Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Acting vegan

During July I went vegan as part of a fundraiser called “Dry July.” Dry July has been going for ten years, raising funds for services that support cancer patients in Australia. As the name suggests, the idea is to stop drinking for the month in order to inspire your friends and family to support the cause. When I mentioned to a friend that I was planning to do this, she spotted a problem: “But Juzzeau, you don’t drink.” Oh, yeah. 

I decided to up the ante, and go vegan as well. I thought of this not only as a way to make the fundraising effort more compelling, but also as a chance to try out a lifestyle experiment that appealed to me. When I stopped drinking alcohol altogether for a period of time, I found the experience very interesting. Since I’ve never been a big drinker, the main challenge was social: dealing with reactions when I refused the offer of a drink. Early on I felt awkward about this, but most people didn’t bat an eyelid. When there was a reaction, I noticed that it was mainly due to a reflex of self-examination on the part of others, rather than any real scrutiny of me. In time, people started confiding in me about their own relationship with alcohol, including struggles and doubts around this. I felt as if a door had opened, letting me see into an aspect of experience that had previously been hidden. It also felt good to practice resisting the (largely internalized) pressure to conform to social norms around drinking. Going vegan promised similar benefits and challenges.

When I began my vegan July, I initially assumed that vegan friends would approve of this venture. One did send enthusiastic messages of encouragement, as well as “motivating” information about animal cruelty in the dairy industry (the scare-quotes indicate my sense of the complex impact this kind of information has on the desire to make ethical changes). However, when I made an appeal for vegan recipes and tips, another friend retorted that all her recipes were very yummy, so not the kind of thing that would inspire people to pay money. With the shock of a suddenly altered focus, I realised that going vegan for a month to raise funds for cancer patients might strike a committed vegan as offensive - a bit like deciding to go Christian for a month to raise funds for animal welfare, or Jewish for a few weeks to raise funds for, I don’t know, the local life-saving club. Good cause, sure, but the end doesn’t necessarily excuse the profane ignorance implied by the means…

Veganism is not a religion, of course, but in some respects it does resemble one. It involves a strong code of ethics, and at least for some vegans, to consume animal products comes pretty close to sinning: not just wrong, but horrifying and disgusting, due to the ways animals are treated in the process of creating these products. On the flipside, to refrain from using animal products can resemble a religious process of purification and ascetic restraint. Personally, I find this ascetic dimension attractive, drawn as I am to monasteries and monastics, but it can lead to arcane discussions, where an all-or-nothing attitude condemns honey as just as polluting as bacon, and figs are regarded as illicit because the fruit is fertilized by a wasp that dies in the process and is then absorbed into the fig.

There is also a proselytizing side to the movement, with some vegans actively seeking to convert others to the cause, in the interests of reducing cruelty to animals. The counterpart to this is that to be vegan is to be part of a strong sub-culture, a community based on shared values and a distinctive way of life. As for any social group, there are rules that define insiders and outsiders. In hindsight, I realised that signing up for a month-long vegan challenge was an ostentatious badge of my outsider status, rather than a smart way to sidle into the group.

During July, in between grazing on vegan treats, and reflecting on my ambivalence about participating in social groups, I also read the wonderful gothic thriller by Matthew Lewis, The Monk. Its opening chapter is prefaced by a quote from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:

            - Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; Scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone.

Food is barely mentioned again, which was probably fortunate for my vegan aspirations, given that the novel is all about succumbing to sensual temptation. Via many twists and turns, the plot traces the downfall of a brilliant and charismatic, but excessively strict Abbot. Early on, he is seduced by a novice who turns out to be a woman in disguise, but a woman with so-called masculine qualities: she is highly intelligent, resourceful, and independent.

Noting that Lewis never married or had children, his biographers have speculated that he may have been gay; the fact that his Abbot quickly gets into an illicit sexual relationship with a woman who not only dresses, but also behaves like a man may lend some support to this idea. Then again, it may simply indicate that Lewis appreciated women’s capacities for intelligence, resourcefulness, and independence. In any case, as D. L. Macdonald points out, to identify Lewis as a homosexual would be anachronistic, given that the word was not used as a noun until 1912. Foucault suggests that although the recognisable social existence of homosexuals predated this linguistic development, it is a relatively recent phenomenon:

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more that the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage… (History of Sexuality, 1: 43)

This can be seen as one consequence of the more general rise of concern with personal identity and responsibility that occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of European history and intensified at the time of the French revolution. This was when The Monk was written (it was completed in 1795), and also when the noun responsibility first appeared in both the English and the French language. From this perspective, the novel can be seen as a highly engaging, and still relevant meditation on anxieties about sexuality, conceived as a dangerous matter of individual and political responsibility, tightly linked to personal identity.

It strikes me that the historical shift from imputability or accountability for acts, to responsibility for one’s person, is also relevant to the social complexities of becoming vegan (which incidentally is a very recent possibility: the term was coined by an English animal rights advocate in 1944). It is one thing to refrain from consuming animal products; it is another to defend or claim the identity of “being” a vegan. However, in a social space dominated by identity politics and the concept of personal responsibility, it is near impossible to do the first without engaging with judgments in relation to the second.

Having said this, during my July experiment, "acting" vegan turned out to be surprisingly easy, thanks to the fact that many businesses have identified the vegan as a potential consumer. Capitalism is remarkably nonjudgmental; it doesn’t care about your ethical commitments, or lack of them, or whether you’re a true believer or a heretic in the eyes of any particular social group. As a consequence, vegan options were available everywhere I ate out, from the chicken shop in Ashburton to the Ethopian restaurant up the road. I didn’t strike any incomprehension or hostility in response to requests for vegan food in restaurants. On the contrary, my tentative inquiries about dairy content were often met with the question, “Are you vegan?” followed by a ready list of what they could offer me; in one Thai restaurant in Darlinghurst, I was presented with a separate menu for vegans. And since I live within walking distance of Terra Madre, a “health food store and wellness clinic” in Northcote, aka nirvana for foody hipsters, I had ready access to multiple products catering specifically to the vegan market, such as “Premium Omega-3 table spread” and vegan cheese (truly a contradiction in terms).

In reflecting on the ease of shifting to a vegan diet in this place and time, it occurred to me that catering for vegans may have become more economically viable and socially acceptable since the rise in food allergies, since this means that more people have dietary restrictions that intersect with vegan dietary choices, but are not linked to any challenging ethical positions or minority social identities. On the other hand, perhaps the increasing adoption of a growing range of dietary restrictions is not merely a consequence of health pathology, but an expression of hunger for ascetic restraint and simplicity in this over-stimulated, consumerist century.