by Enbion Micah Aan

English /// 中文
Photo Credit: YouTube screenshot

FAMOUS TAIWANESE Youtube influencer, Chang Chih-chyi, made a video about Veganism that is, at best, a shallow attempt at explaining what Veganism is, at worst, a gross misrepresentation. Chang is a top-five Youtuber in Taiwan, and this video has generated more than 120,000 views at the time of writing.

Chang’s Youtube exploits should be considered no more than video version of the so-called ”lazy packets” (懶人包), which is a popular format to summarize news events, controversies, ideas, and topical issues. These types of videos are meant to be introductions to topics and do not explore any ideas in depth. However, even with this low bar, Chang still managed to completely miss the point of Veganism. It appears that Chang did not even simply read the Wikipedia entry on the subject matter, but because the Lazy Packet was so lazily made, Chang’s reliance on ideological prejudice makes it a great text for discussion. Due to lack of research (by which, I mean, again, to simply read the first thing that pops up when you Google the word, “Veganism”), he was only capable of discussing Veganism from the point of view of mainstream ideology, only citing sources that do not differ from his viewpoints.

The video in question

Throughout the video, one senses Chang’s hostility towards Veganism in his misrepresentation of the ideas. But Chang is not alone in this, as his views are the norm in society at present. The video starts out with the example of 3 vegetarians—Adolf Hitler, alongside Rene’ Descartes and Benedict Cumberbatch. Using Hitler should immediately tell us this “Introduction to Veganism” was made with a clear bias. The insult is clear—with the suggestion that vegans are white supremacists or fascists. Whether Hitler was a vegetarian or not is clearly not the issue at hand, and he is by most accounts, not a vegetarian.

This has not prevented it from being quite common for vegans to encounter non-vegans’ dismissal for serious concerns for animal welfare, the environment and health, by simply yelling “Hitler was a vegetarian!”. This happens so frequently, it is sort of a rite of passage for a vegan to be compared to Hitler. In fact, an entire book was written just to debunk this myth. And obviously, the mass murder that Hitler was responsible for would violate basic tenets of veganism (or Vegetarianism), as humans, too, are also animals. And whether or not Hitler was a vegetarian is obviously unimportant in regards to the core issues that vegans care about—animals, health, and the environment—using Hitler to insult vegans and insinuate vegans are “wrong” is just another example of how dominant ideologies seeks to rationalize and justify itself.

Rene Descartes also proves a problematic figure to use as an example of a vegetarian, Descartes is a highly disliked scientific/historical figure in the vegan community since he was the scientist whom Peter Singer singled out in his foundational text, Animal Liberation. Descartes regarded animals as machines, and publicly performed vivisection on dogs without anesthesia:

“Descartes believed that animals were no more than organic automata. He contended that they were incapable of feeling pain or emotion, and that they were more akin to machines than living beings. In the 1600s, Descartes put this theory on open display. He and his assistants would conduct public demonstrations in which they vivisected and tortured conscious animals—often dogs. As the animal subjects writhed and cried out in apparent agony, Descartes would tell onlookers not to worry. The movements and sounds, he insisted, were no more than programmed responses. The animals were not really in any pain.”

Chang used two very problematic examples of “vegetarians” to start his video, when there is a huge list of other vegetarians and vegans that he could have picked. While it is possible that it was simply a lazy attempt at listing examples, the coincidence seems unlikely when there are many more uncontroversial figures to pick from. Why not, for example, list Mary Shelley, Albert Einstein, and Benedict Cumberbatch? 

After the problematic introduction, Chang immediately defines Veganism in the aforementioned dual-ideological way of only talking about consumption (capitalism) with the underlying implication that vegans are not “normal” (carnism). ”vegans insist that they do not eat any food related to animal products….even honey… They avoid using products that exploit animals as well. For example, they do not wear leather or support circus performances with animals. They do not purchase makeup products that are experimented on animals, etc.”

While Chang’s description here is not completely wrong, he is merely describing vegans as consumers, and he only papers over and does not care to explain why vegans make such choices in any substantial way. Though Chang is not alone here, as ideology makes sure that many people only understand vegans in the way that the understanding conforms to ideological stance. This point of view is only possible when one is only able to define vegans as a subset of market consumers, from the dual-ideology of capitalism and carnism. Here, for the sake of clarification and simplicity, I will just define vegans as people who reject the commodity status of animals. I would also like to mention that Chang here is actually being quite manipulative from the outset—he asserts vegans do not eat any food that is “related” to animals—this rather subtle wording is rather easy to miss. Plants do not live in some sort of animal-free bubble after all—and he later uses this impossible standard to attack veganism.

The video then explains the modern vegan movement has its roots in Donald Watson. This is only partially true. Watson’s importance was that he founded The Vegan Society and coined the term “vegan”. While Watson was not an insignificant figure, he was hardly the lone individual who set the intellectual foundation for modern Veganism. The idea of abstaining from meat-eating has existed for a very long time. For example, in Greek myth, Orpheus, one of the most significant and beloved figures in ancient Greek culture, was an animal lover and refused to eat meat. It is much more accurate to see modern Veganism as a culmination of past traditions and ongoing philosophies, such as Pythagoras, the aforementioned Orphic tradition, Plutarch and Seneca during Roman times, Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, Jeremy Batham, and Emanuel Kant, and contemporary discourses by likes of Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Carol Adams, and Melanie Joy. To water down a rich human tradition into the one individual who coined the term “vegan” is intellectually unsound, even in the context of a Lazy Packet.

The video then explains how Taiwanese chunshu (純素) differs from Veganism from the West. Chang here explains that dietary difference is that Taiwanese chunshu does not allow for the five aromatics (五辛). Here, showcasing his rather ideological sensibility again, Chang also asserts that Veganism is a lifestyle, and vegans also avoid other animal products in non-food items—and bizarrely, he claims that the vegan diet includes five types of diets: raw vegan, high carb low-fat vegan, fruitarian, pegan, and freegan.

Photo credit:  YouTube screenshot

The plant-based whole food diet, the diet most vegan health professionals advocate is not mentioned. Instead, Chang decides to talk about obscure and sub-category dietary restrictions, even including freeganism, which is not a diet.

Freeganism is not a diet since its core philosophy is not to participate in the capitalist system as much as possible, so a freegan, for example, would squat instead of paying rent. The most well-known activity of freegans is dumpster diving. I myself have participated in freeganism, as well as gone dumpster diving, on a weekly basis. But if you watch the video, you will see that freegans are not Vegans, as many of the rescued items were, in fact, animal products. Freegans are too small a group for researchers to conduct a statistical model, and based on personal experience, but I can say most of my freegan friends are actually not vegans. In fact, it is actually quite emotionally difficult for vegans when finding tremendous amounts of animal products in the trash—after all the profound misery the animals have to endure and pollution these products generated, the animal flesh just ends up in the trash.

The video also critiques “vegan lifestyle” on the basis of class. Chang first attacks corporations for offering and promoting vegan options in their restaurants since “vegan food costs less than meat but sells at about the same price as meat products” and then immediately contradicts himself and asserts here that only rich and middle-class people can afford to go vegan: ”The vegan movement becomes only a choice for people in the upper and middle class. Now we should first tackle the notion of whether or not being a vegan is simply a lifestyle. The answer would be yes, if you are only capable of looking at what Veganism is from a capitalistic perspective and would like to market vegan-friendly products, and this is precisely the position Chang takes. This is akin to saying being “left” is a lifestyle, as apparel companies rush to produce Marxist-themed T-shirts.

We can now tackle the notion that Veganism is a class-based phenomenon. First, the article cited by Chang’s team to prove that Veganism is a solely middle and upper-class phenomenon does not actually make such a claim. The article does mention that vegan products are more expensive than animal products—this is probably where Chang extrapolates and expands the idea into that Veganism is some sort of class warfare. All vegans have to be confronted by the notion that vegan foods are more expensive than meat. It is a rather strange argument since anyone with access to supermarkets or any food market can easily conclude that vegetables are almost always cheaper than meat. Encountering the phenomenon of non-vegans only choosing to look at specialty products such as mock meat and exotic mushrooms and then claiming that a vegan diet is expensive is yet another rite of passage for vegans. If a person changes their meat diet to the aforementioned whole food plant-based diet, again, the most advocated diet by vegan health professionals, and the most healthy vegan diet, one’s grocery bills could actually decrease significantly.

Then Chang bizarrely asserts how meat is an important source of food from the perspective of world hunger and how rich vegans have resources to help animals, but there are a lot of people suffering from malnutrition who do not receive the same level of aid. Chang subsequently goes into defending animal agriculture on the basis that there are “areas that are extremely dependent on” animal agriculture and would not be able to survive without animal agriculture. Even more bizarrely, Chang speaks of a hypothetical situation where a vegan goes to such a nation to confront someone who raises sheep, to lecture the people about not killing animals, not riding horses, etc. These people would, he said, “feel very uncomfortable”. The carnist and capitalist prejudice here is quite self-evident since all the assertions are based on the strangest assumptions—clearly evidence or logic matters little.

When it comes to world hunger, it is a pretty well-known fact that plant-based diets are a more efficient way of feeding people—the notion that plants are a more efficient source of energy is actually intuitively true, it is not hard to understand this, since crops need to be grown to feed animals, and then meat needs to be frozen and refrigerated, when we could simply grow crops for human consumption, to begin with. Moreover, while it is true that some economies that rely on animal agriculture could have a hard time if everyone goes vegan, the hyperbolic hypothesis that every single human going vegan immediately is so unlikely that the scenario is quite fantastical. Even if a “Vegan World” would be created, it is unlikely to happen so suddenly that an entire economy tanks overnight. Most likely, such a hypothetical scenario would take decades if not centuries, and the gradual process of a global transition to Veganism would most likely result in economies adjusting to accommodate new ways of living. Again, all these obvious facts are ignored and fantasies are used as serious arguments because Chang, instead of presenting facts, is exhibiting his ideological bias. I must again stress that Chang could have simply Google the word “Veganism” and read the first entry, but he chooses not to.

The video goes on the assert that plant foods also negatively affect the environment and harm animals. This is not strictly wrong, but the obvious issue here is that Chang failed to compare the environmental impact of plant foods and animal products. Even the worst possible example Chang could come up with, almond milk, is still far more environmental than cow’s milk in terms of carbon emission, water usage, and land use. Chang here also talks about the plight of bees in the production of almonds, and uses this as an example that by vegan’s own standards, vegans can’t eat any agricultural products that require bees to pollinate.

It is not unusual for vegans to encounter many bizarre instances where non-vegans wish to uphold and enforce their conception of vegan standards on vegans. It is a fascinating phenomenon since the non-vegan would have no interest in becoming a vegan, yet they’d like to enforce their standards on vegans. Here, Chang is doing exactly that when he suggests that vegans should not eat agricultural products that require bees to pollinate: “…the problem with almond milk, is not an exclusive issue to almonds. There are many many agricultural products that need the help of bees to pollinate. By vegans’ own standards, I am afraid that they can not eat these, either.“

Issues with almonds are quite well-known, so many vegans do try to avoid almond milk. Chang could have simply stopped at that point, but to suggest that vegans should not eat any plants that are “related to animals” is absurd. Plants and animals do not live in separate bubbles and have evolved to be interdependent, as both plants and animals need each other to survive. One of the contentious plant foods is, for example, figs, as mother wasps would crawl inside figs to lay eggs and die, and the fig would break down the wasp. The figs need the wasps to pollinate, and the wasps need the fig to lay eggs.

Photo credit:  YouTube screenshot

So vegans do debate amongst themselves about this symbiosis and decide when it is appropriate to eat certain things. This is the intellectual territory I would consider to be highly technical and usually in a gray area, as there would be many complex relationships and factors that have to be considered. It should be obvious that such debates and considered choices do not obliterate the core values of Veganism, that is, rejection of the commodity status of animals, and attempts to minimize animal suffering, environmental degradation, and harm to health. But for Chang, vegans’ actual position on the matter is completely irrelevant, as a non-vegan, he defines these dogmatic and impossible standards for vegans. Certainly, intensive farming is a real issue that impacts the environment, but again, here, Chang failed to compare the environmental impact of plant agriculture to the environmental impact of animal agriculture.

Chang asserts that vegans purchase petroleum products to replace animal products, but it does not seem eco-friendly to do so. What product is he talking about here? He does not go into specifics, but the only product that came to mind of is leather. Plant-based leather, such as Pinatex and Mylo, is becoming more common, and faux leather is actually more eco-friendly than leather, according to a 2017 report. Moreover, the notion that vegans would use more plastic than non-vegans is based on ideological prejudice rather than reality. Just this summer, for example, there was a vegan festival in Banqiao, and the organizers made it a rule that disposable plastic containers would not be allowed in the event, and that customers would have to bring their own containers.

In the conclusion of his video, Chang says, “It’s almost impossible to be 100% vegan!” This, of course, is, again, by his own ideological conception of vegan standards, viewing vegans only as consumers and imposing an impossible anything-related-to-animals-is-off-limits standard.

What Chang interprets as “Veganism” has very little to do with what vegans actually think and do in the real world—it is quite strange that the fact that vegans actually exist and have thoughts of their own does not seem to matter to Chang at all. Bizarrely, in this section, after having critiqued the vegan movement in the shallowest and yet strongest of ways, he contradicts himself and goes on to endorse Veganism, claiming that there are still many advantages to eating a vegan diet, and suggests that people should try to at least eat vegan diets on a part-time basis, as it is a great start for animal welfare, the environment, and health.

Knowing Chang’s reach as a YouTuber and, keeping in mind that Veganism is a relatively new movement in Taiwan, Chang’s video proves a gross misrepresentation of Veganism. Thankfully, even a quick Google search could have cleared up many of the shortcomings of the video.

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