Veganism and the Problem of Props

By Justin Van Kleeck

Vegan advocates and activists face huge challenges on every front: a gargantuan industry and culture of non-human animal exploitation; entrenched habits, traditions, and taste preferences that support the aforementioned; and a willing suspension of critical thinking by basically everybody with a stake in the continued domination of other animals.

This makes any effort to change human behaviors and opinions a Herculean task, no matter which approach one uses to do it…while also making every effort all the more dire.

Unfortunately, as veganism has grown as a movement, the difficulty in reaching non-vegans has led to many problematic, and seemingly counterproductive, methods of advocating on behalf of non-humans. I will touch on a few in order (I hope) to highlight a general tendency of turning individuals into rhetorical props, whose existence and experiences are treated largely as tools due to their strategic efficacy.

A fierce debate is raging in many vegan circles these days around the issue of racism amongst vegan groups, leaders, and prominent voices. There are countless episodes on social media and the blogosphere where vegans throw down with overtly racist language, let alone the equally countless instances where racial violence is downplayed as a “lesser problem” than violence against non-humans. These manifest a deep misunderstanding of what racism is by vegans, and an inability to perceive how different systems of oppression reinforce each other.

However, an arguably more troubling trend (to me at least) is the ease with which white vegans want to utilize the oppression of other humans in order to make analogies with the oppression of non-humans for the sake of vegan advocacy. The language of slavery is mined to the depths, images of historical acts of violence are juxtaposed with gory scenes from animal agriculture, all for the sake of forcing non-vegans to “get” that oppressing non-humans is just as bad/unethical as oppressing humans through regimes of enslavement.

As my colleague Christopher Sebastian McJetters has written, this unflinching and unapologetic deployment of the S-bomb by vegans hinges on a disregard of the myriad ways in which black vegans (and black humans generally), in the U.S. especially, continue to live with the after-effects of slavery and white supremacy. As he puts it:

“Basically what we’re looking at is a pattern whereby blackness is used and commodified at different times and by different groups to further an agenda without offering any type of real solidarity on black issues. And if animal rights doesn’t address this, our activism will be no different.”

The comments on Christopher Sebastian’s article exemplify how quickly white vegans will defend their right to make rhetorical use of others’ experiences, despite having absolutely no need to share those experiences in their own lives. Thus white vegans actually believe they have the right to instruct black vegans on the history of slavery, simply to buttress their stance that any argument “for the animals” is a legitimate one.

Aph Ko’s experiences with Black Vegans Rock are also frighteningly indicative of veganism’s growing discomfort with alternative narratives and spaces. Aph has faced so much pointless vitriol–including charges of racism! It should not need to be said, yet it endlessly does: veganism is not a homogeneous realm of colorblindness and equality, simply because our human societies are so, so far from that utopia (as if that were even a desirable goal in the first place–which it surely is not). Further, one vegan does not exist in the exact same societal context as every other–which means a black vegan activist is going to have many, very important and potentially dangerous, cultural truths to take into consideration that a white vegan activist just will not. Their experiences are going to be totally different, and the reality behind that is something vegans too easily ignore or forget when engaged in propped-up advocacy.

Another example of how vegan advocacy relies on making individuals into props comes in the effort to clarify and counteract speciesism–the generalized prioritization of humans as a species over other species.

This can occur in some overt ways, like turning the suffering of one individual–a mother cow losing her calf, a chick being sent into the grinder at a hatchery, or a pig lying down inside a gestation crate–into an image for public consumption, even if we have never once met that individual or any individuals of their species. I am more sensitive to it now since getting into farmed animal rescue and sanctuary work: vegans who have no idea of what cows, chickens, or pigs actually endure every day of their tragically shortened lives advocate on their behalf, but the victims’ individuality quickly fades into the incomprehensible quantity of dead bodies.

I live with and care for rescued chickens (along with other farmed animals), and my every moment involves ameliorating the embodied oppression of speciesism that they have to deal with. My partner and I have lost beloved family members, and dedicated countless hours and dollars to their care, all because humans value them for what they have been bred to produce. I know how awful speciesism is for the individuals who suffer because we try directly to alleviate it every…waking…moment.

Yet no matter how we do it, we are fighting speciesism as proxies–the importance of that point cannot be overstated. And most of the time we get caught up in our own notions without a very clear idea of what speciesism actually means for the individuals who suffer under it.

Despite my close connection to non-humans, I would never dare use the experiences of others as a rhetorical tool in vegan advocacy. My devotion to sanctuary for farmed animals has nothing to do with downplaying the oppression of other humans, and vice-versa; to draw either line would be to participate in continued oppression, and that cannot be acceptable.

Equally problematic, vegan anti-speciesists tend to invoke the quantity of non-humans slaughtered by humans to counter criticisms of their rhetoric. But it is terribly, terribly dangerous to get caught up in the game of “Whose Oppression Is Worse?” Besides the fact that trying to quantify suffering and exploitation is an impossible task, it utterly devalues the lived experiences of individuals (human or non) suffering under those oppressive regimes and practices, the macro- and the micro-aggressions.

What we must prioritize in our advocacy is the indefensible violence that individuals have to endure, not the spin we put on their experiences–be it when confronting racism, sexism, ableism, speciesism, homophobia, or any other form of oppression. Why not advocate in a way that is pro-intersectional, not propping up other oppressions, when we can very readily do so?

Instead, engage with other humans and with non-humans, so that your advocacy can be based on a genuine understanding of contexts not your own. The fight for liberation becomes so much more meaningful and powerful when it is done collaboratively, with a recognition that we all still have much to learn from each other in order to strike at the roots of oppression.

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