NOTE: I originally wrote this piece while in college, after receiving numerous criticisms of the vegan advocacy and tabling I was doing on campus. The piece was published in The Grinnell Underground Magazine.
Imagine this scenario: You suddenly find yourself transported to a time or place where public stonings are legal and are a socially accepted form of capital punishment for things like adultery. I’m certain that most people who are concerned with social justice would agree that, regardless of cultural traditions, stoning someone to death for a non-violent offense is absolutely abhorrent. Now that you are in this place, imagine that a public stoning is happening in front of you, and hundreds of people are throwing stones at a woman accused of adultery. Regardless of your place in the crowd and whether or not you throw a stone, you realize it will likely not make any difference to the suffering and terror the woman is experiencing. You also recognize that you have no hope in that exact moment of getting this stoning called off.
What do you do?
Do you say, “My one stone won’t make a difference,” and join the group mentality? Or do you sense that even though your choice won’t have any effect, it would still be wrong for you participate? I believe it is clear in this scenario that we have a moral obligation NOT to participate in the stoning, and that regardless of the direct physical impact of our choice, our non-participation makes a strong statement that we reject stoning people to death. Now lets change this scenario up a little bit to discuss a social injustice that our own society currently accepts as normal.
I am a leader of the student group Advancing Animal Compassion Together, and we organize a variety of events and campaigns. Our group’s fundamental goal is to raise awareness of, and end a largely invisible injustice in society: the exploitation, domination, and use of non-human animals for human desires. This includes the use of animals for food, fabric, transportation, and entertainment. Non-human animals are sentient beings with rich emotions, who, much like us, desire to live their lives on their own terms, safe from harm and premature death. That said, I recognize that most people do not yet see using animal flesh and secretions as an injustice. For me and some other vegans on campus though, we feel like we are witnessing something akin to a legal and socially accepted stoning that no one else seems to see. When we speak up by tabling, and postering, we are simply trying to share with others what we see, and stop a culturally condoned injustice.
Over my four years at Grinnell, people have raised a number of issues regarding our efforts. Some feel that our discourse promotes food policing, harmful neoliberal rhetoric, and offensive analogies. So I want to be clear about why we do what we do. To really understand, it is important to look at this issue from the victim’s perspective – in this case, the animals that we breed, raise, confine, and kill at our whim. And yes, meat dairy and eggs all inherently involve exploitation and harm regardless of how sustainable and “humanely” they were raised and killed. We make choices for the animals we own based on how we benefit most. We dictate when they breed, when they are weaned, when they are separated from family members, and when and how they will die. So our group’s issue is not with Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), but rather, with the exploitation, objectification, and property status of non-human animals. For as long as animals are chattel property, human economic and personal interests will always outweigh the animals’ interests.
Overwhelmingly, the biggest use of animals in society is for meat, dairy and eggs, so while our goal is to end all animal exploitation, our focus often goes straight to the food system. Furthermore, both as individuals and as a society, we are most invested in animal exploitation for food because so many of our daily practices and traditions are directly constructed around consuming animal flesh and secretions, and thus many people are very emotionally attached to this exploitation. This is why vegans often provide meat, dairy and egg alternatives and talk about diet so much. But I want to be clear: veganism is NOT a diet! It is an ethical principle that exploitation of non-human animals is wrong, which applies to all parts of our life–including what we eat, wear, and participate in. Diet is just the main area where every individual has a chance every day to make a statement about who they are and what they stand for.
I value a variety of different tactics and forms of activism in social justice work, including focusing on individual choices and action, as well as institutional divestment and systemic reform. I think social change results from a multitude of angles and both top-down and bottom-up approaches have their place. I find it problematic to assume that promoting personal lifestyle choices are part of a harmful neoliberal rhetoric, or that personal action has no impact on oppression in our society. Supply and demand is very real, especially for things like meat, dairy and eggs, because we literally vote with our fork three times a day. Furthermore, this “personal choice doesn’t matter” narrative only serves to absolve individuals of the personal and moral responsibility to align their actions with their values. Such rhetoric can even be harmful by disempowering many individuals by suggesting their actions cannot make a difference. However, adopting a strict vegan ethic is not just a simple boycott or mode of ethical consumption. Rather, our promotion of veganism is about making a loud, clear, personal and political statement (as with the stoning scenario) that we reject the exploitation and use of animals for reasons of culture, convenience, and palate pleasure.
While much of the organizing and current social justice work on campus is focused on building power networks and coalitions to find strategic institutional targets to address widespread systemic injustice, our group has chosen a different approach for addressing animal oppression. This is primarily because there are critically important differences between non-human animal oppression and the oppression of humans within our capitalist system. While most already regard all humans as individuals with explicit rights (which are not always respected), we still collectively view and treat animals as property. Additionally, it is entirely possible to produce plant foods and other goods without intentional exploitation, yet it is impossible to ever produce animal products without exploitation, since the products are literally made from the bodies of oppressed individuals. Under this framework it becomes clear that while divestment strategies may be more impactful in addressing things like the exploitation of undocumented human farm laborers, unless and until we create a paradigm shift where our society no longer considers animals to be property, such institutional approaches will fail to create real change for the billions of beings exploited and slaughtered for meat and dairy. Institutional and moderate reform such as divestment from CAFOs does nothing to challenge the property status of animals. So instead, we run educational and outreach campaigns such as tabling outside the dining hall to challenge the notion that animals are objects to make food and fabric from. Each and every one of us holds immense power. Encouraging and supporting individuals in adopting a vegan ethic is fundamentally what is most important. We are confident that institutional change will follow, once public perception of animals changes. For now, we are simply here as messengers speaking up on behalf of the defenseless victims whose screams are ignored. We cannot FORCE anyone to stop supporting violence and exploitation, we are simply pointing out that consuming meat, dairy and eggs is directly forcing exploitation and violence on others. What you chose to do with this information is up to you.
So when we encourage you to go vegan or say that veganism is the social justice movement of today, that does not mean that we think racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of human discrimination are solved. It is only a recognition that we have at least come to a point with those movements where race, gender and other irrelevant criteria no longer provide a culturally condoned basis (in the U.S.) for individuals to be harmed in order to benefit those with power. However, in sharp contrast, the irrelevant criterion of species is still providing the justification for non-human animals to be harmed to benefit those with more power (humans). We need the vegan movement today to change the societal notion that that it’s okay to own and exploit beings. The root of all oppression stems from “othering” groups of individuals based on these irrelevant criteria. A true intersectional approach must recognize that speciesism* as a form of sanctioned discrimination is no different than racism or sexism. Every oppression is unique, but suffering is still suffering, and killing is killing. However, the parallels I am drawing here are between systems of oppression and the attitudes of the oppressors.
So please, think of the animals, who are individuals that don’t want to die or be ripped from family members, before you eat bacon or ice cream. And if you ever have questions, comments, concerns, or would like support in going vegan, please reach out to me personally or our group, Advancing Animal Compassion Together [aact]. We are more than happy to provide resources, answer questions, and give you our full support.
*Specieism is essentially the discrimination and exclusion of individuals from our moral community based solely on their species and whether or not they are human.