For several months, fully cognizant of the fact that I have long neglected this, my poor pet project, I have tried to write a new blog post. Several times I’ve generated in my head essays that have promised so much but failed to fully evolve. Nothing seemed right. All seemed superfluous and inconsequential. Why? What was the answer? I didn’t know. I don’t often have the answer. I often struggle with doubt, usually doubting my own abilities. The older I get, the more I find that much of the meaning that might be gleaned from my life eludes me. Don’t get me wrong, I am guided by some strong principles and ethics. Though I will go to my grave with many unanswered questions and many doubts, I feel confident that I will go to my grave staunchly believing in veganism and animal rights.
Asking the Important Questions
So why do I say that “vegan is not the answer?” Because I believe that for veganism to be not just a dietary option but a vital force for social change, a paradigm shifting, revolutionary, world changing state of being, it must, above all else, pose the important questions. Veganism asks, Why do we eat animals? Why must we view animals as commodities? Do we really need to consume animal flesh and animal secretions to be healthy, or is there a better way? In identifying ourselves as vegan, we ask the rest of the world, Can you see the violence inherent in animal agriculture? Can you imagine a world free of that violence? Won’t you join with us in realizing that world?
But we vegans need to ask much more — of the world and of ourselves. Questions that don’t necessarily have easy answers. Questions which may necessarily lead to other questions. We might begin by asking the following:
Is veganism informed by the concept of social justice? Can social justice be informed by the concept of veganism? And . . . How can vegans/animal rights activists build alliances with other social justice movements?
Can you be a vegan and yet not advocate for veganism? Can you be vegan and not advocate for animal rights? Should we concentrate on creating more vegans or more animal rights activists? Is a focus on vegan consumerism counterproductive to advancing animal liberation? And. . . Is veganism necessarily a critique of capitalism?
One question I’ve struggled with for some time is, How do we counter the image of veganism as the bastion of white privilege? How do we get more non-whites (African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, etc.) involved in vegan activism? I now realize that the better question is, How can we connect with those folks in non-white communities who are already vegan and are already advocating for veganism and even animal rights in their own ways in their own communities? How can we start truly listening to others all around the world who have their own particular reasons for being vegan and have their own particular stories to tell? And how can we better tie our vegan activism to food empowerment? Concomitantly, should we stop telling everyone that it is “easy” to go vegan? Are we making this statement from a place of privilege which fails to recognize that many people in low income areas live in “food deserts” without easy access to healthy plant-based food?
I do believe that veganism, particularly as an essential component of animal liberation, must be viewed in the context of — to use the academic word du jour — “intersectionalism,” which describes interconnections of oppression, domination and discrimination. Racism, sexism, speciesism — they should not be examined separate from one another. As the chant goes, it’s “one struggle, one fight: human freedom and animal rights!” Informed by this intersectionalism and within the contexts of liberation, non-violence and social justice, racists, sexists, anti-semites, Islamaphobes, homophobes, transphobes, etc. would, de facto, have no place at the vegan table; their words and deeds would be antithetical to veganism.
I would hope that everyone reading this would agree that racism is morally repugnant and should never be tolerated. But if a white supremacist were to take up the cudgel of animal liberation and work tirelessly to promote a vegan world, should that person’s efforts, though morally inconsistent, be completely discounted? Should we excommunicate the vegan activist whose religious convictions tells him that gays will burn in hell? Even if his work is successfully bringing people to veganism? And what about the relationship between religion and our treatment of non-human animals? Should interpretations of religious texts which seem to support compassionate treatment of animals, if not liberation, be used? Here’s what professor Kim Socha has to say in her powerful (and very readable!) book, Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed:
Just because positive change has occurred due to the hearts and minds of religious activists does not mean there is a divine force at play and that the same spirit of progress cannot exist without religious belief [. . .] My point here is that the divine is not necessary– and often counterproductive — when seeking the end of oppression and hierarchy because the divine is part of the problem to begin with.
There are some who would argue that we must welcome any and all who promote veganism/animal rights, whether from a secular or from a religious world-view. But should we try to force fit religious texts into arguments for veganism when those religions perpetuate oppression through patriarchal hierarchy?
Outreach or Confrontation?
My preferred form of vegan activism has been vegan outreach leafleting. I am one of the few people who have eagerly participated in this; first, because I truly believe that vegan outreach is the best way to promote veganism and to ultimately facilitate an end to the suffering of our sentient non-human fellow earthlings. I have also relished the opportunity to challenge myself, to push past my comfort zone and connect with other human beings openly and non-judgmentally. And many a time I’ve been surprised when someone I initially saw as potentially unreceptive to my offer of information on “helping animals” proved quite open and ready to make a change in their life. Of course, there have always been many more who are either unresponsive, defensive or actively hostile to the vegan message. They may or may not someday be receptive to veganism; I have heard time and again about stalwart vegans who once mercilessly ridiculed veganism. Also, I always welcome those people who are full of questions. Those questions, though challenging, are often genuine and a way for “pre-vegans” to sort things out so that they can proceed to veganism.
But I have recently wondered, Are “X” number of animals indeed “saved” because someone has decided to become vegan? Is this form of vegan advocacy, which focuses primarily on factory farmed animals, the best way to help animals? And I ask myself, Do I support the “utilitarian” philosophical position inherent in Vegan Outreach that sees, as Jeremy Bentham put it, the measure of right and wrong as the “greatest happiness of the greatest number?”
Outreach or confrontation? I have not given up on trying to bring others into the vegan camp through outreach efforts but I have also participated in numerous Direct Action Everywhere actions designed not to win people over to veganism, per se, but to disrupt business as usual at places which normalize the killing and consumption of sentient beings, especially at Chipotle restaurants and Wholefoods stores, corporations which cloak themselves in a mantle of “humanely raised meat” and lie about the actual treatment of the animals they use. These DxE campaigns are based on a model of non-violent direct action which has historical precedence–i.e during the American civil rights movement especially as influenced by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” If this is true, shouldn’t it behoove us to “dramatize the issue” the way DxE has been doing with it’s store disruptions and subsequent video dissemination? Or could it be that these actions are perceived by most people as off-putting and strident and turn people away from veganism rather than toward it, as some have suggested? I am not convinced at this time that this is the case and I find employing the DxE direct action model worthwhile. But for me, at least, this is not a matter of unquestioning faith, unswerving adherence to dogma. At least I hope it is not.
Must Veganism Be the Non-Negotiable Moral Baseline?
I’ve written elsewhere about the moral imperative of veganism. Gary Francione sees veganism as the unequivocal moral baseline of “anything that deserves to be called an ‘animal rights’ movement.” But is the fundamentalist abolitionist approach practiced by Francione and his (ahem) avid followers too dogmatic?
David Sztybel, in a post, “Veganism as a Moral Baseline for Animal Rights: Two Different Senses” on his On the Road to Liberation blog agrees that veganism must be the baseline but thinks that “the form that baseline should take is crucial. Some conceptions of veganism as the moral baseline of animal rights are better and more accurate than others.”
Ian Erik Smith in a post to his Uncivilized Animals, which led to heated discussion in the comments section, entitled “Is There No Room for Rod Coronado in the Animal Rights Movement? The Problem with Veganism as the Moral Baseline” says that “‘veganism as the moral baseline’ dogma effectively eliminates the possibility of the animal rights movement building meaningful alliances with other social justice movements even ones as closely related to its aims as earth liberation and indigenous resistance.” He questions the wisdom of discounting the legendary accomplishments of Rod Coronado merely because he is no longer vegan (it seems he has consumed road kill and non-vegan food from dumpster dives).
While I would question why Coronado felt it necessary to engage in such practices and there is the “yuck factor” to contend with, I, too, cannot see why we should condemn him when he has done and continues to do so much for animal liberation.
Is the mere act of consuming animal flesh or animal secretions the problem, even when done in a way — such as eating road kill–that does not contribute to violence? Do we risk fetishizing veganism rather than viewing it within a larger ethical context which makes room for others who are not yet vegan but are potential allies?
I realize that many of the questions posed here may seem rhetorical or suggestive, implying a certain answer is already in mind. Yes, I do have some definite leanings. I cannot conceive of anything shaking those core values. But I would like to think I will always be open to questions. I do not have an unreasoning faith in veganism. My strong belief in veganism and animal rights, though not without passion and emotion, is based on well-reasoned ethical arguments. Those ethical arguments long ago caused me to question my use of animals. They caused me to question my own speciesism. I believe we always must question things “as they are.” We must question what is deemed “normal, natural and necessary” as Melanie Joy puts it.
I do not want to see veganism become entrenched as dogma, for then it would become moribund. To keep veganism and our vegan activism alive and vital, we must confront ourselves with vital questions, among them, perhaps, the following:
How does veganism truly express my values? Do I fully understand the values inherent in veganism? Moral values of non-violence, justice, kindness and compassion? Am I truly living those values or just smug behind a vegan facade?
Very nicely written! I love the way you express yourself in your writing and your life, in general.
Another excellent blog. When asking questions of ourselves and others we dont always need to have the answers. Questions alone are a great start. I have asked myself much of the same over the years. I too find that as I get older I have more questions and more doubt about pretty much verything.
You are making it too complicated. Veganism does not have to intersect with other political ideologies. Just keep it simple. If you don’t want to partake in animal suffering go vegan as much as possible. Also, it has nothing to do with white privilege. Poor people of the world have been eating most plant based forever. In fact the vegan diet, particularly one based on rice and beans, has been the standard fair for the people forever.
Thank you for your comment. I am not sure what I am making too complicated, however. What exactly am I to keep simple?
You say that veganism doesn’t have to intersect with “other political ideologies,” but if we do view veganism as being informed by the concept of social justice (which means that we view veganism as being crucial to animal rights/liberation–as I do) then isn’t it important to see the connections? Isn’t it incumbent upon us to build alliances with other social justice movements?
And I didn’t say that veganism necessarily was informed by white privilege; my question was: How do we counter the image of veganism as the bastion of white privilege? And, yes, I do think that is how many view veganism.
I do agree with you that a plant-based foods have been the “standard fair” of many people around the world. As I wrote: How can we connect with those folks in non-white communities who are already vegan and are already advocating for veganism and even animal rights in their own ways in their own communities?
Thank you Robb– I am going to read this again. And again.
Thank you, Ann for your thoughtfulness and well considered opinions. And thank you for educating others about how our consumer habits and throw-away culture harm the environment and our fellow earthlings.
Thank you for the thought provoking provoking piece. I’d love for you to write more about capitalism and veganism. We as a movement put too much emphasis on vegan options, vegan products changing the world. The answer to animal liberation is not via capitalism, capitalism is one of the major things holding up liberation. Great piece.
Thank you so much, Gary. Coming from you, it is an honor. Folks, please check out Gary’s thought provoking blog, The Thinking Vegan.
In a world of commonly blustery declarations, it is refreshing to see an honest confession of doubt. And the desire to keep important questions open and alive. Fine questions indeed. Vegan is not the foundation of all answers. But is it part of the answer? So is it all-or-nothing thinking to wonder if veganism is either THE ANSWER or NOT THE ANSWER? Either option presupposes that there is only one of these options. It precludes considering veganism PART of the answer perhaps to our life’s quest for meaning for example, or meaningful living perhaps. Or what the denizens of our world sorely need. And so on. I would refrain from using any title that tends to be negative about veganism, although of course you are so VERY vegan-positive. But I would also refrain from assuming that other people should be guided by what I refrain from!
The plaintive question about white privilege is important and daunting in a movement long dominated by so-called “whites”. It is interesting to meditate whether a racist’s vegan campaigning can count for something. That is what I would say for myself anyway, that there is something there even though not everything. There is not just one vegan audience, so special interest literature focusing on specific religions can be fruitful – or not. Direct Action Everywhere is awfully interesting and looks helpful to me. My post quoted in your article refers to veganism as a moral baseline but that bits of progress count for something, unlike the Francionist vision. An all-or-nothing approach more or less for his part. I sympathize with Coronado personally in what was mentioned. Again, your spirit of questioning is most appreciated and I think essential to fully functioning as a cognitive being. Thanks for such an interesting post, and sorry about my blathering on and on! And on!
Thank you, David, for your thoughtful reply. Thoughtfulness is, or should be, the key to any considerations of veganism or animal rights/liberation. Much thought must be given so that our veganism is not just an emotional or a sentimental reaction but a well considered ethical choice based on questioning the widely accepted paradigms which dictate what is normal, natural and necessary — the carnist orthodoxy, if you will. But that insistence on questioning beliefs also must extend to ourselves as vegan advocates. I believe that veganism is indeed the answer in the form of a paradigm shift away from carnism but let us not stop questioning.