About five years ago, I moderated a (friendly) debate at Cornell Law School about hate speech. The two participants were Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School, former president of the ACLU, and author of Hate: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship, and Jeremy Waldron, an NYU Law School professor and author of The Harm in Hate Speech. I asked questions of each of the two, and they acquitted themselves quite admirably. At one point, I posed a query to Professor Waldron based on a German case that involved an animal rights message. I “came out” as a vegan at that moment because it seemed relevant to the question, so everyone in the audience (who did not already know) became aware of my veganism and of my commitment to animal rights.
After the debate, I attended a small dinner to honor the participants. The provost of the university approached me at the beginning of the dinner and said that he thought I was not serious about animal rights. Taken aback, I asked him what had led to that conclusion. He replied that if I were really serious about it, I would not sit down at a table at which people were eating animals, adding that abolitionists at the time of slavery did not break bread with slaveholders. Feeling quite unfairly put on the defensive, I said that (a) abolitionists in the 1860s might have refrained from breaking bread with slaveholders, but things were quite different a hundred years earlier, when opposition to slavery was less common; and (b) I would happily eat all of my meals with vegans, but it seemed I didn’t really have that option.
Much more recently, I listened to a podcast and learned about the liberation pledge. A person who takes this pledge commits to the following: consuming only vegan food and clothing, etc.; refraining from eating anything while in the company of people who are eating animals and/or the secretions of animals. To make the pledge more concrete, here is a hypothetical scenario. Assume that I have taken the pledge (which I am considering doing but haven’t decided yet). Assume further that my friend Dana asks me if I want to join her for lunch. I would tell her that I would love to join her for lunch but that she needs to know that I have made a commitment to refrain from eating at a table where anyone is consuming animals or their secretions (i.e., their lacteal secretions—breast milk, food for babies of the same species as the lactating individual—and their ova). If Dana would be willing to order some delicious vegan food, then I would be happy to join her for lunch. Otherwise, perhaps we could meet for a drink instead.
My first reaction to hearing about the liberation pledge was to identify inconsistencies. For example, would I be allowed to eat my vegan food in the presence of someone wearing a leather jacket? If yes, then what is the difference? Contrary to many people’s belief, leather is NOT just a byproduct of the slaughtered-cow-for-eating industry. It often comes from other countries where most people do not eat slaughtered cows and the cows are therefore underfed and look nothing like the cows whose throats Americans cut in order to dine on their muscle tissue and blood. A leather jacket, made of the skin of a terrified animal slaughtered in the street, is no better than a steak, made of the muscle, fat, and blood of a terrified animal slaughtered in a freezing cold room filled with trauma, human and nonhuman. Another inconsistency I identified had to do with sitting with people who are eating animals and their secretions. Why is it okay to sit with them but not okay to take out a hummus sandwich and eat it while they eat their corpses?
After identifying some inconsistencies, however, I wondered whether I was just resisting changing my behavior. As a law professor, I am skilled at coming up with reasons to justify things. This skill explains my having taken far too long to go from “eating everything,” as those who eat both corpses and secretions like to say, to being vegan. And like almost everyone who becomes vegan, I regret only that I did not do it sooner. But because of my tendency to come up with a persuasive rationale for inertia, I decided instead to think about the reasons for taking the liberation pledge rather than focusing on limitations of the pledge or inconsistencies in its execution.
Reasons for the Pledge
As I listened to Nico Stubler talk about the pledge with Professor Mariann Sullivan on the Our Hen House podcast, its rationale became very clear. If I am vegan and bring my vegan food to the table, my actions do not pose a serious threat to people around me thinking of animals as edible commodities. Indeed, others at the table could just think of food choices as personal and morally neutral, thereby putting me in the same category as people who cannot eat gluten and people who are allergic to peanuts. Friends know, of course, that my veganism is different from food allergies, etc., but my opting out in the usual way and having my vegan sandwich does not really communicate the idea that animals are not food, that slaughterhouses are places of extreme violence and brutalization, and that consuming what comes out of them makes a person complicit in the violence. My foods look quite similar to their foods, and we each eat and talk without their having to think about the violence against animals in which they are engaged.
Things change, of course, if I say that I am committed to eating only when no one at the table is consuming animals or animal secretions. In that case, I have reminded everyone that they are eating violence. As Stubler put it, I am working toward the de-normalization of consuming animals. By contrast, eating my Tofurky, vegan mayo, and tomato on rye while others eat their birds and mammals and fishes makes it seem like we are all basically engaged in the same enterprise—eating food. To make the point that animals are not food, I have to do more than just eat my vegan sandwich.
I worry about doing the above because it is confrontational, and I find confrontation very unpleasant. I would rather blend in in just the way that Stubler criticizes. But Stubler is right—blending in with my vegan sandwich does very little to change how people think of animals, if they think of animals at all. If I want people to see what I see when I look at a slice of bovine muscle tissue and a slice of clotted bovine lacteal secretions, I need to do something more than just blend in. Of course, if I am too obnoxious, people will not want to listen to what I have to say. (I assure readers that I am far less aggressive in person than in writing.) So one has to cultivate kindness and warmth while simultaneously standing for one’s principles. Stubler believes that such behavior will begin to change the way other people think about eating animals and their derivatives.
I am not arrogant enough to think that I individually can change the world in a major way simply by refusing to eat at a table with people consuming animals. On the other hand, it would be liberating—for me—to never again have to sit at a table, eating my food, as I try not to smell and see the violence going into other people’s mouths. It would be honest for me to say that I am uncomfortable sharing a table with people while they are eating animals and their secretions. Polite ethical vegans have to engage in so much dishonesty just to get through the day. People ask, in accord with a chapter and the title of my book, “Mind if I order the Cheeseburger?,” and vegans must come up with something easy to hear instead of just saying, “Obviously I mind!!! You are eating the remains of living, feeling, innocent beings, and I believe that is outrageously violent behavior. How could I possibly not mind?” Instead, many of us avoid conflict by saying, “Sure, go ahead.”
If one is a vegan who wants the violence against animals to stop, then one minds when other people choose to eat animals. And yet, despite my having written the book with that title, I still get that question now and then, and I still feel like running the other way when I do. Having a pledge would take care of all of that and would spare me and others who take the pledge the mental anguish of having to watch people we love and respect chowing down on what was once a living being who was entitled to freedom from our violence. In a sense, the confrontational nature of the pledge is less dissonant for me—because it is just a policy—than having to navigate witnessing a violent meal without becoming sick to my stomach.
I have friends who just spontaneously make a point of eating only vegan meals when they host me and my family, even when we are outnumbered. My experience when traveling in Israel was that as soon as people learned that I was vegan, they automatically got themselves vegan food. When I asked them why, they explained that sharing a meal is incompatible with making me an outsider by violating my principles. This explanation comes back to me now as I think about the idea of normalizing and de-normalizing the eating of animals. If I am alone in my little corner eating a vegan sandwich while everyone else is consuming the fruit of the slaughterhouse, I am not only normalizing the violence; I am participating in my own marginalization. It would be like sitting at dinner with people as they made lots of anti-Semitic jokes and saying nothing in protest. And asking a friend ahead of time if they’re willing to eat a delicious vegan meal with me is not obnoxious. It is collegial and warm and offers an opportunity to someone to have what may be a new experience. It is actually less confrontational than saying “I don’t like anti-Semitic jokes so I’m going to leave now.”
The thing about eating animals is that almost everyone grew up absorbing the brainwashing message that there is nothing wrong with it. If someone wishes to opt out, they turn to vegetarianism, which is to say lacto-ovo vegetarianism, seemingly unaware that all of the cows end up in the same slaughterhouse, along with the baby calves who wanted to nurse on their heartbroken moms but were denied that birthright so vegetarians could eat nonvegan cheese and nonvegan butter. Borrowing from Rutgers Professor Gary Francione, I will say that the decision to consume dairy and eggs but not meat is ultimately no more respectful of animals than a decision to consume spotted cows but not monochrome cows.
Unlike anti-Semitic jokes, which people tell with malice, people who eat animals and their secretions do so out of habit and the many years of brainwashing that all of us endure from a mix of advertising and clueless but well-meaning parents who know little about nutrition. This is why a person can have a dog whom she adores and for whom she buys lots of toys and can simultaneously buy a slice of nonvegan pizza, completely unaware of the contradiction she is living. Because people are not acting out of malice when they do what is unquestionably violent, sharing a nonviolent meal together is a kind thing to do and it may well begin to change the world, one meal at a time.