Sunday, January 9, 2011

Harold Fromm

Since I mentioned his piece in my previous post, here it is, in its entirety: Harold Fromm's Vegans and the Quest for Purity

And here's my response, some of which was published in the Chronicle:

In response to Harold Fromm’s “Vegans and the Quest for Purity” (4 July 2010):

Ah, the othering, via sweeping generalizations, of some presumably homogenous entity known as vegans – and from someone who should know better.  I have to wonder first at The Chronicle’s reasoning for publishing this piece: what is the connection between this fallacious anti-vegan rant and higher education?  And second, I am concerned that such a completely unsupported argument, devoid of any concrete examples, dependent upon the stereotyping of various groups (vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters) passes muster with the editors.

As I read through this piece, I could not help finding myself in composition instructor mode, knowing that any good first-year writing teacher would return this piece for revision, given its hasty generalizations (“Unlike vegans, who are enlisted in an open-ended but futile metaphysic of virtue and self-blamelessness that pretends to escape from the conditions of life itself, vegetarians have more limited goals and have marked out a manageable territory with fewer cosmic pretensions,” “Behind their beliefs is the hopeless longing for innocence”), its faulty analogies and slippery slope hyperbole (“But even larger creatures like cockroaches and rats, do they enter into the purview of animal-rights activists? And the HIV virus, the swine flu, tuberculosis? Do I want to eschew antibiotics and vaccines that help my life out of respect for theirs?”), and its argument from tradition: “We're compromised from the start. Evolution favored meat-eating primates, enlarging their brains and enabling them to live in more and more complex and survivalist societies that today extend our life spans, provide genteel habitats, and produce philosophers who have the wherewithal to object to the very components of their own existence.”

Who are these vegans of which Fromm speaks, these ethereal, “grandstanding,” self-righteous creatures, these judgmental and friendless beings, alienated from society (“Veganism, while perhaps harmless enough, especially if you don't care about being part of society or alienating potential friends who may find you more trouble than you're worth…”)?  I’m afraid that I don’t know these folks.  And I’m doubting that Fromm knows them either.  Since concrete example is always preferable to nameless, faceless stereotype (like vegans, blacks, gays, women…), I’d like to introduce you to a real life vegan: me.

Since The Chronicle sees fit to entertain the subject of veganism via Fromm, it seems fair that there be a counter narrative out there as well, one straight from the mouth of a creature whose existence must be the product of selective biological evolution and the evolution of intellectual choice: a female, vegan animal.  The reasons that Fromm lists for why vegans are vegan are somewhat alien to me; indeed, most of them are not my reasons.  I was vegetarian first – because I didn’t want to participate in an industry responsible for what I view as so much needless suffering.  I visited a sausage plant on a school field trip when I was 13.  And that was that.

Veganism came later, when I was working on my dissertation on J. M. Coetzee, an author whose work Fromm and I both admire.  But my decision wasn’t based on reading Coetzee, or even on a much more influential text that I read at the same time, Carol J. Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat, a text that made manifest for me the connections between the subjection of animals and women.  I chose to be vegan because I could make that choice, because it wasn’t going to hurt me to do so, and because, in a much larger sense, doing so forced me to come into direct and engaged contact not only with what I eat and wear, but with the capitalist economies responsible for such commodities; for me, being a vegan requires my vigilance, my attention, my focus in ways that make it impossible for me to consume anything – from food to politics to fashion –without at first considering its source.  As the result of that decision, I am healthy and strong, a distance runner, scholar, teacher, and fully realized member of society.  I am a person who feels a sense of internal consistency, at least in one aspect of my life.

I know that I am lucky – privileged – to be able to make the choices that I make.  I never take the ability to make those choices for granted.  I am fortunate to be able to take a considered approach to my evolutionary history and my biology, and to decide that simply because something has been the case in the past, it does not necessarily need to remain the case.  I get to choose not to eat certain things, not to wear certain things, heck, even not to have children – a choice that clearly flies in the face of my biological “purpose” – and for the ability to make these choices, I am supremely thankful.  I have never found myself hopelessly “longing for innocence” as the result of my life, but, then again, I think that the longing for innocence of which Fromm speaks is probably the same longing that accompanies any quest for meaning or truth, any attempt to make sense of one’s place in a world that is filled with suffering.

Choice is an interesting concept, if we approach it from the evolutionary standpoint that Fromm seems to embrace; if we are biologically and historically predetermined (because our evolutionary history would suggest that we are) to do such and such, how do we account for the evolution of an intellect that allows us not to?  If, as Fromm states, “to be alive is to be a murderer. Or to be murdered,” then isn’t the decision not to go outside and kill your neighbor for whatever reason just as suspect as the decision not to eat a cow or wear leather (or, for that matter, kill a spider)?  We all make choices with regard to what we will and won’t allow, what we privilege and what we exclude from consideration.  We are all, vegan and non-vegan, involved in both destructive and creative processes.

There are many reasons for why I made the decision to become vegan; they are my reasons, and I have never tried to impose them on anyone else (although the very act of my being vegan is enough to threaten some people, like Fromm, for instance – but that’s not my problem).  I am happy; I have friends – from raw foodists, to vegetarians, to full out carnivores – who eat all kinds of different things.  I live in a world where there is room for differing systems of belief, different reasons why people make the choices that they make.  And I’m a vegan, Harold.  Now you can say that you’ve met one.

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