Category Archives: Essays

Gender and Victorian Animal Advocacy

Although the nonhuman animal rights movement in the West is frequently framed by activists and remembered by historians as gender-neutral, Donald’s (2020) Women against Cruelty (which examines meeting notes and campaigning documents reaching back to the movement’s founding in the early 19th century) demonstrates just the opposite. Women’s affinity for anti-speciesist activism within the context of a prevailing sexism which pitted all female pursuits as lesser-than would prove a difficult hurdle to surmount with regard to social movement resonance. This is not to reify or reduce women’s contributions. Women against Cruelty catalogs a diversity of feminine and feminist approaches to advancing the interests of nonhuman animals: some religious, some scientific, and some intersectional. Many women favored educational outreach, while others relied on rational debate, shocking images, direct intervention, and legal resistance.

Donald showed that women’s efforts in some ways discredited the movement through feminine associations, but, in other ways, women also buoyed it with their consistent and energetic support. Women, it is clear, existed as the movement’s foundation, providing critical insight, labor, donations, and tactical innovations. As Donald uncovers, women consistently made up the majority of various organizations’ memberships as well. However, the strict gender norms of Victorian Britain ensured that their desire to participate in the public affairs of anti-speciesism would be difficult to reconcile with their expected domestic role as caretakers (and their supposed natural affinity to other animals, a connection that many women saw as a strength but many men saw as a reason to discredit them). The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA), for instance, routinely confined women’s participation and restricted their leadership in campaigning.

To an extent, the tension between feminine and masculine social spheres actually reflected a tension between religiosity and the changing mores of the Industrial Revolution. Activism of the 18th and early 19th centuries was imbued with Biblical doctrine, but adherence to this approach would diverge under the growing influence of capitalism. Women, responsible as they were for upholding society’s morals, became agents of a romanticized Christian vision of equality and compassion, while men, privileged with the duty to advance society through industry and politics, became immediate opponents given the importance of speciesism (and other forms of domination) to this agenda. Thus, on one level, women and girls policed speciesist cruelty, but, on another, they also came to police the unchecked power of men who increasingly pushed the boundaries of social order through conquest, colonialism, and science. The treatment of nonhuman animals, in other words, came to symbolize the uncomfortable and monumental transition into modernity.

Read the full review here.


Readers can learn more about the history of women’s activism 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 Gender and Victorian Animal Advocacy

Filed under Essays

Review: Racism as Zoological Witchcraft

Can we realize a liberatory world for humans and other animals without veganism as a baseline? In her second monograph, Racism as Zoological Witchcraft, Aph Ko imagines we might. There is, sadly, a considerable lack of communication between anti-racism and anti-speciesism movements, and Ko posits that this disconnect reflects the limitations of theoretical frameworks. For one, veganism is frequently depoliticized into a dietary lifestyle, largely due to corporate interests and the (perhaps intentional) mischaracterization from nonvegans.

Anti-racism activists, Ko conjectures, are not likely to find as much value in veganism as a tactic as such: “When we treat veganism as only a matter of what food one eats, it can feel as if we’re holding the key to racial liberation in our hands but only conceive of it as a spoon” (p. 8). More than this, however, she also suggests that veganism, even in its unadulterated political form, has its limitations. Veganism is not necessarily useful for conceptualizing all intersections between oppressed humans and other animals, and, furthermore, it may not speak equally to all audiences. Ko explains:

Rather than trying to smuggle all of these complex conversations about animals under the vegan label, we should get to a point in our activism where we recognize that conversations about race and animality often exceed the boundaries of vegan discourse, and that this should be celebrated rather than appropriated. (p. 30)

Veganism, in other words, may be a logic of anti-oppression, but its core emphasis relates to the rendering of nonhuman animals into products of consumption, and this framework does not always function for other oppression narratives.

Read the full review 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 Review: Racism as Zoological Witchcraft

Filed under Essays

Is Sociology Ready to Take Animals Seriously Now?

Originally published on Everyday Society, British Sociological Association; photo by Jo-Anne McArthur.

Since it began to gather momentum at the turn of the 21st century, the sociological study of animals and society has struggled for legitimacy. Although some sociology programs are beginning to provide courses on human/nonhuman relations, they remain sparse and elective. Academics and graduate students who specialize in the subfield have expressed experiencing considerable stigma (nearly half of animal studies scholars according to a recent study) (O’Sullivan et al. 2019). In graduate school, my own advisor suggested that I downplay my animal focus and sell myself as a social movement scholar. Publishing is no less frustrating, as any topic even remotely related to animals is subject to redirection by editors and reviewers to Society & Animals, arguably the journalistic ghetto for animal scholars where no one in mainstream sociology would realistically ever come across our research.

The devaluation of our work frankly boggles my mind. The climate change crisis worsens by the day with each record-breaking temperature, each melted iceberg, and each species lost to extinction. This is a crisis brought on, to an enormous extent, by animal agriculture via the heavy production and utilization of oil, soybeans and other fodder, water, land, transportation, and other resources necessary to sustain meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal products. Researchers are also pointing to this strain on the environment as the reason for shrinking wild spaces and subsequently greater contact between humans and free-living nonhuman communities. As COVID-19 and hundreds of other zoonotic diseases have demonstrated, humanity’s oppressive relationship with other animals is not only dangerous for nonhumans, but for humans as well (particularly vulnerable folks such as the very young, the elderly, those with disabilities, those living with limited material means, etc.).

Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will finally bring home the fact that human societies are deeply and consistently shaped by our relationships with other animals. The pandemic has disrupted all that sociology holds dear, from major social institutions to the most minor of social interactions. As such, sociologists cannot afford to continue ignoring and devaluing the nonhuman factor in human social life. At the policy level, the task is formidable, but as the global response to COVID-19 has indicated, big change can happen fast when the impetus is there.

Governmental bodies will need to cease subsidizing animal agriculture and other animal-based industries, which are both unsustainable and inherently violent to animals and the earth on which we all reside. Instead, agricultural agencies will need to immediately begin transitioning farmers toward sustainable, plant-based production. Neo-colonial practices that spread Western dietary practices, entrench colonial regions in animal agriculture, and fan food insecurity must be challenged. Much of the non-Western world has traditionally relied on plant-based consumption, a diet that has been gradually undermined by Western capitalist expansion. Now is the time to reimagine our relationship with other animals and critically reassess our consumption patterns.

For sociologists, we must begin to include nonhumans in our research, not just as variables, but as sentient beings who, like ourselves, have a stake in our society’s present and future. At the very least, we can begin to lend support and recognition to the study of animals and society, as it will only grow more pressing in the coming years.

References

O’Sullivan, S., Y. Watt, and F. Probyn-Rapsey. 2019. “Tainted Love: The Trials and Tribulations of a Career in Animal Studies.” Society & Animals 27 (4): 361-382.

Comments Off on Is Sociology Ready to Take Animals Seriously Now?

Filed under Essays

What Sociology Can Tell Us about Empathy for Animals

Empathy for Animals is a Core Human Value

Humans across the globe share their homes with dogs, cats, rodents, and other animals. We call them companions, pets, or even family members. Thousands of pounds are invested in these animals with regard to food, treats, toys, clothing, kennels, healthcare, and even birthdays and funeral services. Clearly humans deeply care about other animals. At our core, we have empathy for animals other than ourselves.

Exploitative Economies Distort Our Empathy for Animals

So why do so many humans stop short of extending this compassion to animals categorized as food, clothing, or labour? Sociology offers a variety of explanations according to theoretical perspectives. Many sociologists, however, point to the economic structure of a society and the commodification of nonhuman animals. David Nibert has argued that our switch to a hunting economy not only created a society newly structured around the oppression of animals (speciesism) but it also created a society divided by gender. The transition to agriculture entrenched speciesism further with the advent of domestication. This also introduced class division since agriculture allowed for surplus goods (and unequal distribution).

By the late 1500s, early capitalism and colonial expansion spread and deepened speciesism across the globe (and, in doing so, introduced racial division as well). Today, in late-stage capitalism, speciesism (animal agriculture in particular) is more intensive than ever. It is rapidly normalizing in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and other previously colonized spaces as a result of Western coercion. These are regions where plant-based consumption was once normative. The loss of traditional foodways is not only harmful for nonhuman animals identified as “food,” but the global poor identified as their consumers. Social stratification, in other words, is rooted in the adoption of speciesism as a primary economy both past and present.

Distorted Empathy for Animals Includes Humans, Too

Notice how human oppression codeveloped with animal oppression. This intersectionality is key to the sociological understanding of speciesism. Species, race, class, gender, and other social categories are economically functional. They ensure that unpleasant jobs will be filled and that labour may be exploited for low cost (or for none at all). These categories also represent social difference and tend to facilitate conflict and discourage cooperation. For sociologists, this tendency is politically relevant. A divided society, after all, is more easily manipulated by the dominant class in support of its own interests.

The most fundamental social division is that between humans and other animals. It is this animalization which separates those who are marginalized from those who are centered in society with regard to social recognition and allocation of resources. Women are animalized, people of color are animalized, humans with disabilities are animalized, homosexual people are animalized, ethnic minorities are animalized, and non-binary and trans humans are animalized. Even nonhuman animals themselves are animalized.

This is because “animal” is a social category imbrued with symbolic meaning. Just like race really has more to do with power, prestige, and access to resources than it does with one’s actual skin color, species is also not so much about one’s biological makeup (i.e. if one has hands or hooves, skin or scales). All groups, whether human or nonhuman, that are labeled “animal” are described as physically and cognitively inferior to the dominant class and can be denied rights accordingly.

Unteaching Empathy

True, nonhuman and human animals are indeed biologically different. But there are many more commonalities between the two groups. Why do we emphasize difference over sameness? I have described a society that is fundamentally in conflict. In order to maintain such a volatile system, powerful ideologies must be introduced and enforced through institutions and socialization. Psychologists point to a variety of cognitive and emotional mechanisms for managing the discomfort humans feel when faced with contradictions in their empathy toward other animals. Sociologists, however, are interested in how our empathy for some animals and our lack of empathy for others is learned (or, more accurately, is taught).

We are taught by our parents that some animals are for petting, some animals are for admiring, some are pests we should kill, and others are food we should eat. Doctors (who generally lack nutritional training) teach us that eating animals and drinking nonhuman breastmilk is good for us. We are taught by our teachers, museums, and zoos that nonhuman animals are ours to exploit. Mainstream media (which long since converged in the 1990s under the ownership of a handful of powerful billionaires) programs us that animals are objects and our using them is good for the economy. We’re being taught these lessons from childhood throughout our life course.

Reclaiming Empathy

Fortunately, if speciesism is something that is learned, that means it is something which can be unlearned. Sociologists are also interested in how social change happens and how social justice can be achieved in a society that is fundamentally unequal. Although the system may be rigged against us (and nonhuman animals), individuals can resist the erosion of our empathy by choosing food, clothing, and entertainment which does not harm other animals. Individuals can also work to create a more inclusive, peaceful world by getting active in our communities and putting pressure on policy-makers. It is possible to reclaim our empathy for animals.


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

Readers can learn more about the sociology of 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 What Sociology Can Tell Us about Empathy for Animals

Filed under Essays

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.

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

Comments Off on Veganism and Alternative Facts

Filed under Essays

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.


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 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 Is Honey Vegan?

Filed under Essays

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.

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

Comments Off on Zoos as Colonial Legacies of Injustice

Filed under Essays

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

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