Nonhuman Animals Are Others: On Learning to Judge and the Limits of Choice

By Charlotte Eure

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Everyday Feminism recently published a video that asks, “Does Feminism Require Vegetarianism or Veganism?” The editors introduce vlogger Celia Edell as “a feminist vegetarian who doesn’t apply her choice to others.”

So you know you’re in for a slimy ride into the more tender parts of hell: those rotten sections of our culture where we feel like everything is cool and totally a choice and all about personal preference. In those special caverns, we find endless excuses for our complicity in oppressive systems. We get there and love to say, “You know what? You do you. I can’t judge!” Which is especially funny when moments earlier we were banging the gavel to shut down fundamentally the same garbage we now find ourselves swimming in like it’s a private pool on a hot summer day.

If the video stuck to a discussion about why feminists are not required to be vegan, I likely wouldn’t have a problem with it. Unfortunately, Edell gets into the idea that being vegan/vegetarian (two entirely different concepts, by the way) boils down to personal choice. In fact, she says, some people can’t be vegan, so. …So what? So we just shouldn’t care about the horrific injustices of animal use? We shouldn’t care, for instance, that cows are impregnated over and over to continue producing milk until they can’t stand any longer, at which point they are killed? That the dangerous practices of slaughtering vulnerable animals and stealing babies from their mothers has serious psychological effects on workers, who are often demonized for abuses inherent to the work? We shouldn’t examine why someone might struggle to be vegan?

Institutions and ideologies exist which constrain our choices and teach us to engage in oppressive behavior, and the powerful often thrive on limiting our access to knowledge and alternative resources. Animal use doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is part of the foundation of the exploitation and oppression of those marked as other. Vegans, including those with eating disorders and limited access to resources – vegans completely erased by the rhetoric in this video – have grappled with these issues and contributed to a complex conversation about power, privilege, and ethics that is absent from Edell’s video. Instead, we get a disappointing moral relativism and frustrating refusal to accept accountability.

When we speak on issues of injustice from a place of ignorance as though we are an informed source, we are more likely to reinforce oppression than to challenge it, especially when we occupy spaces of privilege and try to speak for people outside those spaces. A paltry discussion of animal rights is not necessary to make the point that feminists can be disengaged from movements for nonhuman justice and still be feminists. To leap from that point to one that minimizes nonhuman oppression and erases already marginalized members of the vegan community reveals a lack of care to truly understand the subject from more relevant perspectives and histories not the vlogger’s own, which is why her argument ends up being about opinions instead of systems.

It’s hard to discern at times when we might do more harm than good by speaking when we know the dangers of silence, but there is so much potential for growth in learning to recognize those spaces where we should listen before we speak. Before you feel you have to add to a conversation, you might find that others have already spoken on the topic with much more grace, nuance, and experience than you could have. And that should be a good thing! Our world needs more people willing to seek out the critical and creative voices who have devoted their time and energy to movements for social change than act like everything’s relative so they can stay comfy in complicity.

 

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7 thoughts on “Nonhuman Animals Are Others: On Learning to Judge and the Limits of Choice”

  1. Two observations:

    1. Whenever I hear the notion that some people can’t be vegan (for nutrition issues or allergy issues or some other health factor), I always look to see whether the reverse is noted…that some people can’t eat animal “products” because of health factors. If that isn’t included…I become seriously skeptical immediately. (note…I’m presuming that if one can’t be vegan for “health reasons” it must also be the case that some can’t eat animal products for “health reasons”…I have not researched this but I suspect that if the first case is actually valid then it is highly likely that the second case is also valid)

    2. You wrote: “When we speak on issues of injustice from a place of ignorance as though we are an informed source, we are more likely to reinforce oppression than to challenge it, especially when we occupy spaces of privilege and try to speak for people outside those spaces.” I’m especially liking the latter part of the quote where you note the problematical aspect of trying to speak for those who do not occupy the same space of privilege that we do. To me that’s a seriously important caution to always always always keep in mind.

    As for the first part of the quote “…speak on issues of injustice from a place of ignorance as though we are an informed source…” well…that is a toughie. Being ignorant and being aware of being ignorant are two different things…I suspicion that when we know we are ignorant (or at least I would hope so anyway) we would be reluctant to present ourselves as an informed source…but…when we’re ignorant of being ignorant…well…then it’s sort of the sky is the limit in terms of our willingness to present ourselves as being an “informed source”.

    Thank you for writing this post. I had viewed the Everyday Feminism video and it had made me cringe both because of the deficiencies in the ideas presented and because I have been impressed with many of the postings on the Everyday Feminism site. I sort of hated to see such a poor and misleading entry there. Ah well…it just goes to confirm that no source is on the mark all of the time and that, no matter what, information has to be viewed through a critical lens.

    1. To your point #1: I’ve met people at vegan events who came into veganism through food allergies. A friend of mine at work used to come to me for advice when her son was diagnosed as allergic to eggs, chicken, beef and dairy. Allergies to animal products is definitely a real thing!

  2. What a thoughtful and well-written piece this is. I’m concerned about the rhetoric of “choice” even in the vegan community. The way I understand veganism is that you know you are vegan when you know it’s not a choice. There’s an inherent commitment. There is, for just about everyone I’d think, great striving and frequent stress involved, but it’s not going to be something you feel you can take or leave at any time, which is what choice conjures up to my mind. I also appreciate this piece for declining to endorse the concept that vegan means privilege. That assumption erases quite a few vegans who deal with some of the most difficult struggles life on Earth can present, and do so with profound grace. Thanks, Charlotte Eure.

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