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.
I once asked contributors to an animal advocacy forum to tell me about their experiences of public understandings about nonhuman animals. One reply I received was remarkable – so, I thought I’d reproduce it here…
Further to yesterday’s email, you might like to read the following, it is very indicative of mainstream attitudes to “food” animals...i.e. they are not animals.
Some months back I was with two colleagues from London Animal Action. We had set up a stall at Angel Islington, complete with posters and leaflets. Whenever people stopped to sign our petitions we invited them to help themselves to as many leaflets as they wanted.
About the time when school knocked off, we had a number of schoolgirls (about 13 – 15 years) signing. One group of about 4 started talking to us, yes, they loved animals, and yes, it was cruel to put them in laboratories, circuses etc.
They took a few leaflets, then one noticed the leaflet entitled “Eating Animals.”
“Oh, look, some people eat animals. How gross.”
“You’re vegetarian or vegan, are you?” I asked.
“No. I’m not vegetarian,” the one replied.
“Then you eat animals, too.”
“Of course I don’t. But I’m not vegetarian,” she said.
“But, if you're not a vegetarian, then that means you eat animals. Vegetarianism means not eating animals,” I persisted.
“No, I wouldn’t eat animals, that’s disgusting.”
“Then you must be a vegetarian.”
“No, I’m not. I eat meat, but I don’t eat animals.”
By this time my two friends were listening to this, quite astounded.
“Well, let’s put it this way,” I said. “Do you eat hamburgers and things?”
“Yes, of course I do. We all do. But they’re not made out of animals.”
“What do you think that lump of mince meat is in the middle of the bun?”
“Lamb or cow, or something, I guess.”
“Right,” I said. “And what are lambs and cows? They’re animals!”
“No they’re not,” the girls chorused. “They’re not proper animals. Animals are cats and dogs and things like that.”
“No,” I said. “Animals are cows and lambs and pigs as well.”
“Oh, no,” the first one said. “You can’t count them as animals. They’re just things that taste good.”
They went off with various leaflets, but didn't take the ones on vegetarianism / veganism. They could not acknowledge that they ate animals, real, proper animals that is.
That’s what we’re up against.
I reported the incident in the Ph.D. – see also the comment about journalist Julia Burchill that follows…
When members of an animal advocacy email networks were requested to contribute their experiences of public attitudes to animals, a reply was received in August 1999 from a member of the local campaign group, London Animal Action.
This correspondent recounted a time when her information stall was visited by four teenagers. During the subsequent discussion about the leaflets on offer, one of the group said she did not eat animals although she was not a vegetarian.
After an investigation of this rather confusing and contradictory statement, it transpired that she did not consider farmed animals to be "proper animals" at all; rather they were just "things," whereas the species of animals she regarded as "real animals" were those such as cats and dogs that people kept and used as companions.
Although these views seem distinctly odd, especially articulated in this fashion, they may be more widespread than one may think. For example, writing in the Guardian (21.8.99), journalist Julie Burchill talks about herself being "mad about animals."
However, to clarify, she adds the following caveat: "When I say ‘animals’, I don’t mean the poor brutes bred for food and I don’t mean the wild animals you see on TV... No, what I mean, of course, is pets - dogs and cats, but cats in particular."
It seems likely that the types of representations of animals discussed here could be regarded as explanatory factors of common social attitudes towards animals and human-nonhuman relations which Francione  has controversially described as a general "moral schizophrenia" about animal issues.
 Francione, G.L. (2000) Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
In 2013 I took exception to a talk at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg by Tobias Leenaert, a representative of an organisation called Ethical Vegetarian Alternative. This was before he took on the name, "The Vegan Strategist." Although Leenaert was talking to an audience full of vegan animal rights campaigners, he was beginning his series of anti-vegan talks that continue to this day. Essentially, his message is that the vegan movement is about food and the best vegan is not actually a dietary vegan at all. Moreover, he continually mocks the philosophy of veganism of the vegan social movement pioneers, saying that consistent ethical vegans are "purist," and "crazy."
The same talk surfaced again in 2015 on video, along with another presentation about being a good “vegan ambassador” (which is due to be regurgitated in Luxembourg in September 2016).
I maintain that these presentations from a government-funded vegetarian organisation amount to little more than a “tactical” plea to vegans that they stop being vegan individuals in dietary terms (or at least be “flexible” [sloppy] about what they consume); to go easy on speaking about veganism – certainly not on TV, if one could afford an advertisement on that medium, or when talking to politicians, who apparently think that vegans are “crazies;” to further shy away from mentioning “animal rights,” and to not talk much about anti-speciesism.
Don’t make a fuss in restaurants, we are told, and don’t act like “crazy vegans” in the street. When Leenaert mimics “being a vegan,” he raises his voice aggressively (talking to a waiter, for example), or frantically waves his arms around acting out the stereotype of the “crazy street vegan.” I don’t know whether he’s ever eaten with vegans in public, or seen many of them interact with the public on the streets, but these crude caricatures seem way off the mark to me. Don’t carefully read labels to see if a product contains bits of other animals, we are further informed – that, apparently, looks bad to the public and may alienate them from the vegan message.
Leenaert proposes that veganism should be seen to be “flexible” enough so that it means eating “non-vegan stuff” a couple of times is fine for vegans. Finally, whatever else one does, don’t bother to check if the wine one intends to drink is “vegan” or not.
Discussion about this strange “non-vegan veganism” has coincided with talk about whether vegans are active or inactive. There’s been a recent radio debate [see the Go Vegan Radio archive] featuring Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere and Gary Francione of The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights on this theme.
Hsiung seems to think that virtually all vegans are passive individuals who would not intervene if they saw someone beating a dog with a stick. They wouldn’t join in with the beating, of course, but that’s just about it - because they are not “activists.”
Going back to the vegetarian organisation, Leenaert says that their entire approach and business plan is geared to "mainstreamness," to moderation, and it’s clear from the video presentations that their funding relies on a wishy-washy stance, hence little if any talk of veganism, animal rights, or anti-speciesism. Indeed, their main campaigning is built around a once-a-week “veggie day” – which they hope will become a twice weekly event at some unspecified time in the future. The babiest of baby steps we might think - but Leenaert is a big fan of slowness and "taking things gradually." At this point, I know for a fact than animal rights advocates will be saying that other animals can't wait around for the animal movement to slowly gain respect for their rights (assuming that's the idea) - they are dying now: their rights are violated today.
It is important to understand that, when Tobias Leenaert talks about other animals, one never gets the feeling that he sees them as rights bearers who's rights are violated by the human use of them; he speaks of other animals as if they are ingredients.
So why is this organisation, whose “call to action” (at least for now) is for people to become what they call “meat reducers,” trying to get vegans on board with their “veggie day” campaign? We all know that there are far more vegetarians than vegans – many more in fact (calling into question that whole “gateway argument, but that’s another matter). Why isn’t the vegetarian group targeting vegetarians for their “meat reducer” promotion?
The only thing I can figure out is that they know, in contradiction to Wayne Hsiung’s point, that it is the vegans who are far more like to be campaigning activists rather than the vegetarians.
My position is fairly straightforward on this, because I think Ethical Vegetarian Alternative have it right, and Direct Action Everywhere has gotten it all wrong – vegans, in great numbers, are activists, especially the grassroots ones.
However, my position is to encourage the smaller number of vegans to campaign for veganism (and see it as much more than a diet). Just as I’m fine with animal welfarists doing animal welfare, I’m kinda OK with vegetarians doing “meat reduction” campaigns. I believe, though, that there is some evidence that many people who adopt the meat-less day campaign may routinely increase their dairy and egg consumption, so the “gain” from a vegan perspective is pretty hard to see. However, I can see how vegetarians will be supportive of these less-than-vegan campaigns.
I say to the vegetarian organisation, go get some of the more numerous vegetarians to help your moderate flesh-free day campaign and please leave the vegans to campaign for veganism. Thank you.
Dr. Roger Yates is a rights advocate and sociologist