AR books these days, and more about ethology by scientists and philosophers like Carl Safina, Jonathan Balcombe and Lori Gruen.

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

I’m not exactly a shining example of self care. I’m just extremely driven and energetic when it comes to working long hours. The rewards are the change I see due to the work I do. What does recharge me though is being in nature, and running, and long stretches of reading in a stuffed, oversized chair or couch. And daydreaming. I need time to daydream because that’s when the ideas and plans work themselves out. It’s nice to do that on a big comfy couch as well, while drinking tea and staring at the wall, or on a plane.

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

We tend to give up meat eating in the order from largest to smallest animals. However, if we want to reduce animal suffering, we should start with the fish and the chickens and the egg-laying hens because they suffer in vastly greater numbers. Want to make a dent in animal suffering? Start with those animals! If we all ate less and less chicken, we’d be sparing billions upon billions of lives from misery.

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

…a joy. It’s an easy thing that I can do to make the world a better, kinder place. It’s a way for me to live in line with my values and have a fulfilling life. As they say at Edgar’s Mission in Australia: If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

But He Does So Much Good: The Culture of Abuse Excusing Among Vegans

Given certain circumstances of my upbringing, I am pretty tuned in to a particular narrative of rationalization that emerges often when we talk about abusers or their abusive behavior. “He doesn’t mean what he says.” “You’re selfish for making it all about you.” It doesn’t take much insight to see that this repackaging of mistreatment is deeply dismissive to those who speak up and centers those whose words or actions are abusive as being of more importance than those who are harmed by them. This is a common theme in society at large. Disappointingly, this same framework of abuse excusing is woven through many corners of the vegan community.

You can see the stitch marks whenever a high-profile vegan individual’s bigoted remarks or an organizations exploitative campaigns are brought up and the narrative predictably goes something like this: He does so much good for the animals. Nobody’s perfect. (Echoes of: “Be quiet: He puts food on the table.”) Or sometimes the narrative takes a more combative tone, saying something like, Well, when you’ve done as much good as [insert name or organization], maybe then you’ll have room to criticize or, similarly, I’m not in a place to say anything because he/she/they have done far more than I ever could hope to for the animals. (Echoes of: “He’s a better man than most; you think you’re so perfect?”) The silencing effect is pretty potent because it seems that more often than not, it ends important conversations before they’ve even begun. Maybe that’s the point. Shut up. There’s nothing to see here. Stop being a whiner. Everything’s fine.

I saw the narrative happening predictably enough again last week when one prominent animal rights “hero” announced his retirement in a 2,300+ word public goodbye letter on Facebook, seemingly placing much of the blame for his departure at the feet of intersectional activists within the vegan movement. [Please read more by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the woman who conceived the term intersectional and developed much of the theory, to understand what it means.]

The fact is that we all have to be responsible for our choices – we learned this in kindergarten, right? – and mature enough to handle it when people respond to our choices in ways that are not always admiring of us. Should abused people just shut the hell up about an abuser who does “mostly good” in the world? Similarly, should someone who is deified within a certain segment of the vegan movement but has made deeply problematic statements or created oppressive campaigns be above reproach when their words or actions have left no actual bruises but still contribute to an overall environment of violence and/or discrimination? Are we not allowed to speak up for ourselves or others until some vague day in the future when it’s suddenly the right time? Shouldn’t we be working to do our best as activists, while acknowledging that we’re not perfect but we can all do better? Shouldn’t the voices of those most harmed by bigotry be heard about how words do, in fact, matter, as these words have a great potential to alienate from or draw people to a vegan ethic? And shouldn’t vegans be doing our level best to reject a rhetoric of violence and not reinforce hierarchical power structures regardless?

We are here because we reject the self-serving hierarchy that prioritizes humans over other animals, right? We are here because we reject the status quo of violence and oppression, right? Why would we choose to reinforce those things when we learn that our words and/or actions contribute to suffering?

Sometimes accepting responsibility will come in the form of an apology and an honest effort to do better. Too often, though, the more “famous” a person or organization, the more they will aggressively and angrily resist even the simplest attempt to make things right and commit themselves deeper and deeper to the mentality that is abusive.

When vegans publicly announce their rape, battery and murder ideation against non-vegans, promote regressive and oppressive attitudes about women, people of color and other groups, they deserve to not only be called out but openly rejected by the larger vegan community. They are not tough. They are not hard-hitting. They are certainly not a great voice for the animals. They are ensuring that the vegan “movement,” stays small, white and insular because they care more about their right to express their violent wish fulfillment fantasies and oppressive campaigns than do something that might shift us to an ethic of true justice and a new framework of respectful coexistence.

Want to help the animals? Learn how to be less oppressive to potential allies and learn how to say that you’re sorry. Mean it. Learn from it. Do better. A little humility goes a long way.