Are Pescatarians (and others) Allies?    


idealism vs pragmatism

I’ve been wondering how pescatarians fit (or don’t) within the vegan movement. Are they allies?  What about reducetarians, other semi-vegetarians and others? Scout and Evan have both weighed in, so I throw my hat in the ring as well.

Many social justice movements (particularly the LGBTQ movement) have taken on the term “ally” to describe those people that support the movement but are not part of the represented minority group. Does is makes sense for vegans to put sympathetic omnivores, semi-vegetarians and others in this same category? Veganism can be such an insular movement, that many people feel that even strict vegetarians are not truly down with the cause. We’ve argued against that view consistently here at the Reasoned Vegan and I think it’s clear that we need all the help we can get. It’s also demonstrably true that some omnivores could be enormously helpful for veganism. There is surely an omnivorous food scientist who has worked on making veganism palatable through mock meats and cheeses. The anonymous scientist might play a greater role in converting vegans than many activists. Others, who are not themselves vegan may go to protests, communicate about animal cruelty issues with their political reps, and alert their friends and families to the problems of animal agriculture.

Clearly some people deserve ally status, but what about pescatarians, vegetarians and reducetarians? The debate is always between congratulating people on taking small steps versus diluting our message. This is a delicate balancing act between two extremes.

How do we balance our idealism that says that veganism is vastly more ethical than other diets versus our pragmatism that says that we are a tiny minority and alienating non-vegans doesn’t work? How do we encourage people that take steps towards reducing their dependence on animal products without giving people the kind of watered down message that meatless Mondays can save the world?

Sometimes speaking honestly about a problem in general and combating that problem on the ground are two different things. I wish I could come up with a less incendiary example, but Sam Harris’s public stance on Islam is the first thing that comes to mind. In brief summary, Harris often speaks bluntly about the doctrines of Islam that present a unique challenge to secular liberal democracy. These problems include views on women, homosexuals, government, free speech and freedom of religion. It is sometimes pointed out that he’s not convincing any illiberal Muslims by telling them that their worldview is stuck in the seventh century and so his comments are counterproductive. This criticism misses the point because broad acknowledgement of a problem is a necessary first step before finding concrete ways to address it. Harris’s idea is that step one is to acknowledge those problems and step two is to encourage Muslim reformers to take the lead in winning hearts and minds.

Now what’s hard about being vegan is that we both have to play the role of Sam Harris speaking honestly about the problem (in this case, that pescatarianism doesn’t go far enough) and the role of the reformer convincing people on the ground. Although, Evan and Scout’s criticism of pescatarianism is largely well supported, I’m concerned about the repudiation of pescatarianism is not pragmatic. It’s not winning hearts and minds of people we need as allies. If we are critical, even hostile, to people that make overtures toward veganism, how does that make omnivores feel?  Maybe this is unfair to constantly ask every vegan to speak out of both sides of their mouth, but I feel we need to balance honesty and public relations.

Vegetarians and pescatarians get a lot of hate because they at least seem to acknowledge some part of the arguments for veganism, but don’t go whole hog (pardon the expression). To me, it’s neither surprising nor offensive that pescatarianism isn’t a consistent moral philosophy of eating. The view that pescatarians don’t go far enough is self-evident based on our identification as vegans; we wouldn’t be vegan if we thought eating fish was hunk dory.

It may seem like a lot hinges on the idea that fish is technically meat so the term is logically nonsensical, but this distinction exists so long as people think it exists. I’m even sympathetic to the idea that “meat” means land animals, not seafood. This is an old distinction that has roots in the Catholic church. (Although, the old story that the Catholic Church was part of a conspiracy to help out fisherman is probably apocryphal). Even if there’s no particular moral difference between seafood and meat, it feels different to people and that’s something vegans need to be aware of and perhaps even leverage. Aligning your food choices with morality is hard and pescatarians are not unique in their failure. I firmly reject Scout’s notion that we should get rid of the concept because it’s morally inconsistent. Words describe reality as it is, not as it ought to be.

At bottom, pragmatism is about taking what you can get. I suspect that pescatarians tend to be motivated by health, a motivation we’ve never fully embraced, but to whatever extent they may criticize the consumption of meat, I’m happy to have more voices on that front. If pescatarianism is an identity that keeps people away from consuming land animals, I’m happy for that small fact. There’s nothing wrong with honest, hard-hitting criticisms of practices we disagree with. However, we need to be very cognizant of the real danger of alienating those who may be sympathetic to vegan goals. Again, I feel we must take on the double burden of being public relations managers and honest representatives of our worldview.


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