I have had a strange week. Last Sunday my very first popular article was published: ‘New Atheists Must Become New Vegans: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the extra burden on moral leaders’. Until then my words had been constrained to my practically invisible blog, but Salon gave me the chance to suddenly amplify my whispers into bellows. For that I am very grateful. Unfortunately, what was meant to be a personally joyous moment was slightly soured by some insincere behaviour.
The thorn lay in the title of the article – arguably the most crucial fragment in an era of scrolling, swiping and sharing. Altered by Salon without my consent to contain the words “must” and “moral leaders”, it was obviously misleading given the content of the piece. Couple that with the addition of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins’ names and it’s quite obvious what the intentions were. On such delicate intellectual terrain where one must tread carefully, the title jumped up and down like a toddler on a sugar high.
Understandably, many people seemed to think the piece implied that being an atheist automatically compels one to be a vegan. Of course this is not true. Atheism is not a belief system and people arrive (or remain) at this worldview for a wide range of different reasons. The title ‘atheist’ is largely vacuous and applies little pressure on most topics outside of religion, including the ethics of meat eating. Rather, I simply argued that the moral reasoning and critical thinking championed by many famous public intellectuals – including the so-called ‘New Atheists’ (apologies to those who don’t like that name) – leads to veganism. In other words, they argue for ethics, morality, rationality, and scientific reasoning: all the necessary ingredients for a vegan mindset. The likes of Harris, Dawkins, Krauss and Shermer have publicly acknowledged this, yet most seem ethically lethargic on the topic. A collective shift in consciousness is required, and these individuals could provide the much needed torque to drive the idea over some widespread mental speed bumps.
What was intended to spark some thoughtful discussion was rerouted down a deliberately inflammatory and polarising path. Something I was wholly confident about all of a sudden made me look like a malicious freak blogging in my underpants. Would a similar reaction have been provoked given a more honest title? I don’t know, maybe. However the sheer volume of responses from people who quite clearly didn’t read much further than the first seventeen words compels one to formulate a certain diagnosis.
Perhaps I am being oversensitive. Maybe incidents like this are not uncommon. This is ‘journalism’, after all. I feel a little stupid as I am well aware of how Salon has treated people including Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in the past, and many readers have reminded me of this. I knew my views did not align with many other writers at their establishment, but given the chance to have a piece on such an important topic read by more than the usual ten friends on Facebook, I had to jump at the chance. I am now attempting to jump back to dry land – I just hope the boat hasn’t drifted too far.
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