I Wonder What Donald Watson, Founder of the Vegan Society, Would Think

Dear Colleagues:

As those of you who read this site (see my blog posts: 1, 2) and are familiar with my work as a general matter know, I regard Donald Watson (1910-2005), founder of the Vegan Society in Britain, as a remarkable person and one of the most enlightened minds of the 20th century. I wrote the entry for Watson in the recently published Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism. This site also has an essay from Eva Batt (1908-1989), who played an important role in the early days and throughout the history of the Vegan Society. Although I do not join organizations and, therefore, I am not a member of the Vegan Society and I do not regularly receive its magazine, The Vegan, I have been interviewed in The Vegan and I wrote an article for the magazine.

It is, then, with surprise and great disappointment that I relate the following.

After receiving several emails from vegans in the U.K. concerned about particular essays in The Vegan by an author who promotes the view that we ought to shift our focus away from veganism and speciesism because that will alienate people, I requested that the Society email me a PDF copy of these essays as the magazine is available only in hardcopy and is not online. The Society graciously replied and emailed the materials to me.

I noticed that in addition to the essays about which members expressed concern, the most recent issue of The Vegan, contained a review by Rob Jackson, the Vegan Society Education Officer, of my new book, co-authored with Professor Garner, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?. A central focus of the book is my argument that creative, nonviolent vegan education/activism is the most important form of incremental change and that a movement that wants to abolish animal use should focus its efforts exclusively on veganism. Garner argues that vegan education is important but he supports animal welfare reform campaigns that I reject for various reasons, both theoretical and practical. I am also very critical of the “flexitarian” and “happy meat” phenomena; Garner sees these things as representing progress.

Let me be very clear: Mr. Jackson did not say anything negative about the book and I would not care if he did. But his review of the book did not mention veganism once. I am not kidding. Not once.

Frankly, to say that Mr. Jackson missed the point of the book would be an understatement. Although some “reviewers” only read the first few pages of a book they’re “reviewing,” had Jackson read only the introduction to the book, and did not read the book itself, he would have seen even there that a central theme of the debate was about whether a movement that sought to vindicate the rights of animals should really be a vegan movement or whether it should be a welfare reform movement. In the book, I am critical of the large animal organizations for not taking the position that veganism is an unequivocal moral baseline.

But there is not a single hint in The Vegan, the magazine of the Vegan Society, that the book is a debate about whether a coherent theory of animal rights requires veganism and vegan advocacy. I am sorry, but that is downright peculiar.

And then, as I was scrolling through the issue further, I saw something that I found even more bewildering and more disturbing.

On page 3 of The Vegan is an advertisement for the Lancrigg Vegetarian & Organic House Hotel and Green Valley Cafe & Restaurant. Lancrigg is described as a “A Haven of Peace & Inspiration.” There is an attractive picture of the building, which is in the Lake District of England. I went to the Lancrigg restaurant page and saw that patrons of the restaurant could get breakfasts that included poached eggs and homemade Danish pastries made with local organic cheese. I downloaded the sample menu and saw dinner items that included various cheeses, mayonnaise, ice cream, cheese cake, etc.

I scrolled further and saw that at least two more non-vegan places were advertised in the classified section.

I was confused. A while back, I criticized Viva! for promoting Lancrigg (as well as other non-vegan restaurants/inns and for selling non-vegan cookbooks). Although Viva! claims to be a vegan organization, it explicitly promotes vegetarianism and claims that veganism is difficult and daunting, and it promotes welfare reform campaigns. But the Vegan Society?

Donald Watson coined the word “vegan” and founded the Vegan Society in 1944 precisely because he wanted to emphasize that not eating meat was not enough. He wanted to erase the arbitrary line that had meat on one side and everything else on the other. In Watson’s own words:

The excuse that it is not necessary to kill in order to obtain dairy produce is untenable for those with a knowledge of livestock farming methods and of the competition which even humanitarian farmers must face if they are to remain in business.

For years many of us accepted, as lacto-vegetarians, that the flesh-food industry and the dairy produce industry were related, and that in some ways they subsidised one another. We accepted, therefore, that the case on ethical grounds for the disuse of these foods was exceptionally strong, and we hoped that sooner or later a crisis in our conscience would set us free.

That freedom has now come to us. Having followed a diet free from all animal food for periods varying from a few weeks in some cases, to many years in others, we believe our ideas and experiences are sufficiently matured to be recorded. The unquestionable cruelty associated with the production of dairy produce has made it clear that lacto-vegetarianism is but a half-way house between flesh-eating and a truly humane, civilised diet, and we think, therefore, that during our life on earth we should try to evolve sufficiently to make the ‘full journey’.

So how could the Vegan Society be advertising a restaurant that served the very items that Watson saw as no different from meat?

I went to the Vegan Society Facebook Discussion Page and I started a thread to discuss the matter.

Shortly after I started the thread, Amanda Baker, the Vegan Society PR, Media and Web Officer, replied, in part:

The acceptance of advertisements (including inserts) to The Vegan magazine does not imply endorsement.

We have two separate types of output. One is statements/literature/media releases put out by The Vegan Society. The other type is exemplified by our Facebook pages and The Vegan magazine.

In the magazine we have the following disclaimer:

“The views expressed in The Vegan do not necessarily reflect those of the Editor or of the Vegan Society Council. Nothing printed should be construed to be Vegan Society policy unless so stated.

This reply was even more breathtaking than seeing the ad in the first place. In fact, I found this reply to be insulting and similar to the sort of nonsense that we all too frequently hear from our politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

I can understand saying that publishing an essay written by a guest writer does not necessarily imply endorsement of the views of that writer. Fair enough. But it is simply beyond foolish to say that “[t]he acceptance of advertisements (including inserts) to The Vegan magazine does not imply endorsement.” Of course it does. If the Vegan Society thinks that someone reading The Vegan does not think the ad encourages people to patronize the Lancrigg restaurant, then the Vegan Society is deluding itself. If the Vegan Society does not think that an ad like this reinforces the idea that Watson explicitly and quite properly rejected—that we cannot make a coherent moral distinction between meat and other animal products—then, again, the Vegan Society is simply not being realistic.

Further, it makes no sense to say that the Vegan Society is saying only that it is acceptable to patronize Lancrigg to eat vegan items. On that reasoning, the Vegan Society could, as some supposedly pro-vegan animal groups do, sell cookbooks with recipes that involve animal ingredients as long as there are some vegan recipes.

But whatever readers may or may not think is implied by the ad, why is the Vegan Society—the society formed in 1944 precisely to reject the distinction between meat and dairy and other animal products and to advocate not consuming any animal products—advertising a restaurant that serves dairy products?

I also posted about this matter on the Abolitionist Approach Facebook page. In one of my comments, I stated that I assumed that the Vegan Society would not accept an ad from a restaurant that served meat and, therefore, it made no sense to accept an ad from a restaurant that served dairy. Someone claiming to be a former Vegan Society employee responded that the policy of the Vegan Society was that it would accept an ad from a restaurant that served meat as long as it had a vegan option. I do not know what the Vegan Society policy is on this issue and I have made an inquiry. I will provide a postscript to this essay if one is required when I get a reply. It should suffice to say, however, that even if the Vegan Society would take an ad from a steakhouse that had a vegan option, that would mean that they were not distinguishing meat from dairy but it would obviously raise an equally serious general problem about a vegan organization accepting money to promote businesses that serve or sell meat and dairy.

For the time being, I am dealing with one issue: the matter of The Vegan having an advertisement from a restaurant that serves dairy products. I think that clearly and explicitly conflicts with the very basis and reason for the founding of the Vegan Society in 1944.

It makes me profoundly sad that a society started by one of the visionary minds of the 20th century is heading in this direction. Donald Watson was clear about what veganism meant. Although he emphasized a vegan diet, he also did not wear leather and wool. He also avoided killing worms when he gardened. He was also committed to nonviolence and was a conscientious objector during World War II. He was a serious person who had a serious philosophy that did not stop at nonhuman animals and that extended to life as a general matter.

Although Watson did not explicitly discuss the concept of animal rights, or engage issues of welfare reform or discuss the property status of animals and how that would necessarily constrain welfare standards, or distinguish issues of use and issues of treatment, or advocate the end of all domestication, I regard Watson as an abolitionist simply for recognizing that there was no distinction between meat and other animal products and that we could not justify using or consuming any animal products. That is why I say that veganism is at the very core of abolition.

In discussing this issue with a friend, I commented, “Poor Watson. The next thing you know, they’ll have naked women in The Vegan“. Her reply: “Look at the website. They already have one there.” I visited the website again and noticed a woman who is apparently naked and has a basket of fruits and vegetables in front of her chest.

What’s the point of that? Does the Vegan Society really think that someone is going to go vegan because of a picture of a naked woman cuddling up to a basket of plant products? Or it this merely a low-level “me too” to show support for the sexism that seems to characterize any and every PETA campaign?

Donald Watson deserved more than this and it is my most sincere wish that the Vegan Society get back to its roots and not succumb to becoming just another “animal group” that promotes authors who think that talking about veganism will alienate people, reviews a book about veganism but neglects to mention that it is about veganism, promotes sexism, or takes the position that an ad for a restaurant or business that serves animal products does not imply any endorsement, or takes money to advertise or promote such a business, whatever is intended to be implied.

I readily admit that there are hard cases in that even if the Lancrigg Inn were exclusively vegan, it might be owned by individuals or a corporation that exploited animals. I think that there are some complicated issues in that there are very few vegan products where there is not a non-vegan parent or subsidiary lurking somewhere out there. It is a tragic consequence of the corporatization of our world and, in my view, militates against relying too heavily on any ad revenue. But here, the issue is not complicated. The restaurant in question serves non-vegan products and the Vegan Society is advertising the restaurant. I think that is problematic for the reasons I have discussed here.

I could see the Vegan Society publishing a “convenience list” of places that have vegan options for travelers although I think even then, the Society should make clear that such a list is only for convenience of readers and that the Society does not in any way encourage the patronage of any establishment that serves any animal products. But to actually advertise restaurants or businesses that serve animal products is, in my view, deeply troubling.

In any event, if the Vegan Society needs the revenue of businesses that sell animal products to produce The Vegan, then I think they should consider doing the magazine exclusively in an electronic version, which will cut costs.

It is my hope that my friends at the Vegan Society will consider my views as offered with the highest respect for the values I believe Donald Watson represented and my sincere hope that the Society will scrupulously reflect those values.

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If you are not vegan, go vegan. It’s easy; it’s better for your health and for the planet. But, most important, it’s the morally right thing to do. You will never do anything else in your life as easy and satisfying.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2011 Gary L. Francione

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Addendum: Added February 21, 2011:

Janet Whittington, owner of Lancrigg Vegetarian & Organic House Hotel and Green Valley Cafe & Restaurant replied on the Vegan Society Facebook thread. Please note that Ms. Whittington claims that her comment was “removed” from this site. That is false. The “comments” section of www.abolitionistapproach.com has never been enabled so her comment was not removed because it could not have been posted in the first place. Her comment is accessible in the “replied” highlight.

In any event, Ms. Whittington offers a Q&A from Donald Watson:

Q: Do you have any message for vegetarians?
A: Accept that vegetarianism is only a stepping stone between meat eating and veganism. There may be vegans who made the change all in one leap, but I’m sure that for most people vegetarianism is a necessary staging post. I’m still a member of the Vegetarian Society to keep in touch with the movement. I was delighted to learn that at the World Vegetarian Conference in Edinburgh the diet was a vegan diet and the delegates had no choice. This little seed that I planted 60 years ago is making its presence felt.”

Yes? So? What does it say about whether the VEGAN Society should take paid ads for restaurants that serve dairy products? Answer: Absolutely nothing. On Ms. Whittington’s reasoning, The Vegan should be filled with page after page of ads for milk, ice cream, cheese, etc., as well as ads for non-vegan restaurants, such as Lancrigg.

Watson was making a simple point: most people treat vegetarianism as a stepping stone to veganism. That may well be true and there may be all sorts of reasons for it, not the least of which is that animal organizations have traditionally distinguished between meat and dairy and have treated dairy as less morally objectionable than meat. But that distinction is precisely what Watson rejected in 1944 when he formed the Vegan Society and coined “vegan.” Animal organizations continue to this day to characterize veganism as difficult and daunting. That also contributes to the problem.

But none of this means that the Vegan Society should be promoting vegetarianism. Again, if this were the case, then The Vegan should be absolutely full of ads for dairy products to encourage meat eaters to embrace the “stepping stone” of ovo-lacto-vegetarianism.

Please note that Watson expresses delight that the delegates to the World Vegetarian Conference “had no choice” but to consume non-animal foods. He did not say, “this was a tragedy for those who still see vegetarianism as a staging post” or “they should have accommodated those who wanted dairy.” No. He was happy that delegates could not get animal foods–as they can at Lancrigg.

Ms. Whittington continues:

Our menu, being more like vegan with token vegetarian is at the complete opposite, of meat and fish with token vegetarian and vegan with difficulty, as found in 99% of restaurants, and we would appreciate support as this is a difficult route to take.

Fundamental moral issues are not a matter of percentages. A shop that sells more child pornography is, in a sense, worse than a shop that sells less. But we should have a zero tolerance for child pornography and it would be absurd to say that a shop that sells “just a little” kiddie porn is just fine and should be supported by children’s rights advocates as a “stepping stone.”

The same holds for animal products. If we really believe that animals are equal members of the moral community and are not things, then we cannot morally justify our treatment of them in any way as our resources.

Is that the position of Vegan Society or not?

Ms. Whittington states:

I appreciate the need for purists, and also think that every move towards the ideal is a good thing.

“[P]urists”? That says it all, doesn’t it?

No, Ms. Whittington, “vegans.” Not “purists.” Just “vegans.”

As I mentioned above, many animal organizations reinforce the idea that veganism is difficult or daunting. Lancrigg has the opportunity to show people that this is not the case and that no sacrifice is required to be a vegan. None at all. But instead, Lancrigg has chosen to perpetuate the notion that excellent cuisine requires suffering, death, and exploitation.

I am sorry that Lancrigg has chosen to do so. But again, I do not think that this in any way justifies the Vegan Society advertising restaurants that serve dairy. Indeed, I think Ms. Whittington’s comments support my view and do not refute it.

I certainly hope that the Vegan Society regards itself as representing what Ms. Whittington refers to as “purist[].” If not, then it should, perhaps, merge into the Vegetarian Society as there will be no difference.

Gary L. Francione
©2011 Gary L. Francione