Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Vegans, oppression, food and whine

It doesn't seem unusual these days to hear 'vegans say they're an oppressed group but they aren't' repeated as part of some anti-vegan mantra. Maybe it's just that the vegans I hang out with these days are sensible types, but I haven't *actually* heard that many vegans pleading oppression - but then I suspect that the critics either know whiner vegans than I do, or have more overactive imaginations on the subject, or maybe both. I can accept that whiny vegans exist. Anyone can be vegan, anyone can be whiny, accepting that there can be some crossover doesn't mean admitting to any causal element or even a widespread correlation. I can also imagine that some people's attitudes might induce whininess in any vegans in the surrounding area!

Let's get one thing clear, I don't see vegans in general as an oppressed group. This is not to deny that many vegans are on the receiving end of oppressive behaviour at an individual level - intolerance, food sabotage, even physical threat and assault, connected to their veganism, I've been there a number of times. Of course the stakes are raised if you're also an activist. However, not being able to get a decent choice of food when eating out is not being oppressed. Your colleague or roommate forgetting you don't take milk in your coffee isn't oppression, unless s/he persistently puts milk in there on purpose - and you have the option of not accepting that person's offer of a drink if that's the case! Being followed around by the police outside of a protest situation, getting your emails read and your phone tapped *is* oppressive - but a risk you take when getting involved in certain types of activism. (getting that response for merely being a vegan would certainly be oppression, but it is also highly unlikely - although some in the government might like it to happen, I doubt they could afford to put it into practice!)

On the other hand, I don't think vegans in general *are* more focussed on their own 'oppression' (in the form of not having enough choice in a cafe, people forgetting they take their coffee black, etc) than on that of the animals.

However, there is a 'third' hand there, because vegans are just so damn badass that we can grow extra limbs when necessary.* ;) And on that hand, vegans tend to want there to be more vegans - from an animal rights perspective, that has to be a good thing. One way to ensure that more people become vegan is to make veganism easier to do, and lobbying for more and better choices of food - especially in work and college canteens, but also in resturants and cafes - is one way to do that. As a fairly seasoned vegan, if I go in a cafe and can't eat anything I will be put off that cafe. A newer and less sure vegan might be put off veganism.

There's nothing wrong, then, with making an issue of the lack of vegan choices in a cafe. It's best to do this in a polite, friendly way, especially if the people concerned seem interested. (sometimes there's no point and all you can do is drink your black coffee, eat your apple and plain crisps and write it off to experience) Offering recipes is good, especially if we're talking cake. (Veggies have a selection of vegan recipes, including cakes, designed for mass catering.) On the other hand, acting like a whiny martyr suffering for a cause** is likely to put people off veganism before they investigate the wider world. At least find existing vegan friends to complain to rather than the newbie you're supposed to be helping to make the change! If you genuinely feel like that, you may be an ex-vegan in the making, which is *not* a good way to be for you or for the animals - get some new recipes and a bit of perspective before you put yourself off...


*I wish I had this ability, it would make straining a large pan of pasta or stirring multiple curries so much easier...
**I've probably done my fair share of this, the excuse being that I was a teenager the first time I went vegan and didn't know better. Now is probably a good time to apologise to anyone who was on the receiving end!

8 comments:

The Rational Vegan said...

Mostly I hear from oppressed omnivores complaining about how the mean vegans won't let them eat corpses in peace. I personally haven't witnessed any vegans jumping on tabletops with their bullhorns. Oppressed vegan stories are likely the same--just exaggerations about offhand comments from vegans about a lack of menu options or whatever.

LiseyDuck said...

Oh, you do get the odd one who acts like a martyr (dear former colleague, the fact that you got billed for 'fish and chips' is a clerical error not some conspiracy against vegans, and shouting YOU THINK WE EAT FISH?!? at the cashier probably put him off vegans for life), I just don't think it is as widespread as the antis make out. Totally agree that 'oppressed omnivore' incidents are more common!

OorylQrygg said...

The idea that claiming to be oppressed is 'whiny' is too big a concession to the opposition here. It's a standard claim from bigots and those who succumb to the 'just world fallacy' that no-one is really oppressed, they're all just whiny or immature or some other character-trait which comes down to it being the fault of the person who's different, and pandering to the people who use this kind of invalidation just empowers them to keep on imposing their frame. This in turn harms everyone who's oppressed, whether in small ways or big ways - I'm worried your claims could be extended to others who become angry at apparently small exclusions which carry an entire baggage of remembered trauma. The claim that people targeted for police persecution isn't oppression is also rather dangerous in a context where police terror is increasing - many of the post-TUC march arrests are simply for associating with the 'wrong' people for example, and you know very well that innocent people have been stitched-up for animal rights activism (e.g. Sean Kirtley, even the liberals now admit was a persecution victim). Whether this is a risk people assume by being activists is beside the point - that's also true for Chinese dissidents for instance, who I'm sure you'd agree are persecuted.

I say as a non-vegan - ultimately I think vegans *are* an oppressed group: not on the scale to which Muslims are oppressed for example, but many people are still reluctant to make allowances at events, there's still a worrying intersection between food and work where prejudices could interfere with opportunities, and there is systematic hostility from sectors of the press and 'public opinion', I wonder about other cases too, could someone be thrown off benefits for refusing to work with meat? - though I can see how it might be unhelpful to play up minority status when the point you're trying to make is that more people should be vegans (rather than that vegans should be recognised as a minority).

LiseyDuck said...

I talked about the oppression of activists. I've been on the receiving end of it, back when my activism extended beyond sharing out vegan cake and keeping a blog. But the guy who got framed isn't going OMG I HAET BEING VEGAN I CAN'T GO IN MCDONALDS ANYMORE U GUYS SUCK, and although I don't know him I doubt he'd have a lot of sympathy for people whose 'oppression' extends to the odd cheese craving and their colleague forgetting they take their coffee black. (If you're who I think you are, you probably know I find it hilarious when one particular colleague tries to hand me the milk jug)

Andy said...

Probably am who you think I am :-) I see what you mean, but I was trying to point out that oppression can be more complex than just the severity or intent of the particular act - I had shadows in my mind of such arguments as, 'pin-ups in the workplace aren't oppressive because they don't hurt anyone', or 'black people are too touchy if someone makes a racist joke in front of them' :-)

blades said...

If you go back to the basic definition of oppression, you get this:
"the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner."

i don't see any of that in a failure to provide a vegan culinary option. as a carnivore, i don't see that i'm being oppressed by a vegetarian restaurant. i've been in several (brown's in coventry springs to mind), realised that they had nothing to offer me, and took my business elsewhere. that's my culinary taste, and my decision, and it's ultimately *my responsibility* to provide myself with dining options.

where oppression comes into the picture (for me, at any rate) is when the decision not to provide an option is a systematic and deliberate decision. when i was in hospital after my motorbike accident, for example, there was a vegan in the bed next to mine. the nurses had no clue what a vegan would eat - they'd never come into contact with a vegan, and it never crossed their mind. that's ignorance, not oppression, and in my experience that's the majority of what people come up against. As another example, I'd never even heard of halal food until I was going out for a meal with a muslim work colleague. Where I currently work, we have to go for halal options when we have a team meeting, and at least one team member doesn't like curries or hot food, so that makes things difficult to impossible - a decision has to be made as to who gets left out.

i think the reason it gets a bit confused is because of the element of choice with regards to dietary choices coupled with the element of target demographics for the restaurants. Don't get me wrong - there is definitely some oppression of vegans through societal attitudes toward them, and because some people are always going to be nasty toward a minority that they don't understand or feel threatened by - but i think it's more harmful to confuse ignorance with intolerance.

LiseyDuck said...

Um, did Browns go vegetarian? It was my favourite place to eat in Coventry because it has so much that was vegetarian or vegan, but I certainly remember my family and housemates eating meat there...

OorylQrygg said...

Blades: discourses of responsibility are dangerous - they chime into neoliberalism, put the costs of difference on the different, and ignore the structural forces which *determine* what people choose.

http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/responsibility_and_neo_liberalism

http://veganideal.org/content/more-neoliberal-appropriation