Thursday, June 23, 2016

An Open Letter to My Son At Age 14


Dear Justice,

It was in 2002 whens I wrote a letter to you as a sleep-deprived, scared, often overwhelmed but still head-over-heels-in-love-with-her-baby new mother. I wrote the original letter a few months after a pretty frightening birthing experience that left me feeling battle-scarred and adrift for weeks; I was finally beginning to get my courage back when I wrote that first letter to you.

You’re 14 now. We survived this long and I never did forget you in your car seat, roll over you in my sleep, drop you while you were slippery from the bath or the millions of other things I was afraid of doing. All the clichés are true: it feels like it was yesterday and it feels like a lifetime ago when we were walking through the grocery store and that tiny moment between the newborn you and your father struck me and it sank in that I was truly a mother. Since then, there have been many more nights without sleep, binkies adored and finally – finally – discarded, the rolling-sitting-standing-walking-running progression, potty failures and triumphs, subjects that have transfixed you [volcanoes, Pompeii, deep sea animals, dinosaurs, pre-dinosaurs, increasingly obscure pre-dinosaurs, Legos, Star Wars, architecture…] and a natural talent for drawing and writing that has left me speechless. Along the way, you have lost all your baby teeth and grandparents, one who died when you a baby and one who lived with us, gained some close friends and lost some, too. Fourteen years after your birth, when you arrived naked at your first protest as a red-faced, fist-clenched objector to the Birthing Industrial Complex, I have not gotten out of the habit of looking in on you as you sleep at night. Sometimes you still remind me of that toddler who slept beside me, with the same dark, thick eyelashes, the same soft cheeks, the same sighs in your sleep. You are clearly not a little boy anymore, though. You have an unmistakable boy B.O. on occasion now, dark fuzz on your upper-lip region, and a little hint, now and then, of the teenaged you that is emerging, including an impressive eye roll and a should-have-seen-this-coming aptitude for snark that proves that the acorn did not fall far from his mother tree.

B.O. and hereditary tendencies towards snark aside, though, you are still my sweet boy.

At the time that I write this, you haven’t gone through The Change yet: no giant growth spurts, no croaking voice, no discernible Adam’s apple. In some ways, I look forward to seeing how this will manifest on you but in many ways, I do not. I am treasuring this gift of your extended “boyness” and not just because I want to relish this part of your youth as long as I can. I’m selfish but I’m not that selfish. I mainly dread the flood of hormones because I fear the other side of puberty. I’m scared for you, venturing more out into a world that I can shield you from less and less. Most of all, though, I am deeply aware of the responsibility for having brought another male into the world. I am not man-bashing. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that I am. I just cannot pretend not to see the damage that so many boys and men have unleashed upon the world. This is where having a feminist mother doesn’t have many perks, I’m afraid.

When you were born, in that instant of hearing the clichéd but heart-stopping, “It’s a boy!” I immediately embraced the idea of being the parent to a son.  You were perfect and you were exactly what I wanted and it was perfect that you were a boy. I had a son. A son. My son. Now, though, with your teen years and beyond moving so swiftly upon you, encroaching upon us, I admit that the inescapability of your maleness weighs on me more than ever. As I write this, you are still a kid who carefully moves worms off sidewalks, cries when he sees other people crying (another inherited trait), runs to get help when there’s a stray dog and is not too proud to listen to the sisters of your friends as they gush about My Little Pony. You’ve even watched an episode or two so you could know what they were talking about even though you’re really not into My Little Pony. That is how essentially good and sweet you are, Justice. How long can it last, though?

I’ll admit that the last couple of weeks have been particularly jarring ones with regard to my already negative feelings about the bloodstained fingerprints some males have left on the world, of the rippling grief and trauma they have caused. At the risk of making you feel ashamed, which is never my intention, I will say that males are the cause of most of the violent crime today: rapes, batteries, murders. This is not your fault. I am not blaming you for anything you didn’t do, nor am I blaming anyone else for anything they didn’t do. I am not going to ignore the elephant in the room, though. Our world has a problem with males. Some call this “toxic masculinity” and I have no issues with this term as long as we acknowledge that it is pervasive and widespread. Our world has had a male problem around the globe for pretty much as long as we’ve been able to record it and before that as well. How can we ignore that this is true?

At this point, some people reading this will get angry or defensive. They will say “not all men” or “women are violent, too” or something along those lines. To this I say, yeah, I get it, but that does not detract from the fact that violent crime is, by and large, committed by males. The systems that dominate, oppress and violate others are, by and large, male constructs as they have been the ones in power, creating the systems, and they replicate patriarchal ideologies and behaviors. My simple point is not that males are all and exclusively responsible for violence against others – of course not – but simply that it is pervasive and nearly always perpetrated by males. Is this such a controversial thing to acknowledge?

I grew up in a home that was very unlike the home I am raising you in. In my childhood home, we were not allowed to say what was perfectly honest and obvious if it upset the powers that be. I was raised to be silent about the elephant in the room, to suppress my voice until I felt like I could drown in a flurry of the unspoken words that I’d crammed down my throat to keep the peace. Ever since leaving that home, much of my life has been dedicated to naming things. I believe that before we can change things, we first need to name them. Before we can name them, we have to see them, admit to them, without defensiveness, lashing out, feeling shame that wasn't intended and without gas-lighting: we need to see these injustices with honesty and without caring more about our egos than the greater good. That is what I am doing in the hopes that you will be mindful about avoiding a legacy that you can absolutely choose to not inherit, Justice; with your teen years upon you, it is more and more necessary for you to be mindful of the kind of male – the kind of human being, really – you want to be and the kind of new legacy you want to create with how you live your life.

God, what a depressing letter this is. I’m so sorry. As when I wrote the first letter to you, I kind of want to apologize for the world but I don’t even know where to start.

The fact is, though, that you are still that perfect baby I met 14 years ago. I mean, flawed but still perfect. You are weird and artistic and sensitive and smart and strong and full of kindness. You are still that boy who is full of potential, for ill or for good. My hope for you is that when the teen hormones hit, you will still love to make people smile, still rescue the worms drying out on the sidewalk and the dogs running loose in the street, you will still see every being as your equal: equal in their capacity for feeling, and wanting to avoid, pain and equal in their capacity for feeling, and wanting to pursue, joy. If you understand that we are equals in this way, then you will want the best for everyone. You will create a new legacy, the one that I hoped for you when you were a blank-slate baby and the one that have every reason to I hope for you today.

You are going to change the world. The hormones haven’t hit yet but I know that you are more than them.

I love you,


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Lisa Rimmert

Lisa Rimmert is like seriously the best! I met Lisa online a few years ago when she asked to interview me for her fabulous blog and I walked away wishing that all questions would be like Lisa Rimmert questions. Since then, Lisa and I have crossed paths in person and she is as fun, down-to-earth and hilarious as I’d expected she’d be and she is now Director of Development at Vegan Outreach. I am so glad that Lisa and her wonderful voice have found a home working for the animals full-time as Director of Development at Vegan Outreach and I’m pretty stoked to be able to share her thoughts today. More Lisa Rimmert’s, fewer cranky vegans! I can get behind that movement. I am happy to feature Lisa 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?

I have “loved animals” since I can remember–dogs, cats, animals I was familiar with. I never thought about food animals until my friend became vegetarian in college. I made fun of him like a defensive jerk instead of looking inward at my own cognitive dissonance. A few years later, influenced by a vegan friend’s blog, I realized the hypocrisy of claiming to love animals while paying people to hurt and kill them because I liked burgers. I became vegan three years later after attending an animal welfare conference and being exposed to many vegans–none of whom had red paint, or hemp skirts and white-people dreads like I would have expected. Having it normalized like that made a big difference for me.

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?

I think I would have become vegan much sooner if I had known other vegans. I encourage vegans to go out into the world, connect with non-vegans, and lead by example. Show them how easy, accessible, and normal it is. If you have to eat Taco Bell and vegan milkshakes and buffalo seitan wraps all the time, so be it. It’s a hard job but someone has to do it. ;)

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

A mix of humor and vulnerability. I like to tell people how I thought before I went vegan, and why that changed. I wasn’t always vegan, but people are often surprised to hear or realize that I was once in their shoes.

Regarding humor, it’s a very natural way for me to express myself. By nature I find the humor in most things, so I enjoy using that in my advocacy. I run a snarky/funny blog called Weird! Why Aren’t You Vegan?, and I bring up veganism and animal rights in my comedy. It disarms people and opens them up to new thinking.

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

We are so motivated! Our compassion drives us. Even though we’re still small in numbers we’re loud and powerful and influential. Go us!

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

Letting anger and righteousness drive our tactics. Yes, we’re angry, and yes, we’re right. But we should find appropriate outlets for those feelings (punch a pillow, perhaps?), and then go out into the world and be nice.

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

None of us like seeing or knowing that animals suffer, and yet a lot of us fund that very suffering. We don’t have to kill animals in order to live healthy, fulfilled, satisfying lives, so why would we? We can vote with our wallets for a kinder world.

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 first became vegan, I was really disheartened by the reactions I received: people trivializing my feelings, being preemptively argumentative or defensive, and trying to poke holes in what I believe. The book Living Among Meat Eaters by Carol Adams helped so much. Now that I’ve been vegan for a while, I consider intersectional justice advocates my teachers and role models. They teach me that being vegan is not the be-all, end-all of compassion. There is more to do, and it’s important to keep learning and growing.

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

I’m lucky in that my job is a constant source of inspiration. As Director of Development for Vegan Outreach, I get to work every day with amazing people–from Outreach Coordinators who lug boxes of leaflets around and hand them out by the thousands each day, to donors who give their hard-earned money to make that work possible. When I get really ragey, I take my dog to the park and enjoy watching her have the time of her life.

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

There are so many, but as I type this I’m particularly fired up about captivity and sexism. Mostly unrelated but I’m sure there are connections (forced breeding, hi!). I recently went whale watching in the Puget Sound. In Blackfish, that’s where over 90 Orcas were shown being herded into a net in 1970, to be sold to marine parks like SeaWorld. I had seen Blackfish previously but that trip inspired me to watch it again and learn more. Based on the makeup of their brains, scientists hypothesize that whales are incredibly sensitive, highly emotional, have speech and even dialects, and have amazing memories. Messing with their family systems, separating them, and confining them are crueler than we can even imagine. Let’s quit that. Read more here–it’s super interesting (and infuriating, so good luck).

Regarding sexism, I’ll just say that it pervades every part of our society, it’s often unconscious and invisible, and we need to knock it off. J

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

Realizing that there is no neutral, that everything we do has an impact–and striving to make it a positive one.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Trouble with Storytelling


Back when I worked at a large animal shelter, the first job I was had was in customer service, which was kind of a poor fit for someone with a history of receiving multiple detentions and traffic tickets as well as having had at least one judge berate me for being physically unable to resist rolling my eyes in the face of stupidity. (I think in the case of the judge, I was actually sighing dramatically but you get the point.) While my career in customer service was short-lived, a boon for both the sake of my mental health and the institution, the time I logged there is something that will always stick with me. One of the first tasks I was trained in was answering the switchboard, the front line between the shelter and the larger community. Something that I came to anticipate and dread in equal measure was working the switchboard whenever there was a news story about an animal who was at our shelter, like a dog rescued from a piece of ice floating on Lake Michigan or a stray cat and her kittens who’d been rescued from a fire at a shuttered factory. The shelter would be flooded with calls from people who wanted to adopt that specific animal and only that specific animal.

“I saw that dog on Channel 7 and I have to adopt him. It’s destiny.”

“I want to adopt one of the kittens that was in the Tribune story. I have to have one. Could you place a hold for me?”

This happened predictably enough that the customer service manager trained all of us on the correct protocol for that kind of call and warned us whenever we had a new animal up for adoption like this that we should expect to be inundated with calls on that specific case. We were trained to tell the callers that we aren’t able to place holds over the phone; animals up for adoption needed a visit, an application and an interview. I would take it further and tell the callers that we had many other beautiful dogs and gorgeous cats who weren’t in the news but were every bit as perfect and charming and in need of a forever home but I could hear them turn cold over the phone. Many just hung up on me. They weren’t interested in just any dog or cat. They wanted the special ones, the ones they felt a bond with despite having never met, the ones who were in the news. They wanted the ones with a story.

This phenomenon is nothing new or unique to the shelter I worked at all those years ago. Animal advocates are very familiar with what happens when a pig or a cow pre-determined to become meat on a menu or in a grocery case beats incredibly narrow odds to escape the kill floor, evade captors and find sanctuary: he is celebrated as a hero, she is heralded in the news, we cheer for them. They did it!  These once-nameless and unknown cogs in our massive food machine have gotten the fugitive-turned-hero re-write and thus been transformed in how we see them, which is no longer as food. It makes us feel good to offer the occasional stay of execution. We also can’t help but identify with and cheer on those who have lucked into a hero’s arc. In the impulse to celebrate those who have survived the nearly impervious chamber of horrors we have constructed as animal agribusiness, we can face our own ambivalence with killing if we are willing to recognize it.

We are a species that resonates with storytelling. The blessing and the curse of being a human is that we love our stories. It is a blessing because storytelling is such a transformative act, a chance to leave our own experience, to gain wisdom and insight, to travel to places we’ve never been, to plug into a universal connection. It is a curse because along with our predisposition toward storytelling, and maybe because of it, we also have a tendency toward self-deception and avoiding the truth that is right in front of us.

We also are hardwired for connection and we strive to live lives of meaning, even when we don’t realize it. The people calling the shelter didn’t want to identify with what they thought of as the nameless, shapeless others in cages, the ones thought of as sad, moping masses without special stories. These other dogs and cats in the news were special, they had stories, they were survivors, they overcame something. Who can blame the callers for emotionally connecting with them? From the earliest stories we are told as children, we develop an affinity for the David vs. Goliath narrative arcs in our books, fables, films and so on. We want to be different. We want to be courageous. We want to be remarkable. We want to celebrate those qualities when (we think) we recognize them. Stories help us to see who is worthy of our admiration and empathy.

We can see this phenomenon in the outrage around Harambe, the gorilla who was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo recently. People cannot connect the dots to the many nameless Others with qualities we don’t recognize as strong, or courageous or even tragic. There are too many of them; they are too common for us, too. They are not special. They are not unique. People can connect with Harambe. He was a victim in this. He was special and unique. Right?

The challenge for vegans is how make the other animals matter to the public as much as Harambe or the other animals in the news. How do we turn public sentiment against the injustice of something as numbingly, cruelly mundane as turning living beings into food? How do we personalize the billions of animals who have been mutilated, crammed into cages, forcibly impregnated, had their babies stolen, survived horrific environments, perished in them? The beings pulled from the sea, not just the more valued so-called “by-catch” but the billions of intended-catch? How do we tell the story of all the other animals on display, the nameless flamingos in Chicago, the unknown gazelles in Topeka, the squirrel monkeys behind the glass in San Francisco? How about the millions of mice in vivisection labs, the beagles who didn’t get out, the rabbits and rats who will never see sunlight, much less be featured on the news?  

What if their lives were so constrained and hemmed in that they don’t have unique stories to tell or winning personality traits waiting for us to be charmed by? What if their lives were so full of suffering, so tedious and so void of pleasure they don’t possess individual characteristics that differentiate them from the masses of others like them? I am thinking of the dogs at the shelter who lived in backyards and never knew kindness or comfort, how spiritless and dull-eyed they often seemed. I am thinking of rescued chickens who want to dust bathe and lie in the sun but don’t necessarily care about winning us over with their personalities. I am thinking of the mice who lived and died unnoticed in a vivisection lab, thrown out with the trash. Do their lives matter less if they don’t have story that is meaningful to us?

They have their own stories but we are not entitled to one for their lives to have mattered. They don’t owe us a heroic or heartwarming story arc. I believe that our need for a story in order to open our hearts reveals our own shortcoming rather than theirs.

We need to be compassionate without any strings attached.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Brenda Sanders


I am honored to be featuring Brenda Sanders today because if anyone exemplifies a vegan rock star to me, that person is Brenda. As a committed social justice activist based in Baltimore City, Brenda is a longtime vegan and uses her time to tirelessly chip away at disconnection by thoughtfully linking her outreach and advocacy efforts to other social justice causes, such as anti-racist and feminist movements. A highly active and engaged individual, Brenda inspires the vegan movement to be more inclusive and intersectional in our efforts and she is not afraid to call out racism, classism and sexism within the vegan activist sphere when she sees it. As an engaged community member, Brenda recognized the need for affordable vegan options available to all. As such, she has helped to create PEP Foods, a collective of businesses that has developed a line of delicious vegan products that anyone can afford and that are available throughout Baltimore, particularly in low-income communities. As co-creator of the annual VeganSoulFest, she is exposing the public to vegan speakers, chefs, businesses and organizations (check out their Facebook page here). Oh, Brenda also teaches cooking classes, a six-week vegan education class, runs the Penn-North Community Gardens to give the people of that community better access to nutritious food, works to combat environmental racism, speaks on intersectionality in the vegan movement and kind of just generally makes the world a better place. I feel like the world's biggest slacker now but I am still honored and excited to have the amazing Brenda Sanders as this week’s 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?

My evolution took a strange trajectory. I actually went from growing up having almost no contact with animals and not giving any thought whatsoever to their lives to spending the majority of my time fighting for them. I started eating a vegan diet for the health benefits about 20 years ago but even then I wasn't making the connection between animal products and actual animals. It wasn't until a series of incidents involving captive animals - a gorilla in a zoo and then a dolphin at the aquarium - that I began to see animals as individuals whose lives had value. Now I spend my life trying to help other people see what I see.

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?

I know this is a controversial topic, but I think pre-vegan Brenda would have been extremely moved by the undercover videos exposing animal abuse. Had I been shown those videos, I believe I would have started fighting for animals 20 years ago.

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

When I speak to people about veganism, I speak from the heart. I believe that speaking honestly about where I've been and what road has brought me to the place where I am now lets people know that I'm not coming from a judgmental place, but from a sincere belief that the human race has the potential to do right by each other, the planet and the other animals with whom we share the planet.

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

I think our biggest strength is that we really want to live our lives in such a way that lines up with our ethics. We recognize how wrong it is to victimize and exploit the vulnerable and we've committed to living our lives in a way that doesn't contribute to all that needless suffering.

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

I think the biggest hindrance to getting the word out is that we have such small numbers and we're attempting to reach such massive numbers of people who are participating in animal exploitation. I think as the numbers of vegan activists increase we'll be far more effective at getting the word out.

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

What other lifestyle enables people to make such a huge personal impact on the planet and the animals we share it with as well as our own personal well-being?

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?

As a black vegan, I've felt extremely under-represented in the animal rights movement, which is why I'm always really excited when I see people like Aph Ko, Breeze Harper, Seba Johnson, Christopher Sebastian, David Carter and other black activists having a platform to speak about animal rights.

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

My schedule is pretty much packed with back-to-back programs and events, so I don't get many opportunities to unwind. About 4 times a year, though, I make time to make it to the woods and go camping. There's something about being surrounded by the forest that gives me the recharge I need to keep doing this work.

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

I would like for people - especially activists - to not give up hope on humanity. I know it's hard when we're constantly bombarded with the worst humans have to offer, but every time I stand in front of a group of people and speak straight from my heart, I can see the moment when that connection is made and people's hearts open up. I see it every day and it gives me hope that we really can change for the better. If I can go from never giving animals a second thought to spending every waking moment advocating for them than anybody can change!

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

To me, being vegan is the one thing I can personally do to have a positive impact on this planet and all those who inhabit it.

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.