“Shut up and read more Aristotle!” Or: Towards a feminist mode of academic relating

Irma Allen

At a recent PhD summer school I attended, in the middle of responding in a critical way to the discussion (as requested by the seminar leader), a male fellow PhD student in the group abruptly and aggressively waded in to shut down what I was saying, not through intellectual argument, but by telling me that I was making ‘autistic comments’ that were ‘irrelevant’, that I was being ‘arrogant’ and that I should ‘stop talking’ – and apparently read more Aristotle… (who felt that women and slaves were inherently inferior beings – was that what I was supposed to understand?) Looking directly at the male Professor who was leading the seminar whilst speaking as a way to exclude my presence, this student insisted that the class ‘please carry on to engage with the text at hand’ (I thought I was…). When I, and others in the room who leapt to my defense, told him this was a totally inappropriate way to interact he said ‘I don’t care, I don’t care about her, she is wasting my time!’ gesticulating in my direction, followed by telling a female colleague who defended me that she should ‘be quiet’. Only when told by other male members of the group that he was being disrespectful and inappropriately personal and rude did he quieten down.

The organizer of the seminar was not present in the room, but the guest seminar leader, a male Professor whose work we were discussing, did not intervene. He simply laughed and watched passively as the group tried to deal with the situation. I had only met my attacker for the first time the day before and had not spoken to him individually. He was able to remain in the seminar, and for the rest of the week he largely remained quiet, yet was, at times, invited to voice his own comments by the course leaders – which he did in a confident, critical and questioning manner – no shame – whilst I, and others, remained quieter, more hesitant, and fearful of this harshly judging presence.

What is wrong here? I could not help to think a number of things all in a rush at once. Would he have told a male colleague that they were being ‘arrogant’ for voicing an opinion that differed to his in a confident, even direct, manner? Would he have told a male colleague to be ‘quiet’ for intervening and disciplining him? In fact – when this happened – he did not. It was only then that he checked himself. What did he mean by ‘autistic comments’ and was he not aware that this was offensive on many levels, implying both that myself and people with autism are not intelligent beings worthy of respect. Should he have been ‘allowed’ to stay in the room and participate in the discussion, let alone being invited to contribute, having violated norms of conduct? Who had the right and power to make that decision? And how is it that four other women commented to me that they felt uncertain and reluctant to speak up after that outburst for fear of being likewise attacked, whilst shame was not apparent in his ongoing engagement? This abrupt interaction not only succeeded in shutting me down but silencing others. The violence still hung there in the air the next day and there was a tension in the group that had not been apparent beforehand.

Whilst this is perhaps an extreme example of chauvinist behavior in such a mild context, it points to wider structural issues that remain unaddressed and usually hidden, except in moments when they burst through so plainly like this. Where do we draw the line around gender-based discrimination, even violence? Are words, bodily postures and attitudes not part and parcel of the everyday practice of sexism, even violence itself? On the last day of the week-long course he again attacked a fellow female student, tearing into her personally by heavily implying that she was stupid and ignorant. As a result I walked out. In a follow up email with the seminar leaders, they stated that they felt that he had ‘not openly discriminated’ against other students, and that ‘we have to accept that some students behave badly’. I think they did their best – but it was not enough. I do not agree that we should accept that some students behave badly. He will most likely pass the course – is that the correct message? That intellectual ideas are divorced from the ethics and accountability of interpersonal relations? That is a deathly creed – yet, again, the rational/emotional, individual/relational dichotomies it rests upon are masculinist in essence. Is this not part and parcel of the same creed which protects male professors who sexually harass female colleagues because of their genius? I only wonder what clues and crumbs of crumby behavior were apparent earlier on in their careers that were enabled to continue through no resistance.

As a female starting out in academia I often feel caught between two binary modes of professional behavior – gearing myself up to be confident, speak up and speak strong in order to be taken seriously and be heard, or alternatively… stay silent and mute as a safe alternative. I do not seem to know how to navigate or practice a middle or re-defining ground. If I speak confidently I am arrogant. If I have a strong opinion, aggressive. Yet it is well known that male counterparts are considered worthy of respect, intelligent and probably in line for a promotion if they act similarly. I have a constant sense that some sort of particular behavior is expected of me, and my fellow female colleagues, yet I do not know what it is. At the same time I seem to spend mental energy trying to figure it out – indeed I am required to. It appears that staying silent, or perhaps speaking with more uncertainty, hesitation and a gentler tone works ‘better’. For some, that is their preferred register. Yet for me, quite a vocal lass, I feel that I regularly fail at this game. Each time I ‘fail’ is another time I learn that who I am is not good enough, is not ‘right’. I am not being woman enough. I am not being feminine enough. I am not doing it right.

Yet it is true that this experience shook me up in other ways. It made me question (yet again) my own manner of engagement. Something I, and I know a number of my female friends, do often. Perhaps he was right, my mind said. in some way – was I being too vocal, too critical, too direct, too outspoken, too hard? Too too…? Perhaps I do not know what I am talking about after all – he’s right, he’s right, I should keep quiet until I’ve read Aristotle… until I’ve read… EVERYTHING THERE IS TO READ…. Not possible… Whilst this mental-chatter overdrive was typically overdone, I couldn’t shake an acute feeling of shame at my own contribution to the set up. Of course nothing justified the manner of his outburst, but it was perhaps true that I had been too forceful in my critique of the work of the guest academic who had had the courage to sit in the firing line and open himself to comment. Later someone said ‘he probably felt he needed to defend the academic, you were destroying him! No, it was good!’ That word ‘destroy’ vibrates with a harsh telling. It is the masculinist mode of competitive and individualized engagement academia largely endorses and socializes one into. Was I just reproducing that? Were my own critical words doing a violence to the vulnerability of any person presenting their words and work to a new audience? Was my shame a form of self-violence, social disciplining, or a basis for agency?

What, then, if instead, I employed a feminist way of speaking up? What might a feminist form of academic communication and intellectual engagement look like? Perhaps for too long women, once allowed into the ivory tower, have seen the only way to be truly accepted is to adopt the tower’s own modes of interaction and augment them, turning up the volume, sharpening the intellectual knife, in order to be seen and heard. I’d like to be able to practice compassionate, yet astute, emotionally resonant yet respected, gentle but determined, personal and entangled engagement. I’d like to contribute to shifting the manner in which communication is conducted in the first place, to something more expansive, care-ing and diffractive. Something non-violent. Not easy. At the same time, I do not want to be an apologist for female assertiveness, in the affirmative sense. I look forward to the day when a female impassioned voice that says ‘I disagree and here’s why’ is not considered ‘brave’, ‘shrill’ or ‘conceited’ by anyone in the room and where gendered violence, where and when it happens, is recognized, called out, and rejected in all forms and at all scales, including in that microcosm that is the precarious and politically-charged space of the classroom, where academic life begins.

Kale and chia seed smoothie, anyone? Instagram’s clean-eating trend, classism and the misrepresentation of veganism.

By Milly Morris & Katie Oliver 

In 2016, Maria Strydom died whilst attempting to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Strydom and her husband were attempting to climb seven summits in seven continents. Yet the tragedy of Strydom’s death was overshadowed in the media by her commitment to a vegan lifestyle; she had previously claimed that her expeditions would prove that “vegans can do anything” and break the stereotype of the sickly vegan suffering from a “lack of protein.” The headlines that followed her death insinuated that Strydom was foolish and arrogant to make such a statement; titles such as ‘Proud vegan climbs Everest to prove haters wrong, dies’ are laced in a smug satisfaction that can loosely be translated to “we told you so, veganism isn’t healthy or safe!” Despite the evidence showing that Strydom’s diet could not be linked to her death, her colourful life as an academic/experienced climber/wife/sister/friend were boiled down to her veganism, sparking debates about the safety in avoiding meat and dairy (Orde, 2016).

More recently, the Italian government announced a proposed plan to send parent’s to prison who “force a vegan lifestyle upon their children”, suggesting that it causes children to be deficient in Iron and other important nutrients. In the UK, many children become malnourished from a diet of processed foods (including meat and dairy) (Deardon, 2016; McVeigh, 2014), yet the news from Italy was followed with headlines such as: “can vegans ever be good parents?” and “is it abuse to put children on a vegan diet?” arguing that vegan diets often lead to children being deficient in iron (Orde, 2016)

So, why is it that veganism seemingly causes such animosity and frustration from the media and wider society?

Veganism has been mocked, dismissed, and vilified in both the media, and in wider society. Those fighting for animal rights are not seen as liberators, because their fight is too far from the norm, and perspectives are tainted with speciesist norms that put human suffering above non-human. A major (inaccurate) criticism of vegan activism is that there is so much human suffering, that we must first “sort out” ourselves before we can focus on the lives and deaths of our non-human sister species. But with an increased interest in intersectionality, theoretically and in practice, and both in academia and popular discourse, it is time to acknowledge and more deeply consider that no suffering stands alone, and that a society built upon violence towards animal bodies can never be one that eradicates human—human violence.

In June 2016, the BBC aired a documentary called “Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets”, hosted by “body-positivity queen” and blogger Grace Victory. She followed a variety of clean-eating diets promoted on Instagram and YouTube to reveal the damaging effects that they could have on the body and on an individual’s mental health. After visiting a whole foods store and gasping at the extortionate prices of certain “super-foods”, Victory states that this “clean eating, vegan thing” is about class rather than health, suggesting that it is a “very middle-class” lifestyle that is unaffordable for the majority of the public (BBC, 2016). This ignores vegan movements such as A. Breeze Harper’s ‘Sistah Vegan’, decolonial and black feminist theorist who approaches veganism from a black perspective, and expresses how it is inherently harmful to associate veganism with whiteness (Harper, 2015). When we are seeking to approach oppression holistically – intersectionally – the dismissal of veganism as a “diet”, instead of the liberation movement that it is, negates the struggle of non-human animals, and misrepresents actual vegans, as opposed to those following a plant-based diet. It is a distinction that is made frequently, even by vegans themselves. Veganism is not a diet. It is a belief system, and a liberation movement. Diet is just one aspect of that.

When we are seeking to approach oppression holistically – intersectionally – the dismissal of veganism as a “diet”, instead of the liberation movement that it is, negates the struggle of non-human animals, and misrepresents actual vegans, as opposed to those following a plant-based diet. It is a distinction that is made frequently, even by vegans themselves. Veganism is not a diet. It is a belief system, and a liberation movement. Diet is just one aspect of that.

Throughout the documentary, it becomes clear that Victory is struggling with her new diet – including a 30 day “potato cleanse” – as she becomes tired and develops bad skin (BBC, 2016). The show concludes with Victory suggesting that vegan, clean-eating is a potentially dangerous habit that can lead to eating disorders. However, Victory failed to point out the distinction between “eating clean” and following a vegan diet; an individual who eats “clean” is doing so for health purposes, whereas veganism is not about losing weight or even being healthy (although the facts show that veganism is perfectly safe and healthy). In contrast, veganism is simply about eating – and living – in a way that is mindful of the planet and of other species.

Reducing veganism to just a diet, and to being solely about the Self, and Self-body, in a confusion with those following a plant-based diet, dismisses the importance and larger message of veganism. Veganism is always already about Other, and Other-bodies, because it is a practice of non-harm, whether this originates as animal-oriented, environmental, or health-based, there is always an Other who is being affected (albeit positively) from the rise of veganism. Conversely, there is always an Other’s suffering and death involved in carnism, in eating and using flesh and animal bodies for human pleasure. The animal-as-food becomes ‘the absent referent’ (Adams, 1990). When the flesh is eaten, it is food, it is not body or being, it is not death, but instead presented as sustenance, life-full, and life-fuel. It cannot be that carnists are unaware of who they are eating, but that there is a carefully curated system in place to ensure that there is no ‘seepage’ of life, or living, in the consumed body. This has been linked to the distance of slaughterhouses, and factory farms, away from populated areas and also to the rise of the presentation of animals raised in ‘family farms’ (see, for example, Lidl’s latest advert https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsiVI6Vxikk), and a desire for a connection to our food (local food movements, British farm standards…), but it fails to show the actual truths behind what is on your plate.

Because veganism is so embodied – it is literally a bodily change and a new practice of everyday life – it is difficult not for it to become an important part of life that vegans want to share. When we see oppression around us at every meal, in all parts of our lives, how can we but use our voices to speak against this? Just as, you would hope, racism, sexism, or any other oppressive practice would be spoken and acted against, so should be speciesism. The problem that the animal liberation movement has to come to terms with, and to continue to work to find ways around, is that it relies wholly on the oppressors liberating the oppressed, and on (human) representatives enacting struggles on behalf of animals. Appealing to the moral sensibilities of carnists to disregard their own pleasure and change their own lives will always come across as “preachy”, but this should not stop vegans continuing to fight for animals, and to expose the lies of happy farm animals and pain-free slaughter that are widely believed. It is perhaps necessary to be preachy, because even if there is only one person who understands, and cannot unknow what they have come to know, it is estimated that in a lifetime, a vegan will spare the lives of 198 animals a year (PETA, 2010).

So, where has this confusion between ‘clean-eating’ and veganism arisen from? 

However, social media’s obsession with ‘clean’ foods has arguably led to the conflation of veganism with dieting. One only need to type the hashtags “#vegan” into the Instagram search bar to find an array of beautifully arranged green smoothies, elaborate salads and the – seemingly infamous – avocado on toast. Alongside these images, harshtags such as “#cleaneating” and “#health” are commonplace and imply that veganism is simply a good way to lose weight. Whilst this cannot be said of all vegan cooking pages on Instagram and Facebook, many social media “health gurus” propose that being vegan is about eating solely “clean” foods that benefit the body. For example, Naturally Megan’s Instagram is strewn with arty vegan dishes that showcase her ‘#plantpowered’ life. All the images contain descriptions of the foods in the caption, such as the following: “carrot cake oats with blueberries, strawberries and vanilla coconut yoghurt” with the hashtag ‘#veganfood’, ‘#healthyeating and ‘#eatclean.’ Whilst the motives behind these uploads may be harmless, these image insinuate that veganism is a pure diet that aims to give the individual the best health possible. Moreover, many of the ingredients on Naturally Megan’s page are exotic and seemingly expensive, such as the following:

“(…) avocado on brown sourdough, strawberries and a chocolate protein smoothie (1 banana, 2 tbsp raw vegan chocolate protein powder, 1 cup almond milk and a handful of ice cubes)” (Naturallymeghan, 2016)

As Zimmer argues, social media is based upon an ‘obsessive documentation of self’; Instagram acts as a ‘highlights’ reel for one’s life to present a polished and perfected version of users to an online audience (Zimmer, 2013). All the messy and painful parts of life are cut out so the viewer sees a neatly cropped square with beautiful lighting. In this sense, it can be argued that rather than getting the message out about an alternative and potentially more ethical lifestyle, these health bloggers are showcasing their status as individual’s who can afford chia seeds and quinoa on a regular basis. It is important to note here that there is nothing wrong with buying and enjoying these products, but that taking pictures of these types of food for an online following is arguably the equivalent of inviting all your neighbours around to watch you wash your brand new Ferrari.

Veganism is classed, sexed, aged, and raced. When veganism is presented over instagram as young, white, societally attractive women such as ‘delciously ella’, ‘freelee the bananagirl’, ‘the blonde vegan’, or PETA’s lettuce ladies, there is an immediate disconnect with non-white, non-middle-class, non-conforming people who in reality are the bulk of vegans. Our animal rights/vegan movement is tainted from the inside with the same problems that can be identified in our societies. Those who are praised and held up as examples and representatives of vegan lifestyles do not actually reflect the 99% of vegans, and we did not choose these people to be our representatives and they do not even stand for what we stand for. The presentation of veganism as a fad, or a weight loss trend, is fundamentally damaging for those of us fighting for liberation, and also for those of us who do not fit the norms of society. The vegan movement is following a similar path to the feminist movement, whereby certain vegans are being held up on a pedestal, and these “stars” of veganism are not chosen by the vegan masses, but by the media and by who will “sell” the most (Freeman, 1975). We saw this most notably in Gloria Steinem in the ’60s and ’70s in the feminist movement, and we can begin to see the same patterns and backlashes in the ‘stars’ of the vegan movement, with a rise in “normal” vegans who do not fit mainstream representations of what a vegan should look like (see Facebook group ‘What Fat Vegans Eat’) taking back the power and purpose of veganism.

There is a fundamental problem in the animal rights movement with misogyny and damaging behaviours towards women which have come to light in recent years, and this is not the only problem that is plaguing veganism. There are racial dynamics within veganism whereby non-white vegans are not afforded the same visibility and reverence that vegan ‘stars’ such as the aforementioned are. There is also the exploitation and appropriation of certain representation of non-white people to sell vegan books, such as the problematic debates around the book ‘Thug Kitchen’ (Bryant Terry, 2014). Non-white people are denied access, their position as vegans is negated because they don’t look or act the part that is expected of them.

Once this is conflated with the vegan lifestyle, the important message of veganism is skewed and becomes about class, which is ultimately tied up with race, and gender (Crenshaw, 1989). Consequently, individuals take may issue with the snobbery that has been associated with veganism, the actual core beliefs of the movement; it is essential that vegans make steps to move away from the assumption that veganism is a “pure” diet that will “cleanse” one’s body. This is a process that is currently in motion; Facebook community pages such as “Fat Vegans” are dedicated to sharing recipes for vegan sweet treats, The Vegan Society’s website allows individual’s to browse “how to be vegan on a budget” (TheVeganSociety, 2016). Overall, it is essential that the movement continues to fight these stereotypes and creates an image for itself that demonstrates its inclusive nature, diverse membership and willingness to occasionally indulge in junk-food.


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