New book by local author Laura Wright explores society’s views on veganism

LOOKING DEEPER: In her new book, The Vegan Studies Project, Western Carolina University professor Laura Wright examines and challenges modern cultural perceptions of the vegan identity. Photo courtesy of the author

In many circles, vegans have a bad rep. Often labeled as wack jobs, treehuggers or, gasp — pacifists! — the choice to be vegan tends to attract a lot of cultural judgment.

In his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain put it in these terms: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.”

Comparing a philosophy that’s based on nonviolence to a terrorist group seems apocryphal at best, but Bourdain isn’t alone; such opinions are not uncommon.

Laura Wright, head of the department of English at Western Carolina University — and vegan herself since 2001 — decided to get to the bottom of this often-vitriolic antiherbivore sentiment. The result was her new book, The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals and Gender in the Age of Terror.

The book discusses society’s view of the vegan identity, particularly in the post-9/11 world, and digs into pop culture, media, advertising and the myriad ways society has shaped its collective opinions.

“I wanted to write about veganism for a long time,” says Wright. “I think the thing that really did it for me was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Harold Fromm, a notable environmental literature professor. It was a complete takedown of vegans for being self-righteous and holier-than-thou. I thought, somebody needs to look at why this particular identity causes so much anger considering it’s basically an identity of peace.”

Wright’s assertion is that the post-9/11 world has created a more negative view of veganism, painting it as weak or unpatriotic.

“There was a backlash against anything perceived as un-American, and the American diet is very much made up of meat,” she says.

By offering a rigorous critique of cultural norms people often unquestioningly accept, Wright hopes her book will make people reevaluate what they think they know.

Wright will talk about her book during three appearances in Western North Carolina. On Sunday, Oct. 11, at 1 p.m., she’ll appear at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. Then on Thursday, Oct. 22, she’ll be at Firestorm Cafe & Books, and on Friday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m., Wright will take the stage at Malaprop’s Bookstore. Carol Adams, the renowned author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, will join her for the discussion at Malaprop’s.

In the end, Wright hopes her book can help people realize that what they think about vegans — or any other group that’s outside the mainstream — isn’t always a choice they’ve consciously made. “There are always a bunch of things that contribute to the way we think about people,” she says. “This is my attempt to look at a lot of the reasons that we think about vegans the way we do, and help people gain a broader understanding.”

 

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18 thoughts on “New book by local author Laura Wright explores society’s views on veganism

  1. Shirley Yamada

    A heartfelt *thank you* to author Laura Wright for her book, The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals and Gender in the Age of Terror. I hope it sells a zillion copies.

    I’ve been vegan since August 31, 2008. Every committed vegan knows their own date. We may backslide in the beginning, especially with desserts, but I don’t now.

    For the first 66 yrs of my life, I ate some form of animal, hanging on to fish, trying to give myself wiggle room, i.e. perhaps fish don’t have as many nerves & would suffer less. That got quashed quickly of course.

    One reads so many stories of people, usually women, who become vegan to get thin. They won’t last. If you can’t become vegan for some reason other than yourself, it’s bound to fail because veganism isn’t a diet. It’s more about living out your belief that we accept ourselves as no more important than any other species & we must try not to harm them wherever we can.

    And here we are with COP21 in a few weeks, all finally realizing that being at the top of the food chain has managed to destroy sentient life on earth in roughly 30 years. I could kick myself for being part of it.

    Now I have a few years left to try & make up for the deaths of all those animals I gave no thought to. I’m very grateful I’m allowed to try.

    Tell them, Laura, that kosher is not enough. Free range chickens are not enough. Each animal deserves to live its own life as much as possible without being eaten by us when it is not necessary at all.

    I like Alice Walker’s quote: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites, or women for men.”

    My thanks again,
    Shirley

    • Cynthia

      Thank you for this eloquent response. It’s true that people who become vegans for personal reasons are most likely to backtrack. For me, the health, environmental, and ending-world-hunger reasons are all very compelling; but ultimately, I cannot eat other creatures for ethical reasons. I would rather starve than eat my two precious kitties, and farmed animals are every bit as wonderful, each in their own special way. I love the Alice Walker quote you cited. Here are a couple of my favorites: Albert Einstein: “We shall need a substantially new way of thinking if humanity is to survive.” Comedian and now, with wife Tracey, farm sanctuary steward Jon Stewart: “It’s harder to eat meat when you know the animal’s name.” Biologist and author Jonathan Balcombe: “Animals are individuals with a biography, not just a biology.” Sociologist Anthony Giddens: “We are now living in a time beyond tradition, when it no longer matters that much where we came from, but what sort of future we feel we are part of.”

      • Yared Sharot

        Two Jewish men walked into a West Asheville bar.

        They now own it.

        Ba-dum pshhh…

    • Cynthia

      Of course *some*–even many–people in Israel eat meat. Israel is, however, as a percentage of the population the most vegan country in the world. The Israeli Army even makes vegan meals available to soldiers. This explosion of veganism and animal rights activism is a fairly recent phenomenon in Israel, but it is rapidly gaining momentum. See, for example, this video: https://www.facebook.com/gary.yourofsky/videos/824620014259915/?fref=nf . Interestingly, the most vegan city in the world is Berlin. If you do the math, consider the history that Germans and Jews share, and these two facts (the most vegan country and the most vegan city), I find, are very telling. Some day perhaps we shall say for the animals, “Never again!”

      • Cynthia

        I meant to include this link in my message above: “Israelis growing hungry for vegan diet” by Ben Sales (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 15, 2014; http://www.jta.org/2014/10/15/life-religion/israelis-growing-hungry-for-vegan-diet). Here’s a short teaser from the article: “. . . At nearly 4 percent of the country, activists say Israel has the highest per capita vegan population of anywhere in the world. And the trend appears to be accelerating. . . . A survey conducted in January found that 8 percent of Israelis are vegetarian and nearly 5 percent are vegan. Four years ago, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that just 2.6 percent of Israelis were vegetarian or vegan. . . . [O]n Monday, Tel Aviv’s second annual Vegan-Fest drew more than 10,000 attendees to a festival of food, crafts and music that organizers claim is the world’s largest. The makeup of the community is the biggest change,” said Omri Paz, founder of Vegan-Friendly, which organized the festival. “In the past, maybe they were more spiritual, or people society viewed as a little different, a little strange. A lot of the new vegans are mainstream — vegan lawyers, vegan teachers. Everyone can be vegan.”

  2. NFB

    How can you tell you just met for the very first time is a vegan? Don’t worry. He will tell you.

    • Big Al

      That a book had to be written to explain the negative backlash against vegetarians and vegans is ludicrous.

      It is very simple: meat eaters mid their own business, while vegetarians and vegans WILL NOT SHUT UP about their newfound religion and are the most obnoxious and self-righteous zealots to be found.

      • Cynthia

        “I don’t feel superior because I’m vegan. The truth is I am vegan because I don’t feel superior to others.” – Michele McCowan

  3. Cliff Bernstein

    Thank you for your book. I look forward to reading it. Carol Adams’ book The Sexual Politics of Meat inspired me years ago and I think an English professor is the ideal person to explore the topic because so much of the possibility of change is thwarted by by misappropriation of language and narrative.

  4. Libertie Valance

    Hannah, Glad to see this article on Laura’s exciting new book! I hope that you will consider amending your piece to include a third event in Western North Carolina. Laura will be speaking at Firestorm Books & Coffee (notably, a vegan business!) on Thursday, October 22 at 6pm. There is more information on our website at https://www.firestorm.coop/events/1638-vegan-studies-with-author-laura-wright.html or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/events/1664482097099107. Thanks!

    • Hannah

      Hi Libertie! Thanks SO much for letting us know! My editor will be adding your event to the piece. Love Firestorm! :)

  5. There is certainly nothing wrong with drawing attention to the environmental, health and other perceived benefits of a plant-based diet. The world will remain a better place (as a matter of opinion) if we succeed in reducing the impact man has upon his environment. That said, the vegan philosophy fails on at least two points. To begin, vegans, almost by definition, criticize hunting and fishing, even though wild game, taken in a sustainable manner from undisturbed lands, results in far less animal death and environmental degradation than does any agricultural product. Vegans overlook the wildlife deprived of habitat and left to starve as the result of establishing ag fields. Whereas hunting and fishing removes only the surplus of any wildlife species in a sustainable manner, leaving populations and habitat intact, agriculture destroys every single individual, of every species on the landscape. The second error common to many adherents is in assuming that any plant food is “good” for the simple reason that no animals are killed. Of course this is only true if one ignores the wildlife habitat destroyed, but it is also important to note that many crops are as destructive to grow and transport as is meat. We cite our interest in reducing pollution as motivation for eschewing meat, yet we never stop to consider the pollution generated in transporting our favorite vegetable items half-way across the globe to feed our own preferences. We acknowledge that meat requires too much land and other resources, yet never hesitate to consume nuts such as cashews or almonds that actually require more water to produce than does chicken.

    • Cynthia

      I appreciate a thoughtful comment such as this one. Let me try to respond in kind.

      Historically and still today in some parts of the world, hunting and fishing are part of a subsistence way of life. In that respect hunting and fishing can resemble natural predation in the wild. Predation, of course, occurs throughout nature, and there is typically a symbiotic relationship between the species involved. Predators strengthen the prey species by culling the weakest members (the ones that cannot run as fast, for example). Of course even subsistence hunting/fishing are different if they enable the human predator to cull, not the weakest, but the strongest members of the prey species. That risks weakening the genetic stock of the prey species over time. All that said, hunting and fishing for sport and not for subsistence are yet another matter altogether.

      In any case, hunting in the wild applies to only a very few people relative to the entire population of the US and the world. Most people do not have ready access to wild lands and heaven forbid if they did! We’d be ducking bullets every time we hiked a trail or climbed a mountain! And the wildlife population would be decimated.

      It’s true that a plant-based diet (of course!) requires farm land and transportation costs with their accompanying environmental impacts. But animal agriculture requires seven to ten times more resources and is far more destructive of the natural environment (water, soil, air [as in greenhouse gas emissions, transportation fumes, etc.], biodiversity, etc.) than does farming for a plant-based diet.

      So what are the options we’re left with? Do we all take up arms and go hunting at a time when animal products are no longer essential to a healthy diet? To me, the answer is self-evident!

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