Reducetarianism vis-à-vis Veganism:

The Limits of Finding Common Ground

Jo-Anne McArthur, 2012

Since hearing from Brian Kateman on various media outlets over the past couple of years, I have had some thoughts and concerns brewing. The fact that “reducetarianism” seems to be more noticeably taking hold lately in some ways makes it more imperative for vegans to speak up about what may be considered common ground versus that which keeps us in different camps.

I am vegan, but of course that does not mean I speak for every vegan. These are my thoughts.

Jo-Anne McArthur, 2014

The first time I heard Brian Kateman speaking about reducetarianism was on his Tedx Talk. Kateman starts off his monologue by talking about several low-level environmentally friendly acts he makes daily (recycling, bringing his bag to the store, etc.) then asks, “What if I told you that I make a more difficult sacrifice for our planet? What if I told you that I am…a vegan?”

He grins as he pauses, looking around at the audience (who supposedly are reacting with some kind of disgust or discomfort). Then he explores what he thinks is happening in the audience for awhile. After apparently making the audience extra uncomfortable due to the fact that he is a vegan, and after going over all the reasons why veganism is actually a good thing, he exclaims, “Well, as it turns out, I am not a vegan…phew! I’m sorry to all the vegans in the room who have lost one of their own. And to the rest of you, well you can safely take a deep sigh of relief knowing that I am a carnivore just like you.”

Let me pause here for a moment. I sincerely hope no reader needs an explanation that humans are not carnivores. No matter how much a person loves eating the cooked and seasoned flesh of another animal, we humans simply do not fall under that classification. There may be room to argue whether we are naturally omnivorous or herbivorous, but no scientist anywhere would ever call Homo sapiens an obligate carnivore. Unfortunately, I do hear this quite a bit though, i.e., humans being referred to as carnivores. I am not sure if it is just a “cool” thing for people to say since we seem to, as a species, have something like carnivore envy. People who love to eat flesh tend to use it as a sort of badge of honor, fancying themselves predators, etc. I do wish vegans would stop referring to other humans as carnivores, e.g., “My husband is a total carnivore,” but enough about that for now.

Kateman’s Ted Talk was called, “Ending the battle between vegans, vegetarians, and everyone else.” For someone who says they want to end that battle, someone who wants to bring everyone onto his reducetarian ark, I find this a strange way to begin. Right from the start, he puts vegans into a category of “people-who-make-other-people-cringe.” In fact, vegans even seem to make him uncomfortable, although he does go on to say something along the lines of, “Some of my best friends are vegan.”

To be fair, in the July 28, 2018 interview on the Our Hen House podcast, Kateman said that he continues to learn from his conversations with vegans, and although he has not arrived there personally yet, he has said he aspires to be vegan (but also he doesn’t actually believe anyone can be vegan so… well, it is confusing).

Kateman, after explaining all the reasons why eating less or even no meat is better for basically everything (environment, health, other animals) he ponders about why 90% of Americans continue to eat meat even while knowing all the facts. Another dramatic pause, and then he answers his own question- “Bacon!” The audience laughs, and Kateman waxes romantic for a while about the smell, sizzle, and crispiness of bacon that “gives us a reason to smile.”

He has already assumed in his talk that most of us know that this bacon comes from an animal who is smart and feels pain and fear just like we humans do and who has been treated terribly, yet he still feels that it is something that is fine to joke about with his audience. And guess what? The audience seems to relish this. How is this? We humans can look directly at the suffering and completely unnecessary killing of an intelligent, sensitive being who wishes to live and instantly laugh about part of their body tasting so good and bringing such pleasure to us. And if it were a nervous laughter, I think that would be more appropriate. But it does not seem that it is. It is just plain old laughter… nothing like a good old guilt-distributing bonding moment.

photo by Jo-Anne McArthur, 2017, Farm Sanctuary

Fast forward to the aforementioned episode of the Our Hen House podcast~ having had a couple of conversations myself with Kateman regarding his talk and knowing that he seems willing to evolve, I was hoping for some forward-movement in his thought. While I would not say his messaging has not changed at all, I continue to see some troubling recurring themes and some confusion with Kateman’s explanation and understanding of exactly what veganism is.

He also regularly reminds us that we are 99% in agreement about the fact that things like factory farming are horrible, and asks us to focus on that “common ground” in order to make the world a better place for all of us, humans and other animals, and the environment. While I understand the sentiment and often look for common ground in my conversations with others, this one reminds me a little bit of the thing I hear so often from non-vegans, i.e., they will respect the way I eat and want me to respect the way they eat. However, no can do. There are lives at stake and while I can respect and love the person, I simply cannot respect the act of deliberate and avoidable killing for the sake of sensory pleasure.

Why Not Just Be Vegan?

In the Our Hen House interview, Mariann Sullivan cautiously assumed that Kateman was a “vegan or mostly vegan.” He explained that he doesn’t call himself a vegan due to the fact that veganism, for him, “connotes perfection.” It is very tricky to understand exactly what he means by that. He claims that he does not see veganism as personal purity himself, but that he thinks that is what most people feel when they hear the term.

My sense is that there are several influential people, including Kateman, who continue to dangle that concern out there regularly and that this is perhaps a part of the perception problem. Maybe those of us who feel deep gratitude for the movement that is veganism should start to speak positively about it to others rather than continuing to shore up negative stereotypes or reactions about vegans and veganism.

As Sullivan mentions in her interview, many vegans tend to hold strong views about the rights of other animals and are therefore put off by the concept of asking people to simply reduce their contribution to violence against them. They are dismayed hearing animals’ body parts and secretions consistently referred to as “products,” a term used by Kateman many times during the OHH interview.

In her groundbreaking book, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist/Vegetarian Critical Theory, Carol J. Adams utilizes the term “absent referent” to describe the animals behind the “products.”

“Through butchering, animals become absent referents. Animals in name and body are made absent as animals for meat to exist…Without animals there would be no meat eating, yet they are absent from the act of eating meat because they have been transformed into food.” [1]

Through our language, we either uphold or we resist the creation of the absent referent. Whether we find ourselves on common ground with the reducetarians regarding our desire that humans stop torturing animals, the distinction is a big one, and one that doubtfully any serious animal rights activist is going to ignore.

In the OHH interview, Kateman states that veganism actually just means kindness. If that were the case, it seems fairly simple and straightforward to achieve without all these interim steps. I see veganism as more of a social justice movement, and in social justice movements there is no reason why we cannot present the goal we really want while we also celebrate steps along the way.

Hearing Kateman state in the interview that no vegan is 100% vegan made me think of this video from Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Can You Be 100% Vegan? (Spoiler: Yes)

“I am 100% vegan because, by definition, being vegan means, I’m making a conscious effort to not contribute to the suffering and violence against animals where I have the power to do so. Imperfection is built into the definition of being vegan. Now I live by this intention. I live by this desire, by this conscious effort, right? — 100%. If I lived by this intention 50%, I’d be making excuses for my behavior. I’d be making compromises. I would be lazy, or I would cheat. But in my intention to not hurt anyone as far as I can help it, I succeed 100%. I can safely say that I accomplish this every day. I never fail to not want to hurt anyone. I always want to not hurt anyone. I always want to make the most compassionate choices…” ~ Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

What Should Vegans Focus On According to the Kateman?

Kateman goes on to say, “I think perhaps vegans spend too much time worrying about these small, local farmers. Anything that’s not factory farming is something that either should be celebrated or just left alone.” “Celebrate” exploitation and slaughter as long as it’s carried out in more palatable and aesthetically pleasing settings? But this is simply not an acceptable attitude when looking at the world through vegan eyes. The vegan goal is not to simply cut back on the suffering and death of sentient beings. Vegans are trying to shift the whole paradigm away from using other beings for human ends at all. Many of us see a focus on factory farming practices as simply not addressing the core problem with our long held anthropocentric belief in human supremacy.

Whether or not factory farming is a “worse” way to exploit animals for food, and it certainly is, this does not mean we need to shift the focus away from ending animal exploitation. At this point, vegans make up a very small percentage of the overall population. If we put our focus on factory farming only, do we not perpetuate humane-washing and betray the very nature of our movement, and in turn betray those for whom we are fighting?

photo by Jo-Anne McArthur, 2010 Dairy Veal Farm

Shouldn’t We Celebrate Positive Steps?

In a word, yes. As a vegan myself, I am on the same page as Brian when he talks about celebrating people who reduce their consumption of animal parts and secretions. Whenever I meet someone who tells me they are eating less “meat,” or trying more plant-based meals, I always encourage them and excitedly cheer them on.

At the same time, I do not understand the reducetarian ideal that we should ask for less than what we actually want. There is actually no good, peer-reviewed study that answers the question about what works better in the long run in bringing about a vegan world. Casey Taft addresses this problem in his book Motivational Methods for Vegan Advocacy: A Clinical Psychology Perspective.

“There is simply no actual research demonstrating that this approach, asking others to ‘cut down on’ animal use, is any more effective than asking others to go vegan according to any metric…”[2]

If we wish for a vegan world, and Kateman claims he does, I would argue that we should be honest and authentic and ask for people to aim for a vegan ethic. If they don’t become vegan right away, that is their decision. They are, of course, free to move in the direction of veganism at whatever incremental way suits them. Again, there is no evidence that they will move more quickly toward veganism by asking them to eat less meat, or that they will just abruptly stop trying to eat less meat altogether if we dare mention our hope for a clear vegan end goal.

Does Finding Common Ground Mean We Need Non-Animal Rights Advocates to Speak at Animal Rights Events?

Kateman was invited to speak at the Animal Rights Conference in 2018. I suppose this is a way to bring more people into the AR fold, but since Kateman doesn’t actually promote animal rights in any way, I do not know why he would be there as a speaker — an attendee maybe, but a speaker? I have been generally confused as to why animal rights proponents would promote this approach, or how anyone writing articles about how to go vegan would promote that book out of the hundreds of excellent books available that actually point people toward a vegan lifestyle, something that goes way beyond simply cutting down on our consumption of other animals’ bodies.

Will the Reducetarian Approach Get us to a Vegan World Quicker?

Will Brian Kateman’s Reducetarian organization make people go vegan? It would be a surprise if it did, since the organization does not promote veganism, and actually pokes fun at the people in the movement and the victims for whom we are fighting. In the rhetoric of reducetarianism, other animals are made into body parts and secretions and then become the butt of jokes.

Veganism is a social justice movement, and reducetarianism lies on the other end of the social justice spectrum, i.e., justice for others isn’t addressed at all. Even Kateman, who says he thinks veganism is the ultimate form of reducetarianism, has not become vegan! If folks become vegan, it seems unlikely that Kateman’s ideas will be what got them there.

In his Ted Talk, when Kateman asked the audience who among them have already reduced their meat eating, just about everyone raised their hand. Then Kateman told them, “You are all reducetarians!” If everyone is already a reducetarian, how does this idea change anything at all? Mission already accomplished!

On the other hand, a paradigm shift toward veganism will take a lot of work from a lot of tireless, dedicated activists, but a shift toward a vegan world will make all the difference in the world for non-human and human animals, and as a side benefit will improve the environment and very likely improve human health. The goal of a global vegan shift is a radical idea, indeed, but it is a worthy and beautiful goal toward which to aim. Let us not forget that many of the things we accept in today’s world were at another time viewed as radical and even laughable ideas.

References:

Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, 20thAnniversary Edition. The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc. NY, NY, 2010. Book.

King, Barbara “Should Ethical Eaters Unite Around A Goal To Eat Fewer Animals?” Online Article. National Public Radio, Inc. April 13, 2017

Patrick-Goudreau, Colleen (2015, February 12) Can You Be 100% Vegan? (Spoiler: Yes) (Video File) Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2cxE29_e8E

Sullivan, Mariann. “Episode 446: Brian Kateman.” Our Henhouse. Podcast audio. July 28, 2018

Taft, Casey Motivational Methods for Vegan Advocacy: A Clinical Psychology Perspective. Danvers, MA. Vegan Publishers. 2016. Book.

TedX Talks. (2014, December 8). Ending the battle between vegans, vegetarians, and everyone else. Brian Kateman. TedXCuny (Video File) Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJJtRWFL_gw&lc=UghT8kIZZVts_HgCoAEC

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Images courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur www.weanimalsarchive.org

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[1]Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat p. 66

[2]Motivational Methods for Vegan Advocacy: A Clinical Psychology Perspective p. 30