Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Interview: Gary Smith, The Thinking Vegan

Interview by Tom Epler

Known to many in virtual vegandom as The Thinking Vegan, Gary Smith makes it a priority is to acquaint readers with animals' pain, suffering, and fear of death, regardless of how shocking and terrifying the awful truth of their treatment and slaughter can be.

Smith's website and associated Facebook and Twitter accounts are direct and unapologetically abolitionist. Not surprisingly, they sometimes draw scorn from non-vegans and vegans alike. Whether or not you agree with Smith's message or how he delivers it, in a society like ours where the consumption, use, and abuse of animals is the norm—and those of us who refuse to participate in it are a tiny minority—Smith's is a position we must, at the very least, consider, if not adopt and embrace.

New Vegan Age: Tell us about your childhood and teen years. What formative experiences with people and animals shaped the vegan activist you would become as an adult?

Gary Smith: I was born with cerebral palsy and have walked with an exaggerated limp my entire life. Being seen as “different” in the public is good practice for being a vegan. It also helped me to be more aware of the suffering of others. Other than that it’s hard to think of any formative experiences as a child or teen that shaped me as an animal rights activist. I was a pretty insufferable as a child.

In college I took a political science class. On the first day of class, he made a comment about how most of us were privileged, that our parents were paying for us to go there and that we were mostly the product of the white middle class. After getting over my initial rage at what he had said, I began to see the world differently. There was a shift in my thinking.

The next real shift was when I went vegan the first time. One night I heard a radio show in which the host mentioned “Diet For a New America.” I bought the book and started thumbing through the first few pages. I was horrified by the photos of pigs in crates and other images of animals in factory farms. I went vegan on the spot. I had no idea what I was going to eat, but I knew that I didn’t want to take part in the exploitation of animals.

That decision quite literally changed the way that I perceived the world. All of my long-held beliefs just sort of fell by the wayside. I saw politics differently. I saw the environment differently. I saw animals differently. I saw and experienced myself differently. My views and beliefs changed so rapidly that I became somewhat frightened. I went from feeling very stable in myself and how I perceived things, to being quite unstable.

Still in college at that time, I took a class on the study of nonviolence. I remember the first day of class very clearly. The professor put on a film about Gandhi and it was as if the world stopped. Everything that had been shifting, causing me to loose my footing, became clear. I went from being afraid and feeling crazy to being totally at peace.

I became very friendly with the professor and spent a lot of time discussing the world and nonviolence with him. I gave two lectures at a local community college and assisted him in researching a book he was working on about poverty. This is where my worldview was formed.

It would be a few years later that I would become focused, and dare I say obsessed, with suffering. My focus was on human suffering for years and then shifted more acutely to animal suffering. They both go hand in hand, of course, but my energy is mostly focused on animal rights because they don’t have nearly the amount of advocates working on their behalf.

NVA: You have a lot of followers, but you seem to work outside the bubble of [a] vegan celebrities, [b] the well-known vegans who associate with them, and [c] the "everyday vegans" who spend much of their time flattering them. Without that mainstream approval and exposure, how have people come to learn about you and your work?

GS: There are in fact a lot of vegans and activists who focus on veganism as a social justice movement rather than a consumptive, mainstreamed, pro-capitalist lifestyle. Many people don’t support the focus on veganism as a diet, as a way to lose weight or look prettier, as a way to manage a disease or other superficial or selfish reasons. They’re looking for kindred spirits and a community.

I think that people are finding me specifically because I’m not talking about or advocating veganism in that manner. On my blog, I’ve primarily kept the focus on ethics. Also in my PR agency, I’m working behind the scenes by design, so my clients get mainstream exposure – I am not a public figure nor do I want to be one.

I understand why so many people hold up celebrities as examples of “veganism” (though most are at best “dietary vegans”) because the culture is obsessed with celebrities and to a certain extent, it is understandable to use them. Corporations pay millions to celebrities to endorse their products. Why? Because it is successful. The problem is a social justice movement is not a product.

NVA: It's easy for a newer vegan to feel like part of something exciting, even glamorous. Soon enough, however, we don't care to read about another celebrity black-tie vegan fundraiser gala, or about the starlet who reveals her veganism on the cover of a fashion magazine. Being vegan is not a fad for us; it's an imperative, and we're energized by the opportunity to make real, vegan choices in our real, everyday world: How we bathe, how we shop, how we cook, how we talk to people, and so on.

What, for you, is intensely personal about being vegan? What is more grounded in community, in the shared experience of being vegan?

GS: Veganism changed me as a person, has affected what I do for my career, has created some of the deepest and most meaningful friendships in my life, has given me a passion and meaning, given me Frederick and Douglass, our beagles rescued by Beagle Freedom Project from a vivisection lab in Spain. Veganism is nearly everything to me.

Though vegans may disagree with each other, sometimes quite vigorously, we all have a common bond and shared values. Whenever I meet a new vegan, I am astounded. I can’t believe that anyone would actually stop eating and using animals because it is so outside of the norm, so outside of the values of this culture. I feel an instant connection.

That is probably why I don’t feel as connected to people who are “vegan” for health reasons or for the environment, and especially not as connected to plant-based eaters and celebrities who view veganism as a diet or trend. As you said, veganism is not a fad to those of us who care deeply about animals and the ethics.

NVA: One word that comes to mind when I think of your work is "unpopular." You're following an unpopular path (veganism) through life. You tell unpopular truths about the cruel, short lives of farmed animals in a blunt, direct manner. Your posts and tweets aren't intended to be sensitive to the emotions and do-gooder sensibilities of many people. (To many of us, they're refreshing, for exactly that reason.)

Do your critics respect you for standing up for animals, even when they disagree with your message or with how it's conveyed? How do you feel about your critics?

GS: How I feel about my critics depends on their criticism. I think activists must engage in philosophical, strategic and tactical discussions to serve the cause. However I think we need to do it respectfully, and there are a few rhetorical tactics in criticism I can’t abide by, such as the “tone” accusation. Too many vegans have been told by non-vegans, as well as some other vegans, that the reason that the world isn’t vegan yet is because of our “tone.” They seem to believe that there is some magical tone or approach that will make the other 99.5 percent of the population go vegan when they hear it. If there was, the world would be vegan already.

One criticism that I find appalling is a variation on “If you’d only be nicer, I’d go vegan.” It makes them feel better to lay their regressive and destructive choices on me, as if it’s my fault that they want to continue eating and exploiting animals. I wonder if they know how horrible that makes them sound.

I also don’t care for criticism that is positioned as “if you don’t agree with my opinion, you’re harming animals.” This is childish and unproductive. But a healthy debate, which I love and welcome, can only help move us forward to more effective activism.

I’m not necessarily trying to be blunt, although on Twitter it’s hard to be anything but blunt because I have to be concise. With the blog, I’m interested in exploring the issues and encouraging people to challenge their understanding of those issues – and of themselves in the process. So it does bother me a lot that people comment and criticize when they don’t bother to read the actual post. They form an opinion based on the title or the summary or what other people are saying, without reading the article itself. This was very clear when a post I wrote about Bill Clinton got a lot more attention again after a recent speech of his. I was very clear in the blog that I congratulated him on changing his diet and turning his health around. However a lot of people whined that I was criticizing him, so it was obvious that they wanted to argue with me rather than read my perspective.

One of my other pet peeves is being criticized for sticking to the original definition of veganism as described by Donald Watson in 1944, in brief, “a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom.” People want to invent their own definitions of veganism based on their personal preferences or passions, or based on current fads, and it’s irritating that my attempt to use the term properly causes controversy.

The vast majority of the comments I get on my blog and even Facebook posts are respectful, even if they’re critical. I think the biggest criticism I get is that I won’t pet people. I won’t pet people for eating less meat or buying cage-free eggs or whatever other baby steps someone is taking to make themselves feel better about their exploitation, or whatever they are trying to get me to congratulate them for. I stick to my position that the only ethical choice, the only choice that works for animal liberation, is veganism.

NVA: How've you been able to pursue a real-world career without worrying whether you could support yourself and your family if bosses and others cut you off based on your public pronouncements about veganism? How did you make—how are you making—it work?

GS: My wife and I started our PR agency, Evolotus, back in 2006. Our work is very focused on clients that work for animal rights and veganism. My concern is much less around losing my job for speaking my truth, as it is in earning a living trying to promote justice and fairness in the media when it comes to animal rights and vegan issues. So I don’t see my activism as in conflict with my work – it’s part of my work, just like my work is a form of activism to me. Getting mainstream attention for animal rights issues is one way I can introduce people to anything from a vegan food product to a documentary or book to a successful animal rescue to an important campaign.

We have worked on several documentary films around animal rights and veganism: Skin Trade, Earthlings, Bold Native, Got the Facts on Milk, Simply Raw and Forks Over Knives.

We have worked on a few books around animal issues: That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, Vegan is Love, Letters to Pushkin and The Lucky Ones.

We have worked with many animal protection groups and campaigns: Mercy For Animals undercover investigations and their Farm to Fridge tour, the Fur Free West Hollywood campaign, FARM’s 10 Billion Lives Tour, ADI’s federal bill to ban animals from the circus, Beagle Freedom Project, ARME and Stray Cat Alliance.

We have worked very hard to make issues relating to animals, veganism and animal rights respected in the mainstream via media. Obviously my outreach with individual members of the media is separate from my outreach on The Thinking Vegan. I will say that I have had many fruitful discussions about veganism with media contacts who show interest.

NVA: What's next for you? For The Thinking Vegan? Any advice to your friends, followers, and fellow vegan bloggers?

In terms of the blog itself, I’d like to be more consistent with blog posts. In addition to writing more, I’d like to do more of the features I call “The Thinking Vegan Pop Quiz” and “The Thinking Vegan Consortium.” The Pop Quizzes and Consortium are a way to bring in other voices to discuss topics relating to veganism and animal rights, particularly voices that aren’t necessarily leaders or authors or people who have platforms of their own. There are a lot of activists out there whose work I respect, who have a lot of insight and experience, and I enjoy being able to include them in the blog because I think there is so much people can learn from them. I think the ingredients are there, I just need to carve out time and be more consistent.

We are always busy around here with Frederick and Douglass, our beagles who were rescued by Beagle Freedom Project from an animal testing lab in Spain last Thanksgiving. I hope I will get to go on many more rescues in the upcoming months. I’d like to send your readers to the website: www.beaglefreedomproject.org.

We’re in an interesting place with our business because we have a lot of great opportunities, but we’re often constrained because it’s only the two of us and we have to manage our time really expertly to give all our clients the right level of service. There’s so much more work we’d like to do if we had all the time in the world.

As to advice to friends and followers, I would say that you should never feel like you have to apologize for your veganism and activism. We are in the right. There is no reason to feel uncomfortable by other people’s reactions towards you. Those reactions are not about you. I think it’s important to be respectful, but you must also be truthful, honest and strong in your convictions. This isn’t really about you, it’s about the 56 billion land animals, trillions of fishes, millions of animals in labs, millions of animals killed for fashion and millions exploited for entertainment. Your voice, your behaviors, your actions are necessary for their well being. Do whatever you need to do to become more confident in using your voice and then use it.

NVA: Thank you so much, Gary. All our best to you as you continue your important work!

Interviewer Tom Epler has been vegetarian since 1997 and vegan since 2010. A returned Peace Corps volunteer, he has written for a number of organizations and causes through the years. Tom completed his undergraduate studies at Ursinus College and holds Master's degrees from Hunter College and Baruch College of the City University of New York. Connect with Tom on LinkedIn or email him a comment or question using the Contact form at right.