Monday, February 21, 2011

Oprah and Veganism

I realize I still haven't commented on Oprah Winfrey and her 378 staffers "going vegan" for one week. Earlier this month, after the episode aired (February 1), the blogosphere was aflutter with all kinds of commentary. Like millions of other people across North America, I did see the episode in question, at least most of it. I did like Kathy Freston, the New York Times bestselling author who served as a very eloquent "vegan ambassador" to Oprah's show and was the only person on it who discussed the suffering of animals. Good for Kathy, whose book Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World has undoubtedly won over new converts.

I agree with the moderates who insist that Oprah's vegan message is being beamed to a largely omnivore audience, thus breaking through the formidable anti-vegan wall that surrounds many people who eat meat and other animal products.

It is too bad that Oprah used the word "radical" to describe the vegan diet. It is too bad that one of her guests was Michael Pollan, who frustrates the hell out of me because he recognizes how evil factory farming is, but he insists that "happy meat" is an acceptable alternative. Murder is murder, Michael, and it doesn't matter whether the being whose life is taken lived in a cramped gestation crate or out in a grassy field. Murdering them is still a crime, no matter how you slice it or spin it.

It was a huge missed opportunity that Oprah didn't have Gary Francione on her show. The man would've set everybody straight.

It's difficult to either universally praise or condemn Oprah. Her message is getting out to tens of millions. Lately, veganism has been a part of that message. Too often on her show, the vegan message is wrapped up in losing weight and staying healthy, and not so much in liberating animals from suffering.

But inevitably there are going to be some people who were moved by her message who explore veganism in greater depth. Hopefully, some of these compassionate omnivores will discover Gary Francione's website and the countless others that are dedicated to an unwavering message of compassion toward animals. Hopefully, these newcomers will learn more about what happens to animals and fish who are thrown by the billions into the factory farm meat grinder. And equally importantly, hopefully they'll learn that dairy products also exact a tremendous toll on cows and calves. And maybe, just maybe, they'll discover that the "happy meat" touted by Michael Pollan is a myth.

The message we want them to hear is that all animal suffering is immoral and must end right now. Sadly, on Oprah's vegan episode, that message often got lost.

This much ought to be said about Oprah's vegan program: It is presenting veganism as an option, and it is beaming the message on a level that the rest of us cannot. It is reaching an audience that the rest of us are not. It is winning over people who are beyond the scope of abolitionists to win over. The omnivores aren't listening to us, but they're listening to her.

That doesn't mean her message isn't fraught with problems. It is. What it does mean is that veganism is being nudged into the mainstream. Omnivores are usually won over by accident. They turn on Oprah, watch her show, buy Freston's book and go out and Google "veganism." Googling "veganism" brings up websites, news stories and videos. Maybe the curious soul looking into veganism for the first time will click on one of the videos that PETA posted about animals suffering in the factory farm system. Maybe they'll stumble upon a Gary Francione podcast. Who knows? Maybe they'll find "We're All Animals"! You never know.

Accidents often cause people to put 2 and 2 together. Information is piled upon new information. For the first time ever, a shocked soul watches animals being slaughtered, fish being cut open alive, calves being whisked off for veal. "I didn't know," they might say. "I just didn't know." Sometimes, the scenes are so awful, the sensitive soul will look away. But a light has been turned on. Consciousness has been raised. The long march, as we all know, begins with a single step.

Learning about suffering is a complicated process. Who knows why some people choose to live compassionately while others turn a blind eye to suffering? These questions are all a part of life's great mystery.

But at least Oprah's show - bad as it was in some spots - was a spark. Some viewers are undoubtedly going to investigate veganism more deeply after watching it. Veganism will inevitably lead some to animal rights. At the end of the day, the vegan and animal rights movements may win over a few converts who stumbled our way as a result of seeing Oprah's deeply flawed vegan episode. Our best hope is that curious folks with kind hearts set off down the path, and eventually cross the point of no return.


  1. Brendan Behan is credited (online anyway) with saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity (except your own obituary). If one person is moved away from exploiting other animal people...then something good happened. (I suspicion that Michael Pollan is a putz) :-)

  2. IMHO, if they're going vegan because of vanity or fashion, it still helps the animals...They can come to their senses later. Every burger not ordered or chicken breast not topping a salad is an animal that didn't suffer.

    My motto is "Progress, not Perfection!"