Tag Archives: Culture

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

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

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

Whose Veganism is It Anyway?

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

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

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

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

The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

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

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

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

Cultural Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Master Frame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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New Package, Same Old Problem: Animal Crackers and Veganism

In a 2016 blog post, I tackled the cheeky but oft-espressed question as to whether or not animal crackers are vegan.  Technically, the ingredients are vegan, but what do these cookies symbolically represent in a society that is deeply speciesist?

In 2018, Nabisco revamped their packaging design to remove the old circus car cages at the bequest of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Although this marketing tactic suggests a greater respect for Nonhuman Animal autonomy than the old packaging which had featured them as inmates, there are a number of fundamental issues that remain unaddressed.

Are Animal Crackers Vegan?

Animal crackers (comprised primarily of wheat flour, sugar, salt, and leavening agents) usually do not contain actual animal ingredients. They are designed for a long shelf-life, and, since animal corpses and fluids are quick to putrify, plant-based cookies preserve better.

Common cookie additives like milk derivatives and eggs add nothing to the flavor but are used instead for binding purposes. These additives are utilized instead of plant-based binders due to their availability; meat and dairy industries sustain themselves and remain profitable through the repurposing of waste products like whey and gelatin. Animal byproducts glut the market and are simply cheaper ingredients for cookie manufacturers.

Although Nabisco’s animal crackers are technically vegan, they certainly capitalize on this glut of cheap animal ingredients for a large variety of other products. Nabisco animal crackers may be vegan, but Nabisco itself is not.

What Do Animal Crackers Mean Symbolically?

Ingredients are only part of the story. When it comes to food, processes of intentional invisibility serve the cultural reproduction of speciesism. Vegan sociologists note that processing, packaging, and labeling are applied to effectively remove any reference to the nonhuman persons killed to provide animal products for human consumption. Furthermore, ag-gag laws in many states in tandem with the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act now make it exceedingly difficult for the public to access information about the exploitation and killing of animals. This manufactured and institutionalized invisibility is unique to the animal sector of the food industry.

In the case of animal crackers, however, Nonhuman Animals are intentionally visible. Animal crackers are, as a result, functional in their ability to socialize children with ideologies of human dominance. The consumption of animal crackers reiterates to children their privileged access to the natural world and any subordinates who live within it. By being able to “collect” animals, pick them up, handle them, and eventually eat them, notions of human supremacy are underscored.

Wait, What about Gingerbread Men?

Of course, bakeries manufacture human-shaped cookies, too, but these products usually take on generic forms. If they were designed to specifically resemble persons of African descent and were marketed to white children, for instance, the symbolic inequality manifest in the product and its consumption would be evident. In a white supremacist society within which people of African descent are systematically underemployed, victimized, and incarcerated, it would be morally problematic to objectify and infantilize this marginalized group even further by turning them into cookies for white kids.

In fact, this practice does take place in the Netherlands during the Christmas holidays. African colonial subjects known as “Black Petes,” who are cartoonized as St. Nicholas’s “little helpers” are fashioned into cookies and chocolates for white children to consume. Not surprisingly, this tradition is highly controversial.

The cultural context of animal crackers must be considered. Animal crackers are marked to human children in an anthropocentric society that engages in widescale, systematic violence against animals. As such, animal crackers are symbolically potent.

Is Nabisco’s New Packaging Vegan?

In the new Nabisco packaging, the depicted Nonhuman Animals are no longer categorically separated, stacked, and placed on display for the human gaze. They are now grouped together in solidarity moving toward the viewer with a commanding presence.

Nabisco’s decision reflects a larger trend in American industry. Companies that rely on all sorts of horrible animal exploitations have taken a cue from the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and increasingly frame their exploitation as “happy.” So, while animal crackers still symbolically represent human control over other animals, human consumers can avoid any feelings of guilt and are less likely to question their entitlement since the animals appear to be consenting, happy, and free. This same framing is engaged by zoos, circuses, and meat, dairy, and egg enterprises that oppress actual Nonhuman Animals.

Dropping the imagery of the circus indicates cultural progress since Nabisco’s classic cookies have played a part in the romanticization of an inherently inhumane industry. Yet, Nabisco’s focus on freeliving species in the context of the circus imagery it employed for decades could actually aggravate symbolic inequality. There is an element of thrill associated with the control of persons who are culturally understood to be uncontrollable. It is entirely possible that children will experience even greater feelings of supremacy and entitlement through repeated consumption of Nabisco’s now wild but capturable animal crackers.

This post was updated on August 31, 2019 to include mention of “Black Petes” with compliments to Geertrui Cazaux for the suggestion.


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.

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A Month of Vegan Research: Veganism as a Cultural Movement

Vegan Culture

The following literature review is part of a series for World Vegan Month. Other essays can be accessed by visiting the essays catalog.


 

Cherry, E.  2006.  “Veganism as a Cultural Movement:  A Relational Approach.”  Social Movement Studies 5 (2):  155-170.

Social movement scholars have long studied actors’ mobilization into and continued involvement in social movement organizations. A more recent trend in social movement literature concerns cultural activism that takes place primarily outside of social movement organizations. Here I use the vegan movement to explore modes of participation in such diffuse cultural movements. As with many cultural movements, there are more practicing vegans than there are members of vegan movement organizations. Using data from ethnographic interviews with vegans, this article focuses on vegans who are unaffiliated with a vegan movement organization. The sample contains two distinctive groups of vegans – those in the punk subculture and those who were not – and investigates how they defined and practiced veganism differently. Taking a relational approach to the data, I analyze the social networks of these punk and non-punk vegans. Focusing on discourse, support, and network embeddedness, I argue that maintaining participation in the vegan movement depends more upon having supportive social networks than having willpower, motivation, or a collective vegan identity. This study demonstrates how culture and social networks function to provide support for cultural movement participation.

punk-culture

 

Cherry’s sociological research into the importance of networks and culture in vegan outreach and vegan retainment reminds us that promoting veganism is more than leafleting to strangers and graphic images.  Many vegans go vegan and stay vegan because it is culturally normative. More specifically, there are others in their social circles who are vegan.

This closeness to other vegans creates a familiarity with vegan living, lends social support, and significantly reduces stigma.  We learn what foods, music, fashion, morals, values, etc. are desirable from those around us, and veganism is no exception.  Given that social institutions are generally elite-driven and protect oppressive structures, subcultures that reject mainstream values are especially important for normalizing radical, justice-focused choices like veganism.  Some organizations attempt to recreate these networks and subcultures by sponsoring vegan mentorship programs.

 

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

 

Readers can learn more about vegan motivation in my book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 7, 2013.

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