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 18, 2016

Ten Emotional States that Are a Distinctly Vegan Experience: A Pictorial Guide

Because our love for nutritional yeast and high-speed blenders is not the only things that sets us apart from society, here are ten emotional states that are distinctly vegan.

1. When you’re in the vegan protein and cheese section of the grocery store and someone else is also looking and you want to say something because you feel like you might be in a tribe together but you’re not sure so you just kind of stand there with a grin on your face that could be interpreted as being friendly or but it’s most likely, you know, not, so you feel creepy.

2. When you’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store behind someone who is putting all these vegan items on the belt and you feel happy and you’re ready to say something to acknowledge it and invite her to a vegan potluck and to being your friend on Facebook and godparent to your dog and then she pulls out a carton of eggs and you’re sent spiraling into a crushing, existential gloom that feels kind of like your heart has been ripped out and stomped on. Or maybe it’s just me.

3. When you bring a vegan dish to your office party or family gathering and you’re hovering near it waiting for people to try it and you realize that you’re being weird so you try to walk away and distract yourself but every time someone goes near the food you brought, you get all weird again.

4. When you’re reading a list of ingredients on a new food product and it looks good and you’re getting more and more hopeful and you’re about to take a picture so you can brag about your discovery on Facebook and then you notice that the last ingredient listed is butter oil or some such.

5. Whenever a celebrity claims to be vegan. 

6. Whenever that celebrity quits being vegan.

7. Whenever you get a notification that your obnoxious paleo cousin has commented on a vegan link you shared.

8. When the only food you can eat at a party is the food you brought and your scarcity issues kick in like whoa.

9. When someone says, “You know, ‘vegetarian’ is an Indian word for ‘bad hunter,’” or something similar to you and you have to walk that tightrope between being an easygoing vegan or a humorless scold in the public eye.

10. When you are trying to figure out if something on the menu is vegan and your server keeps trying to point you to gluten-free items.

What other distinctly vegan emotional states can you identify?

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. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

About Our L'il Communications Company: Why Communication Matters...

So there is something kind of cool happening that has already been announced on our social media but I wanted to share here, too. John and I are launching our newest collaboration, Vegan Street Media, which is modeled on our work with but with the focus on helping vegan businesses, services, product lines and non-profits develop effective, memorable and innovative written and visual communications in our increasingly crowded online and consumer landscape. Why is communication so crucial? Word nerd that I am, I decided to do some etymological digging first to delve into this question.

Communication originates from the late 14th century, coming from the
Old French comunicacion, which evolved from communicationem in Latin, a noun of action (and ain’t that the truth?) from the past participle stem of communicare meaning "to share, divide out; impart, inform; join, unite, participate in," and "to make common” from communis. My Oxford Concise [heh!] English Dictionary has six definitions of communication but the third and fourth seemed most relevant: social intercourse and, in plural, the science and practice of transmitting information especially by electronic or mechanical means. Communications is really the act of communicating, which is how we impart or share our thoughts, feelings, knowledge: how we converse, verbally and non-verbally, with the world.

Through gestures, pauses, physical expression, language, silences, images and so much more, we are communicating with the world. The late, great comedian Jack Benny spoke volumes more with awkward pauses and pained expressions than most would with pages and pages of dialogue, and by doing so, he got a bigger laugh than if he’d gone straight through with the original joke. You can be loud and boisterous with your expression or subtle and understated and be just as suffused with power and presence. Communication takes many forms and hits us in many ways: from a slow grin to a perfect eye-roll, shattering satire to a deeply felt speech, expressing a grieving mother’s rage against the senselessness of war to the exquisite tenderness and feeling in Peter Falk’s singularly evocative “as you wish." When we engage with the others in the world, make no mistake that we are always communicating. At its heart, communication is about expression the most successful communication builds connection. When we can reach and listen to other people about universal truths and unique experiences, about this latent or pronounced desire in all of us to live lives of meaning and value, we can make divisions evaporate and we help plug one another into the revitalizing charge that comes from empathy. Conversely, we can also put up more barriers to understanding, empowerment and connection with how we communicate.

With Vegan Street Media, our aim is to remove as many obstacles as possible by helping clients create a beautiful, effective and smart path of communication that is uniquely their own. Despite what some animal advocacy pundits might claim, I do not believe that there is a hard and fast science to reaching “the mainstream,” as if “the mainstream” were one unvaried, homologous mass of mouth-breathers. We are not automatons; human animals are individuals and not as predictable as some might like to think. As anyone who has been doing vegan advocacy for a while knows, there are no “insert Tab A into Slot B” procedures for creating new vegans and anyone who claims that there are is being overly simplistic. There are, though, some basic strategies we can use to create the best conditions for minimizing the divide between people and making real connection more of a feasible outcome, and, thus, making those we are communicating with more willing to consider our message. (Strategy #1? Don’t treat people like they are robots or potential notches on your vegan conversion sheet.)

As more and more people are learning about the disasters we cause with our animal consumption habits, they are increasingly either defensive or more willing to hear and see a message that runs counter to business as usual. In either case, we absolutely must step up to the plate and we must do it with our best communications – our best at uniting, sharing, speaking truthfully – to help connect the dots or foster connection. Whether it’s in the form of beautiful packaging, inspired storytelling, transformative campaigns, smart advocacy or something else, how we communicate with the public matters and it matters deeply. Quiet or grandiose, heartfelt or clever, it can take many styles and forms and still be effective if it is an honest expression of our own unique voice, vision and message. At the foundation of the seismic shift we’re trying to cultivate and move toward, much of our work boils down to communicating effectively.

Let’s do it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Cynthia von Buhler

This week’s Vegan Rock Star is animal rescuer, multimedia artist, playwright, director and surrealism-enthusiast Cynthia von Buhler, a creative force of nature who builds immersive theatrical productions, most recently The Illuminati Ball, an homage and reinterpretation of a legendary surrealist dinner party from 1972. The Illuminati Ball, happening on select dates through August at a secret location an hour outside of NYC (they are taking applications)
is described as what happens when you cross Eyes Wide Shut with Burning Man and mix in a healthy amount of science fiction.” With fire performance, opera and "esoteric ceremonies" as well as audience interaction in the form of animal kinship roles and an appearance from Persephone, Cynthia’s pot-bellied pig, The Illuminati Ball will also feature an all-vegan menu. In other words, this is not your typical potluck or dinner theater experience.

When not developing vegan surrealist immersive theatrical events, Cynthia is a children’s book author, visual artist, performer, and creator of some very cool cat things. She is also a longtime animal advocate and I am honored to feature her today as our Vegan Rock Star.

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?

When I was a girl, my parents got me a de-scented skunk as a pet and it taught me about unconditional love. A skunk is a wild animal and shouldn’t be a pet. She wasn’t remotely cuddly, and would constantly bite me. Even so, I made her meals every day and tenderly cared for her until she died of old age. Later in life I began rescuing feral cats. I even wrote a children’s book about one, The Cat Who Wouldn’t Come Inside (Houghton Mifflin). Feral cats require a high degree of unconditional love. The meaner the cat, the more I want to understand and love it.

My most important value is compassion. If I wouldn’t like to be treated a certain way, why would they? Why is my life more important than theirs? Why would I take their whole life away for one unimportant meal for myself? It just didn't make sense to me — so I stopped eating animals. In the application for The Illuminati Ball, two of the questions I ask candidates are 1) Do they like animals and 2) Do they eat meat? Most people rave about their deep love of animals, but a few questions later they excitedly explain how much they adore eating meat. That doesn’t compute for me at all. There’s a serious disconnect happening here. I always felt it was wrong to eat animals and over the years those feelings have grown stronger. So I educated myself on my own disconnect.

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?

Seeing someone I admire thriving as a vegan was the biggest influence for me. They showed me it is possible. Of course, watching animal cruelty videos affected me, too. We need to face the truth.

I was also influenced by meeting animals face-to-face. Places like Farm Sanctuary are amazing. Take people who eat meat to meet the animals. Quality time with a farm animal can have a profound effect. Posting positive videos of animals released from captivity can also be extremely moving. 

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 large number of followers on social media, and so I try to set an example by posting articles and pictures. I do not constantly barrage people with negative images or videos; I occasionally post something strong, but not often, or it may turn them away. I try to remain upbeat and open to their concerns. I gently express my feelings to naysayers. If they admire my lifestyle, I can influence them when I talk about my own choices. Posting videos of Persephone running happily around my yard, bathing, blowing bubbles in her water bowl and snuggling with me shows people how sensitive and sweet pigs are.

During The Illuminati Ball, kinship leaders give the most compassionate of their seven “Illuminati candidates” an antique key with a note telling them to “see Cynthia.” These people receive private visits with Persephone. They pet her, feed her and give her belly rubs. I also introduce her to everyone at the end of the show. If you pet and feed a living pig, you might think twice about eating bacon the next morning.

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

I think social media is having a profound effect on the movement. We can distribute information and visuals more effectively now.

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

The Ag-Gag laws are a disaster. We need to fight them to the death.

Perception. Some vegans come across as militant or condescending and that scares people away. We need people to perceive us as open-minded, healthy and wise. We should try to be understanding and set a good example. Most of us were once meat eaters (thanks to our parents), and we need to remember that disconnect in order to help others bridge that gap.

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

My best pitch would be to bring Persephone onto the elevator. When they meet her they fall in love. 

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 illustrated a book by Jason Webley and Amanda Palmer, Evelyn Evelyn, An Unfortunate Tale in Two Tomes.” Investigating and drawing the plight of circus elephants and farmed chickens really affected me. I had already stopped eating most meat by the time I illustrated it, but drawing this book made me stop eating chicken soup, something I once thought I couldn’t live without. I read Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin and Skinny Bitch. I recommend showing people Cowspiracy. This film led me from vegetarianism to veganism. The Chipotle animated factory farming video is also remarkable, having been created and released by such a large fast food corporation. It’s extremely powerful and I wish more people could see it. I’m still evolving. I’m still learning.

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

Because I’m a vocal online advocate for animal rights, other activists send me horrific animal cruelty videos. I’ve seen most of them already and sometimes when I’m feeling angry and overwhelmed I cannot watch them. Many of my activist friends have written me saying that they are so depressed about the plight of animals that they can’t get out of bed. I have been there myself and I tell them they need to stop watching and reading the bad stuff. They will be useless to help if they are paralyzed. Sometimes we need to step away in order to become strong again. Spending time loving the dogs, cats, pigeons and pig I rescued help me recharge.

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

I’m starting an Illuminati for animals. I’m seeking successful people who want to use their talents and businesses to help gain power for the powerless. We will have yearly retreats at my lakefront estate to brainstorm solutions to help animals. I will be sending membership invitations to companies, organizations, artists and activists who have done something exceptional for animal rights. I will also invite people with skills we could use who might not already be involved in animal activism, like animal-friendly journalists, politicians, scientists or lawyers.

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

“…being evolved.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Art of Listening (Or Your Allies are More Important Than Your Ego)...


“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” - Stephen Covey

About a month ago, I observed of one of those little dust-ups that happen fairly often on Facebook. It happened when someone high up with a respected animal advocacy organization was questioned by others about his use of a derogatory term, usually used against women, to insult other vegans whose strategies irritated him. This was on his personal time, not in his official capacity with the organization, but because he’s a fairly high-profile individual and it was publicly said in a way that could be easily shared, it was. Social media being what it is, for better or worse, he was quickly called out for the way he used this term and given the opportunity to make a reasonable case for using it, apologize or dig his heels in and refuse to listen. He chose the last option.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to be offensive or sexist. I have never met him in person but my impression is that he is a good guy and he’s one who devotes his time to building a more compassionate world. He is very gifted at what he does. That said, when he was – in my opinion – gently questioned about it, he lashed out in a pretty disproportionate way, not only listing all the ways in which he personally is oppressed by society – mentioning his sexual orientation and his ethnic background – as proof that he could not be sexist (???) but he also chose to dig his heels in and refused to entertain the idea that it was worth considering the voices of those who had differing views. He went further, implying that anyone who had anything to say about the subject that wasn’t supportive of his viewpoint was petty and ineffective. Despite what I felt were some very reasonable points to consider, he basically wrote off anyone who had an opinion to share that contradicted his own as a humorless, unproductive hater and huffed away.

The thing is, I absolutely knew where he was coming from and I empathized with his situation. Nobody likes to feel ganged up on and even when people are pretty careful about not demonizing one another, we can overreact when we feel like we’re under attack and that people are judging us, which is especially amplified by when it happens on a social media platform. With our increased capacity to interact with one another virtually, we also have a potential powder keg that can turn what should be civil disagreements into flame wars that become much more personal, messy and hurtful.

I understand as well as anyone how uncomfortable it is to admit mistakes and apologize. There is almost nothing that sets me off more than feeling like I’m being lectured and nitpicked. I get irritated and angry. When those uncomfortable feelings arise, which is at least a few times a week at this point due to having an active presence on social media, this is when it’s really vital for me to take some deep breaths, step away from my reactive self, and, with my ego removed as much as possible, ask myself if there something of merit and consideration in what is being said to me. I will also ask someone who is more neutral about it, like John, for his thoughts and many times he lets me know that I am overreacting.

Often it is baseless and just part of the social media landscape of, yes, bored people who are looking for something to attack. That is certainly always a distinct possibility. Sometimes it’s not, though. Sometimes there is something valid there. I’ve learned through observing that when people tell you that the words you used are offensive and this is why, these people and their thoughts deserve your consideration. Dismissing the voices of those who care enough to try to bring something they care about to your attention smacks of a conceited, callous attitude.

Years ago, I first became disillusioned with a vegan I once considered a hero because of the arrogant and condescending way that he dismissed anyone who disagreed with a term he created to describe our society’s confused and inconsistent treatment of other animals. It was an expression that he coined that found its basis in a specific mental illness and he applied it in moral terms. It didn’t bother me at first – it seemed to be an accurate descriptor and I had no quarrel with it – but as people who either have or care for those who suffer with this specific condition voiced their opposition to his use of the term and the way he used it, I was so turned off by his defensive and mocking response that I couldn’t help considering more of what they had to say. What they said made me more aware that mental health is a massive privilege that I take for granted; how might I feel if I saw a condition of mine treated like just another a tool in a toolbox to make a point? Might I be offended? Might I be justified in being offended? I had to answer yes to those questions. Through that new lens, seeing this man lash out and continue to deride peoples’ thoughts on a subject that didn’t affect him personally set the wheels in motion for me to scrutinize more of his interactions with the public. With that new perspective, I could see that the traits that I once perceived as confidence and honesty could also be interpreted as cockiness and meanness. It wasn’t long before this man was no longer a hero to me.

Since then, I have seen many examples of vegans refusing to budge when asked to be considerate to less advantaged populations and, time and time again, I have seen many who fail to meet the bare minimum of what one should expect, defaulting instead to white, ableist and patriarchal standards. Even worse, I have seen them treating the people who dare to speak up like impudent insubordinates for having the audacity to question their authority. If that’s not reinforcing unjust power structures, I don’t know what is because…

* When we tell people of color that their genuine challenges to veganism, often due to lack of access, time and financial resources, are petty and selfish, they are being told to shut up and deal with it. They are being told that their real lives don’t matter.

* When we tell women that they are being self-absorbed if they speak up about objectification and misogyny in the vegan sphere, they are also being told that their lives don’t matter. I don’t know if sex sells, but I do know that sexism sells out a movement.

* When we assert our intention to use every tactic is on the table if it might possibly sway some people despite negative personal and long-term consequences, we are saying that we care more about tactics than individual lives. As with the detractors above, these people are told that they need to stop whining and get in line.

I believe that the people who refuse to acknowledge the importance of caring for and about one another are setting themselves up for irrelevance. An inability to understand and appreciate the value of respectful, real allyship will ultimately ensure their obsolescence but I hope that too many people don’t become isolated in the process.

As a writer, words matter to me deeply. I am protective of them and I take great pleasure in the delicious variety available to me. At the same time, as a writer who is also a vegan and an activist, I care about being effective and a considerate, reliable ally more than I care about individual words. If I learn that something I’ve said is unintentionally harmful, I can adapt. There are many words out there including, “I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought about that. Let me try again.” There are many options. My guess is that if you want to write off any critique as the “word police” coming after you, your advantages are clouding your ability to understand your own privileged status and clouding your ability to empathize. You need to take a step back. You need to learn that an honest apology isn’t the worst thing in the world.

When people tell us something matters to them, we should listen. Most important, we should hear.