The Ethics Of Eating: Veganism, Food & Fashion

Today's New York Times features a piece on Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a former psychoanalyst, Freudian scholar, vegan activist, and author of the new book The Face on Your Plate.

Masson came into the public eye in the early 1990s, when he waged a 10-year libel lawsuit against the writer Janet Malcolm, disputing quotations that were attributed to him. (He was also engaged to feminist scholar Catherine Mackinnon.) He is now most famous for his best selling books on animal emotions, When Elephants Weep and Dogs Never Lie About Love. Masson's work with animals led him to convert to veganism five years ago. Since then, he has been promoting the vegan lifestyle and animal rights pretty much nonstop.

I went to see Masson speak last weekend in Woodstock, NY. The lecture was intended to promote his new book, but it ended up being about a lot more than that. Masson is a great speaker, and he is particularly convincing when he discusses the mistreatment of animals in the American livestock industry. I am basically the furthest thing from vegan, but Masson allows himself, and others, a certain level of flexibility in the quest for ethical consumption. Eric Konigsburg for the New York Times writes:

For an author of polemics - and "The Face on Your Plate," though it's more measured and engaging than most, is definitely that - Mr. Masson has a deep inclination to forgive. He said that the best excuse for eating meat (or butter or eggs) is "because you like the taste."

What he gets more worked up about are "rationalizations," such as the argument that animals like cattle and chickens exist only because we eat them and their milk and eggs. "That's denial," he said. "We're the only animal who gets to choose what we eat, so we can choose to do what's humane and also much healthier."

Masson believes that there is no such thing as giving farm animals a "good life," and has nothing but scorn for anyone who tricks themselves into believing this "rationalization" (during the talk, Masson spent a good deal of time bashing Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, for his pro-meat stance). However, Masson occasionally contradicts himself, a habit that was particularly apparent during his lecture. He was good, but not good enough to convince me to give up bacon.

In the two and a half hour discussion, one of the only things Masson did not mention is the issue of veganism as it pertains to dress, something that is perhaps even more difficult to navigate than diet. Today, Dana Wood, senior fashion editor at W magazine, blogs about the difficulties facing vegans with a love for fashion:

But here's the real dilemma for someone like me, who clocks in at a fashion magazine every day and also happens to be utterly fashion-obsessed: Steering clear of meat is a walk in the park compared to finding a decent bag, boots or shoes that don't involve leather, suede or some other cuddly-critter byproduct. In fact, the more committed I become to this little project, the more I realize how challenging it is.

Like Masson, Wood allows herself a certain level of freedom in both her diet and her purchases. Working in the fashion industry, it is almost impossible to conform to perfect vegan ideals, but Wood says she is trying. Fortunately for the vegans among us, the last few years have seen a rise in vegan restaurants and vegan boutiques. In many ways, veganism can seem like a passing fad (kind of like "going green" or "recessionistas"), but for those committed like Masson and Wood, veganism is a lifestyle. And a growing one at that.

A Man With Opinions on Food With a Face [NY Times]
Trials of a Fashion-Loving Vegan [W Magazine Editor's Blog]