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A Vegan Feminist Response to Nonhumans First

Content Warning: This post contains graphic descriptions of violent anti-speciesism protests which involve racism, sexual assault, violence against women, and child abuse.

 

The Logic of Non-Humans First!

As intersectionality discourse has gained resonance in Nonhuman Animal rights spaces, the challenge to the previously invisibilized white- and male-centrism has inspired organized resistance. Perhaps the most visible of these countermovement efforts is the  Non-Humans First Declaration. Explicitly dismissing the importance of race, class, and gender, the declaration insists that the advancement of Nonhuman Animals should be prioritized at any cost.

The declaration was authored by a collective known as Non-Humans First!, a project of the Israeli direct action group 269life. In the 2010s, 269life rose to prominence in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement with the deployment of numerous morally shocking reenactments of violence against humans intended to allegorize nonhuman oppression.

One such public demonstration featured a woman and a child as representatives of victims of dairy production. Male activists ripped the woman’s child away, placed it on the ground, and proceeded to sexually assault the screaming woman, beating her so aggressively that she bled. The event ended with men dragging her by the neck into an unmarked van, symbolizing the eventual slaughter of dairy cows.

In another street demonstration, unclothed white activists mimicked the buying and selling of Africans by appearing in chains and branding one other with hot irons to draw connections between human and nonhuman chattel slavery.

As these examples demonstrate, the aim is to trigger the traumatic memories and realities of marginalized communities. Their discomfort is believed to inspire solidarity, encouraging audiences to recognize nonhuman oppression and become vegan.

Thus, 269life’s anti-intersectionality manifesto should be interpreted within a repertoire of violent direct action. The intention may be to highlight intersections of oppression, but, ultimately, these tactics do not respect intersectional politics as they are a product of appropriation Regardless of intention, they aggravate human inequality to make their point.

However, causing harm to vulnerable humans is not considered especially relevant. The Non-Humans First! approach demonstrates that harm to humans is ill-considered or outright provoked by its activists. For that matter, anti-speciesists who choose the latter option of provocation and ascribe to bigoted views are welcomed to participate as comrades. As the manifesto states:

No one should be excluded from participation in animal rights activities based on their views on human issues. The non-human animals are in a situation of immediate emergency and need all the help they can get! 

While it is true that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has lagged behind similar social justice efforts, the frustration with slow-coming change and the desire to cling to any and all available resources should not cloud strategy and common decency. Nonhumans do not need all the help they can get if that “help” encumbers movement progress by aggravating social inequality and alienating potential allies.

Non-Humans First!:

Furthermore, the women’s rights, anti-racism, etc. movements have no requirement that participants reject species oppression and nor should the animal movement demand the adherence to human rights positions while animals are still in a state of emergency. Of course, every rule has its exceptions (as decided by individual groups) but these kind of bans and exclusions should not be the norm in animal rights.

Here, Non-Humans First! posits that, because there is no requirement for human rights groups to include speciesism, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement should not worry itself with respecting other humans. This is a hypermasculinized logic of “everyone out for themselves,” one that is explicitly adversarial and renders alliance-building unfeasible.

Furthermore, it is grounded in fallacy. It is inaccurate to suggest that Nonhuman Animals are in a state of emergency, but that human animals are not. Victims of war, genocide, rape, starvation, disease, slavery, etc. are most certainly in a state of emergency as well. Non-Humans First! activists wrongly presume that those who would be harmed by their offensive protests are on more or less an equal social footing, but the 21st century remains deeply unequal. Most of the world’s humanity can only dream of the privilege that is enjoyed by the average anti-speciesist activist.

 

The Privilege to Frame Suffering and Need

Indeed, it is the relative privilege afford to many Non-Humans First! activists that most likely accounts for their anti-feminist position. The suffering of the underprivileged (children, women, people of color, non-Westerners, etc.) is easily disqualified by those who do not have direct experience with it. However, the patriarchal norms of the white-centric Nonhuman Animal rights movement allow that such rhetoric is likely to resonate with other activists. Non-humans First! posturing draws on white male Western epistemology that structures anti-speciesist collective action, but it has little impact outside of movement circles where such ideas are understood to be threatening and otherizing.

 

The Entanglement of Oppression

Another reason why this approach lacks effectiveness is due to the nature of oppression. Inequalities cannot be cherry-picked. Working to end the oppression of some while abetting or aggravating the oppression of others only serves the cultural belief that oppression is acceptable.

For that matter, oppressions function in tandem and are frequently entangled. Non-humans First! will find it difficult to prioritize nonhumans without inadvertently impacting human causes. When 269 Life sexually assaults and beats women in demonstrations because “no tactical idea should be excluded from the discussion based on its conflict with human rights ideology,” it employs powerful ideologies of misogyny to shock or even threaten its audience into compliance. The repercussions are not theoretical, but have physical consequences for girls, women, and others who are vulnerable to sexual violence. Rape culture remains as pervasive as ever, and violence against women is normalized, trivialized, and even encouraged. It should be the business of anti-speciesists to denounce violence, not participate in it.

The Non-Humans First! campaign shirks responsibility in this regard by insisting that vulnerable humans are not deserving of any rights themselves until speciesism is attended to:

We are aware and concerned about the fact that some human rights improvements within a fundamentally oppressive system towards non-humans leads to increased oppression of non-human animals. For example, economic improvements leading to increases in factory farming, meat consumption, animal labs, etc. We therefore call on human beings to free their own (non-human) slaves before demanding their own rights.

But this is simply not how oppression works.

By way of an example, slaughterhouse employees are often undocumented, and have few rights whatsoever. They experience the one of the highest rates of job injury and death in all U.S. industry, while female employees face regular sexual harassment, assault and rape. Slaughterhouse workers are routinely denied benefits and job security. As a consequence, many are living in poverty and disability, struggling to stay alive and to support their families.  How is it that these persons are in a position to “free their own slaves” if they are structurally prevented from attaining even their own rights? Slaughterhouse work is so dangerous and unrewarding, workers must be assumed to be living in serious precariousness. Why else would someone enter such an occupation? In such instances, there is little choice for workers wishing for employment that aligns with their values.

When anti-intersectionalists frame human participation in immoral industries as a matter of “choice,” they obscure the fact that this is a “choice” that privileged persons rarely (if ever) have to seriously consider. Choice rhetoric works to obscure social inequality. It incorrectly blames individuals targeted by exploitative systems for the consequences of exploitative systems.

Choice rhetoric also makes little sense when considering systemic human oppressions that target minors and dependents. Child slavery and sex trafficking continues at staggering rates across the world, for example, and children are certainly not in a position to prioritize speciesism over their own welfare. Choice requires power, and only an elite few are privileged with this agency. Even if children and other vulnerables are unable to renounce speciesism, they should not be abandoned. Nor should tactics be designed that inflame the problematic ideologies and institutions that target them.

 

The Sociology of Bridge-Building and Burning

Understandably, intersectionality is a difficult concept for many activists to accept given the tremendous violence facing other animals, but the unfortunate reality is that not everyone has the “privilege” to fight specifically for Nonhuman Animals.  Many humans must focus on their own health and safety simply to survive. By villainizing vulnerable humans, Non-Humans First! creates an atmosphere of discomfort and hostility which suggests that underprivileged persons are simply part of the problem if they object to questionable tactics and are not entitled to be anti-speciesists themselves if they cannot prioritize other animals.

Although it seeks to achieve the opposite, the Non-Humans First! campaign thus nurtures division between representatives of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement (who are predominantly male and almost exclusively white, middle-class persons) and disadvantaged groups living with rape, violence, murder, enslavement, poverty, hunger, disease, and other deprivations. Solidarity, not shaming, is what is needed.

Social movement theory warns that marginalizing the large demographic of disadvantaged humans and focusing only on the interests and worldviews of the tiny fraction of elite movement leaders is ineffective. This approach will not build a strong, credible, respected, or powerful movement. Animal rights will remain marginal because it will appear out of touch with the reality of social inequality. Scientific research supports that effective social justice strategies rely on a reasoned, evidence-based, logical, non-violent framework, one that is congruent with movement goals and not antithetical to them.

 

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on September 8, 2013.


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

Readers can learn more about the intersectional politics of Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Thug Kitchen Cookbook and the Problem of Vegan Blackface

 

In 2014, it was revealed that the authors of the Thug Kitchena best selling cookbook utilizing basic ingredients, colloquial Black English, and gangster tropes, were white identified. To begin, I believe their intentions were good. Similar to the Vegan Black Metal Chef and the Vegan Zombie, Thug Kitchen probably had hopes of making veganism appear fun and culturally relevant.

Heavy metal musicians, however, are not a disenfranchised group,1 and zombies are not even real. “Thugs,” however, refer to a very real, very marginalized group of people. In American society,2 “thugs” are profiled and assaulted by police, mass incarcerated, stigmatized, and otherized. Oftentimes, their lives are cut short as a result.

These experiences are wholly divorced from that of the white middle-class authors of Thug Kitchen, making this white appropriation of Black culture for the profit and amusement of white audiences a form of literary Blackface.

White-presenting couple standing in front of a food spread. Man is throwing back a large bottle of alcohol. Thug Kitchen authors 

What is Blackface?

Blackface is present when whites represent themselves as Blacks for the amusement of white audiences. Historically, white entertainers would paint their faces and change their dress accordingly, but Blackface more generally relates to the use of nonwhite cultural stereotypes for whites by whites.

Blackface reflects a white legacy of entitlement and control over nonwhite spaces. It is problematic because whites pull on cultural items of value from the safety and comfort of their spaces of privilege while leaving structural discrimination in tact.

As an example, consider the popularity of Black jazz music among young whites in the early 20th century. Whites audiences and white jazz bands enjoyed Black culture in white spaces, while Americans of African descent suffered the Jim Crow violence of enforced poverty, segregation, voting disenfranchisement, and lynching.

By way of another example, consider the mass extermination of Native Americans in the 17th-19th centuries compounded by poverty, mental illness, suicide, and environmental injustice that persists today. Despite this unimaginable state-imposed oppression, whites of European ancestry idealistically lay claim to native geneology, proudly display tattoos of sacred indigenous symbols, and enthusiastically defend the “Redskins” team name and logo as respectful of native culture.

The Thug Cookbook enterprise is supposed to be humerous because it showcases white people “acting Black.”  By extension, being nonwhite is marked as funny because nonwhite culture is supposedly ignorant, primitive, and uncivilized. The cultures of people of color are thus usurped for the entertainment of a presumed white audience, but there is a complete disregard for the dangerous reality of white supremacy in which this minstrelism will be interpreted.

Thug Politics

The rhetoric of vegan Blackface is problematic because “thug” is an extremely politicized word. For those who must live under the label, it can be a matter of life and death. To be labeled “thug” in white America means to be denied opportunities, civil rights, and fair life chances.

“Thug” politics also influence the epistemologies of white Americans. For instance, the murder of young teen Trayvon Martin was deemed acceptable to many because this young, unarmed man walking home from the store with snacks was perceived to fit the thug profile. Martin was young, black, male, in a hoodie, and in a white neighborhood. For this, he was killed.

“Thug” has become the new n-word.  It is a means of referring to race without actually mentioning it. It a “color-blind” modern society, it maintains the cultural language about Blackness as a public threat.2  “Thug” acts as a racial identifier. It also becomes a qualifier. We are more likely to believe that thugs are innately deserving of whatever institutionalized violence is enacted upon them.  Subsequently, there is no race-neutrality to thug rhetoric.  It works to maintain a system of violence against people of color.

Vegan Blackface

Thug symbolism cannot be disassociated from a long and ongoing history of white supremacy, of which the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has played a part. Early anti-cruelty efforts were framed in white supremacist, nationalist terms. Despite the fact that many activists of the 19th and early 20th century were also heavily involved in human rights causes, they levied humaneness as a means of civilization. Make no mistake, this framework was (and is) highly detrimental to nonwhite, indigenous, and immigrant groups. There are thriving vegan communities of color today, but the mainstream vegan movement continues to be white-dominated in both theory and practice. This documented problem with racism makes vegan Blackface all the more dangerous.

Just as it is inappropriate for whites to wear indigenous headdresses to music festivals or wear sombreros with ponchos to Halloween parties, it is also unacceptable to play “thug” to sell books, t-shirts, or other vegan merchandise.  This is especially so when the dominant ideology of the vegan movement centers the white experience and has historically been used to uphold white supremacy.

 

Notes

1.  It has been suggested that the heavy metal genre actually appropriates African, Asian, and Middle Eastern music to some extent, as well as having historical ties to racist ideology.
2.  UK readers may have a different contemporary understanding of “thug” than Americans, but it is important to note here that the term derives from the Hindi word, “thugee,” and Indians branded as “thugs” were violently oppressed under British colonial rule.
3. Other communities of color are also impacted by thug politics.

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.
Readers can learn more about racism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on September 30, 2014 on The Academic Activist Vegan.
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On Moral Relativism and Animal Liberation

White Veganism

Intersectionality is a concept that is often rejected in the Nonhuman Animal movement, a problem that is strategically calamitous.  The movement is mostly white-identified, meaning that most leaders and rank-and-file activists fail to consider how anti-speciesist claimsmaking could offend or even oppress disenfranchised humans.  Because privilege tends to be invisible to those who have it, this propensity to hurt others frustratingly does not register with many white vegans.

This is a pivotal problem because the Nonhuman Animal rights movement regularly targets the actions of marginalized groups as “low-hanging fruit.”  While white vegans may not be conscious of this fact, the speciesist actions of minorities are easy for the movement to pick on because society at large already oppresses these populations. Campaigns that target minorities are more likely to garner support from a white supremacist public because suspicions of Nonhuman Animal cruelty become yet another reason to discriminate.  Examples include dog fighting, cock fighting, bear baiting, fur wearing, the consumption of dogs and cats, whale hunting, poaching, and hoarding.  These are all traditionally associated with marginalized demographics such as lower class persons, women, people of color, and non-Westerners. Vegan researchers have noted that it has typically been these forms of speciesism that the movement rallies behind, while the actions of society’s privileged go ignored or underresourced.

Racist campaigns resonate in a racist society.

Moral Relativism

Anti-racist vegans are sometimes charged with “moral relativism” when challenging the presumed race neutrality of anti-speciesist claimsmaking. Moral relativism is the idea that what is right or wrong is contextual, changing based on the social circumstance or culture. Anti-racist vegans insist that claimsmaking must be cognizant of cultural differences to be effective, while “color blind” vegans retort that pro-intersectional vegans must not care about Nonhuman Animal suffering. Nonhuman Animals, they argue, are left vulnerable to protect political correctness.

I strongly suspect, however, that this argument is disingenuous. The “moral relativism” defense is merely a deflection that seeks to protect the status quo and avoid critical examination. Nonhuman Animal suffering is thus exploited and objectified to protect the superiority of white veganism.

The argument is not that vegans should condone or ignore speciesist behaviors engaged by non-white or non-Western cultures. The argument is only that creating single issue campaigns that sensationalize the behaviors of people of color is racist.  These campaigns reflect white privilege in that they provide white vegans the power to judge others as lesser and protect the in-group sense of superiority.  Such an approach is offensive to marginalized groups. It exactly explains why the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is overwhelmingly white and has historically had huge difficulties building links to other movements.

Western society has been violently constructed to benefit whites, and one of those benefits is the constant validation of white ideas and opinions.  White vegans are simply not used to being criticized on cultural sensitivity because white culture is the default culture. A white supremacist society constantly reinforces the white vegan’s self-perception of goodness, righteousness, and moral superiority. This is not to blame or shame white vegans, of course, but only to insist that this bias be acknowledged.

A White Supremacist Origin

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is white supremacist in origin (see M. Lundblad’s 2013 The Birth of a Jungle).  The movement gained momentum in the late 19th century, coinciding with the abolition of slavery and the fight to increase basic civil liberties for Britons and Americans of African decent. Advocacy and racism often overlapped as Blacks were framed as brutish, unfeeling, cruel people who could never be so pure of heart as to care about the suffering of other animals.  Nonhuman Animal advocacy was intentionally framed as a thing white people did,  a thing only white people were capable of doing.  At this time, narratives of Black men savagely raping white women were rampant, resulting in thousands of lynchings across the American South (see the work of Ida B. Wells). Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans were also considered biologically subhuman and thus incapable of voting or receiving serious education. White society saw these groups as inherently evil and in need of control. Anti-speciesist narratives coincided with and supported these discriminatory ideologies. White activists understood that racist campaigns resonate in a racist society.

It is this history that continues to shape race relations today, and it cannot be erased from anti-speciesism efforts. People of color are institutionally oppressed by a racist criminal justice system which continues to believe that Brown and Black peoples are inherently cruel, evil, and in need of control. Should the vegan project be complicit with this dangerous stereotyping? Surely not, as the animalizing of people of color is not only an injustice to people of color, but also reinforces the cultural belief that the animal is bad. I have thus far argued that racist campaigns resonate in a racist society, but justice and compassion can also resonate. Racism is neither a stable nor progressive tactic. It only upholds the very violence the Nonhuman Animal rights movement seeks to dismantle.

Moving Forward

Ignoring the past and present of Western racism will only disservice the movement in underscoring the stereotype of veganism as a “white thing” that whites use to feel superior and brag about their privileged consumption patterns. When white vegans insist on avoiding a racialized lens, they actually underscore veganism’s racialized nature. You see, white is a race, too, and protecting its supremacy in a social movement is a political act with consequences. Veganism is not, never was, and never will be “color blind.”

White vegans can advocate for other animals in ways that do not ostracize or alienate underprivileged people (see the work of Dr. Breeze Harper).  This will involve self-reflection and awareness when planning. It also requires dialogue with those who have historically been denied participation in decision-making. This will entail a bit of extra effort, but it is worth it. Activists will not achieve real change for Nonhuman Animals by acting out of ignorance and disrespect for others.

 

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

 

Readers can learn more about racism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and its consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on June 11, 2013.

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A Month of Vegan Research: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance

animal-resistance

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

This essay has a content warning for discussion of extreme racial violence.


 

Jason Hribal.  2010.  Fear of the Animal Planet:  The Hidden History of Animal Resistance.  Petrolia, CA:  AK Press/Counterpunch.

fear-of-the-animal-planet

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is relatively unique in that humans must fight on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves.  Or so we think. Activists often frame Nonhuman Animals as “innocent victims,” “the voiceless,” “helpless,” etc.  Their concept of other animals becomes paternalistic and often assumes a “human savior” complex.  In doing so, activists erase a long history of Nonhuman Animal agency and resistance.

Hribal uncovers the strange social construction of animality over the centuries. Medieval Europeans, for instance, did not consider other animals innocent in the least.  Nonhuman Animals were sometimes put on trial and punished the same as humans.  Nonhuman Animals were thought to possess rationality, free will, and moral agency, just the same as humans. They were even thought capable of premeditation.

By holding other animals accountable for their behavior, the criminal justice system functioned to control other animals.  Many nonhuman “crimes” could be linked to their resistance to enslavement and exploitation.  Today, humans have stripped other animals of all personhood and cognitive abilities, allowing for full objectification and control.

pig-on-trial

This process was also present in early America, when African slaves were often put on trial.  Although whites highly animalized people of color, whites did presume they had some degree of rational intelligence.  In my rural Appalachian community, there was a famous trial of a black slave named “Blue” (Daniel Wright) who, refusing to obey orders, killed his “master” with a cradle (a multi-pronged sickle) while harvesting grain in the fields.  Strangely, instead of executing Blue outright, they proceeded with a trial.  Because he was considered property, not human, the county actually reimbursed the owner’s family with $320 after the hanging (the first legal execution in the county).  One must consider that the added effort of a trial must serve the additional purpose of social control (demonstrating law, order, and the power of the state).

In nearby Richmond, Virginia (capital of Virginia and later the capital of the Confederacy), slaves (and free blacks) utilized the court system (with certain restrictions, as in, African Americans could not testify against whites).  Obviously, the court system was intended to uphold the interests of whites and “slaveholders.”

After slavery, these discriminatory trials persisted (Remember To Kill A Mockingbird?).  The US criminal justice system is known to be extremely racist even today, with 1 in 3 African American males imprisoned at least once in their lifetimes.  Lynchmobs, parading Klansmen, and police with high-pressure hoses and trained dogs can maintain an unequal social system, but the quieter, more “civilized” court system is more efficient and effective.  It’s also least likely to inspire outrage and organized retaliation.

animal-fights-back

Hribal covers instances of escape and fighting back, providing both historical and current examples of nonhuman resistance.  He argues that these actions are deliberate.  Nonhuman Animals are acting with intent and they are asserting their own desires for freedom.  This is an important point.  The ideology of oppression would have us believe that those we enslave and exploit benefit from it and are content with the system.  When oppressed persons (human and nonhuman alike) resist, it is important evidence against the “naturalness” or “normality” of the prevailing system.  Hribal’s work is important in placing the Nonhuman Animal movement in the forefront of civil resistance movements.  It recognizes the personhood of other animals and challenges our human supremacist view that infantalizes other animals as helpless victims.

You can read in depth reviews of the book here and 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 Nonhuman Animal rights industrial complex and its consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 9, 2013.

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When White Makes Right: Racism, Neo-Colonialism, and Single-Issue Campaigns

live-sushi

The white-centrism of vegan advocacy is perhaps best evidenced in its partiality for single-issue campaigns targeting the practices of non-Western cultures.

Take, for instance, the 2013 Free From Harm call to action regarding “live sushi.” “Live sushi” entails the presentation of  butchered, living animals such as frogs to demonstrate freshness of product. Free From Harm sensationalizes this practice as one associated with foreigners for a presumed white audience. The petition it promotes promises to ban the practice if only this presumed white audience were to join together to police and control non-white deviants.

From the petition:

This barbaric, vulgar and unnecessarily cruel practice is truly a shame on the Japanese people. So we, signers of this petition from around the world, ask respectfully that you ban this practice in Japan.

White-led nonprofits engage cruelty rhetoric from a colonialist perspective: Western violent practices are invisibilized, while non-Western violent practices are framed as “vulgar.” The presumption being that Westerners possess the correct morality and the appropriate solutions to social ills.

live-sushiSingle-issue campaigning creates a competition for attention. As a result, social problems deemed most easily sold to the public are prioritized, and they frequently take advantage of racism, sexism, and other inequalities to improve resonance. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement, in other words, exploits human injustice to promote nonhuman justice.

Single-issue campaigns are thus fundamentally arbitrary in their focus. They have more to do with the prejudices of campaigners and their public than the relative suffering of the Nonhuman Animals in question. Indeed, the practice of keeping victims conscious during consumption extends far beyond Japan. Many Asian cultures engage this practice. For instance, there are soup recipes that feature live prawns swimming in steaming broth and octopus hot pots in which a living octopi’s arms are cut off with scissors bite by bite for the duration of the meal.

In the United States, Americans torture, dismember, and intentionally sicken and traumatize millions of rats, mice, birds, pigs, dogs, cats, monkeys, and other animals before eventually killing them days, months, or even years later in vivisection and military testing. Thousands of Americans traipse into woods, penned enclosures, rivers, and oceans to shoot other animals with bullets, arrows, and harpoons or snag their faces with metal hooks.  These animals are also fully conscious, suffering, and are often dismembered and disemboweled, before being killed and eaten.

deer-hunting

Really, then, speciesism is a global issue. There is nothing especially “barbaric, vulgar and unnecessarily cruel” about what happens to animals in Japanese food systems. Yes, “live sushi” entails the spectacle of an animal’s suffering as they die for the consumer’s pleasure, but Westerners value the spectacle of speciesist violence as well. Thus, it isn’t the spectacle that is the issue for Western petitioners, it is the cultural context.

“Live sushi” consumption takes place outside the framework of traditional Western practice. As has been the practice for several centuries, Westerners are quick to frame the culture of non-Westerners as “barbaric” and “savage” to justify global inequality and Western imperialism. Nonprofits and activists in the West must be mindful of this legacy when framing their social justice efforts, lest they inadvertently aggravate inequality in the process.

While I do not believe that anti-speciesist organizations are ignorant of the cultural contexts that shape their audience’s interpretations, some activists do make half-hearted appeals to the suffering of all Nonhuman Animals, not just those harmed by the practice in question. In doing so, they seek to leverage the non-white/non-Western cruelties highlighted by the campaign to build support for a wider vegan ethic. However, such an approach will not be enough to counter the racist and colonialist culture that translates their message. When met with criticisms of sexism, for instance, PETA counters that it uses men in its sexualized campaigning as well, but this does not negate the sexist cultural context in which PETA’s message will be read. We do not live in a post-gender world, and we do not live in a post-racial world. There are repercussions for vulnerable groups when campaigns of this kind are promoted.

The potential for aggravating racist and colonialist attitudes is a problem particular to single-issue campaigns. Single-issue campaigns are intended to otherize and create a sense of “we-ness” to motivate action.  Unfortunately, in doing so, these campaigns create divisiveness and invite stereotyping.  Advocating for all animals with a holistic vegan approach can combat speciesism without drawing ethnic/racial boundaries or appealing to paternalism.

Intersectional failure in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement alienates marginalized human populations in its fervor to liberate Nonhuman Animals. Many like to believe they live in a post-racial utopia where race, ethnicity, and nationality do not matter . . . but they do.  The majority of Western vegan activists and nonprofit leaders are white and middle-classed and Western nonprofits are the most influential in the global charity system. This imbalance nurtures a privileged worldview that will shape decision-making and campaign development to the potential detriment of others.

For further information on resisting intersectional failure in campaign development, I recommend a panel talk by Dr. Breeze Harper of the Sistah Vegan Project and Lauren Ornelas of Food Empowerment Project:  Animal Liberation, Tokenizing ‘Intersectionality’, and Resistance Ecology:

Note: Following the controversy in the article’s comments section, the Free From Harm article discussed here was been edited to reduce inflammatory elements and the comments section was closed.

 

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

 

Readers can learn more about single-issue campaigning and racist strategies in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and their consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on June 9, 2013.

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The Surprising History of John Harvey Kellogg and His War on “Meat”

John Kellogg

But although the sheep goes dumb to the slaughter, do not its [sic] eloquent eyes appeal for mercy?  Do not the bleating of the calf, the bellowing of the bull, the cackling of the frightened geese, the gobbling of the reluctant turkeys, and the cries of the hundred of other creatures that we call dumb, but to each of whom nature has given its [sic] characteristic mode of speech, rise in eloquent protest against the savagery to which the instincts inherited from our cannibalistic ancestors habitually lead us?  That we are able in cold blood to take the lives of these innocent beings, then to bury their carcasses in our stomachs, as do the savage beasts of the forest, is made possible only by the fact that the ancient savage still leaps and yells in our hearts. (Kellogg 1923: 219-220).

Dr. Kellogg’s 1923 The Natural Diet of Man [sic] offers an interesting perspective into the vegetarian/vegan movement of the United States 100 years ago.

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Take, for instance, the preface and final chapter in which Kellogg complains of the “meat” industry’s reaction to post-war declines in flesh consumption.  As he explains, the industry launched an “Eat More Meat” campaign, flooding newspapers with scientific claims to “meat’s” essentialness to human health.

Take, also, the cringe-worthy examples Kellogg reprints in the chapter entitled, “Newspaper and Magazine Misinformation.”  The “meat” industry has been bombarding the public with strategic advertising to increase profits for a century or more.

Despite this entrenching ideology, Kellogg seems confident the industry would not succeed:

The packers are certainly trying to “raise the wind” in behalf of their industry, but they will not succeed.  When they set to work to find “scientific data wherewith to correct adverse propaganda,” they will find nothing to correct.  The physiologists have been stating the simple, incontrovertible facts about meat, which show its uselessness and harmfulness, and there is not a word to be said in its favor which has not already been said and resaid so many times during the past that there is nothing new to say.  […] it is not to be believed that these eminent and efficient promoters of national welfare can be persuaded by the packers to back up their “Eat More Meat” campaign, which has been organized, not in the interest of the public welfare, but simply to enrich the pocketbooks of breeders and butchers. (361)

What right have packers and breeders to undertake to exploit the consumers of food simply to create a market for their products? (362).

For a time, the scarcity of WWI normalized vegetarian and low-meat eating

For a time, the scarcity of WWI normalized vegetarian and low-meat eating

Despite this optimism, the role of “meat” in the project of oppression is deeply rooted and the “science” the industry creates is just as biased but convincing as it ever was. Kellogg, however, was witnessing the very formation of an ideology in an era of great social change. “Meat” was shaping nationhood.

Indeed, “meat”-eating and colonialism went hand-in-hand at this time.  British colonizers, for example, explained their supremacy in India as a direct consequence of the physical and mental superiority granted from consuming flesh.  Indians, who primarily ate plant-based diets, were argued to be weak, stupid, and ripe for subjugation.

This ethnocentrist and racist ideology permeated the Western defense of flesh consumption.  Dr. Kellogg counters in The Natural Diet by highlighting many of the amazing and physically exerting feats that Indians regularly achieved.  He suggests that any feebleness suffered by Indians and other colonized vegetarian groups was more accurately attributable to starvation. British imperialism, in other words, was the source of harm, not a vegetable diet.

Incidentally, Kellogg was certainly no egalitarian himself by any right. Notably, he founded a eugenics society at his Battle Creek sanitarium where he hosted conferences on “racial betterment.”

All patients at Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium were expected to practice vegetarianism. Photo from Willard Library.

All patients at Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium were expected to practice vegetarianism.
Photo from Willard Library.

 

While primarily concerned with “meat’s” impact on human health, Kellogg does make an ethical appeal to vegetarianism near the end of his book:

With winter’s frost an evil day arrives,–a day of massacre, of perfidy, of assassination and bloodshed.  With knife and ax he turns upon his trusted friends,–the sheep that kissed his hand, the ox that plowed his field.  The air is filled with shrieks and moans, with cries of terror and despair; the soil is wet with warm blood, and strewn with corpses (220).

As this prose attests, plant-based eating was serious business for Dr. Kellogg. He required vegetarianism of all patients sojourning in his Battle Creek sanitarium   In fact, when patients were caught sneaking “steak,” he was known to place their meal under the microscope to grant them a closeup view of the bacteria active in the decomposing flesh. In a shock tactic that remains favored by vegan activists today, he hoped the exposure would repel and disgust them from further digression.

Perhaps understandable for the time, The Natural Diet of Man [sic] explicitly argues for vegetarianism, with only a fragmented acknowledgement of vegan politics. He does, however, note that a completely plant-based diet is just as healthful and nutritionally sufficient as a vegetarian one. It is also cheaper, he concedes.  Kellogg even recommends nut milk, a suggestion would be unheard of in today’s corporatized and monopolized food system. That’s just as well. Today’s Kelloggs cereal is fortified with animal-derived Vitamin D. Nut milk or no, it would not suitable for vegans.

 

 

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.Readers can learn more about the relationship between colonialism, racism, and speciesism as well as the media politics of nonvegan industry in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


A version of this essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on May 25, 2013.

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What Black Lives Matter Can Teach White Vegans

Content Warning: Post discusses racism, sexism, and a number of other forms of discrimination, as well as the Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s protection of discriminatory attitudes and tactics.

SouthernLivesMatter

 

This is a story about symbols and solidarity. It is also a pained confession of my sometimes uncomfortable identity as a white Southerner, one that I hope can constructively add to the dialogue. As I repeatedly come up against white fragility and hostility in the Nonhuman Animal Rights movement as it responds to coalition-building and diversity efforts, I felt compelled to share my thoughts here, born of both personal experience and research in social movement studies. If you have been directed to this essay or otherwise found yourself here and you are white-identified, I encourage you to read on with an open mind. I am not judging you, I am only imploring you.

I grew up in a small town in rural Virginia. The confederate flag was constantly present in my life. Some people hang the flag on their porch. Lots of “good ol’ boys” plaster their trucks with them. My classmates regularly wore t-shirts featuring the flag to school. Civil War heritage is a major part of life in Virginia as well, probably because much if not most of the war was fought in our state. I am and always have been a history nerd, and I even participated in Civil War living history events and “reenactments” as a teenager.

In graduate school as a young woman, the flag came up in discussion in a sociology theory class. The professor was using it as an example of how symbols become socially constructed and can hold different meanings. He asked us who in the room was not offended by the flag. I am embarrassed to say, I was the only one that raised my hand. I was also the only person from a rural and poor background in the class (poor people where I come from don’t often make it to college, and they rarely find their way into graduate school). I was acutely aware of that. When “outsiders” criticize the confederate flag, some whites interpret this as another attack on poor, working class Southerners who, to be fair, are disproportionately burdened by a substantial amount of structural classism. Race, of course, still matters, but it is conveniently erased from the framework.

I believe I said something along those very cliche lines of, “It doesn’t mean what you think it means. I don’t see it as racist.” Then I made some awful comparison about the swastika, insisting that Hindus shouldn’t have to abandon the symbol just becomes some people think it’s racist. Oh and didn’t you know that some African Americans fought on the side of the South in the Civil War?

Yep.

That happened back in 2007 and I still remember it vividly because I am mortified by it. I thought I was being critical, but I was really just thinking about myself. It isn’t about me, though. It’s about how others are hurt by these symbols. It’s about the systems of oppression that are still ongoing, still disadvantaging, and still costing lives.

Deep down, Southerners are not ignorant of this meaning. We know it’s not just about Southern culture and working class pride. A few summers later, I was tubing the river in the area where I grew up. I got ahead of my group and while I waited on the banks for them to catch up, two older white men came up to me and started a conversation, having recognized me through their friendship with my late father. While we were shooting the breeze, one of them made an off-hand comment about how they used to have a rebel flag hanging up on a tree by the river entrance to “keep the n*****s away.” I was more or less a stranger to them, but I was white, which made them feel comfortable acknowledging the flag’s implicit meaning. Shocking how I once convinced myself that these racist symbols could ever be “colorblind,” or that my naive personal interpretation as a privileged white person could ever supersede the larger societal meaning.

I share this story because I learned from it, regret past attitudes, and wish I had not sided with self-interested defensiveness. I wish I had thought of others’ interpretations, not just my own. After all, I live in a society, not a bubble. As Black Lives Matter dominates headlines and protesters fill the streets, there has been renewed contention over the flag’s use, which has, in turn, inspired white defensiveness and counter-mobilization. For whites, the contention is a symbolic attack on their way of life (and, whether or not they are willing to admit it, their privilege). For African Americans and other people of color, it’s an attack on their very right to life and safety. The two are not comparable.

BLM

The flag is just one of many examples where meaning is contested and racial inequality runs the risk of erasure. In my observations of the vegan movement, I have seen race issues ignored altogether, silenced by white gatekeepers, or derailed with appeals to Nonhuman Animal lives. Beyond the excuses (“We have to focus!” “Animals are suffering more!”), much of the resistance has to do with activists taking personal offense when their approach is criticized: “I’m not racist! This tactic doesn’t make me racist!” “This has nothing to do with violence against women!” “Speciesism is just like the Holocaust; that’s how it really is!” etc.

Here’s the thing: 

When activists engage tactics that simulate the rape of women or disseminate images and sounds of cows being raped as a scare tactic, the movement appears sexist and callous.

When white activists publish cookbooks from an imagined stereotypical “thug” perspective, and keep pushing the book despite the protests of people hurt by these stereotypes, the movement appears racist and callous.

When middle-to-upper class (even millionaire) activists insist over and over that veganism is “easy” when, for so many living under structural oppression, it absolutely is not easy, the movement appears classist, racist, and callous.

When cis-gender activists belittle transgender persons who advocate for transgender rights instead of prioritizing speciesism, the movement appears trans-antagonistic and callous.

When thin-privileged activists politicize obesity and post billboards mocking women of size by calling them “whales” with the intention of shaming them toward veganism, the movement appears sizeist and callous.

Who would want to associate with such a movement? If participants are attracted by racist, sexist, classist, or sizeist claimsmaking of this kind, are they associates the movement will benefit from? Are these the best ambassadors for a social justice movement?

Importantly, many vegans engaging these problematic tactics have been exposed to patient explanations from people who are actually living under the oppressions themselves. Yet, vegans continue to defend these tactics with gusto, doubling down on defensiveness. In retaliation, it is vegan feminists and allies who are accused of bigotry, taking things too seriously, or looking to start trouble and drama. I am reminded of a small protest that took place at the Animal Rights National Conference in 2016 in which an audience member took his turn during the Q&A to ask the white male speaker to consider not taking up so much space at conferences to make room for marginalized voices who are rarely given platform. The moderator shut down the protester, and the audience erupted in applause. They were not clapping in support of the protester’s brave actions, but rather the moderator’s restoration of (white supremacist) order.

Defensiveness over mindfulness.

Me-myself-and-I thinking subjected me to public embarrassment in that graduate classroom so many years ago, and I have learned a very important lesson since that day. Activism isn’t about one’s own interpretation. Given that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is largely white-identified and middle-class, the prevailing interpretations can never be considered universal. A failure to acknowledge privilege equates to a failure in resonance. Activists must consider the interpretation of those who are being hurt by movement rhetoric, attitudes, and behavior.

There are consequences resulting from this ignorance. If the goal is to grow the movement, shouldn’t activists be more concerned with the interpretations of others rather than their own? After all, resonating with the audience is one of the most important goals for any social movement.

Ethics matter as much as efficacy, however. Defensiveness over white privilege runs counter to the ethical position the Nonhuman Animal rights movement espouses. The white supremacist hyjacking of symbols in an effort to racially neutralize them for the interests of privilege is not in alignment with justice. “All lives matter” claimsmaking, for instance, is frequently cited by white vegans who perhaps wish to capitalize on the visibility of Black Lives Matter mobilization to draw attention to other animals who are also suffering extreme violence. Black Lives Matter claimsmaking, however, is not race neutral, and when whites attempt to make it so, this is an act of racism.

“All Lives Matter” is not alliance-building, it’s alliance-destroying. It suggests that mobilization to improve the life chances and well-being of the Black community is somehow unwarranted or distracting. It erases difference, and when difference goes invisible, this invisibility supports systems of inequality that feed on difference. Difference exists whether or not whites choose to acknowledge it, and rejecting its existence is complacency with oppression. Nor should readers forget the Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s historical legacy of racism. Appropriating the symbols of Black liberation when the movement has, for years, both excluded and oppressed Black persons is especially problematic.

All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter. Espousing that Black lives matter does not mean that Nonhuman Animals do not matter, or that white lives do not matter, or that anyone else’s lives do not matter. It only means that the systemic oppression faced by Blacks is abominable and must stop. White vegans have an obligation to support this effort, not to derail it.

White vegans, it’s not about you.

 

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

Readers can learn more about the legacy of racism in vegan advocacy and the importance of a pro-intersectional approach in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


A version of this essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on July 15, 2015.

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The White Privilege in Vegan Moral Superiority

Dog wit face in paws looking sad

I usually love it when I’m wrong. I truly get excited when my paradigm shifts, when I learn new things, or when I see things in a new way.

Unfortunately, in my line of work (critical sociology), being wrong about something usually means that I’ve hurt someone. If my argument about oppression is wrong, that often means I’m abetting oppression. In these cases, the best I can do is own up to my mistakes and try to make an example of them.

I once posted an opinion piece on lactose intolerance on my blog, the purpose of which was to vent my frustration. I was responding to a buddy who had replied to one of my anti-speciesist social media posts declaring that she was lactose intolerant. I responded with, in so many words, “Okay, great, but I’d prefer if you did it for the right  reasons.”

She was white, by the way, as are all of my lactose intolerant friends. Most people who are lactose intolerant, however, are not white, which goes to show how homogeneous and undiverse my circle of friends is.

When I wrote that piece, I was thinking of my friend Katie, my friend Francesca, and my friend Danny: three friends that have said something similar to me: “Oh you’re vegan? Well, I’m lactose intolerant!” They’re all white.

With this in mind, I wrote in the blog piece that being lactose intolerant is not the same as being vegan for political reasons. I said that it’s not good enough. I was thinking and responding from my white worldview.

Then, I went on to explain how lactose intolerance is prevalent among people of color and non-Westerners. I wrote that framing lactose tolerance as normal and natural is a means of looking down on others and maintaining white superiority.

A reader very rightly pointed out how ridiculous and offensive it was that I was, on one hand, chastising people who are not vegan for the “right” reasons, and, on the other, emphasizing that lactose intolerance was not a white thing. She wrote that such a claim implies that going vegan for other animals is the superior way, and people of color who go vegan for their own health are morally inferior.

I completely agree.

Some time ago, I began to abandon promoting veganism as a strictly Nonhuman Animal rights issue. Although I believe veganism remains a political action in the service of nonhuman liberation, veganism is also understood as a political diet by some (in that it relates only to food consumed, and may not relate to non-food items or services that involve speciesism). But we should not be quick to write off veganism as a diet. This is because eating Nonhuman Animal products hurts humans almost as much as it hurts other animals. The oppression of other animals exacerbates the oppression of humans. Humans are exploited and enslaved in the production, and humans are suffering and dying from eating them. Not just humans in general, but at-risk populations in particular. This includes undocumented workers, immigrants, people of color, and the poor. When we make veganism solely about our moral obligations to Nonhuman Animals, what we imply is that the suffering of vulnerable humans doesn’t matter as much or doesn’t matter at all.

Going vegan “for the animals” generally reflects white privilege. It’s something I have the “luxury” of prioritizing. Some groups, however, are dealing with intense oppression, which necessitates them prioritizing themselves and their community. A lot of white activists find such a position offensive, as though the animals are being “sold out” and some people are being “excused” for participating in the oppression of other animals if they don’t go vegan or can’t go completely vegan. But, the underlying message from this response is that only whites have the “right” morals, and non-whites must be lacking. It becomes a means of upholding white superiority. In fact, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement was founded as a means of otherizing people of color and legitimizing white supremacy. We must remember this history to inform our activism today.

Whites in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement often pull on human inequality when it works to back up anti-speciesist claimsmaking, but then fall right back into the white framework to exclude or blame vulnerable populations for not struggling against violence in ways more accessible to those with privilege. Intersectionality is merely tokenized. I hate to say it, but that’s exactly what I did.

Veganism as a political concept was developed to deconstruct speciesism, but some folks are engaging veganism as a diet for political reasons as well. Only with sensitivity to differing life positions can we begin to build the coalitions needed for an all out attack on the (in the words of bell hooks) white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist social system that oppresses so many for the benefit of few. Anti-speciesist veganism and food justice/anti-racist veganism have a lot in common. We should respect one another, not pull on our privilege to shame others for walking a different path to the same goal.

 

If you enjoyed this essay, these ideas and more are explored in my book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights (Palgrave 2016).

 


A version of this essay was originally published on August 27, 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.
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