Why there should be no black and white in veganism

Black and white cows

How can veganism not be a black-and-white philosophy? After all, causing pain and suffering to animals is black and white – you either do or you don’t. You’re either vegan or you’re not.

This all-or-nothing premise was used by TV host Piers Morgan to attack environmental journalist, author and recent vegan advocate George Monbiot on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Monbiot was under the impression he had been invited to discuss the ethics and impact of animal farming. But Morgan clearly had other ideas.

Monbiot became a target for the pompous Morgan who delights in the sound of his own voice and the rising TV ratings he prides himself on. Morgan’s first round of ammunition was Monbiot’s Guardian article “Goodbye – and good riddance – to livestock farming.” In proposing a radical and controversial change in our food sources, he prompted defensive head-in-the-sand responses from meat-eating readers, as well as Morgan.

In his article, Monbiot suggests future generations will look back with incredulity at monstrosities such as slavery, genocide, the First World War, and the “mass incarceration of animals, to enable us to eat their flesh or eggs or drink their milk.” Armed with the false premise that Monbiot is undermining human tragedy by including animal tragedy, Morgan caught his prey off guard.

Monbiot tries to explain his support for veganism, saying we’re hypocrites in the different ways we treat pets and farm animals but trying to get Morgan to listen proved as tricky as stopping a truck on the way to the slaughterhouse. In his article, he says, “While we call ourselves animal lovers, and lavish kindness on our dogs and cats, we inflict brutal deprivations on billions of animals that are just as capable of suffering. The hypocrisy is so rank that future generations will marvel at how we could have failed to see it.”

Sensing his prey might be escaping, Morgan spots Monbiot’s watch strap and the idea of hypocrisy was all he needed to make the kill. He attacked Monbiot for veganism hypocrisy in wearing a leather watch strap and shoes while calling for us to quit animal products. “I’m not being 100 per cent purist about this but I am trying to persuade people to change their habits in quite a radical way,” Monbiot says, but there was little he could do in the clutches of a carnivore.

Viewers might have wondered about the point of such an ‘interview’. It was more Trump than Obama, more “look at me” than “I’m listening”. Whatever your views on eating or not eating animals, a debate is surely a good thing. Through discussion, we can open our minds, work together, and make progress as individuals and as a society. We don’t move forward by stubbornly spouting the same old stuff and standing rigid.

As an investigative journalist, George Monbiot seeks truth to reliably inform his readers. He shows a genuine concern for a healthier society and planet. I was not only angered then by Morgan’s disrespectful treatment of an acclaimed journalist and ethical human being. I was also disappointed by the reaction among the vegan community.

Commenting on a Plant Based News Facebook post, Linda expresses concern about the knock-on effect of Monbiot’s leather attire: “He’s actually done the vegan movement a lot of harm by his actions! Who’s going to listen now?”

Likewise, Angie says: “[Monbiot] obviously doesn’t want to give it up his leather accessories. That’s fine for him – just don’t go telling other people to become vegan when he isn’t one himself. As for buying them before he went “vegan”… It’s just an excuse to continue wearing leather to say ‘I had them before’.”

With this thinking, if we all wait until we’re 100% pure vegan, spreading the word is going to take a long time with even more animal suffering. And is it really hypocrisy to keep old leather shoes until you replace them with vegan-friendly shoes, as long as you aren’t buying new animal products?

In his article on the GMB ‘interview’, vegan campaigner and strategist Tobias Leenaert also considers the impact of the interview on the rise of veganism, suggesting that inconsistency gives non-vegans an excuse. “Part of this desire to spot inconsistencies – which is a form of do-gooder derogation – is of course that people think it gives them a way out. If the vegan (or other do-gooder) can be depicted as a hypocrite, there is, they think, no reason for them to change their thoughts or behavior.”

But Leenaert goes on to highlight the importance of vegans appearing neither inconsistent nor fundamentalist, advocating a balance between the two. Leenaert is open-minded and believes it is okay to wear old leather clothing as a vegan.

While I understand Linda’s concern about the potential setback for veganism, I’m more concerned by her claim “He’s not vegan, end of.” Then there’s Julie’s comment: “I can’t believe he turned up wearing leather shoes and watch strap when going to talk about veganism… The first thing I did [on becoming vegan] was give all my leather shoes, bags, purses and watches away.”

Does discarding her leather make Julie a better vegan? You can look the part by discarding anything that visibly connects you to animal suffering but what about other actions – don’t they count? Can’t we make allowances, especially given Monbiot’s work over the years raising awareness on environmental and social issues?

Do we need to go through a vegan strip search before we leave home, going barefoot if we haven’t yet replaced our old shoes, and what about using the new £5 and £10 notes? Then there’s palm oil. We can do our best to look for sustainable palm oil in products but sometimes we might fall short.

What these comments show is the failure of some vegans to see that George Monbiot is on their side if that’s the side that cares about animal welfare, human health and the environment. Black-and-white thinking is counter-productive. I’ve written in the past about how vegan quibblers hinder positive change. We should focus on helping animals rather than bicker about who is a bona fide vegan. Monbiot is one of the best allies the vegan movement has. We should be supporting him, not criticising him.

Although we aren’t all at the same stage in our vegan journey, we share compassion and a desire to live a more ethical life. We can be open-minded, encouraging any small steps our friends and family take to reduce their animal consumption. They won’t become our allies in living kinder, less harmful lives if we make them feel like enemies.

Reassuringly, Monbiot also has many supporters who recognise his integrity and positive impact. Ramkumar shared his view: “George Monbiot was there on the show not as a vegan or an animal rights activist, but to talk about the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture… Monbiot has been writing on this subject in detail and highlighting the various related issues such as farm subsidies, the history of deforestation in Britain (and Ireland, if I remember correctly), and argues for returning much of the land under livestock animal grazing back to wilderness. I would like these “vegan” critics to show me one journalist — vegan or not vegan — who has done this kind of work in Britain.”

Good Morning Britain may not be the place for intelligent discussion, but the Extinction and Livestock Conference held in London over the weekend did provide a platform for progress. Organised by Compassion in World Farming, in partnership with WWF, the conference brought together global conservation groups and experts in livestock farming, animal welfare, wildlife conservation, food and nutrition, public policy and health, and sustainable food systems. It was “the first ever conference to explore the impact of livestock production on the future of life on earth.”

You can see why George Monbiot thought his views on veganism and the future of food systems might be interesting and relevant to Good Morning Britain viewers. He didn’t set himself up as a vegan model but Piers Morgan created a smokescreen to hide the fact he has nothing to contribute to the livestock farming, wildlife conservation, and sustainable food debate. Any intelligent, reasonable person will see this ‘interview’ for what it was – just another Piers Morgan ego spectacle.

Image credit: Curious Cows on Pixabay

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