Sunday, November 4, 2012

Vegan Terrorist: The Rhetoric of Veganism and the Post-9/11 Backlash

On September 20, 2001, then President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took place on September 11.  In a speech that constituted his declaration of war on terror, the President designated al Qaeda a terrorist organization distinct in its beliefs from the rest of the Muslim world and an organization capable of “evil and destruction.”  The rhetoric Bush employed in the speech established a clear divide between “America,” land of freedom, and terrorism, an ill-defined, looming menace comprised of anyone who would dare to attack us.  Bush outlined the cause of the attack as hatred, stating the that terrorists “hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” and he asked the rest of the world to choose a side: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

In creating what William D. Lutz terms a “rhetoric of permanent war and fear,” the Bush administration established a political and social environment that lasted throughout his tenure as President and that continues to impact public discourse up to the present moment.  A month after his speech, the subsequent passage of the Patriot Act, which allowed the government heretofore unheard of license with regard to surveillance and detention of suspected terrorists, established a general erosion of privacy and civil liberties that further placed on lockdown any attempt at dissention.  During his September 20 speech, Bush offered a mandate: “I ask you to uphold the values of America,” and in the wake of a changed world, we were left to posit continually and forcefully certain behavior as patriotic and American and to just as vociferously denounce anything that was not as aligned with terrorism.  You were, after all, either with us or with the terrorists.  You had to be an American with American values; you flew a flag, were Christian, and ate like an American.  And whatever you did, you did not question the government.

In the wake of the attacks, Americans turned to so-called comfort foods to feel better, and they shied away from expensive restaurants, many of which served ethnic cuisine.  According to Brian Gallagher, in the subsequent decade, “restaurants focusing on simple, familiar and hearty food – though often rendered in an upscaled and inventive way – would become the culinary zeitgeist.”  Gallagher notes the popularity of such items as fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and hamburgers in the decade that followed the attacks, and he notes that in terms of dining out, people “wanted places that felt, in terms of scale, much more like home.” 

While the desire for so-called comfort foods makes a kind of psychological sense, other shifts in terms of our culture’s relationship with food were clearly a product of the rhetoric of fear espoused by the Bush administration; for example, in an act of outright xenophobia that remained in tact until 2006, when France refused to support the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq – a direct result of the September 11 attacks – Republican lawmakers following the lead of North Carolina based restaurant Cubbies retaliated by renaming French fries “freedom fries” on cafeteria menus in three House office buildings (Loughlin) in a move that was followed by other restaurant owners in the private sector.  And in an article published as late as 2011, Michele Payn-Knoper discusses the potential dangers associated with the fact that the U.S. imports 40 percent of its food:

At a time that Americans are so sensitive about our national security, do we really want to rely on other countries for the majority of our food?  Consider what’s happened to oil and our gas prices; it makes no sense to have our food “held hostage.” Yet, the increasing regulations, lack of understanding about today’s modern farm and constant scrutiny of American agriculture is pushing more food production out of the U.S. and Canada.

Given such post-September 11 sentiment with regard to the sanctity and nature of “American” food, it should not seem odd or even outrageous to consider that our current understanding of veganism in the U.S. has been hugely impacted and shaped by the Bush administration’s rhetorical response to the attacks.

How embarrassing for us.

I want to look briefly at the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, a period during which vegetarianism – and even veganism to an extent – experienced a kind of mainstream recognition and acceptance that was significantly diminished in the subsequent decade.  To begin, Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in 1980, and that organization’s dissemination of graphic literature and images shocked the public and forced it to come face to face with the cruelty inherent in Western culture’s treatment of animals.  Newkirk believes that decades later, “the popularity of animal rights revived vegetarianism in America” (Iacobbo and Iacobbo 199), and PETA’s ability – controversial as it has been – to force people to recognize that their food once had a face was largely responsible for this shift. 

Also during the 1980s, even as sale of chicken products increased, “sales of beef slumped,” and “ethnic cuisine, traditionally prepared with vegetables or grains, and a much smaller portion of meat than Americans were typically accustomed to, or none at all, started to increase in demand” (Iacobbo and Iacobbo196).  This interest in non-Western cuisine marked a moment of culinary multiculturalism that allowed many Americans, for the first time, to consider dietary options other than those that were typically standard American.  Sushi was the rage on the West coast, and Japanese and Chinese food thrived in the U.S. during this period.  Furthermore, John Robbins published Diet for a New America in 1987, and this work linked meat consumption with environmental destruction in ways that allowed Americans to consider that meat eating, animal cruelty, and environmental devastation are inherently connected in ways that jeopardize human existence.

Yes, I went there.

If the 1980s was in many ways a good decade for vegetarianism, the 1990s were perhaps even better, ushered in by “a flood of scientific evidence supporting vegan diets” (Iacobbo and Iacobbo 209) as healthier than their omnivorous or even vegetarian counterparts.  The work of Caleb Johnson and Dean Ornish was influential and its impact long lasting.  In 1990, Carol J. Adams published The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, a work that examined the linkages between the exploitation of animals and the exploitation of women and advocated for veganism as a necessary feminist act.  In 1991, the basic four food groups, recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture since 1956, received an overhaul led by Neal Barnard, M.D., founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; Barnard’s model relegated both “meat and dairy to optional status” (211).  This recommendation was made after decades of research by Barnard and other physicians, namely T. Colin Campbell, Oliver Alabaster, and Denis Burkitt that effectively proved both “the health benefits of vegan foods” (212) and the detrimental aspects of consuming meat. 

During this same period, veganism entered mainstream and popular culture in ways that depicted that lifestyle in a sympathetic light.  In 1995, Babe, directed by Chris Noonan and staring James Cromwell, who became outspokenly vegan while acting in that film, was released and, in its anthropomorphic depiction of farm animals, caused viewers across the country to stop eating them.  Howard Lyman, author of Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from a Cattle Rancher who Won’t Eat Meat, appeared on Oprah in 1996 and explained to America why and how he, a fourth generation cattle rancher, became vegan.  Lyman and Winfrey, who declared during the broadcast that she had eaten her last hamburger, were subsequently sued for libel by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for anti-beef comments made during the broadcast.[i]  And in 2000, Rod Lurie’s film The Contender portrayed a female, vegan political contender for the office of Vice President of the United States as a heroic champion of American values.

Some good stuff from Lurie's The Contender

While awareness of vegetarianism and veganism has continued to rise in the U.S. since the 1990s, prompting even the most recalcitrant aspects of our culture to make some concessions and accommodations – even Burger King saw fit to start offering a veggie burger in 2002 – there has been a pronounced shift in the discourse of veganism since the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Even prior to the 2001 attacks, chef Anthony Bourdain aligned vegans with anti-American terrorism in his wildly successful 2000 exposé Kitchen Confidential:

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. . . . Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It’s healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I’ve worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. (70)

Bourdain is famous for his disdain of the non-omnivorous in general and of vegans in particular, and his incendiary claims about them are oft quoted.[ii]  Bourdain’s association of veganism with terrorism, however, constructed veganism (a decidedly pacifist ideology) as dangerously, violently radical, a behavior that posed a threat to any sane conceptions of diet.  Vegetarians and vegans, in this construction, are the “enemy” of the very “human spirit.”  After the advent of the so-called War on Terror, terms like “Jihad,” “al-Qaeda,” and the omnipresent and pervasive “terrorist” entered the mainstream U.S. vernacular, part and parcel of a political rhetoric that divided the world into the simplistic categories of good and evil, and Bourdain’s construction of vegans as terrorists held a different and more powerful sway. 

A search for "Anthony Bourdain douche" pulls up this.

And Bourdain reiterated his point after the terrorist attacks.  While in Philadelphia on a book tour promoting his 2007 release No Reservations, Bourdain said that vegetarians “are the worst kind of terrorists. And they must be stopped” (qtd. in Valocchi), asserting again – and this time in a post-September 11 world – that not eating meat constitutes an act of terrorism.  In the years since that statement, the supposed connection between cruelty free diets and terrorism has played out in startling ways.  For example, a Village Voice article by Matt Snyders chronicles the FBI’s solicitation of informants to monitor protest groups during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Snyders discusses the case of Paul Carroll,[iii] a student at the University of Minnesota, who was approached by the FBI.  According to Synders,

What they were looking for, Carroll says, was an informant – someone to show up at “vegan potlucks” throughout the Twin Cities and rub shoulders with RNC protestors, schmoozing his way into their inner circles, then reporting back to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a partnership between multiple federal agencies and state and local law enforcement.

Snyder quotes attorney Jordan Kushner who notes that “the Joint Terrorism Task Force is another example of using the buzzword ‘terrorism’ as a basis to clamp down on people’s freedoms and push forward a more authoritarian government.”  Veganism, as a non-normative dietary choice, represents an ideology at odds with an increasingly authoritarian regime; in this case, it becomes associated with protest, dissent, and terrorism and must be covertly monitored.


In 2009, police in the U.K. secretly investigated 47,000 suspicious travelers who booked flights into and out of Britain.  These travelers were red flagged “as potential terrorists [for such things as] ordering a vegetarian meal, asking for an over-wing seat and travelling with a foreign-born husband or wife” (Lewis).  Travelers were selected via a terrorist detector database that was introduced by Britain’s Labor Party, yet the system, which cost over a billion pounds to implement, “has never led to the arrest of a terrorist” (Lewis).  And also in 2009, the FBI for the first time placed an animal rights activist, Daniel Andreas San Diego, on its most wanted list.  San Diego, who is still at large and was the first domestic terrorist to appear on the list, is accused of bombing two corporate offices in California in 2003 – both of which were associated with animal testing – causing property damage but no loss of life. 

In the slew of media that followed his placement on the list, San Diego’s status as a “strict vegan” (Frieden) was highlighted.  The headline of a 2011 article in Boston magazine reads “Violent, Vegan Animal Rights Terrorist Suspected in Northampton,” and in a Fox News article, Joseph Abrams says “San Diego's bespectacled face masks a violent hate that authorities say turned him into an eco-terrorist, a vicious vegan with an ax to grind.”  To be clear, discussing the media’s coverage of San Diego’s veganism is in no way to advocate for his methods; San Diego’s actions are reprehensible, violent, and antithetical to the predominant ideology that, I would argue, influences most people who opt for a vegan lifestyle.  But in their coverage of the San Diego case, the FBI and the media have, like Bourdain, linked veganism to terrorism in ways that elide veganism with dangerous extremism.

As America has continued to fight its seemingly never ending War on Terror and as we have shifted from one administration to another, at least some of the paranoia and fear that gripped the nation in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks has abated.  But the rhetoric that the Bush administration employed immediately after those attacks established a pervasive and still extant need to clarify certain behavior as patriotic and American while denouncing anything that did not comfortably fit that model as not only un-American but anti-American, as behavior that might underscore and compliment a terrorist mentality, and as behavior that must be closely monitored, even if such monitoring violates basic civil liberties. 

Veganism, which had enjoyed a mild and even at times positive reception during the preceding two decades, became at the dawn of the twenty-first century suspect in its sudden associations with fundamentalism, radicalism, and anti-government protest; in its deviation from the Standard American Diet (SAD), it appeared alien and dangerously ethnic, influenced by the ideologies of the non-Western world.  To be vegan was to be un-American, to be with the terrorists and not, as Bush commanded, with the rest of “us.”

* I realize this blog is too long.  Sorry bout that.
* Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations airs its final episode tomorrow.  Buh-bye, ass clown.

[i]   The case was dismissed in 1998.

[ii]  Bourdain has tended to focus on vegan and vegetarian arguments about the health supportive nature of those diets and on what he views as a kind of cultural elitism that keeps vegans from being able to travel to other cultures and eat their foods.  He has tended to stay away from the ethical arguments for veganism.

[iii] “Paul Carroll” is the alias of young man who wished to remain anonymous.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Out of the Closet? Veganism as Orientation or Preference

I was running, stepped on a rock, rolled and then broke my right ankle on October 3.  I’ve never broken a bone before, and I can tell you that of all the bones I could have broken, my right ankle would not be my first choice.  Things I’m observing while trying to heal: there’s nothing worse than a runner who can’t run.  I am currently in a space of telling off random strangers in other people’s Facebook posts (I’ve forbidden myself from FB for a week as a result of telling off a friend’s friend for trying to mansplain why veganism is bad), nearly punching the last person who told me that at least I’m getting good upper body workout from the crutches, and sending a nasty letter to some random news station after reading a horribly written and factually inaccurate article about Mickey Shunick’s murderer.  I corrected the article using Track Changes and requested that those folks hire an English major. 

 Again, hire an English Major.

So I’m in a rare space that constitutes a haphazard mixture of rage at not being able to run and the subsequent depression resultant from such a state, feminist ire from reading too much social media (binders full of women!) – a position that arises from my inability to do much of anything else – and generalized misanthropy, aimed at

1.  Anyone walking, running, or driving, all of which I can’t do
2.  My neighbors, whose Romney/Ryan sign keeps creeping closer and closer to my yard
3.  The gym that I’ve joined (cause rowing machines and exercise bikes suck and are not even remotely as awesome as running)
4.  Anyone who doesn’t offer to hold a door for me when I’m trying to get into the gym (cause I can’t open doors and manage crutches)
5.  Anyone who offers to hold a door for me (cause don’t feel sorry for me, asshole!)

You see my predicament.  I’m a miserable bastard, and there is no making it better til I can run again.  Anyway, I have been doing a lot of reading and writing and thinking.  Here’s what’s new.

But first, here are my ankles.  The one that looks like a loaf of bread is the one that's broken.

I went out to dinner about a month ago with three people, two of whom are friends, and the other someone I’d just met.  While we were ordering, one of my friends shared with the new friend that I’m vegan.  I don’t mind this at all; I am, at present, wearing that status like a gigantic badge of honor (“vegan” tattooed on my arm and all), so it’s not like I’m trying to hide that fact from anyone.

This hasn’t always been the case.  For a long time, I was very private about both my vegetarianism (when I was a vegetarian) and my veganism (after I became vegan) for a whole variety of reasons, the most prominent of which was that I didn’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable or judged.  Another reason was that I’d found that often when I would disclose my dietary weirdness, there would ensue all manner of things that I didn’t want to deal with: people telling me their stories of their failed attempts at vegetarianism (usually something along the lines of “I used to be vegetarian, but then I got sick…”), questions about where I got my protein, and, sometimes, worst of all, blatant attacks on my lifestyle.

Now, however, I don’t care about whether or not I make people uncomfortable.  I’m not judging anyone; I just refuse to self-judge to protect other people’s feelings.  It took me a long to get here, and I’m not leaving.

So when my friend outed me as vegan, there was that moment that I always feel when this happens around someone I don’t know, when I wonder how I’ll be treated thereafter.  This new friend was very nice; she thanked me for being a “normal” vegan, as she’d known quite a few who weren’t.  And then she told me about them. 

On the one hand, it’s nice to be the friendly face of non-judgmental veganism, to be the “normal” one among so many weirdos, despite the fact that there’s nothing at all normal about me. I exist within a subculture that constitutes at most something like 3% of the U.S. population, and our very existence (and I’m seriously not trying to speak for vegans as a whole because we are not in any way a unified movement) is about as counter-cultural as anything that’s out there. 

Here’s what happened when I told my friend Will about being a normal vegan.  He said, “Oh my God.  That’s exactly what happens to me, only I’m the ‘normal’ gay guy.”

The whole experience got me thinking about the way that veganism, like homosexuality, constitutes a non-normative identity position that requires one to constantly negotiate whether to be in or out of the closet, and, should one come out, to manage other people’s reactions to that position.  Sex and food: two of our most primal and primary needs; mess with how the majority of folks think you should fuck or eat, and watch what happens.

To take this comparison further, a 2007 study by Annie Potts and Jovian Parry even explores the emergence of “a new ‘sexual preference’ and a new controversy [that subsequently] appeared in the global media-scape and on the internet: ‘vegansexuality’” (53), which surfaced after a 2006 nationwide New Zealand study that looked at the perspectives of vegetarian and vegan consumers in that country.  Several vegetarian female respondents – only one of whom identified as vegan – noted that they engaged in sexual and long-term relationships only with others who likewise abstained from meat and animal products.  Potts and Parry note that in subsequent news stories, the term “vegansexual” was coined to define this phenomenon and that the global coverage of it “was, predictably, highly sensationalized” (55). 

The backlash that ensued was aimed at women who would dare to express this new sexual orientation – and Potts and Parry read vegansexuality in Foucauldian terms, noting its creation “through various machinations of power and resilience, discourse and confession” (55) – with the most vitriolic contempt for vegansexuality coming from omnivorous heterosexual men (57). The various criticisms from this group aimed at women who express this orientation include the assertion that both veganism and sex with only vegan men constitute a form of self-imposed abstinence by women who really prefer meat eaters – and meat – “but deny their ‘true’ desires,” or as dietary and sexual dysfunction, a deficiency, and/or a form of discrimination against men who eat meat (64). 

My attempt to consider veganism as somehow analogous to something like homosexuality is probably raising flags.  And it should (cause the two aren’t the same), but I’m going to push this comparison still further.  Homosexuality is a characteristic that people are forever seeking to establish as based in some sort of causal relationship.  What causes a person to be homosexual (or, for that matter, what causes a person to be heterosexual)?  Is it a biological or learned?  What’s the role of culture vs. nature in a person’s sexual orientation?  And are culture and nature even distinct categories (I’d argue that they aren’t)?  Is there any aspect of choice involved in the forging of sexual orientation?  There has never been a clear consensus with regard to these questions. 

Big ole question mark.

Veganism is considered a lifestyle preference (remember that we used to say that homosexuality was a sexual preference as well, but in our infinite sensitivity, we switched to “orientation,” which implies that there’s more at work here than simply what people prefer) based on deeply held beliefs that consuming animals and animal products is wrong.  As a result of this belief, one chooses not to consume those things, opting instead of a diet and lifestyle that is devoid of such items.  In this context, veganism is no more an “orientation” than is purchasing a Honda over a Toyota (I’ve had both; I’m bi-carious.  C’mon: that’s pretty funny).

But I want to trouble the notion of what constitutes an “orientation.”  The third definition of “orientation” that’s found in the Oxford English Dictionary is the one that pertains to our thinking about sexual orientation: “a person's basic attitude, beliefs, or feelings; a person's emotional or intellectual position in respect of a particular topic, circumstance.”  And “basic” in this sense means “fundamental,” or “essential.”  For one to be “oriented” towards something implies, at least in the case of sexual orientation, an essential or fundamental position; an orientation, therefore, is something much more deeply rooted than a mere preference. 

Consider that veganism, like homosexuality (or heterosexuality, for that matter) has been around forever (although it wasn’t called “veganism” until 1944) and present in vastly different cultures,[1] even though we tend to think of it as some trendy, new, Western thing.  In Vegetarianism: A History, Colin Spencer notes, for example, that the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (whose name was evoked by Percy Shelley, himself vegetarian, to “describe an ideal way of life” (38)) was vegan (38).  But veganism has never been the dominant dietary position in any culture at any time.  So what causes people, over vast amounts of time and in decidedly different cultures, to be vegan, particularly given the minority position that such an option has always mandated?  Being vegan, no matter where and when, has always constituted a non-normative position, one that often inspired persecution.  

While there’s been tons and tons of research about what makes people gay, there’s been precious little about what makes people vegan, but there has been some. Barbara McDonald’s “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t not Know it’: An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan” examines the experiences of a group of “successful and committed vegans” (19) to ascertain why they became vegan.  She notes that “becoming vegan represents a major lifestyle change, one that demands the rejection of the normative ideology of speciesism” (3).  McDonald identifies a process involving catalytic experiences, which lead individuals to seek education about the plight of animals, which then leads to the decision to become vegan.  She situates veganism as an activist position in that vegans “reject institutional power by choosing cruelty-free products and by engaging in protests and other activism” (17). 

All of this is interesting, if somewhat unsurprising to me.  But what kind of caught my eye were two points raised in the study, first that “most of the participants claimed to have been ‘animal people’ all their lives” (6, my emphasis) and that for the participants in this study, the decision to become vegan felt “inevitable,” “comfortable,” and “final” (15).  McDonald reads veganism as an orientation – a kind of pre-existing condition, if you will – one that is there prior to the potential vegan’s ability to act on it through catalytic experiences, education, and information.

The idea that there’s some essential quality in certain people that makes them vegan may seem hokey – and I’ll give you that if it does.  But to turn it around a bit, is such an idea any less unlikely than the notion that there is some essential quality that causes someone to grow up and become a serial killer?  No one has ever really been able to argue very convincingly that socialization is always the only thing that causes that behavior.  But I’ve always been incredibly wary of essentialism, and I sincerely believe that we are all combinations of both biological and social influences.
Still considering veganism as an orientation resonates with me, because I think that on some very primal level, I always knew that I was vegan, or, rather, that I have always believed and felt the things that drove me to the inevitable conclusion to become vegan; my core self, whatever has created it, has always been vegan.  I just had to fully realize that aspect of my identity before I could come out of the closet.

And such a position also really resonates with my previous criticism of Robert Pippin’s position that people simply can’t care about things that they don’t care about; maybe he’s right after all. 

Works Cited

McDonald, Barbara.  “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t Not Know It’: An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan.”  Society and Animals 8.1(2000): 1-23.  Print.

Spencer, Colin.  Vegetarianism: A History.  New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000.  Print.

Stuart, Tristam.  The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times.  New York: Norton, 2006.  Print.

[1] Tristam Stuart’s exhaustive study The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times is a valuable resource for examining the long and multicultural history of vegetarianism and veganism.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Plant Restaurant, Asheville, NC and the Masculine Politics of Meat

So let's just put our hands together and give a big round of applause for Plant for placing in the following categories in the Mountain Xpress's Best of 2012 edition:

1st place: Best New Restaurant

2nd place: Best service; options for special diets (gluten free, lactose free, etc.), Top Chef: Jason Sellers

3rd place: Favorite Restaurant; Best vegetarian 

In a town that boasts 358 restaurants on Trip Advisor (of which Plant is, ahem, numero uno), them's not shabby stats for a place that hadn't even been open a year when voting started.  

Jason Sellers

Here's what the Xpress had to say about he Plant: 

"The crowd at Plant is difficult to describe. On a given day, you might see a group of college students, a table of ladies who lunch or even Congressman Dennis Kucinich and family. As Xpress readers know, the clientele varies because Plant offers something for everyone, even though they serve only vegan foods. Chef Jason Sellers plays up the plant-based components of traditional flavor combinations to create dishes that are at once familiar and exciting. Plant doesn’t overwhelm diners with the merits of a vegan diet; the restaurant simply serves great food from its chic open kitchen."

With Moby, who ate there twice in one day while he was here for Moogfest

With Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, who came to visit us

I've been writing for the past two weeks or so a chapter that I've titled "Men, Meat, and Hegan Identity: Veganism and the Discourse of Masculinity."  It's all about the way that masculine identity, at least in the United States, is a very fragile construct, dependent in no small part on men's consumption of meat, particularly red meat, and about the social penalties enacted against men who choose not to do this most manly of things.  

The first part of Carol J. Adams’s foundational The Sexual Politics of Meat is titled “The Patriarchal Texts of Meat,” and focuses on the various historical narratives that shape our belief that meat is the substrate of male strength and power.  She carefully deconstructs a vast array of texts that includes fairy tales, unwritten food taboos, and cookbooks, as well as historical narratives of colonial domination that champion white superiority in order to expose as fictitious the notions that meat is male food and that men need meat in order to obtain and maintain patriarchal power.  She notes early in the section that despite the fact that people with power have always eaten meat, the narratives that support that reality work to undermine and disempower various other groups.  She notes that “dietary habits proclaim class distinctions, but they proclaim patriarchal distinctions as well,” equating second-class foods – vegetables, grains, fruits – with women.  Therefore, “the sexism in meat eating recapitulates the class distinction with an added twist: a mythology permeates all classes that meat is a masculine food and meat eating is a male activity” (26). 

In addition to looking at the ways that meat is constructed as essentially male, Adams also examines how the mythology that codes meat in this way is also both an “index of racism” (29) and a mechanism that enables and justifies the colonization and subjugation of non-Western cultures by the West.  She cites nineteenth-century medical doctor James Beard’s assertion in support of a meat-based diet to enable intellectual and physical progress among the English: “the rice-eating Hindoo and Chinese and the potato-eating Irish peasant are kept in subjection by the well-fed English,” who constitute a “nation of beef-eaters” (qtd. in Adams 31).  Since its publication in 1991, Adams’s work has remained the standard bearer in the increasingly relevant fields of ecocritism and animal studies, even as subsequent scholars have built upon her premise.

Despite the fact that, by and large, men have been able to “enjoy eating as a value free behavior” (Buerkle 253), an increasing scholarly and scientific focus on the gendered nature of diet combined with women’s increased access to traditional male spheres of influence situates men’s dietary choices – like women’s – as political.  In “Meat, Morals, and Masculinity,” Ruby and Heine characterize male meat eating as “archetypal” (448), and they examine the paradoxical nature of meat, noting that “meat, long considered both nutritionally dense . . . and high in pathogen risk, is . . . the most cherished and most often tabooed category of food . . . and it is strongly linked with cultural conceptions of masculinity and power” (447).   The belief in meat – particularly red meat – as essential to both manhood and power is so deeply entrenched and codified, particularly in the United States, that the proven health risks associated with its consumption have done little to deter its mythological power. 

Richard Rogers, whose study “Beasts, Burgers, and Hummers: Meat and the Crisis of Masculinity in Contemporary Television Advertisements” situates nature as the absent referent in several pro-beef television commercials (in that these commercials constitute a backlash both against feminism and environmentalism), attributes the power of the mythology of meat to the pervasive discourse that surrounds its contemporary articulation: “from literature to everyday speech, from art to advertisements, the articulation of hegemonic masculinity with the consumption of meat is pervasive” (281).  To undermine or challenge such a culturally pervasive archetype is an attempt to open a space in which to discuss alternative masculinities – Rogers, for example, examines the category of “metrosexuality” – but it is also, given the “precarious state” of masculinity, “easily lost and requiring constant validation” (Ruby and Heine 450), to invite resistance and to engender a profound backlash.

Despite the fact that a large body of work about men, meat, and gender exists, according to Jemál Nath, “the experience of vegetarian men who reject the social and cultural norm of eating animals is harder to discern” (261) and that for men, “choosing to eat a plant-based diet is . . . transgressing dominant cultural and gastronomic norms of Western society and all of the meat-eating values invested in those norms” (263).  In the U.S. and Britain, where research has shown a strong perceptional link between the consumption of muscle meat (like steak) and masculinity,[i] and men to choose not to eat red meat are viewed as weak. 

Into this discourse about meat and masculinity that consistently asserts that while vegetarians are viewed more virtuous than their omnivorous counterparts, they are also perceived as less masculine,[ii] men who choose to be vegan face immense social pressure either to acquiesce and eat meat or experience ridicule, judgment, and ostracism from their fellow men.  While Nath discovered that some non-meat eating men find it empowering to subvert the dominant dietary norm (274) – and one could argue, after all, that to be male and refuse to eat meat is one of the bravest things a man can do, given the societal pressure to do otherwise – the pressure to render veganism as appropriately masculine has generated a counter-discourse of “heganism,” or male veganism.  

And there’s a lot more to this discussion, but for now, here’s Jason again:

With a scythe.  And apologies for the objectification.

Like I said, at least from where I'm sitting, being male and refusing to eat meat: pretty studly.

[i] See Rozin et al. for more information about this study.

[ii] See Ruby and Heine, p. 448.

Works Cited
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.  New York: Continuum, 1990.  Print.

Buerkle, C. Wesley. “Metrosexuality Can Stuff It: Beef Consumption as Hetero-Masculine Fortification.” Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World. Eds. Psyche Williams Forson and Carole Counihan. Routledge, 2011. 251-64.  Print.

Nath, Jemál.  “Gendered Fare: A Qualitative Investigation of Alternative Food and Masculinities.”  Journal of Sociology 47.3 (2010): 261-278.  Print.

Rogers, Richard A.  “Beasts, Burgers, and Hummers: Meat and the Crisis of Masculinity in Contemporary Television Advertisements.”  Environmental Communication 2.3 (2008): 281-301.  Print.

Rozin, Paul et al.  “Is Meat Male? “A Quantitative Multimethod Framework to Establish Metaphoric Relationships.” Journal of Consumer Research 39.3 (2012).  Web.  8 October 2012.

Ruby, Matthew B., and Steven J. Heine.  “Meat, Morals, and Masculinity.”  Appetite 56.2 (2011): 447-450.  Print.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Short Unhappy Life as a Sorority Girl; or, Fraternities, Alcohol Enemas, and Dehumanization

CNN is running a story about a fraternity hazing incident at nearby University of Tennessee during which a student was taken to the university medical center in critical condition with a blood alcohol level of .40, the result of an “alcohol enema.”  According to a Knoxville Police spokesman, "Upon extensive questioning, it is believed that members of the fraternity were using rubber tubing inserted into their rectums as a conduit for alcohol as the abundance of capillaries and blood vessels present greatly heightens the level and speed of the alcohol entering the bloodstream as it bypasses the filtering by the liver.”  

The other members of the Pi Kappa Alpha frat are denying that this is the case because, well, I imagine that the fear of being charged with ass-raping one of one’s brothers with rubber tubing and booze is probably more terrifying than just about anything that these guys can imagine.  I mean, people might think they’re gay, never mind the fact that people might also think that they’re sadists.  And the student in question is denying it as well, despite the overwhelming physical evidence that supports the alcohol enema theory.


I’m not surprised by this incident, any more that I wasn’t surprised by a letter written by one Kappa Sigma frat boy to his brothers at USC in which he indicated the rules for being a “cocksman” and recording one’s female conquests in a tally that constitutes a competition between brothers.  At one point he says, “Note: I will refer to females as ‘targets.’ They aren't actual people like us men. Consequently, giving them a certain name or distinction is pointless.”  I'm not surprised that the body of a University of Texas fraternity brother, found dead after a night of partying, was covered in homophobic slurs, the word "fag" inked on his torso by his brothers.  And I haven't been surprised by the numerous incidents of fraternities hosting parties where whites show up in blackface or by “a fraternity at Johns Hopkins University invit[ing] partygoers to wear ‘bling bling’ grills, or shiny metal caps on their teeth.” 

This image is as close as I'm going to get to making some sort of vegan commentary in this post, but you've read enough at this point, I'm assuming, to make those connections, eh?

Caitlyn Flanagan notes,The Greek system is dedicated to quelling young men’s anxiety about submitting themselves to four years of sissy-pants book learning by providing them with a variety of he-man activities: drinking, drugging, ESPN watching and the sexual mistreatment of women.” And these incidents, diverse as they might seem, point to the ways that fraternities consistently dehumanize, ridicule, and brutalize (both literally and in effigy) groups of people that they feel pose some symbolic threat to their hegemonic masculinity: homosexuals, women, and people of color.  

In university sanctioned organizations based upon a principle of exclusion, young men are allowed free reign to enact behavior that is racist, sexist, and homophobic, and only when that behavior endangers the life of one of their own are sanctions enacted, and those sanctions, public and embarrassing as they are, are temporary slaps on the wrist for men who graduate and become upstanding members of society.  So what of the misogyny, homophobia, and racism of their past?  Surely that’s just college behavior, right?


A caveat:  I don’t think that the individual people who join Greek organizations are bad people, so please avoid telling me about all the good people involved in the Greek system.  I know, love, am related to, care about, and educate plenty of amazing people who participate and thrive in this system and who exemplify all that's good about humanity.  Nonetheless, I like the author of IceCreamHEADACHE, “won’t challenge the broad claim that many fraternities (particularly the ones portrayed in gross-out-comedy films) are part of an institution that supports and reinforces misogynistic beliefs and tendencies. They do, probably as much as the typical sorority reinforces markedly fatuous, intellectually-vacant Cosmo ideas about femininity that revolve around bad TV, an obsession with one’s weight, the assumption that men are simplistic and interchangeable, and mani-pedis.” But it's not the individual members that are the problem.  

It's the operating principle of Greek organizations that if you're in, then you're better than all those smucks who weren't given a bid; if you're a woman in a sorority, that means that you're prettier and more charming than all those other poor women out there.  If you're a man in a fraternity, then you are an alpha male, the epitome of all that is lionized in your culture.  You're on top, and, as Matthew B. Ruby and Steven J. Heine note, "in North America, manhood is still considered a precarious state, easily lost and requiring constant validation" (450).  To stay on top requires adherence to and enactment of the narrative that other people are beneath you -- and they need to be kept there.  It's the nature of group-think that is fostered and thrives by virtue of this exclusivity that enables behavior that, when it slips past the carefully guarded and secretive perimeter of the Greek system, makes the rest of us cry out for sanctions.  Or get up in arms about alcohol abuse on college campuses.  Or whatever other right minded but completely misguided solution we think might keep this kind of nonsense from happening again.

OK, so before you call me out as some feminazi out to demonize the Greek system, know that I was one its members, a sister in a sorority for one full year before I de-sistered. I had the highest GPA of any sister in my sorority the year that I belonged, and I have the plaque to prove it, so: Back. Right. Off.

Somewhat true.

I joined a sorority because my high school friends, with whom I went to college, wanted me to.  It was weird to feel popular and wanted, because I had never been either before.  But even when I was rushing, and later when I pledged, I knew that this deal was not for me; I didn’t want to exclude the friends that I had made during my first year of college, and I most certainly didn’t want to have to live, as was requisite for members of all sororities, in Greek housing.  But I thought that I would get used to things, to being a member of something that felt bigger, that felt like, maybe, real life.  I was wrong.  

I de-sistered after two events: first, I sat on the other side of rush, in the back of a classroom doing my homework (and getting told to stop doing my homework and pay attention to the photos of the rushees that were being projected on the screen in front of me), and listened as these women with whom I’d linked my fate rated potential pledges based upon their appearance, their past boyfriends, and their connections with current sisters.  I got yelled at for refusing to take part, and I gathered my notebooks and walked right the fuck out of the room.  I got in trouble for that, too; I was reprimanded by my sorority's president for my unsisterly behavior.


And then I was nearly raped by a frat boy, some guy whose name I don’t even remember now, but who I took to a dance out in the middle of nowhere because my sisters let me know, unequivocally, that the guy I wanted to take – a guy who wasn’t in a frat – would not be an acceptable date.  I was able to fight the frat boy off, only because he was falling down drunk and I was sober; I was, therefore, able to push him off of me, to get his fingers out of my hair, and to run away.  The next day, he trashed talked me; it was like something out of a movie.  And I got reprimanded – and I am totally serious about this – BY MY SISTERS for not putting out.  At that point, I was done.  

Joining a sorority may very well be the sole thing in my life that I unequivocally regret, the singular act that I know I should have known better than to undertake, and I hate myself for not paying better attention to that consistent and resounding voice – the part of me that I now know is my self – that told me it was bullshit, a way to buy into to my status as something less than human, a “target,” a trophy for some guy's mantle, a nameless cunt.  But I can also be thankful for the lessons that the experience taught me, particularly that I'm never going to be willing to be anybody's bitch.

When I told my sorority's president that I wanted out, she told me that I was making a mistake, but I didn't believe her, and I didn’t care at all about what any of my so-called sisters thought about me.  All I wanted was to be as far from any entity that would

1.  Expect me to have sex with a stranger and punish me when I didn’t, and
2. Judge my fellow women based on their appearances.

When I de-sistered (don’t you love that non-word, “de-sister”?  Cease and de-sister!), I was treated like a leper by women who had once vowed undying love to me; I was suddenly like a person whose physical deformity made me at once pitiable and grotesque.  The problem, clearly, was mine, and every time I saw one of my former sisters, I received a pitying glance and a heartfelt, “how are you?”  But I never once regretted leaving; I’m too smart to be treated like a piece of meat – and I’m way, way too smart to objectify other women and turn them into pieces of meat as well. 

- ER

Universities seem disinclined to ever abandon the embarrassing anachronism that is the Greek system, no matter how much evidence that system continually provides us as to why universities should stop perpetuating the kind of sexism, racism, and homophobia that underscore much of that institution.  But the good news is that we can all be individuals and walk away; we don’t have to buy in to the allure of exclusivity and denial, and we can treat each other like equals, not like subordinates.

Work Cited

Ruby, Matthew B., and Steven J. Heine.  “Meat, Morals, and Masculinity.”  Appetite 56.2 (2011): 447-450.  Print.