Veggie bouquets and animal brickbats for the Canadian Red Cross

I’ve never wanted to be one of those vegetarians. In truth, at one time several years ago, I probably was one of those vegetarians. You know, proud of my lifestyle choice and verging on being preachy and sanctimonious about it to others. I volunteered for, and donated to, the cause and advocated on behalf of animals to the point of being absolutely convinced that everyone who didn’t make similar choices was wrong. I am sure I offended as many people as I educated.

The Canadian Red Cross
Is animal welfare important to the Canadian Red Cross?

I still donate, but I’ve mellowed and, while I still believe strongly in the values behind vegetarianism, I also try to take myself a little less seriously, even if that means taking a few light-hearted jabs from co-workers and just letting a lot of stuff go. I found it impossible to turn the other cheek, though, when I received an email from the Canadian Red Cross last week.

In it, the focus was the touching story of a girl who had endured bullying, and how a caring teacher helped her take steps to becoming healthy again. The bullying had caused the once tall, heavy set girl to develop an eating disorder. In describing her progression to starving herself, the email/web newsletter says:

Braiden dealt with the bullying by not eating. It started with a diet, then she became a vegetarian, then vegan and eventually she just stopped eating altogether.

On the surface, you may wonder what the problem with this is. What I found particularly galling about this sentence is that it portrays vegetarianism and veganism in a horrible light, effectively saying that they are steps on the slippery slope to developing a full-on eating and emotional disorder. It perpetuates the image of the misguided soul who’s slowly starving by avoiding meat, eggs and dairy. Between email and the web, this message likely went out to hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

Making my point

I quickly responded to the email with my disappointment in their choice of terms. While I understand that they were paraphrasing the girl’s story, there was no indication that the sentence was a direct quote and, even if it was, they easily could have chosen better wording to get her point across. In particular, I made the following point in my email:

I’d guess Braiden simply stopped eating things over time until she stopped completely and that’s obviously unhealthy. Labeling what she did as vegetarian and then vegan is not only misleading, but an untruth. Real vegetarianism/veganism is done usually out of health, environmental or ethical concerns and, more often than not, those who choose these types of diets do so with planning, ensuring they are getting all the nutrition they need.

Perhaps my biggest issue is, that by writing the story this way, the Red Cross – an organization focused entirely on the health and well-being of people the world over – was doing a disservice to people who are often focused on health, themselves. There’s also an opportunity here to connect meat/dairy production with routine and systemic violence and abuse of animals.

In addition to the email I sent, I hunted down the Canadian Red Cross on Twitter and fired off a tweet paraphrasing my displeasure and telling them I’d sent the email.

The response discourse

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised with the turn of events which ensued, for the most part. I say “for the most part” because I felt they missed an opportunity to really show leadership in righting a wrong, but I’ll get to that a little later.

Once I sent the tweet to the Red Cross, I received a reply on Twitter from Janice Babineau, Community Manager for the Red Cross. She assured me that they were looking into my concerns and would get back to me with a response. I ended up having a fairly in-depth back and forth via Twitter with Karen Snider, Media Manager for the Red Cross, who confirmed that my feedback got significant internal attention and that steps would be taken to ensure this kind of wording is not used again. I’m not sure how they’ll do that, but I did feel they were sincere and felt the effort needed to be recognized. I can’t tell you how many times raising a concern via email and/or social media results in crickets. However, I also asked Karen if the Red Cross would consider issuing a small correction to the mailing list. I was told that she’d look into it but that it wasn’t likely possible.

Given that we’re talking about a mailing list here, it’s more than possible, but I’d hazard a guess it’s more organizational pride getting in the way of a small correction. At this point, I felt I’d made my point and was ready to leave things there, hoping I might still eventually see something on the mailing list, with at least a sideways nod to this issue.

Not quite getting my point

Fast forward a week or so, and I just received yesterday, an email apology from Leslie Dunning, Director General Violence and Abuse Programs for the Canadian Red Cross. In it, she reiterated their sincere apologies publishing a story that insinuated that vegetarians and vegans are not healthy, that they did not originally see the linkage, but that they could see how someone might have interpreted it that way. Further, that they “will definitely be more sensitive to this in future when sharing her life experience.”

I thanked her for the admission in response, but also pointed out how eating lower on the food chain is perhaps the single biggest thing individuals can do to reduce abuse and violence toward animals. I also reiterated my request for some sort of correction to the mailing list. Despite the fact that Karen Snider addressed my concerns about general future writing, Ms. Dunning had now neatly restricted their commitment to only sharing stories about this girl’s life experience. In other words, since there’s not likely to be a lot more communication around this, they probably won’t have to worry much about it. And, given that a few internal communications folks and me have been the only people involved, the Red Cross doesn’t have to take responsibility for perpetuating negative stereotypes about vegetarianism and veganism. One final response from Ms. Dunning was a pleasant closure, completely ignoring my mailing list correction request, or my pointing out the irony of abuse and violence prevention not being extended to animals. At least I know where they stand on the issue.

Oddly enough, around the same time as I received the email from Ms. Dunning, I also received a follow-up mailing list note on the original bullying story, replete with multiple links to all the wonderful things the Red Cross is doing about bullying, abuse and violence. Despite Karen Snider’s assertions that they couldn’t send a follow-up with a correction, apparently they have no problem doing so when it doesn’t include a broad admission of a mistake that they’ve already admitted to me in private. In fact, the opening paragraph of the follow-up email could have easily accommodated a small correction:

Earlier this month I shared with you the story of Braiden Turner, a young woman who was bullied so often, her health was suffering. This is just one story of so many that I have heard from people about their childhood experiences. Stories about how bullying was so severe that it made them skip classes, withdraw from others, engage in dangerous behaviours, and even quit school to stop the pain.

In closing

The early responses by email and social media were well-handled and I’m happy to see that the girl’s eating habits are now being classified as "dangerous behaviours." Unfortunately, any negative stereotypes previously reinforced remain in place, unaddressed. And, despite the fact that Ms. Dunning’s work is all about prevention of violence and abuse to human beings, wouldn’t some public communication around the gaffe they admitted to me in private do some good to extend that concern to our non-human counterparts? In one fell swoop, the Canadian Red Cross could avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes and help to extend compassion to animals. Seems like a pretty easy choice to me.