Dialogue on Vegan Ethics: John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan

JK: I became a vegan almost 16 years ago. I’d been a vegetarian for a short while before that but the logic of the action caught up with me pretty fast. Once flesh went, it seemed obvious to get rid of milk and eggs – I was actually living on a dairy farm at the time with my brother and then-partner. My brother said that given the torture that was all around us, it seemed hypocritical to utilise animal products in any way. We all became vegan that night. I had spent some time in India before that, and had been impressed by Jainism. But this was a tenuous link. A consciousness of the exploitative nature of living as an omnivore had long crossed my mind. I knew it but didn’t want to face it. As with many issues at the stage of my life, I hid behind substance abuse. Six years ago I gave up all intoxicating and toxifying substances. For years while eating no animal products, and wearing no animal products, I had smoked tobacco and drunk alcohol that I know today was made utilising animal by-products. I gave up tailor-made cigarettes long before rollie tobacco in an effort to overcome the problems, and never drank alcohol that I knew had animal products in it – beer with isinglass, Guinness with gelatin, and so on. But I knew if I looked deeper I’d find animal testing and other by-products. A bit like knowing some sugars are purified using bone charcoal. So giving up was a coming to grips with my own issues of addictions and facing up to compartmentalised hypocrisies. Some vegans avoid issues by avoiding self-investigation. We do the best that we can, but are always aware something is there – be it in car tyres, or in the carpet we walk on. But we must do our best to overcome these issues, and not give in to them. We go as far as we realistically can. Realistically shouldn’t be a word just for making it easy. I am genuine about this.

TR: Yes, it’s a spectrum along which we move, and I’m constantly discovering things I didn’t know before, even after more than six years of veganism. For me (and I think for you too) it isn’t a matter of striving to “find one more thing” to avoid, but simply adjusting my behaviour and habits as I discover things. An example would be the one you mention regarding sugar. It didn’t strongly become an issue for me until we came to the USA, where I could not take for granted that the sugar was vegan. Now that will affect my processes of checking, wherever I happen to be. I’ve read things on vegan webpages where people say it’s too extreme to check every little thing – if we went that far we would have to stop eating veggies, since insects die when the crops are harvested. But that seems to me to be missing the point. I can’t avoid eating altogether: I can avoid certain other things. It just seems to me that for vegans, that’s a non-argument. Similar to when defensive meat-eaters say, “But what if vegetables feel pain?” If veggies do feel pain, then meat-eaters are causing it to way more of them than vegans, since they eat the creatures who also eat plants… It seems to me that most of these non-arguments arise because people want to distract themselves from what veganism is actually saying. I sense this because I was like that too – there must be ways in which I still am.

I can remember as a teenager, when I was a meat-eater, thinking a veggie friend of my mother’s was so extreme, “doesn’t she know meat-eating is natural to us” etc, because I accepted that what I was brought up to do was the natural thing! Also, I had read a lot of “science” on the subject and it all seemed to say that we needed meat for protein (it always ignored the other protein sources, as if they were trivial) and anyway there was B12, and that couldn’t be gotten around. So I thought.

Now, of course, I know that, like most “knowledge”, these supposed facts are produced from certain beliefs – science proves what you want it to, a lot of the time, and this is particularly true of dietary studies: people find what they are looking for. It’s much more generally accepted now, though that, at the very least, frequent eating of meat is bad for you.

Notice how I tried to avoid the issues by words like “natural” and by focussing on dietary matters as an excuse. I was raised to think cruelty to animals was wrong, but not to see eating them as part of this cruelty. My family certainly would have said that factory farming conditions were cruel, and tried to buy more “ethically” within their own system of understanding – e.g. free-range eggs. But we were not inclined to question the eating of the eggs in the first place, or the idea that the chickens or other animals were “for” us in this way.

It was not until I had surgery at the age of 25 and suddenly saw my own flesh as possible “meat”, cut and stitched and right in front of me, that I even thought about being vegetarian. And for the next 5 or 6 years I wavered from that position (coinciding with a green or “environmentalist” obsession; I became an avid recycler, afraid of what was happening to the earth) to one of “semi-veg” as I then saw it, what I would now see on my own part as hypocritical avoidance in order to please others, because it was socially difficult to refuse what they ate. I think all this was still too emotive and psychologically-driven, rather than rationally decided upon, to work consistently, though I can see too that it’s better to do some of these things than none of them. I see vegetarianism as a step in the right direction, that’s for sure, and even lessening meat consumption means that much less damage done. But I would no longer see these as valid positions for myself.

JK: By veganism I mean the total non-use of animal products and by-products. For me veganism is an act of non-violence. And all animals are equal. The suffering of a bee is every bit as significant as the suffering of an elephant. And yes, one death is equal to another. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t make a choice that favoured one over the other, but I would recognise the consequences of my actions – that my conscience would be aware of the consequences. Those who use honey and call themselves vegans are hypocrites: it is an exploitation of another creature’s product. In the same way that cow’s milk is for cows, so are honey and royal jelly for bees. And, for that matter, beeswax. Veganism is not wearing the leather jacket from pre-vegan days, or having a silk shirt inherited from a best friend. Many dietary “vegans” call themselves vegans even though they advertise such hypocrisies. It is only a word, but like “om” it has sacred and specific connotations. It should not be abused.

TR: My main problem with the diluting of the word is that it muddies the concept for those who might otherwise go further. If people want only to go that far, that’s their choice and fine, but why confuse, why not use a more accurately descriptive word? Surely a person who avoids animal products but uses some by-products (e.g. honey) is a vegetarian, not a vegan. That is not a moral criticism on my part of their choice to be a vegetarian! – it is a wish to be clear and specific about my own further choice. I don’t feel comfortable about using the word “hypocrisy”, except of myself, because I can’t know other people’s intentions. I would prefer “logical inconsistency” or something like that.

When I became a vegan I thought long and hard about people’s ideas of keeping the old leather and wool stuff until it had been worn out. Some said it was to “honour the creature that had been so used” not to just ditch the stuff – this seemed not to make sense to me. Later I thought it would be more honoured in, say, having its remains or parts laid to rest – bury the stuff!!! The other argument was a kind of environmentalist one – it was wrong and extravagant to waste goods already manufactured. So at the time I passed them on, donated to secondhand stores etc. I don’t think I would do that now, but at the time it seemed the best thing to do.

I am simply not capable any more of NOT seeing leather as skin, or, say, the feathers in a pillow as the bird’s painfully-stolen former covering. I could no more wear the leather than wear a dead person or other creature… When I was a supposed vegetarian, I wore leather shoes, simply because I thought only in terms of what I ate; as I said, it was a kind of psychological REACTION to the idea of flesh. I could link it to ethical causes, but they were not the prime reason.

JK: Though I deplore all forms of animal abuse and exploitation, and the destruction of natural environments, I do not support any form of violence in resisting this. What I condone is passive resistance and what I call “linguistic disobedience”. I believe in the power of the word to bring change. And to let someone strike you down will bring much greater change than striking them. Furthermore, I believe in cultural respect, and find it problematic dictating the terms of the relationship different peoples should have with the space they live in. But what we can recognise is the universal wrong of torture, cruelty, exploitation, suffering…

TR: I agree – and the inconsistency in using violence to fight violence is quickly noted by meat-eaters, not only by other vegans! It doesn’t make any sense at all. Lots of ethical/political movements are troubled by this non-issue (I’m thinking for some reason of the “revenge novel” that purported to entertain feminists some years back, like, say, Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend: there is a moment of exhilarating charge when an oppressed reader recognises vindication in the story – but at what cost, finally!? As with gender issues, so with animal cruelty issues). It makes no sense to bomb or attack the “wrongdoers”. It actually compounds the wrong, increases the level of violence, argues that violence under some circumstances is justifiable – in which case, we have no case against violence, for who is to decide the circumstances?

  1. Regarding the argument that insects die in the natural processes of growing vegan food, my answer is a simple one. If animals die as part of their cycle of life, if there is no intention on the part of the human and all possible safeguards are taken, then culpability is not there. I do not eat animals or use them because I can live without doing so. It is a rational decision. I cannot live without using plants, so I (or someone) must sow and harvest them. In what I grow and what I buy, I do my best to avoid abuse of the environment or the rights of any creature – insect, bird, mammal etc. Intention is everything. Our commitment is to increase our knowledge, to develop practices that reduce the chances of exploitation and damage. If, in our consciences, we feel that we are striving to improve awareness and to operate within the integrity of that awareness, then we are acting responsibly, honestly, and with decreasing hypocrisy. So it’s rational, but also spiritual. It’s a way of life. Control and power over our own decisions, but not over the environment or those – animal or human – living in it. I am an anarchist, a vegan pacifist anarchist – I believe that decentralised communal living with a combination of individual integrity and communal responsibility – looking out for those next to you who might be in need, to assist without the desire of profit – is most compatible with a vegan life. I avoid the word “lifestyle”, as it suggests complacency and comfort. The vestiges of the non-human world are too much under assault to allow for rest. Vigilance is essential.

TR: Yes, but you make it sound much harder than it is! True, there’s an intense mental vigilance that comes with being a vegan, but even that gradually becomes a habit of mind, wouldn’t you say, rather than a strain… I remember this same pattern from when I first started the recycling thing: it was harder then, there was no community/council collection of recyclables, you had to travel a long way to take them to a depot – but once the concept had been incorporated into the life (I don’t have a problem with the word “lifestyle”) it was not difficult. It made people laugh a bit, or think you silly to go to all that effort – but so what? So few people speak of the deep pleasure in those commitments, once they become part of your being – and not in a holier-than-thou sense. I love my food, I love experimenting with cooking, I especially LOVE making meals for other people the best that I possibly can, to bring them pleasure, and specifically as a vegan the pleasure and surprise that come to them from realising that this delicious food they are eating had nothing to do with cruelty. That you can “eat your cake and have it too”, that veganism is about love and goodness and the bounty of the earth, if that doesn’t sound too gushily romantic. I get pleasure from food as a vegan that I never got, that it never even crossed my mind to get, when I was a meat-eater. Meat was like a drug that prevented me from seeing or feeling anything much.

I used to work, as you know, in a department selling cookery books, and get frustrated by the gourmet eroticising of food in many of these books, vis-ˆ-vis a mostly starving world. I don’t think, however, that it’s wrong to take pleasure in those things which cause no harm and deprive nobody, and that’s one of the other things about a vegan diet, it does not contribute to world hunger in the way that animal-raising for meat eating does.

Frankly, I just can’t think of a single good reason not to be a vegan. People raise the issue of convenience, but whoever wants to order their lives around that one, anyway? We all arrange our lives as conveniently as we can manage – vegans included – but it’s not the be-all and end-all of anyone’s choices. It’s only because we are not in the majority that things appear to be difficult for us. Veganism isn’t difficult in itself: if there weren’t meat, eggs and dairy industries, we wouldn’t have to read food labels… It’s merely the result of going “against the grain”. Veganism for me is exciting and fun, too. And colourful.

JK: Being against all forms of violence doesn’t mean one doesn’t have anger. If I find myself yelling, I regret it and will, at least in recent years, walk away from an argument that’s overheated. A vegan has the right to feel anger as much as anyone else, but verbal abuse is a form of violence. Obviously it is not in the same realm as physical abuse, but it should be recognised for what it is – aggression. To feel angry about the injustices of the world is a natural enough emotional response, and it can have positive outcomes if that anger is directed into non-aggressive responses, but most often it just damages oneself, and limits the possibility of effective action. There are no circumstances in which violence is excusable, unless it is in self-defence, or the defence of others in a situation where there is no room for an alternative outcome. This response is hijacked to endorse the violence against people who are responsible for the exploitation and abuse of animals. But the premeditation of the act invalidates the “defence” argument. The defence response I refer to is of the moment, when there is NO other possible course of action. Campaigns to end animal experimentation and exploitation that come out of a premeditated plan of violence perpetuate violence. Most often such people are using the “cause” to express their own angers and sense of powerlessness. Power is in the self, and is shared between those who do not wish to oppress others. It’s self-respect and self-confidence, it is a sense of obligation to others. It is non-predatory and non-proselytising. One changes by example, not force. Force builds resentment and retribution. If there is not a “spiritual” aspect to a belief system it ends in totalitarianism.

TR: I couldn’t have put it better myself! The only statement that gives me pause is this: “There are no circumstances in which violence is excusable, unless it is in self-defence, or the defence of others in a situation where there is no room for an alternative outcome.” I imagine that if I were attacked I would defend myself, and I certainly know I would defend my child. And you do go on to qualify that you mean “of the moment”, and that should negate those cases where this statement or idea could be used to justify war – think of the bombing of Kosovo, “…the defence of others in a situation where there is no room for an alternative outcome.” I would have to think this clause through. If this is true, when am I to know that there is “no room for an alternative outcome”? In practice I know that if someone attacked my child I would probably do anything I could to save her – but she is in the unique position of being the person for whom I have complete responsibility. Now we have a responsibility toward others, but it’s not quite the same.

JK: An engagement with technology can often seem antithetical to vegan living. It goes without saying that the use of electrical equipment is contributing to the destruction of the environment, is detrimental to all life. Most technologies do this on varying levels – from clothes production through to the manufacture of paper through to the home computer. This is obvious. Any form of mass production is going to produce waste that is not readily absorbable by the environment in which it is created. The movement of materials from their original location to another upsets ecologies, and the need for energy saps the planet. One could go on. I have lived without electricity, grown my own vegetables, and survived in the most non-technological way possible within the framework of a so-called Western democracy. Various intrusions by the government – rights to land, spray programmes, and so on, constantly compromise the condition. Increasing population, hunger for resources, create yet more pressure. And then there’s the social factor of the neighbouring farmer’s son wanting to shoot you for looking different, only to be prevented (if slightly encouraged as well) by the local police. You need them but you don’t want them. Does the process of balance become compromise? By using technology to create community and decentralised interaction, to work together for the well-being of other species, outweigh the loss by using the technology in the first place? I tell myself this is so, though I know to abandon it altogether is the only option I will be left with. I engage with certain technologies because I believe they help disseminate information, to bring knowledge. That knowledge and artistic endeavour are far more likely to create a receptive atmosphere for change. I utilise it so that we might abandon it. How far can this equation be pushed?

TR: I’m glad you said “can… seem” in that first sentence. And that you go on to modify what sounds very extreme. I really don’t think “technology” per se is bad or good; it’s what kindhow it’s used, and for what ends, surely, that decide its status. Whatever kind of human society you have is going to have some kind of technology – and I don’t know that it’s necessarily the mass nature of production that is destructive, although it usually is in our current world. Isn’t it more the drive for profit and the inability to put other values first? Some “energy loss” is always going to happen – it’s just that it’s happening in crazy proportions nowadays. We ought to be minimizing it. Also I think that to conclude one should just abandon things (turn our backs and create our own little worlds, which I know is not what you are suggesting!) is wrong-headed. Certainly changes would have to be radical to make any difference.

I think that living as a vegan in the world we currently have involves accepting that in some cases there will be no cruelty-free alternatives, but using the alternative in EVERY instance where there is one. And reassessing, too, what is seen as essential – e.g. were there no cruelty-free cosmetics, I would not see them as important enough to use. Where the world relies on computers, I mean really relies, and there are no totally cruelty-free computers, there may be options of non-use for some people but not for others. I don’t see balance as compromise. I think we have to have just the right amount of utopian optimism to move us onward, and just the right amount of pragmatism to keep us alive in the world that is. It will differ from person to person.

JK: Medicine and medical matters are always problematic for a vegan. Some obvious points to begin with: homeopathic remedies (of non-animal origin) are always sought, and diet is pivotal. However, there are some medical situations where the person loses control through external force, loses the ability to choose treatment (not conscious, delirious, etc), or where there is no other option (other than suffering and/or death), then to be treated with substances that have either been tested on animals, are animal by-products, or directly manufactured from animals. I have taken medicines in full knowledge of their origins, but only under extreme circumstances. I do not defend such a choice and realise its moral implications. My argument (or the argument others have made for me), is that I can do more animals more good by staying alive. Which is, of course, avoiding the issue. I would have no hesitation to have my vegan daughter treated with such medicines if there were no other choice available and her health was at risk. And yet I cannot condone on any level the manufacture of such medicine. The Dr Hadwen Trust is a great example of an organisation working to overcome such problems. There are most often alternatives, if people want to find them. Where I do stop, is with the use of animal or human body parts to sustain a life. Once again, I can’t say that I wouldn’t make the choice for someone else, but for myself I would refuse an organ transplant or the use of a transgenic body part. There is a point beyond which life is not worth sustaining. The offensiveness of such actions, the devaluing of the integrity of another complete body doesn’t rationalise for me. I do not wish to be made up of component body parts. This profit-making industry is singularly the most offensive of all ethical questions. That committees sit and discuss the gradations of what can or can’t be done belittles the lives of the animals that are sacrificed to make it possibly. And I’m not even talking about the vanity industry, which is another story.

TR: Yes: I wonder how many people who have collagen implants to thicken their lips for “beauty’s” sake think about the animal the collagen came from – or, in the US, sometimes the human tissue (via organ donations – unbeknownst to the donor!) it came from? There’s something vile and “sacrilegious” in the broadest sense about this.

I’m totally with you on transgenic animal parts, it’s inexcusable.

I can’t comment on one person’s decision to donate an organ to another person, as that seems to me to involve their rights to do as they please with their own bodies. I can’t imagine wanting, myself, to take someone else’s organ, but it’s not a position I’ve ever been in. I do think that once anything like this becomes an industry for profit it is just plain wrong. One should recognise that “the integrity of another complete body” has connotations of religious belief that not everybody shares (body as temple, etc) but then too, the state ought not to override the rights of those who believe against them. As you know, recently in Western Australia there have been plans to make organ donation at death AUTOMATIC unless you sign a form to say otherwise – rather than the former practice which was the other way around. I do think this is a major infringement of individual rights (the body may be dead but it is still no one else’s automatic property) in the name of utility.

JK: I do not believe in keeping pets, though I do sanction rescuing animals and providing them with homes. A different agenda with the latter. To fetishise an animal, to run it into an accessory, not matter the good intentions, is to deprive it of its rights. Even the most affectionate family pet-environment creates a human-centred power relationship. I would never feed a dog the flesh of other animals – there are alternatives now, to meet dietary requirements, if need be. However, the situation should not have been created in the first place and should not be perpetuated. I cannot keep dogs because I cannot feed them what they need. The wild dog hunts for itself, and that’s as it is. Obviously such conditions cannot be created for the domestic dog so, as with farmed animals, they should enjoy their lives and not be bred to further this tyranny. I do not condone sterilisation or castration – it is brutality – but I do see that efforts should be made to prevent breeding. This in itself is a tyranny, but less of one. These are things we have to think about as vegans. The family “property” is turning into a rescue centre, and this is as it should be, but such acts have implications – we must bear these in mind not to let our needs and manipulations be the centre of the activity.

TR: I don’t “disbelieve” in keeping “pets”, though I don’t like the word “pets”, and I think the only justifiable form it can take is with rescue animals, animals already in existence – the breeding of animals for the purpose of their being our domestic companions is wrong, to my mind – it removes their freedom. I think that human-centred power problem you are talking about is all summed up in that word “pet”, the accessorising mentality. I knew someone who wanted to have four companion animals “put down” because the human was moving house and the animals had become an inconvenience. I wasn’t a vegan then but I was still shocked – I think I had failed to understand what the term “pet” really meant. I do believe that in many cases looking after the companion animals may be the morally right thing to do, but not as a self-perpetuating enterprise – there would have to be a shift toward ending the breeding of animals for this purpose. Even many vegans don’t see a problem with sterilisation (though it IS forcible cutting of the body – think of when it was done to some groups of humans without their consent, and we feel the outrage). Usually vegans who advise this are trying desperately to control environmental problems and problems of suffering in the particular large animal population. With some creatures, ones that would suffer greatly if not allowed to roam, these people might argue that sterilisation was a kinder “violence” than curtailment of physical freedom, for example. It’s a very, very difficult topic on which there are hot and opposed feelings.

JK: If the spirit of veganism is non-violence and respect for all living things, then a refusal to accept the overt and tacit control of the patriarchy must be part of it. Not only gender equality, but a recognition that both male and female are conditioned to work within the structures of masculinities. The hierarchy, gene control, the competitive Darwinian drive, the striving for spiritual affirmation by using the planet as a springboard, the control of the patriarchal family unit (and matriarchies are simply female replacement scenarios within a patriarchal structure), must all be confronted and challenged.

TR: There are a lot of ideas condensed in there so it will take me a while to tease them out to a thinner form and respond! “Patriarchy” is a word I use as a kind of shorthand, but we have to (before we say anything more) accept that it’s a word a lot of feminists now reject because of its blanket nature, the way it was used in cultural and radical feminism in earlier decades possibly to imply that all women’s experiences were the same (and in the gender studies sense, the word DOES stem from this context). Yet it’s hard not to have a short-form word to delineate the background we’re talking about.

I think what Carol Adams and some other animal-rights-feminists say about the oppression of women and the oppression of animals as having common features (they go further than that, though) is very interesting. Certainly I think that feminism has a responsibility to address animal rights and if it doesn’t, it has missed a whole zone of culture intimately connected to its concerns.

The risk we take in applying feminist thought to animal rights questions is perpetuating that old woman = nature association that people have – but they’re going to have that anyway, and there are ways and means of addressing the issues without falling into some kind of “earth mother preaching” trap.

JK: The compatibility of different religious beliefs and veganism has always interested me. I always found it difficult to accept the animal cruelty of the Bible, and the metaphoric – or literal – eating of the body and blood of Christ. Though there is much I admire in Christian belief, and though I have strong respect for Christ, these factors always pull me up short. Of course, it doesn’t affect my ability to believe, any more than seeing a Buddhist eat meat should turn me against the wonders of Buddhism, but it does make me skeptical of the Church. I do not trust any power centres, and the Church is just one of them. The Christian feminist theologians who are unafraid of the Councils, who utilise the gnostic texts and the apocrypha, who unread the patriarchy, impress me far more. For me the Bible is not a static volume, but an ongoing, organic, and growing collection of writings through which the word of God is culturally interpreted, represented, and discussed. If all writings are inspired by the Godhead, they are also products of the experience of the writer/s. They are symbolic texts. A vegan can find solace in the Bible, in the Koran, in Buddhism, and the Bhagavad Gita, in Zoroastrianism, and so on. Veganism is both logical and spiritual.

TR: I would qualify that by saying that it isn’t spiritual for everyone – some vegans would not identify with that potential element. I was raised in Christianity so I’m familiar, as you know, with the motifs you are talking about – they don’t hold any problems for me, not the Communion, anyway. Reading of the sacrifice of animals in the Bible makes me uncomfortable, and there is much reference, symbolic and literal, to fishing and other forms of killing as well. However, the Bible is a mixed bag. There’s a very strong anti-cruelty message in there too. As you say, it’s as much about the world of the writers as it is about “truth”. The imagery of the Communion does not trouble me because Christ in that mode is almost fused with us, the subject/object divide is no longer there in quite the same way. One possible aspect of it that is troubling from a vegan point of view is the idea of ingesting in order to take on the power of the eaten – but that idea isn’t confined to those who eat animals – we think it about plant-eating too. In the Communion liturgy we hear the ostensible voice of Christ offering himself, which is not the same as a creature being killed without any say in the matter. (Now people could argue that this enables us to accept that false idea that animals “offer” themselves to us in nature! – but this would be distorting Christ’s words way out of context “greater love has no one than to lay down their life for another”, to paraphrase a translation there, does not mean we should expect others to, but that we should be striving toward that ideal selflessness ourselves! “Love your neighbour as yourself” – “who is my neighbour?”!!! These are very basic and resonant ideas. I don’t see any incompatibility with veganism there – nor in other religions – only on the literal, legalistic plane perhaps.

But I think it’s very important to stress that, while veganism may have a spiritual potential, it is NOT a religion. It’s perfectly possible to approach it from a completely rationalistic, materialist viewpoint, as you say – it’s a logical and effective strategy for reducing all kinds of problems in the world.

JK: I think children should have the right to choice as to whether or not they wish to be vegans, though I would (and have) brought children up as vegans to the point where a choice can be made. Most children in my experience prefer not to eat animal products, especially if they actually understand what’s going on. Of course, should a child select a non-vegan diet in a vegan house numerous other ethical questions come into play. I would never, for example, prepare a non-vegan meal. What would you do?

TR: I wasn’t vegan when our child was born. If I’d had a child since becoming vegan, there’s no doubt I would be raising him or her on a vegan diet. If the child “rebelled” by eating other things elsewhere, I would have to think how to deal with that… But at home nothing would change (I could not make my home in a non-vegan household. I could not cook flesh or what Carol Adams calls “feminised protein”, taken from mother cows or hens. It’s just not a possible option anymore). But I can’t imagine a child realistically wanting to leave the vegan diet, except perhaps on reaching their teens, because people say that’s the phase when everyone rebels against their parents! Once of an age really to make their own decisions, children should have free choice over this. As I said, I wasn’t a vegan when our child was born, so I did not take then the path I might now.

Non-vegans might think this is exceptionally strict, that the child should “have choice” from the beginning; yet few that I’ve met would allow their own children the same “choice” in the opposite direction! Rather, we’ve met quite a few kids who say “I’d like to be vegetarian, but my parents won’t let me”. There are two issues going on here – the moral choice, and the parenting question. Good parents of children on any diet surely make decisions FOR them, based on what they believe to be right (not too many sweets, fats, additives etc). I don’t see how that differs with veganism, just because it happens to be a minority belief. Even if you look at it from the point of view only of protecting your child’s health, I would feel irresponsible to let a child eat, say, beef, in this BSE-ridden environment – just for an example. And dairy is probably not above reproach there either. Flesh-eating parents do not doubt their right to decide for their children even after the child is “old enough” to be vegetarian if they wish – in my experience the parents go on even then having their input (heeded or not). I think this is something we don’t need to be defensive about. If they say that the child will feel “excluded” or “different”, well there are lots of ways that can happen, and they are not unique to vegans; in fact that accompanies any life with moral fibre. You can’t always resemble everyone else, and why must you? You can’t always please everyone else either.

JK: It is easy to condemn others for not believing what you believe yourself. I am steady in my beliefs, but am wary of fundamentalism. What is right for me might not be right for others. I’ve mentioned cultural difference and cultural respect. This is vital to me. How do you feel?

TR: Fundamentalism seems to me like a mental disease. It could infect veganism like anything else. I agree, and I do not “preach” veganism to others in any overt sense (if my aim were to convert, I doubt that would work anyway – it’s certainly not what made me a vegan!). What helped me become vegan was the EXAMPLE of others. Plus reading about it, and I can see that I was prepared for that by intense immersion in “green” ideas in the eighties, when I first tried being vegetarian.

I believe veganism is right and good, but it is not my business to judge others for what they do or don’t do – I am morally responsible for my own behaviour, not theirs. And for guiding my child. No one else is my child! – if you see what I mean.

I do believe, though, that flesh-eating culture is far more fundamentalist and domineering than any expression of veganism that I’ve encountered (although some of what I read about “straight-edge” worries me – but I’ve only read about it in mainstream press, which is likely to distort it – I’ve never met a straight-edger.

You know the way that heterosexual people often complain, even if only mildly, “I don’t mind gays, I just wish they wouldn’t be so in-your-face, I don’t want to see and hear about it all the time”, and yet don’t realise that gays have to see and hear about heterosexuality all the time – it is MUCH more in-your-face, pervasive, loud and even punishing if you don’t adhere to it. (The slightest slip and a person can be outcast – isn’t that fundamentalist?) Well, I think a similar thing operates along the flesh-eating/vegan divide – we LOOK visible and loud to them because they don’t see their own world-view as relative, they see it as “natural”, the norm, the base.

So I do not like fundamentalism, but I am aware that my beliefs and practices will seem like it to some.

JK: Linguistic disobedience is undermining the bigotry of language. We have often discussed how literature should be reread in the light of veganism – the cruelty and indifference to animals, the sheer lack of awareness as to what drives expression. In the same way that we reread in the light of the politics of ethnicity and gender, so should we via veganism.

TR: Yes, Carol Adams of course in The Sexual Politics of Meat began to do this, and refers to others who pursue it – I would like to take it even further – go back to all the so-called greats I studied at school and see what they tell me about animal suffering and death – as well as animal life! – about human detachment and whether compassion/empathy across species is possible. It’s an element that’s most often ignored when a “general” book is discussed. It would be fruitful to look at a book like Wuthering Heights, say, and ask what its message about cruelty begetting cruelty might be, and at what points it justifies or compromises… Anne Bronte too links cruelty to animals with human selfishness. How does this play itself out in imagery of consumption in the novel, where does the writer stop short of full acknowledgement of the issue? What about a book like Atwood’s The Edible Woman, in which vegetarianism seems to be portrayed as a kind of neurotic identifying-downward that can only end in self-starvation unless we take charge and become the powerful, etc? (Lots of Atwood circles these issues – never entirely satisfactorily, but engagingly. And, I think, with more compromise as the novels go on appearing. But this would take a lot more thinking through.)

JK: People seem to respect consistency. When I was younger, my aim was to convert people – the more unlikely the person, the stronger my enthusiasm. I am embarrassed to look back on this. It’s that powerlessness thing really. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t total in my conviction – I was! But it’s easy to forget that other motives work away subtextually. Anyway, by being consistent it what I say and what I do, by being loyal and reliable, at least to the best of my ability, I find that even the most anti-vegan person develops a respect for my personal space. And that’s all I can ask, is that they respect my space. A good example is better than cowardly acts such as spray-painting a wall, or silent acts of sabotage. If one must act, do so with words – and with words that don’t just reinvent the genres of aggression. Revolutions end themselves before they begin – when the rhetoric comes they undermine their own integrity. And the rhetoric always comes. They are as much about control as the systems they wish to replace. Even within the state, communities can exist that operate along vegan anarchist lines. Examples that pave the way for change on a more substantial level. Suffering will not end unless there is at least a basic consensus. Force solves nothing.

TR: You have no argument from me there!

And I mentioned the example-persuasion thing before. However, I should add that we are often going to appear as “not a good example” to people – at moments, say, when the socially-correct thing would be to give in, and we resist… they may think “Well, I’d never be a vegan, because I couldn’t be so rude…” – it’s all relative to your priorities. I have been in situations where, though I was mild and discreet about it, companions at a public table have been severely embarrassed by my asking about ingredients; or where something was prepared and the person knew it probably wasn’t “entirely” vegan and yet expected me to eat it, so as not to upset them. Now these are the difficult moments – we do not suffer social embarrassment any LESS than flesh-eaters. We have constantly to be making ethical choices (the lesser of two evils etc) – but then so does everyone else, they just perhaps don’t see them in that light. I am happy to be polite, and do not see it as my place to tell others what to do. But that little “strangeness” is part of choosing to do something generally unpopular, and is not worth selling out on. I’m certain you feel this way too.

JK: Money is a problematic means of exchange. It allows for the accumulation of a symbolic as well as representational wealth. The accumulation of money shifts the sharing of inlfuence to a power structure. Barter and exchange of services without the mediating signifier would relieve the violence of profit, would lead to a more passive and animal-friendly “market-place”. Utilitarianism is the hole in the dam wall.

TR: I think you should adjust that to say “Barter and exchange… COULD lead to a more passive and animal-friendly Ômarket-place'”. I don’t think we can ever say it necessarily would. I certainly think the profit motive is a HUGE force especially behind the scale of animal cruelty, the sheer numbers, these days – but cruelty has appeared in many forms of human society. You can see things like the BSE disaster as directly related to greed for profit – feed the poor animals whatever is cheapest and easiest (not to mention raising them for killing in the first place). It always amazes me that people see these disasters as related to “mismanagement” by the government and so on. As if government were not mismanagement by definition. I have no interest EVER in defending the profit motive – but neither do I think any one “new” or different arrangement would guarantee rights for animals.

JK: A couple of points. History and historicity are constructions that preserve the human dominance, maintain the status quo. We have to read through and against “history”.

TR: Yes – just as we were saying about literature.

JK: There needs to be a theoretical language of veganism to challenge the discourses of thought, to tackle empricism and ontology. Deleuze and Guattari are adaptable to veganism, but ultimately hostile. And the marks read by Derrida, the erased marks we reconstitute through residue are not those we should be looking for. And Kristevan abjection is a denial of the universal life-fluid, an advocacy of human supremacy though the fear of one’s own fluids. And so on. The language doesn’t work. It needs to be challenged and reinvented.

TR: Yes – I don’t know that Kristeva is advocating that fear, but of course the language still can’t be freed of it. Still, philosophies are only approximations, provisional, “journeys” of thought almost, rather than arrivals. There is no reason why a complete vegan philosophy would be any less partial.

The history aspect is most interesting – we are never encouraged to read it in this way, because it’s almost, and this is a truism by now, entirely the record of the views of the aggressor. But there are things that jump at you, as a vegan, even when you read standard, “flesh-eaters'” history – the grounding of “Canada” upon the trade in animals’ furs, for instance. Now that could be picked up as a major point – which it is, but rarely from a vegan perspective in history writing that I have come across! How does that, if seen as murderous and oppressive, link to other factors in its history – and the connection back to France, where the animals’ furs were wanted. And Australia has its examples – the importing of creatures to maintain the “hunt” from the “old world”, and the havoc that has wrought – always lamented as a kind of natural disaster, and rarely interrogated from a vegan viewpoint, except privately among vegans!

JK: Plagues and swarms. How can the vegan respond? If it’s a direct threat to health or safety, a defensive reaction might be a choice. To search and destroy would be a wilful act of aggression. Insects have rights to life. And most often plagues are the response of imbalance caused by humans. The locusts rising up in over-cropped regions of monocultured Australia, rats and flies where sanitation has broken down, or there’s overcrowding. Of course, it’s never as simple as this, but in most cases these things are preventable. Over-run by mice, I have used non-injuring traps and removed them to alternative locations. As with snakes and poisonous spiders. The effort must be made. Do you recall that massive wasp plague in Cambridge – it’s rhetorical, of course we’ll never forget it!

TR: There I could still see the human as being at fault – that is to say, had we identified their nest earlier (not easy, given it was inside the walls and roof) it might have been removed in some non-murderous way. Instead, the nest grew too big to be dealt with safely from a human point of view. One of the things I still have not come to terms with about that experience, apart from the terrible death of so many wasps, and the feeling of having to leave our home (to look at it from more than one viewpoint) was the strangely affectionate and admiring attitude of the man who killed them as a job, toward the wasps. I expected him to be cold and calculating, yet he had a deeply informed and fascinated interaction with them. And then killed them. (And he used to be in the military.) Perhaps this sticks with me so much because of its potential to assuage my own guilt – he was a “nice” killer, and he was doing it “for” us – or because I can use it to distance myself mentally from the killing (priestlike, he intervenes). Please understand I am not judging that man, but my own responses to him. His intermediary role. The special training and techniques (like a military operation). All very disturbing, and I expect it will take years to make any sense of.

JK: What of art supplies, book bindings, and the like. Like myself, you’d never use a leather bound book, but what of the glue that binds books? We are both authors. As a publisher I tried to move away from these problems, but as an author published by other publishers, it’s an issue. Remember my poems “Of” and “That”?

TR: I think we’ve agreed that it’s impossible to avoid everything, but we avoid everything taken from an animal’s body that we can. Where that line is drawn is going to be different, on certain issues, for just about everyone. I would always strive to get the art supplies that DIDN’T have the non-vegan ingredients, but I’m not an artist by trade, so it’s easy for me to “de-prioritise” that.

A lot of vegans that I’ve met or talked to on the net seem to be (in the long-term big picture) trying to work their way toward a life-choice that involves less and less of this dilemma – e.g. full-time advocacy for animals. My own dream would be to work in/run a vegan eating-place. But this may never happen – and we have to recognise not everyone has the money or leisure to make big choices like that easily. It’s ALWAYS, always, a matter of making the choice wherever you can. Life is pretty provisional.

But I wanted to think about class, too. Carol Adams talks about the idea that, where other late eighteenth-century reform movements (she cites those against bull-baiting and bear-baiting) were aimed at the “lower” classes, what she calls Romantic vegetarianism upset the upper classes because it was aimed at them – rich enough for flesh-eating, and leisured enough for the hunt. Do you think vegans are generally conscious of how “class” inflects their theory and practice? I am thinking too of how much easier it is for well-off vegans to simulate the “lifestyles” of the flesh-eating world around them – quality vegan shoes that last longer than those worn by poorer vegans; “analog” foods, i.e. processed vegan protein, that is less confronting to flesh-eaters. A poorer vegan, who has to spend more because things are only available in a health food shop, may well end up just eating less because the money only goes so far. And what about the particular sectors of society that feel challenged (or otherwise) by our particular kinds of veganism?

JK: It’s certainly true that in wealthier capitalist countries if you have more money it’s “easier” to function as a vegan in social terms – at least on the surface. But one thing I am increasingly becoming aware of, and certainly lived-by in my early years of veganism, is that the more basic one is in one’s practical needs, the easier it is to live by one’s beliefs. So growing organic vegetables and having no electricity are going to prevent that kind of wealth-participation – appeasement of the middle class, if you like – far more readily. This might seem obvious, but it’s not. To do this is to confront whole communities – the poorest farmers generally object, and will often be the first to run you out of town, or off the land. It threatens the desire to eventually lift themselves out of impoverishment, to make better their lot. And it’s often a case of downward mobility – that the vegan has had the ability to make a choice, has seen the alternatives. Class constraints that dictate generational impoverishment reduce choice, obviously. Personally, I have maintained a strict vegan lifestyle in many different social environments – out of necessity. I aim to return to a more minimalistic lifestyle, but one that is not immune (as it can never be) to outside pressure. The vegan should be an advocate of veganism, and this can be done with tolerance and patience. Silence is a cop out.