Vegans have given societies, local and global, a lot to think about. Facts and figures about our diet, and the affect it has on our health and the environment are food for thought, and we owe it to vegans among others for being a barrier to inertia and making us scrutinise our nutritional predispositions.
But facts are facts, and conclusions are conclusions. Are vegans drawing the right conclusions from the facts? That is a question almost impossible to answer, given that vegans, of course, have differing opinions amongst themselves ranging from outright disagreement to individual nuance, regarding a plethora of issues within the ideology itself. One issue is how to recruit. Like most ideologies, veganism will be more effective, the more people actively subscribe to it. Plenty of vegans lead by example. The subject of discussion today is militant veganism, in which recruitment takes an arguably more underhand form. Our example is a speech by Gary Yourofsky, a passionate vegan activist toeing the fine line between educating and proselytizing. Lets take a look.
Or for a link to the speech on YouTube, click here.
This is a speech that Gary presumably has made a number of times to try to spread the word of veganism and for the same reason, recorded and posted it online. It starts with a video. We’re shown an anonymous video of a lion attacking a zebra, as Gary tells us that we’re going to be looking at the circle of life from the victim’s point of view, which apparently, “nobody ever does”. He tells us the zebra doesn’t want to be eaten, just like farm animals do not want to be eaten by us, and that the zebra has a chance to escape, unlike farm animals, whom we should perhaps be giving chances to escape. Next comes a scene in which a hippo displays altruism towards an impala caught by a crocodile, charging the latter and allowing the former to be released, whereupon the hippo attempts to give it “CPR”. Finally we see buffalo returning in numbers to stop lions from killing a young buffalo that was moments before isolated and brought down.
Although it seems like it is bordering on a waste of time to analyse this first part, it is prudent to do so for the sake of comprehensively addressing the rest of the content or the speech as a whole, at all. Firstly the ‘victims’ do not want to be eaten. That seems to be the point Gary is making. It seems obvious. Why say it at all? Perhaps there are a few token meat eaters under the illusion that our meat animals somehow want to be eaten, so that was the reason for this stating of the obvious. The hippo scene raises more questions. Documented does not make something common. Do hippos regularly and actively rescue animals from crocodiles, or was this an exception to prove the rule? Does proving that animals can ostensibly show compassion actually support veganism anyway? Was the hippo really performing CPR (Yourofsky notes that ‘they’ are much “brighter than we give them credit for”)? It would be nice to have that (the ‘CPR’ matter) confirmed by someone qualified to do more than speculate. Most noteworthy is Gary’s language during this introduction. Remember that we are looking at scenes in nature completely detached from humans here. Most vegans logically accept that the human situation cannot possibly be compared to other animals (who, after all, need meat to survive), which is why we are not excused for eating meat simply because “lions and bears do it too”. Yet here Gary simply cannot contain his preference for “vegan” animals. He praises the herbivores and uses charged language like “violent thugs” to describe natural carnivores.
Gary wants nature aside from us to be vegan too. He may claim to have been creating analogies, but consciously or not he is nonetheless displaying a bizarre bias against nature taking its course. Consider that Gary fails to mention, probably because he failed to recognize, that the lion is attacking the zebra (and the crocodile the impala etc.) for the same reason that the zebra is trying to get away. Simply to survive. If the zebra doesn’t manage to escape from the lion, it dies. If the lion doesn’t manage to kill the zebra, it might die. But Gary is rooting for the zebra, and the impala and buffalo, whether he knows it or not, hoping for the death of the lions and crocodiles of this world, who are also simply a (critical) part of nature. The intended point of the video was to show that animals essentially don’t want to be prey, and therefore none deserve to be. This is far from the only time that Gary has explicitly expressed a desire for nature in its entirety to be herbivorous, which, if you are even vaguely familiar with ecology you will realise is quite mad. After this, Gary introduces himself and his lifestyle, and the link between “prey not wanting to be prey” and this supporting the human ideology that is veganism, remains unmade.
Onto emotional blackmail and furtive use of language. Gary does not eat anything “with a face” (because it’s faces and appearances that exempt something from the food chain, obviously) and only eats “normal food” that wasn’t “covered in blood and guts”. Blood and guts are in fact food if you simply take the word food at face value, as is anything that you can eat, but Gary is pursuing the ethical side of the debate so lets continue. He now misdefines speciesism as “believing that the human species can do whatever it wants to any animal species”. Actually, it is defined as:
“speciesism, in applied ethics and the philosophy of animal rights, the practice of treating members of one species as morally more important than members of other species; also, the belief that this practice is justified.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica) for more information click here.
The term is really the central tenet of veganism and has various ramifications, but either way, Gary’s definition is not accurate; it does not mean that the human species can “do whatever it wants to any animal species”. He then claims that the result of speciesism has more victims than all other forms of discrimination combined. The number quoted is 150 billion animals worldwide per year, which are being “tortured … to satisfy our meat, dairy and egg addictions”. The source of this figure is not given. Though many probably are, evidence that all of these animals are subject to “torture” is not provided. Red mist notwithstanding, Gary should at least be able source his information and refrain from throwing around strictly defined words, as well as from (“and billions more for clothing and entertainment”) speculating. But what if we were the victims of something like this? We now apparently “have to examine injustice from the victim’s point of view”, Gary asks what it would feel like if we were commodified, and thus “don’t you think the animals … feel the same way?”. He trips up continuously on this red herring, and not just in this speech. Gary is assuming that the way animals perceive and experience the world must be comparable to ours, to his. But Gary is not a cow, a chicken, a salmon, a crab, a bee or anything else. He has nothing to offer in this speech but conjecture and assumption on what animals “feel”. Plenty of research and study can confirm basic things such as that most mammals have a basically similar nervous system to us and probably have a roughly similar capacity for physical pain. We can somewhat ascertain what some animals “like” or “dislike” in a basic sense. But to claim to know what they “feel” is childish and foolish. You would expect even the animal welfare novice to have read and absorbed something from Alison Hills’ Do Animals Have Rights.
Do they have an inner mental life? We see things as coloured, as bright or dark; we hear and taste things; we have pleasant and painful experiences. We assume that Felix and Rover have experiences too, perhaps rather different from ours because their ways of sensing the world are not like ours, but we think that there is something it is like to be Felix or Rover, just as there is something it is like to be you or me. We are less confident that there is something it is like to be an ant, slug or bacterium.
This is amplified by the fact that Gary only manages to specify “the animals”, of which of course there are many. Many whose capacities for reasoning, physical ‘feeling’ and mental ‘feeling’ vary extraordinarily. Of course, many animals, including farm animals, can feel physical pain and science has taken cautious steps into observing and understanding emotions in some animals. If you would like to learn more about that area I would not suggest closing your eyes and pretending to be an animal, but perhaps reading these articles in parentheses (Can animals feel pain? Animal Rights, Anthropomorphism and Traumatized Fish)
Nearly all the external signs that lead us to infer pain in other humans can be seen in other species, especially the species most closely related to us–the species of mammals and birds. (Principle of Analogy)
In addition, we know that these animals have nervous systems very like ours, which respond physiologically like ours do when the animal is in circumstances in which we would feel pain: an initial rise of blood pressure, dilated pupils, perspiration, an increased pulse rate, and, if the stimulus continues, a fall in blood pressure: […] (entire article here
Next we endure a barrage of attacks against our own reputation as humans, and rightly so. We are indeed just animals as well and have no right to call other animals dirty, considering our environment and the effect we have had on it. We are just animals, stepping out of our own box to look at ourselves impartially for a second could well give us cause to label ourselves “dirty”. Remember that this is, if we’re being cynical, a guilt trip, and if we’re not, a reality check. In itself it does not support the ideology of veganism (unless you continue to infer a number of other things). Gary says that despite being technologically brilliant, ethically “we’re on a par with parasites”. Again this is a bizarre connection. And again, you would think that someone who dedicates their life to animals would know more about how to approach the subject. This statement suggests that parasites have ethics, could choose to act ethically, but don’t. If it’s okay to improve your argument Gary, we’re not on a par with parasites. If we were, we would be off the hook. You would be the first to agree that we certainly are not off the hook.
Gary has done his research on the meat industry (especially the American one, presumably due to the audience, though the focus need not be restricted). There is plenty that the general public should not overlook regarding the meat industry, and some of those things he raises in this section of the speech. It could be pointed out that the meat industry varies considerably across the world, but it is worth not getting too hung up on that to take a moment to weed out real issues in intensive farming.
If the next point about where eggs come from really sways you, there’s not a lot any reasonable person can do to help you.
Caught up in his own fantasy, we come to the “Bear vs Hiker” conundrum. A common problem. Gary tells the class and us the viewer that when a bear kills a hiker we label that bear a “homicidal maniac”. May I just plain and simply disagree? No, we don’t label bears homicidal maniacs. We’re smart enough to know that bears are bears and can do that sort of thing. Gary exposes a hypocrisy that he made up, or at best grossly exaggerated.
If the opening video wasn’t enough exceptions proving rules for you, and you still haven’t had your fill of his unique and dumbfounding ability to know what animals think and feel, then Gary has another piece of carefully selected evidence for you. Of the apparently ubiquitous practice of leopards going vegan. On his website, Gary can show you video footage of carnivores having a heart and refusing to eat another animal. If you think this is poignant, consider these questions. Do you think all or even most of the other leopards (or lions etc.) act this way? Regularly? Do you think even that particular leopard in the footage had an epiphany? Did it never kill again? A few days, or weeks later, what do you think it had been eating after the cameras stopped rolling? Salad? Mediterranean vegetables? And again it has to be asked, does a video of a time when a leopard exhibited kind behavior specifically support human, vegan ideology? It’s a jungle out there, and even if for some weird reason that leopard, or even all leopards, changed their ways, essentially committing their entire species to mass suicide, nature would still be harsh and unforgiving just as it has been overwhelmingly documented as being.
The most mind-boggling part of the speech arrives. Gary second guesses our question at this point. He knows what animals are thinking so I’m sure this will be accurate. What does he think we’re thinking? “‘Yeah Gary, but if animals want to be treated equally to us, and treated fairly, then the animals who eat other animals need to be arrested and charged with murder’ … you are missing my point completely.” [silence] Were any of you thinking that? No of course you weren’t. A scenario where anyone would logically think we might have to arrest a shark for eating a fish is beyond stupid. But Gary continues “But, I support that.” [more silence] What? Why? Leave nature alone. You want to arrest carnivorous animals for being… carnivorous animals? Gary clarifies “as long as all the humans who eat animals turn themselves in to face the same consequences. [smug face, hands in pockets] Be careful about throwing stones in your glass house.” Ohhh, so we can’t be hypocritical, of course. We have to hold ourselves up to the same standards before we’re allowed to… arrest animals for being animals. “Because if you want to arrest animals and charge them with crimes, they actually need equal rights.” Again? Okay. Let’s not arrest animals and charge them with crimes. Once animals have equal rights and can therefore enjoy life and liberty like us, Gary will “call the cops on the next dog I see for killing a squirrel.” Aside from ethics, consider that forwarding veganism might cost a lot of tax dollars in expanding policing enough to arrest every natural carnivore ever and somehow giving it a trial (Gary’s not a tyrant, he would give them a trial). I’m sure nature will function fine with herbivores only.
Now we get to more issues, such as fishing on TV, hot dog eating contests on ESPN while people are starving and agribusiness diverting grains and foods fit for human consumption to livestock. Genuine issues. Remember that if you disagree with fishing and think a hot dog eating contest is boorish first world bravado, you have to also be vegan. If you try to write a letter of complaint as a non-vegan, your hands will seize up, and if you try to cancel the fishing channel on your cable, you’ll turn into a fish before you can do it. It’s just not possible. For a more in-depth, impartial, comprehensive and accurate look at the injustices, disadvantages as well as myth-busting and general facts about agriculture and the meat industry, Simon Farlie’s Meat, a Benign Extravagence is essential reading. Remember that Gary is only able to produce facts about the USA’s food industry, and that plenty of commentators (vegans and non) have put forward well-thought out counter proposals to the destructive state of the modern meat industry.
Next you are told that if you eat meat and are only concerned with the welfare of the animals before they are killed, you may as well condone child rape. This emotionally charged argument hinges on whether you agree with the highly contentious issue of speciesism. This is too lengthy a topic to discuss within the framework of this commentary, essentially his argument is deliberately and misleadingly reductive, but see my post dedicated to this matter here, as well as these informative sources.
The video Gary shows now contains some disturbing images that no-one should dismiss out of hand. It would have been prudent to replace the unnecessary captions appearing in each scene with important information like the exact place and time of recording, and information about how widespread the practices shown are. Since he dismisses free range, organic and cage free operations too, Gary should have included these in the montage instead of deliberately choosing the most provocative images. This is mentioned not as a challenge to the overall point but genuinely to highlight the fact that at least some such operations have been shown after investigation to be almost as bad as battery and industrial farming formats. The skeptical viewer should be aware that many of these middle ground operations have not paved the way for any real change.
We are asked to ponder in the wake of that video, since beheadings in the middle east are making the headlines at the time “Is beheading evil, or does it matter whose head is being cut off?” You, the reader, can think about that for yourself.
“I will forever be embarrassed to be a human being.” Is it petty here to mention Gary’s clear swagger, hands-in-pockets cavalier self righteousness and penchant for rhetorical questions, condescension and second guessing your (not to mention animals’) opinions? Did he fool you too? Would a humble human being be about to tell you that “you’ve been programmed not to care” and “brainwashed to be good little life-long consumers of animal body parts” but “I can un-brainwash and deprogram you for free”? He also states “I am the ethics police” who will defend animals from you, so just in case you thought your opinions were equal, they’re not, his are, thanks to his self appointed position, above yours.
Interestingly, Gary says that “a symbiotic relationship between humans and animals is not happening”. Perhaps he’s changing the meaning to mean animals as a whole or being selective about which species falls under his definition, but if we are talking about there being individual symbiotic relationships between humans and animals, that is categorically untrue. There are many.
Now religion is in the spotlight. God is no good reason to kill animals. This is reasonable in the sense that God is not a good reason to do anything.
Gary has by this point forgotten that he said he wasn’t the “health police” a few minutes earlier, and is now moving away from the ethical side of the argument, to the practical. Veganism’s strongest and weakest point simultaneously. Strong because it is based upon many accurate and noteworthy facts (though Gary doesn’t mention very many). Weakest because these facts don’t exclusively back up veganism. We are told “all vitamins and all nutrients come from plants”. This is misleading, the full picture is more complicated than this because nominally identical nutrients are not actually the same in plant/meat sources. Protein is the example often used (see here and here), but don’t dwell too much on that one example; it’s now more or less unanimously accepted that protein in general is quite overstated in its dietary importance to us (we need it, but in most balanced diets you’re probably getting enough without any extra efforts required). The point is, nutrients are different depending on whether they come from meat or plants. As you might logically expect, a balanced diet should contain some of both. More in this vein later.
Apparently “Those who eat milk, cheese, meat, eggs and honey don’t get proper nutrition.” The problem with this vegan marketing should be obvious. Does that statement make sense? Remember that if you are an omnivore, you can eat everything in theory. That is what the omni in omnivore means. There is nothing stopping you from eating all the nutritious plant based foods that vegans eat, even if you eat milk, cheese etc. as well. If what Gary just said was true, then you could eat exactly the same meals as Gary all day (full of vitamins and everything you need, no doubt) and differ only in that you had an additional few cubes of cheese in your salad, and a drizzle of honey on your cereal, but because of those couple of little extras… well, you’re not getting proper nutrition. Make sense? Of course not.
“You’re getting a secondary and depleted dose of vitamins and minerals when you eat animal products.” The aforementioned point applies again. This is a generalization and partially true, but nutrients from meat and plants work in different ways and come with different advantages and disadvantages (e.g. plants don’t contain a complete set of amino acids and aren’t as readily utilized by the human body, but they do contain more vitamins and less fat).
Gary’s Vitamin b12 argument is really quite irresponsible. Studies have shown that vegans are ‘more likely’ to be deficient in vitamin b12, as well as creatine, carnosine and DHA (regardless of the overall tone, read through this article). That he personally was not deficient in vitamin b12 at one point in time when he took a test (which he may have known about in advance) proves nothing other than that he personally, at that specific time, was not deficient in vitamin b12. Some vegan activists have pointed out that there are vegan sources of vitamin b12 available (while some doctors, like Dr Stephen Byrnes, dispute this), but the study shows that, in practice, vegans as a group actually aren’t getting enough, and so perhaps they need to work those things (if they really are viable b12 sources) or supplements into their diet a little more actively, or else reconsider it more pragmatically. His statement that cholesterol is something that we “don’t need at all” is ill-informed too. Especially high cholesterol is bad, sure, but we do need cholesterol:
Cholesterol is both our friend and foe – at normal levels, it is an essential substance for the body’s normal functioning, but if levels in the blood get too high, it becomes a silent danger that puts us at risk of a heart attack.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is found in every cell of the body and has important natural functions. It is manufactured by the body but can also be taken in from food. It is waxy and fat-like in appearance.1-3 Cholesterol is oil-based and so does not mix with the blood, which is water-based. It is therefore carried around the body in the blood by lipoproteins.1-3 The parcels of cholesterol are carried by two types of lipoprotein:2
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL – cholesterol carried by this type is known as ‘bad’ cholesterol)
High-density lipoprotein (HDL – cholesterol carried by this type is known as ‘good’ cholesterol).
Cholesterol has four main functions, without which we could not live. It:1,3
Contributes to the structure of cell walls
Makes up digestive bile acids in the intestine
Allows the body to produce vitamin D
Enables the body to make certain hormones.
(source) The pharmaceutical industry’s success is apparently testament to the benefit of veganism… somehow. Why we are supposed to lament the success of the pharmaceutical industry is something that should at least be heavily qualified. But the purely commercial side of selling the public supplements they should not need, we can lament. A whole host of different diets and guidelines backed by hundreds of nutritionists all offer viable alternatives to this, many with confirmed successes. Veganism does not have a monopoly on the answer to this problem. We come to a point already addressed incidentally but repeated by Gary, not wrongly. He lists plenty of vegan foods that contain protein and mentions that you really do not need to go out of your way to get more of it.
We can sum up the next section of preaching by answering one specific question that Gary asks which was supposed to be rhetorical. “How come when vegans try to tell people how to treat or prevent a disease, everybody hates us?”
Answer: Because you’re not doctors, usually not qualified to offer advice on the matter, and when you do, it’s to forward your own ideology. And that is irresponsible. Gary is spot on with the price argument, although it might have been nice to offer something other than yet more anecdotal evidence. Apparently vegans can make their diet taste like almost anything else, too, if you were interested in that. Next, Gary directs us to his opinion, and I stress the word opinion piece on his website about humans being natural herbivores. He throws around phrases like “all the scientific evidence” with crass, unjustifiable flippancy. Dr. John McArdle, himself a vegetarian on ethical grounds, among others, argues that proponents of the belief that we are exclusively vegetarians jumped to conclusions from discerning that we are not exclusive carnivores. The points he raised have been addressed time and again. (More here and here)
“We obviously are not carnivores, but we are equally obviously not strict vegetarians, if you carefully examine the anatomical, physiological and fossil evidence,” says McArdle, executive director of the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. According to a 1999 article in the journal The Ecologist, several of our physiological features “clearly indicate a design” for eating meat, including “our stomach’s production of hydrochloric acid, something not found in herbivores. Furthermore, the human pancreas manufactures a full range of digestive enzymes to handle a wide variety of foods, both animal and vegetable.
Why it is supposed to be convincing which animals we are like, and which we are unlike today is a strange sentiment. That our “closest” relatives are bonobos, which are herbivorous, has nothing to do with what we are ‘supposed’ to be (!it has come to my attention that even bonobos are not herbivorous 1,2). You can infer that this makes us more likely to have a similar diet, but that is a short-sighted precedent to set. Technically, the logical thing to do is to look back along our own evolutionary ancestry, if you are trying to infer what we are ‘supposed’ to be, not to a different modern day species which, despite sharing a common ancestor with us (as did all animals at some point), evolved along a different branch to us for however many thousands of years. This, notably, is what plenty of researchers and qualified scientists, including the ones I linked to above, have done. As far as impartial science is concerned, the view that humans are herbivores is up there with the lunatic conspiracy theories of recent times. The overwhelming consensus backed by masses of study and research is that we are omnivores. Recently, I addressed this here.
Now we are told to be wary of propaganda… fabulous dramatic irony. However, there is a rather silly argument against veganism stating that it must be cruel to murder innocent plants. Gary has every right to dispel that. Of course he comes at it from left-field. The horrendously distorted and oversimplified all our crops are going to animals argument comes up. This is one of veganism’s worst arguments and does not work on various levels. The diversion of so much grain and crops to livestock is an issue, and since many good nutritionists are now quite certain that we in the Western world should eat at most a third of the amount of meat that we currently (on average) eat, we could act on this problem (without the need to become vegan). But would that change how food is distributed? Remember that even with the wasteful nature of intense farming the Western world is actually already producing more than enough food to feed the world’s population. Technically we don’t have to change anything about our farming methods if that is the goal. The problem is distribution, we waste an unimaginable amount of our food, vegan and non, whether it is given to livestock or simply thrown into the kitchen bin of homes or restaurants. Food in the Western world goes to us. A profit needs to be made from it, and it either stays within our borders or ends up on the plate or in the bin of someone equally un-threatened by starvation as us, thousands of miles away from where it is more urgently needed. Veganism would not solve this problem.
If you are still not convinced by Gary yet, be aware that he has done this speech all over the place, he is in demand so he must be right. But yes, if you have smidgen of ability to think critically you certainly would not be impressed by an amateur preacher like Gary, the vegan movement’s televangelist. But at this point I want to tip the balance towards integrity, knowing that what I have done by writing this is essentially attack the lowest common denominator. But that does not mean I have refuted veganism, since Gary Yourofsky’s arguments often don’t support it in the first place. If people want to sincerely look at the viability of veganism, far better representatives exist who are well versed in ethics, nutrition and ecology, and put together coherent arguments. Tzachi Zamir’s brilliant mind surpassed the initial flaws of vegan doctrine and builds only on the rational aspects of animal liberation ideology. Youtuber Unnatural Vegan summarises a lot of his most relevant points. Blogger Speciesist Vegan powers through the cannon fodder arguments of veganism and shows how a person can have sound reasons to follow a vegan ideology without the nonsense. Essentially, if you’re looking for serious discussion about vegan ideology, you can skip the excuses speech, and Gary Yourofsky’s high school angst propaganda.