* Disclaimer: This post is going to contain sweeping generalities, but I think they’re still valid and you’ll likely agree with my analysis here. I am criticizing the vegan and ‘alternative diets’ community on YouTube as well as the broader status of discourse in American society today; I think they are related and you may come to agree with me, too. I just felt I had to make this disclaimer because Mike, the other writer with The Reasoned Vegan often points out that in spite of my general complaints, there are credible and substantive channels and voices on YouTube. He is right, there certainly are, but they are few and far between the rest of the annoyance. However, I take his point and admit I am generalizing in this post. *
So, some of you may recall my post “Goodbye blogging. Hello YouTube.”, wherein I announced I was making a move to YouTube. Well, I did that, and I’ve been doing a sort-of alright job, but I want to come back to the writing world every now and again, where things are more serious and substantive. It will give me a dose of sensibility and real argumentation. YouTube is saturated with controversy, polemics, poorly structured arguments, and way too many opinions. I have this strong feeling that no one is actually serious about moving ideas forward, but rather about attracting views and seeming right, instead of seriously trying to make an argument for why he or she is right and someone else is wrong. I call that “truth-telling”, which is essentially matter-of-factly telling people why you’re right and they’re wrong.
This is the case with so many other subjects and it’s easy to just get used to it, but it’s especially disappointing when this happens with veganism. Veganism, and the broader discussions about animal cruelty and sustainability, are of dire importance. This is not simply some abstract theoretical concept that is interesting to think about or some diet to try out, it is much bigger than that. It’s the only thing I can think of that we can do that has so many positive effects, for ourselves, the animals, and the planet. Climate change, dramatic biodiversity loss (the sixth mass extinction), and threats about a post-antibiotic world, these are three major and widely known problems that are at stake today. There is no avoiding the magnitude and closeness of these problems any more, they deserve serious attention, discussion, and action. Because these problems are so severe and deserve seriousness, it’s shameful and unfortunate to see so many channels and voices do such an injustice to the cause.
What or Who Is the problem?
Many vegan channels unwittingly perpetuate stereotypes about vegans, like how we’re cultish, extreme, and/or irrational. There are channels that engage in public disruptions with their children, others make invalid or poorly structured arguments for veganism (like how humans are biologically disposed to being herbivorous), and many others make dubious arguments about the healthiness of veganism. This last point about the health-side of veganism is the most troubling because it’s not that clear and conclusive, but more so because it frames veganism in the worst way. The problem with framing veganism around health and nutrition is that it is the easiest line of argumentation to attract people to veganism, but it’s also the weakest reason, contributing to an unfortunate 70% of vegans who rescind their diets. We’ve been consistent at The Reasoned Vegan that there are so many other, better ways of veganism, such as Evan’s “Bulletproof Case for Veganism” or my argument about “The Two Virtues” of veganism.
Framing veganism in terms of health and nutrition also implies veganism is a dietary alternative, rather than the kind of comprehensive lifestyle and philosophical choice it really is. Conceiving of veganism as a diet is problematic and limiting because it lessens the depth, breadth, and nuance of being vegan. As I stated before, living a vegan life is way bigger than just adopting a plant-based diet; it’s also about making choices that result in fewer resources being senselessly depleted, fewer animals being needlessly subjugated and slaughtered, and taking a stand against the heinousness of the animal agriculture industry. This is a much stronger and more impactful purpose for veganism than it simply being an alternative diet to adopt.
Another implication of thinking of veganism as a diet is that it puts it in the same category as another vexing segment of discourse on YouTube about ‘alternative diets’, which is quite an active and frustrating cohort. ‘Alternative diets’ cover a wide range of opinions from extreme vegans like those who advocate for raw-vegan or fruitarian diets to food/nutrition pundits who just try-out diets to evaluate their efficacy to people who advocate for carnivore diets. This whirlwind of divergent, yet equally self-assured opinions opens up some deep and difficult epistemological questions (i.e. questions about what is truth and what makes it so), and this is the whole point of why getting into this area is so problematic and counter-productive.
Health and nutrition, in actuality, are very nebulous and complicated, this fact doesn’t seem reflected at all in the general discourse about these subjects. What we instead have is a confluence of voices talking about these subjects like they really understand them and how to apply them to our lives. To me, this is a flawed and arrogant illusion. The truth about health and nutrition is that they are far more nuanced, complex, and technical than most people give credit for (this is a complaint I made in a recent video). There is a lot of information and knowledge about these subjects, but not so much to use them to arrange the best diets for each of us or know how each chemical within the food affects our bodies in the short and long term. This has been reflected in discussions I’ve heard by Intelligence Squared and on the Science Magazine podcast, I encourage everyone to listen to both of them. The Science Magazine podcast was partly what inspired this piece (the other part was my contempt for discourse on YouTube); it was essentially about what is still being learned about the gut microbiome and how we are beginning to study how to use specific biotics to help to optimize our health. In conclusion here, we are far from certainty about the science of health and nutrition, even though we do know a lot and can generalize decently there is still more to be known. Yet, on YouTube, it seems like everyone has their own “truth” about the best diet and how it can solve whatever problem you’re having.
What’s the Problem with the Problem?
Of course, this problem didn’t begin on YouTube and it obviously occurs outside the context of the internet, but what’s different with YouTube is how active and booming the platform is. Anyone with an opinion, an internet connection, and a camera can post a video and be a voice in a concert of voices about a subject. This ability to be one with the pundits, compounded with the broader problems of disestablishmentarianism and mistrust of academia have the effect of making nonexperts seem just as credible, if not more credible, than experts and academics. This is fine enough, sometimes the ivory tower needs to be shaken-up and people need to seek information elsewhere, but once the gates are open, anyone is allowed in the field of legitimate beliefs, even people who advocate for eating raw meat and drinking raw milk. Free speech aside, this poses a major epistemic problem of determining what can be plausibly true and what is unbelievably untrue. It gets harder to sift through information to identify what’s plausibly true when fringe beliefs are considered in the same light as not-so-radical ideas, almost as if they have the same level of credibility and truthfulness. I don’t quite know what to do with this problem except for each of us to to be reasonable, logical, and serious about our analyses and conclusions, and review legitimate and valid information and research. This is something that will be explored in future discussions, but if anyone has input about this problem please comment to open the discussion further.
We need to be able to suss out what’s plausibly true in the discourse and it’s challenging because these subjects are incredibly difficult and highly nuanced, but another implication to be drawn from all my complaining is that this kind of discourse is best left to experts, academics and people with decent ‘know-how’ about health and nutrition, all of whom are more likely to be careful and within context about their analysis, argumentation, and conclusions. The technical and scientific complexity of these matters, the degree of uncertainty about their details, and the application of this information to individual lives necessitate someone who will be careful and within context about health and nutrition. Instead, many of the channels on YouTube take these matters into their own, largely unqualified hands and opine about what’s right and wrong, which is inappropriate and misguided.
It also seems to me that YouTube creates an information bubble in which people do their learning, research, and analysis primarily, if not exclusively, on YouTube. They find channels they believe to be credible, reliable, and meaningful and watch its videos to learn about a particular subject. They even find channels that advocate for opposing beliefs and build their arguments against something based on those channels. And I have a hunch that viewers don’t really fact-check claims made by whatever channels they’re watching, either, so everyone’s claims seem equally credible; unless of course it’s about something the viewer disagrees with, then it’s just wrong. This just feeds back into the epistemic problems I laid out, and it ultimately affects how people argue for or against something.
Why is this Problem a Problem?
Epistemic confusion is certainly a problem. Determining what is plausibly true is extremely important, especially in matters such as health and nutrition, which have serious implications for us. But what really is the big deal here? Like I said earlier, this issue didn’t begin with YouTube and it occurs outside of the internet, it’s been ongoing for who knows how long, so why does it matter now and when it involves veganism? Well, the first reason, as I argued earlier, is that the stakes are extremely high and worldly. We need to be focused on the problems of climate change, etc. because they’re becoming more severe each day and veganism, at least, exists as a potential answer to these challenges. The other reason is that with epistemic confusion and the slippery rationale of health, many people adopt a plant-based, vegan diet for the health and tend to give it up because it doesn’t make them feel optimally. I know I also went into this earlier, too, but I want to explore this further.
There has been a long pattern of dietary vegans who make videos promoting veganism and then make a video declaring they no longer vegan, but it seems to me that there has been a surge of these videos in the last few months. This obviously has implications for vegan advocacy because it gives the misimpression that veganism isn’t nutritionally sustainable, even though it’s incontrovertible that it can be. What’s worse is that it perpetuates the weakest ways of framing and thinking about veganism, which ignores the other, frankly more compelling and important reasons. Most abstractly, however, what it really does is perpetuates this low level of discourse and analysis, which is already bad enough but is especially negative in today’s age, where the very principles and foundations of logic and truth are undermined constantly.
That’s why at The Reasoned Vegan, we accomplish the dual-goal of a) giving people good reasons to go vegan and stay that way, and b) offering a level of seriousness and reasonableness that we should carry with us as we explore difficult topics for ourselves, whether it be about veganism or anything else. The importance of this is grave and significant, I just hope this can be reflected more broadly by the general public. I plan to make these complaints more specific on our YouTube channel and begin getting directly involved in the discourse on YouTube, please check it out soon for videos in which I address specific channels and arguments. This has been a long time coming, I have just been reticent to engage in the mucky pool of YouTube commentary until recently. With these complaints off my chest, I can enter the fray with a clear mind and a determination to bring in a sense of reasoned veganism