Gary vs. BVR

Posted: May 24, 2016 in Uncategorized

Gary vs. BVR
Good News: Everybody’s Right

UPDATE: An earlier version of this piece spoke vaguely of a “BVR” event but it turns out this was NOT actually a BVR event! It was hosted by the Whidbey Institute, and some BVR members participated, but they did not host the event. In fact, some of the BVR speakers did not even know who all of the sponsors of this event were until after they agreed to participate.

Disclaimer: I am not a “Francionista.” While I agree with a lot of what Gary Francione says, and have even often said the same thing not knowing that he said it (i.e. referring to veganism as a Moral Imperative, with caps, in my first book, without having read Gary’s work or encountered him referring to veganism as such [in lowercase]; writing this about retiring the word “vegetarian” while not having encountered his referral in this to vegetarianism as “not a coherent moral position”), I was disappointed when sometime last summer he misquoted me on Bob Linden Radio as having said that veganism is “racist.” As this essay will illustrate, however, now that I’ve read his critiques of Black Vegans Rock, I understand that he did not intentionally misquote me— he simply misunderstood my comment.

I am also not black and, therefore, am not a member of BVR. I have friends on the board and I support their efforts tremendously. I hope herein to clear the air about certain statements members of BVR have made that have come under Gary’s scrutiny, and to show that just as he and I are in agreement about food swamps (even if he doesn’t know it), Gary and BVR are in agreement about a lot of things— even if he doesn’t know it.

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Black Vegans Rock is an initiative that began some months ago to elevate the voices of Black vegans and give them a space in which to discuss both the intersections between speciesism and racism and the unique elements of the Black experience that may give rise to different Black vegan experiences. Such a space is necessary and invaluable, and I appreciate the board of BVR for creating one

It wasn’t long before this group came onto Gary’s radar and he began to criticize them. Here he speaks of them as “essentialists” who pay more attention to who is speaking than what is said, and argues that phrases they use such as the “who you are space” and referring to veganism as a “journey” inherently deny that veganism is a moral baseline. He also criticized them for having the Humane Society of the US sponsor an event of theirs, because HSUS a) promotes “happy exploitation” and b) is whitewashed and corporate— two things BVR claims to stand against.

One example he used of BVR rejecting veganism as a moral baseline (and, spoiler alert, I agree that it IS a moral baseline, and that violence against animals is ALWAYS wrong, even if in certain circumstances it may be excusable) is that Dr. Breeze Harper admitted to eating eggs during her pregnancy. To clarify: To the best of my knowledge, Dr. Harper has never said that it’s “okay” to eat eggs, and I doubt she believes that, because if she does, why isn’t she eating them now? This was not advocacy for hen exploitation; it was, as Christopher-Sebastian called it here, a frank and open admission. The word “admission” here is important, as it reaffirms that Breeze, McJetters et. al. understand that this act was morally wrong.

McJetters also explores the difficulties inherent in going vegan when one is poor, among other examples. At no point, however, does he say that because some people are poor, those people do not have to go vegan. This reminds me of the misunderstanding Gary had of my own comments, made to one of his followers on Facebook who said that veganism is easy; I simply suggested that this comment was classist and racist as it is not easy for everyone to go vegan. I didn’t say that to go vegan, or to tell others to go vegan, was classist or racist— just that to declare it universally “easy” was. Somehow that turned into “Saryta Rodriguez thinks veganism is racist.” (You’d think my surname would have given him pause. It didn’t.)

(For more of my own thoughts about veganism and class, read this. For clarification about why I think saying “Veganism is easy!” is problematic, see this and scroll down to the 4-point list.)

Pointing out and being honest about the difficulties inherent in something does not have to result in, “Hence, these people don’t have to do it.” That seems to be Gary’s reading of things, though. Admitting you ate eggs= endorsing eggs. Admitting that it’s harder for some communities than others to go vegan right now= giving some communities a pass to engage in violence against nonhumans in perpetuity.

To Gary’s credit, I, too, was disappointed to learn that a BVR event was being sponsored by HSUS. (It turns out the event in question wasn’t even a BVR event, but nevertheless this is a good opportunity to explore my feelings about funding and partnerships, so I shall.) I also understand that for new, younger groups with little or no funds, it’s hard to create a platform for yourself and so some will make ethical sacrifices for the sake of promoting their message. I personally don’t do this; I generally don’t seek sponsors, and I avoid certain conferences and events that celebrate individuals who I know have engaged in aggressive or inappropriate behavior with others, human or nonhuman. (I wish I could cite an example, but I don’t want to get sued.)

I am frequently disappointed, to the point where I admit perhaps I am becoming desensitized to it with each new occurrence, to find that friends and, in some cases, even “idols” or personal heroes of mine in the social justice community are attending this or that event, or teaming up with such-and-such group, when I feel there is something morally objectionable about the event or the group (a vague example: a great many feminists attending an event at which a sexual predator will be celebrated). Still, I cannot personally, unequivocally answer the question: Is it worth it to accept money and/or a public platform from someone morally questionable, in pursuit of disseminating an important ethical message?

The answer might be yes, but since I’m not sure, and I have this consistently-genuine, incapable-of-lying face (I must NEVER play poker!), I avoid altogether engaging in anything with anyone that makes me feel icky inside.

There is also the question some folks have raised with me of whether staying in, working with, or being sponsored by a questionable group might have the positive impact of improving said group in whatever way it is questionable. Were this question asked with respect to the not-actually-a-BVR event, for instance, it would read:

“Might convincing HSUS to sponsor an event by BVR make HSUS more aware of racial issues in the vegan movement and therefore improve its campaigns, hiring and promoting practices, etc.? Might it even encourage HSUS to steer itself away from welfarism and towards true, uncompromising liberation? And if so, isn’t that worth trying?”

I don’t know the answer to this, either; so, for my part, I just avoid, avoid, avoid.

Ultimately, this was the only criticism I thought was even remotely valid, and that was before I learned that the event in question wasn’t even actually a BVR event. Gary’s other critiques I find invalid, and no, it’s not because I think everything else he says is “wrong.” It’s because I think both he and BVR are right, and in that sense the former’s “counterpoints” aren’t counterpoints at all. He is right that veganism is a moral imperative and no current state of marginalization gives one a “pass” not to adopt it, and BVR is right in admitting that veganism isn’t possible for every single person on the planet overnight, and that even those who fully commit themselves to veganism are capable of relapsing into meat and dairy consumption. To me, it’s what that person does the next day that really counts. Do they use their lapse in judgment as an excuse to say, “Oh, well— I tried” and remain nonvegan? Or do they truly regret their mistake and recommit to veganism?

I think Gary is concerned that if BVR gains traction, people will hear or read things like “I ate eggs during pregnancy” and think that means, “It’s okay to eat eggs.” I trust the public a little bit more than that. I expect that folks will be relieved to hear that each of them is not this immoral, imperfect creature trying to fit into a perfect mold, into which BVR members and other advocates fit oh-so-neatly. Rather, the thought that they are one of many imperfect beings striving to an ideal goal will be comforting and encouraging— qualities Gary’s rhetoric often lacks.

Dr. Harper isn’t a welfarist because she ate eggs during her pregnancy; she’s not even advocating for the “right” of all pregnant women to eat eggs. She’s just admitting that she did it. When Pax Gethen, another BVR board member, said the Abolitionist Approach was a “white boys club,” I highly doubt they meant to say that “Everyone who uses the Abolitionist Approach is a white boy.” What they probably meant was more along the lines of, “Gary only lets people talk who agree with him, and since so many folks who don’t agree with him happen to be people of color and/or not boys, the end result is that Gary excludes a lot of people who are not white boys from his discussions.” This may or may not be true, but I’m not trying to assess the validity of Pax’s point here. I’m simply trying to clarify what the point actually is.

This whole Gary/BVR thing is just one of many cases I’ve observed in the past couple of years of Gary thinking he disagrees with someone— and, sometimes, of that someone also thinking that they disagree with Gary— when at the end of the day, both parties are saying the same thing in different ways. Gary admits that not everyone can eat a 100% plant-based diet right now because of food swamps, and he wants to fix that. McJetters also admits that not everyone can eat a 100% plant-based diet right now because of food swamps, and he, too, wants to fix that. The difference is that while McJetters and other BVR board members understand the importance of creating a safe space for marginalized people to commiserate about their shared plight— a plight that no amount of reading or discussing or video-watching can ultimately convey in full to someone not personally enmeshed in it— Gary sees the creation of such a safe space and the admissions that stem therefrom as threats to the movement.

I’m left wondering: How many, if any, former “Francionistas” were vegan for a while, lapsed, and then were so ashamed of their lapse that they never mentioned it to anyone? How many, if any, were brave enough to admit it, only to be vilified by fellow Francionistas because no one’s allowed to make mistakes, ever?

There is nothing speciesist about McJetters’s essay in response to Francione’s. Not once does he say that the claim, “violence against animals is morally wrong” is racist, classist, and/or ableist. What he does say is classist, ableist, and indirectly racist, is “…judging people for lacking similar emotional, physical and financial resources….” Had he read it properly, I’m sure Gary would have agreed with that statement. There is a difference between judging a person, which is what McJetters actually cautions us against, and judging an act, as every vegan (including, I’m sure, McJetters himself) judges every day that acts of violence against sentient beings are morally wrong. That’s what being vegan is— passing judgment on acts of violence and, having done so, eschewing them and encouraging others to do so.

Actions can be judged; people, generally speaking, ought not to be. Humans are, sadly, not privy to every last detail of one another’s lives. Even if you’ve known someone, a close friend or a sibling, since you and/or they were two years old, there are still undoubtedly elements of their experience that have not been shared with you. We would do well to remember this every time we encounter another.

 

 

All content © Saryta Rodriguez, 2016

 

 

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