Author Archives: cwrenn

Vegan Ethics and the Case for Black Widow Spiders

The ethical conundrum created by human interactions with poisonous species is one that tests the limits of vegan ethics. What is the correct path of action if one should come across a potentially deadly black widow spider, for instance? Can veganism’s commitment to nonviolence resist the intense social pressure to kill these beings on sight?

As with many questions about the practicality of veganism, speciesism interferes with clear decision-making. Humans harbor implicit biases about other animals which puts them at a disadvantage in perceived conflicts of interest. The stigma surrounding black widow spiders, for instance, is built on a certain amount of ignorance (unfamiliarity with the species) and stereotyping (loosely-fitting generalizations). Mass media, which frequently portrays spiders as villainous, lurking, and evil, also inhibits rational consideration.

The  true nature of black widows contradicts common conceptions.  First, they are quite clumsy outside of their web. This means that they are homebodies, rarely out on the prowl and not likely to give chase. Neither are they very brave.  If their foe is formidable (as would be a large human), they prefer escape over attack. Most importantly, statistically few humans are bitten, and very few of these will actually die.

Of course, these facts do little to mitigate the fear of pain and death that black widows exact. It is hard to remain rational when suddenly encountering them.  I have personally seen a few black widows over the years, but only one of these instances I could consider a close call. I was home alone preparing for a tubing trip on the river. I dragged out a bunch of old inner tubes that had been stacked in the backyard, attempted to hose some of the mud off, then started cramming them into the trunk of my car. I probably spent a good five minutes jamming them in, repositioning them, and smashing them with my bare hands.

My friend met me at the gas station a few minutes later to fill the tubes up with air.  As I handed him the second tube, he recoiled and let out a yell:  there was a black widow amidst the rubber.  He was shaken; he could have been bitten. Acutely remembering my sloppy packing job, I realized that I could have been bitten as well.

My friend, who knew me to be a vegan, said to me: “You know we can’t let that spider live.”  I considered the fact that he may be right as we were in a busy public space.  But he didn’t kill her, and neither did I.  She clung to the air pumping station while we worked, and when we were done, we loaded up and left.  I didn’t see her anymore, and presumed she had scuttled away.

Of course, not everyone’s choices are so simple.  Sometimes deadly spiders take up residence with families that have children or elderly persons. Some people live in geographic hot spots that attract far too many black widows to safely live side by side with. Complicating this is that medical treatment for bites are not vegan. The antivenin (for those lucky enough to receive it) is produced by hurting other spiders.  Horses and other animals are also used in testing the product.

The case for black widow spiders challenges the core of the vegan ethic: is it ever acceptable to kill another in a situation of potential danger? Unfortunately, these ethical catch-22s are too frequently used to dismiss veganism altogether under the faulty deductive logic that, because moral purity is impossible, veganism is also impossible. While black widows do present a murky ethical situation,  most of our relationships and encounters with Nonhuman Animals are not life or death situations and do not require killings of necessity. The uncertainty of how to handle the chance encounter with a black widow holds little relevance to the certainty of systematic exploitation of Nonhuman Animals killed for food, clothing, and entertainment. Unlike black widows, these species do not pose any threat to humans; indeed, they suffer and die only to meet production quotas and consumer demands.

Being vegan is a guiding practice, not a dogma. It encourages striving for perfection only as far as is reasonable.  Just because some vegans may resort to killing insects in rare and regrettable situations (and it is not something that vegans take likely or enjoy doing), this is not cause to toss veganism out the window as useless or unrealistic. Vegan ethics advise compromise and life-affirming, creative solutions. In many instances, the best solution to problems is to avoid them in the first place and take preventative measures.  Keeping a tidy, clean home, applying insect repellent, and checking your shoes before putting them on are some easy ways to nurture coexistence with insects, be they biting, stinging, or deadly.

 

 

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on September 17, 2013.


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

Readers can learn more about vegan ethics and Nonhuman Animal rights in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Peter Singer and the Charity of Western Imperialism

Covert Capitalism and Western Benevolence

A current fad in social justice strategy is the concept of “effective altruism,” made popular in vegan circles by wealthy Princeton University professor and “father” of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, Peter Singer. Singer is involved in a number of outreach efforts designed to rationalize charity, notably “The Life You Can Save” giving project. Effective altruists (who tend to be monied, Western whites) first choose what they believe to be the best and most effective charities in collaboration with nonprofit strategists, and then encourage others to rationally share their wealth by donating to them. By “taking the pledge” to donate a certain percentage of income to charity, those with the means to do so can supposedly alleviate the world’s woes.

This essay argues that, while important, aid is not the answer to injustice.  This position is primarily based on the fact that aid has had a long sordid history in third world countries. Western elites usually only give aid to countries if there is an expectation of a return on their investment, such as creating a dependency on Western products, locking them under Western control with debt, and pressuring them to “free” their markets to Western capital. Some of the disastrous results have included forced sterilization projects, the spread of Western diseases of affluence, the infiltration of polluting and unsustainable industries, the destruction of traditional foodways, and a dependence on the West in general.  In short, aid has been a project of Western imperialism.

Effective For Who?

The fundamental problem with the concept of effective altruism is that it is predicated on elite-designed algorithms and the preferences of capitalists. In other words, how problems are identified, defined, and solved is left up to the very class of persons who benefit from the problems. Inevitably, some of the most vulnerable groups will be overlooked. For instance, Singer’s choice charities are problematic in that none, as of this writing, target Nonhuman Animals. If rational impact maximization truly shapes effective altruism, this omission is suspect. Not only do Nonhuman Animals lead in number of individuals impacted, but their suffering is directly linked to the suffering of humans and the environment.  Targeting the consumption of Nonhuman Animals (an activity that is especially linked to Western culture) would be the most utilitarian solution.

Singer does, however, support Project Healthy Children, a charity that pushes Western-approved foods on African children.  This includes cows’ milk, even though most Africans are lactose intolerant, milk is directly linked to a litany of deadly human diseases, milk production is notoriously destructive to the environment, and milk causes immense suffering for the cows and goats forced to produce it (see Greta Gaard’s research).

Effective altruism also overlooks serious structural problems that impede equality. Instead of demanding justice and disrupting the exploitative practices of corporations and the elites that manage them, it solicits a modest redistribution from a sympathetic few. Consider that Big Pharma could easily relieve victims of malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, and other diseases ravaging the third world that effective altruists target.  Instead, the Western-led pharmaceutical industry inflates the prices of the drugs to many times the actual cost in regions where disease congregates.  It also heavily lobbies to protect “intellectual property” and prevent affordable generic alternatives from hitting the market. Introducing checks and balances into the structure of health and medicine could have monumentally positive impacts on the world’s poor, an impact that would far exceed the impact of donations.

Also suspect is Singer’s support for Population Services International, a charity designed to decrease the world’s population, or, more specifically, the population of third world countries. Anti-population groups are often responsible for forced and coerced sterilization projects on vulnerable women in poor regions of the world. Because poor people are a burden to the capitalist system,  “population control” in third world regions has become a top priority of Western governments and aid projects. Millions of women have been psychologically devastated, socially ostracized, violated, hurt, maimed, and killed due to these policies.

Most fundamentally, it is important to recognize that these large populations of poor and vulnerable persons do not emerge from happenstance; they are products of an exploitative global economic system. What Singer’s project overlooks is that the underlying problem here is not a lack of funds, it is the capitalist system that originates social inequalities and chronic destitution.  So long as this system remains in tact, there will always be need for charities and donations. And it will never be enough.

 

The NonProfit Industrial Complex

Lubricating this capitalist/charity system is the manifestation of the nonprofit regime. The nonprofitization of social change has positioned the state and the industries it serves in control over justice efforts, effectively nullifying radical liberatory politics. Notably, the public imagination for protest has been framed as deviant and replaced with the more rational, effective strategy of donating. This is decidedly a very pro-capitalist, neoliberal solution, but neoliberal capitalism has been identified as the root originator of inequality.


“Helping others” is just that: help, not structural change.  Nonprofits, unfortunately, cannot prioritize radical restructuring because such an agenda is off-putting to the conservative foundations that issue their grant money (these foundations were created by wealthy elites who profit from the exploitation of the very oppressed persons nonprofits purport to help). Corporations and the state benefit from radical disempowerment, because radical claimsmaking is a threat to the capitalist agenda.  It disrupts the status-quo that benefits the elite and naturalizes the suffering of the oppressed.

Instead, nonprofits are in the business of social services, doing the work that is made necessary by the capitalist exploitation that the state facilitates but does not “pay” for itself.  Big industries become big by exploiting the poor and benefiting from state allocations. It becomes the responsibility of well-to-do altruists to relieve those damages when the state will not (or cannot). Of course, not everyone can afford to participate in this variation of social change work. As such, with the public convinced that financial participation is the only legitimate means of helping others, they become disempowered. Nonprofits find little use for the time, services, creativity, organizational skills, or leadership that public volunteers can offer. Primarily, they simply desire regular donations.

Furthermore, nonprofits are disproportionately staffed by wealthy, white educated men who invariably harbor privileged worldviews, and this will shape how they frame social problems and their solutions. By allocating charity work to nonprofits, the public forfeits control over social change to elites. This situation is likely to foster considerable bias.

 

Radicalize Your Giving

Donation is not completely useless, as some money does reach communities that can benefit considerably from it. However, for those who are determined to donate (and have the means to do so), it may be advisable to donate to grassroots efforts in areas of need. In doing so, money is placed directly into the hands of those who need it, not nonprofits that must accommodate the interests of elites.

Social change requires the collective effort of thousands, even millions of people. Not all will have the means to donate financially.  When social change is reduced to a series of financial transactions, its tie to social change weakens, but its tie to capitalist expansion is emboldened. Capitalism is full of holes that are regularly plugged with charity and other bailouts. As such, effective altruism is actually rather irrational in sustaining an economic system that necessitates inequality.

 

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on December 20, 2013.


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

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

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A Vegan Feminist Response to Nonhumans First

Content Warning: This post contains graphic descriptions of violent anti-speciesism protests which involve racism, sexual assault, violence against women, and child abuse.

 

The Logic of Non-Humans First!

As intersectionality discourse has gained resonance in Nonhuman Animal rights spaces, the challenge to the previously invisibilized white- and male-centrism has inspired organized resistance. Perhaps the most visible of these countermovement efforts is the  Non-Humans First Declaration. Explicitly dismissing the importance of race, class, and gender, the declaration insists that the advancement of Nonhuman Animals should be prioritized at any cost.

The declaration was authored by a collective known as Non-Humans First!, a project of the Israeli direct action group 269life. In the 2010s, 269life rose to prominence in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement with the deployment of numerous morally shocking reenactments of violence against humans intended to allegorize nonhuman oppression.

One such public demonstration featured a woman and a child as representatives of victims of dairy production. Male activists ripped the woman’s child away, placed it on the ground, and proceeded to sexually assault the screaming woman, beating her so aggressively that she bled. The event ended with men dragging her by the neck into an unmarked van, symbolizing the eventual slaughter of dairy cows.

In another street demonstration, unclothed white activists mimicked the buying and selling of Africans by appearing in chains and branding one other with hot irons to draw connections between human and nonhuman chattel slavery.

As these examples demonstrate, the aim is to trigger the traumatic memories and realities of marginalized communities. Their discomfort is believed to inspire solidarity, encouraging audiences to recognize nonhuman oppression and become vegan.

Thus, 269life’s anti-intersectionality manifesto should be interpreted within a repertoire of violent direct action. The intention may be to highlight intersections of oppression, but, ultimately, these tactics do not respect intersectional politics as they are a product of appropriation Regardless of intention, they aggravate human inequality to make their point.

However, causing harm to vulnerable humans is not considered especially relevant. The Non-Humans First! approach demonstrates that harm to humans is ill-considered or outright provoked by its activists. For that matter, anti-speciesists who choose the latter option of provocation and ascribe to bigoted views are welcomed to participate as comrades. As the manifesto states:

No one should be excluded from participation in animal rights activities based on their views on human issues. The non-human animals are in a situation of immediate emergency and need all the help they can get! 

While it is true that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has lagged behind similar social justice efforts, the frustration with slow-coming change and the desire to cling to any and all available resources should not cloud strategy and common decency. Nonhumans do not need all the help they can get if that “help” encumbers movement progress by aggravating social inequality and alienating potential allies.

Non-Humans First!:

Furthermore, the women’s rights, anti-racism, etc. movements have no requirement that participants reject species oppression and nor should the animal movement demand the adherence to human rights positions while animals are still in a state of emergency. Of course, every rule has its exceptions (as decided by individual groups) but these kind of bans and exclusions should not be the norm in animal rights.

Here, Non-Humans First! posits that, because there is no requirement for human rights groups to include speciesism, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement should not worry itself with respecting other humans. This is a hypermasculinized logic of “everyone out for themselves,” one that is explicitly adversarial and renders alliance-building unfeasible.

Furthermore, it is grounded in fallacy. It is inaccurate to suggest that Nonhuman Animals are in a state of emergency, but that human animals are not. Victims of war, genocide, rape, starvation, disease, slavery, etc. are most certainly in a state of emergency as well. Non-Humans First! activists wrongly presume that those who would be harmed by their offensive protests are on more or less an equal social footing, but the 21st century remains deeply unequal. Most of the world’s humanity can only dream of the privilege that is enjoyed by the average anti-speciesist activist.

 

The Privilege to Frame Suffering and Need

Indeed, it is the relative privilege afford to many Non-Humans First! activists that most likely accounts for their anti-feminist position. The suffering of the underprivileged (children, women, people of color, non-Westerners, etc.) is easily disqualified by those who do not have direct experience with it. However, the patriarchal norms of the white-centric Nonhuman Animal rights movement allow that such rhetoric is likely to resonate with other activists. Non-humans First! posturing draws on white male Western epistemology that structures anti-speciesist collective action, but it has little impact outside of movement circles where such ideas are understood to be threatening and otherizing.

 

The Entanglement of Oppression

Another reason why this approach lacks effectiveness is due to the nature of oppression. Inequalities cannot be cherry-picked. Working to end the oppression of some while abetting or aggravating the oppression of others only serves the cultural belief that oppression is acceptable.

For that matter, oppressions function in tandem and are frequently entangled. Non-humans First! will find it difficult to prioritize nonhumans without inadvertently impacting human causes. When 269 Life sexually assaults and beats women in demonstrations because “no tactical idea should be excluded from the discussion based on its conflict with human rights ideology,” it employs powerful ideologies of misogyny to shock or even threaten its audience into compliance. The repercussions are not theoretical, but have physical consequences for girls, women, and others who are vulnerable to sexual violence. Rape culture remains as pervasive as ever, and violence against women is normalized, trivialized, and even encouraged. It should be the business of anti-speciesists to denounce violence, not participate in it.

The Non-Humans First! campaign shirks responsibility in this regard by insisting that vulnerable humans are not deserving of any rights themselves until speciesism is attended to:

We are aware and concerned about the fact that some human rights improvements within a fundamentally oppressive system towards non-humans leads to increased oppression of non-human animals. For example, economic improvements leading to increases in factory farming, meat consumption, animal labs, etc. We therefore call on human beings to free their own (non-human) slaves before demanding their own rights.

But this is simply not how oppression works.

By way of an example, slaughterhouse employees are often undocumented, and have few rights whatsoever. They experience the one of the highest rates of job injury and death in all U.S. industry, while female employees face regular sexual harassment, assault and rape. Slaughterhouse workers are routinely denied benefits and job security. As a consequence, many are living in poverty and disability, struggling to stay alive and to support their families.  How is it that these persons are in a position to “free their own slaves” if they are structurally prevented from attaining even their own rights? Slaughterhouse work is so dangerous and unrewarding, workers must be assumed to be living in serious precariousness. Why else would someone enter such an occupation? In such instances, there is little choice for workers wishing for employment that aligns with their values.

When anti-intersectionalists frame human participation in immoral industries as a matter of “choice,” they obscure the fact that this is a “choice” that privileged persons rarely (if ever) have to seriously consider. Choice rhetoric works to obscure social inequality. It incorrectly blames individuals targeted by exploitative systems for the consequences of exploitative systems.

Choice rhetoric also makes little sense when considering systemic human oppressions that target minors and dependents. Child slavery and sex trafficking continues at staggering rates across the world, for example, and children are certainly not in a position to prioritize speciesism over their own welfare. Choice requires power, and only an elite few are privileged with this agency. Even if children and other vulnerables are unable to renounce speciesism, they should not be abandoned. Nor should tactics be designed that inflame the problematic ideologies and institutions that target them.

 

The Sociology of Bridge-Building and Burning

Understandably, intersectionality is a difficult concept for many activists to accept given the tremendous violence facing other animals, but the unfortunate reality is that not everyone has the “privilege” to fight specifically for Nonhuman Animals.  Many humans must focus on their own health and safety simply to survive. By villainizing vulnerable humans, Non-Humans First! creates an atmosphere of discomfort and hostility which suggests that underprivileged persons are simply part of the problem if they object to questionable tactics and are not entitled to be anti-speciesists themselves if they cannot prioritize other animals.

Although it seeks to achieve the opposite, the Non-Humans First! campaign thus nurtures division between representatives of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement (who are predominantly male and almost exclusively white, middle-class persons) and disadvantaged groups living with rape, violence, murder, enslavement, poverty, hunger, disease, and other deprivations. Solidarity, not shaming, is what is needed.

Social movement theory warns that marginalizing the large demographic of disadvantaged humans and focusing only on the interests and worldviews of the tiny fraction of elite movement leaders is ineffective. This approach will not build a strong, credible, respected, or powerful movement. Animal rights will remain marginal because it will appear out of touch with the reality of social inequality. Scientific research supports that effective social justice strategies rely on a reasoned, evidence-based, logical, non-violent framework, one that is congruent with movement goals and not antithetical to them.

 

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on September 8, 2013.


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

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

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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.

 


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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.

 


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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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