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.

Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

Comments Off on Can a Meat Tax Advance Animal Rights?

Filed under Publications

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.
 
Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

Comments Off on A History of The Vegan Society

Filed under Publications

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.

Comments Off on Can Choice Feminism Advance Vegan Politics?

Filed under Essays

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.

Comments Off on Vegan Protest is Ritualized, but is it Religious?

Filed under Publications

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.

Comments Off on Ghost Stories Tell Us a Lot about Animals in Human Society

Filed under Publications

Atheists and Agnostics Largest ‘Religious’ Demographic in Animal Rights

In my publication with Environmental Values, I explore some interesting, if unintended findings from an earlier survey of nearly 300 American vegans I conducted in March of 2017. When asked to report their religious affiliation, 55% reported that they were atheist and 18% reported some variation of agnosticism. Nearly 3/4th of my sample, in other words, did not identify as religious.

Although I did not conduct interviews to qualify this relationship, some interesting correlations did emerge. Atheists were considerably more likely to report having gone vegan for ethical, anti-speciesist reasons when compared to agnostics and other religious groups. Atheists were more left-leaning politically, as well. Both atheists and agnostics were more likely to be intersectionally minded and involved in a variety of social movements beyond veganism.

Although women and people of color in the survey were more likely to report feeling alienated or unwelcome in the movement, atheists did not (the majority of female, male, non-binary, white, Black, Latinx, and Asian folks reported no religious affiliation). I suspect that atheist vegans avoid this stigmatization for their non-belief primarily due to the silence around atheism in American culture, and,  more specifically, the American vegan movement.

With non-believers dominating the vegan movement, this begs the question as to why movement leaders do not actively engage the atheist community. Presumably, this demographic would be especially receptive to veganism. I suspect that the severe stigma of atheism in the United States likely accounts for this. Movement leaders may be hesitant to add to the stigma already associated with veganism.

You can read the entire article here, free of charge.
 
 


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

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

Comments Off on Atheists and Agnostics Largest ‘Religious’ Demographic in Animal Rights

Filed under Publications

Save the Lambs! Why I Reject Antioch College’s Lethal Lamb-killing Classroom ‘Experiment’

To the Editor of Yellow Springs News:

I am writing to express my strong disapproval of the Antioch College lamb-killing project. I have read the president’s response to the campaign to end this antiquated and violent “educational” “experiment.” As a citizen and a sociologist, I find the university’s rationale to be deeply problematic and, frankly, uninformed.

The sociological (and psychological) research on projects of this kind indicates that they foster attitudes of denial, dehumanization, in-group bias, domination, and oppression–the exact sorts of attitudes which run counter to American values. Lambs are not things, they are not tools, and they are not food. They are persons who care about what happens to them, just like us.

For that matter, with climate change at crisis levels, it is frankly laughable that the university would suggest that animal agriculture is in any way compatible with goals of sustainability. The science simply does not support such a claim. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.

As an alumnus of an agricultural school myself (go Hokies!) and proudly hailing from an agricultural community in southwestern Virginia, I am also critical of the blatant miseducation of rural communities who are misdirected into unsustainable, violent, polluting, and precarious animal agricultural initiatives. Lower class, working class, and rural communities have been exploited for the profits of Big Ag for generations, such that this is not just a matter of animal oppression, but also human oppression. The longer the community is forced into economic dependence on animal agriculture, the more suffering and vulnerability is imposed on already struggling farming communities. We need to support agricultural initiatives that are in line with the long-term needs of humans, animals, and global systems–plant-based farming is the only way forward.

Students would be better served by lessons in compassion, coexistence, and truly sustainable plant-based alternatives in agriculture. This is the way of the future.
 
 

– Dr. Corey L. Wrenn, Chair of the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association
 
 

This campaign to end the lamb-killing “experiment” at Antioch College is led by Dr. David Nibert, founder of the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association. Read Dr. Nibert’s response here.  SIGN THE PETITION HERE; write your own letter to the editor of The Yellow Springs News here.


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

Comments Off on Save the Lambs! Why I Reject Antioch College’s Lethal Lamb-killing Classroom ‘Experiment’

Filed under Essays

Is It Ethical to Keep Pets?

According to the UK veterinary charity The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), half of Britons own a pet. In the US, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports the same. Many of these owners view the millions of birds, cats, dogs, rabbits and other Nonhuman Animals sharing their homes as family members. Although we love them, care for them, celebrate their birthdays and mourn them when they pass, is it ethical to keep pets in the first place? Some activists and ethicists, myself included, would argue that it is not.

Pet-keeping as a Social Injustice

The institution of pet-keeping is fundamentally unjust as it involves the manipulation of Nonhuman Animals’ bodies, behaviours, and emotional lives. For centuries, companion animal bodies (particularly that of dogs, horses and rabbits) have been shaped to suit human fashions and fancies, often causing these animals considerable physical harm. Particular breeds, for instance, are highly susceptible to painful and frequently fatal genetic defects, while highly prized physical features (such as small stature or pushed-in noses) can cause discomfort and difficulty in breathing, birthing, and other normal functions.

Even those Nonhuman Animals who are not purpose-bred often face bodily manipulations which impede on their comfort and safety, such as confining clothing, painful leashes which pull at the throat, docked tails and ears, and declawing (which entails the severing of the first digit of each toe in cats). Nonhuman Animals confined as pets are also constrained in their daily movements, sometimes crated or caged, oftentimes restricted indoors, and always at the whims of human desires.

Pets also symbolically reinforce the notion that vulnerable groups can be owned and fully controlled for the pleasure and convenience of more privileged powerful groups. This has implications for vulnerable human groups as well. For instance, sexism is partially maintained by treating women linguistically as pets (‘kitten’, ‘bunny’) and physically by confining them to the home to please and serve the family patriarch. Social workers also recognize the powerful link between pet abuse and the abuse of children and women in domestic settings. The notion that it is acceptable to manipulate the bodies and minds of a vulnerable group to suit the interests of more privileged groups, in other words, is consistent with the cultural logic of oppression.

Companion Animals Cannot Consent

Through the forced dependency of domestication and pet-keeping, the lives of companion animals are almost completely controlled by humans. They can be terminated at any time for the most trivial of reasons including behavioural ‘problems’, simply belonging to a stereotyped breed or the owner’s inability (or unwillingness) to pay for veterinary treatment.
In the mid-20th century, sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the concept of a total institution as one in which inhabitants are cut off from wider society under a single authority in an enclosed social space in which natural barriers between social spheres artificially eliminated and an intense socialization process takes place to ensure that inmates conform.

Sociologists typically study prisons, asylums, and other physical spaces as examples, but I argue that pet-keeping constitutes a sort of dispersed total institution whereby Nonhuman Animals are unnaturally forced under human authority, restrained, and resocialized. True consent is not possible under such conditions; Nonhuman Animals are groomed to participate and those who are likely to be punished (sometimes fatally).

This is not in any way to suggest that dogs, cats, and other species cannot express love and happiness as ‘pets’, but it is important to recognize that their complacency within the institution of pet-keeping is entirely manufactured (sometimes quite cruelly) by humans through behaviour ‘corrections’ and through the manipulative process of domestication itself.

A World without Pets?

Some companion animal advocates, such as Nathan Winograd, the director of the US based No Kill Advocacy Center, argue that to stop keeping pets altogether would be a violation of Nonhuman Animals’ right to exist. Winograd believes the widespread killing of healthy companion animals can be curbed through a restructuring of the sheltering industry. He rejects the need to end pet-keeping given the abundance of humanity’s capacity for compassion and adoption.

To his credit, Winograd’s pro-pet position reflects the No Kill movement’s strong disapproval of Nonhuman Animal rights organizations such as PETA which frequently support ‘euthanasia’ policies to curb pet populations. If a no kill society is reached, however, many of the ethical violations previously discussed (bodily manipulation, non-consensual confinement, enforced dependency, and vulnerability to human abuse) would remain even if, as Winograd supposes, increasing legal protections could be obtained to improve their standard of living.

In short, companion animals, by their very position in the social order, are not and cannot be equals. The institution of pet-keeping maintains a social hierarchy which privileges humans and positions all others as objects of lower importance whose right to existence depends wholly on their potential to benefit humans. That said, the population of dogs, cats, rabbits, and other domesticated ‘pet’ animals currently rivals that of humans such that they are likely to remain a consistent feature of human social life.

Although I suggest that it may not be ethical to pursue the future breeding of Nonhuman Animals for human comfort, humans do have a duty to serve, protect, and care for them. Recognizing the inherent inequality in human/nonhuman relations will be vital in making the best of an imperfect situation.
This essay originally appeared in The Conversation on April 25, 2019.


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

Comments Off on Is It Ethical to Keep Pets?

Filed under Essays

Feminism, Intersectionality, and Identity

Dr. Wrenn’s full list of publications is available here.

Books

Wrenn, C. L. ~2019. Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Wrenn, C. L.  2016.  A Rational Approach to Animal Rights:  Extensions in Abolitionist Theory.  London, UK:  Palgrave Macmillan.

Book Chapters

Wrenn, C. L. 2017. “Toward a Vegan Feminist Theory of the State.” Pp. 201-230, in Animal Oppression and Capitalism, edited by D. Nibert. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Press.

Wrenn, C. L. 2015. “Human Supremacy, Post-Speciesist Ideology, and the Case for Anti-Colonialist Veganism.” Pp. 55-70, in Animals in Human Society, edited by D. L. Moorehead.  Lanham, MD:  University Press of America/Hamilton Books.

Wrenn, C. L. 2015. “The Weight of Veganism.” Pp. 164-165, in The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of Terror, edited by Laura Wright. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles

Wrenn, C. L. 2018. “Pussy Grabs Back. Bestialized Sexual Politics and the Intersectional Failure in the Protest Posters for the 2017 Women’s March.” Feminist Media Studies. Online first.

Wrenn, C. L. 2017. “Trump Veganism: A Political Survey of American Vegans in the Era of Identity Politics.” Societies 7 (4): 32.

Wrenn, C. L. 2017. “Fat Vegan Politics: A Survey of Fat Vegan Activists’ Online Experiences with Social Movement Sizeism.” Fat Studies 6 (1): 90-102.

Wrenn, C. L.  2017.  “Skeptics and the ‘White Stuff’:  Promotion of Cows’ Milk and Other Nonhuman Animal Products in the Skeptic Community as Normative Whiteness.”  Relations:  Beyond Anthropocentrism 5 (1): 73-81.

Wrenn, C. L. 2016. “Social Movement Prostitution: A Case Study in Nonhuman Animal Rights Activism and Vegan Pimping.” Griffith Journal of Law & Human Dignity 4(2): 87-99.

Wrenn, C. L. and M. Lutz. 2016. “White Women Wanted?  An Analysis of Gender Diversity in Social Justice Magazines.” Societies 6 (2): 1-18.

Wrenn C. L. 2016 “An Analysis of Diversity in Nonhuman Animal Rights Media.” Journal for Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 29 (2): 143-165.

Wrenn, C. L., J. Clark, M. Judge, K. Gilchrist, D. Woodlock, K. Dotson, R. Spanos, and J. Wrenn.  2015.  “The Medicalization of Nonhuman Animal Rights: Frame Contestation and the Exploitation of Disability.” Disability & Society 30 (9): 1307-1327.

Wrenn, C. L.  2014.  “Fifty Shades of Oppression:  Unexamined Sexualized Violence against Women and Other Animals.”  Relations:  Beyond Anthropocentrism 2 (1):  135-139.

Wrenn, C. L.  2013.  “The Role of Professionalization Regarding Female Exploitation in the Nonhuman Animal Rights Movement.”  Journal of Gender Studies 24 (2): 131-146.

Book Reviews

Wrenn, C. L. 2019. “Black Veganism and the Animality Politic.” Society & Animals 27: 127-131.

Wrenn, C. L. 2017. “Male Dominance and Expertise in the
Remembering of Irish Women’s Lives.
Atlantis38 (2): 232-234.

Wrenn, C. L. 2017. “Review. Breeze Harper. 2014. Scars: A Black Lesbian
Experience in Rural White New England. Sense Publishers.” Feminist Spaces 3 (1): 124-126.

Conference Presentations

Wrenn, C. L. 2016. “Fat Vegan Politics: The Hyper-Visibility and Invisibility of Vegans of Size in Online Activist Spaces.Gender, Bodies & Technology. Roanoke, VA. April 22.

Wrenn, C. L. 2014. “Demographic Representations in Nonhuman Animal Rights Magazines and the Implications for Mobilization Efforts and Diversity.American Sociological Association Annual Meeting. San Francisco, CA. August 17.

Wrenn, C. L. 2014. “Understanding Oppression: An Intersectional Approach.” Our Collective Struggle: Human and Nonhuman Animals. January 17. London, ON: Western Ontario Vegan Society and University Students’ Council.

Op-Eds

Wrenn, C. L. 2018. “Trump Veganism? Research Finds a Highly Intersectional
American Vegan Movement.” Animals and Society Newsletter Spring: 3.

Wrenn, C. L. 2017. “The Disney Nonhuman Princesses.” Sex and Gender News Fall (November): 9-10.

Wrenn, C. L. 2016. “Unpacking Privilege in Vegan Education Efforts.” The Vegan Society.

Wrenn, C. L. 2015. “Vegan Policing the Vegan Woman.” The Feminist Wire.

Wrenn, C. L. 2014. “The James Franco Test: Feminists Fighting Internalized Patriarchy.” Feminist Current.

Wrenn, C. L. 2013. “The Sexual Politics of Veganism.” Pacific Standard.

Wrenn, C. L. 2013. “The Sexual Politics of Veganism.” Sociological Images.

Wrenn, C. L. 2013. “The Original Cat Ladies.” Pacific Standard.

Wrenn, C. L. 2013. “Suffragette Cats are the Original Cat Ladies.” Jezebel.

Interviews and Mentions

Faunalytics. 2018. “‘Trump Veganism’: Motivations And Identity.Faunalytics.

Kravitz, M. 2018. “Here’s Why Our Food Systems are a Central Feminist Issue.Alternet.

Dervish-O’Kane, R. 2018. “Is This What a Vegan Looks Like?Women’s Health Magazine June: 118-123.

Faunalytics. 2017. “The Sexual Objectification of Women in the Vegan Movement.” Faunalytics.

Faunalytics. 2016. “Diversity in Animal Advocacy Media.” Faunalytics.

Weiss, L. 2016. “New Jersey Vegan Feminist.” Rawthencity.

Cross, A. 2014. “Why are Women Treated as Meat in Those Animal Rights Ads?VITAMIN W.

The Huffington Post. 2013. “Cat Memes From The Suffrage Movement Show That History Does Repeat Itself.” Huff Post Women.

Radio and Podcast Interviews

Animal Concerns Texas KTEP FM, December 2017

Animal Sounds WMPG 90.9FM July 2016

KPFK Feminist Magazine FM, September 2015

Under the Toadstool, April, 2015

Vegan World Radio, March 14, 2014

Team Earthlings, June 30, 2013

 


Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

Comments Off on Feminism, Intersectionality, and Identity

Filed under Uncategorized

Why I’m Giving Beyoncé’s Vegan Campaign a Chance

Beyoncé and Jay-Z shocked mainstream news and vegan activists alike when they announced that fans who pledge to go plant-based have a chance to win free tickets to their concerts for life.

Some vegans have not been so enthusiastic about the campaign, citing that veganism “for the health” is not the same as veganism “for the animals,” and that veganism is not something that can be “forced” on others.

Whose Veganism is It Anyway?

To this I would counter that, although some (myself included) may understand veganism to be a matter of anti-speciesism, vegans should hesitate to insist that the Eurocentric interpretation of veganism is the only valid approach.

As a practical matter, a “master frame” of veganism is not especially useful in the context of a diverse audience. Personally, I critique the hegemonic vegan frame which is highly bureaucratized and prioritizes capitalist interests over the interests of effective social change (which I argue inevitably undermines veganism). To be able to criticize hegemonic veganism from this angle, however, is a reflection of my white privilege.

As a white person, I have to concede that other ethnicities will have other priorities. These include the deadly consequences of food deserts and food insecurity as well as the role that “animality” as a social construct has played in the oppression of people of color. These are priorities which have been beautifully outlined by activist scholars such as Dr. Breeze Harper and Aph & Syl Ko.

I concede that “my” veganism will not be the veganism that other folk feel compelled to adopt.

The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

a 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.

Beyoncé definitely does not count as a “vegan” according to this definition. She claims to eat animals’ flesh occasionally since it’s “all about moderation.” I assume her stage outfits make use of real birds’ feathers and cows’ skin as well. Her makeup is probably produced from slaughterhouse renderings and tested on other animals. She could exclude these things quite “possibly” and “practicably.”

But is The Vegan Society’s definition the only definition that matters? More specifically, is it the only definition which should apply to everyone? What about people of color living in a racialized society?

I suggest that the vegan identity is multifaceted and that the terms of engagement must be contextualized.

Cultural Force

In any case, I think it is a stretch to claim that Bey (who is not even a vegan herself) is “forcing” veganism on others. Fans who claim to go vegan (how can their veganism even be verified?) only have a chance to win free tickets, they are not guaranteed free tickets. Attending expensive music concerts is not a requirement, it is only recreational. Nor do Bey or Jay-Z require a complete transition since they also promote reducetarianism or “meatless Mondays.”

As I have uncovered in my research on flexitarian campaigns of this kind, many people already identify as someone who does not eat “that much” meat or dairy, since reducing animal product consumption is seen as a social good (unlike veganism which is interpreted as “extreme”). Importantly, the flexitarian identity does not often correlate with actual behavior change. In some cases, those who identify as flexitarian actually consume more animal products than their non-flexitarian-identifying counterparts.

That said, Bey is using her cultural clout to promote a social good. This is no different from the efforts of white celebrities like Moby, Morrissey, and, if you stretch it, Miley Cyrus. Morrissey reportedly bans all sale of animal flesh at his concerts–is he forcing his fans to be vegetarian?

True, celebrities are rarely trained in social justice activism, and their politics are not always perfect. I also find it uncomfortable that society should rely on celebrities to promote social goods since celebrities, given their extreme wealth, are the very embodiment of social inequality. Yet, Bey is putting her money where her mouth is–she is using her celebrity and privilege to make the world a better place through the channels available to her.

As this essay goes to print, Senator Cory Booker (also a person of color) has just announced his bid for presidency. He is a fierce social justice advocate and a longtime vegan. But he, too, promotes veganism for a wide variety of reasons which do not always center other animals. Would the movement be so quick (and foolhardy) to write off Cory Booker if he were to become our first vegan president? Need the vegan movement even have to wait for a vegan president? Beyoncé is practically American royalty, after all. Her clout arguably exceeds that of Booker’s.

Whether white activists like it or not, celebrity influencers shape the cultural landscape. The vegan identity (unlike the flexitarian identity) is a highly stigmatized one, and social movements will need to normalize its goals before they can be widely adopted. If Queen Bey makes vegan cool, it might not be “for the right reasons” (that is, it might not seek to advance the interests of Nonhuman Animals), but it can have a significant impact on the community she serves.

The Master Frame

Social movement scholars acknowledge that collectives strategically design frames which are hoped to resonate with their audiences. Multiple frames can be at work, but it is sometimes the case that a “master frame” will come to dominate in the movement’s repertoire. The utility of a master frame is its ability to present a strong, united front to the public and policy-makers. The downside is that a “one-size-fits-all” approach can be unrealistic given that audiences (and activists themselves) are not necessarily homogenous. Persuasion is a complicated matter and it sometimes takes many approaches to push a social justice agenda.

The Vegan Society, which formed in 1944 Britain and officially launched the political concept of “veganism” in the West following a protracted debate with The Vegetarian Society, may have prioritized veganism as a matter of anti-speciesism, but, from its very conception, it drew on a diverse framework relating to human health, poverty and famine, war, and individual autonomy. Indeed, The Vegan Society, today, continues a multipronged approach.

As the society moved into the 21st century, it continued to promote veganism, not necessarily as an endeavor to liberate other animals, but as something “normal” and achievable. Its vegan labeling scheme, for instance, was a major campaign in this effort. I have my issues with such an approach given its pro-capitalist leanings and its watering down of the anti-speciesist radical politic, but it is the case nonetheless that the expansion of commercially available vegan products has made veganism easier to perform.

Beyoncé has been dragged before for not meeting the expectations of white activist frames. White feminists, for instance, have criticized her brand of feminism as sexually objectifying and complicit with patriarchy, if not ignored it altogether. Black feminists have responded by reminding the community that there is no one “Feminism” (capital F) but rather many feminisms, and the failure to embrace Black women’s activism reflects white supremacy in the public space.

Because inequality does not stop at the door of social justice movements, activists must consider how inequality can sometimes shape strategy. Who is the “master” in developing the “master frame”? What I am suggesting is that the “master frame” is too frequently racialized in its construction.

Likewise, the need to control the vegan discourse and the very definition of veganism itself is rooted in colonial politics. As European countries pushed their culture onto “inferior” and “ignorant” subjects, they expected full assimilation. There was little patience for adaptation or nuance; it was simply presumed that European cultural values were universal and should be adopted unquestioningly. This is the very definition of cultural domination.

In this vein, it must be remembered that, while non-Western countries have their own histories of plant-based resistance, “Veganism” (capital V) as it is understood and politicized today, is a deeply European concept. White activists must tread carefully when attempting to impose “their” veganism on “others.” Indeed, the vegan movement, dominated as it is by white activists, has been less than welcoming to the veganisms of other cultures. This is problematic if the goal is to expand veganism beyond middle-class white spaces.

Most people go vegan and stay vegan because of their concern for other animals. Bey’s health-centric, flexitarian approach does not alter this research-supported fact. But Bey also has a wider cultural influence and represents a nonwhite consumer base that has been traditionally overlooked by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. I am interested to see if her efforts will contribute to the larger discourse. I am also deeply supportive of women of color who have the “audacity” to be political in a white-dominated cultural landscape. Celebrity persuasion is far from perfect, but it can contribute to the destigmitization of veganism. This cultural normalcy was The Vegan Society’s aim all along.

 


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

Readers can learn more about the racial 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.

Comments Off on Why I’m Giving Beyoncé’s Vegan Campaign a Chance

Filed under Essays