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In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges discusses the moral imperative of veganism with legal scholar, animal rights activist, and longtime vegan, Gary Francione.
CHRIS HEDGES, HOST, DAYS OF REVOLT: Welcome to Days of Revolt. I’m Chris Hedges. Today we’re going to discuss veganism. Why people become vegans, whether it can be described as a moral choice, what the impact of the animal agriculture industry is on the ecosystem, and how veganism may be an appropriate alternative, as well as raise some of the issues critics of veganism use to counter this stance. And joining me in the studio is author and philosopher, and vegan activist, Gary Francione. Gary, thank you for coming. GARY FRANCIONE: Terrific to be back. HEDGES: Alright. Let’s start with the idea that somehow the choice of being vegan is more moral when we have a figure like John Mackey, who runs Whole Foods, who is a professed vegan, and yet is antiunion, has just been found to have inflated prices throughout his stores, i.e. selling products that have a certain weight and not being honest about that weight, who is a right-wing figure. And how do you answer that? How do you respond to that? And I think you’re no fan of John Mackey. FRANCIONE: No, not at all. As matter of fact, I think John Mackey, in conjunction with groups like PETA and Farm Sanctuary that promote this whole happy exploitation business, are really reactionary and terribly problematic. But, I mean, look, the fact that John Mackey–. HEDGES: Explain “happy exploitation”, what you mean by that. FRANCIONE: Well, happy exploitation is this idea that we can exploit compassionately, that if we–John Mackey and Whole Foods has this animal welfare rating system, where you have five steps and you can choose your level of torture that you want to inflict on animals and you can buy animals that are supposedly tortured less. But that whole idea, which reinforces the idea in people’s minds that we can exploit compassionately, that there’s a right way to do the wrong thing, I think is really problematic. I mean, I think we ought to be focusing on use and on the justification–. HEDGES: Right. But he is a vegan. FRANCIONE: Right. But, I mean, there are lots of really bad people who–I mean, not everyone is 100 percent bad. So John Mackey’s get lots and lots of really terrible attributes, but he happens to be a vegan. So what? I mean, you can look at any characteristic and say that characteristic is instantiated by some people who are really morally odious people. HEDGES: Right. Well, Martin Luther King ate meat. FRANCIONE: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. HEDGES: Yeah. I mean, I think probably we could say that being a vegan is a moral choice, but it doesn’t make you moral. FRANCIONE: No, exactly right. Exactly right. And as I often say, veganism is part of a commitment to nonviolence, but it’s not the only thing you need to do to be committed to nonviolence. Also, Mackey projects this idea, which really troubles me, that veganism is an elitist thing, that in order to be a vegan–. HEDGES: Well, that’s a good question, because, I mean, let’s be honest about it. It does tend to resonate with the white middle-class, upper-middle-class people, I mean, in terms of embracing the vegan movement. FRANCIONE: Well, look, veganism, if you want to buy processed foods that imitate meat and dairy and those things, you can spend a fortune. I mean, I don’t eat that stuff. It’s–. HEDGES: It’s expensive. FRANCIONE: I don’t eat that stuff. I mean, first of all, it’s got tons of salt and it’s nutritionally–like, it has no nutrition to it. But, I mean, basically a diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and seeds is invariably cheaper than a diet that has animal products. HEDGES: But let’s go into a food desert like Camden, where I worked when I wrote Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. People lived on a diet of processed food, fried chicken, because if they–there wasn’t, by the way, a supermarket in Camden. [incompr.] go to the outskirts of Camden. That was true in southern West Virginia, where we also, Joe Sacco and I, were. But he wanted to buy tomatoes. You wanted–they couldn’t afford them. FRANCIONE: Well, but look, I teach at Rutgers University in Newark, and oddly enough, they are building a Whole Foods right near the Rutgers campus in Newark. But that’s not a problem of veganism. That’s a problem of racism. I mean, that’s a problem of the fact that we’re happy to have people living in areas where they can get fried food, fast food, liquor, cigarettes, but they can’t get fresh food. I mean, that really has nothing to do with the ethics of veganism. That has to do with racism. It has to do with racism and classism. But, I mean, in many ways there is nothing more elitist than the standard Western diet, where we’re consuming all of this meat and dairy and eggs and whatnot that require a huge amount of resources to be put into them. I mean, it takes between 6 and 12 pounds of plant protein to produce 1 pound of flesh. I mean, if we are all consuming the plants directly rather than feeding them to animals that we’re going to eat, we could feed the world. I mean, so I think that this idea that being a vegan is an elitist thing I think is not only not true, but the contrary is true. HEDGES: But in the United States, let’s look at Farm Sanctuary, which I visited up in Watkins Glen, which I think you call a petting zoo. I think you might even call it a petting zoo for rich people. I mean, that is definitely a white upper-class, elitist hobby. FRANCIONE: Of course. But so what? I mean, again, the fact that certain people are attracted to the idea doesn’t mean that the merits of the idea are in any way determined by the fact that some people like that are attracted to it. By the way, I would say that I’ve been teaching in Newark for 25, 26 years now, and I regularly teach a course in animal rights. Actually, I teach a course with Anna Charlton on human rights and animal rights. We talk about racism, sexism, heterosexism, and speciesism. And we always have a large number of students of color in that class, and they’re very, very turned on by this idea. So, I mean, it’s not something which only appeals to white middle-class people. It appeals to lots and lots of people. And the fact that there are some upper-middle-class people attracted to it or the fact that processed vegan foods cost a lot of money or that you buy them in places like Whole Foods, which I agree is just a disgusting place, doesn’t determine the merits of the idea. HEDGES: How do you look at indigenous cultures, which I think you would agree these premodern–quote-unquote, premodern cultures have retained a sense of the sacred that modern society has lost, and yet they’re not vegan cultures? FRANCIONE: Right. Well, look, I remember once many years ago, many years ago, when I was first doing this, I was giving a talk in Canada, and a young man who was a member of the Inuits asked me a question in front of hundreds of people. Actually, it was the first time–. HEDGES: Well, and we should also say that the Inuit survive, I mean, their whole culture is built around the killing primarily of seals, right? FRANCIONE: Well, seals, yes, yes, seals. But they do get a lot of stuff flown in these days. But in any event, he asked me, he said, well, how can you make a judgment about what my people are doing? And I said, well, let me ask you a question. If your people were engaged in violence towards children as a cultural matter, would it be alright for me to criticize it? He said, yes, it would be. And I said, well, then we agree that there’s no problem with outsiders criticizing; it’s just a question of we disagree on what triggers the right to do that. But look, I don’t spend a lot of time–. HEDGES: Right. But, Gary, can you really equate children with seals? FRANCIONE: For what purpose? I mean, I believe all sentient being–I mean, that’s like asking me, would I equate Jews with Romanis. I mean, do I think it’s worse that Hitler killed Romanis rather than [crosstalk] HEDGES: [crosstalk] but–I mean, and you address that at the beginning of this book, Eat Like You Care. If there comes a moment–I mean, let’s take the Warsaw Ghetto, where one has to choose between an animal or a child. FRANCIONE: If I were on a desert island with you–and I love your work–if I were on a desert island with you and we were starving and there were no vegetables and there was a rabbit, would I kill and eat the rabbit? Of course I would. But I would kill and eat you if I had to to survive. HEDGES: Right. But which would you kill first? FRANCIONE: Well–. HEDGES: Careful. This is my show. FRANCIONE: I understand that. I might choose to kill the–I mean, if I’m passing by the burning house and there’s a human and a nonhuman in there, tell me who the human is. If the human’s Hitler and–I’ll go for saving animal first. But, look, I think that there are situations in which we are compelled to make choices, choices between humans, between two humans, or choices between a human and nonhuman. And sometimes we’re going to have to make choices in situations where nothing we do can be morally satisfactory. And so the choice that we make may be excusable, but it doesn’t mean it’s justifiable. We have a moral obligation not to use any sentient being as a resource. Now, if you’re in a situation–I mean, people always ask me: so what are you going to do on a desert island? And I say, well, are you on a desert island right now? I mean,–. HEDGES: Right, but we can take things like the Warsaw Ghetto, because that’s real, that’s not a desert island, where people had to eat animals in order to survive. FRANCIONE: Well, that’s right. HEDGES: And then the choice was between eating animals or eating other human beings. FRANCIONE: And sometimes people do eat other human beings in situations of extreme [crosstalk] HEDGES: But is it a moral equivalent? FRANCIONE: It is immoral to kill, it is immoral to kill in human or nonhuman. So to say is it worse, I don’t think it’s a question of–it’s equally bad. I understand the choice that is made to favor the human over the nonhuman, but I don’t think that–for me that’s not a statement that the human matters more morally, I mean, any more than white people matter more–. HEDGES: Right, but you would choose the human over the nonhuman. FRANCIONE: I would choose the human over the nonhuman, most likely. Again, it would depend. I mean, if the human was Hitler and the–. HEDGES: Well, let’s hope we–I don’t want to eat Hitler [crosstalk] kind of tough. FRANCIONE: Okay. But, I mean, I would choose the human over the nonhuman because I understand what death is to the human, so I understand what that harm is. But that doesn’t mean that I think that the human has any more moral value than the nonhuman. For purposes of treating a sentient being as a resource, all sentient beings are equal. And, Chris, in many ways that question is like saying, well, what if you’ve got two humans, and one’s really smart and one’s not, one’s mentally disabled, which one do you choose, because that’s a question that comes up a lot. HEDGES: Eat the smart one, because they’re the ones who got us into this mess. FRANCIONE: Exactly. But, I mean, it’s exactly that sort of analysis. I mean, for purposes of being exploited, if you say, well, is the human–does the intelligent human matter more than the non-intelligent human and are we going to treat them the same? No, we don’t treat them the same. HEDGES: Right. Well, let’s talk about the animal kingdom, because, I mean, there are clearly carnivores within the animal kingdom. I think there’s a pretty strong argument that our ancestors, who could perspire and therefore run longer distances, gained massive amounts of protein by being able to capture, hunt down, exhaust other animals and then roast them and eat them. And Born to Run kind of makes this argument. But certainly within the animal kingdom, and even within the antecedents of human civilization, carnivores were part of the natural order. FRANCIONE: Well, look, animals do eat other animals. Lots of animals don’t eat other animals. I mean, there are a lot of vegan animals out there. But the fact remains that I don’t really know whether animals make moral decisions. I know I make moral decisions. You make moral decisions. So, I mean, the fact that some animals choose to–I mean, I don’t think that when a lion is contemplating what to eat, the lion is saying, well, I could have a salad or I could take down that gazelle. I mean, the lion is–I don’t believe that the lion engages in that sort of cognition. But the fact remains, I can engage in that. You can engage in that. So the fact that some animals make choices that I think are immoral doesn’t mean that those choices are moral for us to make. Okay? So it’s like saying, well, Charles Manson’s a sociopath; he can’t make moral decisions. So what? I can. You can. HEDGES: To what extent do you think that the focus on animal suffering distracts–and I think it does distract a certain segment of the vegan population from human suffering. And let’s be clear that even if you’re a vegan, there is still horrific exploitation of human beings producing in our produce fields, including exposure to pesticides and everything else. There is a lot of human suffering that goes into the producing of the plants. FRANCIONE: If we were all vegans, we’d have fewer acres under cultivation, so there would be fewer people working. I mean, if we were consuming the plants directly, we would be actually producing–we’d have fewer acres under cultivation. We’d be producing fewer plants if everybody were a vegan. So, I mean, now, there’s a lot of human suffering. A lot of that human suffering is caused by animal exploitation or is related to animal exploitation. I mean, again, if we were all vegans, we could feed the world. I mean, the amount of grain fed to animals in this country who are going to be consumed could feed 780 million people. HEDGES: Well, and I think we should throw in here that also the animal agriculture industry, which we talked about previously, is one of the major contributors, if not the major contributor to global warming. FRANCIONE: Absolutely. And look, I mean, I also think I never, ever try to discourage people who are doing work for human causes to say, well, you ought to be working for animals. My view is, look, I mean, I wouldn’t say to you, Chris Hedges, I want you to stop thinking about all the wonderful things that you think about and doing all the wonderful work that you do and turn exclusively to animals. The answer is: I don’t want you to do that. But when you’re–you know, you have to stop and eat three times a day. So when you eat, just be vegan. Be consistent. You talk about nonviolence. Let the words of nonviolence come out of your mouth, but don’t let violence go into your mouth. HEDGES: Well, I think you tie the nonviolence towards animals to–which is one of the reasons I like your work–directly to the suffering of Palestinians. FRANCIONE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, look, this is all–all discrimination–I mean, speciesism is like racism, like sexism, like homophobia. I mean, it’s like they’re all–they’re all the same. They all share the same characteristic of using an irrelevant criterion to exclude people from membership, to exclude beings from membership in the moral community. And so it doesn’t really matter. I mean, the pattern is reproduced in every single instance of discrimination. HEDGES: It’s the objectification. FRANCIONE: It’s the–the otherization. The otherization. And in many ways, the model for otherizing humans, other humans, is animals. I mean, think about the language. We always say we treat them like animals. Well, we treat them like animals because we believe it’s justifiable, because we treat animals like animals. What possible justification, if you have no compulsion, if you’re not on the desert island, you’re not on a ship in the middle of the ocean, if you have a choice between eating a healthy meal and not killing or eating an animal product, whether it’s meat, dairy, eggs, whatever, what possible justification can there be for inflicting suffering and death on a sentient being? And then the only thing you can you get in that is, well, what about plants? Aren’t they sentient? Which is–then you know you basically won the argument. Or you get the response, well, Hitler was a vegetarian, which is actually false. But, I mean, those are the sorts of desperate responses you get. HEDGES: Well, is there a danger that that position, your position, dehumanizes human beings? FRANCIONE: In what way? HEDGES: By essentially equating them with animals. FRANCIONE: No. I’m saying all sentient beings have moral value, okay, all sentient beings, including animals, who are the most vulnerable, but not us. So once we accept that they have moral value and once we accept that we cannot justify inflicting violence and suffering and death on them, it makes it almost impossible, I mean, it makes it almost impossible to support violence toward other humans. HEDGES: But that’s not true with every vegan. FRANCIONE: No, by no means. HEDGES: And John Mackey’s a good example. FRANCIONE: John Mackey’s a good example. PETA gives awards to all sorts of reactionary people. There are all sorts of–. HEDGES: PETA–explain PETA. FRANCIONE: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They were promoting at one point Hugh Hefner. They were promoting–they gave an award, as I recall, to Pat Buchanan, people like that. HEDGES: Right. But they don’t promote veganism. FRANCIONE: Well, no. HEDGES: They promote what you call the happy exploitation of animals. FRANCIONE: Well, all of them say that they think veganism is a really good thing. But for me, it’s a moral baseline, a moral imperative. For them, it’s an option, along with other options that supposedly reduce suffering. For me, it’s a moral baseline. So you’re correct. None of the organizations, PETA, Farm Sanctuary, none of them. HEDGES: Well, let’s just throw in the thing that people throw out: well, I have to eat meat for protein, I have to get iodine. FRANCIONE: There’s no nutritional element that you can’t get from a vegan diet. You can’t get B12. I mean, we produce some B12, but we don’t produce–. HEDGES: Well, and we should throw in here that we used to get B12 from eating plants, because they weren’t as sanitized, they weren’t as clean, and we would get B12 because it’s in dirt. FRANCIONE: Right. And now–well, the B12’s also been depleted from the dirt. I mean, the dirt or the soil has been so depleted of things. But the reality is all of us have to get our B12 from an outside source. So whether you get it from yeast or whether you get it from a cow, all of–it’s not that there’s something unnatural about the way I get my B12. It’s we all have to get it in an exogenous way. So people who eat meat get it from eating meat. I get it from eating yeast and things of that nature. So there’s nothing, whether it’s calcium, iodine, protein. What’s interesting to me is that government–basically, government agencies, which are notoriously sources of disinformation, even they agree that a vegan diet can satisfy all of your nutritional needs, whether it’s in the United States, Britain, Australia, other places. Government agencies, professional groups, all of them are saying that a vegan diet can provide all of the nutrients that you need. And they even–some of them grudgingly say, and a vegan diet may even be more healthy for you than–. HEDGES: Well, and also we should raise the point that heart disease, cancer–. FRANCIONE: Sure. Absolutely. I mean, absolutely. And so, now, again, there are people who will dispute that and say, that, well, I don’t like that study or I don’t like this study. But the bottom line is nobody can argue that it’s as healthy. I would argue it’s more healthy. But nobody can argue that it’s not as healthy. HEDGES: In terms of priorities, some critics would say, look, okay, all of that may be true, all of that’s good, but given the egregious human rights violations that are happening around the world, whether in Iraq, whether in Palestine or anywhere else, shouldn’t our energies be directed at that first? FRANCIONE: Go for it. Look, help the Palestinians, help battered women, help abused children. But when you eat and you buy clothes, don’t exploit animals. That’s all. I am in no way saying that people who are involved in human rights issues shouldn’t be. I’d encourage them, because I see these things as all related. So my view is, hey, go for it. So I’m not saying that you should–you know, I don’t like to sort of rank things in terms of, like, well, is this group of people treated worse than that. I mean, there’s so much injustice. Whatever excites you or whatever area of injustice motivates you to want to work to–go, go for it. But when you eat, you’ve got to eat. So when you eat, eat vegan. When you buy your clothes, don’t buy leather, don’t buy wool, don’t buy silk. But keep on fighting the fight. I’m all in favor of that. Never [crosstalk] HEDGES: I mean, and I think for you there is a connection between the fight and the lifestyle, the vegan lifestyle that you embrace. FRANCIONE: Absolutely. I mean, absolutely. As I said before. HEDGES: And I know you’re very outspoken on these issues, by the way. These aren’t something that you avoid. FRANCIONE: Oh, no, no, no. Absolutely. And I get a lot of grief from people in the, quote, animal movement, which I actually don’t have much respect for, because I will take positions–I take a lot of positions. I mean, I think some of the campaigns that PETA has are–they’re not only sexist; they’re misogynistic, and I think they’re [crosstalk] HEDGES: Well, you’re talking about the women sort of–. FRANCIONE: Well, I mean, they have a whole range of sexist campaigns where they’re claiming, well, if you’re a vegan, you’ll be better in the bedroom, and women who are masturbating with vegetables, and things like that. I mean, I think these are really, really objectionable. But, I mean, I have gotten a lot of grief in the 30-some-odd years I’ve been doing this, because I’ve taken a position on sexism, I’ve taken a position on racism, I’ve taken a position on the Palestinians. And people get upset and they say, well, no, we ought to be focused on the animal issue. And I say, for me it’s all one issue. It’s a fundamental issue of justice. It’s just a question of you’ve got a whole bunch of victims out there, and animals are certainly as vulnerable as just about anybody else. And so let’s focus on justice. And justice leads us to a number of conclusions, one of which is we shouldn’t be exploiting animals. But it leads us to many other conclusions: we shouldn’t be exploiting women, we shouldn’t be exploiting children, and we shouldn’t be exploiting–you know, we should care about the fact that there is a Palestinian genocide going on. HEDGES: Right. What would you say to people who are not vegans if you had to kind of sum up? What would be your kind of pithy appeal? FRANCIONE: My pithy appeal. It depends. I mean, oftentimes I can find a way into this issue because someone will make a statement about, oh, isn’t it terrible they killed Cecil the lion. Remember Cecil the lion? And this had stormed the world. [incompr.] And I had people coming, you know, saying to me, oh, well, isn’t it terrible they killed Cecil the lion? And I responded by saying, well, they shouldn’t have killed Cecil the lion. But are you a vegan? And they say no. And I say, well, what’s the difference between Cecil the lion and the animal that you’re eating tonight? I mean, the fact that that animal doesn’t have a name? Let’s arbitrarily call the animal Cecil. So don’t eat the animal. So, yeah, I mean, it–but that’s the way I generally get into it with people. But I always say to them, look, do you think animals matter morally? And I very rarely encounter people who say no. I mean, almost everybody agrees animals matter morally. And I say, well, then fine. Then whatever else is the case, we can’t justify imposing suffering and death on them for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience, which is the only–. I mean, we’re not on the desert island. We’re not on the lifeboat. The best justification we have is the fact that they taste good. You see? But again, I want–one of the things I worry a lot about is the fact that I teach in a city which will have a Whole Foods soon, which I don’t know who they expect is going to be able to afford to shop there, but I teach in an area where there’s a food desert. But that’s not an issue, that’s not a problem with veganism. That’s a problem with we’re not providing enough healthy food to these people. There aren’t enough healthy food choices. So we need to be working on those sorts of issues. And they’re all related–racism, sexism, heterosexism, speciesism. HEDGES: Thank you, Gary. FRANCIONE: Thank you very much, Chris. HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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