Unravel the Past and Craft the Future

By Charlotte Eure

The day before I woke to the nightmare of the post-election world, I finished reading a graphic novel about a different human disaster. Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking, written by Anne Elizabeth Moore in collaboration with six different comic artists, offers a beautifully simple way of communicating extensive information about a very complex web of exploitation and oppression. In four chapters, Moore explores connections between the garment industry, fashion, sex work, and anti-trafficking NGOs. For me, the book served as part of the constant and necessary reminder that there is so much I don’t know and so much history lying beneath seemingly innocuous aspects of our lives.

While reading Threadbare, I saw many similarities to our culture’s animal use. We buy final products ready to cook, ready to wear. We don’t ever have to see the violent and exploitative processes that lead to their placement in stores for our convenience. Our consumerism is often the epitome of ignorant bliss, and oppressive systems encourage us to remain oblivious, an unfortunately easy task in an image-obsessed and superficial culture. Most of us really don’t like it when someone drudges up all the nasty shit at the core of our choices. Especially in a time when even a lot of social justice rhetoric centers personal choice and individualism, challenges to dearly held personal expression are typically unwelcome. The refrain often goes, “If something makes me feel good, how can it be wrong? I know everything is terrible. You don’t need to remind me. Just let me enjoy my bacon and H&M dress in peace. Let me hold on to my bigotry and prejudice. I’m not hurting anybody!”

But of course pleasure doesn’t exist in a vacuum even if it might feel that way in the moment, and even though pleasure matters, which it does – we are not here to just suffer and survive.

Our role as consumers is also only part of the design. Marginalized communities experience limitations that further complicate notions of choice. Dressing a certain way is often a key to accessing resources. Food deserts create disparities, and authorities may spread misinformation around nutrition and health. Connections exist amongst the animal agriculture industry and the medical industry as they do amongst the garment industry and NGOs. Corporations build factories overseas and move slaughterhouses and CAFOs to rural areas of the US in part to keep them hidden from the majority of white, middle and upper class consumers. This is painfully obvious in the rerouting of the Dakota Access Pipeline from a predominantly white neighborhood through sacred Native land at Standing Rock.

4.jpeg

It can all feel overwhelmingly hopeless, as though we are powerless against an unstoppable force. And we need to forgive ourselves when we’re exhausted, when we’re scared, when we need time and space to heal and regain strength. But still, what we do matters, and it matters that we stretch ourselves to make imperative connections. Most of us don’t have to think about women in the garment industry, just as we don’t have to think about slaughterhouse workers or CAFO and dairy farm workers, but we can and we must.

The pain and suffering we are willing to allow others to experience for a singular momentary pleasure is one of the most heinous human traits. And the farther removed we are from each other, the more easily this exchange occurs. It doesn’t just take physical distance. We distance ourselves psychologically and emotionally with all kinds of mental gymnastics, often going so far as to acknowledge intellectually the harm we are doing yet refusing to empathize and imagine different ways of being and doing.

Empathy and imagination are crucial to not only our survival but to our ability to thrive. With Donald Trump’s election and a Republican majority, life is looking very bleak. But if there is one small sliver of comfort I take, it’s that more of us than ever are admitting this. The world of Donald Trump as president is one where horrors are revealed. Where once a postracial lens seemed to pacify so many (and will frustratingly continue to for some), I hope we heed this message in all its importance: we can’t keep ignoring our collective nightmares. We can’t keep pretending that all is well simply because so many of us don’t have to see where and when it is most certainly not. We have to confront our waste, our terrors, our injustice.

We may look for ways to alleviate the guilt that may come with admitting our complicity by placing the blame elsewhere or by justifying our behavior with desperate clinging to harmful traditions, just as Trump looks back to the past with the haze of nostalgia that it somehow used to be better, when we know it has been bad, it was never not bad. Resist guilt and instead take responsibility. As upsetting as it is to face the horrors of fast fashion or animal use or white supremacist patriarchy, it is also liberating. It is then we can begin to create a life otherwise.

In Threadbare, Moore writes, “Usually, an enforced culture of silence shrouds abuse and coercion.” To stop the cycle of abuse against our planet and each other, we must begin by acknowledging and speaking on the atrocities of the past – and I mean the past as recent as minutes ago. Be vigilant in this. Don’t let your fleeting pleasure and comfort excuse another’s oppression. Don’t let your ignorance fuel injustice. Move closer to empathy, to compassion, to movement and growth. If ever there was a time for us to learn and build new paths forward together, now is that time. If history has shown us anything, it’s that now has always been that time.

 

 

Advertisements

The Hypocrisy of a Butcher’s “Vulnerability”

14992006_122370998240133_989500338311050861_n

By Charlotte Eure, with Justin Van Kleeck

I recently read an article about the latest butcher/hunter being oh-so vulnerable by killing a defenseless being, talking about how super spiritual it is to murder someone as long as that someone is a different species and is culturally acceptable to cut up and eat.

I’ll share my favorite puke-inducing section from that article, and let me preface with a big LOL and some sobbing at the idea of respecting life as you rob someone of it but anyway:

“Both on paper and in person, Leigh’s respect for life and for the land shines through—as does, somewhat unexpectedly, her vulnerability. In her book, for instance, she includes a scene in which she prepares to slaughter a lamb named Hercules at a friend’s farm. ‘I drove all the way there with my troubles thick upon my back,’ she writes, and then describes the smell of hay in the barn, the look of the lamb’s eyes, and the mountains rising up in front of them as the lamb dies.”

Murder really heightens the senses, apparently. I’m pretty sure serial killers are on that shtick too. But who knew that as long as you choose the right victims, you can turn your sadism into vulnerability? The mental gymnastics! Humans are amazing.

People in positions of domination who exercise authority and power to enact violence often co-opt the language of vulnerability. This hurts me more than it hurts you. I do this because I love you. Lies. Domination is the rejection of vulnerability. Domination embraces power. It works to rationalize and excuse unnecessary violence as though it is in the best interest of everyone. It’s egoism. It’s how humans can make the slaughter of actual vulnerable beings all about their own feelings. “Ah, I’m so connected with the Earth now that I’ve denied someone else their connection to it. Especially now that the lamb is finally not screaming anymore, I can really take in all this beautiful scenery!”

A million myths exist to perpetuate our use of animals. One of the nastiest is that our hierarchical and exploitative relationship with them is naturally beautiful, spiritual, and loving. The idea that loving someone means violently killing them because we want to – for whatever reason – perverts the very meaning of the concept. Leigh saw “the look in the lamb’s eyes” like it was just another part of the scenery. What was that look? Why no mention of the inevitable struggle that ensued? Why no mention of the way in which Leigh killed the lamb? Instead the lamb passively died? Of course. In this story, as is often the case when the humane myth is at work, the horrific act of slaughtering an animal who wants to live becomes a mutual decision in honor of nature, one in which the victim participates willfully and in which the violence is somehow an act of respect and happens peacefully.

The only vulnerable person in the moment during which Leigh slaughtered a lamb was the lamb. Leigh, however, is eager to co-opt that experience and make it about herself and her anxiety surrounding her decisions to inflict violence and death upon the vulnerable, a despicably typical rationale for abuse of power. In this way, she clouds the hierarchical relationship that exists. She complicates her dominant position and her abusive behavior. She tells us, “It’s hard for me too!” Yet she emerges from that moment unscathed. In fact, she emerges with a prize! She now has parts to sell and to consume. Meanwhile, we’ll never fully know what the lamb experienced as they realized they were in danger, as they felt blade pierce their flesh, as they bled to death in the shadow of a killer who took solace in the beauty of the mountainside. (I mean, really??)

In another interview, Leigh fills out the sketch of her transition from vegan to “ethical butcher” (yes, you read that right). “High school exposure to horrific slaughterhouses, corporate domination, and empathy for fellow her fellow earthlings had turned her off meat. But everything changed after a trip to the third world—where she witnessed a population whose lives and livelihoods depended on animal protein (every last bit of it).” Confronting the very real fact of “third world” [sic] hunger and poverty, Leigh responds by seeking “ethics” in the American food system by booting living beings out of her field of ethical consideration and into the limbo of the absent referent.

We see the slipping away of living individuals for Leigh as she recalls asking herself, “We have hungry people in our country and we’re not going to eat something because we’re afraid to? Or because of regulation? Or because of whatever our culture has deemed normal?”

Whatever reasons Leigh has crafted to explain her decision to dominate, the least she can do is stop pretending that she is somehow vulnerable in that decision. The least she can do is acknowledge that the moment she willfully slaughters another being, she is fully in power. She is dominating. She wields a knife against the actual defenseless, vulnerable being.

Perhaps the most disturbing horror of Leigh’s “ethical” worldview is that her conscience can simultaneously feel a desire to care for and to treat “humanely” other beings, while also always already seeing them as dead bodies, as cuts of meat and grist for the gustatory mill. This sort of moral dysphoria takes for granted that other animals exist for us, and any nod towards individualizing them (and their concomitant “welfare”) becomes arguably the greatest betrayal imaginable—they each are equally someone and no one, a fragile life and a heap of carrion on the table.

This hypocrisy of perspective and narrative is enacted more and more, becoming normalized to the point of fetish in modern food culture: for example, a food co-op in Durham, North Carolina is celebrating community with a “farm to feast” lamb roast…but don’t worry, vegans, there’ll be vegan options too!

Leigh wields her power by the domination of true vulnerability, but through the logical twists of the humane myth, she can become an icon of compassion while committing murder. There is nothing vulnerable in her position…

And don’t even get me started on the nightmares experienced by oppressed groups coerced by capitalism into slaughterhouse jobs NOR on women trying to empower themselves by enacting traditionally masculine violence against other marginalized, vulnerable bodies. J/K, please get me started.

 

 

 

 

Microsanctuaries: A Micro-Manifesto

13323574_837133539726207_3604281797367588056_o

By Justin Van Kleeck

As ethical vegans who are also interested in helping animals living in this world right now because of humans, my partner, Rosemary, and I began to rescue farmed animals in order to get them out of the agricultural system—not to give them “better” living spaces in which they were still exploited, but to get them out once and for all.

We started the Triangle Chance for All microsanctuary, and from that The Microsanctuary Movement, around two hens: Clementine and Amandine. All of our rescue efforts on typical “pet” species took on a new quality when we transitioned to farmed animals. Once we rescued these hens from a shelter and began to interact with them as individuals, not as abstract concepts, the notion of being “vegan for the animals” took on a profound new importance.

Living amongst such wondrous beings, we began to reconsider – and to deconstruct – the ideal of an animal sanctuary. In late 2013, we had moved to a three-acre property outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where our view consists of a wall of trees rather than rolling pastures. But, in the course of applying vegan ethical considerations to the two hens suddenly residing in our house, we decided that we could scale the model down and get creative with what we have, not what we think we “should have,” in order to provide permanent shelter and care to our rescues. We began to see ourselves as building a “microsanctuary.”

Much has happened in the intervening two years since the lovely Clem and Am came into our lives. Fortunately, they are still living here with us, along with many other old and new residents of the microsanctuary. In every moment, though, they and the other roosters and hens who live here with us remind us of the value and importance of every life—even the lives that a speciesist, commodifying, cravenly capitalist society tells us are worthless. Baby chickens cost a couple of bucks at most, and roosters are “worth” even less; in a throwaway culture that concocts all sorts of selfish notions about what is “good,” these beings are the lowest of the low.

But to us they are everything.

Let us be clear about this: A microsanctuary is as much about ethos as it is about property sizes and resident numbers. A microsanctuary is grounded on the idea that sanctuary is a state of mind, and building one’s (human) life around the well-being of (non-human) animals is not only important but central to the ethos and ethic of veganism.

A microsanctuary can be any space run by a vegan (or multiple vegans) that is home to rescued animals and emphasizes their health and happiness above all else. So someone with a rescued house rooster is just as much a sanctuary (by virtue of being a microsanctuary) as a million-dollar non-profit with hundreds of acres and hundreds of animals.

This is important: We have to question the conceptual cultural categories we vegans inherit—such as “food” animal and “pet”—and we have to stop accepting the agricultural model as the ideal for these beings we suppose to respect. This is what microsanctuaries are doing.

By throwing out the ideal of what a farmed animal sanctuary “should” look like, Rosemary and I were able to really think about what sanctuary means for the residents and the caregivers in situations like ours. It is a revolutionary relationship and way of living, for modern vegans; it involves completely rethinking our perspective on the world and redefining ourselves in the (radical) role of caregivers.

This sense of dedication to the direct service of rescued farmed animals, as a way to end their exploitation, is what lies at the heart of sanctuary—and on an individual level truly defines a microsanctuary. To understand ourselves as vegans in light of the relationships we have with these beings is not only what defines our existence as co-habitants of a microsanctuary, but also shapes our notion of why we do what we do and where our moral obligations as vegans truly lie: to the animals.

Seen in this light, veganism is no longer so much a negative orientation, in the sense that we are trying to not cause harm or not be part of exploitation. It feels so much more positive to have a direct role in the care of the very individuals for whom most of us went vegan. Rosemary and I are and always have been vegan for the animals; saving and sustaining the lives of as many of them as we can has given our veganism so much more depth, meaning, and relevance.

Make no mistakes here: Microsanctuaries are meant to be radical spaces, just as microsanctuary vegans need to be a radical force.

What we seek is a world in which no individual being is used as a means to an end, and no individual being is made to feel (or be treated as) lesser than for any reason. That will only be possible with a staggeringly comprehensive overhaul of everything that we know in our modern life. It cannot happen if we keep bringing humans into the world as we do, and keep consuming in the ways and amounts that we do, and keep pretending that the human species has some special significance in the universe that makes it more valuable than any other, and keep rationalizing why it is okay for us to benefit from the suffering and exploitation of other beings so that our way of life can keep humming right along.

We as a species, as a culture, as a society, need to learn humility, and we need to recognize the value of other lives as much as we need to understand the tragedy of forcing them, without consent and for our pleasure, into existence.

Cleaning up chicken poop daily is a wonderful way to make that learning happen.

Go do it.

Originally published in Barefoot Vegan magazine, July/August 2016. Download a PDF version of the article here.

The Inescapable Speciesism of “Progressive” Media

By Justin Van Kleeck

12764573_783752201731008_4740939921808406895_o

Having lived with chickens for several years now, I can quite clearly see just how impossible it is for mainstream America and the media serving it–whether far “right” or far “left”–to step back from a conceptual framework that positions non-human animals as lesser beings here for our consumption.

A rather jaw-dropping example is a recent article in Mother Jones about the problems with so-called “cage-free” eggs. As we all should expect by now, the article shocks no one in its shocking revelation that the “cage-free” label on a carton of eggs means much less than most starry-eyed egg-eaters think it does…

Articles like this are endlessly frustrating because they assume, reinforce, and depend upon the premise that non-humans (in this case egg-laying hens) are, inextricably, objects within the human food system, and thus they emphasize the details of treatment over the ethics of use.

That is, in ethical terms, they are asking the wrong questions because, in virtually every single case, they are depending on a conceptual framework in which chickens (like other consumable animals) are food, always and already and forever...

Every single journalist who wants to do a story on the “transition” (ha ha) to “cage-free” eggs (ha ha) should, instead, take a big step back and think about a few other issues, if they actually want to do some compelling (or “progressive” or even fucking less exhaustively trite) journalism.

1. Where are the boys? Chickens (like most species) give birth to roughly equal numbers of male and female offspring. But where are the boys at these supposedly more “humane” cageless egg farms? Answer: they are dead. They are almost all dead (the few who make it out are usually dead, just at a later date) because hatcheries (where virtually every chick today is born) kill them outright…because no one wants them. Why in the name of profit would a farmer raise a boy–feeding and caring for (ha ha) them–the same way as a hen who will lay the eggs that farmer sells???

2. How many of these supposedly “happier” hens are going to lay like mad for a year or so, then lay fewer eggs, and then either be slaughtered *because* they are less productive or die because they develop one of the inevitable health problems laying hens experience as a direct result of selective breeding for egg production–including egg-yolk peritonitis, ovarian cancer, or one of the many other related conditions?

3. As long as major media outlets (as well as so, so many vegans…) promote the notion that there is a “better” (read “acceptable”) way to use non-humans for food, what you will encounter is a gentrification of the food system (“happy” animals are expensive animals, obviously) coupled with a continued exploitation of non-human animals for human food, to the utter detriment of the non-humans. There is no necessary (or even sufficient) imperative to stop eating animals in a narrative that says treating them “better” is less deplorable than treating them like Descartes’ automata.

To take the position that “nicer” exploitation is somehow acceptable means both condoning violence and excusing the vast number of humans who actively crank out endorphins over being “compassionate” animal lovers/exploiters, completely ignoring the paradox that recognizing the need to be “nicer” to animals necessitates asking why they deserve to be treated any nicer than cogs and robots. At all.

This happens all the time, of course… One glaring example is how NPR, the great bastion of liberal media, seemed to do story after story in the summer/fall of 2015 on how rough of a time the food industry was having because Avian Influenza was killing (or causing to be murdered) millions of laying hens, which meant egg prices were going up. GASP–chefs and bakers had to look at plant ingredients instead, or pay more for eggs as supply decreased!!!

The complete inability of supposedly progressive journalists and media to actually think about the underlying ethical problems and real-time implications (on the victims) of the exploitative, speciesist food system is borderline criminal. To watch instance after instance of it occur is as disconcerting as it is disappointing.

But then again, what incentive would the media outlets–catering as they do to a culture as pleased by bacon as it is by “happy” eggs–have to do otherwise than applaud mediocre measures that make everyone feel nice as they eat their omelette?

The answer: none.

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

By Charlotte Eure

biophoto

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.

 

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.

Animal Rights and the Language of Slavery

By Christopher Sebastian McJetters

For the past week, I have been following discussions in different spaces where white vegans are arguing about what I suppose is their inherent ‘right’ to appropriate slavery in order to further the narrative of animal rights. And yes, the vegans in question are almost ALWAYS white. That alone should tell us a lot. But unfortunately it doesn’t.

Let me share an experience from my own life that might explain why this is problematic. This past summer, I was with a very progressive white vegan and his family. An opportunity arose for him to bring up veganism again in front of his mother. I can’t remember what it was. A news story perhaps where she expressed some empathy for an individual animal or something like that.

Anyway, seizing upon that opportunity, the slavery comparison came out of his mouth. For a brief moment, nobody said anything. None of the three of us. We just sat there in his mother’s kitchen. And then she suddenly started falling all over herself. Handling objects, moving things around, cleaning furiously, with a worried frown on her face. She just kept muttering over and over about slavery. “What does slavery have to do with anything? Why would he even say that? What kind of a person does he think I am? I would never support slavery!”

And it eventually dawned on me that all of her fretfulness had to do with me. Me. As author Claudia Rankine would say, I was a black object immediately thrown against a stark white background. I was a prop in a discussion between two white people–one white person who was looking to use a history of blackness to make another white person understand a point he wanted to drive home and another white person who was deeply invested in not seeming racist.

In truth, this discussion stopped being about the animals. In fact, it might never have been about animals at all. It was about whiteness. Neo-liberal white guilt on the part of my friend. And white fears on the part of his mother. They had centered their white feelings to the detriment of the animal victims involved. And there, for all the world, sat me. With my own history laid bare and a voyeur to a scene where everyone was desperatey uncomfortable with my presence.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. This is what it often means to use slavery in the context of animal rights. His mother didn’t have his foundational comprehension of critical race theory. She didn’t share any knowledge of intersectional feminism or have a context of power, oppression, and privilege. She’s a homemaker. A woman who was raised in the bosom of capitalist patriarchy in the United States and who worshiped at the altar of American exceptionalism. She had no understanding about the reality of animal slavery whatsoever. All she knew in that moment was that she didn’t want to be racist. And in dealing with her white fragility, this conversation threatened her self perception.

Yes, there are times when the slavery discussion is productive. I don’t disagree with that. But overall, this is what we’re looking at. This is the reality of introducing slavery. It can help. It can be useful. But the dangers of letting the discussion center whiteness are very real. And don’t even get me started on how whiteness invokes slavery when having this discussion with black nonvegans. It’s nothing short of emotional blackmail. And emotional blackmail is one of “the master’s tools” as Audre Lorde is famously quoted as saying.

For the record, I also keep hearing white vegans say that the animal rights community is unfairly singled out when making comparisons to human rights. But that criticism is also untrue. In the past decade, we’ve watched queer activists fetishize American blackness to win human rights for the queer community. Some people here might even recall The Advocate magazine famously ran a cover with the headline “Gay Is The New Black?” and black Americans everywhere doubled over with laughter.

This isn’t to say that queer persons don’t experience discrimination or are not meaningfully oppressed. We are! But to compare queerness to blackness is (bluntly stated) insulting. And I say this AS a queer black U.S. American. The ways in which I am oppressed based on my queer identity compared to how I am oppressed based on my black identity aren’t even in the same ballpark. And as with animal rights issues, blackness was (and is) left once again worse off than before (see: police violence). Meanwhile, white (and largely male) gays are victoriously picking out China patterns for their weddings.

And we see this reproduced over and over again in white feminism when celebrities like Patricia Arquette and Nancy Lee Grahn behave as if black people either owe white women something or opportunities for black people are equal across racial lines.

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.

I have said repeatedly (and still maintain) that I don’t think the language of slavery should be entirely abandoned or that certain people are forbidden to use it. Some resources like Marjorie Spiegel’s classic The Dreaded Comparison make these connections respectfully and forcefully without compounding racial aggressions. Three tips for how to be a good ally against racism and speciesism:

1.) Stop being too liberal with how we apply such incendiary language, and learn to employ better sensitivity and discernment when approaching these discussions.

2.) Amplify the voices of marginalized people who talk about these issues themselves instead of appropriating their histories or experiences to further our agendas. Noble though your intentions may be, what does it say about your activism if you need to say incendiary things when you don’t have those experiences?

3.) Make an attempt to understand how layered oppressions impact different groups to maximize our impact and build a broader, more inclusive community.