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Can Choice Feminism Advance Vegan Politics?

C. Lou Hamilton, Veganism Sex and Politics: Tales of Danger and Pleasure. HammerOn Press, 2019.

Hamilton’s Veganism, Sex and Politics offers an approachable feminist spin on modern veganism in the West while tackling the difficult conundrums and compromises sometimes associated with vegan-living in a non-vegan world. The book is aimed at non-vegans who may be sceptical of the white bourgeoisie veganism which is stereotypically depicted in the media, but it also speaks to seasoned vegans who may lack familiarity with critical feminist perspectives as they relate to relationships with food, consumption, and nonhuman animals. To that end, environmental debates, the limits of organic and “humane” production, white-centrism in vegan activism, and the reluctant reliance on speciesism in disabled and queer communities are analysed in Hamilton’s blend of autobiographical musings and theoretical explorations.

At times, however, this critique pays only lip service to leading theory without substantially engaging it. For instance, while Hamilton rehashes the discourse on “dreaded comparisons,” repeating the arguments already well-articulated by Kim Socha (2013), Breeze Harper (2010), and Lee Hall (2010) with regard to resisting the highly problematic tradition in the vegan movement of comparing the institutionalized violence against animals to that which is also imposed on Africans under slavery and Jews under Nazi persecution, Hamilton stops short of extending this critique to the systematic exploitation of women. Hamilton only briefly refers to the work of Carol Adams (2000) with an unsubstantiated suggestion that her “anti-pornography feminism” obscures women’s agency and satisfaction with sex work.

Thus “choice feminism” (the reduction of collective struggle into a buffet of consumer and lifestyle options from which each individual may pick and choose) is introduced to reframe widespread violence against women as either a) blown out of proportion by Adams and her ilk or b) inaccurate given that women “choose” to work in prostitution and pornography. Adams’ theory, furthermore, is described as a disrespectful and clumsy attempt at intersectionality given that women supposedly participate freely in and benefit from Western sexual politics unlike Nonhuman Animals in their respective spaces of oppression. Such a provocative claim would require greater engagement with Adams’ work as well as some scientific evidence, as, firstly, the majority of women (and girls) enter sex work out of economic duress or active pimping and, secondly, sex slavery remains a leading form of bondage globally (Jeffreys 2009). Sex work and sex slavery, for that matter, are the most dangerous fields of “employment” with exceedingly high levels of threat, injury, and death.

Celebrating the agency of a small percentage of persons who enter and remain in the sex industry of their own free will obscures culturally normative misogyny (as well as heterosexism and cis-sexism as LGBT minorities are disproportionately represented in this industry). With regard to vegan politics, choice feminism’s campaign to legalize and normalize prostitution makes for an awkward analogy for other animals. How Hamilton can suggest that institutionalised speciesism should not (or could not) be regulated and reformed to liberate nonhumans while also failing to extend that same logic to women and girls is puzzling and unconvincing. Both sexism and speciesism rely on the pleasurable consumption of feminized and oppressed bodies by the patriarchal dominant class.

Hamilton’s pro-prostitution position likely stems from their commitment to queer politics which, while arguably problematic when used to protect and legitimize male entitlement to feminized bodies, do hold relevance in challenging hetero-patriarchal society’s stigmatization of feminine and queer sexuality and its desire to control bodies deemed “other.” To that end, Hamilton provides and interesting analysis of “fur” and “leather” in the LGBT community. Both products are shaped by class, gender, and colonial relations, making their disruption difficult, but Hamilton suggests a re-envisioning through vegan alternatives which pay homage to nonhuman identities and difference.

Although Hamilton seeks life-affirming species-inclusive alternatives in these cases, their presentation of disability politics is decidedly human-first. In the feminist tradition of challenging androcentric scientific authority, Hamilton encourages those living with disability and illness to become their own experts and engage in speciesism at their own level of comfort. True, the science as an institution has been a source of considerable oppression for marginalized groups and agency over one’s own body and well-being is critical, but Hamilton’s prescription risks fanning scientific distrust to the point of recklessness (particularly in light of the success of the anti-vaccination movement). Further, by encouraging individuals to become their own medical expert and self-experiment with the consumption of other animals, veganism seems to dissipate into a postmodern soup of individual subjectivity and increasing uselessness as a form of political resistance. Given the normative attitudes of cynicism and apathy in the Western vegan movement toward science, Hamilton’s position, while geared toward affirming the individual experience with disability, may be a precarious one.

Hamilton evidently adopts the myth promulgated by professionalized Nonhuman Animal rights organizations that vegans somehow ascribe to an unrealistic level of purity. This strawperson argument, however, lacks validity. In the age of competitive nonprofitization in the social movement arena, the pure vegan stereotype is engaged to legitimize the compromised approaches to animal advocacy (namely, reforming speciesist industries or promoting reducitarianism). These soft tactics are effective for fundraising but run counter to veganism’s political aims of total liberation, thus necessitating some semantical negotiations and vegan stigmatization (Wrenn 2019a). Few, if any, vegans expect faultlessness, and, indeed, The Vegan Society has always, from its founding, emphasized practicality over perfection (Wrenn 2019b). In the case of disability and illness, no one would reasonably expect patients to become martyrs and forgo treatments developed through vivisection or medications containing trace amounts of animal products.

As such, Hamilton’s repeated beleaguering of veganism has the cumulative effect of decentering Nonhuman Animals, particularly in their effort to validate each person’s individual desire, comfort, choice, and ultimately human privilege of determining what counts as “practical.” To this point, it would be useful if Hamilton had extended their analysis beyond feminist theory and applied social movement theory to introduce much-needed evidence-based social science on movement identity politics and effective mobilization. At the very least, more clearly acknowledging how their own take on veganism is far from the widely-embraced or authoritative position would have brought greater credibility and consistency to Veganism, Sex and Politics. Vegan feminism is more of a matter of personal opinion, individual spin, and choice. The celebration of difference, agency, and pleasure-seeking must be matched with a commitment to solidarity, collective struggle, and some degree of sacrifice. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s anthropocentric narrative hesitates on how to effectively negotiate human diversity politics with the interests of other animals.

References

Adams, C. (2000). The sexual politics of meat. New York: Continuum.

Hall, L. (2010). On their own terms: bringing animal-rights philosophy down to earth. Darien: Nectar Bat Press.

Harper, B. (2010). Sistah vegan. Brooklyn: Lantern.

Jeffreys, S. (2009). The industrial vagina: the political economy of the global sex trade. New York: Routledge.

Socha, K. (2013). The ‘dreaded comparisons’ and speciesism: leveling the hierarchy of suffering. In K. Socha and S. Blum (Eds.), Confronting animal exploitation (223-240). Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Wrenn, C. (2016). A rational approach to animal rights. London: Palgrave.

Wrenn, C. (2019a). Piecemeal protest: Animal rights in the age of nonprofits. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wrenn, C. (2019b). From seed to fruition: a political history of The Vegan Society. Food and foodways 27(3), 190-210.

 
 


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

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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.
 
 


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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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Can Veganism Save the World? This is Hope

Although human relationships with the environment grow increasingly of interest to the scientific community, this same community resists a serious consideration of the role that Nonhuman Animals play in human ecology. In the green discourse, Nonhuman Animals are either objectified or ignored altogether.

As such, the critical exploration of human-nonhuman relationships in the context of climate change and environmental justice is largely relegated to activist scholars. One such researcher is Will Anderson, who’s This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology presents the first comprehensive book in which Nonhuman Animals are included in the discussion as meaningful agents. Arguably, Anderson’s work acts an environmentally-focused version of Singer’s Animal Liberation. Its central thesis is that environmentalism makes no sense so long as humans persist in their systematic violence against Nonhuman Animals.

“Managing” Nature and Other Animals

The bulk of environmental literature speaks of Nonhuman Animals, not as individuals, but as abstract species categories. When individuals are lost from consideration, any number of injustices can be enacted upon them in the name of “conservation.” This includes “hunting” and lethal “wildlife management.”

In This Is Hope, readers learn how “hunters” artificially remove individuals from the environment to the effect of tampering with evolution. “Hunting” ensures that genes are systematically eliminated from populations in ways that would not otherwise occur naturally. This surely occurs when “hunters” target males, specifically those with larger bodies or more impressive antlers.

Subsequently, humans intentionally create fragile ecosystems that will require human management. The projects of “humane washing” and “green washing” are leveraged by animal exploiters and apologists to justify this forced management. As a result, continued exploitation is abetted while the more ethical (and logical) vegan solution goes ignored.

Environmental Injustice for Other Animals

Anderson’s book offers an extensive overview of how Nonhuman Animals, both domesticated and free-living, are impacted by human activity. This predominately occurs through a process of otherization. The division currently existent between humans and other animals is, as he indicates, socially constructed by humans.

His approach to this thesis is personal. Anderson shares many of his own interactions with various Nonhuman Animal communities and environmental groups to support his claims. Readers learn how Nonhuman Animals matter to the environmental discourse through case studies, research reviews, scientific evaluations of sentience, and the emotional power of anecdotal stories.

There is a discussion of the complexities involved in human and nonhuman oppression. Poverty, ecocide, misogyny, speciesism and other oppressions, he insists, are all interrelated. He also touches on the complexities involved with navigating violence against Nonhuman Animals among indigenous populations.

A fundamental issue of environmental justice for other animals is what Anderson refers to as “neo-predation.” Human predation on Nonhuman Animals is exacerbated because it is based on the increasing human population and its increasing consumption. In simply taking up space, creating noise pollution, laying roads and structural barriers, and introducing invasive species (like cows and crops), humans inflict wide-reaching damage.

A Vegan Ecology

Many significant obstacles to creating a vegan ecology exist. For one, environmentalists are wary to adopt veganism for fear of appearing too sentimental. This problem is one that is faced by many feminized social movements. The nonprofit industrial complex also seems to be at work, since so many professionalized, funding-dependent NGOs dominate the arena of conservation. They are evidenced to stifle radical discourse.

According to Anderson, differing cultural beliefs regarding the environment and Nonhuman Animals means that change-makers have no agreed upon goals. This, in turn, makes collaboration difficult. The nonprofit industry’s hyperfocus on membership and financial support is another complicating factor. “Hunters,” being important funders, enjoy the protection of their interests and a silencing of anti-speciesist ideas. Likewise, professionalized groups generally skirt association with veganism to avoid seeming unreasonable. Finally, the wealth of counter-claimsmaking promulgated by “fur,” “fishing,” and “wildlife management” industries also inhibits progress.

Points to Consider

Empathy

Anderson’s thesis is predicated on his case for the critical importance of “empathy.” However, “empathy” strategies could overshadow the material strategies necessary to truly protect and respect other animals. I would suggest that the logic of social justice and rights may be more effective or should at least be incorporated.

Empathy, while foundational to social justice efforts, could actually maintain human superiority if not buttressed. For instance, feminists do not argue that women deserve recognition and protection only because men should empathize with them. Instead, most feminists insist that women matter because they are sentient beings in their own right who deserve to be free of violence. For some two hundred years, women have rallied to codify this recognition in law and culture. Empathy is important in motivating concern, but I would hesitate to build a theory of social justice on wavering emotional states.

Carnism

Second, Anderson liberally draws on the language of “carnism “coined by Dr. Melanie Joy to describe neo-predation and anthropocentric human ecology. As I have argued elsewhere, “carnism” is a corruption of the more inclusive accurate term “speciesism.” Carnism refers specifically to consuming Nonhuman Animals for food, but a truly vegan approach would recognize that violence against animals entails much more than what humans eat. Animal liberation also extends to what humans wear, how they entertain themselves, and how they exploit other animals for labor, science, and so forth.

Overpopulation

Third, Anderson runs into problems with his focus on human population. He mostly discusses human population growth in the abstract sense, yet it is developing countries where this growth is specifically occurring. Population has largely stagnated or even declined in the West, where individuals have greater wealth and access to social services. Thus, those who politicize human population should be careful to consider just which groups of people are under scrutiny. It is usually the world’s poor and disadvantaged.

People of the Third World bear little responsibility for the destruction and occupation of nature. That responsibility is placed squarely with privileged Western populations. Anderson acknowledges global social inequalities throughout the text, but he, unfortunately, fails to do so in the context of population discussion. Population growth needs to be stopped and reversed, he insists, but exactly how this plan will be implemented goes unexamined. In reality, anti-population growth initiatives violently target poor brown peoples, specifically vulnerable women.

Privilege of Place and Movement

Anderson also suggests that people living in areas in which food must be transported at high cost or in areas that require large amounts of energy for heating and cooling should consider moving. Yet, this is an option generally only available to the socially privileged.

Indeed, a similar shortcoming arises when Anderson suggests that all populations of the world are “uniquely responsible” for the environmental crisis: “There are no exceptions” (303):

Rich and poor, indefensible over-consumers and low-scale consumers, all are drawn into the fray because we each have our varying degrees of impact that require responses. (304)

However, the majority of the world’s human population is so incredibly impoverished that its most pressing responsibility lies in basic survival. Furthermore, Anderson’s narrative of shared responsibility overlooks centuries of Western domination that has manifested this dramatic inequality. Anderson calls for change-makers to adopt “humanity” as their primary identity over nationality, ethnicity, or tribal identification. But, this position overlooks serious social and global hierarchies.

Hope

Although This is Hope repeats many problematic tropes endemic to the vegan movement’s failure to think intersectionally, its merit lies in its faith in change. Veganism, Anderson insists, is the most important means to diminish social inequality and suffering in human and nonhuman societies. For this reason, it remains a vital text in climate change resistance strategies.

A version of this essay was originally published in 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.


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Readers can learn more about the politics of overpopulation in vegan rhetoric 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: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation

animal-rights-dakota-pipeline

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


nibert-entanglementsDavid Nibert. 2002. Animal Rights/Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation.  

Animal Rights/Human Rights makes a clear and convincing sociological argument for the social construction of speciesism and stratification. Human oppression and the oppression of other animals are linked and often compound one another. This oppression is a product of an economically-driven unequal power dynamic.  Those who benefit from this inequality seek to reinforce and perpetuate the system with the support of ideology, the state, and the internalization of powerlessness by those being exploited.

Nibert makes the interesting observation that our use of other animals is not a natural or inevitable phenomenon, but rather a cultural manifestation that reflects institutional arrangements. Human animals once lived harmoniously in their ecosystem as foragers, as this system was much more reliable and efficient. It was not until major changes in the landscape and the increased presence of migrating large mammals approximately 20,000 years ago that hunting became accessible to humans. Nibert notes that the switch to hunting (and eventually livestock keeping) moved human society away from egalitarianism.  This marked the beginning of speciesism, but also the beginning of gender and class divisions soon thereafter. Inequality developed with a fervor from this point and ideologies and state institutions were promulgated to support it.

Nibert argues that this indoctrination is achieved through daily experiences in a stratified and hegemonically controlled society.  Speciesism and other systems of oppression are largely a product of the economic system in which they operate. To develop this proposition, Nibert walks us through progression of human society from prehistoric times, early agricultural systems, feudalism, and to finally global capitalism. Capitalism has been particularly despicable in that it amplifies the exploitation of the oppressed and also normalizes it. When oppression is accepted as normal, natural, and necessary, that oppression is legitimated and is rendered invisible.

homelessness-and-dogs

Nibert’s solution is to move away from a capitalist society. In fact, an approach that ignores the role of capitalism is very unlikely to counter the growing level of oppression of other animals in the era of the new global economic order. Nibert warns that working for a “kinder” capitalism is not practical. Without challenging the hierarchical system, there is little hope for progress. Instead, we might use the opportunities currently available in the capitalist system to transcend it. Nibert cites successes in abolishing a significant amount of vivisection in New Zealand. Because New Zealand is a country that is not economically dependent on the biomedical industry, it exists as an example of how exploitation can be curbed when there is not an institutional reliance on that exploitation.

One major oversight in this publication is the lack of a clear vegan message.  In his latest publication, Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict, however, liberation politics are better emphasized.

This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 1, 2013.


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Readers can learn more about intersectional theory and its relevance for anti-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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A Month of Vegan Research: An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan

Young boy holds hand on his mouth to stop eating

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



Barbara McDonald.  2000.  “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t Not Know It.’  An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan.”  Society & Animals 8 (1):  1-23.

In spite of a growing body of vegetarian literature, there remains a lack of information about how people learn to become vegan. Using qualitative methodology, this research identified a psycho- logical process of how people learn about and adopt veganism. Elements of the process include who I was, catalytic experiences, possible repression of information, an orientation to learn, the decision, learning about veganism, and acquiring a vegan world view. Noteworthy observations include individual and temporal variation in the use of logic and emotion, the centrality of reading, the repression and recollection of undesirable information, and the importance of two types of learning tasks to successful vegans.

moral-shocks-veganismWhy people go vegan (or don’t) is a hugely complex issue.  It can depend on one’s available networks, one’s history with institutional discrimination and colonization, or gender roles.  It might be thwarted by activist misconceptions, negative media, and the power of the state and industry elites. We may never be able to pinpoint an exact cause, but McDonald attempts to narrow things down by applying the scientific method with participant interviews.

What she finds is no surprise; everyone is different.  It seems that going vegan and rejecting speciesism requires a sort of resocialization, which is understandable given how thoroughly ingrained Nonhuman Animal exploitation is to every aspect of society.  Her findings support the theory that moral shocks are a major element in the decision to go vegan.  However, some people take time to think about the issues and learn more before eventually going vegan at a later time.

 
This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 21, 2013.


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Readers can learn more about the effective vegan activism 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: Animals and Women

women-and-other-animals

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


 

Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan.  1995.  Animals and Women:  Feminist Theoretical Explorations.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

This edited book encapsulates vegan feminist theory, arguing that all oppressions are interconnected and that we must challenge human-biased theorizing:  “[ . . . ] the male pattern of female subordination and degradation, which is nearly universal in human societies, is prototypical for many other forms of abuse [ . . . ]” (7).

animals-and-womenSeveral chapters stood out to me as especially interesting and relevant.  Dunayer’s chapter on speciesist and sexist language demonstrates the power of ideology in normalizing oppression.  Comniou’s chapter on free speech also speaks to the power of language (and that “freedom of speech” is a right typically only granted to privileged groups).  Birke’s chapter on science and rationality discusses the history of male ideologies and institutions in legitimizing oppression and marginalization.  Adams’ chapter on violence against animals and women is a difficult read, but highlights many disturbing linkages.  Chapters in Part Two were a little more humanities-focused, and not as relevant to my interest in effective animal advocacy.  However, I found Luke’s chapter on patriarchal constructions of animal rights especially illuminating, as was Kappeler’s extensions on male supremacy in science and knowledge production.

This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 26, 2013.


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Readers can learn more about the importance of feminism, intersectionality, and efficacy research 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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Review of “Our Children and Other Animals”

Our Children

My review of Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart’s sociological text on childhood studies and vegan theory is now available free to download from Volume 19 of Between the Species. This is an important contribution to the socialization processes involved in speciesism.

 

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Readers can learn more about vegan theory in my own publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

 


 

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Review in Between the Species

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My review of David Nibert’s Animal Oppression & Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict (Columbia University Press) has been published in Between the Species 18 (1): 112-115.

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