Animal Advocate Doesn't See Why Veganism Is So Difficult To Do

In an interview with Salon, veganism advocate Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson explains why meat eaters mock vegans, why Michael Pollan is wrong, and why he thinks things are getting better for animals.

Masson says omnivores make fun of vegans "because of a bad conscience. I think to some extent people think: 'You know, they're probably right, but, boy, would it be inconvenient for me.'" And according to Masson, omnivores should have a bad conscience. Of milk, he says:

I feel that it's not ours to take. The milk is there for a calf, not for a human. We're the only species that drinks the milk of another species.

Think about it: You couldn't get within 100 yards of a wild cow to take milk. The bull would gore you to death. The cow herself would run away. They don't want to be milked. It's really a false conceit to say, "Well, they don't really mind." Of course they mind. It's just that we breed them to be docile, and we put them in stalls, and we make them artificially pregnant. It's totally unnatural.

When Salon's Katharine Mieszkowski asks "wouldn't you do more to reduce animal suffering by advocating ending the worst factory farms than arguing that we should all go vegan," Masson replies: "Reform has never been my strong point. I really like to think along the edges — a more radical approach." He goes on to critique the idea — espoused by Michael Pollan and others — that farm animals can have good lives.

Near the end of the interview, Masson says things are changing for the better. Part of his evidence: "I just heard a fantastic statistic that at Stanford University, a quarter of the undergraduate student body is vegetarian." I was a vegetarian undergraduate at Stanford, and while the percentage of vegetarians may have changed dramatically in the four years since I graduated, I remember the figure being about 11%. And we did get made fun of. Partly, I'm sure, because of meat-eaters' "bad conscience," but partly because we were perceived as self-righteous. And sometimes we were.

Masson says "you could never pass a law that you can't eat cheese. Never, ever. That will never happen. [...] It feels like, I think falsely so, but it feels like it's my God-given privilege to eat whatever I goddamn please." This makes cheese-eaters sound like entitled assholes, but really food is a central part of almost all human cultures (except, say, breatharians), and to ask people to give up something their mothers, their grandmothers, and their great-grandmothers not only ate but also, as Masson acknowledges, developed rituals around, is actually a very big deal. We may be the only animals who drink the milk of another animal, but we're also the only animals who refrain from eating certain things for moral reasons, and to say that being vegan or vegetarian is more "natural" than being omnivorous is a total crock.

When I was at Stanford, a lot of vegans and vegetarians used our commitment to the cause to disparage American food culture, deriding bread and milk as disgusting. I remember one girl turning up her nose at some cheese, labeling it "bacteria food" — we had to point out that the tempeh she was eating was also fermented. The way Americans eat has lots of problems, to be sure, but telling people that the historical basics of their diet are gross and unnatural isn't the best way to get people to change. Maybe if Masson were more interested in reform, he'd recognize that, as much as animal life deserves respect, so does human culture. It's reasonable to ask people to eat less meat and dairy — it's even reasonable to ask them to go completely vegan. But we have to understand that this represents an enormous shift for people, a break not only with habit but with history. Sometimes it's good to break with history, but it's always hard, and animal rights advocates need to recognize that.

Don't have a cow! [Salon]

Earlier: The Ethics Of Eating: Veganism, Food & Fashion