Saturday, May 9, 2015

Vegan Discrimination and the Workplace

Vegan Discrimination
by Bethany Cortale

Last year a dilemma had presented itself. I had accepted a new job offer but before my employer made it official, my new boss had requested my “friendship” on Facebook. What should I do?

I primarily utilize Facebook, Twitter and social media for animal activism. Almost daily, I post images and share information intent on educating people and encouraging them to go vegan. I promote legislation, petitions, and ask others to act on behalf of animals. I am sometimes confrontational, challenging people's cruel complacency and unconscious exploitation of animals. As a source of engagement, these sites also provide me with an online community of vegan support as a majority of my contacts are vegan.

Such being the case, I was reticent to accept my new boss’s friendship on Facebook, however, both options seemed fraught with risk: accepting my boss's friendship chanced bias, and not accepting her friendship could result in awkward feelings and the appearance of having something to hide. I have nothing to be ashamed of and sooner or later my vegan beliefs were bound to surface in workplace conversations and interactions. Still, I didn’t want to jeopardize my new job before I even started, so after waiting a week I approved it.

Unfortunately, my experience and similar ones involving the workplace are not unusual and present conflicts for vegans every day.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prohibits the discrimination of any job applicant or employee based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age and disability. Discriminating against a person for any of these reasons is illegal, but that doesn’t mean discrimination doesn’t take place. Sometimes it’s difficult to prove and other times individuals aren’t aware of their rights. Nevertheless, vegans are not a protected group in the United States, at least not now.

In 2010, the United Kingdom acknowledged the beliefs of vegans on par with religion. The UK Equality Bill offered protection against workplace discrimination and required that public authorities, including schools, consider the impact of all their policies on vegans and other minority groups. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission noted that the “ethical commitment” of vegans to animal welfare is “central to who they are. A belief need not include faith or worship of a god or gods, but must affect how a person lives their life.” Likewise, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty, also protects the philosophical beliefs of vegans.

Some may think government laws protecting vegans are gratuitous, but while most people will claim to be against animal cruelty, those very same people are more than happy to engage in said cruelties, ignoring the harm they themselves inflict on animals when they eat flesh, dairy and eggs. Furthermore, workplaces are replete with employees who make insensitive and uninformed remarks and crack jokes at the expense of vegans and animals, yet they would hesitate to publicly make similar statements if the topic were about women, minorities or the disabled.

Recently during a vegan book club meeting, a member expressed concern about a recent job interview she had during which company employees took her out to lunch. She tried not to discuss her veganism but the interviewers’ confusion over why she wouldn’t eat what they were eating or what they had suggested she eat, made this difficult for her. In response to their barrage of questions, which made her feel uncomfortable and put on the spot, she finally disclosed that she was vegan. Over the course of lunch she noticed that the demeanor of those interviewing her had quickly changed. In the end, despite her being highly qualified for the job, she didn’t get it and the company didn’t tell her why she didn’t get it. She said the worst part was not knowing whether she had been discriminated against simply for being vegan.

In Nick Cooney’s book, Change of Heart, he discussed the importance of social norms in shaping beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. “People view an attitude as correct to the degree they see others holding it," he said. "What those around a person are saying and doing at that moment also have a significant impact on people’s judgments. . . . Humans have a natural tendency to greatly value their own social group and ignore and denigrate those not in it.”

As soon as someone declares their veganism, all kinds of assumptions and stereotypes are made. Likening it to a kind of Scarlet Letter, vegans are often negatively branded because they don’t subscribe to the violent dictates of the status quo.

Generally speaking, folks don’t want to be challenged by their peers or made to feel as though their values and behaviors are in question or—worse—immoral and unjust; they want to feel as though they are behaving in ways that are justifiable merely because they reflect what everyone else is doing. More often than not, a vegan doesn’t have to say or do anything to make a nonvegan defensive or uncomfortable; their presence alone speaks volumes because they are not conforming to widely accepted standards and customs.

Our book club members collectively concluded that the employers acted inappropriately, perhaps even illegally, when they interrogated our member about her veganism during the interview over lunch, and that they most likely sought a new employee who shared their own ideas and conduct, however egregious, because of their propensity for conformity and homogeny.

Discrimination against vegans is wrong, however, the majority of those who exploit animals and consume animal products also control political, economic, and social institutions, just as prejudiced whites once did and, in some places, still do. It is unfair, but it is a reality. Therefore, it is our duty as vegans to work for systemic change by creating more vegans and emboldening others to question the animal industrial complex so that animal exploitation and injustice will become a thing of the past.

It is a sad state of affairs when those who care about promoting a way of life that strives to end institutionalized animal abuse, environmental degradation, failing healthcare, violence, and global hunger are met with resistance and obstinacy; when those who present an ideal way to coexist that’s mutually beneficial to all living beings are made to feel silly and unwelcome; when those trying to make the world a better place for everyone are deemed a threat to the selfish and depraved hankerings of those who seek to maintain power, money and control.

In the end, we vegans must remain committed and not be discouraged. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

During my last job search I often worried whether potential employers had passed me up because they had looked me up online and found this here blog which you are now reading. I worried that this medium—which affords me the opportunity to express my beliefs and concerns and advocate for animals through the written word—inhibited my chances of securing employment. It is certainly a real possibility, but I refuse to be silent. Too many lives are at stake. And if a company chooses not to hire me because of my vegan activism, despite all the valuable skills, talents, and experience that I can bring to it, then it is probably for the best.

Vegan Starter Kit

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Avoid Becoming a Vegan Has-Been

Princeton Vegan Book Club Books
by Bethany Cortale

Last year a friend reluctantly told me that she reverted back to vegetarianism after being vegan for less than one year. At work a coworker told me that she used to be vegetarian but had difficulty sticking with it because she didn't know other vegetarians.

A lack of social support is a common complaint heard by many one-time vegans. This problem is not to be trivialized if the percentage of vegans needed to bring about a societal tipping point is going to happen sooner rather than later.

According to a VegNews magazine article, "Staying on the Veg Wagon," there are roughly three times as many former vegans as there are vegans. Some of the more frequent reasons cited for this turnabout were:

  1. Food choices were not grounded in ethical beliefs.
  2. Veganism was not tied to one's identity.
  3. A lack of social support.

In the twelve years that I've been vegan I've learned the importance of staying connected and engaged, not only with other vegans and the animal rights community at large (both online and in person), but also with information, ideas and stories. 

In order to advance the rights of animals and work toward ending the injustice of animal suffering and exploitation, it is vital that we employ efforts to stay educated and immersed in vegan ideas and developments, and focused on the moral and ethical reasons for having elected to go vegan in the first place. If we don't, then we will most likely succumb to the majority and their ubiquitous social norms that make eating animal products seem normal and natural. In other words, if you don't use it you may lose it.

To stay connected, we must communicate with others who share our thirst for knowledge, who understand our vegan experiences, and who can help us navigate the nonvegan world as it exists today. Like any pundit in their field, we must stay committed and informed so that we can instruct others so that they too can champion the rights of all animals and adopt a vegan way of life that benefits everyone.

In the last year I've had the fortune to attend the Princeton Vegan Book and Movie Discussion Club. Besides readings, movies and discussions that keep me on top of issues affecting animals, people, and the environment; I also get an enormous amount of encouragement from fellow vegans that I haven't been able to find anywhere else.

Whenever I need to commiserate about a typically frustrating interaction with a nonvegan or share a small victory, it is immensely helpful to share my experiences and to seek advice and support from those who appreciate what it is like to be vegan. 

In addition to community, I cannot overemphasize the importance of making reading a priority for the purpose of staying up to date on policies and topics affecting animals. It is greatly disappointing when people show up to book meetings without having read the assigned materials. With anything else, if we don't read and educate ourselves, we will not be able to educate others. Books like Meatonomics, The Sexual Politics of MeatGreen Is the New Red, Every Twelve Seconds, and Circles of Compassion are as vital to our own lives as they are to the lives of nonhuman animals. We simply cannot change the system if we are unwitting and don't adopt a student mentality.

Carol Adams, Sexual Politics of Meat
David Cantor, executive director of Responsible Policies for Animals, said  "Reading, writing, and conversation - not dependent on advertising and popularity but on individuals' pursuing knowledge for the common good - are crucial for promoting human values over corporate values. Humane treatment of animals and animal rights are human values. That's why animal-rights education must rely on books, not on ad-based media. . . . serious intellectual effort is the key to success for those who intend to establish nonhuman animals' basic legal rights." 

So here's my advice for vegans, regardless whether you’re new to the animal rights movement or are a veteran:
  • Read, Read, Read! Read newspapers, books, and magazines that promote animal rights and veganism. Seek them out!
  • Get active online and offline. Find vegan friends and groups on Facebook, Twitter and Meetup.
  • Get involved with organizations and activities that appeal to you, e.g. letter writing campaigns, protests, lobbying events, etc.
  •  Dedicate and challenge yourself!
It is not easy being vegan in a nonvegan world. I have met very few vegans over the years and while that has been disappointing, it has not deterred me from the most important decision I've ever made in my life. You don't have to go it alone, so stop the excuses. Make your mind up to be the best vegan and animal rights advocate by staying resolute, continually reminding yourself of all those who are depending on you.

Vegan Starter Kit

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Do Vegans Help or Hinder by Attending NonVegan Functions?

The Vegan Vine
Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell
by Bethany Cortale

Last year I attended a childhood friend’s baby shower. It was a brunch affair so other than fruit and plain bagels, there wasn't anything that a vegan (or health conscious person for that matter, especially one having a baby) would want to eat. Not surprisingly, there were lots of animal products: bacon, spare ribs, chicken, eggs, butter, cream cheese, sausage, etc.

I enjoy being around family and friends but have grown apprehensive about being in environments where I know everyone else will be recklessly devouring the flesh and fluids of tortured animals.

In the nine years that I’ve been vegan and twenty one as a vegetarian, I’ve attended many functions where animal foods were present and plentiful. Never one to mince words, I’ve always been outspoken about being vegan and will rarely shy away from a confrontation. But over time, I’ve also learned to pick my battles.

Occasions where animal products are ubiquitous are not new to me, but my guilt in being party to them was, and in some way I felt that my presence at the shower signified (at least to myself) that I condoned the oppressive and cruel actions of others against animals through their animal consumption.

I reached out to my friend Laura, who runs the Princeton Vegan Book and Movie Discussion Club, for some advice. “I have thought about this quite a bit lately," she said. "If we vegans can look at the big picture, we probably have more chance of helping our nonvegan friends and family to think about what they are eating if we are sitting at the table with them than if we stay home. Of course, it is hard to sit around a table with meat, eggs, and dairy once you've made the connection with the animal suffering that was involved.  But if we choose to stay home, who will be there to represent the animals and our planet?  If we can do it, who knows what conversations might ensue, what connections might be made before, during, or after the meal? Even if nothing is said, our food choices tell a story."

Suddenly, it dawned on me that just being a vegan at a nonvegan gathering can be regarded as taking an activist approach. As possibly the sole vegan, I have an opportunity to change attitudes about animal suffering, more so than not being there at all.  My presence alone—along with who and what I make a point of eating and not eating—may encourage others to reflect on their own thoughtless habits. If I were not in attendance, everything would go on as usual and there would be no physical presence of protest. Furthermore, my being there and my refusal to eat what everyone else is eating may make some people uncomfortable, as it should.

I presented this position to another vegan and fellow book club member, Irene, and got a completely different take. She believes that a celebration is not the proper place to discuss the unethical behavior of others and alleges that dancing around it in order to be diplomatic is colluding with those promoting the murder of animals.

I see her point, but I also contended that due to social norms that sanction violence against farm animals and their mass consumption through debased might makes right thinking, most nonvegans are unaware of any unethical conduct or wrongdoing and are more than happy to remain ignorant, which is why I think these events can be opportune moments to inform and enlighten.

Irene went on to say that vegans can make a more prominent statement by simply boycotting an event where their absence is painfully obvious. Here, I think she makes a valid and compelling argument. For example, if a vegan is the guest of honor or a highly anticipated attendee at a nonvegan event, their nonappearance will be plainly felt. This act of dissent can be a real teachable moment as long as everyone in attendance knows the reason for the vegan's absence.

The old adage, "this is how it has always been done," doesn't cut the mustard. It wasn't acceptable for Jim Crow segregation nor was it admissible for the old boys club in keeping women out. Similarly, custom and/or "treasured" traditions involving food are not moral justifications for causing animals suffering and death. 

It got a little heated during the aforementioned baby shower when one of the women seated at my table told me that her daughter (who wasn’t present) doesn’t eat meat but likes eggs. She said this with pride as if this were cause for praise. I took the opening to explain some of the cruelties involved in egg production. With no good retort, she gave the same reply that most nonvegans typically give to end the discussion—the self-justifying line about everyone having the right to make their own choice. Fellow vegan rabble-rouser Ed Coffin explained why this perversion of personal liberty is invalid. “I hate when people dismiss veganism as a ‘personal choice,’" he said. "It’s not, it’s a moral obligation. Would those same people also assert that murdering someone, or beating a dog, or raping a child is a ‘personal choice?’ When your actions directly impact the lives of others, it’s no longer a simple ‘personal choice.’ ”

Robert Grillo, president and director of Free from Harm, put it plainly: “’Personal’ choices don’t have victims.”

“Anybody who has ever been vegan or vegetarian knows that it gets you in a lot of situations where you are expected to justify yourself,” said Christin Bernhold in an interview with the Weekly Worker. “People either ask with genuine interest why you are vegan, or they react aggressively. Naturally, there are moments when you don’t want that conversation again. Still, it always triggers a debate.”

I’ve come to realize that as much as vegans may dread activities that have us being surrounded by animal oppression and exploitation, sometimes just by being there we can be agents for mindfulness and change. Some interactions we have with others may be confrontational and some may not, and some may go better than expected with people who are genuinely interested in aligning their values with their behaviors—not just saying they care about animals but backing it up with ethical deeds. It may often be awkward or socially suicidal to talk about what people are eating while they’re eating it but it is, nonetheless, imperative. We should not shy away from interactions simply because people may become uneasy. We would not pacify someone who causes a child or a cat to suffer, so why do we want to make those who abuse farm animals feel comfortable? 

During these occasions I may look on people's plates with sadness and discouragement, but I never feel compelled or encouraged to partake in their feast. Unlike them, I choose to put my heart—justice and compassion—before the interests of my stomach. Rather, these events make me feel even more empowered to educate others and be the best vegan I can be. If, on the other hand, nonvegan events make some vegans feel like outcasts or socially pressured to conform with others, then perhaps the best thing for them and the animals is to avoid nonvegan events altogether.

It is neither compulsory that vegans attend every nonvegan happening, nor should vegans avoid every nonvegan event. I trust that, like myself, vegans will stay informed and figure out how to eloquently address conversations surrounding animals in their own time and will decide what each situation calls for.

In the end, the possibility of changing minds and behaviors regarding animal consumption is not possible without connections and conversations. Our presence alone invites others to become more aware of farm animals and, perhaps, to question their own participation in animal suffering. Who knows, you may stumble upon that one person who has been meaning to go vegan for some time but just didn’t know where to start. And then they met you!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Slaughterhouse Workers Are Not the Enemy

by Bethany Cortale
The Vegan Vine
Protesting in front of the Catelli Brothers Slaughterhouse
On World Day for Farmed Animals, celebrated every year on Gandhi’s birthday (October 2), I thought I would do something special to signify the day, so I attended a New Jersey Farm Animal Save protest at the Catelli Brothers slaughterhouse in Shrewsbury, New Jersey.

The Catelli slaughterhouse is Shrewsbury's dirty little secret. Cleverly disguised as an office building, scared and bellowing animals are removed from a transport truck and forced into the back of the building in the wee hours of the morning when most people are still peacefully asleep, unaware of the terror, fear and violence that abounds there. A sign out front discreetly reads “Quality Veal & Lamb Products.”

Having worked in the area I was familiar with the abattoir, more so than most people who have lived there their entire lives. Given the public’s determined obliviousness, the protest provided a great opportunity to bring awareness to this house of horrors to the folks who pass by it every day.

Not long after I arrived at the protest, a fellow protester approached me and asked if I were vegan. I thought it an odd question considering where we were and what we were doing. Imagine my surprise when she said she wasn't vegan or vegetarian but felt that "it’s wrong what they're doing there.” Before I could inquire further, she moved to a spot across the street.

I assumed she was referring to the publicity surrounding last year’s undercover video that caused the slaughterhouse to be temporarily shut down. According to federal regulators, the animals were not being humanely slaughtered on par with USDA standards. Catelli closed its doors for about a week and then went back to business as usual having had, supposedly, retrained the staff about the proper way to unnecessarily take an animal's life. 

Or, perhaps this particular protester was concerned about the age of the animals being slaughtered since veal is made from newborn calves and lamb from newborn sheep. Age seemed to be an issue for another protester I spoke with who was upset about two main things: the workers themselves and the fact that they kill babies. I explained how all farm animals killed for food are, in effect, babies because they're all taken long before their natural lifespans. Furthermore, I discussed the direct connection between dairy consumption and veal. Few people in general seem to grasp that without the dairy industry, there would be no veal.

Since it was a weekday, we saw some of the workers coming and going. One older woman made a point of showing her protest sign to a worker leaving the facility, asking him if he could read it, which I thought was condescending and uncalled for. In an unusual circumstance, I found myself trying to explain the issues these workers face and how they, too, are exploited. While I would never condone what they do, I think targeting them is fruitless and ill-focused.

An industry that is hostile to animals is no less hostile to the people it employs to do our dirty work. In a 2011 VegNews article, “Injustice for All,” Mark Hawthorne investigated the conditions of slaughterhouse workers and found their jobs to be one of the most dangerous in the world. Working conditions often violate international human rights standards, and since many workers are immigrants (38%), and often undocumented, they remain fearfully silent. The average abattoir worker earns just $11.42 an hour, and they are often required to kill a large number of animals per minute. In the case of one poultry factory worker, 35 per minute. Those workers who fall behind are often subjected to humiliation and verbal abuse. Additionally, the large output demanded of them results in workplace injuries that often go unreported and untreated. Many workers do not have access to healthcare so in the rare instance that they do report an injury, they are often shuffled off to a company doctor who downplays their affliction.

In an interview with Mother Jones, Ted Genoways, whose family worked in the slaughter and meat packing industry, corroborated the increased injuries correlated with increased line speeds. “. . . when amputations occurred among the workers, and you've got somebody who's had a finger chopped off or has had a deep cut on their arm so that they're bleeding all over their station, there's somebody there to just pause that station and clean it while the rest of the line continues to move . . . they're not allowed bathroom breaks, or even ordinary breaks to sharpen knives or to wash their hands.” Nothing is more important than keeping the production line—the killing, eviscerating, slicing and packaging—moving at all times. 
“Slaughterhouse workers tend to be people who don’t have many other options . . . ,” said Cori Mattli in “Vegan in the Dairy State” (Chickpea, 2013). “Studies show that there is a high correlation with slaughterhouse work and post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. Workers become desensitized to violence.”

Slaughterhouse workers are people with little power who are given control over innocent and helpless creatures who are at their mercy, and the results are often inhuman and sickening. In her book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Dr. Melanie Joy provided worker testimony detailing the violence committed against both human and nonhuman animals.

Most stickers (those who stand in blood and slit the animal’s neck) have been arrested for assault. A lot of them have problems with alcohol. They have to drink, they have no other way of dealing with killing live, kicking animals all day long. . . . A lot of guys . . . just drink and drug their problems away. Some of them end up abusing their spouses because they can’t get rid of the feelings.

I've taken out my job pressure and frustration on the animals. . . . [T]here was a live hog in the pit. It hadn’t done anything wrong, wasn’t’ even running around the pit. It was just alive. I took a three-foot chunk of pipe—and I literally beat that hog to death. Couldn’t have been a two-inch piece of solid bone left in its head. Basically, if you want to put it in layman’s terms, I crushed his skull. It was like I started hitting the hog and I couldn’t stop. And when I finally did stop, I’d expended all this energy and frustration, and I’m thinking, what in God’s sweet name did I do? (p. 83)

As I tried to explain to my fellow Catelli protesters, it always comes down to simple economics and the willfulness of individuals. If consumers discontinue buying animal products, then farmed animals will cease being bred and supplied to slaughterhouses, and businesses like Catelli will eventually fold. Slaughterhouse work is precisely related to consumer demand for animal flesh and secretions. Each of us has enormous purchasing power. When we buy animal products, we endorse violence against animals. To demonize the exploited slaughterhouse worker for giving us what we ask for and for doing what we ourselves don't have the nerve to do with our own hands is craven and hypocritical. 

By all means, slaughterhouse workers are not innocent, but neither are they solely guilty in committing cruelty against animals. In his book, Every Twelve Seconds, Timothy Pachirat explained how distance and concealment are utilized to sustain industrialized killing in our modern society. "Those who benefit at a distance, delegating this terrible work to others while disclaiming responsibility for it, [bear] more moral responsibility, particularly in contexts like the slaughterhouse, where those with the fewest opportunities in society perform the dirty work" (p. 160).

For all intents and purposes, the nonvegan protester I met is no better than your average consumer in approving and upholding the atrocities and savagery that take place every day behind slaughterhouse walls. Maybe she is slowly making the connection between her food choices and animal abuse as she comes to realize that she, too, has blood on her hands.