Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Only Vegan in the Department

A common misnomer in skeptic and atheist communities is the notion that science-respecting, rationally minded individuals are somehow exempt from completely irrational attitudes and behaviors.  Of course, science, too is socially constructed and scientists are also humans who engage social construction and live within that socially constructed reality.  But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

For instance, my current academic department specializes in environmental sociology.  We specialize in the enactment of social change and how climate change impacts society.  Naturally, most of my colleagues are environmentally savvy folks who ride their bikes to campus, recycle religiously, and support whole and local food production.  And yet, to my knowledge, I am the only vegan in the department…and I’m certainly the only instructor on board who researches and teaches critical Nonhuman Animal studies.

The verdict is out—Nonhuman Animal consumption is the primary contributor to greenhouse gasses (at least 51% depending on what variables are included in the calculation).  It’s also a prime cause of habitat destruction (including rainforests, which are cleared for Nonhuman Animal feed), desertification, and pollution of air, land, and water.

Yet the vast majority of my interactions with colleagues on this topic involve flippancy, excuses (more than one faculty member insisted they “had” to eat Nonhuman Animal flesh when they were pregnant) and downright rudeness (like the fellow who insists on wearing a “People Eating Tasty Animals” t-shirt once a week).  One colleague even laughed at me in a graduate class when I mentioned the term “speciesism.”

This isn’t specific to my department, either.  As a graduate student at Virginia Tech, my involvement with the student Nonhuman Animal rights movement effectively ostracized me from my cohort.  I found myself no longer invited to graduate student events, and those students who didn’t outright ignore me laughed or insulted me about my veganism behind my back (I heard you!).

It’s frustrating that my fellow scientists, who have been trained for years in critical thinking and rational evaluation, stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the plight of our society’s most victimized and exploited group:  Nonhuman Animals.  For those completely uninterested in examining their human privilege and involvement with speciesism (understandable given the strength of prevailing ideologies), I am still amazed that none recognize the importance of veganism in reducing environmental destruction and human suffering.  My colleagues write articles and books on environmental sustainability, food justice, even reducing Nonhuman Animal production—but no one seems to be willing to consider that any Nonhuman Animal use at all is problematic.

Scientific training does not guarantee objectivity—it does not even guarantee an appreciation for evidence.  Scientists are human, and humans are influenced by the society in which they live.  Fortunately, the scientific community does value (to some extent) a variety of voices.  Dialogue may yet provide the opportunity for social advancement in the case of Nonhuman Animals.

But the fight won’t be easy. As a former blogger for Skepchick, writing on these issues triggered outright dismissal and a blatant refusal to seriously consider the arguments.  I actually wrote a piece similar to this one for their School of Doubt side project, and it was deleted before it was ever published.  In more professional circles, the American Sociological Association resisted the incorporation of one of their newest sections, Society and Animals.  Membership continues to be low, though interdisciplinary fields are beginning to legitimize its need.

Like many social movements and scientific progressions, it is likely that change will not happen until the given social problem reaches a crisis level and a critical mass of activists popularize their demands.  Academics and scientists may not be able to look past their human privilege to recognize the importance of Nonhuman Animal liberation, but they cannot long ignore the threat of climate change and increasingly deadly diet-related diseases.

As the only vegan in the department, I can’t help but get flustered at the outright disregard for critical thinking when it comes to old habits and guilty pleasures.  Surely we can recognize the personhood of other animals and the role of Nonhuman Animal agriculture in exacerbating global warming and human sickness is confirmed by decades of research.  Surely we recognize the scientific project’s historical inconsistency regarding the disasters of enslavement, colonization, genocide, and extinction.  Seeing this, we should value the importance of critical thinking in the midst of humanity’s greatest project of privilege and domination to date.