A Recent Phenomenon
I went vegan in the late 1970s. I was very active throughout the 1980s, heavily engaged in a variety of single-issue campaigns. I helped to begin a number of “action groups” against individual laboratories, fur companies, and the fur trade itself. I was the “press officer” for a number of grassroots groups along the way.
I did radio interviews, press interviews, and appeared on TV a few times. I’m sure it will be hard for 21st century animal advocates to appreciate that, in all those campaigning years, I and many other spokespersons, rarely talked about veganism, and we particularly failed to articulate vegan values as our clear and central moral position on human-nonhuman relations.
We would tend to stick to the largely compartmentalised arguments against factory farming, hunting, the fur trade, etc., and generally talk about these forms of animal use in isolation. The word “vegan” would crop up, of course, when some journalist asked us about our “diet” in the main, but it wasn’t often a major feature of our fundamental claims-making. When we were asked about veganism, however, we never “tactically” described ourselves as vegetarians.
Having said that, I don’t remember mentioning veganism in the many, many, press releases I composed in those days. Veganism just wasn’t at the forefront of our single-issue minds – we were busy trying to win the winnable, ban the bannable, and remove the bricks in the wall of “animal cruelty” one by one. We did this as anti-vivisectionists, as anti-hunting activists, as anti-animal circus campaigners, and so on: not, by and large, as vegan animal rights advocates. Sad to say, we were probably instrumental in the shame of reducing veganism to its dietary issues, something that persists today. It does not help when vegans publish books like “Eat Like You Care,” tending to limit the meaning of veganism to food choices and its dietary component. Why not the more accurate and representative Live Like You Care? Concerned people in the movement apparently feel the need to issue warnings and reminders that veganism is far more than a diet virtually on a daily basis. Veganism should never have been so reduced.
As many who read this blog know, I have always credited law professor Gary Francione with being extremely influential in pushing veganism to the centre of animal advocacy in the last 20 years or so. He wasn’t alone, of course and, indeed, would write about himself in terms of being a vegetarian as late as 1996; an indication of just how new the unequivocal vegan baseline position is. Our 1980s claims-making in Britain would have been so much altered had veganism been established as the moral baseline of the animal advocacy movement much earlier. Most of us were vegans or living on a 100% plant-based diet, but we did not campaign for veganism. Had things been different, we would have at the very least contextualised our single-issue campaigning in the light of an overarching vegan vision of the future which would seek to liberate all sentients and protect the planet. Single-issues would have been “abolitionised,” as they still need to be today – for it does not confuse members of the public to see particular types of animal use presented as part of general vegan critique of use, power relations, and oppression. Many modern-day animal advocates remain stubbornly wedded to single-issues for a variety of reasons, and all in the face of persistent attacks on SICs in recent years. Very many appear not persuaded that SICs are harmful, or a diversion – nevertheless, they will openly talk about veganism nowadays. However, not all animal advocates will…
So, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad “V” Word?
When I say, “established as the moral baseline of the animal advocacy movement,” I know that veganism has not actually been embraced by all. Many vegan animal advocates still like to “play it safe” by employing the use of terms like vegetarian (even when they apparently mean vegan), or veg, veggie, and veg*n. This is most unfortunate in my view. What irks me most is when vegan advocates are encouraged to “tactically” slide away from veganism on the grounds that vegan is some sort of “scare word.” One such person currently throwing his weight around the vegan scene is a moderate vegetarian activist called Tobias Leenaert who works for - or may have just left - a vegetarian organisation called Ethical Vegetarian Alternative. Leenaert suggests that veganism is a diet - indeed, he says "our movement is about food" - in an attempt to make invisible an expansive vision of vegan philosophy, which he mocks in presentations. The organisation is government funded and Leenaert says that rules out radicalism because politicians think that vegans are "the crazies." He wants to make veganism "flexible" enough to allow vegans to eat "non-vegan stuff." He argues that vegans should not be seen to be "picky" - or read labels on foodstuffs - because this can alienate people from "vegan food." Essentially, this means that vegans should consume animal products for "tactical" reasons.
One cannot help assuming that, often as not, there are “business” reasons for presenting veganism as a scare word. Happily, many grassroots animal advocates do not seem to find that it is – see this podcast on “vegan information booths.” For national groups, on the other hand, especially those with paid staff, they are on the constant lookout for more members and financial supporters and, when they have them, their claims-making is based on what the membership will tolerate - and therefore re-subscribe - while they attempt to address the widest possible audience. Soon questions of, “is this moral,” may take second place in favour of questions such as, “is it good for membership recruitment and retention.”
Many people claim that vegetarianism is a “gateway” to veganism, citing the fact that most current vegans were vegetarians first. On the other hand, social networks are full of reports of regret from people saddened that they did not go vegan as soon as they might; that, somehow, as vegetarians, they were not aware of the realities of dairy and egg production, and had never seen their vegetarianism as a particular form of animal use. Even if we were to accept that vegetarianism is some “gateway” to veganism, there are objections to vegans advocating for vegetarianism. First, no vegan should suggest that using other sentient beings for any reason is morally acceptable, even as a stepping-stone and, second, there are far more vegetarians than vegans in the world (rather begging a question of the “gateway” proposition) so vegans can let them push vegetarianism while they concentrate on their own concerns. Someone has to be promoting vegan philosophy if it is to be found on the other side of a gateway that vegetarians eventually find, or are directed towards.
Some people seem to be currently suggesting that they failed to “go vegan” due to the fact that some existing vegans are not very nice people, and they dislike these people’s campaigning approach or advocacy style. This is a shallow and irrational excuse: why continue to punish other animals by using them on the grounds that some animal advocates are not particularly pleasant? That is hardly the fault of other animals who are used by vegetarians. While it is true that many report that they took 10 or 15 years to finally go vegan, there is absolutely no necessity for a “go vegetarian first” message to be promoted by vegans. Instead, such people can be encouraged to be as vegan as they possibly can begiven their own social circumstances. However, to suggest that they may remain non-vegan for year-upon-year because they have not liked some vegans, or the way some vegans operate, is an incredible weak reason to continue to make other sentient beings suffer and die.
While plant-based products are vegan-friendly, that is not the same as saying that they are vegan. The phrase, “is it vegan?” is misleading when the question concerns an inanimate object like a food product. This phrase should be recognised only as a form of convenient shorthand. Carrots may be vegan-friendly but carrots themselves, of course, are not vegans. Some carrots may not even be vegan-friendly, depending on how they were produced. We may immediately think of the use of animal “manure,” or chemical pesticides, at this point but we should also recognise that the philosophy of veganism would not view anything as vegan-friendly if human producers were harmed in the production process, or if environmental destruction is intrinsic to the item in question. Many people make jokes about how social media is being used by vegans to post picture after picture of the food they are eating, or their new plant-based or animal-free purchases. Glossy vegan publications promote innumerable new vegan goodies: happy smiling white faces promoting the urgency of a buy, buy, buy culture to vegans. This is “vegan porn” according to Steve Best in his Total Liberation talk in Luxemburg in 2013 – see here for Best’s view that animal advocacy is hindered by its narrow vision and thin politics, which leaves us small, weak, and marginalised.
Of course the promotion of vegan goods has campaigning utility: whatever you want, you can get a “vegan” version of it we say. The myth that being 100% plant-based is easy for everyone, everywhere, and all the time, also has campaigning utility despite being totally wrong. However, if we are not to further betray the principles of veganism, we need to move from vegan consumption (VC) to critical veganism (CV). By asking more than, “is that product entirely plant-based,” we soon see how palm oil is problematic, how sugar is – how all cash crops are. Writing this a few days after Easter, I was struck by the number of vegans falling over themselves to promote “vegan chocolates” having seemingly made not the slightest attempt to discover the production structures of different chocolate brands, thus ignoring the fact that much chocolate is dripping with exploitation and rights violations as child slaves are used on many coco plantations. Palm oil is certainly not vegan-friendly in any serious sense of the term. Vegans cannot be friends with a product that causes such devastation. We should not make the shallow mistake of thinking that opposition to palm oil is about orang-utan “persons of the forest” and only about orang-utans. A vegan critique of palm oil is wider than that.
Not Alliance Politics but an All-Embracing Critical Veganism
Veganism is about protecting the rights and interests of all sentient beings. It is a vision of a new world, a non-violent world - or at least a lot less violent world compared to what we have now. Veganism is peace, co-operation, and community. Veganism is respect and responsibility.
We should begin to think about veganism in a new light. Rather than one movement that seeks to forge alliance with others, veganism can be seen as the vision that embraces all struggles for justice, opposes all oppression, and liberates everyone. It is hard to think of any other idea that would liberate more than veganism would.
Bob Torres (Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights), and David Nibert (Animal Rights Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation and Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict) (and Steve Best) suggest to us that we cannot get even close to what we want as vegans within the present social and economic structure. A wider, more systemic vision of social change is necessary if we are really serious about bringing about the liberation of all animals, and determined to protect the environment.
This means that encouraging vegans to backslide on veganism now is encouraging us to move in totally the wrong direction. “Tactical” vegetarian advocacy is not going to achieve anything. That thinking is as redundant and as short-sighted as thinking that vegan consumerism in some vegan capitalist mode of production is possible.
This is not the time to turn away from veganism – this is the time to explore its deep intersectional dimensions; its potential to be the revolutionary idea that it really is.