Tag Archives: Single-Issue Campaigns

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


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

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


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 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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PETA & Papa John’s Team Up Against Animals

 

Cow Horns

In 2013, PETA announced that it has been purchasing stock in American pizza chain Papa John’s with the hope of leveraging this ownership to influence policy changes. This should concern animal allies, as grants and donations gifted to PETA are redirected into the hands of exploitative industries that systematically hurt other animals. The tactic is a questionable one, and PETA itself admits that it isn’t particularly effective in combating the company’s commitment to speciesism “Unfortunately,” it explains, “this [tactic] doesn’t guarantee that corporate bigwigs won’t dig in their heels and refuse to make simple changes.”

One of PETA’s proposed “simple changes” is the ban on dehorning which affects cows used for Papa John’s pizza products under the presumption that dehorning is unnecessary to the industry.  On the surface, this seems logical enough: if it isn’t necessary and it causes harm, it should be avoided. However, this line of thinking inherently supports the notion that the vast majority of harms inflicted in this system (or, rather, the system itself) must therefore be necessary as it is not deemed worthy of PETA’s resources or attention. Certainly PETA sometimes promotes veganism, but it is not promoting veganism to Papa John’s board members.

What is more, according to this logic, PETA advises industry reform that is expected to cut costs, streamline production, and presumably increase profits. That is, PETA is targeting practices that can be dropped to the benefit of the company, while leaving untouched the system itself. The interests of the cows involved–right to bodily autonomy and life–are largely unexamined. Indeed, these benefits are soundly ignored when PETA is not just agitating for profitable reforms but also funding the system through stock purchasing. It is unclear how these “win-win” scenarios that maximize efficiency in a speciesist system are consistent with Nonhuman animal rights.

Papa Johns PETA

As part of this campaign, PETA is also encouraging suppliers to “breed” hornless cattle. In doing so, PETA works to the  benefit of the industry (Papa John’s would save in labor and other costs by not having to dehorn), but it also eerily demonstrates support for the genetic manipulation and ownership of vulnerable bodies. The result is a very strange situation in which PETA, the largest Nonhuman Animal rights organization in the world, is poised to advise exploiters on how better to exploit.  It is buying stock in a company that views Nonhuman Animals as “ingredients,” and assisting the company further by introducing smarter exploitation strategies.

Papa John’s profits off the suffering of others, and it certainly is not going to stop selling these products as long as there is customer demand, government subsidy support for “meat” and dairy products, and funding from corporate entities such as PETA. Reform-focused, pro-capitalist campaigns like this one only make the work easier.

 

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


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on February 28, 2013.

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