The Old College Try: Speaking about Veganism in Texas

I spoke today at Southwestern University. My lecture primarily focused on the problems of alternative systems of animal agriculture, stressing that the local, sustainable, humane options aren’t what they’re advertised to be. Southwestern is a small liberal arts college in Georgetown, Texas with a deeply engaged and friendly intellectual community.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to really say what people thought about my talk. The audience was not large–maybe 25 people. Nonetheless, questions were probing. An environmental studies professor pushed me to consider small-scale alternative animal farms as, at the least, a step in the right direction. I countered that, while I saw where he was coming from, I couldn’t agree with his assessment. The alternatives ultimately reify the cultural acceptability of eating animals, I explained. In so doing, they inadvertently promote the essential prerequisite of factory farming. He seemed unpersuaded. This person raises grass-fed cattle, and freely admitted that this work almost certainly biased his perspective. We agreed to disagree.

An economics professor explained that she concurred with me with her heart but not her head. Her “head” argument was that animals can’t sense what’s coming as they near the end of life and, as a result, are spared the psychic agony of impending death. If they lived a good life, all was well.  I responded that, in fact, they  often do sense the reality of impending death and, even if they didn’t, what does it say about human regard for the intrinsic value of animals if we think it’s okay to kill them so long as they don’t know what’s coming? I noted that we wouldn’t apply the same logic to human infants.  After the talk she told me that she didn’t think that human infants and farm animals were the same. I said they’re clearly not the same, but they share the commonality of sentience. She retorted that she’ll favor the human every time. I asked her on what basis she valued human sentience over animal sentience. She said, “it’s a gut feeling.”

A vegetarian student thought that arguments against harming animals were compromised by the fact that animals harm animals all the time. I explained that animal-on-animal violence hardly justified human-on-animal violence. We’re the only species capable of making the decision to reduce suffering and, in turn, we have a duty to exercise that power. Animals don’t have that choice. Humans do. She didn’t disagree, but seemed to think the “nature red in tooth and claw” argument left vegans open to attack. I noted that humans have long considered many horrific practice perfectly natural, including slavery, patriarchal dominance, ritualistic slaughter, and homophobic violence.

Another extremely bright student engaged me on viability of veganism in non-western cultures that had deep traditions in meat eating. Indians that eat seals. Asians that drink ox-blood. Poor farmers who have to depend on the family cow for sustenance. I noted that I was wrong to argue that “everyone” can go vegan here and now (I meant everyone in the room), but I explained that cultures can change engrained habits, noting the radical change in American opinions on slavery between 1750 and 1850. “So you think eating meat is immoral no matter what the context,” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “Yes I do.”

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

5 Responses to The Old College Try: Speaking about Veganism in Texas

  1. CQ says:

    What continues to be strange, in my mind, is that people are willing to argue on the side of violence in the case of animals. These are folks who think of themselves as basically nonviolent, and who would probably always argue on the side of compassion were the discussion involving humans.

    Why?

    Perhaps they are so trained to believe that eating is a personal choice that they alone can make, and that this choice can no more harm anyone else than it can be dictated by any one else.

    Perhaps they are so unwittingly wedded to their “meat” and their “cheese” and their “ice cream” and their “eggs Benedict” that they simply cannot conceive of being deprived of same. It’s said that anyone who is addicted to something has no awareness of their dependence on it — until, that is, they finally decide to look at themselves honestly. It’s easier to drift, to justify oneself, than to examine oneself. (No one likes taking exams!) Maybe that’s why we stay so busy: so we don’t have time for quiet self-reflection!

    Perhaps they figure that if they and their families are upstanding citizens (and churchgoers) and have been eating animals for years, just like their forefathers did, with no repercussions, then what could possibly be “wrong” with it?

    Thank goodness they agreed to listen, James. Something you said had to have sunk in — maybe only at the heart level for now, but eventually it’ll find its way to the head level.

  2. Anne B says:

    The best arguments I’ve heard against small-scale alternative farms as a solution to the problems of pollution and cruelty were articulated by Vasile Stanescu at the Conscious Eating conference that you posted about earlier this week. That was a great talk. Yours was good, too. 🙂

  3. Tim says:

    You are doing excellent, incredibly meaningful work in your lifetime James, thank you so much. You are an inspiration.

  4. Al Nowatzki says:

    I appreciate hearing about these reactions and how you respond to them. Thanks for taking the time to recount them.

    Regarding “nature, red in tooth and claw,” you may be interested to read these two blog posts:

    http://paleovegan.blogspot.com/2012/03/wild-life-worth-living.html

    http://unpopularveganessays.blogspot.com/2012/03/humans-red-in-knife-and-gun.html

  5. Provoked says:

    It might be so that it’s hard to know what people thought of your lecture – But I’m certain that they did and are “thinking”. That’s a critical first step in positive change. Thank you for representing a sound case for truly mindful living.

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