Dogma

To never eat pigs, cows and chickens is not inherently more dogmatic than to never eat dogs, cats or dolphins. Vegans have often been told that they are dogmatic simply for following a different set of social norms than that of the majority. This is normal – it’s social conservatism in action.

Minorities are commonly portrayed as intransigent and extreme, but on closer examination, social psychologists have found that they tend to be less so than the mainstream. Minorities must make an effort to be likeable because it is so easy to ignore and dismiss them. Ideological or religious minorities often put effort into being amenable and moderate in the expression of their views, precisely to avoid scaring people away or being accused of fanaticism.

Someone who follows dominant social norms has no qualms in being strict and uncompromising when it comes to their ethics. Offer them dog meat and you’ll see what I mean. Traveling in a country where dog meat is consumed won’t sway them. A traveling vegan, on the other hand, will be fraught with anxiety over how to avoid animal products discreetly and without offending; they may even decide to “cheat” while traveling. If they stick to the behavior that is consistent with their empathy and view of animals, they are perceived as unwilling to go beyond rigid personal rules and dogma to partake in the local culture.

If a child were to tell you that dogs and cats are our friends, that we should be kind to them, and that this entails not being physically violent with them, you would appreciate that their parents have taught them kindness and the capacity to care for others. If a child were to tell you that cows and pigs are our friends, that we should be kind to them, and that this entails not killing and eating them, you might think their parents should hold off on instilling their personal dogma into their young children’s minds.

As vegans, the application of our empathy and ethics to our behavior is not more dogmatic than the way the majority applies their empathy and ethics to their behavior. They feel empathy for dogs – they don’t eat them. We feel empathy for dogs and cows – we don’t eat either of them. Straightforward. Consistency in one’s behavior is not dogma; to avoid questioning one’s behavior is. As a minority though, it’s hard to hold on to that consistency. Many vegans yield to the idea of moderation, in effect giving up veganism. Others become timid about expressing their views. These outcomes are the exact intended results of the dogmatic label.

When vegans are dismissed or made timid, relevant conversations are avoided. A relevant conversation would be about how we see our rightful relationship to non-human animals and why we draw a line between farm animals and other animals.

Dogma is the unwillingness to examine the norms and beliefs to which one subscribes. Ironically, dismissing veganism as dogma serves to uphold the dogma of animal consumption. The distinction between cat and cow does not hold up to reason or science, so it must be protected by avoiding discussion. As animal rights activists increasingly force conversations to happen, breakthroughs can only follow. Veganism will no longer seem a restriction of the foods one eats, but instead the common-sense recognition that animals aren’t food.

 

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Racism in Latin America

This weekend I saw expressed again an idea that pops up on occasion: that race doesn’t matter in Latin America.

It’s contrary to what I’ve witnessed and, frankly, to common sense. Race, in Latin America, is not an explicit and ever-present identifier in the same way that it is in the US. However, racism exists, and therefore, race matters. It may be that in some places, the distinction between white and mestizo is not as marked as in the US, hence the misunderstanding about the importance of race in general. But even there, inequality of representation in political and media spheres does indicate that whiteness matters.

Indigenous people are largely disenfranchised; Black people are often spoken about in ways deemed grossly politically incorrect in the US. Latin America is a huge and diverse region so I’ll just briefly speak about the place that I’ve started exploring for my research on food: Chiapas.

In San Cristobal, indigenous people were not permitted to walk on the sidewalk until as recently as the 1970s. They had to walk on the road instead. In Las Doñas de Chiapas, a collection of interviews of Chiapanecan women, patriarchy is a powerful current that creates a unifying narrative of the lives of all the women. However, there are also stark differences. Indigenous women speak of the difficulties of accessing sufficient food while one of the white women recounts traveling on the back of an “Indio Chamula”* in her childhood. This was the common method of transportation for her class and generation. Most of these women are still alive; this is very recent history.

The marginalization and poverty of indigenous people in Mexico is the framework of much of the country’s social assistance. It must be visible if one is to have any functioning understanding of the dietary and cultural effects of food aid. Likewise, exploring common representations of indigenous people, their food, and their bodies, is central to understanding the transformation of their food culture through milk distribution.

In San Cristobal, I spoke to many non-indigenous Mexicans about what indigenous people ate, and why. Their answers were overwhelmingly negative and one-dimensional. Portraying indigenous diets as inherently deficient, and pinning this more on culture than on economy, has profound ramifications. The government’s decision to promote milk as a nutritional panacea instead of implementing policies that would encourage consumption of native foods is, of course, primarily about profit. However, policies, assistance programs and public health discourse do not happen in a social vacuum. And the social context in which these are formed is fraught with racism. I will discuss this in upcoming posts as I analyze the relationship between social representations of foods, social identity, and the transformation of food culture.

*Indigenous man from the municipality of Chamula.

 

 

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Feminism and Islamophobia

I started writing about feminism and islamophobia in response to a comment online, then decided to post here instead. The connection with the rest of my posts may seem tenuous, but this blog started on a recent trip and a common thread through all of my travels has been…. drumroll… Islam. Yes, strangely. From my first observations of the double standards to which we submit different countries to the inevitable conversations with tourists and locals alike.

Feminist from a Muslim background here. I am less PC than many Americans and have no interest in cajoling sexists from any culture. Having said that, I get annoyed by the islamophobia in feminist forums and in the conversations of Westerners about sexism, and especially by the pseudo-caring for women’s rights when it serves a racist agenda by men who normally do not give a second thought to the rampant sexism in their own societies.

Rape or any violence and discrimination against women should not be excused, whether committed by Muslims, men of the Global South, men of color, or anyone else, but it is very important to recognize how these issues are selectively used and blown up to support racist narratives.

Muslims are a diverse group of people, with differences based on culture, urbanity/rurality, class, etc. Furthermore, ideas don’t always cluster in the same way throughout all cultures. For example, my dad is very conservative. His parenting allowed no boyfriends, no male friends even, no miniskirts, etc. But precisely because of this mentality, he thought it was extremely important for his daughters to study and be successful in their careers, so that they would not be dependent on any man and thus maintain their dignity. This contrasts sharply from the mentality of Muslims from other cultures who also value modesty, but think that girls shouldn’t go to school or have jobs. When I say that Muslims are a diverse group, I don’t just mean that different people are at different places on a spectrum of conservatism and sexism. I mean that the spectrum itself is not linear and there are not only quantitative but also qualitative differences within it.

I’ve traveled to many countries, and a lot of what’s reported about Muslims also exists in countries that are of other religions. Understanding then why the media selectively focuses on some cultures is very important. (Hint: galvanizing support for imperialistic wars/xenophobic immigration policies)

Furthermore, I do think that while we fight for change and reject the fallacies of cultural relativism, we also should be humble and recognize the complexity and beauty of other people alongside the norms we wish to change. Obsession with one’s pet social justice issue can put blinders on as to who people are, what their world is, and seeing that battle mode is not always the best mode. Cultural obtuseness is not conducive to effective communication.

Around the world, people have grown up with patriarchy as something as normal as the air they breathe. To reject patriarchy therefore entails some privilege. For a man in a village in Peru, for example, to take for granted that there should be a strict division of labor, and that his wife should not travel freely or show interest in sex, does not mean that there aren’t wonderful things about him or that he is inferior to westerners. Western culture has been (and continues to be) sexist, but our privileged conditions, which have come at the expense of other societies, have allowed us to work towards changing social norms. (I dislike using Western culture as an umbrella term when speaking about sexism, since I grew up in an extremely patriarchal Western country and realize how diverse the West is).

Since feminism should be about women first, it may seem a non-priority to afford men open-mindedness and recognition. However, the attitude I’m cautioning against affects women as well. Women do not exist as entities separate from – or merely subjugated by – their families, societies and cultures. When you plop yourself into a woman’s world armed with the assumption that her husband beats her, or that her veil is necessarily synonymous with myriad roadblocks, you risk insulting and alienating her and not only the men in her life. Openness to others’ realities can help prioritize one’s battles and avoid weaponizing feminism to prop up power imbalances, oppression and discrimination. Unapologetic feminism is one thing, hubris and a lack of intercultural interest are quite another.

 

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Vegans and junk food

Having been a vegan for 21 years and vegetarian for 24, I’m thinking that this blog could be a fun place to compile some of the fallacies I come across time and again. Less of the “where do you get your protein?”, more of the pseudo-well-thought-out commentary from those who agree that factory farming is wrong but hold that rejecting all animal agriculture is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In a friendly conversation a few days ago, a comment came up about the supposed idiosyncrasy of vegans who eat potato chips. The commenter was amused by what he deemed to be a contradiction. Of course, there is no contradiction because veganism is not about health. It’s about deciding that animals’ lives are not ours to take and that their bodies are not food.

I’ve lived on a farm with cows. I’ve seen a piglet being chased by three men while s/he shrieked in frenzied panic. I’ve witnessed a goat get her or his head cut off while the body continued to shake violently. I feel empathy for cows, pigs, and goats, and hence I don’t think they should suffer cruelty. Whether or not I decide to put a donut in my body is neither here nor there. It’s as simple as when a Westerner sees a dog crying in a car and thinks that the dog shouldn’t suffer cruelty. The fact that the Westerner wouldn’t make a dog into a meal doesn’t lead to reflections on their potato chip habit, and my choice of leaving animals off of my plate is no less straightforward.

Some would retort that humans are animals, therefore if vegans care about animals they should also care about their own health. Again, the problem here is in taking a straightforward connection between our empathy for another and our treatment of them, and making the issue into something larger and more abstract. There’s nothing wrong with including oneself in one’s circle of compassion, in fact it’s beautiful. But to expect that compassion for farm animals must necessarily be part of an entirely different sort of lifestyle is to maintain the line between farm animals and other animals that is the problem to begin with.

Kindness – or lack of cruelty – to a dog, a human, or an injured wild animal is judged on its own instead of being a starting point to comb through a person’s lifestyle and find inconsistencies in how they treat themselves as a fellow animal or human. By jumping to a different framework when our empathy is directed towards a farm animal, we muddle the issue and keep a psychological distance with their suffering.

While the potato chip critique is flawed, the more important point is that people frequently try to point to some proof of inconsistency, incongruity or hypocrisy on the part of vegans. In always making comments about vegans, they steer the conversation away from veganism. The questions hovering in the air are always the same – is it ok to kill and eat a sentient being? Why do to a pig what you would never do to a dog?

Ad hominem arguments against vegans protect the status quo by helping people avoid to even engage on the issue. Whether they’re dispensed with affection or aggression, they serve to detract from questions that are difficult to answer, to protect social norms that don’t hold water.

As vegans, we tend to bite at logical fallacies and follow people down the rabbit holes of irrelevant topics. We go on the defensive, write about why eating potato chips does not make us hypocrites, why we are not actually preachy or crazy or too green or not green enough. Even if we were all these things, what bearing does it have on the animals being slaughtered? It’s about them, not about us.

When you are faced with a cow about to have her throat slit, what difference does it make that a vegan somewhere is smoking a cigarette? At that moment, the relevant question is the one posed by veganism: what entitlement do we have to kill an animal who, just like our dogs at home, feels love, joy, pain and terror?

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Pope in San Cristobal

Big day today! The pope is in San Cristobal and will be giving mass here, then in a sports stadium outside the city, and finally in Tuxtla. I’ve been having difficulty using Twitter so here are a few pictures.

For the past couple weeks, people from autonomous communities had been camping out in front of the cathedral to bring attention to their requests.IMG_20160207_164257060_HDRIMG_20160207_164249776_HDRIMG_20160207_164245588

Police in the Zocalo on Saturday, preparing to kick out the remaining campers.IMG_20160212_153242603_HDR

Indigenous women selling their products to the police.

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Prohibited objects at the entrance of San Cristobal. El San Franciscan thinks some lucky selfie stick salesman has an in with the local government.

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A warm welcome by Coca Cola FEMSA. If I weren’t here studying milk I would be studying soda. At the risk of being flippant – genocide is ongoing and it tastes like sugar.

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Get your minion in time for mass!

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I was told that wearing one of these T-shirts would get me into mass for free.

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The Narrative of Lack

IMG_20160128_122541877I met a vegan couple, one of them from Mexico and the other from the US, at Te Quiero Verde, a vegetarian restaurant with this awesome mural. The American has been involved in animal rights and other activism since the 90s. Upon hearing about my project, he told me the following story about the effects of food aid in Haiti, where he worked for several years.

In the middle of the last century, Haiti produced and consumed its own rice. At some point, it even exported rice as aid. And then, following a natural disaster, it started being flooded with American rice, which killed off local rice production as Haitian farmers couldn’t compete. The American rice was milled white rice with little nutritional value, while Haitian rice was brown. The effect of killing off local production was therefore not only economic but directly nutritional as well. And thus, in supposedly addressing a problem another one was created, leaving Haitians more in need of measures to address malnutrition.

Food aid can not be thought of in disjunction from the economic system in which it takes place. As critics have long pointed out, it has often been built on a donor-based logic, which means that the primary function of food aid is to fulfill the needs of donors – for example rice or milk producers – as opposed to the needs of the recipients. As expected however, rhetoric around food aid focuses on the recipients – their starvation, their malnutrition, their poverty. It is portrayed as a generous donation to address a pressing need in the recipient population.

Part of my work here is to look at the effects of food aid – in changing local markets, one also changes local food cultures. But analyzing the effects of aid also involves taking a critical eye to the narrative of lack. Is it real? Is it created? Is it being effectively addressed through aid? Is it the result of a larger systemic issue? If so, how does aid fit into the factors that created the need?

In the case of Haiti, aid wiped out an important source of nutrition and replaced it with empty calories. At some point in the cycle, the lost nutrients will need to be recuperated, perhaps with more aid. Where malnutrition exists it has a story and a cause, yet the marketing of aid is predicated on the implicit notion that malnutrition, hunger or poverty are default states.

When thinking about the distribution of milk to children, it’s interesting to take stock of the other foods that make up, or could make up, their diets. The idea that milk is an essential source of calcium is for many an almost unshakable truth – vegans who claim they get their calcium from almonds or broccoli are often met with doubtful looks. The same belief exists in Mexico. My conversations with women have yielded that they are exposed to the constant message – from medical professionals and commercials – that milk is a necessary source of calcium for them and their children.

Ironically, the basis itself of Mexican food is the tortilla, which is traditionally highly rich in calcium. For thousands of years, tortillas have been made with a process called nixtamalization, whereby the grains of corn are soaked in a lye solution for an entire day. The corn is then rinsed and ground and tortillas are made with the resulting wet mass. Nixtamilization drastically improves the nutritional profile of corn in several ways, among which, by adding calcium. In recent decades, traditional tortillerias have been mostly replaced by those selling Maseca tortillas, a brand owned by the large Mexican multinational Gruma. The move from an artesanal to an industrial process has resulted in a tortilla that is less calcium-rich. (Of course, people have also started consuming large amounts of other products churned out by Big Ag – coke, sabritas, etc – none of them nutritionally dense).

An approach that would truly benefit recipients would be to nurture and build on the existent basis – and the basis here is extremely rich. The state of Chiapas actually gets its name from the chia seed, another calcium powerhouse. An abundance of greens have also traditionally been grown in milpas and harvested in the wild, but their consumption is declining.* While milk and other industrial foods are ushered into marginal communities as food aid, traditional food systems are being dismantled by the market forces that create malnourished kids.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the implications of a narrative that positions milk as essential in a context where it is not traditionally consumed.

Imagine growing up in the West. You’ve rarely, if ever, come across yucca. As an adult, you suddenly start to see it everywhere. It is promoted to the middle-class through commercials and gracefully bestowed on the poor to ensure their health. Medical staff insist that mothers absolutely must feed their children yucca everyday. It would seem that until that moment in history, nothing your family grew or ate for generations, nothing you could find in a store growing up, was nourishment enough to ensure your children would be well-fed.

The promotion of milk is linked to another implicit narrative of lack. Many foods are said to be healthy – some have been even labeled “superfoods”. To position a food as necessary is something else altogether. As milk becomes increasingly central to public health discourse and social assistance programs around the world, it subtly delegitimizes traditional foods as possible sources of nutrition and health. The idea may be unarticulated but clear: before the Spanish brought their cows and culture, there was no way for children in Chiapas to have strong bones and develop healthily. Luckily for them, Nestlé, Lala and others continue their benevolent crusade.

*This was the recent topic of the Masters thesis of an acquaintance, I’ll devote another post to her work.

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On milk and food aid

As I sat on a bench to wait for a friend, I struck up a conversation with an indigenous woman holding a baby. She was curious about what I was doing and wanted to know about my study, so I began to speak of my questions regarding food aid. When I got to milk, she confirmed that “people don’t drink milk”. She went on: most people in indigenous communities don’t drink milk, but some who receive government aid may drink what they receive. However, she said that government food aid, or “despensas”, are met with the suspicion that they may be the government’s way to try to make people ill. Given the history and political context of Chiapas, the distrust is understandable.

An idea crossed my mind – was it possible that the distrust is compounded by negative reactions to the foods dispensed? For example, if lactose intolerant folks experience discomfort upon drinking government-issued milk, it might make their hypothesis more convincing.

Unfortunately, my friend arrived and the conversation was cut short. I wasn’t able to probe further but it was clear that according to this woman, despensas are not broadly welcomed, at least not for direct consumption. What many do is sell items on the market, as evidenced in the pictures below. I took these at the San Cristobal market, where stands selling “not for sale” government foods are a common sight.

From what I’ve learned so far, despensas typically contain fortified tuna, instant soups, canned tomato puree, oil, sugar, rice, simple fortified cookies, and fortified milk. I conducted a lengthy interview today with the owner of my hostel and her impression of the general acceptance of despensas was different. On the other hand, she converged on the question of milk in indigenous communities – it is not widely consumed.

I’ll leave you with a compelling picture she painted of the changes underway. I asked her to create an image comparing a typical child’s post-weening diet in 1950 and 2016. Instead, she created two images. In 1950, children in San Cristobal and indigenous communities were drinking atol and pozol; in 2016, children in San Cristobal are drinking milk, and children in communities are drinking soda.

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Casa Vegano Sol

I’m staying at a guest house called Casa Vegano Sol. The owners encourage guests to keep a vegetarian kitchen and while they are not completely vegan, they aim their diet in that direction. Their son eats vegan at home and only drinks the milk that he receives at school. Indeed, Mexico has an extensive “Desayunos Escolares” program of which milk is a main component. In fact, the precursor to Desayunos Escolares was a program called La Gota de Leche – “The Drop of Milk”.

The couple who own this guest house both grimaced when I told them I was here to study Liconsa, a social program that distributes milk to vulnerable populations. We’ve spoken a bit about food in Mexico and I’m looking forward to hearing more of their observations around the food system in Chiapas. The wife is from San Cristobal, so it will be especially interesting to hear more from her about changes since her childhood in the city and surrounding communities, where much of her family lives.

This is a picture, badly taken I realize, of the husband painting a sign advertising vegan tacos. He is helping out an older lady who lives nearby and who will start selling vegan tacos next week. I know how I’ll be helping out the local economy…
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And here’s the completed sign.
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First post!

Finally starting a blog! My first focus will be my trip to Chiapas, where I arrived today to explore the role of food aid in changing food cultures and the process by which populations adopt the norms of dominant groups.

Like many parts of the world, Mexico does not have a strong tradition of milk consumption. Cattle was introduced by the Spanish, but during the colonial era milk consumption did not spread to much of the country, which remained largely indigenous. Current American and European cultural and economic influence is quickening a shift to dairy-rich diets. During my trip, I aim to look at the role of food aid in this process.

Since the 1940s, the Mexican government has been subsidizing the distribution of milk to vulnerable populations, especially children and pregnant or nursing mothers. Around the world, milk distribution has been a hugely significant driver of cultural changes around milk consumption, serving to normalize milk as part of one’s daily diet. This process is especially apparent today in East and South-East Asia.

Chiapas is a largely indigenous state in the south of Mexico that has had relatively little integration into “Mestizo” Mexican culture. It is undeniable that Western consumption habits have recently gained a firm hold in Mexico and processed foods and animal products are very prevalent. Mexico has even surpassed the US in per capita soda consumption – and has the diabesity numbers to show for it. Whether Mexico is therefore still a good place for this study is a question I’ll have to answer – has dairy already become completely normal and commonplace?

For now, my sense is that along with the colonization of local food systems by Big Ag, the positioning of dairy as a dietary cornerstone is still unfinished business. And so far, anecdotal evidence seems to confirm this. For example, a woman who has worked in Chiapanecan communities told me of seeing indigenous women give donated milk to their dogs, because “they don’t drink milk”. In San Francisco, I interviewed a young migrant from Yucatan who related how his mom started pushing him to drink milk when he was around the age of 18, for only then had she become exposed to public messaging regarding its importance.

Like other populations that do not traditionally consume milk, indigenous Mexicans have high rates of lactose intolerance. Given this, the heavy focus on milk in social programs raises further questions on ethnocentrism, normativity and the relationship of people to the norms of dominant groups. I’ll start to explore all if this here!

Welcome, and feel free to contact me with your questions and feedback.

 

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