Have you checked out Let Them Eat Meat? If not, you definitely should. Filmmaker and writer Rhys Southan's blog explores the idea of veganism from the perspective of those who eventually gave it up (many of whom seem to adopt the paleo diet...). Why do people give up all animal products and why do some of those people eventually fold to the appeals of steak? Rhys explores this through interviews with ex-vegans, veg*ns and others with a "steak" in the food system...as well as jabs at vegan absurdity. Of course, many vegans think it's the worst blog in the entire world, but that speaks more to the power of the vegan diet than anything else. When was the last time someone who quit the South Beach Diet got called a "selfish murderer" or "pro-slavery?" Veganism is more than a diet and leaving it is not acceptable to the animal rights crowd.
But if you've never thought about giving up bacon before or the personhood of fish, why read Let Them Eat Meat? Personally, I find it a facinating exploration of the ethics of eating and what drives people into diets that aren't particularly good for themselves. Like it or not, distorted ethics affect us all when they become policy. Animal Rights organizations like PETA or The Humane Society now hold quite a bit of political clout.
Rhys himself was a vegan for nine years and now follows a paleo diet. Why did he give it up? Why did he jump into paleo? Does he feel guilty about the poor animals? After he interviewed me, I asked him these questions:
What made you decide to be a vegan? Why didn't it end up working for you?
Losing arguments with vegan and vegetarian friends in high school got me thinking that maybe I was on the wrong side. After I graduated, I wasn't around them as much, but the uneasiness with meat they had instilled in me lingered. About six months out of high school, I decided that meat was murder. Since I didn't like seeing myself as a serial killer, I began eating less meat. One day at a buffet I happened to get nothing but vegetarian food. The friend I was with asked me if I was vegetarian, and I said "Yes." So then I was.
I became vegan a year later to resolve the contradictions of ethical vegetarianism, since dairy and eggs lead to animal deaths even if you aren't eating animal flesh.
In retrospect, veganism was bad for my life in a few ways (though good in some, like the friends I met by living in a vegetarian co-op), but the main reason I left is that after nine years of not eating animal products, I felt physically awful. I was constantly tired and low on energy, my thinking had dulled and I was chronically depressed.
What made you choose the paleo diet?
Once I became fully cognizant of how bad I felt all the time, I compared this to my ex-vegan roommate, who was following Art De Vany's "evolutionary fitness" model and was healthier and happier than ever. Though I didn't get into veganism for health reasons, I had come to believe that if done right, nothing could be healthier than avoiding all animal products in favor of unrefined vegan foods. I should have been the healthy one, then, and my caveman-mimicking roommate should have been sluggish and depressed from all the cholesterol and saturated fat he injected into his arteries at every meal.
Much of what he said about evolutionary nutrition sounded right, though. I had always been wary of refined sugar, and he convinced me grains weren't much better. I started to glare at my millet with a more skeptical eye. One day I was cooking a meal that was almost pure starch -- brown rice and red lentils (with a little kombu thrown in to make the beans digestible) -- and I realized how crappy I would feel after eating it. That was when I stopped equating veganism with health.
At first I tried to be a more paleo vegan, cutting out grains and beans and eating more nuts and vegetables. I knew, though, that I was delaying the inevitable, so I convinced myself that eating animals wouldn't make me an evil person and I weaned myself onto animal products.
Knowing about paleo made it a lot easier to leave veganism. I was glad I wasn't abandoning all food philosophy. Going from veganism to an eat-anything omnivore would have seemed too chaotic and meaningless to me at the time. Now I could do it if I wanted to, but I don't see the need since I'm happy with paleo.
Since you've been paleo, have you noticed changes in your life?
I instantly felt better after going paleo (ie, adding meat and eggs to my paleo-ish vegan diet). I wonder if selective memory is making me exaggerate how quickly my mood improved and the brain fog dissipated, but other ex-vegans seem to have similar experiences. As a vegan, a lot of people had told me I was eerily pale; once I started eating meat again, a vegetarian who was shocked by my new meaty diet had to admit that my face had taken on a healthier hue. With my energy back, I got into weightlifting and quickly regained the muscle mass I'd lost by the end of my veganism. My nearly lifelong eczema, which had its worst breakouts during my veganism, hasn't been a problem since I've been paleo.
A less predictable change is that I became more assertive. I tend to be introverted, so maybe I lean toward meekness and passivity naturally, but veganism exasperated the problem. Veganism is a suicidal mentality in the sense that it's about doing your best not to exist (while still existing). Vegans don't believe they deserve to put their own interests before the interests of animals. Most humans, however, do think they deserve to put their own interests ahead of the interests of animals. So either vegans respect animals a lot more than everyone else does, or vegans respect themselves a lot less. In my case, veganism was more about lowering myself than raising up the animals.
The opposite of the self-sabotaging vegan mentality -- intentionally destroying as much as possible to make your mark -- isn't particularly great either. Going paleo helped me find a balance. As you have pointed out, there isn't really a moral component to paleo, though being against factory farms and supporting local food can be a part of it. Since paleo is about doing what's best for yourself, it was great for my self-confidence after sacrificing myself in the name of "the animals" for so long.
Another advantage of paleo's lack of a moral component is that there's no reason for me to judge anyone who isn't paleo. I get along with people better now. (Except maybe for the vegans that I piss off with my blog.)
What is your main philosophy behind eating now?
I think the best way to eat is a locavore paleo with a focus on offal, insects and hunted meat for protein. This way animals suffer less compared to a standard American diet, and I certainly suffer less than I did as a vegan. But I'm not living up to my own ideals yet. I'm far from a locavore. My preference for odd animal parts leads me to Asian grocery stores -- not the best source for local foods in the United States. I also have yet to find a steady supply of insects. I do eat pretty much any insect that crosses my path (as close as I get to hunting at the moment), but they seem to be aware of this and aren't coming around as much anymore. My current ideals are a lot more relaxed than my old ones, though, so I don't feel any guilt about not living up to them yet.
It seems like you are still very interested in having a diet that minimizes suffering. What sort of philosophy inspires that thinking? Wouldn't it be simpler if you took up Rob's challenge and just ate bivalves or just ate a diet of other animals that probably are incapable of suffering? At what point is it immoral to cause suffering?
I'm not sure how much philosophy is behind my inconsistent attempts to reduce animal suffering while still eating them. Maybe I could say that instead of the vegan idea of "least harm," my philosophy is "somewhat less harm." Yet I'm looking forward to eating live octopus while visiting New York, and there are probably less suffery ways for me to eat our tentacled friends. And I still eat factory farmed foods. I don't believe this is immoral, because if I thought that, I wouldn't do it. It's funny because I find myself wanting to say that it's wrong to cause suffering that is "unnecessary," which is a vegan argument. But for me, "necessary" could include eating live seafood. Vegans and I evidently have different interpretations of that word.
When I first wanted to leave veganism, I still believed that you couldn't care about animals and then turn around and eat them. So I decided to not care about animals. It helped that my vegan depression made me indifferent to my own life; the personal problems of animals then seemed especially worthless. Thinking that way made me okay with eating meat again, but once I got over that depression, I realized it didn't have to be so simple.
Recently I read about a woman in China who made a video of herself stomping a kitten to death. I couldn't deny that something seemed wrong with that, but I had trouble deciding what that was exactly, since I had no problem with animals being killed for food. I guess my reasoning is that it's humans who give animal lives any sort of meaning. And the meaning conveyed by stomping on a kitten is a disturbing one, even if I don't think that an animal's life is important in itself.
If you see animals as morally significant only in relation to us, factory farms can be defended without retreating to nihilism. From a human-centered perspective, what matters about animal suffering is how we feel about it. Are we repulsed because it's gratuitous, or do we accept it because it's for something worthwhile (such as mountains of affordable meat)? Since vegans think that eating meat is "unnecessary," the suffering of animals in factory farms is no different than Francione's example of "Simon the Sadist" torturing animals for fun. But again, I think vegans are being too strict with the definition of necessary. Torturing animals purely for sadistic pleasure is not a component of a rich, fulfilling life (at least not the way I envision one) in the same way that eating duck confit is. I'm not going to eat that live octopus because I hope to hurt it. It's just an experience I want to have and I don't expect to suffer any guilt over it.
I'm intrigued by the "ostrovegan" idea that the ethics behind veganism leave room for eating bivalves. That's a healthier and more logical approach than purity veganism, which says that you should never eat any animal products ever, even if doing so doesn't conflict with vegan ideals. "Rob" has repeatedly said in the comments that I have no excuse not to cut out all animal products except for bivalves, since those nutrient dense yet brainless shellfish could potentially address the health problems I had with veganism. If I still shared Rob's ethical views I would consider it. But I don't. I see veganism or ostroveganism as guilt abatement tactics. And since I no longer feel guilt about eating animal products, I have no need for self-restrictive eating plans tailored to dodge that guilt.
I've come to appreciate ethics as one possible ingredient in a meal, but not a mandatory one. If I eat kidney instead of chicken wings, I might think, "Maybe animals are suffering a little less because I'm eating the less popular parts. That's nice." But if I eat the chicken wings, I don't think "I'm a terrible person." I just think, "Yum."
Do the insects you eat actually taste good? How do you prepare them?
Most of the bugs I have are raw. I just pop them in my mouth when I find them outside. The first time I ate insects like that was on Toronto Island last summer. These bugs were either incredibly naive or suicidal -- they kept landing on me and didn't fly away when I reached for them. I enjoyed the experience of eating them, but I don't remember much of a taste. They were mainly texture. The other bugs I've had did taste like something, and mostly the taste has been good. I liked caterpillars a lot, but I can't place the taste. Once I had a small black bug that honestly tasted like oranges. I found a second one and that one tasted like oranges too. I now believe bug eating articles when they claim that a certain bug tastes like almonds or butterscotch and so on.
I say the taste has "mostly" been good because of the one insect I have prepared, silkworm pupae. I got these at a Vietnamese grocery store (packaged as "dade") even though I'd heard they were disgusting. To make them as palatable as possible, I toasted them for a while to get them crispy before I stir-fried them with vegetables. It didn't really work. They tasted musty, with a splash of flavorless juice as you bit into their centers. It was pretty much how you'd imagine a moth in a cocoon to taste. Mixed with vegetables they were tolerable, and I finished them all. A few weeks later I was kind of craving them, but that was a craving that I didn't satisfy.
Why did you decide to create a blog about ex-veganism?
Veganism is such a compelling dogma that it can be hard to get out, even when it's hurting you. Initially I started the blog to help vegans with nutrition-related health problems make the connection between these problems and veganism. The way I thought to do this -- going to vegan and vegetarian events and snapping photos of unhealthy looking people -- probably was a bit misguided, though. It was also incredibly depressing to go to these things and I felt guilty about what I was doing, which made me wonder if I was really doing it to help. I also began to think that the health issues I associated with veganism might be the least of veganism's problems.
But the blog was never just photos. From the beginning I was writing entries about "the vegan mentality," and the alienation that comes from thinking everyone in the world is a murderer, and I enjoyed that more than posting the photos. This year I took down most of the photos and have been focusing on the writing and interviews.
As far as veganism, one assumption I used to have is that all long-term vegans quit because of health problems. I felt that anyone who had made veganism such a big part of their lives for so long would not think to question their beliefs unless physical reality forced them. (I probably thought that way since that's what happened to me.) Now I know about plenty of long-term vegans who left veganism for environmental reasons or because they no longer believed in the philosophy. I was wrong, but in a good way. I'd much rather someone leave veganism because they lost a bet and had to read The Vegetarian Myth than because they're on the verge of physical collapse.
Your blog is interesting because it makes so many uncomfortable- both vegans who believe their diet is the best possible diet in every possible way and omnivores who haven't really thought much about the ethics of food. Has there been anything you've rethought yourself since starting the blog?
Earlier this year I did an entry that included a dig at flexitarians. I wasn't trying to be mean, but it was obvious that I considered flexitarianism silly. A few flexitarians were upset about that, which surprised me, since I saw flexitarianism as a trendy label that nobody took too seriously. I still had my vegan thinking that it was either wrong to eat animals or it wasn't, so the idea of cutting back on animal consumption for moral reasons but not eliminating it entirely made no sense to me. An interview I did with an ex-vegan who is now a flexitarian helped me see that there could be a philosophy behind it. This shouldn't have been news to me. When I eat organ meats (which theoretically might otherwise be wasted) instead of muscle meat so that fewer animals have to be killed for me, that's the same sort of thinking that forms the basis of flexitarianism.
Have there been any negative consequences since you started a blog that many people feel is "anti" vegan?
Nope. Just kidding. Yes. It upset a couple of my vegan friends, and it really pissed off my brother, who is vegan. He found it hard to talk to me after he found out about the blog at the beginning of this year. But I recently had my birthday dinner, which brought together my vegan friends, my brother and my mom, and none of them seemed to hate me. (Not that my brother suddenly approves of the blog now.) Now I would say the main negative consequence of starting this blog is that my focus (obsession?) on veganism is keeping me from other projects I could be doing. I'm looking forward to finally saying everything I have to say about veganism and never talking about it again. It might still be a while, though.
You have one persistent naysayer, a vegan commenter known as "rob" who pretty much weighs in angrily on everything you post. Why do you think he's so obsessed with your site?
Rob first appeared on the site after I wrote an entry about Lierre Keith getting pied in the face. He seemed to detest Lierre Keith; he denounced her as a genocidal liar and has since compared The Vegetarian Myth to Mein Kampf. But Rob's interest in my blog extended beyond that entry. He started commenting on every single thing I wrote -- sometimes seconds after I posted it. I got into a long argument with Rob in the comments of one random, short entry, and was amazed at Rob's willingness to argue endlessly. And it wasn't just with me. If any commenter wrote anything vaguely anti-vegan, he made sure to critique their comment in some way.
Rob really got into my head at first, partially because I was trying to figure out who he was and why he was so persistent. Before I posted anything, I would think "What is Rob going to say?" And that would influence my editing, especially with the interviews. I dreaded checking my email for fear of finding more comments from Rob. I went through and deleted my own side of that long argument with him just to try to stop thinking about him. My blood pressure was up for days, and some nights I had trouble sleeping.
It's hard for me to understand now why he upset me so much, because I soon grew to love Rob. I did ban him twice, but each time lasted only a day because I realized how much he contributed to the site. Thanks to Rob, posts that would otherwise be non-substantial, like a quote or a link to someone else's blog entry, might end up with over 100 comments. Plus, he gives vegans someone to root for. I've seen a couple of vegans on message boards say that they read my blog only for Rob's comments. I was also amused when some vegans theorized that *I* was Rob.
Rob haunted me at first, but when I think of him now, I envision a straightedge vegan Ignatius Reilly, eating vegan hot dogs as he furiously types screeds against logically inconsistent omnivores. Which is to say, I think of him fondly.
But there's still the mystery of why Rob is obsessed with Let Them Eat Meat. After getting to know Rob a little through his comments, my guess is that the majority of pro-vegan blogs don't have much to offer him. As much as he will spring to the defense of most vegans in the name of supporting veganism, I can't see Rob getting along with other vegans very well. He is a distinct breed of vegan, what I would term a "logical vegan." These vegans are more interested in the airtight consistency of animal rights arguments than in animals themselves, who are just abstract variables ("sentient beings") in their philosophical equations. There are outlets for such vegans. Gary Francione, the cultish leader of abolitionist veganism, is a great example of a logical vegan. But Rob has said that he doesn't like Francione. That's certainly to Rob's credit, but it leaves him somewhat adrift. There are still a couple of blogs Rob can identify with -- Unpopular Vegan Essays seems to be his favorite -- but for the most part, he has nowhere else to go. It's not like he can go to Vegetarian Star or Ecorazzi and rant in the comments like this.
I also like to think that part of him knows he is destined for bitter ex-veganism and subconsciously sees me as a comrade in arms.
What do you think about the debates that happen in the comments?
I love the debates, even though I mostly stay out of them. That's really Rob's fault. I don't want to get roped into a forever discussion, so I usually only comment if I think I can do it without giving Rob much room for retort. Luckily, after Rob became so prolific, some articulate non-vegans (you, for instance) took it upon themselves to address Rob's points, leading to some great discussions (and entries with absurdly large numbers of comments). These comment threads add a lot to the blog.
I especially like it when the vegan commenters get super philosophical. The more intricate animal rights theory becomes, the more obvious it is that arguing about animals is nothing but human self-indulgence. An intelligent and convoluted argument for the rights of fish is like one of Armond White's film-theory laden reviews in praise of Hollywood dreck. The smarter the defense, the more laughable it is.
Consider the Mark Wahlberg film "Max Payne," based on the video game. "Max Payne rocks!," while a stupid thing to say, is far less ridiculous than Armond White's take: "The opening panorama of Max drowning, flashing back to the start of his aggrieved mission, recalls the magnificent underwater cruciform in DePalma’s Femme Fatale. ... Through Max’s confession, 'I don’t believe in Heaven. I believe in pain, fear, death,' Moore explores genuine, contemporary anxiety. ... These phantasmagorical visions have vigor as well as dread. Looking deeply into Payne’s pessimism, Moore stirs the energy of hope, of earthly, human possibility. Imagery this powerful redeems the ghosts of urban grief and 9/11."
That's what I think of when vegans get too clever. They just can't win with me, I guess. The better they argue for the rights of chickens, the more they remind me of Armond White.
A little bird tells me you are working on a book. That's quite a project! What sort of issues will it tackle? What made you decide to make the jump from blog to book?
When I first thought to write about veganism, it was going to be in book form. But I don't have a literary agent or connections at publishing companies and I'm terrible at self-promotion. So I started a blog instead. I'm glad I did, because it's a great way to get feedback and reformulate arguments. Seeing the vegan and non-vegan reactions to what I've written so far has influenced this non-existent book quite a bit. The content would be different than the blog, but the tone would be similar. You'll have to trust me when I say that it will be a good book if I ever get the chance to write it, because the imaginary agent in my head doesn't want me to reveal any spoilers.