On this Blog, I've lamented the actions of puritanical vegans who take it upon themselves to make sure that the vegan population in North America (which is so small, it almost can't be measured statistically) is adhering to all the rules and regulations of the lifestyle.
Days ago, the purists went on the warpath against VegNews magazine, a respected vegetarian and vegan publication (in more recent years, it has been more strictly vegan), after it was discovered that the magazine has used stock photos of food containing meat and dairy to accompany its recipes. The New York Times (April 18, 2011) described some of VegNews' transgressions:
In one case, an ordinary slab of grilled ribs was made to appear meatless after the bones were digitally airbrushed out of the picture. In other instances, images of hamburgers, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and ice cream were featured so as to appear meat and dairy-free.
The Ultra-Vegans, predictably, went crazy. The Blogosphere caught on fire, and the "TILT" sign lit up on Facebook and Twitter. Attacks against VegNews came at a steady clip. Threats of subscription cancellations abounded. VegNews rushed to apologize. "We screwed up," said their editorial team in an April 18 statement. "With regard to our use of symbolic imagery in VegNews, our readers got it right. We wholeheartedly apologize." (Source)
VegNews went on to say:
Here's our commitment to you: • Recipes in VegNews will be represented only by custom vegan photography. Count on it. • All stock images used in the magazine and website will be vegan. We will make sure so that you can be sure. • VegNews will build and host a vegan photo bank to assure the availability of vegan stock images. Look for details in the coming days.
Even this act of extreme contrition didn't satisfy certain purists, who continued to go on the rampage. As far as they're concerned, an important element of trust has been violated and the magazine could no longer be trusted. National Public Radio cultural affairs commentator Linda Holmes said as much on her blog:
Unfortunately, when you use pictures of non-vegan food in a vegan publication, you're playing with a whole different kettle of ... well, not fish, obviously. Kettle of something, though. It certainly can read like an implication that if you used vegan food, it wouldn't look good enough, so that's why you're using that juicy beef burger. It can seem like you're disrespecting vegan food in a magazine for vegans. It's tough to think of a better way to anger your readers, other than including a ham hock with every issue.
For the record, this Blogger you're currently reading does not think it is a wise idea to use photographs of animal-based foods to accompany vegan recipes. No question that the editors at VegNews, which had a stellar reputation before this "scandal" and serves a readership of 210,000 (at a time when so many magazines are going down like the Titanic and virtually everything is going up online) suffered from a serious error in judgment.
Still... Still... Still... This is a publication that reaches close to a quarter of a million people (when you factor in all the magazine "sharing" that goes on, it's probably well over that number of people who actually read it). It has won countless awards. While its images were deceiving, its recipes encouraged people to follow a purely humane diet. It did not celebrate the virtues of "cheatatarianism" or "flexitarianism" or "happy meat" or any of that nonsense. Using real meat and dairy products in stock footage was not wise, but they didn't do it out of spite or for malicious reasons. There were deadlines to meet, issues that had to be on the newsstand.
Days before the big VegNews scandal (and I'm sorry, but if this is a scandal, we're in sorry shape scandal-wise, because folks, Watergate and Iran-Contra this ain't...), a lot of purists went ballistic because Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman decided she could not adhere to a strict vegan diet during her pregnancy. On April 12, Portman said in an interview with Atlanta's Q100 Radio, "I actually went back to being a vegetarian when I became pregnant, just because I felt like I wanted that stuff. I was listening to my body to have eggs and dairy." (Source)
Cue the Red Alert sirens. Buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz!!! Sure enough... The savaging of Natalie Portman that I read online was horrible. Keep in mind, this is an actress who has promoted the cause more effectively than anyone else, who said she was becoming a vegetarian only temporarily during her pregnancy, and who has come out with her own line of vegan fashion items to promote humane living.
You'd think, based on the online reaction I encountered, the woman was a serial killer of children. Among the adjectives I saw on Facebook included "bitch," "clueless," "murderer," "sellout" - probably "hypocritical" was the kindest one. On some Blogs, people posting comments showed real understanding for Portman's choice (see here, for example). But, on the whole, the level of visceral rage toward Portman was intense and unsettling. People who admired Portman just months earlier now vilified her in very troubling ways.
I raise the issue of Natalie Portman's move from the vegan to the vegetarian camp as a parallel example of the collective rage triggered by a lack of purity. To be certain, in past posts I have explored some of the reasons for this rage: it comes from the powerlessness we feel to change the fact that millions of animals are being murdered every day; historically, protest movements often suffer from internecine conflicts and sectarianism; in our current age of "rage politics," this anger simply reflects the pervasive political culture of our times.
Also, it is crucial to point out that the majority of the vegans I personally know are kind-hearted, compassionate, open-minded people who embraced the lifestyle out of a commitment to the noblest values imaginable. Many of us have made a conscious decision to shun the politics of rage and live a completely different lifestyle, free from the anger and abrasiveness and shouting. It is important not to forget this.
But there is another factor at play in the public displays out outrage: Tribalism. No matter where political groupings and subcultures happen to fall on the political spectrum - left, right, center - they are often characterized by an intense form of tribalism. And we all know that when it comes to tribalism, consensus, not dissent, is the goal. In the seventeenth century, Puritans banished dissenters like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams into the "howling wilderness" for disagreeing with the dominant views of the society. Today, the equivalent of seventeenth century banishment is attacking "apostates" as savagely as possible. In 2008, when conservative commentators Christopher Buckley and Kathleen Parker had the audacity to criticize Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, they received thousands of furious responses, including death threats. A few years earlier, Christopher Hitchens similarly aroused the ire of the Left when he supported George W. Bush's war in Iraq.
Unfortunately, an awful lot of people want to be a part of a larger tribe, even if it means jettisoning the right - no, make that, the responsibility - to criticize your own group if you think they're being excessive or unreasonable. But isn't it ultimately more fulfilling - and doesn't it make life far richer - to be a Tribe of One, and to think freely, break free of partisanship and come to whatever conclusions seem the most rational, than to simply say what seems to be the easiest and most politically correct thing to say?