Veganism is not something I often discuss in depth. Aside from “can you eat this?” exchanges with friends, there’s little space for analysing details of the lifestyle. Prolonged chat about food choices provokes backlash from non-converts who feel they are being personally attacked by my diet, so I tend to keep quiet. However after attending the first VegFest Scotland last week, inspired by a vegan macaroni cheese pie, I decided to write this column. What follows are some brief thoughts on the politics of the plant-based diet.
Veganism and masculinity
The consumption of flesh and the domination of sub-human subjects is a key tool for displaying masculine power and privilege. Think hunting, gun violence, steaks, eating contests, and an athletic bulking-up diet. Growing boys need blood with their protein, and so on. What can be done? Enforcing a masculinity that encompasses tofu isn’t useful for the movement if it doesn’t shake off the myriad of power issues inherent in masculinity now. If men are worried about being put down at the Christmas dinner table for declining turkey, then that’s a sad fact. Effeminate transgression in masculine realms can be really unsafe. Everyone has moral boundaries contingent on how easy or difficult moral action is in their circumstances, and maybe for some it has to take longer for principles to match up with behaviour.
Veganism does not have to be class-exclusionary. Compared to other items on supermarket shelves, meat is expensive. Cheese is expensive. The odd pack of Linda McCartney sausages is usually cheaper. Aside from processed substitutes, pulses and veg are cheaper still. In my experience the people who make claims about extra expense have not lived vegan long-term. This is due to lack of information and positive rhetoric about veganism, and not the fault of non-vegans themselves. The whiff of middle class elitism that people get from veganism most likely comes from the health-focussed branding of “all-organic-all-cruelty-free” products aimed at affluent people who want to try something new with their Nutri-Bullet. For the record, no diet is “cruelty-free”. In animal rights terms, avoiding dairy and meat reduces demand for suffering, but it doesn’t improve the labour rights of exploited farm workers in the Global South. Unfortunately it is significantly more expensive to buy organic and Fairtrade goods. Skint vegans must make do with what they can afford.
Peruse Jack Monroe’s blog for vegan meals for pennies.
…and food systems
What veganism can be is a rejection of the impacts of the dairy and meat industries and therefore most of the mainstream food manufacturers dominant in capitalism. For example, buying organic veg in bulk from a food co-op, supports local industries and cuts the carbon emitted in the manufacturing and transportation process of supermarket goods. Monsanto and other GMO giants generate a huge amount of profit from soy plants which are used mostly for cattle feed. Veganism leads to an automatic boycott of many really shitty corporations. Avoid animal products and you can avoid some of the most harmful aspects of consumerism.
My upbringing was about as conducive to veganism as it gets. I was raised in a family of vegetarians from birth, then moved to Glasgow and had the 78 right next door. Many friends and family members were going vegan as I was learning to cook as a student, and internet recipes were easily accessible. When I followed through my views about animals and the environment to their logical conclusion, I waved cheese goodbye about 18 months ago.
This is of course not the case for everyone. As I mentioned above, the patriarchal family is not always welcoming of changes in behaviour that challenge its authority. For Scottish folks reliant on mince and tatties it may be seen as an insult to refuse the food you were raised on. Veganism in international and immigrant families may be harder if meat is tied to particular traditions or seen as a signifier of health and prosperity. But it is no more a white thing than it is a middle class thing, and some of the best plant-based foods on offer are Middle Eastern or South Asian. There is room for compromise in communal eating and what will encourage relatives or friends to be open-minded is exposure to alternatives.
Documentaries like ‘Earthlings’ are grim viewing for everyone. If you are interested in a less gory and more theoretical approach to animal rights, I would recommend reading Melanie Joy on carnism.
If any readers want more practical advice on vegan life, get in touch with me personally and I will be happy to help. Just try searching Google before asking where I get my protein.
[Ellen MacAskill – @ejdmacaskill]