Veganism: “the greatest social justice movement of our time”, according to the campaign group Go Vegan World. The website of the Ireland-based campaign urges its readers to give up all meat and animal products by making the argument that animal lives are entirely equal to human lives, and that our use of animals for food, resources and entertainment should be considered as great an injustice as if we were carrying out those same practices on human beings. To believe otherwise constitutes what some vegans and animal-rights advocates call “speciesism”.
It’s certainly an evocative argument, and one that’s propped up by its appeal to universally recognised symbols of oppression, such as an image of an elephant’s chained feet next to chained human feet, or the use of the term “animal holocaust” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgvB89AbHu4&t=100s) to describe the eating of animals. Unsurprisingly, the borrowing – or appropriation – of imagery and terminology associated with atrocities committed against minority groups of people is highly controversial, and it is as likely to deter people from becoming vegan as it is to persuade them. Despite the many compelling arguments for going vegan – such as environmental sustainability, and opposing the horrendous cruelty of the meat and dairy industries – vegan discourses have a reputation for straying into problematic and potentially toxic territory. Navigating this minefield is something that anyone with an interest in giving up animal products will have to deal with, and this is made harder by the fact that the various arguments for veganism touch on issues that can’t necessarily be resolved or condensed in a straightforward way.
There is an undeniable lack of nuance in the speciesism argument. Why should it be necessary to claim that every animal life has the exact same value and importance as a human life, in order to believe that animals deserve basic rights and that they shouldn’t be exploited and misused by us? The speciesism line of thinking becomes harmful to disenfranchised groups of people by diminishing the significance of the struggle against racism, misogyny and imperialism; all of which have historically been used to oppress people by denying their claim to humanity. Moreover, the speciesism argument falls victim to its own paradoxical nature, in that it demands equality for animals on the basis that humans have no claim to supremacy as a species, but then frames animal rights entirely within human narratives, by equating the meat industry with slavery, genocide, and rape.
On the other hand however, it would be misguided to overlook the ways in which the killing of animals is connected to the oppression of people. Feminist vegan theorists have been making the argument for decades that our patriarchal society mistreats animals and women and gender minorities using the same logic of domination. Carol J. Adams’s acclaimed book The Sexual Politics of Meat revealed meat consumption as an ideological staple of hyper-masculinity, and her arguments still ring true today. You don’t have to believe that a cow is literally equal to a woman in order to acknowledge that the same patriarchal structures normalise violence against both. The feminist implications of giving up animal products are wide-reaching, even if we do need to be wary of detracting from the fight for equality that faces many women and minorities around the world. This is why it’s particularly frustrating to see animal-rights organisations like PETA using the objectified bodies of women to promote their message through shock-tactics, because they are playing to the very structures they should be opposing.
Veganism should be first and foremost a radical movement; one that recognises the problems in our society, and looks for alternative ways of thinking and living that will benefit us all. It would be impossible to do this without adopting a critical mindset, and being willing at all times to question the dogmas that are put to us. This is what made Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn’s 2014 documentary Cowspiracy so significant, because it was able to expose not only the disastrous impact of animal agriculture on global warming and environmental destruction, but it also delved deeper to look at why this “inconvenient truth” had been practically ignored and even deliberately glossed over by environmental protection groups and politicians. The connections the filmmakers identified between the erasure of vegan discourse and the reach of the global meat industry into every aspect of our culture and politics (including “green” politics), were ground-breaking. And yet this multi-layered argument for veganism, rooted in a powerful, anti-establishment message, is a far cry from the vegan arguments that tend to attract the most media attention thanks to their provocative, unsubstantiated and often harmful claims.
The fatphobia and body-shaming of websites that promote veganism, the vloggers claiming that periods are a sign of a “toxic body” and that it’s healthy and desirable to lose your period due to eating a raw vegan diet, and the offensive appropriation of experiences of racism for easy Twitter memes all reinforce the idea that vegans are sanctimonious, misinformed, and bigoted. While this is unfortunately true of some vegans, responsible and politically aware veganism is both possible and important. It requires us to question not only the structures that govern us, but also our own assumptions and biases, and to resist the urge to oversimplify a complex issue into easily digestible dogmas. It requires accepting that things are never simple, and that we don’t need to get it right 100% of the time.
So yes, it is possible to be vegan without being a dick. But for the love of God, don’t go on any PETA marches.
[Cat Acheson – @cat_acheson]