Monday, July 27, 2009

Should Vegans Endorse Meatless Monday?

Over the course of the past year, I've read about and have occasionally referenced the hot trend that's currently being promoted by foodies, environmentalists and even some animal welfare organizations. It's called "Meatless Monday" and is a revisiting of the voluntary rationing encouraged by the US government during the war years. In 2003, the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health jumped on it to start a public health awareness campaign. Clicking through the "Meatless Monday" website, it becomes obvious that the campaign's sole purpose is indeed to promote better human health. The site spells it out clearly in its FAQ section that the campaign isn't about promoting veganism or vegetarianism--it's about "moderation". The regular consumption of eggs is touted as nutritionally desirable and the consumption of low-fat dairy and fish are also presented as being nutritionally sound options. In fact, the consumption of fish is even encouraged.

So who's supporting this movement? Foodies like Michael Pollan have promoted it and
it's even been endorsed by self-described vegan authors with a penchant for Paris exceptions. Kathy Freston, Oprah's once-upon-a-time fad vegan cleanse guru, also promotes it, adding a 'tsk' or two for those who don't eat the flesh of nonhuman animals and who aren't themselves supportive of the campaign:

I know that some vegetarians pooh pooh Meatless Monday as not enough. I'm sympathetic to that view, but I think it's unnecessarily strident. For people who think that going totally vegetarian is too challenging, the Meatless Monday campaign offers a gentle entrée into the idea of eating without eating animals. My hope is that people will use the campaign as a stepping stone -- first one meatless day per week, then three, then five, then seven. As we lean into meatless eating -- switching out more and more meat meals for meatless meals -- we end up feeling better, both physically and ethically.
Is it necessarily true, however, that cutting back on eating the flesh of nonhuman animals one day a week will lead to someone's "switching out more and more meat meals for meatless meals"? Prof. Gary L. Francione argues effectively against touting vegetarianism as some sort of gateway to veganism, as have others.

Furthermore,
is it not misleading to present the not eating of the flesh of nonhuman animals as being somehow more ethically significant than not consuming their products (e.g. dairy, eggs, honey) or not buying clothing made using their flesh or fur? It seems to be a change that's really more a shuffling around that just reinforces the view and treatment of nonhuman animals and their products as commodities, rather than an actual step forward in any sense. For instance, an omni friend of mine emailed me this morning with a link to a news article about the campaign, telling me excitedly that she intends to stop eating "meat" on Mondays. Since she knows that I'm a vegan, she said that she'd thought that I would be happy to hear it and would be glad about what she called her "small contribution towards veganism". When I asked her why she had decided to hop aboard the bandwagon, however, she told me that it was mostly due to environmental concerns.

So, what was on her plate today? She had an egg omelette for breakfast this morning, a Greek salad for lunch, and was planning to have a frozen cheese pizza for dinner. Sure, she's not having a
hamburger today, but that's little consolation for the chicken enslaved to produce the eggs for her omelette, the goat confined and impregnated to make the feta cheese for her salad, and the cow confined and impregnated to make the cheese for her pizza. It's also little consolation for the chicks, goats and calves considered "by-products" of these processes who are either slaughtered if male, or reinserted into the whole cycle if female. When she expressed her disappointment that I wasn't applauding her decision, I started to explain to her that I don't view eating a steak as being any more ethically problematic than eating a dairy ice cream cone. She then asserted to me that she was "doing [her] part" and that I should at least agree that it was better than nothing. Is it really, though? Is it better to let someone think that eating cheese is more ethical than eating fried chicken, or that not eating nonhuman animals on a Monday makes eating them somehow more alright the rest of the week?

Regardless of Freston's 'tsk', I have to say that it troubles me to see fellow vegans advocating the "Meatless Monday" campaign, especially when they attempt to argue on ethical grounds that it will somehow lead to less nonhuman animals being harmed or consumed. To begin with, the idea of promoting it feels too much like managing a lottery for nonhuman animals. Got the winning ticket? Lucky you (although it's not so lucky for the the animals whose flesh will be consumed from Tuesday through Sunday)! It's important to remember that the campaign isn't "Animal-Free Monday" and that it completely side-steps the issue of animals enslaved for their "products"; I simply can't accept this as being, in any way, a productive component of anything resembling vegan education. So why are vegans endorsing it?

Some vegans like dietitian Virginia Messina
view Meatless Monday as a good opportunity for advocacy; I agree that it can certainly be used as a springboard, as long as it's not condoned, which honestly just sends out mixed messages about the reasons one should continue to view nonhuman animals as things or property. I'd also like to hope that vegans aren't holding out for that one symbolic single day a week that ethically compartmentalizes the consumption of various parts of nonhumans to educate others: We need to take each and every opportunity we can--not just on Mondays.

16 comments:

Luella said...

Interestingly, my gateway to veganism/vegetarianism was when I was on shabkar.org, which asked me to make a pledge to 1) stop eating meat for life, 2) not eat meat for a year, 3) not eat meat for six months, or 4) not eat meat on "Buddha days" for a year. At the time, all of them seemed implausible except for the last, which I decided was a great idea. So I went to a Buddhist forum and asked for advice on creating a Buddhist calendar. Some people (vegetarians, I believe) tried to help me; a couple of vegans ignored my question and told me things like "every day is Buddha day" and "if one were to kill people every day with a few exceptions, would one then say 'I am not a murderer on said days'?"

I went ahead with my plan to create a "veggie" calendar and not eat meat on certain days, but it was those vegans who got me really thinking. I couldn't find a decent argument against theirs, and within about two months I was vegan. So that's my "Meatless Monday" story.

I think people like "Meatless Monday" because of the alliteration. Like "Friday Food." Poetry lends meaning to things that otherwise wouldn't sound meaningful to many people.

As for the friend you mentioned, I don't know why someone would thank themselves for contributing to a vegan movement they don't agree with. She said her reason was environmentalism, not veganism.

Babble said...

Folks confuse the issue. Folks sympathetic with, but unwilling to commit to veganism see it as step 9 (or 198, or something) on a progression toward more "humane" treatment with veganism being the super-ideal, up on a pedestal position that a few folks may aspire to, but "points along the way" are progress toward that...

...except, of course, they're not. Even the folks who say they're progressing "toward" something are generally just progressing toward their next meal.

Ken Hopes said...

I do not support this idea for the same reason that I would not support "Don't Drive Drunk Monday." Not only does it imply that eating meat is more of a problem than eating other animal products, it suggest at the onset that it's acceptable to continue to engage in exploitation the rest of the week (even on the same day, because you could still eat dairy and eggs). Recognizing that particular individuals will transition to veganism over a period of time, is different from actively promoting the continuation of animal exploitation through "Meatless Monday" or something similar.

Mylène Ouellet said...

Luella wrote: "I don't know why someone would thank themselves for contributing to a vegan movement they don't agree with. She said her reason was environmentalism, not veganism."

It goes hand-in-hand with the whole "every little bit helps" mentality that allows a movement like "Meatless Monday" to be lauded as a supposed step in the right direction. I've been in many online communities that have included mixes of vegans and vegetarians where the moral baseline was more or less just the lowest common denominator and any increment above it was treated as optional or a personal choice. It's not surprising that this eventually got watered down to the point where these days, the lowest common denominator is not eating animal flesh one day a week (or before 6 o'clock, et al.). Plus with welfarist groups like HSUS giving a "humane" stamp of approval to farmers tho cram their enslaved chickens into cold dark buildings rather than tiny cages, even more mixed messages are sent out. If even vegans and vegetarians are telling each other and others that every small gesture, however small or token, should be applauded, it's no wonder that my omni friend expected me to applaud hers.

Mylène Ouellet said...

Recognizing that particular individuals will transition to veganism over a period of time, is different from actively promoting the continuation of animal exploitation through "Meatless Monday" or something similar.

Ken, I agree completely. This is why I also have issues with these new "part-time" vegans (e.g. Mark Bittman). Sure, they don't eat nonhuman animal products for two out of three meals a day, but their end goal isn't veganism and the fact that they're attempting to associate themselves with veganism merely confuses things for people. Veganism shouldn't be presented as a purist unattainable extreme with every increment toward it being a fine place to set up camp; it should be the absolute moral baseline.

Tami said...

Thanks for taking some time to discuss this issue. Luella’s story is similar to mine: I stopped eating meat on certain days and eventually stopped all together. As I’ve learned more about the issues surrounding food policy I have greatly reduced my dairy & processed food intake as well. I’m not perfect, but we all move at different speeds. This brings us back to Kathy Freston’s point; Meatless Mondays can be a stepping stone for some.

There are many others though, who will never consider giving up meat all the time, let alone commit to veganism. It seems to me that this campaign is really for them. Convincing many to commit to one day is truly better than nothing, and will hopefully lead to further reduction. Unfortunately, vegetarianism & veganism tend to get a bad rap for being extreme and unappetizing. Projects like Meatless Monday help by encouraging the general population to have tempeh for dinner instead of going to the drive thru. I personally think that’s huge.

I see it more as reputation building than a token gesture. It’s about rethinking our society’s stance on meat from the ground up. Vegans are already there, and I hope we can all move forward together.

Mylène Ouellet said...

"As I’ve learned more about the issues surrounding food policy I have greatly reduced my dairy & processed food intake as well. I’m not perfect."

It's not about your "perfection". It's about removing yourself from the process of perpetuating the exploitation of nonhuman animals. For a vegan (which, I am guessing from your comment, you are not), this doesn't mean eating less animal products; it means consuming no animal products.

"There are many others though, who will never consider giving up meat all the time, let alone commit to veganism. It seems to me that this campaign is really for them."

Which is exactly why I was arguing that it's wrongheaded for those who do become vegan and who accept it as a moral baseline to applaud a campaign that does not in any way promote veganism and that appeals primarily to people who have no intention of becoming vegan. Those are the people who need to be educated the most--not applauded for making token gestures that change nothing.

"Convincing many to commit to one day is truly better than nothing"

Actually, you're proving my point that it isn't. It allows people to deceive themselves into thinking that they're making more ethical choices, while leaving them feeling better about continuing to eat nonhuman animals and their products. Also, using the expression "meat-free" confuses people into thinking that consuming milk or eggs (or honey) is somehow less ethically problematic. I don't see perpetuating this myth as being "better than nothing".

"Unfortunately, vegetarianism & veganism tend to get a bad rap for being extreme"

Which is why I think that more time and effort should be spent focused on educating people that what's really extreme is that in the United State alone, ten billion nonhuman animals are tortured and slaughter every year for trivial food preferences.

"I see it more as reputation building than a token gesture."

Reputation building? You mean to make vegans seems more snuggly and all-embracing? I'm more concerned about putting an end to animal exploitation than I am in giving someone a warm fuzzy over choosing a cheese sandwich over a turkey sandwich.

"It’s about rethinking our society’s stance on meat from the ground up."

Which is why its wrongheaded for vegans to applaud someone who chooses to continue consuming nonhuman animals, and even more wrongheaded to encourage non-vegans to think that consuming dairy products or eggs is somehow less harmful than consuming animal flesh itself.

"Vegans are already there, and I hope we can all move forward together."

Veganism is the starting point. The moving forward can only really happen after you go vegan. The moving forward involves educating people that we have no right to use nonhuman animals for our trivial pleasures.

Derek S. said...

If you don't want to eat meat, don't eat meat. Nobody is making you eat it.

Meatless Mondays is for people who eat meat and who want to improve their health and their planet. It is NOT for vegans. Why don't you just stop complaining and let people make the small efforts they can instead of complaining and telling them that they should be like you? You should be thankful that less animals are dieing.

Ward said...

Because those "small efforts" aren't going anywhere. Even if you set aside the ethical argument (you really shouldn't, but we'll table that for a second), "Meatless Mondays" aren't reducing animal consumption in the least.

The folks doing it are still eating eggs and dairy and buying leather and wool and etc. etc. etc. etc.

It's akin to deciding you're doing something for the recycling effort by throwing away your plastic bottles on Tuesday instead of Monday.

How does it actually reduce animal consumption? I can't see it, really.

Mihl said...

I agree with Ward. Small efforts aren't going anywhere. That's why I finally went vegan after being a vegetarian for too many years and ignoring too many facts.
To me things like meatless monday are really frustrating.

Derek S. said...

If it frustrates you, ignore it. Not everything about eating meat has to concern vegans. Meatless Monday is for people who aren't vegan.

Ward said...

What's it *for*, then?

Folks who want to pat themselves on the back for not eating meat on Mondays? What, exactly, does that do, other than give humans yet another reason to pat themselves on the back?

Again, this is like saying you're doing something for the recycling effort by throwing your glass and plastic bottles in the trash on Tuesday instead of Monday. It doesn't actually *do* anything at all.

Luella said...

Does this quote sound familiar?

"There is no path to veganism; veganism is the way."

Graham Hambleton said...

I think you're right to be very sceptical about this idea. Even if it were applied, its such a small step that in all likelihood isn't going to lead anywhere else. If the focus is on human health, and telling people that one meatless day per week will increase that, then that is all they will do. Most people are notorious for doing the bare minimum.

The only way this could have any long term advantages for animals is if the reasons touted were ethical, and that it were implied that this is only the first step towards a continuous reduction of animal product consumption.

Also:

"So, what was on her plate today? She had an egg omelette for breakfast this morning, a Greek salad for lunch, and was planning to have a frozen cheese pizza for dinner"

Healthy meat free monday simply involved replacing high cholesterol meat with...high cholesterol dairy. Ethical considerations asides, this is really, really dumb

Meg said...

I know as vegans we are often stereotyped as "elitist" (and I've definitely met elitist vegans and non-vegans alike), but considering that meat is a rare luxury item for so very many people and has been especially in the past, how elitist is it for people to expect a pat on the back for going without it for ONE day a week?

Growing up, there were plenty of days that I didn't eat meat and not because of any great ethical, environmental, or health reasons. PB&J is a quick, cheap and even vegan meal (depending on the bread). My mom is probably about as anti-vegan as they come, but I'd bet that there are days when she doesn't eat meat. And I know she loves meat. I grew up listening to stories about how Sunday dinner was so special because her parents and multiple siblings would share a single chicken for dinner.

I get that people sometimes take time to change and do transition more slowly, but if giving up meat for one day is such a big sacrifice then I really do have larger problems. And if people are replacing the meat with other animal products, then I don't even see it as even a small step in the right direction -- any more than it'd be a step in the right direction to substitute chicken with turkey or buy leather instead of fur.

And as for the whole vegetarianism being a stepping stone... I think too many people are confusing stalling points for stepping stones. Do I expect everyone to go vegan overnight? No. But I do think we need to be clear that while doing less harm (when it even is truly less harm) is better than doing more harm, harm is still harm and not a good thing, especially when it's so unnecessary.

Elizabeth Collins said...

Derek missed the main premise of the article. The problem that we object to is that this is being associated with and endorsed by vegans.

It is :NOT for vegans" you said. Well Derek, no kidding. If you read carefully, that is what the article is pointing out. We object to this being related even slightly to veganism - and it is not us doing it by the way. "Not everything about eating meat has to concern vegans. Meatless Monday is for people who aren't vegan. "

Yes. We know. That is the problem. From the article:

"So who's supporting this movement?...and it's even been endorsed by self-described vegan authors with a penchant for Paris exceptions. Kathy Freston, Oprah's once-upon-a-time fad vegan cleanse guru, also promotes it,..."

Also, as was also mentioned in the article, many so called "animal advocates" support it. As vegan animal rights advocates, we are opposed to this farce being in any way connected to veganism and animal rights.

So please, Derek, please go and tell them to stop doing it. But until they stop, we won't "ignore it". It is not about "frustrating us" it is about injustice and exploitation, and those who are being exploited. It is about THEM. So again, we clearly agree that Meatless Mondays has nothing to do with veganism and animal rights, but as long as people continue to publicly assert that it does, we will continue to publicly make an issue of it. For THEIR sake, not ours.