Preachy Vegan

When I was five years old, I walked with my mum past a butcher—a large, blood-red building where fleshy, veiny, bright red cuts of different meat hung on display in the window. Centring the display was a large lamb’s head staring at me. Most human memory begins at age four, so I can still recall the terror and devastation that washed over my tiny body as I scream-cried into my mother’s arms. It had to be my earliest memory of both terror and sorrow. It wasn’t like watching a scary cartoon for the first time, nor was it the same type of tears I would have produced after falling off a swing and grazing my knee. I was experiencing what I believe to be empathy for the animal staring back at me. I felt differently about it, as I did the faceless organs surrounding it—all wrapped up in butcher’s paper, sealed with the company sticker—and the large slabs of meat that turned slowly on the kebab spit. It had eyes; a mouth gaped in fear. It had fluffy wool and ears that stuck out as mine did. It had been murdered for someone else to eat—that was a fact.

When I was seven years old, we had to watch the film Babe in class. This film, while technically kid-friendly, explores themes that I believe everyone should be exposed to. Throughout, Babe the piglet, must watch his barnyard friends justify their existence as ‘useful’ to the humans that own them. Babe watches as those around him are slaughtered for Christmas dinner, while he is spared since he may be better off competing in the county fair. This film deals with an anthropomorphised pig having to grasp the reality that ‘humans eat pigs’. Upon coming home from school that day, I begged my parents to let me not eat pork anymore. I’d grasped the fact that those faceless cuts of meat sitting in the window once had a face, body, and their own experiences—just as I did.

To me, this is veganism in its purest form: a seven-year-old child not wanting to eat something that was once alive and had been killed for them. These moments were perfect examples of the erosion of cognitive dissonance, ‘the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change’ (Oxford Dictionary). As Slavoj Žižek (2008) discusses in Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, we have a tendency to look away from the atrocities that face us. Many people know what goes on in slaughterhouses, and many people may have even seen videos or visited one, but not many people go without animal products in their diet.

To truly understand the issues with veganism, as a result of what the movement has come to represent, it’s important to turn to its origins. The word has only existed since 1944, but its origins can be traced back to the philosopher, Pythagoras, at around 500BCE, who held benevolence—meaning kind and friendly—at the core of his teachings. Veganism was widely adopted by Hindus and Buddhists believing simply that humans should not inflict pain on animals, and that we should practice non-violence, or ahiṃsā, toward all sentient beings. For me, the origins of veganism remind me a lot of the origins of my own desire to be vegan: for simple, ethical purposes founded in harm reduction and empathy. These origins also provide an example of how vastly different white, modern, Western veganism is and the implications that can have.

When I first went vegan, following a steady decline in animal product consumption, I was fourteen years old. This was in 2016 when diet fads such as ‘raw veganism’ were all the rage online. Being an impressionable, frankly closeted, anorexic teenager, I bought in to it—literally—spending mum and dad’s money on dates, bananas and uh … not much else. These white, thin, conventionally attractive vegan influencers took not eating animal products for ethical reasons, and extended it to avoiding oil, salt, sugar, treats and cooked food for ‘health’ purposes. Meanwhile, they pushed their own cookbooks and pricey product recommendations. They were often accompanied by strict workout routines and other rigorous lifestyle choices that made it clear that the ethical desire to be vegan was far surpassed by their need for control.

Influencers like these were why my first shot at being vegan was a short-lived, tumultuous experience that had me repulsed by it until 2020. They pushed narratives like ‘if you quit being vegan, you were never vegan in the first place’. There was even discussion around whether non-vegans deserve to live at all. This mindset, rooted in extremity and shock value, can be witnessed through various forms of vegan activism seen throughout the Western world, from people marching into shops, spilling milk all over the floor—a product gone to waste and a worker’s new responsibility—to those who break into farms and ransack them. A conversation I had with one of these activists lead us to a near argument when I said it was wrong to force dogs into veganism as that in itself is animal cruelty. She doubled down by saying that she wanted non-vegans to feel the discomfort they deserve when they enter her home. 

Many vegan products are hyperinflated and most alternatives seem to be at least a few dollars more than animal products. I’ve often found that the products with trendy advertising make the pockets hurt the most. You can buy plain packaged oat milk for as little as $2, or you can buy Oatly milk—with phrases on the bottle such as ‘tell cows to moove aside’ and billboards plastered around Fitzroy—for $6. The advertising surrounding vegan products never seems to centre on educating consumers about animal rights and environmental issues, or how cutting down on animal products will help. They instead stay in the whirlpool of wellness, dieting, and eating ‘cleaner’. By pitching the products and lifestyle in this fashion, veganism in turn has suffered from its own cognitive dissonance through its absorption into a global trend in which money, control, and image outweighs its empathic origins. It's teaching us to switch off in order to buy into whatever they sell, just as we are told to switch off and buy the corpses of animals, despite knowing how they got there. This is the inherent and objective violence of capitalism Žižek writes about. When a product, a diet or a lifestyle becomes globalised and weaponised, it loses what it once was in order to serve the purpose of elitism and consumption (Žižek 2008).

Cognitive dissonance leads to ignorance. Just as this can be seen in our blind contributions toward animal cruelty, it can also be seen in the way veganism has whitewashed itself. It has taken something designed for the betterment of others by another culture and turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy of aesthetics and consumerism, with the fundamental belief that if you can’t live as they do, then you’re not good enough. Indeed, the global consumerist market demands that we turn a blind eye to inequity, exploitation, and violence. Without complacent consumers, global capitalism would struggle to succeed in the way that it does. This goes for all aspects of demand, from meat production to veganism. 

References:
Žižek S (2008) Violence: six sideways reflections, Profile Books, London.
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