VWPA Advice #028: Is Being Vegan Selfish?
“Am I being selfish?”
Someone said to me today that veganism is self-indulgent and that I was being so picky with what I eat. That we are lucky to have meat and that some people in the world who don’t have a lot of food would only wish to be so lucky that they could be so picky and ungrateful with the food offered to them.
How should I respond to that!?
My response here is directed towards people who ask this question who are not food insecure. Callie’s response below is more appropriate for when this question comes from someone who is not privileged or secure.
It is always interesting to me that by saying this, people are often display their privilege and ignorance. This is the kind of statement that reinforces one of my most-hated socially accepted beliefs: that poor people are too poor to have standards. That they should and would be happy with anything thrown their way, that they don’t have their own culture, pride or morals guiding them in making choices. As someone who grew up both very poor and very moral, this is assumption makes me seethe.
Take farmers in Haiti. In 2010, after being struck with a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, Haiti was faced with enormous emergency food needs. They were still recovering from $1 billion in crop damage from a storm in 2008 (and would face another one in 2012). To say their situation was (and is) desperate would be an understatement. However, Haitian farmers, already suffering from U.S. food aid and cheap imported crops undercutting their livelihood, took a stand when Monsanto donated 475 tons of hybrid, chemically-laced seeds for “earthquake relief.” On World Environment Day that year, 10,000 rural Haitian farmers came together and burned those seeds in a powerful demonstration, chanting, “Long live the native maize seed!”
The Haitian farmers believed that protecting their native crops was more important than getting temporary aid. They were willing to starve, to literally burn food, in order to make their point. Protection of their way of life was more important than a (self-serving) handout.
People who are starving, people who are poor, people who have nothing can still have pride, morals, courage and standards. Assuming that all starving people would eat anything, and thus privileged people should eat everything, is nonsensical. It strips the poor from having any autonomy, and puts the privilege in a situation to think that doing something harmful is doing something helpful: “I’m eating this steak for the starving kids in Africa!” …WTF? And if someone were starving, and had to eat something against their morals in order to survive, it in no way reflects upon the choices that a food secure person can or should make. Choice IS a privilege, yes, but to exploit the experiences of the poor and food insecure to excuse consumption of animals for pleasure is gross on about 10 different levels.
This question, from a privileged person, is a bullying tactic – meant to make fellow privileged people squirm. It is not selfish to try to reduce suffering, it is not picky to refrain from eating foods that you know were produced with cruelty. Even for those who pursue veganism for health only, it is not selfish to give a shit about what goes in your body. Despite Patriarchy and Capitalism’s endless insistence otherwise, our bodies are OURS and we should not be shamed for caring for and about them.
The reason the U.S. is in the horrible mess it’s in is because we have been trained to consume without thought. We’ve been raised to buy and eat everything within arm’s reach without a moment’s reflection as to the consequences. The rain forests, the oceans, the animals, countries like Haiti, all weep under the crushing weight of the American Appetite. So next time someone tries to bully you into feeling selfish for choosing to step out of this system of self-indulgent destruction, you have my permission to politely tell them to fuck the fuck off.
This could be a difficult conversation to have… in all fairness I can understand how veganism or rejecting food seems selfish or self-indulgent. If you are a person who struggles to have enough food to eat, it must seem absolutely ridiculous to be turning down food or making a “fuss” over a thing like animal welfare when your body is literally starving.
However, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that it is highly unlikely that the person who is saying this to you is food insecure and/or starving. So a better question would be; if you have access to a multitude of food options, why are you choosing to cause the unnecessary death of living beings when there are countless options that don’t directly cause death?
Whoever is asking you this ridiculous ‘gotcha’ question is being a self-righteous asshole without (I’m guessing) doing anything to actually help people that are starving. I can’t think of any vegans I know that would deny a person who is starving, or in an under-developed community (like indigenous groups), the right to eat pretty much whatever they need to in order to survive. The issue becomes people who aren’t in danger of dying, who have literally thousands of options that choose to consume the cruelest ones.
So the next time some asshat tries to shame you for being selfish or picky, or god forbid yells at you about how your first world privilege grants you choice, you feel free to point out they have the same privilege and are choosing cruelty and death. Also ask them what they have done to help those that are starving, because just trotting them out to shame you in a privilege versus privilege showdown probably isn’t what those hungry people had in mind.