Veganism and Alternative Facts

The Role of Scientific Claimsmaking in a Rationalized Movementscape

One of the defining features of the 21st-century Nonhuman Animal rights movement is its move to increase rationalization. This is a process that prioritizes efficacy, control, and calculability of operations (Wrenn 2016). It is also especially concerned with fundraising and bureaucratic growth.

The social movement arena is a crowded one, however, and taking this predictable path makes it difficult for organizations to stand out in their effort to attract large grants and donations. One increasingly utilized strategy to get an edge on the competition is to demonstrate the efficacy of that organization’s chosen tactic.

With the lives of so many Nonhuman Animals on the line, investing more resources into learning what tactics are more or less effective is vital. However, social movement organizations often evoke scientific research to support their preexisting strategies and ideologies. Research that demonstrates contrary results may be ignored; research that provides weak results may be overly hyped.

As we know to be true of political debates transpiring in mainstream media, “alternative facts” and “fake news” can easily dominate in the social movement discourse as well. Few activists will be bothered to investigate the truthfulness of the claims being made. Even fewer have the skills necessary to determine the validity or reliability of scientific results. This essay is designed to highlight some issues for activists to consider when determining the usefulness of tactical research.

The Importance of Significance

A widely circulated and celebrated Faunalytics study, “Reduce” Or “Go Veg”? Effects On Meal Choice, exposed diners at a university cafe to two videos. One promoted a flexitarian solution, the other vegetarianism. Afterward, researchers tracked participant meal choices to ascertain if exposure to either film was influential. The findings?

After a reduction advocacy video, 25.8% of participants ordered a meatless meal, versus 18.9% after a vegetarian advocacy video (a marginally significant difference). (p.4)

Significance is key. It is the difference between a measurable correlation between variables (x influencing y) and random occurance (x just happens to actify when y does). The more significant the statistical result, the more confidence we can have in a correlational relationship existing between two variables. In this case, we are interested in the relationship between exposure to a particular message (x) and subsequent meal choice (y).

If the difference between the two messages is “marginally significant,” why not go with the morally consistent one? I believe the findings were misinterpreted in an effort to lend scientific support to outreach behaviors already engaged by nonprofits. These behaviors tend to be individualistic, one-off, and, given their avoidance of animal liberation and vegan language, more appealing to potential funders.

The professionalized movement has a propensity for aggravating vegan stigma, a persistent trend I have uncovered in an extensive content analysis of movement publications. Other researchers have noted blatant underreporting on existing vegan numbers as well.

The Faunalytics study also found that more people reported that they would be willing to reduce their consumption of “meat” than those who indicated they would be willing to eliminate it altogether. But what does this flexitarian claim really mean? The professionalized Nonhuman Animal rights movement has for many years now adopted the “meet people where they are” approach which does little, if anything, to push people past their existing dietary habits. Although vegan and vegetarian consumption is stigmatized behavior, it is also recognized as a social good (a paradox explained by do-gooder derogation). In other words, folks are more likely to report in such a way that puts them in a positive light, even if it is not an accurate representation of their behavior.

What about the actual “marginally significant” behavior change? Having folks immediately order a single meatless meal is not necessarily any better than successfully recruiting fewer vegetarians. Vegetarians and vegans (who, by the way, are more likely to commit when it their consumption is not viewed as a diet but instead becomes part of their identity) will order infinite meatless meals over their lifetime. Theoretically, they will far surpass their flexitarian counterparts in their capacity to reduce harm to other animals.

Spuriousness

It is also important to consider other things that might be influencing behavior (y). Crime rates tend to go up in the summer at the same time ice cream sales rise. Does this mean that ice cream consumption (x) causes crime (y)? No, of course not. There is a spurious relationship between the two which can be pinned on the warm weather which makes ice cream more palatable and crime more enticing (stealing cars, for instance, is less appealing when it is freezing outside). Social science researchers shy away from causation language for this reason (ie. “x causes y“).

There are so many confounding variables in social science research, it can be difficult to assign weight to the results. With regard to the study in question, we might first consider social psychological barriers. Asking people to go vegetarian on the spot is unrealistic; many people need time to process and consider (McDonald 2000). Caught off guard on the way to eat a meal already planned in their head, how many more would change their choice if given more time to contemplate?

For most of us, when we go to a local restaurant for lunch, we are taking time out of the busiest part of our day to visit a place (and a menu) already well known to us. That is, we have made our meal choice before we even arrived. Many folks (myself included) go out to eat with a general idea of what they will be ordering when they arrive to the restaurant. Perhaps you can recall the feeling of arriving a favorite restaurant and your preferred meal choice is sold out, or, you visit a new restaurant for the first time and cannot decide. It can be flustering! Indeed, having to make a choice can sometimes be taxing or anxiety-inducing. This is one reason why people are creatures of habit. It is less cognitively taxing.

Furthermore, a coffee shop is a strange place to conduct a study of this kind, as this is not a typical sort of place one might go for a regular meal. Many of the veg options (such as those offered by the experiment location: eggplant, tofu, etc.) are likely to be unfamiliar to the average pizza, burger, and taco eating university student. Here, the confounding variable might be consumer familiarity with non-flesh foods.

The percieved  accusatory approach may also be problematic. Social psychologist Hank Rothgerber finds, for instance, that participants may double down in their commitment to speciesism when they suspect that they are being expected to abstain. These folks brazenly reported that they planned to eat more Nonhuman Animals.

Sociology would further suggest that group dynamics are relevant here. The Faunalytics study focuses on individual patrons, but the presence of others (or lack thereof) influences how individuals process information and behave. The presentation of veganism as something that is trendy and socially normative is also important for recruitment. This study, in utilizing an experimental design, attempts to isolate action and reaction, but the social world is not so simplistic. 

The Problem of Generalizability

Another recent study on vegan motivation by Trent Grassian (A New Way of Eating: Creating Meat Reducers, Vegetarians and Vegans) is a bit more realistic in capturing real-world behaviors. It did not demonstrate very positive result for the flexitarian approach. The main finding?

Those with the strictest goals (i.e. vegans) were the most likely to be meeting their reduction goals (78%), while meat reducers were the least likely (39%).

While meat reducers were more likely to reduce than not in the first month, the reverse was true afterward, with 54% being temporary reducers at six months, 36% long-term reducers and 10% no longer consuming meat.

Flexitarians also reported that they planned on eating more animal products (such as fish flesh or birds’ eggs) to compensate.

Grassian’s study surveyed participants in various veg pledges hosted by Nonhuman Animal advocacy and veg organizations. He also employed focus groups to allow participants to share  more in-depth explanations.

Triangulation is important in order to account for inevitable shortcomings in various approaches. Interviewees may  not be entirely clear when engaging with a researcher for instance, but additional surveys may improve the study’s validity. Triangulating in this way also improves generalizability, that is, how applicable the results from a study’s sample will be to the general population.

A random sample is also important for achieving generalizability, but this was not accomplished with the Grassian study which studied people who had already signed up for a veg pledge. His respondents were disproportionately white, female, and middle-class, a demographic that is consistent with the larger Nonhuman Animal rights movement, but not very representative of the population.

The Faunalytics study was stronger in this regard as it targeted random cafe customers, but this cafe is located on a Canadian university campus. University students are over-represented in vegan motivational research. They are easily accessible to academics for obvious reasons, but also to activist researchers since university campuses are open to the public, have heavy footfall, and are populated with young people who are more willing to respond to requests for interviews and experimental participation for little or no cost. However, the average university student in the West is not representative of the general population. University students are disproportionately white, middle- and upper-class, urban, and well educated.

Because many vegan organizations actively target university students as their primary audience, this may not be a serious issue. If, however, they wish to reach out to underserved demographics (such as older persons, communities of color, lower income communities, and so on), they will want to be wary. What motivates a white middle-class university student is not necessarily what will motivate the average person.

Given these issues, researchers have an ethical obligation to refrain from making sweeping claims about what works based on one precarious study. This research (and their claims) will influence countless organizations, activists, and Nonhuman Animals.

What to Believe?

Science is notoriously politial. Everyone has an agenda, and funding (or lack thereof) can influence the types of questions asked, the findings, and the interpretation of the findings. In the Trump era, the malleability of science is repeatedly bombasted in an effort to confuse the population and erode its trust in social institutions. We should resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to vegan science.

Instead, activists should be mindful and practice critical thinking. Know where the research is coming from, who conducted it, and what motivates them. Certainly, before any research is put into practical action, social movement actors should investigate the research for themselves.

Works Cited

Anderson, J. 2020. “‘Reduce’ or ‘Go Veg’? Effects on Meal Choice. Faunalytics.

Grassian, T. 2019. A New Way of Eating: Creating Meat Reducers, Vegetarians
and Vegans
. University of Kent.

McDonald, B. 2000. “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t Not Know It.’ An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan.Society & Animals 8 (1): 1-23.

Wrenn, C. 2016. A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. London: Palgrave.

Wrenn, C. 2018. Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism. Society & Animals 26 (4). Online first. DOI: 10.1163/15685306-12341544.


Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.

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 vegan research in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Age, Gender, and Veganism

In a publication authored with my colleague Alexus Lizardi, Older, Greener, and Wiser: Charting the Experiences of Older Women in the American Vegan Movement, we offer the first exploratory research on an underserved demographic: older vegan women. Minimal data is available on this group–most of it is relegated to subscriber feedback reported by The Vegan Society. 

Interestingly, our sample had not put much thought into what it means to be older and vegan. Some noted that they were aware of how older vegans are objectified in the movement if they were seen to “age well.” In other words, age is leveraged to promote veganism as a means to beat aging. For the average person who ages normally, they may find themselves invisibilized. Indeed, the vegan and vegetarian movement has actively dismissed key leaders thought to sully the movement with their prolonged illness and premature death (like founder of the American Vegan Society Sylvester Graham and founder of the British Vegetarian Society William Cowherd). 

Otherwise, our respondents noted that being older granted them a degree of confidence in their political choices. This is an important finding given the movement’s focus on young people and its concern with recidivism (many young people will revert to nonveganism should they lack social supports). Older people are more resolved in their decisions and are less swayed by social pressures. 

This could sometimes backfire. A few of our respondents felt they were rather isolated given their hesitancy to associate with non-vegans who they felt were hostile to their lifestyle. Older folks in general risk isolation as they age, leading us to consider whether older vegans were doubly burdened in this respect.

Some respondents also expressed concern with accessing medical professionals who took veganism seriously. As many of our participants were middle-class and living in the New York area, they were relatively privileged in this respect, but it was clear that more marginalized older vegans could find difficulty in this regard.

Lastly, many of our respondents noted that their gender definitely informed their veganism. They reported being compelled by the horrors of dairy production, something they could empathize with given their own reproductive journeys as female-bodied persons. We consider whether this awareness is due to the popularity of Carol Adams’ vegan feminist work in the movement. It is likely that greater acknowledgement of aging issues in the vegan community might increase activist consciousness to the unique challenges facing older folks in a relatively ageist society.


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 vegan feminism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Is Honey Vegan?

Is honey vegan? In short, no. It is an animal product produced by Nonhuman Animals for human consumption. Honey consumed by humans is taken nonconsensually from exploited bees.

However, many nonvegans (and those who identify as vegan and continue to eat and use honey) defend the practice based on a romanticized idea of beekeeping. This is not unlike the fantasy that is perpetuated by producers (and believed by consumers) that “meat” and dairy come from happy animals in green, rolling pastures. Such narratives are entirely false but are highly effective in manipulating consumer trust and stifling industry criticism.

A 2019 publication in Sociologia Ruralis illuminates the inherent violence humans impose on bee communities in the production of honey and through pollination services. Sociologist Laurent Cilia conducted 45 interviews with beekeepers and observed dozens of bee farms across the United States. Some of the findings are truly abysmal, indicating a widespread disregard for bee welfare as a result of capitalist pressures.

Cilia summarizes, “to remain on the treadmill of production… beekeepers have entered the ‘grow-or-die economy.’” As Critical Animal Studies scholars have long argued, commodification is the primary assault on nonhumans, lending to their social devaluation and disposability. Cilia continues:

“I found something troubling in their detachment from the bees. For instance, it is common practice to ‘pinch’ the queen to replace her by one more to the taste or the expectations of the beekeeper. In that regard, one successful beekeeper from Colorado told me: ‘Don’t want to kill a queen? Well, then you gonna have to get another job because that’s what we do’.”

Indeed, extreme violence is routine in bee industries. Cilia reports that entire colonies used to be killed off in the autumn in order to extract every drop of the honey they produced, only to start over with a fresh hive in the spring. More recently, they are kept alive with sugar syrup, protein supplements, and mite treatments, a scenario eerily similar to the experience of dairy calves deprived of their mother’s milk in unhealthful agricultural facilities. Likewise, queen bees are regularly culled as their fertility wanes, not unlike “spent” dairy cows who are sent to slaughter at the young age of just 4 or 5.

As in slaughterhouses, beekeepers are strained by the high expectations for speed and efficiency. Cilia observes them: “repeating tasks with little regard for individual bees crushed in the process.”

This research makes it clear that the industrial exploitation of Nonhuman Animals not only imposes great suffering on animal commodities but swiftly resocializes human workers in such a way as to undermine their empathy and reorient them toward a capitalist ethic:

“In the face of challenging circumstances, beekeepers have adapted to survive in order to preserve their livelihoods, to protect the family legacy, and finally because they feel responsible for the essential role the bees have in food production. In the process, they have normalised practices that they know to not be ethically or environmentally ideal and have gotten used to chronically high loss rates, despite their discomfort and feel of personal failure.”

Society’s reliance on bees for pollinating fruit, vegetable, and nut products is murky ethical territory for vegans who wish to avoid harming other animals. However,  it is, at least, an easy switch from honey to alternative sweeteners. A variety of fruit-based syrups are now available which mimic the flavor of honey. There’s also date syrup, maple syrup, agave nectar, and countless other natural syrups which sweeten our food (not to mention simple syrups from cane or beet sugar). Most of these are equally accessible and similarly priced.

Keep violence off your plate and give the honey a pass.

Work Cited
Cilia, P. 2019. “The Plight of the Honeybee: A Socioecological Analysis of large-scale Beekeeping in the United States.Sociologia Ruralis 59 (4): 831-849.


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Readers can learn more about the politics of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits

Photo Credit: Lynda Bell

Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits (University of Michigan Press 2019) is the culmination of ten years of research covering four decades of Nonhuman Animal rights claimsmaking produced by grassroots, transitioning, and professionalized organizations. In general, I was interested in unpacking the influence of nonprofitization on social movements. As organizations professionalize, their claimsmaking deradicalizes considerably (for instance, they will avoid using the words ‘vegan’ or ‘liberation’ and shift towards ‘veg’ language and welfare reforms). More than this, they begin to utilize the power coalesced from this compromise to stifle the voices of radicals on the margins. This is a significant power dynamic in the movement which should be fully appreciated for its impact on goals, tactics, and outcomes.

I actually began my interest in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement as an activist. As I learned more about theory and began to move toward more radical activist strategies (such as feminism, abolitionism, and no kill), the level of resistance I experienced in the movement was quite striking. I was also taken aback by how uncritically most activists accepted the gospel of large nonprofits. I recognized that factionalism between different camps as well as the pressure enacted on all camps by the large nonprofits were two major influences on the movement’s trajectory, yet they have been largely understudied. For the most part, activists chalk this division up to interpersonal issues or individual organizations. As a sociologist, however, I recognized that there were structural issues at play that needed to be unpacked.

The bulk of my research was conducted in the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive in the North Carolina State University library. It was a purposive sampling in which I tracked organizations and collectives surviving from the 1980s or 1990s, looking specifically for clues as to how professionalization impacted claimsmaking. I spent hours sifting through hundreds of magazines, newsletters, correspondence, and the like, taking pictures with a digital camera to organize and analyse when I returned back to home. Since most communication now takes place on the internet, I also conducted a secondary content analysis of blogs and newsletters from the early 2000s onward. The most challenging aspect had to be the sheer volume of material and organizations from which to choose—it was an ambitious project to say the least. However, it is only with a longitudinal analysis of this kind that we can identify major trends in movement behaviors.

All social movements are factionalized, and this factionalism has been critiqued by some scholars as a drain on resources and solidarity, but, for the most part, this common variable is actually greatly overlooked in social movement theory. In this book, I argue that factionalism is not only normal for movements, but it can also be a healthy function. Factionalism can propel a movement forward in forcing dialogue related to tactics and goals. In the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, there are factional divides with regard to the appropriateness of direct action, reform and abolition, feminism, and the ethics of “euthanasia.” Unfortunately, those taking a radical position tend to be marginalized by larger nonprofits which form a hegemony in the movement and use that power and takent-for-granted authority to position radicals as unrealistic or dangerous. But, without factionalism (and without radicals), the RSPCA might still support hunting, we would not have the Humane Society of the United States (which is a splinter group which emerged over vivisection), and we would not have The Vegan Society (which is a splinter group from The Vegetarian Society). I would imagine, contemporary factionalism will, in the future, be credited for positioning veganism, adoption, nonviolence, and intersectionality/inclusivity as baselines for anti-speciesist activism.

It is highly unlikely that factionalism can ever be overcome, and, for that matter, I argue that it should be embraced. Activists often bemoan the infighting and plead for unity, but Piecemeal Protest demonstrates that unity is unrealistic and often code for obedience to hegemonic forces in the movement. For instance, who should be uniting with who? Should we unite with organizations that lethally inject or gas healthy dogs and cats? Should we unite with organizations, like the HSUS or Farm Sanctuary, which propose that it is acceptable to use and consume Nonhuman Animals (as long as this is done “humanely”)? Should we unite with organizations promoting reducitarianism over veganism and reform over abolition? I don’t think so. Rarely are the large nonprofits asked to unite with the radicals who are more likely to advocate for the real interests of Nonhuman Animals (which is the right to life and freedom from human oppression). Unity claimsmaking is usually engaged by the nonprofit hegemonic bloc to reign in deviant factions and shame them for engaging critique. When the lives of so many Nonhuman Animals are on the line, that critique is truly vital and should not be silenced.

I hope the book will remind activists that factionalism isn’t about interpersonal disagreement, but something structural. Factionalism has existed in the movement since its very inception—in fact, early meeting notes from the 1820s document disagreement over tactics and goals! However, with the professionalization of the movement in the 1980s-2000, factionalism really exploded as a result of the many compromises the nonprofits were undertaking in order to access more legitimacy with the state, funding, and power. It isn’t just that “we can’t all get along,” but instead, there are larger political and economic influences on social movements which leave them vulnerable to state and capitalist infiltration. Radical splinter groups predictably emerge to challenge this process, while radical groups themselves, are vulnerable to the temptation to professionalize in an effort to secure much needed funding, legitimacy, and stability.

The Vegan Society is a great example of this—it began as a very radical, very resource-poor group in the 1940s after several decades of discord with The Vegetarian Society. It struggled to survive throughout the 20th century, but following gradual steps toward professionalization from 1980 onward (whereby organizers from other nonprofits took over leadership of the society and strategically worked to professionalize it), the hardcore anti-speciesist roots to the group gradually decayed. Today, the organization focuses on product consumption and environmentalism. I just received the newest issue of The Vegan, for instance, and there wasn’t a single Nonhuman Animal pictured! Nonhuman Animals, thanks to the pressures of professionalization, have now become absent referents in The Vegan Society. This I find to be truly remarkable. Yes, this professionalization has allowed it to grow and stabilize, but who can Nonhuman Animals rely upon if even The Vegan Society has abandoned them in its claimsmaking?

Activists are better served in recognizing factionalism as a vital and fundamental part of organizing. I also want them to recognize that radicals aren’t simply on the margins because their ideas are somehow less practical or realistic, but more accurately, they are marginalized because they are more threatening to the established social order. The state relies on nonprofits to actively squash out radicals; nonprofits do the policing of their own movement. Beyond this state influence, the nonprofit system itself (as evidenced in the story of The Vegan Society) is an extension of capitalism, such that activists and organizations are in real danger of being swept in and commodified. Indeed, the charity sector is one of the largest economic sectors in the world. Social movements are good for business, and this should be cause for concern given that capitalism is the root cause of the inequality we are battling.

What surprised me from this research was just how dramatic nonprofitization was for the claimsmaking of an organization; it was just night and day for some of them. Compassion Over Killing, for instance, a DC based group which started as from a student collective, went from being very radical with an explicit ethos of veganism, direct action, and abolition over reform. After professionalizing, COK replaced its vegan language with “veg” language, changed its newsletter title from The Abolitionist to Compassionate Action, and dropped its abolitionist mission statement which clearly rejected reform to one that clearly embraced it! COK, of course, grew considerably in size and wealth following this shift, but at what cost to the movement’s integrity and our obligation to Nonhuman Animals?

The other shocking bit was how silent most organizations were on this transition. It was as though the bid to get larger, glossier, wealthier, and more corporate was simply expected—and likely, this emerged from the economic logic of growth we’ve all been socialized by in a capitalist society. More sinister, however, was the quiet work behind the scenes to silence and marginalize radicals, such is the case with Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) which hosts the annual National Animal Rights Conference. FARM has, in its requirements for conference participation, a ban on criticizing other organizations (a means to maintain the nonprofit hegemony). But the criticism of organizational compromise is the modus operandi for radicals, such that the no-criticism rule effectively prohibits radical participation. In the past, FARM has also sought to invisibilize factionalism—claiming it doesn’t exist in newsletters when it clearly was reaching crisis levels (as was the case in 1996). More recently, it has co-opted feminist tactics for inclusion by using a so-called “safe space policy” to justify radical exclusion at the conference (claiming that, for instance, Nathan Winograd—leader of the National No Kill Center—would be in violation as his work is critical of PETA’s kill policy). I don’t think many activists recognize how very powerful these organizations have become by cooperating with the state and how the state’s interests infiltrate through non-profit channels. Conferences are important spaces for reaching the major decision-makers in the movement and giving platform to various ideas—radicals truly suffer from exclusion. Some have attempted to create their own conferences, but, obviously, the reach and impact of these splinter conferences are much less.

Are we closer to a vegan world today because of professionalization or in spite of it? I feel it is the latter. Radicals, although greatly burdened by two fronts of activism (the public and the big nonprofits) are able to influence movement dialogue, inspire the public, and create important shifts in cultural meaning. The internet has been one important means for levelling the playing field in discourse politics—official newsletters and conferences may silence radicals, but nonprofits are not able to prevent activist attraction to podcasts, websites, social media, and other digital channels where critical discourse thrives. This has forced some nonprofits to acknowledge factional critique and, in some cases, alter organizational practices. I find it frustrating that radicals are facing active marginalization from their own movement, but it is heartening that their efforts are having an impact on the nonprofits to some extent. Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), for instance, is now far more radical in its claimsmaking than it once was. Even the name indicates this, as it was once called Farm Animal Reform Movement!


Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.

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Zoos as Colonial Legacies of Injustice

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur, Captive.

Although framed as educational family-friendly spaces, “zoos” entail the non-consensual control of vulnerable beings for the pleasure and convenience of humans. Having emerged in modern British society as an extension of the colonial project of dividing, categorising, and rationalising controlled groups, “zoos” are functional in their ability to maintain social inequality.

Consider the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, who theorised what he termed “total institutions” as spaces where marginalised groups are fully controlled under a central authority. “Zoos” can be said to constitute total institutions as they control and confine nonhuman inmates under human authority. There is, furthermore, a logic in “zoos” similar to that of prisons. Both sites regulate behaviours, instil discipline, and psychologically traumatise to the point at which the physical and emotional experiences of human and nonhuman inmates are comparable in their perceived social disposability.

As colonial legacies, these institutions ritualistically maintain cultural hierarchies. This is accomplished by neatly containing nonhuman animals in sterile, restricted spaces where humans can safely and neatly “interact” with them. “Zoo” confinement physically restrains nonhuman animals with bars, cages, and leashes, but it also psychologically restrains them through domestication and psychological numbing.

Just what sort of lessons are being learned in “zoos” is questionable. Nonhuman animals trapped in the confines of even the most modern and conscientious “zoos” cannot by any reasonable stretch of the imagination be said to lead natural lives. Their movements are severely confined, their interactions with other animals are restricted, and their eating and sexual behaviours are entirely dependent upon the whims of human authority. Rather than challenging speciesism, “zoos” reinforce it by encouraging visitors to take on the role of privileged observers who may access inmates at their leisure and convenience for the purposes of entertainment. The clear, physical segregation built into “zoo” displays encourages further discrimination.

Unfortunately, the mythmaking of “zoo” proprietors detours considerably from the reality of inmates undergoing daily trauma behind “zoo” bars. Indeed, human visitors are shielded from the stress that nonhuman animals experience from regular and often international transfers between facilities, as well as the industry standard of “culling” individuals who impede on the facility’s carrying capacity in the constant endeavour to facilitate newborns to delight visitors. Surely, we can imagine other ways of interacting with other animals that are better able to respect nonhuman personhood and autonomy while also educating the public and supporting conservation efforts.


Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.

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Can a Meat Tax Advance Animal Rights?

Vegan activists typically position speciesism as a matter of supply and demand, yet elite control over both our food supply and our government makes “voting with your dollar” a relatively impotent tactic. The problem is considerably more structural. In Meatonomics (2013), author David Simon illustrates how “meat” and dairy industries have become hugely subsidized by the American government, and how these industries flex their strength to manifest increasing demands for their products while simultaneously stifling alternatives to them. This distortion is such that, for each dollar a consumer spends on Nonhuman Animal products, an additional $1.70 in external cost is placed on society. In addition to subsidies supported by tax dollars, consumers also absorb the consequences of skyrocketing healthcare costs, environmental damage, and inefficient food production. Nonhuman Animals pay the dearest price of all, as their lives are commodified for corporate gain under the ideological guise of human necessity. Society spends, or rather, industries save, over $400 billion each year in outsourced costs as a result.

It is thus problematic to presume that nonvegan consumption is simply a matter of preference, taste, or desire. Sociologists who research food systems support this premise: industry works to create desire where there was none before and eliminate the convenience or availability of alternatives. Consumption is coerced. It is not simply low prices that force “meat” and milk on America, but also a sophisticated utilization of government monies and influence to successfully manipulate knowledge production. This is accomplished by infiltrating academic journals and exploiting the USDA’s control over nutritional advice. This relationship with the government also helps industries to stave off regulations, mask disease and health crises (think “swine flu” turned “H1N1”), and criminalize critics, all of which might otherwise threaten profit.

Meatonomics documents what Marxian sociologists have argued for decades: the state exists to support the economy, not public welfare. Federal support not only boosts industry through subsidies and tax breaks, but also by granting it precious credibility and legitimacy.

Meatonomics published in 2013 with little fanfare in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. This is unfortunate given its novel and sophisticated contributions. First, as explored above, it challenges the movement’s traditional approach of attacking the demand side of speciesism. This demand, Simon emphasizes, is artificially created by industry with the assistance of the state, not necessarily by consumer preference. Desires and tastes are socially constructed and catered to by superficially depressed prices and heavy advertising. Under America’s food regime, healthier and ethical foods are simply not given a fair chance.

Second, Simon presents a fourth dimension to the movement’s time-honored three-pronged attack by espousing the gravity of this cost analysis. Speciesism is not only an ethical, environmental, and health problem, but also an economic one. In the post-recession era, this fourth argument is well positioned to resonate.

Third, Meatonomics entreats the reader to consider the plight of fishes, both free-living and factory farmed. Two of its ten chapters, in fact, spotlight the suffering of fish species. In a surprising move, fishes, generally ignored in anti-speciesist treatises given popular perception that they are the lowest denominator in human systems of violence, are granted primary coverage over that of the classically highlighted species killed for food, namely cows, pigs, and chickens. It is possible that Simon strategizes that a reader persuaded to empathize with fish will easily empathize with more familiar species. Perhaps there is also the hope of preventing a pescetarian reader’s response to the meatonomics crisis.

The limited reach of Meatonomics in the activist community is not just bad luck. In all likelihood, this relates to its direct challenge to status quo tactics that, first, target the “low hanging fruit” of unnecessary or especially heinous welfare violations, and, second, blame individuals for their consumer support. The traditional focus on violations and individuals absconds industry and state from responsibility. This favored framework dictates that business may continue as usual so long as it is done within the law and consumers continue to support the practice through their purchasing. What constitutes a “violation” is contestable, however, and is often trivial in the grand scheme of systematic mass killing. “Humane” regulations work within the government system and do not interfere with speciesist industries as they are almost always framed as a means of economic efficiency and increased productivity. They also rely on the state and industries for enforcement.

As Meatonomics makes clear in its coverage of failed “humane” legislation over the centuries, the state serves industry and industry serves itself. There is an element of futility in relying on inherently oppressive structures to self-regulate. Likewise, the rise of “organic”-style labeling as a means of regulation is shown to be largely impractical. Labels are, in general, void in meaning as industries predictably push for loopholes. The state is not in a position to enforce rigor in its duty to corporate interests. Well-meaning consumers, therefore, simply pay a premium for an essentially similar product. Indeed, industries now embrace the language of welfare as added value to increase sales.

Simon’s proposed solution of a “meat” tax challenges traditional welfare approaches that have been the mainstay of anti-speciesist activism since its inception:

[ . . . ] the proposed tax: (1) does not support the status quo–rather, it seeks to dismantle and repurpose nearly half of the animal food production system to plant-based foods; (2) would cause a massive change in consumer behavior, namely, a 44 percent drop in consumption of animal foods; (3) would significantly reduce animal food producers’ viability, forcing many to exit the business; and (4) would have a major, measurable effect on animal welfare by saving the lives of 26 billion land and marine animals yearly. [ . . . ] this proposal will achieve major changes to the existing system and tangible, significant benefits for animals. (178-179)

Simon suggests a tax of least 50% which would “[ . . . ] give consumers more accurate price signals and lead to an important shift in consumption patterns” (166). Such a substantial tax may elicit skepticism as to its potentially classist impact in a society where taxes are known to escape the wealthy. Meatonomics does not suppose that such a heavy penalty would penalize persons of lower socioeconomic status, however. Simon optimistically hopes that it would instead benefit those in need given that Nonhuman Animal agriculture’s outsourced expenses disproportionately hurt poor communities. The “meat” tax proposal thus holds within it an element of human justice. Eliminating animal products from welfare programs would predictably improve the health of America’s most vulnerable, while simultaneously freeing up government funds to better support them. As further precaution, he advocates a tax credit to lessen the blow and government funding to support farmers transitioning to new industries as was done for tobacco farmers.

Meatonomics insists that, if a meat tax were instilled in tandem with some reconfiguring of governmental duties (such as stripping the USDA of its nutritional advising role and bringing an end to the government checkoff program), speciesism may finally be disrupted as prices rise to reflect their true cost and false advertising and false nutritional information diminishes. For Simon, becoming vegan is important, but it will not be sufficient. From a sociological perspective, this proposed solution reflects the age-old tension between top-down and bottom-up social change. Relying on elites to accomplish this is a risky tactic for activists given elite allegiances to profit and other elites. The structural shift necessary to alleviate Nonhuman Animal oppression may have to begin from the ground up, but there is no reason to presume that an individual-level shift in consumer behavior is the only means of realizing grassroots activism. Power is held in the hands of industry and state, and only by dismantling this power nexus will change be forthcoming. Social change cannot sustain without the support of political structures, but political structures cannot reconfigure without public pressure. To absolve this paradox, lobbying for a “meat” tax will be necessary, but the movement’s first point of action must be the assembly of a critical mass of vegans to undertake this critical systemic work.

Read the full article here.


Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.

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A History of The Vegan Society

World Vegan Day was launched in 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Vegan Society. Since then, veganism has become a cultural triumph making November 1st a day for celebration not only for veganism but for the society’s organizational success. Its radical vision and democratic structure make it an unlikely hero–I undertook a content analysis of all issues of The Vegan Society’s publication, The Vegan, to chart its rocky road to the 21st century.

The Vegan Society emerged in England in November of 1944 following a friendly but drawn-out schism within the British Vegetarian Society. While the fledgling organization was small, radical, and almost completely unfunded, it would manage to survive into the 21st century, influencing global food culture and challenging humanity’s relationship with food and other animals. What I uncovered was an organization that struggled to maintain its radical agenda in a social movement environment that had largely professionalized.

Throughout the early-to-mid 20th century, The Vegan Society prioritized Nonhuman Animal liberation, but with the neoliberalization of nonprofits in the 1980s, the organization opted to incorporate, turning a volunteer organization into a corporate competitor. A number of changes occurred as a result. The bureaucratic structural style allowed it to accommodate spikes in public interest associated with popular documentaries (such as The Animal Film), but it also necessitated a heavy reliance on fundraising to support its ambitions for growth. As a consequence, the radical claimsmaking of years prior tempered to emphasize vegan lifestyles and nutrition.

Today, The Vegan Society rarely engages the cutting-edge animal rights discourse it once did, but instead plays to less abrasive climate change themes which are not in any way animal-centric. This is a story common to organizational veterans of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. Few organizations are able to maintain a radical agenda while also pursuing mainstream politics and economic growth. What this means for Nonhuman Animal liberation in the long term is questionable.

Read the full article here.
 


Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.
 
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Can Choice Feminism Advance Vegan Politics?

C. Lou Hamilton, Veganism Sex and Politics: Tales of Danger and Pleasure. HammerOn Press, 2019.

Hamilton’s Veganism, Sex and Politics offers an approachable feminist spin on modern veganism in the West while tackling the difficult conundrums and compromises sometimes associated with vegan-living in a non-vegan world. The book is aimed at non-vegans who may be sceptical of the white bourgeoisie veganism which is stereotypically depicted in the media, but it also speaks to seasoned vegans who may lack familiarity with critical feminist perspectives as they relate to relationships with food, consumption, and nonhuman animals. To that end, environmental debates, the limits of organic and “humane” production, white-centrism in vegan activism, and the reluctant reliance on speciesism in disabled and queer communities are analysed in Hamilton’s blend of autobiographical musings and theoretical explorations.

At times, however, this critique pays only lip service to leading theory without substantially engaging it. For instance, while Hamilton rehashes the discourse on “dreaded comparisons,” repeating the arguments already well-articulated by Kim Socha (2013), Breeze Harper (2010), and Lee Hall (2010) with regard to resisting the highly problematic tradition in the vegan movement of comparing the institutionalized violence against animals to that which is also imposed on Africans under slavery and Jews under Nazi persecution, Hamilton stops short of extending this critique to the systematic exploitation of women. Hamilton only briefly refers to the work of Carol Adams (2000) with an unsubstantiated suggestion that her “anti-pornography feminism” obscures women’s agency and satisfaction with sex work.

Thus “choice feminism” (the reduction of collective struggle into a buffet of consumer and lifestyle options from which each individual may pick and choose) is introduced to reframe widespread violence against women as either a) blown out of proportion by Adams and her ilk or b) inaccurate given that women “choose” to work in prostitution and pornography. Adams’ theory, furthermore, is described as a disrespectful and clumsy attempt at intersectionality given that women supposedly participate freely in and benefit from Western sexual politics unlike Nonhuman Animals in their respective spaces of oppression. Such a provocative claim would require greater engagement with Adams’ work as well as some scientific evidence, as, firstly, the majority of women (and girls) enter sex work out of economic duress or active pimping and, secondly, sex slavery remains a leading form of bondage globally (Jeffreys 2009). Sex work and sex slavery, for that matter, are the most dangerous fields of “employment” with exceedingly high levels of threat, injury, and death.

Celebrating the agency of a small percentage of persons who enter and remain in the sex industry of their own free will obscures culturally normative misogyny (as well as heterosexism and cis-sexism as LGBT minorities are disproportionately represented in this industry). With regard to vegan politics, choice feminism’s campaign to legalize and normalize prostitution makes for an awkward analogy for other animals. How Hamilton can suggest that institutionalised speciesism should not (or could not) be regulated and reformed to liberate nonhumans while also failing to extend that same logic to women and girls is puzzling and unconvincing. Both sexism and speciesism rely on the pleasurable consumption of feminized and oppressed bodies by the patriarchal dominant class.

Hamilton’s pro-prostitution position likely stems from their commitment to queer politics which, while arguably problematic when used to protect and legitimize male entitlement to feminized bodies, do hold relevance in challenging hetero-patriarchal society’s stigmatization of feminine and queer sexuality and its desire to control bodies deemed “other.” To that end, Hamilton provides and interesting analysis of “fur” and “leather” in the LGBT community. Both products are shaped by class, gender, and colonial relations, making their disruption difficult, but Hamilton suggests a re-envisioning through vegan alternatives which pay homage to nonhuman identities and difference.

Although Hamilton seeks life-affirming species-inclusive alternatives in these cases, their presentation of disability politics is decidedly human-first. In the feminist tradition of challenging androcentric scientific authority, Hamilton encourages those living with disability and illness to become their own experts and engage in speciesism at their own level of comfort. True, the science as an institution has been a source of considerable oppression for marginalized groups and agency over one’s own body and well-being is critical, but Hamilton’s prescription risks fanning scientific distrust to the point of recklessness (particularly in light of the success of the anti-vaccination movement). Further, by encouraging individuals to become their own medical expert and self-experiment with the consumption of other animals, veganism seems to dissipate into a postmodern soup of individual subjectivity and increasing uselessness as a form of political resistance. Given the normative attitudes of cynicism and apathy in the Western vegan movement toward science, Hamilton’s position, while geared toward affirming the individual experience with disability, may be a precarious one.

Hamilton evidently adopts the myth promulgated by professionalized Nonhuman Animal rights organizations that vegans somehow ascribe to an unrealistic level of purity. This strawperson argument, however, lacks validity. In the age of competitive nonprofitization in the social movement arena, the pure vegan stereotype is engaged to legitimize the compromised approaches to animal advocacy (namely, reforming speciesist industries or promoting reducitarianism). These soft tactics are effective for fundraising but run counter to veganism’s political aims of total liberation, thus necessitating some semantical negotiations and vegan stigmatization (Wrenn 2019a). Few, if any, vegans expect faultlessness, and, indeed, The Vegan Society has always, from its founding, emphasized practicality over perfection (Wrenn 2019b). In the case of disability and illness, no one would reasonably expect patients to become martyrs and forgo treatments developed through vivisection or medications containing trace amounts of animal products.

As such, Hamilton’s repeated beleaguering of veganism has the cumulative effect of decentering Nonhuman Animals, particularly in their effort to validate each person’s individual desire, comfort, choice, and ultimately human privilege of determining what counts as “practical.” To this point, it would be useful if Hamilton had extended their analysis beyond feminist theory and applied social movement theory to introduce much-needed evidence-based social science on movement identity politics and effective mobilization. At the very least, more clearly acknowledging how their own take on veganism is far from the widely-embraced or authoritative position would have brought greater credibility and consistency to Veganism, Sex and Politics. Vegan feminism is more of a matter of personal opinion, individual spin, and choice. The celebration of difference, agency, and pleasure-seeking must be matched with a commitment to solidarity, collective struggle, and some degree of sacrifice. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s anthropocentric narrative hesitates on how to effectively negotiate human diversity politics with the interests of other animals.

References

Adams, C. (2000). The sexual politics of meat. New York: Continuum.

Hall, L. (2010). On their own terms: bringing animal-rights philosophy down to earth. Darien: Nectar Bat Press.

Harper, B. (2010). Sistah vegan. Brooklyn: Lantern.

Jeffreys, S. (2009). The industrial vagina: the political economy of the global sex trade. New York: Routledge.

Socha, K. (2013). The ‘dreaded comparisons’ and speciesism: leveling the hierarchy of suffering. In K. Socha and S. Blum (Eds.), Confronting animal exploitation (223-240). Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Wrenn, C. (2016). A rational approach to animal rights. London: Palgrave.

Wrenn, C. (2019a). Piecemeal protest: Animal rights in the age of nonprofits. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wrenn, C. (2019b). From seed to fruition: a political history of The Vegan Society. Food and foodways 27(3), 190-210.

 
 


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

Readers can learn more about vegan feminism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Vegan Protest is Ritualized, but is it Religious?

In my review of For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism in the peer-reviewed journal Social Movement Studies, I consider the appropriateness of author Sarah Pike’s argument that religiosity motivates radical anti-speciesism.

Although it is true that protest is ritualistic and collective action entails a general feeling of recognizing “something bigger than ourselves,” I find it problematic to ascribe a spiritual or religious characteristic to these standard group emotions. For one, the majority of activists in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement are atheist–something other than faith and divine calling motivates their participation.

Secondly, in focusing primarily on radical activists associated with the ALF and associated direct action groups, Pike overlooks other radicals, such as the abolitionists, who adopt an explicitly secular motivational framework based on principles of justice, fairness, freedom, etc. Meanwhile, the ecofeminists, who have traditionally drawn from spirituality to mobilize as a faction distinctive from the mainstream, patriarchal rights-based approach, also go unacknowledged.

Sociologists acknowledge that ritual is fundamental to group belonging and solidarity, but sociologists have also acknowledged that these maintenance behaviors need not be religious in nature. For a movement that is so dominated by atheists who ascribe to secular frameworks, it may be a mischaracterization to describe it as spiritual.

Read the full review here.
 
 


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

Readers can learn more about atheism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Ghost Stories Tell Us a Lot about Animals in Human Society

In a content analysis of over 600 ghost stories I published with the peer-reviewed journal Mortality, I discovered that Nonhuman Animals are a sizable feature in the supernatural imagination. About one in ten ghosts recorded in the 20 anthologies I examined were that of departed nonhumans. In this article, I argue that ghost stories, like any other cultural medium, can tell us a lot about the status and visibility of other animals.

For instance, although 10% of the stories featured a nonhuman spirit, most of those spirits were that of dogs, cats, horses, and other animals which are more familiar and proximal to humans. Ghosts frequently haunt as a result of some sort of grievance or wrongful death. Because dogs, cats, and horses are more likely to be ascribed some degree of personhood, they are also more likely to be described as mournful or vengeful spirits in cultural remembering.

Those species which are slated for exploitation and killing for food, however, do not warrant much remembering. They very rarely surfaced in ghost stories. What this suggests is that, culturally speaking, their deaths are not sensed or noted as remarkable. To be able to haunt, then, is a privilege reserved for humans and the other animals deemed important to them.

In general, however, it was clear that ghost stories worked to elevate humans as the more civilized, superior group. The majority of nonhuman ghosts were described as threatening, violent, and even lethal. One of the most common human responses to witnessing these ghosts was an attempt to harm or destroy them. Because ghost stories are meant to be shared, particularly with children, the oppressive cultural messages embrued within them should be cause for concern.

Vegan animal studies scholars have critiqued the media as a major force in the maintenance of speciesist ideologies. However, media can also be disruptive. Vegan activists might consider challenging speciesist culture by telling ghost stories which center the experiences of typically invisibilized species like cows, chickens, pigs, fishes and so on. Veganism is a form of necromancy, then, in its ability to conjure the spirits of the dead and force a cultural acknowledgment of speciesism.


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

Readers can learn more about the sociological critique of speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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