Category Archives: Publications

Age, Gender, and Veganism

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits

Photo Credit: Lynda Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Can a Meat Tax Advance Animal Rights?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full article here.


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

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A History of The Vegan Society

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

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

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

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

Read the full article here.
 


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

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

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

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

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

Read the full review here.
 
 


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

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

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Ghost Stories Tell Us a Lot about Animals in Human Society

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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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.

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Black Veganism and the Animality Politic

Why Animality Matters

In Ko & Ko’s 2017 publication Aphro-ism, the sisters critique popular applications of intersectionality theory, identifying that what has traditionally been defined as “human” has always been categorized as white, male, and European, while racial and ethnic minorities, women, and other marginalized groups have been dualistically constructed as “animal.” Thus, “animal” is not so much a catch-all category meant to refer to nonhuman species, but to all manner of disenfranchised groups, humans included.

Animality is, they insist, endemic to the colonialist project, providing justification for social control and suppression. The Kos argue that anti-racism activists, feminists, and vegans all have a stake in challenging the false divide between human and animal, and, more specifically, challenging the category of “animal” itself.

Without challenging this basic mechanism of oppression, activists are bound to fail in their efforts for liberation. In fact, they merely embrace the same oppressive logic by either ignoring (or rejecting) the relevance of animality or insisting that intersectionality praxis stop short of species solidarity. Doing so dangerously preserves hierarchies. As Aph warns: “What hasn’t occurred to many of us is that this model of compartmentalizing oppressions tracks the problematic Eurocentric compartmentalization of the world and its members in general” (71).

Why Race Matters

From the same reasoning, vegans who do not incorporate a critical racial lens are missing the entire point of speciesism: marking particular bodies as distinct from the dominant group based on perceived physical, cognitive, and cultural differences, and then employing this distinction to rationalize oppressive treatment. Racism and speciesism are inherently entangled. Explains Syl: “[ . . . ] the organizing principle for racial logic lies in the human-animal divide, wherein the human and the animal are understood to be moral opposites” (66).

The Kos are careful not to prescribe a “we are all animals” perspective to solve this boundary-maintenance, as this is poised to deprecate rather than accommodate difference. There is little need to push for sameness, and such a push usually maintains the dominant group as the standard to which others should aspire.

Read more of my review of Aprho-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters in Society & Animals 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 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.

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Can Flexitarianism Facilitate a Vegan World? Research Suggests Another Agenda

Can flexitarianism build a vegan world? In a meta-analysis of dozens of articles on vegan motivation, flexitarian dietary patterns, and consumer psychology, I conclude that the ideology of semi-vegetarianism promoted by the vegan/Nonhuman Animal rights movement is not supported by evidence.

Research does not support that flexitarianism facilitates meaningful change, but it does support a conservative movement culture that is conducive to industry, state, and elite interests. Activists frequently default to “common sense” mantras of “pragmatism” promoted by movement elites when deliberating strategy, but movement success will ultimately rely on objective analysis of social change processes independent of bureaucratic, institutional, ideological, or celebrity hearsay.

Research supports that most people who go vegan and stay vegan do so out of concern for Nonhuman Animals. Nonprofits, however, often focus on the health benefits of veganism. This is not supported by the research as a major motivator for behavior change. Nonprofits focus on health because it is less political and threatening than the idea of animal liberation.

Nonprofits mask this rationale by claiming that folks operate on self-interest and are more likely to be swayed by appeals to their own health. Research does not support this. Humans are more likely to be motivated by compassion and altruism when it comes to relations with other animals. Therefore, by promoting veganism as a moral obligation, nonprofits would be far more likely to affect change.

The Free-Rider Problem

In my body of research, I have suggested that nonprofits intentionally engage strategic blunders because nonprofit goals are generally distinct from radical social change goals. Could the vegan/Nonhuman Animal rights movement also be intentionally alienating the public from veganism even though veganism is an unavoidable necessity to end speciesism? I think so.

Historically, social movements have had to grapple with the problem of motivating people to participate. This is a problem because, theoretically, a rationally acting individual is more likely to want to sit on the sidelines and let someone else do the risky and costly work of activism. Activism can entail social stigma, risk of arrest, and career damage. It could even simply turn off folks who do not want to be bothered with crowds, bad weather, walking, calling up politicians, etc. If someone else is willing to do that work, why not just leave it up to them?

As one means of overcoming free-riding, collectives have begun to professionalize to ensure a dedicated cadre of activists working full time on a given social problem. Since the late 20th century, movements have taken on a bureaucratic, corporate form which allows them more stability and state support at the cost of their radical politics. Industries working in tandem with the state now funnel money into nonprofits as a means of soft control. Radical politics, as a result, are simply starved while moderates are glutted. What I suspect is that social movements today are actually encouraging free-riding in order to maintain control over movement organizations and the social movement arena itself. In effect, they are helping industries and the state to neutralize and deradicalize politics.

If a movement can facilitate a public that supports its cause but is not encouraged to actually participate beyond donating intermittently, this manufactured free-riding strips the democratic essence of a movement and ultimately weakens it. Movement organizations that use this strategy can expect institutional longevity, but the ability to create meaningful social change with power centralized in this way is stifled.

Why Unstructured Incrementalism is Less Effective 

These structural influences shape a social movement’s claimsmaking. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s leading nonprofits mask their allegiance to conservative cash flow by making appeals to common sense notions of behavior change. Rather than asking someone to make the big leap to veganism, nonprofits insist, ask them instead to make a few changes and ease their way into it. However, social psychological research has demonstrated time and time again that “common sense” explanations are frequently misleading. Humans are far less rational than we think we are.

Although the United States is a country with major economic, political, and social ties to exploiting Nonhuman Animals, values of freedom, fairness, and compassion mean that few Americans want to see themselves as someone who is cruel to other animals. Flexitarianism, then, is a form of incrementalism that allows people to keep participating in exploitative behaviors as the system encourages them to do, while also enacting deeply held values about compassion. America is a country of animal lovers who want to keep eating animals—charities can appeal to this cognitive dissonance by promising folks that they can identify as an animal lover without having to make any real behavior changes. This is the very definition of a free-rider.

In “Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism” published in Society & Animals, I have explored dozens of studies on vegan motivation and consumption change. In many cases, those eating flexitarian are not really eating any less animal products and they are less committed, more likely to exhibit characteristics of eating disorders, and sometimes actually eat more animals than people who did not identify as flexitarian.

Other research finds that participants asked to eat prescribed diets of omnivorism, flexitarianism, and veganism experienced similar levels of satisfaction and adherence to the diet—so why not go for the gold and ask folks to go vegan? After all, veganism has a bigger impact on the well-being of both Nonhuman Animals and humans.

The research, in short, does not support that asking folks to go vegan repels them, but the movement repeatedly assures activists that it will. Something else is fueling this rationalization since the evidence explored in my meta-analysis is not lining up.

Evidence to the Utility of Vegan Campaigning

Some research from tobacco cessation programs supports the importance of being straightforward and honest about the desired change. Participants in some studies, for instance, who were asked to quit immediately were more successful than those asked only to cut back. Furthermore, participants who were given a scheduled means of reducing toward cessation were successful, too, since behavior change can be cognitively straining. Vegan organizations, however, are more likely to promote vague ideas about cutting back and never mention the word veganism.

Tobacco cessation research supports that either asking folks to quit altogether or providing them a clear plan towards a clear goal is effective, but Nonhuman Animal charities do neither. The reason for this is that nonprofits—as businesses–are ultimately more interested in financial stability and institutional survival than they are interested in actual social change. This is a basic sociological observation found across many industry sectors.

So long as nonprofits are beholden to foundations and the state for support, it is unlikely that vegan programming will ever be designed according to evidence-based scientific research. This is because the nonprofit goal is to promote generic, promotable social services for the purpose of ensuring its survival, not to promote radical social change which would threaten the elite-run foundations, the state, and the nonprofits themselves. Promoting flexitarianism allows the charity to appear to be doing good works without really mobilizing any radical change.

The Imperative of Critical Thinking and Scientific Accountability

Nonprofits with a genuine interest in creating a vegan world will need to reconsider the role of the public in pushing for change. Relying on foundations and the state for financial support creates an inherent conflict of interest. These organizations will also need to engage with scientific evidence to support their proscription for social change.

This research must be objective. Increasingly, nonprofits produce their own in-house research to draw on the legitimacy of science to lend credibility to tactics and strategies that, when studied objectively by outside parties, would not demonstrate effectiveness. In other words, nonprofits recognize that science helps sell their strategy as effective, but, since science cannot support their ineffective tactics, they simply create their own science.

A new movement culture that genuinely wishes to address the crisis of speciesism should, therefore, nurture unbiased, replicable research that is designed to benefit effective Nonhuman Animal liberation. Research manufactured by nonprofit staff with little to no scientific training with aims of improving the institution’s appeal to elite-run foundations is not the sort of research that will achieve a vegan world.

Ultimately, nonprofits present a serious conundrum for effective activism. Nonprofits have essentially become an extension of the state, making their long-term utility to the movement questionable. Large sums of money are too frequently thought necessary to enact social change, but this economic logic of growth has protected the nonprofit industry from necessary scrutiny. Sociological theory has demonstrated that capitalist structures both create and aggravate inequality. Grassroots mobilization that challenges hierarchical movement structures, the hegemony of capitalist interests, and concentrated decision-making could allow for an openness to strategies supported by the science.

 

Readers can access the entire article here.
A condensed version of this research in the context of wider vegan movement studies was covered by The Atlantic.

 


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

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

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How Effective is the Vegan Lecture? Exam Scores Tell a Horrifying Story

How Many Animals Killed?

Can you estimate how many animals are killed for food in the United States each year?

In 2015, I added this innocuous extra credit question at the end of an exam in my Introduction to Sociology course. Since we had discussed violence against animals in class, students had been assigned readings on the topic, and it was explicitly listed in the study guide, I expected that most students would guess in the ballpark of several billion. Instead, many were reporting numbers in the several millions, or even several thousands. The lowest guess was just 2,000.

I was so utterly astonished by the exam results, I was compelled to repeat the question on future exams. I have shared my findings in an open-access article with the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food. Over the course of seven semesters, I eventually presented the question to nearly 200 students. All students (presuming they did not skip class) had been exposed to an 80 minute lecture on human/nonhuman relationships. This lecture clearly stated the FAO statistics on the numbers of animals killed in the United States (about 10 billion). I even made sure to linger on the sheer magnitude of individuals killed.

Results

Sixty-six percent of the class significantly underestimated the number of animals killed, and only 29% offered a reasonable estimate of between several billion and trillion (I clarified in lecture that FAO statistics do not include aquatic life). About 1 in 5 students were not even confident enough to hazard even a guess. Because 2% of students grossly overestimated the number of animals killed, the class average was skewed. However, the median response was in the millions. The bottom 10% of student responses averaged just 24,667. About that many chickens are killed every one and a half minutes in the United States (or 9 billion annually).

Predictably, students who scored A’s and B’s were more likely to guess an appropriate number. This suggests that students with good classroom behavior and study hygiene are more likely to retain information (at least up to the exam date). There was no significant correlation with gender.

Low Food Literacy

Low food literacy is well-documented across developing countries by food justice organizations, states, and industries which work to manipulate consumer decisions and public nutrition. Sociologically speaking, the systematic killing of other animals has been effectively removed from our social sensibility. Most consumers only relate to other animals as packaged products and menu items. Psychologically speaking, people employ a number of cognitive barriers to avoid uncomfortable knowledge.

The reasons for low food literacy are many, but the results presented here are especially sobering. Afterall, these are college-educated adults who have been trained to think critically and are exposed to current events, global trends, and multiculturalism. These are also college students who had been specifically exposed to information about nonhuman experiences in the food system. This suggests to me an inherent limitation to lecture as a means of lasting knowledge transmission.

Are Lectures Effective?

My suspicion is that, as Sociology 101 is a survey course, I am obligated to cover a large variety of sociological theories, concepts, and trends. I am not able to frequently return to each and every concept to aid with retention–that privilege is granted to key theories and paradigms. For vegan lecturers outside of academia, these results suggest that one-off lectures may not be sufficient to persuade. However, in research I conducted in 2017, I did find that a significant number of respondents became vegan after having watched a film or read a book on the topic.

There are a number of methodological shortcomings to this research. For one, my Introduction to Sociology course is aimed at first-year students, meaning that many respondents were still finding their academic footing. Second, I offered no control group. The estimates provided by my experimental group were so very low, however, I would find it hard to believe that a control group would have done much worse in having not been exposed to lecture.

I also did not conduct a post-test to measure if the knowledge was retained beyond the exam. After the exam, I went over the extra credit results with the class. When I explained how numbers so low could not possibly be accurate given that several thousand nonhumans are killed just to sustain the university cafeteria each semester, many students laughed and nodded. I would be curious to know if this debriefing had any effect on knowledge retention.

Readers can access the entire article 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 social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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