Mariann here. Shocking, I know. You’re used to hearing from Jasmin in this little flock corner. Well, I’ve taken over — at least temporarily — to point your attention to an interview I hope you will read. For today’s main OHH blog entry, Ellen Kanner — who just wrote a beautiful feature for The Huffington Post about Jasmin (as part of her Meatless Monday column) — allowed me to share the full written interview that#PRIVATE# transpired while the HuffPo article was being created. You can read the first half of this interview on the main OHH blog today, but the second half — the real nitty gritty — is reserved just for you, the fabulous flock (see below). So if you enjoyed the first part, read on. You’ll find out everything from Jasmin’s take on what historians will say about our current food system a hundred years from today, to what will finally make America ready for veganism. Enjoy.
PART II: Interview with Jasmin Singer (JS) by Ellen Kanner of Huffington Post’s Meatless Monday (HPMM) column.
HUFFINGTON POST’S MEATLESS MONDAY: Tell me about being a vegan but not the mean kind. What does that mean for you now?
JASMIN SINGER: As I talk about in my chapter in Defiant Daughters, entitled “Found Art, Found Hope,” back when I was vegetarian but not yet vegan, I used to introduce myself as “vegetarian, but not the mean kind.” In retrospect, I see that I meant “not the activist variety,” or, more likely, “not vegan.” In my chapter, I write, “Had I given even a brief pause to consider why vegans tend to be a vocal bunch, why they abstain from milk and eggs, or what the ethical implications of these products were, perhaps I would have found my path much sooner.” As I mentioned earlier regarding approaching people with compassion, it’s important that I approach the “former me” with compassion, too. I just didn’t know yet about the absolute horrors inherent in the dairy and egg industries, nor did I know about how truly outstanding vegan food is – and that it’s everywhere. I’m therefore constantly trying to reassess where I am now, and checking in with myself, asking myself in what ways I am still blind?
HPMM: In your essay, you talk about taking off makeup as an artistic act, a deliberate revealing of self. How was — and wasn’t — writing this very personal essay like that? How did and does it feel?
JS: That is such a great question, Ellen. As a writer yourself, I’m sure you can identify with the feeling of writing something, in the solitude of your house, while being somewhat detached from the idea that anyone will ever actually read it. Just before Defiant Daughters was published, the reality that this deeply personal chapter was out there for mass consumption came flooding in to my consciousness. What I did with “Found Art, Found Hope” was take my own story – which, as is true for many of us, wasn’t always full of rainbows and sunshine – and used it as a vehicle for discussing the interconnections between animal rights and feminism. I used my date rape to discuss dairy cows being repeatedly forcibly inseminated on a machine that the industry (not the activists) call a “rape rack.” I compare my adolescent cutting, and adolescent breast reduction, to what Carol Adams calls “body chopping” – which is when fragmented pieces of women (their thighs, breasts, etc.) are used in advertisements for meat. The part of my story that you mentioned happened when, as a college freshman, I took off my very heavy make-up in front of my classmates as part of an exercise where we were asked to reveal a deep part of ourselves. Sounds somewhat trivial now, but that makeup represented a mask I wore everywhere I went. As my chapter explains, I did not begin to find my true personal authenticity until being exposed to Carol’s work, embracing my feminism, and deepening my commitment to changing the world for animals. Just as I felt standing in front of that class with my freckles and blemishes out there for all to see, I feel a little naked now too, to be honest. But I’m okay with this vulnerability. As I’ve experienced in the past, it is frequently when you allow yourself to be seen in your true form, with all your flaws and doubts, that others feel empowered to see the world as it truly is. With all of that clarity, my hope is that things will change for animals. I hope that my story will resonate with somebody and that she, too, will open her eyes.
HPMM: Given our tell-all, tweet-all lives, when is something telling and when is it art? What’s the distinction for you?
JS: Sue Coe, who is one of my favorite artists – and who I was lucky enough to make a video about for Our Hen House – told me that “art only happens when the viewer says it happens.” That’s not to say that everything is art, and (much to the disappointment of my creative and talented mother) I’m certainly not a reliable art critic. Perhaps it’s the suppressed poet in me, but I do tend to look at subversive, reclaimed imagery as types of “found art.” That is one of the through-lines of my chapter, actually. Carol’s book The Pornography of Meat, which is a collection of ads that were originally intended to oppress both women and animals, is, of course, understood by many as controversial and effective polemic – yet I also see Carol’s collection as something more – a type of found art, a way of “flipping the bird” to a society that is largely asleep. Given the inexplicable, otherworldly power of art – especially when it comes to art that creates social change – the ability to see Carol’s collection of ads in this light adds, I think, to their power.
HPMM: What’s the biggest challenge in what you do?
JS: Last fall, I visited one of the largest primate testing facilities in the country. I did not sneak in; they had an open public tour. This facility prided itself on being the “best of the best” in terms of animal treatment, and yet all I saw were hundreds and hundreds of terrified, cowering monkeys. Their entire lives were spent in locked cages, and most of them underwent hideous, painful, invasive tests – tests that, if they were lucky, would kill them. These days, just before falling asleep, I close my eyes and frequently see their little faces. These individuals continue to see, every single day, the same slab of sky that they saw when I met them, and yet I, an animal too, have these arbitrary privileges (including that of my species), and I have seen so much sky. The biggest challenge in what I do lies in the faces of the animals who haunt me at night. When it comes to changing the world for animals, there is a huge bumpy road ahead of us. When you’re an animal activist, you fight and fight and fight, and then one day, something changes – but it’s usually infinitesimal compared to the hidden world of suffering that is continuing right now. And yet, despite that, I have hope. Despite the faces of individuals who stay with me, tugging at my heartstrings, I also see other faces – those fighting day in and day out for animals. In addition to our weekly podcast, Our Hen House produces an online magazine where we highlight ideas and opportunities to change the world for animals, and let me tell you, we have more inspirational content, and more advocates to feature, than we have time or (wo)manpower. I could write one piece an hour for Our Hen House, non-stop, and I would still have positive stories and examples of change to highlight on our virtual pages. So perhaps it’s the magnitude of suffering that is my biggest challenge, but it’s the magnitude of compassion that makes my heart sing.
HPMM: What will historians say about our current food system a hundred years from now?
JS: They’ll say, “they ate what?” But seriously, our current food system is unsustainable and if we don’t change it, dramatically, there won’t be any historians, or anyone else, to comment on our folly a hundred years from now. Given the vast amount of resources needed to feed, transport, refrigerate, and slaughter animals, the only feasible way forward is veganism. Growing plants directly for human consumption, as opposed to for (non-human) animal consumption, would have a direct impact on world hunger. If the whole world ate the way Americans eat today, we’d need three more Earths. Unless we want a world where the rich eat animals and the poor eat nothing, we have got to figure out a way to take animals off the plate for good. My hope is that, with rising awareness of climate change – and the absolutely devastating effects that animal agriculture has on the planet – more and more people (including both policymakers and civilians, as well as the mainstream media) will go in the direction of plant-based agriculture, and everyone will begin to embrace veganism. If we still have a habitable planet in 100 years, hopefully historians will see their era as a new opportunity – a fresh era that does not condone suffering, one in which what we feed to our children is representative of abundance and vitality, not of suffering and inequality.
HPMM: How has your approach and understanding of food and the food system changed since you began?
JS: In the past decade, I think that productive discourse about the food system has become extremely popular amongst journalists and authors. Non-vegan food writers like Michael Pollen and Mark Bittman have brought a huge amount of attention to the dire importance of significantly decreasing consumption of animal-based foods. Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals became a massive bestseller – giving unsuspecting readers a glimpse into factory farming, and the documentary Forks Over Knives reached millions of people with the truth about how a vegan diet can prevent and even permanently reverse the most popular diseases plaguing the U.S. – like heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer. Undercover investigations inside factory farms, such as the ones that animal rights group Mercy for Animals is frequently behind, have also garnered significant press – including recently being the subject of a huge story on Nightline. So the food system is more transparent than it used to be, which is a very good thing, because how will we change it unless we see it first? To answer your question about my own tactics, I’ve noticed that my personal approach has shifted from focusing on “no” campaigns (say no to factory farming!) to “yes” campaigns (go vegan!). Though I am in full support of “no” campaigns, for me, that shift was necessary – at least for now – because it allowed me to embrace more of an indefatigably positive outlook, giving me the ability to be in it for the long run, which I intend to be.
HPMM: What will make America ready for a meatless diet?
JS: My feeling is that America will ditch the meat, dairy, and eggs as it continues to connect the dots between obesity (including childhood obesity), Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer, with the consumption of animal products. The fact that so many strong voices are now out there in the mainstream, touting the ample health benefits of veganism, means that our country is moving in the direction of making Meatless Mondays just one weekday of many where they go entirely plant-based and cruelty-free. And once those shifts start, people will be increasingly open to hearing the voices of the animals, and understanding the potential for a plant-based, compassionate future to improve the world in so many different ways.
HPMM: I’m sure you see a lot of wrong. What are we doing right these days?
JS: We’re beginning to question assumptions about inequalities we’ve never questioned before. We’re taking seriously the inherent rights of those who have always been oppressed, like people of color, women, the LGBT community, and animals. We’re putting these oppressed groups on the legislative agenda, and voting in their favor. We’re refusing to be complacent. I see positive changes everywhere I go. Speaking specifically about animals, I see these changes with everything from vegan options on menus throughout the country (and beyond), to a growing public consciousness about animal issues, as is evidenced from the huge increase in people who identify as vegetarian, to news outlets – major ones, like Nightline, and The New York Times – which regularly feature pro-animal stories and continue to shine a light on the ugly underbelly that is animal agriculture. As a society, we’re bending in the direction of justice. That has to begin with each of us as individuals. Sometimes it feels painstakingly slow, but there is still a lot to celebrate, and a lot we’re doing right.
HPMM: What would you recommend for someone looking to make steps towards a vegan life?
JS: I outlined this in a piece I wrote for Our Hen House entitled 10 Tips for Shifting to a Plant-Based Diet. In short, I would recommend finding and fostering community, such as getting involved with (or starting) a local vegan Meet-Up; using “transition foods” (vegan versions of traditional meat products – there is literally a compassionate, plant-based alternative to every animal product out there!); not being afraid of adding veggies to your diet (a lot of them); learning the truth about so-called ‘humane’ meat products (you might be surprised by the bullshit-factor of these empty labeling schemes); doing as much as you can, but not more, to convince others to go vegan (you will get a lot of push-back at first – if you want, feel free to say “this kind of eating really works for me,” and then move on); arming yourself with knowledge about all three reasons (health, environment, animals) that motivate people to go vegan (watch the documentary Vegucated, read the book Main Street Vegan); and having fun (there’s a lot to enjoy and embrace – this is about abundance, not deprivation).
HPMM: What has your work with OHH taught you?
JS: That we’re everywhere – people who care about animals and social justice are everywhere. And the ones who remain unsung – the ones on the front lines doing direct action, those working undercover, and even (especially!) everyday people speaking up for animals in their communities – are at the heart of the movement (and are my heroes). And, as a result, delicious vegan food is everywhere, too – not just in big cities, but everywhere. It’s easy to lose sight of the tiny victories for animals, but it’s important that we try not to lose sight of those. Things are indeed changing, and I have hope that a huge seismic shift is in store. Working on OHH day in and day out has taught me about the true goodness in humankind, and has renewed in me the hope that we as a civilized society can reach a place of true compassion for others.
HPMM: We’re fighting, oh, I don’t even know how many wars, facing real and drastic effects of the climate change we didn’t want to acknowledge, and we can’t get the federal government to agree on anything. Why do animal rights matter now?
JS: Caring about animals is at the center of social justice. If we want a world that is compassionate and kind, then we can’t simply shrug our shoulders and ignore the war on animals – a cowardly, one-sided genocide that affects each of us, both personally and globally, in profound ways. We can’t become complacent to their suffering, we can’t simply accept the status quo as morally right, and we can’t continue to support this cruel and oppressive system by buying its products (thereby funding the problem). We need to stop consuming cruelty, or our world will evolve in a way that is unsustainable on a literal level (there aren’t enough resources to continue to grow animals for food!), and on a figurative level too (since when do we simply accept that we can teach our children that it is okay to oppress one group for the so-called benefit of another?). Animal rights matter, not just because they are intimately tied to the future of our planet, but because they themselves – the individual animals – matter. They each have a little world unto themselves – each individual who is brought into this crazy world, only to live a life of utter misery, and then, usually as a baby, be sent to slaughter. In a time when people pride themselves on looking deeper into things that are unjust, and standing against hypocrisy and unfairness, it’s time we looked a little closer to home. We can start with the fridge.