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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Just How Compassionate Are "We," Really? The Brooke-and-Fur Controversy

Two vastly different types of "vegan" news were all over the internet yesterday.  One, Psychology Today wrote about a study claiming to find proof that vegetarians and vegans are more compassionate than omnivores; more areas of their brains (compared to omnivores' brains) appear to react (MRI tests) to images of both animal and human suffering.  You can find the article at the link above. Predictably, vegans and vegetarians and organizations like PETA "tweeted" and "shared" this information widely, as proof that "we" are better than all you "stupid" omnivores and, of course, didn't we know that all along?

And the wording of their tweets and shares was about that compassionate, by the way, as were the comments that followed said tweets and Facebook posts.

Alongside that information was the tidbit of news that Brooke Shields was quoted as saying,   "Wearing fur may be associated with something grandmotherish. Something you wear when you visit the opera, or if you are a rock star and wears it inside out. But I will advocate that both my generation and the younger generation can wear fur".  This was EVERYWHERE yesterday, but if you want evidence, go to PETAthe original article, twitter (just search for her), or ecorazzi.com

Now, I *totally* disagree with Brooke Shields' choice to wear fur.  TOTALLY.  (Read my review on the fur trade documentary Skin Trade if you don't believe me.) But if we vegans and vegetarians are so compassionate -- so evolved in our empathetic responses to people and animals -- should "we" be expressing our disgust at Brooke's choices with the following words?  (There were, of course, plenty of people who did NOT use these types of words, but the following posts are but a brief selection of the harsh and cruel words aimed at Brooke yesterday on the internet; I have left all spelling and grammar and punctuation errors as they were originally written.)


Brooke shields, this is why you're some dumb ass jobless fucked up bitch! (Twitter)

What an asshole. (Twitter)

I didn't dream about anally electrocuting animals on fur farms, but apparently Brooke Shields did. (PETA writer)

Brooke Shields is SCUM. Seriously, this fading siren is resorting to animal abuse to stay in the limelight. Pathetic! (comment on the PETA blog)

I hope you never have a peaceful nights sleep again you washed up old fur hag. (another comment on the PETA blog)

I would like to see her skinned alive and be worn all the time. (yet another comment on the PETA blog)

She need an electrical prod shoved up her ass!! (comment left on PETA's Facebook page)

She could make a fur coat with her eye brows although she doesn't need one with all the fat in her ass she can keep warm. (another comment from PETA's Facebook page)

When Brooke Shields dies and meets her maker, all those little animals will be standing there watching, as she falls down to HELL!  (ditto)

I could go on and on, but you get the picture:  those supporting animal rights and theoretically *so* much more compassionate than omnivores (who are assumed *not* to support animal rights) are hellishly rude and anything but compassionate in their treatment of Brooke Shields, who last I thought about it, is just another human being like the rest of us.  Flawed.  Capable of making some BIG mistakes.  Unfortunately, when she makes them, everybody knows about it. 

I'm SO glad I'm not famous.

My own tweet "to" Brooke (I actually hope for her sake she's NOT reading the crap posted on Twitter) was the following:  "You have disappointed me. Fur? Really? I *know* you can live without it and still look SMASHING. Watch Skin Trade."

I believe it is possible to raise awareness of atrocities such as those repeatedly seen in the fur industry without resorting to foul language or criticism of a person's career, physical attributes, intelligence, or age.  Granted, maybe all the above comments come from meat-eaters; I don't actually *know* for sure, but judging on the organizations they purport to support, it is a safe guess that quite a few of them put themselves out there both as animal advocates and as vegetarians, maybe even vegans. 

If "we" want people to believe that one of the benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet is increased compassion and less violence, we need to make sure that our words toward fellow human beings reflect those values. 

Even if our brains (rather predictably, given our philosophical commitments) fire up "more" than omnivores' brains when shown images of cruelty, we undermine the claim that we're so "nice" if we talk about people with so little regard for their personhood

I hope Brooke changes her mind.  And I hope if she does, people quietly applaud her and let her do so with grace, rather than with shaming criticism. 


  1. I agree with Joel ... very nicely done! This entry should be required reading for all vegans, vegetarians and omnivores.

  2. i feel like the words "vegans" and "vegetarians" generalize and take on a context meaning all. so i would have to say that for the extremists, it's a shame they are responding this way. it misrepresents vegans. it's strange, i must live a in a bubble or w/i a select circle because i have never come across a vegan or vegetarian who behaves in the manner that these individuals are behaving. or maybe it's the publicity. you only see what is shown or what is advertised. sadness. it's like watching or reading ann coulter.

  3. Nicely done! I enjoyed this post. I think, culturally, we all have a long way to go when it comes to true expressions of compassion (regardless of the food we eat).

  4. Always such thought-provoking, well-written posts, Elaine!

    I feel that the anonymity of the internet has helped perpetuate a culture of "mean," and am so dispirited by the unintelligent, snarky remarks people feel the need to leave on all sorts of topics. Where has civility gone?

    As for fur, I think of the I Love Lucy episode when Lucy loves her mink coat so much she sleeps in it. But like the cigarettes she and Desi Arnaz smoked on the show and in commercials, we now know better about cigarettes (Desi Arnaz died of lung cancer), and we now know the truth about fur and the suffering it causes.

  5. I've always found that extremests tend to oversimplify complex ideas and meet disagreement with dogmatic ideaology that is, at best, logically rude and more often than not, simply dangerous.

  6. @Teacher Man: What are you talking about? (And I meant that in an "extremist", "dogmatic", and "logically rude" way.)

    Catherine is absolutely right. These comments are not evidence to contradict the study suggesting greater empathy in vegans and vegetarians, but FURTHER evidence of the absurdity of (most) online dialogue. Comment threads of the sort you cite generate nonsense, period. But it is a logical and empirical flaw to move from that evidence to offering a coherent challenge to the study cited.

  7. @Alex Melonas -- I think the entirety of your comment is directed at Teacher Man? Am I right? I think you misunderstood him, but I will let him decide if he wants to respond or not.

    If your comment, after the first sentence, was directed at me, then I am truly confused, but I'll try to address it anyway. I *was* using those comments to show how at least a slice of the vegan world feels justified in talking about people in a distinctly non-compassionate way -- and isn't that ironic, given the research cited?

    I don't understand at all your claim that "... it is a logical and empirical flaw to move from that evidence to offering a coherent challenge to the study cited". I was not attempting to offer a scientific challenge, but rather to point out that *public perception* of vegans/vegetarians often runs completely counter to what the study finds. We *should* want to act better.

  8. @Elaine: The flaw is using that "slice" (i.e. the comments) as evidence in any significant sense of what some vegans believe. Comment threads, especially large comment threads, breed absurdity of just the kind you cited. So to even mention those comments as evidence in any sense of a genuine "slice" of veganism is ridiculous.

    Furthermore, "public perception" believes "animal rights" = dog's get to vote. Who cares? Because the vegan challenge is paradigm-changing, it stands to reason that absurd and vapid "perceptions" will arise. Citing comments from a blog's thread to suggest anything of relevance about veganism is precisely what I am talking about.

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  10. I needed to edit the comment; dumb blogger doesn't let you edit, only delete and rewrite.

    I disagree. Two of the quotes were from quite prominent vegan activists (one from the PETA blogger and the one that said, "what an asshole"). The others were responding primarily to the PETA blogger. The PETA quote was re-tweeted by many people, suggesting that vegans and animal rights folks on twitter are OK with that kind of language.

    Sure, not every vegan or animal rights person is a) on the internet, or b) prone to such vile language. BUT! Those who are on social media sites do so presumably because they want to promote their cause/POV. We SHOULD care how they come across, because regardless of whether or not they are "official" representatives, they give others an impression that is less than wonderful. It's worth "our" time (or at least, mine) to criticize those who think the best way to proclaim "I disagree!" is to spew profanities and insults. And it's worth my time to point out that it was super IRONIC (laughable, even) that this news and these criticisms occured on the day the study of compassionate vegans came out.

  11. Hi Elaine:

    I am an "extremist" abolitionist vegan and I agree with the general thrust of your post.

    Vitriolic language is counterproductive in any setting or forum and especially so when it is spewed from the mouths of those who profess to concerned with the welfare or the rights of others.

    Violence is almost always wrong, whether in a physical, visual or verbal form, and we should all reject its use.

    As far as the study you mentioned, I do not consider myself as any more compassionate than the next person. I am vegan because it is the right thing to do, and because I am obligated to respect the rights of others.



Politeness is always appreciated.