When Eric Adams prevailed in last year’s mayoral election in New York City, I was very excited. I no longer live in NYC, but I spent most of my life there, and I was happy to see a vegan as the leader of my hometown. I knew that Adams had switched to a plant-based diet for health reasons rather than for ethical ones, but everyone likes to have some representation, and Adams is very “out and proud” about being vegan and the positive impact it has had on his wellbeing. Lately, however, some stories have emerged about Mayor Adams eating fish at restaurants. My understanding is that he initially attributed mistakes to his waiter but that ultimately, he acknowledged that he sometimes eats fish. This discovery has led to stories about how alleged vegan Eric Adams in fact consumes animal products. So how are we supposed to think about this development?
One approach to the stories about Adams eating fish is to classify the whole thing as unimportant. Who cares what the mayor of New York City eats? What people want is a mayor who improves the lives of the city’s inhabitants. What he eats is his own business.
I do not hold this perspective. Regardless of how Adams and others think about his veganism/alleged veganism, he has been quite open about plant-based eating and has advocated for other people to follow his example. Indeed, one of the reasons that I liked the idea of having a vegan mayor is the role modeling that public officials can do for the population. Of course, role modeling can go in the other direction too. I believe that people in this country (probably including me) have become coarser and more obnoxious since Donald J. Trump was the leader of the United States. People who previously were civil and gentle with others became more selfish and self-absorbed. I doubt that Justice Neil Gorsuch would have insisted on going without a mask and thereby confining Justice Sonia Sotomayor to her chambers during oral argument if Trump had not been president. Of course, if Trump had not been president, then Gorsuch almost certainly would not even be on the Supreme Court.
Another perspective is what I would call the schadenfreude perspective. It holds that when someone lives in a particular way and talks about it as a better way of life, as Adams did, then if he fails to live up to his own rules, it is sensible and fair to point it out. On one hand, hypocrisy is something we are all on the lookout for—if people give you a hard time for doing a rolling stop at a stop sign, then you will rightly want to point out when they drive through a red light. But eating animal products when one has announced that one is vegan and that others should be vegan too is a little different from criticizing people’s driving. Removing animal products from one’s life is a much more immersive change than traffic compliance, and the urge to point out a failure within this lifestyle is especially tempting. It is a bit like the people who preach sexual morality by day but then have anonymous sex by night. People who felt a little uncomfortable about hearing life lessons from the mayor may be eager to yell, “Oh yeah? I should go vegan? Well then why is there a dead fish on your plate?”
Notwithstanding both the fairness and the pleasure that we all derive from identifying a hypocrite, I believe the stories about Adams eating fish are unhelpful. One reason I say this is that the fact that an outspoken vegan slips sometimes really tells us nothing about whether he is right about veganism being a terrific way to live. Adams promotes veganism because it is a healthful way to eat, and the fact that he sometimes eats or ate fish has no bearing on the validity of his health claims. By analogy, imagine someone telling you that smoking is terrible for you, and you should quit and that he feels so much better since he quit. If it turned out that every now and then, this person smoked a cigarette, his claims about not smoking would remain as true as they were before. And the same is true for veganism. I am a vegan for animal rights reasons, and I would hope that if I “slipped” and consumed an animal product, no one would draw any inferences about veganism or about animal rights. The only inference to draw is that people do not always stick to the commitments that they make to themselves and to others. Humans are fallible, whether we are talking about smoking, plant-based eating, or treating our families and friends with kindness and respect.
Are Your Shoes Leather?
On top of the usual tendency to pounce on someone who violates his own rules is the special scrutiny that vegans receive. I and many vegans have had the experience of mentioning that we are vegan (because, for instance, we are ordering vegan food at a restaurant) and immediately hearing one or more of the following questions: (1) are your shoes made of leather? (2) did you nurse your baby? (This one, in case the reader is confused, is premised on the mistaken notion that because we leave dairy foods off our plates due to the inherent cruelty involved in dairy farming, it follows that we must not breastfeed our own babies—despite the fact that part of what is wrong with dairy is our depriving mother cows and their babies of the opportunity to nurse in order to steal what should be the calves’ food) (3) why are you willing to eat with me if I’m not vegan? (4) would you eat a nonvegan meal if you could get away with it?
All the above questions seem aimed at discovering the crack in the armor. If someone’s shoes are leather, then who are they to promote veganism? Of course, most of the time, the person was not promoting anything but just asking a server to prepare a vegan meal. In truth, living in the current world makes it impossible to completely avoid all animal byproducts. People do not always get to decide on the furniture they use at work. And slaughterhouse byproducts make their way into many different things, including the tires on the car that one might drive or borrow for a ride. Over time, I have tried to find ways of minimizing the presence of slaughterhouse byproducts in my life, but I would never claim that I have been 100% successful.
Being a vegan, from my point of view, means trying to keep the products of animal exploitation and slaughter out of one’s life to the extent that one can do so. And sometimes, we find out that we can do even better, so we try to do better. I hope that veganism never becomes simply a platform for judging the behavior of our fellow humans. The point of veganism is to spare animals suffering, pain, and early death, to reduce the carbon footprint of our species on the earth, and to support a healthful life. Rather than asking “did this alleged vegan do something nonvegan today?” I would rather see us asking ourselves “could I reduce the cruelty footprint of my own life?” We know that we can be the harshest judges of ourselves, so I hope we (and I include myself) can spare all sentient beings, including the humans, our trigger-happy judging impulse. Living vegan is joyous, and we should be happy to welcome all comers without demanding perfection. Someday, I believe all humans will be vegan, and we will know when we see a fish-shaped entrée on our mayor’s plate that no actual fish was harmed in the making of his dinner.