As mentioned in the interview, Ronnie Lee will always be remembered within the animal advocacy movement as the co-founder in the 1970s of the direct action phenomenon, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). However, Ronnie suggests that the ALF could only ever have hoped to play a small role in the liberation of other animals from human tyranny due to the cell-structure of the “organisation,” which tended to keep things small-scale, and – were the ALF to have become a mass movement as he (and I) once thought it would – the state would have crushed it just has they have recently cracked down on the activities and activists of SHAC.
Apart from what Ronnie said about the ALF and its role, what he said about veganism being the moral baseline of the animal rights movement caught my attention, and it is those remarks that are the basis of this blog entry.
In the show notes, Ronnie is described as speaking about “the long history of veganism within the animal protection movement.” When Ronnie talks about “the long history of veganism within the animal protection movement,” he’s referring to the fact that, even from the 1970s, at least in Britain, there was a steady increase in members of the animal movement becoming dietary vegans as individuals, although few of them “campaigned for veganism,” and fewer still in any consistent sense, or in a sense that veganism was at that time integral to campaigning or campaign claims.
It seems to me, then, it is wrong to suggest that veganism had been established as the movement’s moral baseline earlier than it has been, although I think the 1970s and 1980s can be said to have marked the time of its initial inception. It needed a determined effort to “push” veganism centre stage, as it were and, as Ronnie states very clearly in his interview, it certainly wasn’t central in those days.
Before we try to locate when this baseline position for veganism emerged, and the extent to which it has been established within the animal movement, what exactly does it mean to say that “veganism is the moral baseline”? There seems to be some dispute or confusion as to what we should regard this phrase to mean within a social movement context, so this is my attempt to articulate its meaning.
A fairly standard definition of the word “baseline” indicates that it is, “an imaginary line or standard” and “standard of value.” The word is synonymous with words such as “criterion” and “touchstone.” It seems to me that we can take “veganism as the moral baseline in the animal rights movement” to mean the value placed on veganism as an integral part of what standing for animal rights means (it is hard to stand for someone while deliberately exploiting them) and, in terms of movement claims-making, appeals to the philosophy of veganism would be central in all that is done and claimed for and about other animals.
In my presentation at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg in September 2012, I suggested that we might think that it is within the rights-based section of the animal movement that the moral baseline idea for veganism makes the most sense. That is to say, if one believes that other animals are rightholders, and that what humans do to them routinely and systematically are rights violations, then being vegan yourself, and integrating the advocacy of the philosophy of veganism into one’s campaigning activities, seems logical and necessary - and precisely because it would seem odd and contradictory to stand for the rights of those one is violating.
So, leaving that last point rather hanging, when was veganism established as the moral baseline of the animal (rights) movement - and why does it matter?
Credit where it is due, I have always accepted and acknowledged the crucial role law professor Gary Francione has played in bringing about the concentration of veganism in the animal movement. I think that grassroots campaigners, without vegetarian and flesh-consuming subscribers to consider as financial supporters, and with no reliance on any politician who may think of vegans as "crazies," have taken to the vegan moral baseline in its fullest sense. Moreover, if veganism can be said to have been developing to any extent as the moral baseline “before Francione,” then it would have been in the grassroots part of the movement - and the grassroots of most social movements have traditionally been regarded as that movement’s backbone and heartbeat.
However, I would claim that Francione, more than most, worked to bring veganism to be seen as an integral part, and an integral logic, of the animal advocacy movement from the 1990s onwards. He has been critical of the “vegetarian first,” and “vegetarianism as the gateway to veganism” arguments, while fully accepting that people may not be able to “turn vegan” overnight or "all at once." There is a lot of acceptance of inevitable incrementalism within Francione’s position on human relations with other sentient beings which is often ignored or downplayed.
The substantive “push” towards establishing veganism as the moral baseline began in the 1990s - in the sense of being absolutely integral to campaigning and to claims-making – and that indicates why it is important to acknowledge its recent origins and not attempt to do what Ronnie and Ms. Bailey did in Ronnie’s podcast: imply that philosophical veganism has been central within the animal movement for much longer than it has been. Ronnie is perfectly correct to suggest that many and probably most of those early campaigners he rubbed shoulders with were vegans as individuals - but he’s also right to acknowledge that they did not campaign for veganism in the senses that we see it campaigned for now. This means, I suggest, that veganism was not the moral baseline back then – far from it: that move, that flowering, that flourishing, has been in very recent years.
The idea is so new that the amount of references to veganism on Facebook alone makes it easy to forget how new it is. Moreover, even now, not all sections of the animal advocacy movement embrace the idea, or are ever likely to, not even all in the grassroots movement; and certainly not in the national corporations who continue to have good business reasons to fudge the issue with use of terms like “veg,” “veggie,” and “veg*n.” Thankfully, the latter term, which I have always hated, seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years.
As late as 1996, Gary Francione, the person I am suggesting was instrumental in establishing veganism as the movement’s moral baseline, was still self-identifying as a vegetarian, and there is no mention of veganism in his 2000 book, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or The Dog? Q&As taken from the book are still featured on Francione’s web site and mention vegetarianism rather than veganism.
THAT’S HOW NEW AND RECENT THIS “VEGANISM AS THE MORAL BASELINE” IDEA IS!
By 1996, many campaigners Ronnie knew – and many campaigners people like Kim Stallwood, myself, and my sister Lynne knew – were self-identifying vegans, and had been so for 10, 15, or 20 years – but that fact does not mean that veganism was regarded as the movement's moral baseline in the 1970s or 1980s. Those early campaigners were within a movement that did not campaign for veganism, and did not include veganism within its routine claims-making until many years later.
If I am right about this, we could and should recognise the newness of veganism being our moral baseline, central to everything we do, and we should take heart that this incredibly new thing has really taken off in the last few years. Now, we are in the position to much more reliably test out how the idea of veganism “plays” within the public imagination. We need to keep going with our new idea and, as Ronnie Lee says, continue to encourage vegan education. We do not need, for whatever reason, to imagine that veganism was the moral baseline of the movement for longer than it actually has been. Moreover, the recent trend to slide away from veganism as some so-called "strategists" in the vegetarian movement suggest, should be rigorously resisted.
LISTEN TO THE RONNIE LEE PODCAST HERE.