Even Vegan Hero Gary Yourofsky Finds It Hard to Be a Guru

There’s something disgraceful in our desire that the gurus we invent should be better than us.

Earlier this week the shining image of Gary Yourofsky – the animal-rights champion, charismatic lecturer and vegan missionary – was tarnished a bit. He shoved journalist Ariel Segal to the floor, apparently because the Israeli was wearing a leather jacket. It was the latest incident where Yourofsky couldn’t restrain his anger and used foul language.

His admirers are embarrassed; some are even dissociating themselves from him. It’s always unpleasant when people lose their cool, especially when they’re a role model for so many who, like their guru, oppose violence against animals.

Of course, one could say the writing was on the wall. Between 1997 and 2001, Yourofsky was arrested 13 times for disturbing the peace and making threats; he was even sent to prison for breaking into a mink ranch and freeing the animals. (Of course, though breaking into a mink ranch disturbs public order, one can understand Yourofsky’s logic.)

In any case, harsh language has long been a Yourofsky hallmark. He has even said he hopes the consumers and manufacturers of animal products will be raped and murdered. He has said a woman who wears a fur coat should suffer a particularly cruel act of rape that scars her forever, while a man who wears a fur coat should be sodomized so severely his intestines spill to the ground. Yourofsky repeats that he sees nothing wrong with violence if it helps establish a vegan society.

So why haven’t vegans, generally a critical breed, protested Yourofsky’s manner? One reason is that he’s a serial scandal-generator. Many vegans who were turned off, even disgusted, by his unbridled behavior say nothing so as to keep him doing what other vegans have been unable to do. Yourofsky has excited the general public and put veganism in the spotlight.

By comparison, consider David Wolfe. On a visit to Israel, Wolfe, a vegan guru with a reputation of his own, couldn’t fill a small auditorium, and many of the people in the audience were invited guests. The organizers were forced to hunt down volunteers willing to host Wolfe during his stay. Yourofsky, meanwhile, fills huge auditoriums – yet even he was surprised by Israelis’ eagerness to hear him speak in person.

Yourofsky’s ability to generate scandals – no trifling matter in the soft-spoken vegan community – made vegans who disapproved of his behavior hope he’d continue with his inoffensive coarseness, Robin Hood criminality, charming rudeness and provocative behavior. Vegans wanted to believe he’d stop at the red line where mischievous rudeness becomes intolerable conduct, captivating arrogance becomes disgusting behavior, and rhetorical threats become a push to the floor. We’ve been tricked. He’s really a hothead.

That’s why Segal’s toppling to the ground is perceived not just as a regrettable incident but as the failure of everyone backing this vegan guru. It’s natural to expect that someone who preaches that animals shouldn’t be the victims of violence would never get so angry as to send someone sprawling. When a high-profile guru like Yourofsy behaves like a hothead, we all feel tricked. Then comes the deep disappointment.

Granted, it’s hard to be a guru. Vegan gurus are under the magnifying glass 24/7. What do they eat? Are they faking? What do they wear? Maybe in the back of their closet hangs a leather jacket they wore in fourth grade? When they visit their mother-in-law, do they eat that piece of cake, even if it was baked in the same oven as a pot roast?

Still, there’s something disgraceful in our desire that the gurus we invent should be better than us. We’re so eager for them to fix the world it’s hard to accept that our gurus are human beings. They might be more courageous, charismatic or better-looking, but they’re not perfect. Just as none of us is perfect.

In any case, Yourofsky blundered big-time. Leaders must meet the test of leadership. Granted, the damage he has done does not by any means prove that the struggle for animal rights is wrong. Yourofsky has dedicated his life to fighting what he sees as homo sapiens’ habit of separating living creatures into us and them, the worthy and the unworthy.

The unfortunate encounter with Segal proves how tough it is to live up to everything you so fervently preach to others. Yourofsky’s blunder proves that, despite our strong desire to have gurus, reality is far more complex than any agenda or lecture on YouTube.

Incidentally, there’s another reason Yourofsky has been so admired: He has never tried to sell us anything. He has never tried to sell us a magic pill, wild cocoa beans or a blood test – not even a book he wrote. Maybe it would be better if he tried to sell us a book or pill instead of sending someone hurtling to the floor.