Author Archives: cwrenn

Animal Abolitionism, a 19th Century Holdover

The desire to totally liberate other animals from human oppression is generally thought a product of late 20th century imagining. In today’s capitalistic  movement, activists and organizations scramble to specialize and copyright their particular brand of activism, often to the effect of invisibilizing a rich activist history.

In researching for my new book on factional debate in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, I noticed that, while the abolitionist faction seems to have developed as a distinct collective in the 21st century following the energizing work of the late philosopher and activist Tom Regan, the very arguments that distinguish it were developed much earlier in the 19th century.

The abolitionist approach to Nonhuman Animal rights probably originates from its appropriation of tactics and rhetoric associated with the antislavery movement. Early vegetarian reformers were deeply involved in anti-slavery efforts, even positioning vegetarianism as a means of ending slavery. In fact, the term “abolitionist” itself is usually traced to this hugely influential movement. Like other movements against oppression, the anti-slavery cause was divided over whether or not to advocate for complete abolition or abolition-oriented gradual reforms.

Anti-slavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison considered many anti-cruelty and vegetarian activists as colleagues, and abolitionist papers reported on vegetarian events. These early reformers also supported women’s suffrage, and explicitly encouraged women to speak at vegetarian conferences. Vegetarian suffragettes also made the connection that ending animals’ oppression was the key to ending women’s oppression.

Although born of an intersectional past, abolitionism would gradually detach as the Nonhuman Animal rights movement gained momentum. For anti-speciesists of the late 19th century onward, abolitionism referred almost exclusively to nonhumans. Regardless, the belief that the oppression of Nonhuman Animals should be abolished rather than modified or reformed is a concept that is as old as is the movement. Heated debates between welfarists and abolitionists in the early years of the SPCA in England and the AHA in America are recorded in meeting notes. Frances Power Cobbe and other antivivisectionists, enraged by reformist legislation that effectively legitimized and protected vivisectors, explicitly identified as abolitionist. Even Donald Watson and the early vegans were abolitionist, regularly lambasting welfare reforms in early issues of The Vegan.

Today’s abolitionism as was developed by Regan, then, is merely one wave of many. It is a shame that Post-Regan abolitionism has completely diverged from its early connection to anti-racism and anti-sexism, but it is heartening to rediscover this legacy of compassion and refusal to compromise.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Colonizing England and the Naming of Animals

 

While many recognize Great Britain as a great imperialist power responsible for untold suffering over the centuries, some might be surprised to learn that the island itself was the site of extensive colonization prior to medieval times. Historians have described it as a sort of “back water” with little political influence, making it an easy target for neighboring powers. There were the Vikings, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Normans, all staking their claim at one point or another. With colonization came pillaging and war, but also significant cultural shifts.

Many of the stone fortresses that non-Brits associate with the English landscape were a result of the Norman takeover in 1066 following the Battle of Hastings. They were built to secure their new rule in this foreign kingdom. The Normans also brought with them French culture and immediately began to usurp land and money, ousting the majority of the old Anglo-Saxon elite. But the takeover required more than castles, land, and money, it also required some manipulation of the symbolic landscape.

Sociologists argue that language holds a certain power: it can uphold particular social norms and reinforce social hierarchies. This is why vegan sociologists often place the word “meat” in quotation marks, or refer to animals as “nonhuman animals.” Using language in this way can disrupt oppressive values and force the reader or listener to think critically about their relationship with the oppressed. Sometimes, marginalized groups will actively seek to associate with language that empowers them. For instance, in an article published with T.O.F.U. Magazine, I discuss how parents will sometimes name their daughters male names in order to improve their social status (parents will also stop naming their male children these names as they become “contaminated” with femininity).

Following the Norman conquest, an interesting phenomenon took place in the British language. The new elites tended to be French, while the large majority of the population were poor farmers who were Anglo-Saxon. The French language became a marker of privilege. William and other Norman names became quite popular in England, even among the peasants (The Battle of Hastings was won by England’s new Norman king, William the Conqueror).  By the end of the Middle Ages, the English language had absorbed quite a bit of French (as it had with a number of other languages like Latin, Gaelic, and German), but there was a time when status was tied to an association with French culture.

This is the interesting part for animal studies scholars: following the conquest, two separate languages were used to describe Nonhuman Animals, and this was based on their class association. Animals that were muddy, stinky, brutish, and still alive, were referred to in Anglo-Saxon English. Once butchered, cooked, and served at the table in a “refined” state that no longer resembles the living creature it once was, the corpse was referred to in French terminology. Pig was English; Pork was French. Sheep was English; Mutton was French. Cow was English; Beef was French.

The word “shambles” is also Old English in origin and refers to a slaughterhouse or butcher’s shop (the popular phrase “My life is a shambles” literally means that it is as messy and chaotic as a slaughterhouse). Incidentally, the French term abattoir did not come into common English use until the 19th century. Association with the “unrefined” matter of Nonhuman Animal “husbandry” and slaughter was a mark of low class status. Adding to this association, only wealthy Norman elites could afford to eat Nonhuman Animal products. Impoverished Anglo-Saxon peasants ate mostly plant-based diets.

This linguistic history, I think, demonstrates a very interesting linkage between colonization, class, and speciesism. Nonhuman Animals simply become political objects used to reinforce social hierarchies, meaning that their suffering goes unacknowledged by historians. Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting case for the entanglement of human and nonhuman oppression.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Are Teddy Bears Vegan? President Roosevelt and the SPCA

Speciesism, like any ideology of oppression, is effective in its banality. Consider the “teddy bear.” Have you ever stopped to consider its origin? It is not so cuddly as you might imagine.

Teddy bears trace back to the early 20th century. Known as the Progressive Era, this was an age of considerable change and insecurity as the country modernized and reformed. As feminists pressed for women’s rights, traditional male power was challenged and provoked resistance. Rugged masculinity became a popular “cure” for a populace thought have become weak and effeminate. This was complicated by American imperialism and war, both of which necessitated ideological support for the systemic violence, dominance, and colonization that characterized the American agenda.

As such, nationhood was bound to the celebration of masculinity and the denigration of all that was feminine. Unfortunately for Nonhuman Animals, they would become prime targets in this conflict. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, “hunting”1 was primarily associated with the lower classes engaged in substance-killing and the upper classes engaged in sport-killing. Humane societies had little interest in harassing the poor, and even less interest in antagonizing elites who could easily become a political threat. According to HSUS historian Bernard Unti,2 this changed with the election of Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s gregarious, rough-n-tumble warrior-“cowboy” persona brought hunting center stage. Humane advocates could not ignore the president’s gratuitous violence and its potential influence on impressionable youth.

Roosevelt’s “hunting” exploits drew considerable media attention and criticism from humane organizations, namely the Massachusetts SPCA. The criticism was well deserved. In one African “safari,” Roosevelt and his team were responsible for killing 11,000 animals. “Hunting” became a ritual display of Presidential power. As he visited towns across the US, citizens would present nonhuman victims, some of whom were tame, for Roosevelt to dispatch in “canned hunts.”

In one such case, one of the victims presented was in especially pitiful shape. Already mangled by “hunting” dogs, the gasping bear had been tied to a tree to await Roosevelt’s shot. Rather than maintain the pretense of a “hunt,” Roosevelt instructed his guide to “euthanize” the bear by violently stabbing him death. The bear apparently struggled considerably in this final fight for his life. The incident went viral, and Roosevelt was commended for his “compassion.” Like many epic tales of Roosevelt’s exploits, there was a political tilt. The violent and paternalistic control of Nonhuman Animals spoke not only to America’s relationship with women and foreign powers, but also to people of color. The Smithsonian, for instance, reports that the Teddy bear story analogized Roosevelt’s disdain for lynching in the South. Whatever the intended meaning, the President and bears were linked ever since. The popularity of the story sparked the sale of “teddy bear” souvenirs.

Animal-killing generally worked in Roosevelt’s favor, and he dismissed his critics with racism, ableism, and sexism. Vegetarians were simply “flabby Hindoos,” while humane activists were “soft-headed.” To Roosevelt, killing was natural, necessary, and good for the character and the nation.

Today, teddies are associated with childhood, sweetness, and even love, but their legacy is riddled with patriarchal, imperialist violence and the mass killing of Nonhuman Animals. There is also an unmistakable undercurrent of misogyny, as violence enacted on animals was a measure of reasserting masculine dominance. The animalizing of African Americans in the South in the teddy bear legacy also gives pause.  Critical Animal Scholars have also examined children’s toys as a powerful means of socializing human supremacy. I am not prepared to classify teddy bears as nonvegan, but I do advocate an honest appraisal of their questionable history.

 

Notes
1. Euphemistic terms are placed in quotations to denote their contested nature.
2. Readers can learn more about the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt and the history of humane activism in the United States in Bernard Unti’s 2002 The Quality of Mercy: Organized Animal Protection in the United States 1866-1930 (open-access). More information is also available from the Theodore Roosevelt Association.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Politics of the Pure Vegan Myth

Veganism as a Symbol

Social movements are not only concerned with identifying a social problem and prescribing solutions, but also with maintaining boundaries. Movements must delineate themselves from the mainstream that has been identified as problematic, but they must avoid constructing boundaries that are so rigid that they deter potential recruits and allies. Social movement theorist James Jasper refers to this balancing act as the “Janus Dilemma” as movements must be simultaneously inwardly and outwardly oriented. As a movement grows, differences inevitably arise in how problems should be defined and how best to solve them. Factions emerge as a result, and bring with them a new set of boundaries that activists must negotiate.

In my research of factionalism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, I have identified a number of symbols that are heavily politicized and contested in the social movement space. Symbols are ammunition in the crossfire between competing groups as they seek to define, protect, and breach boundaries. Veganism is one of the most vulnerable concepts in this intramovement battle for jurisdiction. What does it mean to be vegan? How important is veganism? Who is really a vegan, and who is not?

“Pure” Veganism

What I have found is that professionalized organizations expend considerable effort in denouncing veganism, what they generally refer to as a practice of “purity.” Oftentimes, they will frame this in individualist and ableist terms, describing “pure vegans” as “obsessive,” “angry,” or “self-absorbed.” Out of tune with reality, these “pure vegans” are alien from the more “practical” activist majority. As an alternative, large nonprofits advocate a variety of carnivorous diets that arbitrarily omit various animal bodies or products (vegeterianism, pescatarianism, veg*anism, plant-based, veggie, etc.).

Radical collectives are thus portrayed as unrealistic and self-righteous by contrast. Their relative powerlessness in the social movement space inhibits their ability to challenge the denigration of veganism or to defend their continued promotion of it.

Sociological thought acknowledges that social meanings do not necessarily correlate with objective reality. Instead, meaning is political in that it is constructed to serve particular interests. In this particular case, “vegan purity” is a a myth. It is not grounded in the daily reality of vegan life. The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Notice that this definition emphasizes exclusion of animal products as far as is possible and practicable. No practicing vegan actually believes that purity is achievable. Most vegans take medicine, drive cars, use computers, eat vegetables grown in animal waste, or shop in nonvegan grocery stores. Because speciesism is systemic, a human cannot exist in this society without indirectly benefiting from nonhuman oppression (this is the same reason why all whites who live in a white supremacy are “racist” even if they actively reject racism).

Nonprofit and Radical Applications

If real-world vegans recognize these common sense limitations, then where does the pure vegan myth come from? My research supports that the myth is constructed to invisibilize radical discourse that threatens hegemonic power structures in the movement. As an organization abandons the grassroots model in favor of professionalization, it turns on veganism by reframing it as impractical. In short, veganism interferes with access to grants. Even organizations that avidly touted the importance of veganism as a grassroots group would come to view it as a matter of “personal purity” after incorporating as a nonprofit and becoming dependent on fundraising.

Nonprofits are not the only players. I have sometimes observed radical activists feign an adherence to impossibly pure veganism. Among radicals, the pure vegan myth is employed most frequently to advance one’s own status or to undermine that of others. Purity is employed not to advocate for the interests of animals, but to protect boundaries and subdue contenders.

For instance, an American vegan society not long ago recommended Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in its vegan starter guide, innocently unaware that most commercial cereal products are fortified with vitamins sourced from animal bodies. A fact of vegan life is that “going vegan” is a lifelong process. Nonhuman oppression is so thoroughly saturated in our social worlds, we must be diligent in checking ingredients and challenging habitual consumer trust. It was an honest mistake and a real a shame, too, since corn flakes were invented in the 19th century to transition flesh-eaters into vegetarianism. The offending organization was roundly criticized for the accident by other radical collectives, but the assault had nothing to do with Nonhuman Animals, and everything to do with destroying the organization’s legitimacy as a contender in the radical space.

Veganism is not just a strategy for the emancipation of other animals, but a means of protecting jurisdiction. Professionalized organizations engage myths of vegan purity with hopes of appealing to elite-run foundations that are obviously less likely to award grants to nonprofits determined to undermine elite-run speciesist industries. Nonprofits thus distance themselves from radical collectives and their vegan agenda. As nonprofits trade ideals for resources, their power grows and reduces resources available for others. As a result, radicals disingenuously double down on the vegan myth in their struggle for survival in a movement that is increasingly dominated by large nonprofits.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Are Animal Crackers Vegan?

vintage-barnumsDating back to 1902, Barnum’s animal crackers have been an American classic for generations. The original boxes came with a string and cardboard wheels so that the bears, elephants, lions, and tigers painted behind bars could be carried about by children encouraged to take on the role of ringleader. The animals were often shown vicious, wild, exciting, and in need of control. The cages separating the consumer from the wild beasts within were necessary and clearly defined.

vegan-animal-crackersIn Our Children and Other Animals (2014), Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart argue that children’s toys, media, and other products are carefully constructed to capitalize on children’s interest in other animals, while also teaching them speciesism and dominance. To accomplish this, the violence inherent to speciesism is presented as unexceptional or erased altogether to the effect of normalizing human supremacy.

In support of this socialization process, the “wildness” of other animals may be emphasized to teach children that violent relationships with other animals is “natural,” as is human dominance. However, oppression is increasingly framed as consensual, rather than forced. This approach surfaces is in Barnum’s packaging today.

Gone are the angry, caged animals requiring harsh control. Today’s box features sentimental images of animal families. This is a soft control. The bars become faint and fall into the background. Children can now imagine that the animals are there of their own will, their oppression desired and mutually beneficial. This ideology of consensual, happy, and willing participation is perhaps the most powerful in support of speciesism. It is not only circus animals who are reframed in this way, but other “zoo” animals. Over 50 species have been imprisoned in Barnum’s cardboard railroad cars since 1902.

barnums-animal-crackersSome of the newer special editions show no bar enclosure at all. The animals are still controlled, boxed or within a snow globe, but the child is encouraged to understand this control as benevolent.

lilly-crackers limited-edition-crackers

Are animal crackers vegan? While Nabisco’s recipe is free of animal ingredients, Cole & Stewart’s sociological analysis would suggest that consuming animal crackers is ritualistically anti-vegan, as it socializes speciesist sentiments and human supremacy in children. The work of vegan feminist Carol Adams supports this position, theorizing that Nonhuman Animals are routinely represented as willing, happy participants in order to repackage their consumption as something pleasurable, fun, and natural.

In the 1990s, Nabisco ran limited edition packaging that featured endangered species to raise awareness and funds, but even this intent to help was human-centered. Said the Nabisco product manager in a story with The New York Times:

What do people like about animal crackers? Biting off the heads! Our hope was that children will line them up, match them up with the names on the box, learn about them and then decapitate them.

barnum-crackers

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 

Readers can learn more about the sociology of speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on the Animals & Society Institute’s Human-Animal Studies Images blog on December 3, 2016.

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Fat Vegan Politics: Why Health-shaming, Body-policing, and Fat Stigma Hurts Humans and Other Animals

This month I published a qualitative study on fat vegan experiences in the journal of Fat Studies. Sixty-one respondents kindly gave their time to fill out a questionnaire asking a range of questions about their experiences as vegan activists. The results were surprising.

PETA ad reads, "'I hate men's guts.' Don't be a whopper go vegetarian." Has a blond white woman in an American bikini giving a beer belly the cold shoulder

Veganism is a food-focused movement that consistently banks on fat-shaming rhetoric and ideologies of thin privilege to persuade its audience to go vegan. In a sea of fat antagonistic claimsmaking, where does this leave fat vegans? After all, veganism is not a diet and many people do not lose weight after going vegan (some may even gain). Sizeist claimsmaking not only alienates fat audiences, but could also alienate fat activists.

What I found was that size discrimination was common, with one in four self-identified fat vegans having experienced it. What I also found, however, was that most were not deterred from participating. They resisted or sought out inclusive communities.

PETA billboard that reads, "Save the Whales. Lose the blubber: Go vegetarian." Features a fat woman in a bikini on the beach

While their resistance is admirable, it should not detract from the inappropriateness of sizeism in a social justice movement. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement has a long history of banking on human inequalities to shock, shame, or scare its audience into compliance. It is inconsistent with movement goals and is not sustainable. Rather than burn bridges and flame bigotry, the movement might instead appeal to intersections of oppression and shared identities. Like Nonhuman Animals, the fat community has been vilified, marginalized, an exploited, their bodies otherized and butchered (with diets and surgeries). Empathy will encourage behavior change, but scientific studies reliably demonstrate that stigma will not.

PETA ad that reads, "Obese in the USA? Go vegetarian." Image of a fat man's behind in front of an American flag

 

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 

Readers can learn more about the problems of aggravating human inequality to advance anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

 


 

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Dr. Corey Wrenn Featured in Huffington Post on Women in Politics

cat-memes

On November 3, 2016, I was interviewed by The Huffington Post for its story, “The Bizarre History Of Anti-Suffrage Cat Memes: In 100 years, we went from cat memes to grabbing ‘em by the p***y” in response to the clear intersections between animalizing women in the early suffragette movement and the animalization of women in the 2016 American presidential campaign.

In the piece, I clarified that animalizing minority groups is one of the oldest tricks in the book. By framing women, people of color, immigrants, and other mariginalized folks as animal-like and of another species, their unequal position can be justified, rationalized, and normalized.

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When White Makes Right: Racism, Neo-Colonialism, and Single-Issue Campaigns

live-sushi

The white-centrism of vegan advocacy is perhaps best evidenced in its partiality for single-issue campaigns targeting the practices of non-Western cultures.

Take, for instance, the 2013 Free From Harm call to action regarding “live sushi.” “Live sushi” entails the presentation of  butchered, living animals such as frogs to demonstrate freshness of product. Free From Harm sensationalizes this practice as one associated with foreigners for a presumed white audience. The petition it promotes promises to ban the practice if only this presumed white audience were to join together to police and control non-white deviants.

From the petition:

This barbaric, vulgar and unnecessarily cruel practice is truly a shame on the Japanese people. So we, signers of this petition from around the world, ask respectfully that you ban this practice in Japan.

White-led nonprofits engage cruelty rhetoric from a colonialist perspective: Western violent practices are invisibilized, while non-Western violent practices are framed as “vulgar.” The presumption being that Westerners possess the correct morality and the appropriate solutions to social ills.

live-sushiSingle-issue campaigning creates a competition for attention. As a result, social problems deemed most easily sold to the public are prioritized, and they frequently take advantage of racism, sexism, and other inequalities to improve resonance. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement, in other words, exploits human injustice to promote nonhuman justice.

Single-issue campaigns are thus fundamentally arbitrary in their focus. They have more to do with the prejudices of campaigners and their public than the relative suffering of the Nonhuman Animals in question. Indeed, the practice of keeping victims conscious during consumption extends far beyond Japan. Many Asian cultures engage this practice. For instance, there are soup recipes that feature live prawns swimming in steaming broth and octopus hot pots in which a living octopi’s arms are cut off with scissors bite by bite for the duration of the meal.

In the United States, Americans torture, dismember, and intentionally sicken and traumatize millions of rats, mice, birds, pigs, dogs, cats, monkeys, and other animals before eventually killing them days, months, or even years later in vivisection and military testing. Thousands of Americans traipse into woods, penned enclosures, rivers, and oceans to shoot other animals with bullets, arrows, and harpoons or snag their faces with metal hooks.  These animals are also fully conscious, suffering, and are often dismembered and disemboweled, before being killed and eaten.

deer-hunting

Really, then, speciesism is a global issue. There is nothing especially “barbaric, vulgar and unnecessarily cruel” about what happens to animals in Japanese food systems. Yes, “live sushi” entails the spectacle of an animal’s suffering as they die for the consumer’s pleasure, but Westerners value the spectacle of speciesist violence as well. Thus, it isn’t the spectacle that is the issue for Western petitioners, it is the cultural context.

“Live sushi” consumption takes place outside the framework of traditional Western practice. As has been the practice for several centuries, Westerners are quick to frame the culture of non-Westerners as “barbaric” and “savage” to justify global inequality and Western imperialism. Nonprofits and activists in the West must be mindful of this legacy when framing their social justice efforts, lest they inadvertently aggravate inequality in the process.

While I do not believe that anti-speciesist organizations are ignorant of the cultural contexts that shape their audience’s interpretations, some activists do make half-hearted appeals to the suffering of all Nonhuman Animals, not just those harmed by the practice in question. In doing so, they seek to leverage the non-white/non-Western cruelties highlighted by the campaign to build support for a wider vegan ethic. However, such an approach will not be enough to counter the racist and colonialist culture that translates their message. When met with criticisms of sexism, for instance, PETA counters that it uses men in its sexualized campaigning as well, but this does not negate the sexist cultural context in which PETA’s message will be read. We do not live in a post-gender world, and we do not live in a post-racial world. There are repercussions for vulnerable groups when campaigns of this kind are promoted.

The potential for aggravating racist and colonialist attitudes is a problem particular to single-issue campaigns. Single-issue campaigns are intended to otherize and create a sense of “we-ness” to motivate action.  Unfortunately, in doing so, these campaigns create divisiveness and invite stereotyping.  Advocating for all animals with a holistic vegan approach can combat speciesism without drawing ethnic/racial boundaries or appealing to paternalism.

Intersectional failure in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement alienates marginalized human populations in its fervor to liberate Nonhuman Animals. Many like to believe they live in a post-racial utopia where race, ethnicity, and nationality do not matter . . . but they do.  The majority of Western vegan activists and nonprofit leaders are white and middle-classed and Western nonprofits are the most influential in the global charity system. This imbalance nurtures a privileged worldview that will shape decision-making and campaign development to the potential detriment of others.

For further information on resisting intersectional failure in campaign development, I recommend a panel talk by Dr. Breeze Harper of the Sistah Vegan Project and Lauren Ornelas of Food Empowerment Project:  Animal Liberation, Tokenizing ‘Intersectionality’, and Resistance Ecology:

Note: Following the controversy in the article’s comments section, the Free From Harm article discussed here was been edited to reduce inflammatory elements and the comments section was closed.

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 

Readers can learn more about single-issue campaigning and racist strategies in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and their consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on June 9, 2013.

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It’s Like, Totally Sexist

Young white woman twirling her hair, reads, "I'm vegan. But I TOTALLY respect your RIGHT to harm other animals for your frivolous habits."

In my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights, I argue that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement banks on sexist scripts in the interest of promoting veganism. To this effect, stereotypes are frequently employed to shame women into compliance.

Memes like that pictured above “work” because they draw on a popular cultural trope, “The Valley Girl,” to negatively characterize the behaviors of others. Recall the cult classics Clueless (1995) and Legally Blonde (2001). Their leading characters are jokes, something to be laughed at or despised.

The women in these memes tend to be described as frivolous and smug, often infantilized and always trivialized. They are always women as well. I have yet to see a “Valley Boy” meme in circulation.

Movie poster for Clueless, shows Alicia Silverstone holding a cell phone and wearing a minidress and heels wrapped in a boa on a staircaseMovie poster for Legally Blonde, shows Reese Witherspoon dressed in heels with a tight dress and blonde hair blowing in the wind while she looks up to the sky, small chihuahua in a pink sweater at her heels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These memes frame veganism as a personal choice and nonveganism as women making selfish choices over righteous ones. Women are degraded and insulted for “the cause,” while the structural causes of speciesism are subsumed under sexist deflections.  Too often, women become the targets of activist frustration and anger with little regard for the intersectional nature of women’s oppression and that of other animals.

Meme of a white woman with her mouth open very wide and she is looking up with her eyes almost rolling back. Reads, "OMG IT'S LIKE SO SAD THEY KILL BABY COWS AND GOATS BUT I CAN'T LIKE LIVE WITHOUT CHEESE!"These memes are chosen intentionally to draw on particular cultural knowledges.  In a society that systematically disadvantages women as evidenced in an epidemic of discrimination that is fueled by negative stereotypes, sexism in vegan advocacy is something that social justice activists should take seriously. Exploiting oppression to combat oppression is unlikely to be successful. Given that gender oppression and species oppression interlock, aggravating the devaluation of women is likely to have negative impacts for other animals.

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 

Readers can learn more about sexist strategies in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and its consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


A version of this essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on June 3, 2013.

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The Vegan Politics of Taste

12582229724_5423168e8f_zImage from BZDogs

Psychologists tell us that we eat with our eyes. Sociologists, however, think we eat with our ideologies.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has theorized extensively on the politics of taste. What is good taste? What is bad taste? How do we know what we like? It has less to do with our taste buds than we might think.

The human senses are, of course, capable of detecting sweetness, bitterness, sourness, saltiness, and so on, and these tastes are synchronized with our brain to help us to determine what is edible, nutritious, and potentially useful for our bodies. However, as with so many embodied experiences, this process is highly shaped by our social environment.

For example, “vegan food” is regularly chastised for tasting like cardboard, sticks, and leaves (taste tests popular on Youtube exemplify this), but how much of this is based in reality? Stealth vegan entries into bake-offs should give us pause:

Tweet by username @ShultzTheWorld: "@triplejHack a vegan pie accidentally judged as meat pie and came 2nd at fine foods expo yesterday. Pie makers furious vegans rejoice"

Strange how vegan food can taste pretty good when we’re focusing on the flavor and not the politics.

Without culture to shape how we assign meaning to food, we are free to objectively rate it according to our senses, not our conditioning. The silliest part is that all humans eat plant food regularly without thinking twice about it. Fruit, grains, and vegetables, for instance, do not contain animal products, but nonvegans do not grimace when offered a banana not wrapped in bacon or dipped in butter.

Once the vegan label is attached, suddenly all the cultural baggage, promoted and reinforced by powerful industries and the government they influence, flood into the brain, manipulating the consumer’s experience of that food.

vegan-food-taste

 

Social constructions of taste are one of many operatives in the maintenance of oppression. What tastes good, bad, healthy, or not is determined by those with the power to shape interpretations. In Western society, this means corporate influence should not be discounted.

Some food companies and activists avoid describing their products as vegan, fully aware of market research that demonstrates apprehension about alternatives. “Plant-based,” “meat-free,” “soy alternative,” “vegetarian,” “veg,” and “animal-free” are labeling schemes that have been tried with varying success to encourage nonvegans to overcome their politicized palate.

Treating adults like toddlers, however, is perhaps not the best approach. Reducing vegan stigma by coming out of the closet, so to speak, is one way to resist. Until veganism is promoted proudly by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, it cannot overcome stigma or challenge social constructions of taste.

Unfortunately, most professionalized organizations in the movement enable this behavior. Reclaiming veganism as a matter of political support for the advancement of Nonhuman Animals is a crucial first step. Taste follows power structure; until veganism is recognized as legitimate, vegan food will continue to “taste” yucky in a speciesist society when human privilege is on the line.

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 

Readers can learn more about sociological theories of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

 


 

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