A nice-looking wild oyster bed on the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina. (Photo by Joe Brent on Flickr). By contrast, many commercial beds are just acre after acre of metal cages.
There’s a lot of noise on the internet today about Christopher Cox’s “Consider the Oyster” which carries the slug/page title “It’s OK for vegans to eat oysters” and the subhead “Why even strict vegans should feel comfortable eating oysters by the boatload.”
Cox’s basic thesis is that oysters don’t feel pain and that commercial oyster production/harvesting is far more ecologically friendly than most other industrial food production. He goes out of his way to say that oysters are sustainable for food use in a way that clams and mussels are not. He gets a qualified endorsement from Peter Singer. One can certainly argue with these things, but he’s basically done his homework. Except for seeming to have no clue what it means to be vegan.
When I became a vegan, I didn’t draw an X through everything marked “Animalia” on the tree of life. And when I pick out my dinner, I don’t ask myself: What do I have to do to remain a vegan? I ask myself: What is the right choice in this situation? Eating ethically is not a purity pissing contest, and the more vegans or vegetarians pretend that it is, the more their diets start to resemble mere fashion—and thus risk being dismissed as such. Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
The only way for me to read this is that Cox doesn’t know what “vegan” means. He never became a vegan, and needn’t worry himself over remaining a vegan. Because of our very consistency (foolish or not) there’s no gray area for vegans when it comes to eating animals. Cox is trying to be ethical about his consumerism, and that’s great. I just don’t understand how the hell anyone thinks the way he’s going about it can be described as any form of veganism. It isn’t.
Vegans do not knowingly/willingly/actively consume or purchase any part or bodily product of an animal that was taken from a living animal or for which an animal was killed. (I know that’s a lot to pack into a sentence, but there it is. End of story.) You can argue that this isn’t the most constructive approach to ethical consumerism, as Peter Singer does. But Peter Singer does not claim to be vegan, nor does he endorse the point of view that eating oysters can ever be vegan.
Cox makes some worthy arguments. I’m sure eating local oysters is (in an immediate, direct sense) more environmentally friendly than, say, eating vegan fake meat shipped from a factory halfway around the world. But that’s neither here nor there in regards to veganism.
He relates how his editor told him “I won’t lie—you’ll be attacked viciously for being a vegan, and attacked equally viciously for not being a strict enough vegan.” Both of her concerns are beside the point. As to the first, of course meat-trolls will jump at any mention of veganism on the web. As to the second, it’s not that he’s not a strict-enough vegan. It’s that he’s not even remotely vegan, by any definition. If you want to argue about strict-enough-veganism, discuss the ethics of riding on a leather seat or accepting animal-based medicine in the emergency room. Not eating fucking meat.
To Cox’s credit, he does say: “Because I eat oysters, I shouldn’t call myself a vegan. I’m not even a vegetarian. I am a pescetarian, or a flexitarian, or maybe there’s an even more awkward word to describe my diet.” Great! So then why did he and/or his editors plaster “vegan” all over the top of the piece and e-mail us (and presumably other vegan publications) with “thought you might enjoy an essay we published today on why it’s ethically OK for even strict vegans to eat oysters.”
I’d fully understand Cox saying he’s vegan in various situations as a shorthand to getting a better meal or whatever. (For years before I was vegetarian, I knew saying I was one would often get me fresher, more palatable food in institutional settings and airplanes.) But that’s a different from stating it in the lede of an essay in a very prominent web magazine. Slate is either being stupid or cynically trying to rile people up. Or, I worry, both.
It’s fair enough for Cox to say is that veganism can become disconnected from the reasons some people become vegans. But if a person starts eating eggs from backyard chickens, or knowingly consuming a modicum of butter, or eats vegan for only part of the day, they aren’t vegan, let alone strict ones.
Deciding to be vegan means you prioritize the avoidance of animal products over other concerns. That’s not what Cox is doing. Whether or not he considers himself vegan (I honestly can’t tell), his claiming so prominently that his oyster-eating has anything to do with veganism just muddies the waters in a way that works against the causes he means to advocate.