Right now – systematically – the philosophy of veganism is being deliberately dismantled.
The very guts of veganism – the justice-for-all basis of the idea – are being ripped out and ripped up.
There are a number of animal advocates busy undermining the principles that veganism is built on. They are spreading the lie that veganism is nothing more than a plant-based diet. This shallowing out of veganism is summed up in the statement that the vegan movement is “about food.”
Veganism has never, ever, only been about food. Veganism is a philosophy for living in peace with the world to the extent that it can be done. It ultimately stands for non-violence and seeks a radical transformation of human values. The introduction to the excellent book, The Essential Marcuse, edited by Michael Feenberg and William Leiss, discusses and outlines the thrust of the radical vision of critical theorist Herbert Marcuse which closely correspondents with vegan aspirations.
A society…richer in public goods and human sympathy – in parks, schools, and medical care; a society more just, more egalitarian, more helpful to the world’s poorest people, less warlike, less racist, and less frantic about the pursuit of money; a society more considerate of the needs of other animals, more respectful of wilderness and Earth’s remaining solitudes (Feenberg 2007: xli)
Sociologist Matthew Cole writes* of “the breath-taking transformative vision of the vegan pioneers in the 1940s and 1950s.” He argues that the aim and object of veganism combines compassionate non-exploitation of other animals with an emancipated vegan self, and a more compassionate human society. Vegan ethics, Cole argues, right from the beginning, was directed towards the interconnected goals of transforming human beings and transforming human society in a grand vision of justice-for-all. Not for nothing did Donald Watson declare that veganism was the greatest cause of Earth.
Brand Spanking New
21st century vegans surely have difficulty recognising that their movement is so new. Shiny new! The British Vegan Society has been around since 1944, sure, but that does not mean that veganism has been central to campaigning for more than a couple of decades – at most.
Long-time animal advocate Ronnie Lee began to live vegan in 1971 but he explains that, when he went vegan, all the large animal organisations were staffed by people who consumed other animals. Then Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was published in the mid-1970s, followed by Tom Regan’s rights-based The Case for Animal Rights in 1983.
The publications of these books changed animal advocacy forever and Ronnie says that one consequence was that the staff of the large groups started to live vegan. However, even though they went vegans as individuals, the campaigns they ran were not vegan-based, a situation that some argue remains to this day. The campaigning in the 1980s and into the 1990s remained committedly single-issue in nature. Anti-bloodsports, anti-vivisection, anti-“factory farming,” anti-circuses, and so on and, true enough, these campaigns continue today.
So, even though the campaigners were vegans, the idea that veganism should be the baseline position of campaigning had not yet been thought of.
The campaigning reality Ronnie Lee describes is certainly the one that I recognise from when I began to live vegan in 1979. I was a press officer for various groups throughout the 1980s, but rarely did any of us speak about veganism. Incredibly – shamefully? – I didn’t mention veganism in hundreds of interviews on TV, radio, or in print. In those days, we limited answers to the issues being discussed, like hunting, or animal experimentation, etc. If veganism was mentioned at all, it was in connection to one’s diet, or what type of shoes one was wearing.
So, given that, historically, vegan campaigning has only just started, it is scandalous that attempts are currently being made to stop it for “strategic” reasons.
We need to defend vegan campaigning from this attack being lead in the main by vegetarian organisations in mainland Europe. Ironically, their call to reduce to almost invisibility any mention of veganism, animal rights, and anti-speciesism, is compatible to vegetarian ideals but not vegan ones.
If you see these vegan underminers being invited to speak at vegan events, question it, complain. If you attend a vegan event where they speak and tell audiences to not be dietary vegans, to eat flesh if paid money to do so, or to routinely consume animal produce in order that the general public will not get a “bad” image of vegans, speak out. Challenge them. Defend veganism.
Just as in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond, just because individual claim to be dietary vegans or have fancy names mentioning “vegan” or “veganism,” that does not mean they campaign for veganism: often the opposite can be true.
Have I Nothing Better To Do?
I have lots to do! I’m busy getting the Vegan Information Project’s (VIP) vehicle back on the road after it (he – we call him Neville) was stolen then recovered damaged. The Vegan Information Project provides a unique brand of vegan education outreach in Ireland. Weather-proof gazebo stalls, video booths, plant-based samples and portions, literature, including a zine library, on-the-spot t-shirt making in the summer, and a “tea station” café area where people sit and read, or talk at length to the VIP volunteers about all things vegan.
The VIP “Vegan Information Day” events are full-on vegan. Large signs about veganism and justice. We do not find that the public are scared of, or even wary of, exploring the idea of veganism. For the first time in history, most people now know how to pronounce the bloody word! If that is commonplace to you, it certainly isn’t for long-timers like Ronnie Lee.
Although there is this important work to be done in Ireland, and it is being done, time also needs to be spent defending the philosophy of veganism from this insidious attack. One of the proponents of this less-than-vegan stance used to delight in telling his audiences that the organisation he founded was funded in part by politicians who apparently believe that vegans have a mental illness. He also routinely indulged himself in the social construction of a “crazy vegan” slur. Talk after talk suggesting that consistent vegans can be “crazy,” shouting in the streets, flailing their arms about uncontrollably, and unable not to be rude and aggressive in restaurants, allegedly “proud” that their dietary preferences are next to impossible to live by. Some of his colleagues still tell audiences in 2015 to be aware of the “crazy vegans.”
Nonetheless, it seems that a lot of this destructive claims-making has been eliminated, slimmed down, or at least not said so much in public of late – so challenging this attack on veganism is well worth it – and important.
We’ve just begun – let’s not back down from ripening up people to the justice-for-all philosophy of vegan now!!
If you see these vegan underminers being invited to speak at vegan events, question it, complain. If you attend a vegan event where they speak and tell audiences to not be dietary vegans, to eat flesh if paid money to do so, or to routinely consume animal produce in order that the general public will not get a “bad” image of vegans, speak out. Challenge them.
Please defend veganism.
* Cole, M. (2014) ‘‘The Greatest Cause on Earth’: The historical formation of veganism as an ethical practice’, in N. Taylor & R. Twine (eds) The Rise of Critical Animal Studies – From the Margins to the Centre, Routledge.
Dr. Roger Yates is a rights advocate and sociologist